Jed squinted down the sights and carefully squeezed off a shot. A ragged volley followed down the line. Jed was in position Number Eighteen and down range, his target atop a large painted sign bearing the same number, dropped. Jed rolled over and yelled at Corporal Weisbaum. "Hey, corporal. I must have done shot 'n broke that there target. It just fell down."
Weisbaum grinned. "You didn't break nothing, hillbilly. You just got lucky and hit somewhere on the target. Every time you hit it, they pull it down and mark where your shot hit so you can correct your sights. See, here it comes back up again."
Target Number Eighteen rose above the pits. In the dead center of the small black bull's-eye was a small white dot. Weisbaum stared at the target, then swung a pair of binoculars to his eyes. "Man, talk about luck. You hit it smack in the center of the black."
The target dropped again for a pasted patch over the hole. Then it came up.
Jed grinned happily and rolled back to the prone position, looked briefly down the sight and squeezed off another round. The target dropped again. In a moment it was back up, the same white marker disk showing in the black. Weisbaum put the glasses to his eyes again. "I knew it was luck. You musta missed it, hillbilly, cause that's the same mark you had last shot."
Jed frowned and waited for the target to be pulled and pasted, then fired again. Once more it came up with the identical white marker in the center. It was Weisbaum's turn to frown. "Better check that sight, Cromwell. You can't shoot on luck forever. Them last two rounds never touched the target."
The range radio safety operator came up to the corporal and handed him the walkie talkie. "Pit wants to talk to you, corporal."
Weisbaum took the handset and held it to his ear. "This is Corporal Weisbaum. Yeah. He WHAT! You sure? Yeah, pull it and paste it. This I want to see."
He handed the handset to the radioman and glared at Jed. "So now you're some kinda wise guy, huh, hillbilly? You think you can keep shootin' on luck? The pits say you been hitting the same spot every time. Nobody can do that. Now, go ahead, hillbilly. I want to see you do it again."
Jed rolled over on his belly, looked and fired. Down went the target to come up again with another dead-center marker.
"He did it again," the radioman declared to the corporal.
Weisbaum was beginning to get an awed look on his face. "Go on, hillbilly, keep firing."
Behind the corporal and the recruit, the radioman was talking softly to the pits. "He's in position ... he's aiming ... he's holdin--" The operator stopped talking and shook his handset and held it again to his ear. Jed fired. A split second later the radio burst into voice. "... Did it again," the pit operator yelled excitedly.
Jed fired all twenty rounds into the exact same hole and the range firing came to a screeching halt. By the time he was on the final round, all other firing had stopped and range officers and safety NCO's were gathered in a semicircle around the prone mountain boy.
Weisbaum pounded Jed on the back as the young recruit scrambled to his feet and dusted his fatigues. "Man, what an eye. Wait 'til the old man sees this. Look," he took Jed by the arm, "you shoot like this all the time back in them hills you come from?" Jed nodded. "I thought so," Weisbaum cried happily. "Go sit down and take it easy. I want the old man to come out and see this."
Jed smiled happily and walked off the firing line amidst the admiring stares of his fellow recruits. He flung himself on the ground in the shade of a stack of ammunition boxes and grinned to himself. Shucks, all that excitement over a little shooting. Back home he did it all the time. But it'd make Ma proud to know he could do something real good. He let his mind travel for the first time in weeks.
On the range road a few feet away, a convoy of trucks carrying another recruit company to the ranges farther down the line, suddenly spluttered and came to a stop as their engines died.
"Ma," Jed thought, "you busy?"
Behind the cabin in Bluebird Gulch, Ma Cromwell laid down the axe she had been splitting firewood with and closed her eyes. "'Bout time you remembered your maw," she replied. "You all right, Sonny?"
"I'm jest fine, Ma. An' I did somethin' good, too, Ma. I just showed these Army fellers what us Cromwells kin do with a rifle gun."
