Conscience Round

by Scott Hoenstine

soldier-with-rifle-clipartIn a field near the bend in a small river, six men stood while a seventh was lashed to an old jack-legged fence. Birds sang in the willows on the bank of the river and the tall grass moved like water in the gentle breeze. The air carried a chill down from the snow covered mountains in the distance.

“There are five rifles for five shooters,” the Captain said as he stood before the men. “Now if any of you think you’ll lose sleep over plugging this piece of shit…there’s a special gun there just for you. It’s called a conscience round. There’s a cartridge with a wax bullet. It will roar just as loud as the other shots, it will kick your shoulder like a mule but it won’t harm that fine example of humanity before us.”

Jack chose his rifle and took a shooters stance. He could feel a long scar in the wood against his cheek. It ran the length of the stock. It must be an old injury because it had been worn smooth by many cheeks over many years. The sharp tang of the gun oil teased a memory loose from better times.

He had been ten when his father had brought him to a field much like this to learn to shoot. He had been excited. His father had gone on hunting trips every fall and came back with great stories. Jack had hoped that this meant that he would be going on the hunting trips now.

His father had driven them to a field with a sagging fence and parked the car about twenty-five yards from the fence. He had rummaged around the back floor boards and came up with two coke cans.

After placing the cans on the splintered fence post, his father had said, “There are three things I want you to remember about shooting, Jackie. One, always assume the gun’s loaded. Two, don’t point it at something unless you’re gonna shoot it. And three, aim for the middle.”

Jack had nodded and accepted the rifle from his father.

He had stood behind Jack and rested his large hands on Jack’s shoulders. “Spread your legs to shoulder width,” his father had said. “Line up that front peg with the notch in the back. When you got it right in the middle of the can, hold your breath and squeeze the trigger.”

“Will it hurt?” Jack had asked.

His father squeezed his shoulder and kneaded the muscles, “It doesn’t hurt. It’s like when you get punched in the arm by your buddy. There’s some pressure, a dull thud, but it ain’t pain.”

It had hurt. The tears had come out but he didn’t make a sound. His father had been proud.

“Ready,” the captain called out.

Jack lined up the sights on the middle of the man’s chest which was heaving up and down under a white shirt. “Will it hurt?” Jack wondered.


Jack sucked in a lung-full of cool air with a whisper. The cold made his teeth ache. He bore down on the man and his rifle barely wavered. He could hear the man reciting the Lord’s Prayer.


He squeezed the trigger as his father had taught him. One steady pull until the trigger broke. The report was loud and for an instant it was like it had blown away any sound. It was perfectly quiet. Then his ears began to ring and he could hear the boom echoing off the mountains down through the valley. The birds in willows took to the air as one. He rolled his shoulder. The kick still hurt. He didn’t know if he had gotten the dummy round but it had sounded and felt real.

It made no difference to the man on the fence. He slouched forward until his arms were pulled taunt behind him where his wrist were tied to the post.

Jack was slow to lower his weapon. He stared at the dead man. His fellow shooters did the same. All of them were green. They looked to the Captain for direction.

“Good job boys, you’ve done a service for your country,” he said through cupped hands as he tried to light his cigarette against the breeze. “Now grab a shovel and plant this asshole.”

Jack and the others stood over the body with shovels in one hand and burning cigarettes in the other. None spoke. They smoked and waited for the shakes to let up from the adrenaline.

When they did begin to dig, it was hard work because the field was rocky. They only got down three feet when the Captain said it was enough. Two grabbed his feet and two grabbed his shoulders and they tossed him into the hole while Jack watched.

“Captain,” Jack asked. “Is it always like this?”

“No. Sometimes it’s really bad. They cry, plead, puke and piss. Once it took me two hours to calm a guy down enough that he could hold his rifle; all the while, the guy who was going to be shot had to sit and wait. I almost felt bad for him. No, you boys did good today. You made me proud.”

Jack went back and began shoveling dirt into the hole with the others. When they finished and were loading the rifles back into the jeep, he ran his finger along the chamber and held it to his nose. He thought hard of his father and that day he learned to shoot. Each time he held a gun, he wanted to be reminded of that time with his father and not what he had done here.

Category: Short Story