The Bullet

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By Andrew Sharp

A man strolled through a field of ragged grass and wildflowers, swinging a metal detector back and forth over the ground as he moved uphill toward a low, well-maintained stone wall. The metal detector beeped. He stooped quickly and ran his fingers through the grass and dirt, then stood and held up a small piece of metal, blown out of shape by a long-ago impact. He smiled. A find! It would make a treasured keepsake.

A dusty cow pasture soaked up the late-morning summer sun. The pasture was empty, except for thistles, stones, and scattered cow pies left by its vanished occupants. Behind a stone wall on a hill overlooking the pasture, a line of soldiers stood. They stared down the pasture toward a patch of trees at the bottom of the hill that clustered on the banks of a creek. The soldiers sweated in the sun and some of them swished flies away with their hats. They could see flashes of colorful uniforms moving down by the creek in the shade of the trees.

Behind the wall, a hand reached into a pouch and felt for a cartridge, a bullet pre-wrapped with powder, ready to load. A ramrod pressed the bullet down into the darkness with a metallic swoosh. The bullet was forced down the tight grooved sides in a slow circle, packing air ahead of it out the gun’s breech, until it smashed down tight against the powder. It was finally ready. Outside, other much larger and heavier bullets were already on their final journey, tearing through the air overhead, smashing into the trees along the creek. A thousand smaller bullets all sat snug in their black tunnels, the rifles that held them hanging over the stone wall, waiting in silence for the big shells to drive the men up out of the sheltering grove.

The cone-shaped bullet, a .58 caliber minie ball, was cutting-edge technology at the time. It had been conceived in a munitions factory mold about a year and a half before, poured out of a hot vat of molten lead. Before that, pieces of it had led all kinds of careers. Some of it had been typeset at a newspaper. A very tiny piece had once been plumbing in a villa in Roman London. A goodly portion had been a candlestick-holder in an upright Pilgrim’s house in Massachusetts, supporting the candle by which the family read the Scriptures in the evening.

The man who gave the lead its bullet form was named Josiah Owens. He did not really care much about the war and why it had to be fought, the endless moral points and counterpoints, freedom and justice and righteousness and honor and duty. He would have made typeset, if it were desired, or candlestick-holders, or even plumbing, if those in power had been willing to pay him to do so. He needed to feed his family. He did not personally kill John Hawkins or the hundreds of other men who met death through the bullets he carefully made. Other people made the decisions; that is why they had ordered the bullets. They did not personally kill John Hawkins either. They delegated, as good leaders do.

The motive for making the bullets was debated viciously and endlessly. Was the cause a right one or an evil one? A very few crazy people, Quakers and other radicals, suggested that lead ought to be used for candlesticks, and never for ending lives, but for most, the big question was the Cause.

The destiny of the bullets was also not clear, although it merited no debate. Some would end up buried in tree trunks or fence posts. Some, buried in soil. Others would smash into living people.

Neither motives nor destiny meant anything to the bullet. Its purpose was clear. It would perform as asked. And this particular minie ball was destined to carry out its purpose: It would kill John Hawkins. Whether Hawkins’ death was murder or a necessary tragedy in a noble conflict, the bullet made no judgments.

At the moment Josiah Owens was pouring the bullet, John Hawkins was sitting outside the office of a bank manager, his palms sweating a little and his foot fidgeting, waiting to sign papers on a loan. On his list of concerns was not bullets, but that his coffee had been a little cold at breakfast, and coffee was starting to cost a lot, and he thought he could feel a cold coming on (he hated colds, but got them frequently), and of course the risk from his startup manufacturing business. He wondered if he and his wife had been getting a little distant lately, and was troubled when he thought about the bitterness between himself and his father. A business transaction he had conducted several months ago was also eating at him. It had not exactly met the standards of ethical business dealing, and he had always cared about things like that. He would go back and make it right, once he got on his feet with the business, of course.
Like Hawkins, the bullet was not yet moving toward the pasture. After a short wagon ride over bumpy dirt roads from the factory, and a very long ride on a train, the bullet spent many months in a warehouse. It was in no hurry.
Hawkins had his opinions about the war, of course, everyone did. As it became obvious that it would not be over quickly, as everyone had assumed, he imagined his neighbors whispering. A young and healthy man such as himself staying home with the business, while others fought and died … well. Not without ethical feeling, he was also bothered by the nagging feeling that he was not doing his part, and even stood to profit from the conflict with his business. He debated whether to volunteer. He could come back, after the war was over, and restart things. If he did not go, he would always wonder if he should have. And if they began a draft, he would surely have to go anyway. He should leave on his own terms, he decided, although it was a difficult thing to leave not just his business but his wife and his baby in the care of relatives.

The bullet and many others was bundled into convenient paper cartridges by overworked and hungry young women making low wages but much reward in heaven. Their handiwork was loaded into horse-drawn carts in a military wagon train and was finally on the way to the man who would carry it into the pasture. Soldiers on horseback rode along with the wagons, ready to shoot anyone who would steal their bullets for nefarious purposes.
While the bullet traveled, Hawkins prepared to get into a wagon himself, after hugging his wife and holding his baby one last time.

“Don’t worry about me,” he reassured her. “I have a job to do … all do our part … home soon … write often.” He handed the baby back. The wagon left. He and the bullet were traveling toward each other now. He was 26 years old.

A line of men advanced now out of the creek bed, prodded forward by the screaming death that pulverized the trees. The line moved up the pasture toward the wall at the double-quick. Behind the wall, the rifles came up. The barrel that held the bullet pointed not at any particular man, but at the mass of uniforms. The bullet sat still and silent in its dark tunnel, facing a round hole of light ahead. Waiting.

In the first microseconds after the explosion, the bullet expanded slightly and tightly gripped the tunnel’s grooves, which set it on a deadly, stable, straight-line spin. The bullet spat out of the barrel’s mouth on a direct course down the hill, an unalterable straight line toward a tree root that was sticking up out of the pasture behind the line of men. There was only empty space between the bullet and that tree root.

John Hawkins still had a chance. A step just a hair to the left or right would change things. He could trip and fall. He could slow down just slightly. It had happened before. Once, he lost his hat. Another time, his finger was shot off. This time, he strode forward, directly between the barrel and that tree root, a line he could not see.

The air rushed past the bullet and the stone wall shrank away in one quarter second and was far away at half a second. A uniform coat with brass buttons rushed closer in the next quarter-second and there was a terrible crash. The bullet smashed through its target with a muted thump and expanded, leaving behind a gaping hole. It made it out the other side, its precisely engineered shape crushed into a lumpy mess, and dropped out of the air. It fell to the ground and lay still. It was destroyed, but it had completed its journey and done what it was made to do.

John Hawkins fell to the ground and lay still too.