Jed lay in the warm sun and let the light filter through his closed eyelids. He paid no attention to the clanging of truck hoods and the muttered curses of a half dozen truck driver as they clambered over the front of their vehicles trying to figure out what was causing them to have engine trouble.
"What did you do, Sonny?" Ma asked.
"Tweren't really nothing, Ma," Jed replied. "I shot this here newfangled gun they gave me at a big ol' target 'n hit it, Ma. Honest, Ma, that black circle they got in that thing is jest 'bout as big as the hind end of a black bear and it ain't no further away than the bottom of the cornfield from the cabin door."
In the range control tower, Corporal Weisbaum was getting madder every second.
"What's the matter with that switchboard operator," he screamed. "Don't he hear the buzzer?" He shook the phone and roared again. Finally, he slapped it down on the hook. "Gimme that radio," he said, reaching for the handset. The operator shook his head sadly. "No use, corp. It's deader'n doornail. Don't know what's the matter. It just quit."
Weisbaum looked around and spotted one of the regular jeep drivers standing at the foot of the tower. "Mahoney," he yelled. "Get in your jeep and go back and get the old man. Tell him he's gotta see Cromwell shoot. You can tell him what happened."
The jeep driver started towards his vehicle. "And Mahoney," Weisbaum yelled after him, "while you're there, bring back another radio and tell that idiot on the switchboard we got wire trouble." Mahoney nodded and went to his jeep.
Back at the cabin, Ma Cromwell wiped her face with her apron skirt. "Shore hot today," she thought. "You hot there, too, Sonny?"
"Kinda hot, Ma," Jed thought back. "Shore ain't like home. Not bad though."
"You gettin' enough to eat, child?" Ma asked.
Jed frowned slightly and stepped up his mental output. A half mile down range and a thousand feet up, an Army helicopter heading for a maneuver area, coughed and quit. The blades went into autogyro as it sank quickly to earth.
Vehicles all over the post came to a spluttering stop and office lights and refrigerators went off.
"What did you say, Ma?" Jed asked. "Seemed like you got sorta weak."
"'Tain't me." Ma snorted. "Jest that nosy Miz Hawkins. She's gotta listen in on everybody's private talk up in these hills, seems like." There was the feeling of an indignant gasp and then Ma's thoughts came booming through. Jed relaxed and grinned. The chopper was almost on the ground when its engine caught fire once again and went surging up and forward. The surprised pilot fought to get control before he slammed into a low hill. Lights came back on and electrical equipment began running other than close to the range.
"Shouldn't ought to talk like that, Ma," Jed grinned. "She's jest bein' friendly like."
"Hm-m-m," Ma sniffed, "gettin' so's a body cain't even talk with her own kinfolk without everybody in these parts listenin' in."
Mahoney got out of his jeep and walked back to the tower. "Jeep won't start," he called up to Weisbaum.
The corporal turned purple and leaned over the edge of the tower. "Ta hell with it then," he roared. "Now get those bums back on the line. We got a whole platoon to shoot out and I want to see that hillbilly do the same thing in the standing position.
"Cromwell," he bellowed, "get up on that line."
Jed opened his eyes quickly and then shut them for another moment.
"Got to go, Ma," he thought quickly, "that corporal feller's yellin' again. You take care, Ma."
"I will, Sonny," Ma thought back. "Mind your manners."
Jed got up and hurried to the firing line. In the tower, the phone began ringing and the radio and telephone operators began reporting the equipment trouble they'd been having. On the road, one of the truck drivers half-heartedly stepped on the starter for the tenth time. The engine roared to life. The other drivers stopped and stared, then climbed down from fenders and front bumpers and tried their own starters. The trucks and their puzzled drivers left. Firing resumed.
That evening in the barracks, Harry Fisher complimented the mountain boy. "Nice shooting today, Jed," he said, "I was on the radio in the pits while you were shooting. I don't think anyone ever saw anything like that before."
