RUFFIN-IT: THE DAY THE SHARPSHOOTER KILLED SOMETHING HE SHOULDN’T’VE
Back before my back condition started interfering with my fun outdoors, I shot a lot: rifles, pistols, shotguns, pellet guns, you name it. I shoot occasionally in the backyard these days, less occasionally at the range.
While I was doing some annual gun cleaning the other day and was handling a Springfield ‘03, I got to thinking about the time a friend of mine from the Army came visiting and we went out and shot an ’03 I had recently purchased.
This was a long time ago and back in Mississippi, and I was living with my first wife—not that any of this is germane to this piece. It just sets the stage a little.
We loaded up my Rambler station wagon—I TOLD you it was a long time ago—and drove down to a place where I often shot. It was a run-down piece of sorry ground , swampy and snarled with vines and underbrush, so I figured that nobody would mind if I shot there. And I didn’t particularly care. Likely as not, any damage I did would have been an improvement.
We hiked on back into the woods to a lane I had cleared with an axe: a corridor maybe twelve feet wide and a hundred yards long. The only thing in the background was just deep woods, so an errant round would be snuffed out fairly quickly.
I laid the Springfield down and set up a target, and we sent fifty or sixty rounds downrange before calling it quits.
And this is where the story starts.
When we got back to the Rambler, I was sliding the rifle into the back when my friend—let’s call him George Stubbs for lack of a better name—looked across and down the road.
“Whose place is that? Looks like something out of Tobacco Road.”
And it did. There was a small house, once painted but now a drab gray from the weather, and a run-down barn, junk scattered everywhere. An old black car sat in front of the house, and behind the car sat a tractor propped up on concrete blocks. Let’s just call the style Country Mississippi.
“That’s Hobb Scofield’s (name changed) place. Why?”
“What kinda car’s that? A Plymouth or whut?”
“Look at that hood ornament. What is that thang? Big as my fist.”
“I’ll check it out.”
I reached into the Rambler and pulled out my binoculars and studied the car a few seconds.
“It’s a swan.”
I handed the glasses to him, and he confirmed my sighting.
We sat back on the tailgate then and had a beer and started talking about good shooting.
“You know,” he said, “my granddaddy was the best shot I ever knew. He was a sniper in World War I and used a rifle kinda like this ’03, only it had a weird-shape bolt. And it had a scope.”
“Probably an Enfield,” I said. Then: “I wanted to be a sniper, but I just didn’t get around to it.”
“Whatever it was, he could sure’s hell shoot it.”
“He ever kill anybody?”
“Nope. Shot the head off a rooster on top of a barn in France—he said they eat good that night.” He grinned big. “He used to set on his front porch—had a house up near Millport, and it looked down onto Highway 50, which was maybe as far as from here to that guy’s house over there. He’d set on his front porch with that rifle, which somehow he managed to brang back with him from the War, and ever so often he’d take target practice on cars on the highway.”
“He’d pick out one with a big ol’ hood ornament, like the one over there–and they was a big deal in them days–and he’d blow it clean off the car. Get hisself a nice lead, with proper elevation for that long range, and shoot that ornament right off the car. He could kill crows flyin’. He was that good with his rifle.”
“Get back to the ornament story. If that highway was as far from the house as Scofield’s place there, you’re talking about maybe 300 yards.”
“And he’d knock the hood ornaments off cars driving down that highway?”
“He said he missed a couple of times is all, musta busted around thirty.”
“What did the people do? I mean, the ones driving the cars that he shot the ornaments off of?”
“They’d stop and get out and study that nekkid hood and shake their heads and wonder, I guess, just whut the hell happened to their swan or goose or elk, or whatever they’d been follerin’. Granddaddy’d scoot back inside after firin’, so he’d watch’m from the window. They’d look around and shake their heads some more and then get in and drive off.
One time Granddaddy was down at the feed store, and a guy was tellin’ about how he was drivin’ along out there on the highway and his hood ornament exploded. BAM! Just a puff of silvery dust. Them thangs is made out of pot metal or something, with a coat of chromeyum, and a bullet just blows’m up like they was glass.”
“Never got caught?”
“Nope. Never did. Word got out that that particular stretch of highway was hell on ornaments.”
George studied the Scofield place a couple of minutes and then said, “I bet I could knock the ornament off that hood over there. A’course, it ain’t movin’, but . . . ”
“Are you nuts? That’s Hobb Scofield’s car you’re talking about shooting the swan off of.”
OK, before I can finish this piece, I have to give you a little background on Hobb Scofield (again, name radically changed to protect his honor), whose big ornament my Army buddy George proposed to shoot off the hood of the old Plymouth parked in Hobb’s yard.
