The boy began to float at three months; Martha didn't dare take him outside until he was near old enough to walk, and could be trusted not to go off out of sight, or when company was around. Even when he stuck to the ground, the boy was a rambler and a climber. John took the precaution of moving the shells from off the top shelf, and into a locked cabinet. Six years after they'd found him, the boy accidentally ripped the handle out of the door. The old man reckoned his son needed a talk.
Out back behind the barn, John set out an old folding work table, with the oil and cleaning kit. The boy watched as the old man disassembled the rifle and cleaned it, named each of the parts, explained the action, the dangers of it, how not to point it at any one or any thing you didn't want to shoot. A mop of dark black hair over piercing blue eyes drank in every movement.
"Pa," he said, as the old man finished reassembly and checked the action. "What's it for?"
On a Kansas farm, a gun was a tool more than a weapon; shotguns were often used to shoo away birds and ding foxes and coyote more than anything else. As they walked out to the far acres, the old man told the boy about the pioneers days - remembering the stories Grandpa Kent told him of rustlers and thieves surprised in the night, and the last Indian in the county, shot and scared and bleeding out against a rail fence...
...and Private Kent, on the quiet farm in the Ardennes Forest. It was a thin forest, but big enough to get lost in; frost on the ground every morning that fall, then snow as the winter came on, the coffee beans so cold he had to crack them open his rifle butt. Rock was restless, staring out at the trees. Ease didn't come easy in Easy Company; it was a pause between pushes, battlefront troops rotated out for a bit of rest before being thrown back into action.
Rock wanted his men primed, had them out at the old stone wall at the edge of the field every morning, shooting at paper targets on the trees...charcoal silhouettes of the Bosch, shadows on faded French newsprint. Pvt. Kent sometimes wondered if the man knew what was going to happen, like a dog could feel a twister coming before you ever spotted the cloud, scratching at the door to the cellar.
We never heard or saw the first Germans, that cold morning. Pvt. Kent was down there with his rifle, smashing the coffee beans as usual when the tut-tut-tut started, maybe half a mile a way. Then the long shadows were marching through the snow, through the line of the trees, right towards the farm house. He went right up to the front door and looked out at that stone fence, the faded, pockmarked targets still up on the trees, and in the overcast dawn the shadows moving between them looked just the same. Automatically he brought up his rifle, could almost hear Rock in his ear as he adjusted his aim, to squeeze the trigger...
...the tin can, on the wooden fence, went flying with a ping. The crack of the .30-06 echoed under the brilliant blue sky. The old man lowered the rifle, flicked the safety into place.
"Did you have to kill 'em, pa?" the boy asked. The old man felt like those blue eyes could see right through him, sometimes. He didn't dare lie.
"It was war, son. I never wanted to kill any man. I wish I could say you'll understand it when you're older - but to tell the truth, I'm not sure I understand it all now, or ever will."
The boy picked up a pebble from the ground, whipped it hard in the direction of the fence, the hand little more than a blur. A familiar ping sounded, as the last of the target cans went flying off the fence.
"I don't reckon I like guns, pa."
The old man ruffled that jet black hair, still warm from the sun.
"You don't have to like them, son. I just want you to respect them - the danger that they represent. There's a responsibility that goes along with owning a gun. You understand?"
"I think so, pa."
"Good. Now, I'm going to ask you not to ever play with my gun, or the ammunition. They're not toys, you understand?"
"That's alright then."
The boy looked back at the house. "Ma's calling."
The old man didn't hear anything. "Anybody visiting?"
The boy shook his head. "No pa."
"Then why don't you take the sky back. I'll be along shortly."
The boy grinned, took three steps and then a flying leap. The old man didn't seem him land, exactly, but the arc took him toward the house. Quietly, he picked up the spent brass shell casings from the dirt, and put them in a pocket before heading back.