Jed smiled at his friend and bunkmate. "It's easy to do, real easy Harry," he said. "I reckon everyone could do it once they get the hang of it."
Fisher smiled ruefully. "You're looking at one guy who'll never get the hang of it," he said, "whatever the 'hang of it' might be."
"Honest, Harry," Jed said earnestly, "all you gotta do is jest think them bullets into that big black spot."
Fisher laughed. "I could think like Socrates and never come close to...." He stopped and stared at Jed with a half-smile. "You know, Jed, you're kind of weird sometimes. 'Think the bullets.' Come to think of it, though, that's not the only weird thing. Did you know that everytime you were getting ready to shoot our radios went dead today?"
Jed frowned thoughtfully. "That's funny. I ain't never heard of that happenin' afore. O' course, we never had radios in Bluebird Gulch. Only thing we ever had trouble with wuz the 'lectric light bulbs in Paulsburg the one-two times our folks went down there. Seems like them lights wuz goin' out everytime one of us wuz mind-talkin' with some homefolks."
Harry stared puzzledly at the mountain boy.
"You know," Jed tried to explain, "like when you might of fergot somethin' someone wanted real bad from the store. Or mebbe like one time when Ma'n me wuz in the big store in Paulsburg and she wuz gettin' some fancy cloth fer Miz Culpepper. Store didn't have no fancy cloth like Miz Culpepper wanted, with big red flowers. Only had blue flowers. So Ma, she mind-asked Miz Culpepper if the blue ones would be all right. Every durned 'lectric light bulb in that store went out."
Fisher was beginning to get a dazed look on his face. "'Mind-asked.' 'Mind-talk.' You mean what I think you mean, Jediah?" he asked.
"Reckon I do," Jed said emphatically. "Just like I mind-talked with Ma this afternoon an' tole her what all the hurrah was about jest 'cause I flung them bullets through that big ol' black spot."
"You talked with your mother back in West Virginia this afternoon?" Harry pressed. "From the rifle range?"
"Shore did," Jed said happily. "Most plumb forgot fer a couple o' weeks now, what with us bein' so consarned busy. It wuz purely fine to talk with Ma."
Fisher's brain was spinning. "Can you contact her anytime you want to?"
"Shore kin," Jed said proudly. "It takes a mite more power though, the furthern I git from home. Or if Miz Hawkins is listenin' in."
"Let's see you do it now," Fisher demanded.
Jed shut his eyes. "Ma," he thought, "you got time fer a chat?"
The lights went out all over the barracks. Harry Fisher fainted.
When he came to, he was lying on Jed's bunk with the mountain boy leaning over him solicitously. "You all right, Harry?" Jed asked anxiously. "Ma's worried 'bout you."
Harry fainted again.
When he came to the second time, Jed had gone running down the barracks aisle to Corporal Weisbaum's room. Harry sat up and swung his feet over the edge of the bunk. He was light-headed and his brain was still whirling.
A minute later Jed came back leading Weisbaum. The corporal peered down at Fisher. "You sick 'er somethin' Fisher?" he asked. "Get too much sun today?"
Harry shook his head. "No. I'm O.K. now, corporal. Must have been something I ate. I'll be all right."
Weisbaum reached down and felt Harry's forehead. "You look kinda peaked to me. You hit the sack and if you don't feel O.K. in the morning, I'll put you on sick call."
Harry shook his head again. "No need for that. I'll be all right. I'm going outside and get some fresh air. Jed, will you give me a hand, please?"
He stood up shakily and Jed took his arm. "O.K.," Weisbaum said, "but if you don't feel so good, you're going to the dispensary, you hear." He went back to his room.
Harry and Jed walked out of the barracks into the night air. Fisher paused and breathed deeply, then turned to face Jed. "You always been able to mind-talk with you mother?" he asked.