Now, all things considered, Hobb Scofield was not really all that bad. He was known to be a family man in his earlier years, and word is that he tithed sporadically to a little church (up near Steens–Mississippi, of course), which he attended on Easter and Christmas. He did not give a full ten percent of his money to any entity, not even the Government, which he despised with unrelenting passion, convinced as he was that eventually they would take his guns and vehicles and farm, a euphemism for the squalid, swampy ten-acre place he owned. Nobody could ever reason with him over that issue.
It was rumored that he made “family size” batches of corn likker in a still hidden back in a copse of pines behind his barn, but I never confirmed this. I snooped around all over this property when I was growing up, and I never found a still. I found lots of watermelons, though, some of which I claimed, since they didn’t have his name on them.
What was not a rumor was that he tolerated no insult to himself or kin or the Confederacy, proudly represented by a Rebel flag that hung from a cane pole at the corner of his house, a euphemism for the paintless swayback shack he and his bovine wife lived in.
He was known far and wide as someone you did not want to cross, under any circumstances, and especially when he had been drinking, which was often.
I didn’t try to keep up with his shenanigans, but he was stuff enough of legend that some stories stuck with me, this one especially, but I’ll relate it in more sophisticated fashion than I did to George that day.
Hobb was known to frequent the favors of a waitress at a beer joint a few miles out Highway 50. She did not fall into the category of gorgeous . . . or cute . . . or OK . . . or plain . . .or, well, butt-ugly. Succinctly put, her attributes might well be better registered on a cotton scale than a beauty scale.
It was not that Hobb felt there was much promise in their future, but he was not prepared for the way she chose to dump him: rudely, without ceremony, and without just cause, announcing her intentions before flanking buddies at the bar.
“You and me’re finished, you miserable old goat,” she had said through the smoky air, adding a puff of her own in his face.
The lights, hanging from the ceiling on slender rods, reeled like constellations in the mirror before him [my description here, since Hobb was probably about as lyrical in thought as he was in speech, right at the level of your average mule] as he stared at her, trying to fix his eyes on her soul, but the windows were not open, so he simply laughed and told his buddies he was leaving. Which he did. Except that he went no farther than the parking lot, where he relieved himself and cursed his fate, then walked to his truck and removed from the bed a shovel, and upon entering the bar he swung wildly until every dangling light was shattered across floor and bar and pool table, leaving a wasteland of glass and plastic shards upon which his heavy boots crunched mightily, and only the garish glow of the neon beer signs lit the way for those who elected to leave. Which was everyone, including the bar owner and her. They slid around the walls and one by one sprang through the door into the night air, staying well out of range of his flailing shovel.
Word got out that he was the fastest shovelslinger in the state.
The court was kind: The Justice ordered him to pay for the lights and new felt for the pool table, which his shovel had gashed. Apologies all around, and the next Friday night he was at the bar again, but without the shovel. She consented to talk quietly with him in his truck about their problem, which he did not even perceive as a problem, namely that he never took her anywhere socially, not even to a Pizza Hut over in Columbus, only to bed, hers at that.
“Well, I can’t exactly take you to mine, can I?” he asked her. “My wife’s usually in it.”
This conversation was relayed by the woman to friends, who relayed it to anybody who would listen.
The upshot is that they made up that night, but it “take’n for only a week,” as Hobb is reported to have said.
The second time they broke up, it was for good. Without leaving him so much as a good-bye note, she hopped a bus and headed west, settling somewhere in Louisiana near her folks.
In his anguish, Hobb set fire to the beer joint the night after she left, but after the first whiff of smoke in the bathroom, patrons spewed bottles of beer on the flames until they were snuffed. He was not jailed for the arson, since it was obviously a crime of passion, but he did have to pay for repairs to the bathroom, and he was ordered never to set foot in the joint again.
Over the years Hobb was constantly in trouble with the Law: five counts of assault and battery, one count of theft of a battery, one count of attempted murder (a shovel blade to the head of a store owner who accused him of stealing a can of Spam), and five charges of DWI (which resulted, finally, in the suspension of his license, of no great consequence to him since he just started driving his tractor [no license required in Mississippi] wherever he needed no go.)
“So,” I wrapped it up with George, “you are talking about shooting the hood ornament off a car that belongs to Hobb Scofield, a man who would as soon kill you as spit downwind.”
He listened to all I had to say, then asked, “Rekkin is he there?”
“Truck’s gone, so probably not. His wife might be, though. I say we go on home and forget about–”
“Sorry, but I got a point to prove.”
“Yeah, well, Hobb’s gonna have a point too, I figure.”
