Down range the flagman, hunkered below the 1000 yard berm, stood and waved the black signal flag—another “X”. He lowered the four-foot wide target, taped over the pinky-thick hole with a circle made for the task and hoisted the target back up for Riccards’ last shot.
Riccards, sharpshooter for the Army’s 103rd, let the number slosh around in his head. He tried washing it way with thoughts of insane motorcycle rides, train dodging, and interstate cliff-jumping into the Arkansas river but, like his addiction to nicotine, the number nine continued to plague his nerves. One more X and he’d break the record.
At a thousand yards, no one had ever shot ten rounds from a .308 match grade M1 Garand all within the inner most circle, the X-ring.
Behind the covered range, gravel crunched beneath a hum-vee’s tires and the tinny sound of its door being slammed forced the shooter to stop and collect his wits.
“What’s going on here?” Colonel Spratt, his fatigues tucked into his boots, his carpenter’s square crew-cut out of place in the modern army, superhero stood and glared at the two privates.
Both carped for air.
“I said, what the hell is going on here? Don’t you both know we’re in lock-down?” The Colonel looked to the distant targets and watched as the big black circle rose from behind the berm. “And who the hell do you have down range?”
“Practice my ass. It’s six-the-fuck-am, on a gottdamn Sunday. The only gottdamn Sunday I have free for the next three gottdamn months and I wake up to the sound of rifle fire. Un-fuckin’-scheduled rifle fire.” Spratt re-positioned himself at the edge of the concrete slab upon which Riccards lay. “So?”
“A b…bet, sir.”
Spratt noted the empty casings. Riccards and Joel watched his eyes as he counted the rounds. The Colonel stuck his finger into his mouth and held it out, turning it. The pair saw the man’s eyes shift to the tops of the trees that lined the range.
“How many?” Their commander resumed his superhero stance.
Riccards swallowed hard. “All of them, sir.”
When the Colonel leaned toward them and cocked his head the private added, “Nine, sir. Nine down the tube.”
Riccard’s phone rang and Joel answered it. “Excuse me sir.” Joel turned and spoke into the phone, “The Colonel’s here. Yeah, really. I don’t know, probably. Yeah you better come…”
“Hold on there, son.” Spratt dug out his wallet, flipped through a quarter-inch thick fold of green, pulled out five hundred dollar bills and waved them in the air. “You all vouch for Riccards’ score?”
Joel nodded and handed the phone to the Colonel.
“Nine “X”s so far? Is that right… Breck?”
Spratt tossed the phone back to Private Joel.
“There’s five hundred on the line now, Riccards. You send one more into the Eye of the Beast and it’s yours. You miss? You three are gonna be my personal pets until Christmas—you got that?”
From Riccards’ prone position, he looked up at the wiry Colonel, yesterday’s beard still shadowing his face. The private’s eyes widened with a thought. “What if I don’t take the shot? I pack up now and we leave. Would you consider…”
“Well, that’s up to you, son.” Colonel Spratt’s demeanor softened a bit. “I’d be willing to forget you-three’s disobedience in the light of the current state we’re in. Are you willing to abandon your chance at history?”
Riccard worked his tongue across his teeth. Nodding to himself he plucked the last round from his specially-made ammo block and loaded his M1. The morning air remained still as a crypt. Joel sent a text to Breck, ‘range-hot’. Spratt moved back from the soldier’s line of sight and covered his ears.
Private Riccards, a sharpshooter since he was eleven, plinking sparrows at a hundred-yards with a .22, let his breathing steady: slowly in, slowly out, slowly in, half-way out, hold… Thoughts of diving from the interstate bridge drifted away as the vision of the black dot at the end of his barrel, the front-sight nested in the back one, filled his mind.
There is nothing but the shot. Nothing but the shot.
He squeezed the trigger…