"Why, shore," Jed replied. "Most folks back home kin. Shore saves a heap o' walkin' over them hills."
"And did the lights go out when you talked that way?" Harry inquired.
"Well now, I don't rightly know," Jed said. "Only place what has them lights close by is Paulsburg and that's thutty miles from Owl Creek and us folks ain't got much truck fer them big cities. Don't reckon any of us ever been there more 'n three-four times in our whole lives. But it shore happens in Paulsburg whenever we gossip thataway. Never thought nothin' of it afore, though. Reckon, now that I study on it a mite, it's 'cause we got to use more of the power to reach across them hills. Ma once said she reckoned us Cromwells could mind-talk with the Empereer of all Roosha if'n we had to. 'Course, we'd be straining our heads a mite fer all that distance 'cause Ma says Roosha and England is a heap further from Bluebird Gulch 'n even Madison. Or Fore McGruder, I reckon."
Harry though quietly for a moment.
"When was the last time you talked with your mother that way?" he asked.
"Don't rightly know or remember jest when it wuz," Jed replied. "Seems like it wuz 'bout the fust week we wuz here. One night, in the barracks, I kinda got homesick I reckon, 'cause that wuz the day I got cussed out for the first time in my whole, entire life."
Harry smacked his clenched fist into his hand. "That's it," he cried. "That's it. That was the night the lights went out three time in the barracks. The night Weisbaum made us take the five-mile moonlight hike because he thought someone was fooling with the lights."
He grabbed Jed by the arm. "That was the night, wasn't it, Jed?"
"Come to think of it," Jed replied, "I reckon it wuz. There wuz such a hurrah when the lights keep a-goin' out, I never did get to hear what Ma had to say. 'N by the time we got back from that little walk, I plumb fergot to ask her.
"You know somethin' Harry, I plumb fergot what would happen to them lights. By gosh, I reckon I wuz the one what got us all in trouble. I jest reckon I better go 'n tell the fellers I'm sorry 'bout that."
Fisher grabbed his sleeve. "Oh no you don't," he snapped. "You're coming with me."
Ten minutes later, two slightly scared recruits stood on the steps leading to the post commander's quarters. Jed started back down the steps. Harry held tightly to his arm. "Come on," he whispered savagely, "we're going to talk with the colonel, Jed. Now don't you go getting chicken on me, you hear."
"Harry, I ain't never even see'd no colonel, much less 'n talk to one," Jed said, "and I reckon I jest as soon not, if'n you don't mind."
"I do mind," Harry snapped and pulled Jed up to the door.
Their ring was answered by a pretty, teenaged girl. She smiled inquiringly at the two young soldiers.
"Miss," Harry stammered, "we'd like to talk with Colonel Cartwright, please."
The girl turned into the house. "Dad," she called, "someone to see you."
Colonel William Cartwright came to the door. The light from the room glinted off the silver eagle on his collar. He looked at the two young soldiers. "What can I do for you men?" he asked.
"Sir," Harry answered with a stiff salute and a quavering voice, "I'm Private Harry Fisher and this is Private Jediah Cromwell, sir."
The colonel returned the salute. "All right, at ease. What do you want?"
Harry gulped and took a firm grip on his courage. "Sir," he barked out, "are your house lights all in good working order?"
"What?" Cartwright exploded. "What the devil are you talking about, soldier?"
"Sir, we've got to show you something right now," Harry stammered. "It's urgent, colonel."
"Now see here Fisher," the colonel said, "we've got proper channels for any problems you might have and I don't take care of those things at my quarters. I have an office in post headquarters and with the permission of your company commander, you can see my adjutant during duty hours. Or the chaplain."
"Please, sir," Harry gulped. "It's awfully important."
"Well," the colonel hesitated, "this is most unusual."
"Yes, sir, it is most unusual," Harry agreed.
"All right," the post commander sighed, "what is it?"
"Sir, are your house lights all working?" Harry repeated.