Then he reached down and pulled the Springfield out of the car, fished a round out of a box, and loaded the rifle.
“I’m gonna need a rest for this one,” he said.
“Hobb catch you and you’ll be resting for eternity.”
George walked around to the front of the car and dropped his elbows onto the hood, took his position, adjusted the sight for elevation.
“Yessir, you about to see some chromeyum fly.”
“All right, fool, go ahead and take a shot, but you better be ready to haul it because this Rambler is going to be a mile down the road before the sound of that rifle dies out, and my rifle better be in it. I don’t care about you, no more sense than you are demonstrating.”
But he was determined. He checked to make certain there was a round in the chamber, then splayed across the hood of the Rambler, rifle loaded, rear-sight elevation adjusted, and aimed, ready to take out a hood ornament . . . .
Three deep breaths. Steady—oh, he was steady.
“Wait a minute.”
“Whut? I was zeroed in, man.”
“I’m gonna watch this through the glasses.”
“Gotta start the whole process over again.”
“That swan’s not going any damn where. I want to verify the hit.”
He relaxed while I fished the binoculars from the car. I took a position right behind him and told him to go ahead and take his shot.
He started the breathing sequence again, and midway through his fourth breath, he fired.
“Ohhhhhh,” was all I could manage for a few breaths. “Oh, my God!”
George lifted up and looked at me.
“So I missed the ornament. Big fuckin’ deal. I could barely see it.”
“It’s not what you missed. It’s what you hit.”
“Gimme them damn glasses.” He snatched the binoculars from me and trained them on the car.
‘What’d I hit? I don’t see shit, nuthin’ but dirt and woods back there.”
“Lift the glasses. Look out beyond the car about a hundred yards.”
“I don’t see nothin’ else back there but a tracture.”
“Precisely. Look at the engine block, about halfway down.”
He studied the tractor through the glasses a few seconds.
“It’s a big old hole in the side of the block is all I see. Look like it got hit by a bazooka.”
“Naw, it got hit by a .30-06 round that you delivered. That’s cast iron, fool, brittle as glass, brittle as the pot metal that hood ornaments are made out of. You don’t make a neat hole in cast iron with a bullet, especially when it’s that thin stuff in the middle of the block.”
“And whut makes you thank I done it?”
“Because I saw it, fool. You ran that rear sight up too high, and that bullet smacked into the thin cast iron on that block. You just killed a tractor. He’ll have to put a whole new engine in it.”
“I never shot that high, Paul. I—“
“I saw that plate-size chunk disappear from the engine block when you shot. You missed the ornament by at least two feet. How much do you think a 30-06 drops at 300 yards? That’s not a shotgun slug or a rock. How much did you ramp up that sight?”
“Too much, I rekkin.”
“I’ll say. Now let’s clear out of here. I don’t think anybody’s home, but I don’t want to be here when they get back.”
“Damn thang is up on blocks anyhow,” George mouthed as I drove out the back side of the Sand Road Loop.
“Maybe so–half the vehicles in Mississippi yards are up on blocks–but it is his tractor on his blocks on his property. All he needed was to put the wheels back on. Now he can put all the wheels on it he wants, and it still ain’t going anywhere. Gotta buy a whole new engine.” I looked over at him. “And, man, is he gon’ be hacked.”
“He’ll prolly never even notice it.”
“If you had a tractor—even if it was up on cement blocks—wouldn’t you notice a hole the size of a dinner plate in the side of the engine? Big enough for a possum to nest in . . . .”
“Well, I seen it way back there by the woods, but my sight was on that ornament.”
“Yeah, the front sight might have been on it. You probably had that damned elevation set for 800 yards.”
“I was a Sharpshooter in the Army, as you well know, so . . . “
“So was I. But we’re not in the Army now, and we’ve both forgot a lot. You’re about to know what it was like to be one of those silhouette targets we used to shoot at.”
“You really scarin’ me . . . .” His tone was sarcastic.
“You better be scared. You see an old green Dodge pickup cruisin’ your neighborhood, you better get outta town. You see so much as the shadow of a shovel, and you better duck.”
“I ain’t scared of no old man with a shovel.”
“Famous last words.” I looked at him hard. “Did you know that in Mississippi more people are killed with shovels each year than die from cherry bombs exploding in their mouths?”
I don’t know where that came from, but he didn’t say anything in response, so I assume that some sort of terrible truth had settled in.
I haven’t heard from George in years, but I know that even to this day he has nightmares about being hammered to death by a shovel wielded by an old man in overalls yelling over and over, “You kilt my tracture, boy, you kilt my tracture!”