Jim wrestled the steering wheel of the rusted Ford pickup as the truck bounced down the dirt road leading to the levee. Since their father went to Korea it seemed to Willy that his brother got to do pretty much anything he wanted. He could drive for one thing, though it wasn’t legal. He got to sit in their father’s chair when they had company for supper. He even got to keep the shotgun in his bedroom when their mother went to visit her sister down in Osceola.
Willy tried to roll down the window with one hand, like a grownup, but had to use both instead. The whole cab of the truck shook when Jim hit one of the deep ruts in the road. Willy was thrown forward and his head knocked against the dash, but he didn’t cry out. He rubbed his forehead and looked out through the back window of the truck at Moonshine. The dog caught Willy’s look from where he was lying by the tailgate and limped up to the cab of the truck. Willy put his finger to the window and Moonshine licked the glass.
“Can I drive for a little bit?” Willy asked.
“Mama’d kill me if I let you drive, Willy.”
“I know how! Daddy used to let me on the dirt roads,” Willy argued. He could see the top of the levee as they rounded a sharp corner. It wasn’t much further, he thought. “It ain’t fair,” he continued, “you ain’t old enough either.”
“Yeah, but there’s a lot of difference between ten and fourteen,” Jim said as he tried to dodge the biggest holes in the road.
Willy tried to keep his balance by holding on to the window handle with one hand and the dashboard with the other. Although the violent rocking of the truck tossed him back and forth, Willy enjoyed the excitement of it all.
“You can’t drive worth shit,” Willy said. He looked back at Moonshine. The dog sat down by the cab and put his head over the side of the truck, biting and slurping his tongue into the wind. Willy turned back toward his brother and said, “When Daddy gets back from the war, I bet you a hundred dollars, he’s gonna let me drive.”
“It ain’t exactly a war,” Jim said.
“Well, he’s killing people, ain’t he?” Willy replied.
“Sounds like a war to me then.” They both looked at the .22 pistol between them in the seat of the Ford. Willy reached over and picked up the gun.
“Be careful with that,” Jim said and tried to get the gun back. Willy pulled the gun away and pointed it out the window. “I know what I’m doing,” Willy said and then set the sight toward a row of beehive frames a little ways out in the field.
“Don’t you shoot that thing, Willy Ray, or I’ll kick your ass,” Jim said. “I only got three bullets.”
“It only takes one.”
Willy cocked the gun and aimed out the window while the truck bounced along. A board in one of the frames split just after the sound of the loud crack. Jim slammed on the brakes and Moonshine let out a yelp from the back of the pickup.
“Give me that thing, you sonofabitch.” Jim threw the gearshift up and yanked the pistol out of Willy’s hand. Willy, admiring his shot, gave it up without a struggle.
“Dangit, Willy Ray, now I only got two bullets left!” Jim put the truck back in gear and put his foot down on the gas. As they picked up speed, Willy stuck his head out the window and followed the busted frame with his eyes until it disappeared in the dust. He reached out over the side of the truck and let Moonshine lick his hand, then pulled back into the cab.
“I’ll do it for you if you want, Jim,” Willy said. “I’m a better shot than you anyhow, even Daddy says so. Besides, I wanna know what it's like to kill something, like Daddy’s doing.”
“You ain’t killing nothing,” Jim said. “Daddy left me in charge and I’m the one that’s supposed to take care of things while he’s gone.”
Willy looked back at the dog and said, “But you like him a lot more than I do.”
“Shut up!” Jim said and wacked Willy on the head.
Moonshine was lying down again, trying to scratch his back by flopping around on the ridges in the truck bed. “He could have been the best coon dog in the county,” Will said. He could see all the dog’s mange now, with his belly up and legs kicking. The mange had worked itself around all four legs and was meandering its way up the dog’s back.
It wasn’t that Willy didn’t like the dog too, but he just didn’t see what Jim was so upset about. Dogs die all the time. And it was suffering. You couldn’t even pet him anymore because there wasn’t really a place that was more hair than mange.
Jim had got attached to that dog the minute their father had brought him home last year. He spent all his time training him. Willy had to admit Jim had done a good job at that. They wrote a letter to Korea about three months ago saying that Moonshine had treed a coon at six months. Jim told their father how the men at Poff’s Grocery in town said none of them had ever had one that treed that young. Willy said how jealous they all was and how they all hoped Daddy was doing okay over there. And about how Moonshine never looked twice at a possum. They got a letter back the next week that said Daddy was real proud of Jim’s training and how they was all going on a hunt just as soon as he got back.
When they got the letter was about the time the mange showed up on the dog. At first it was just a spot or two here and there. Jim took all his allowance money and got the best medicine he could find. He doctored Moonshine every day, sometimes twice, but no matter what he did the mange just seemed to get bigger and bigger. Jim studied up on it at school and asked all around about how he could get rid of it, but nothing seemed to work. Another letter from Korea said their father had asked some of his friends in the Army and they said if you put burnt oil on it that would clear it up.
So, just last week, Jim had spent a dollar twenty-five on brand new oil for the pickup. He took the old, burnt oil and put it on Moonshine the same night. It didn’t help though. It was just as bad as ever and still spreading. Now Moonshine was sick and would only lie around all day.
The tires skidded a little and kicked up dirt on top of the levee when they stopped. Jim got out of the truck and Willy did the same.
“Where you going to do it?” Willy asked.
“Over there,” Jim pointed to a chinaberry tree growing tall down on the levee. Jim put on a pair of their father’s old work gloves and pulled the gate down on the truck.
“Hey there, Moonshine,” Jim said to the dog softly. He reached over and took the dog’s head in his gloved hands. “You’re a good boy, ain’t ya?” Jim let the dog’s tongue just barely touch his cheek. Moonshine’s tail wagged, but the rest of him lay limp.
Willy watched Jim pet the dog and then lift it up from the bed of the truck. He put Moonshine down on the ground and tied a piece of yellow rope to his collar. “Good boy,” Jim said and looked in the direction of the river. The pistol stuck out of the waistband on Jim’s jeans as he slowly walked the dog over to the tree, petting him with reassuring words all the while.
Willy swallowed hard. For a few steps, he walked in their direction, but then stopped. He backed up and reached his arm out and touched his father’s truck behind him.
Jim tied the other end of the rope to the chinaberry tree. Moonshine seemed to gather a little strength with Jim’s attention and made a half-hearted attempt to jump up on him. Jim gave him another stroke and walked away. Moonshine strained against the rope and Jim came back to him. With his left hand petting the dog, Jim shook off the glove on his right hand and reached behind his waist. The dog lapped and licked at Jim’s gloved hand. Instead of getting the pistol, Jim brought his right hand back and took the other glove off with it. He held the dog’s head in both his bare hands.
Willy backed against the truck while he watched his brother back away from the dog. Jim reached again for the gun in his waistband. He lifted his arm up and wiped at his face. He held the gun out while Moonshine strained against the rope to get to him. Jim stayed like this for a long time.
“I can’t look him in the eye,” Jim hollered to Willy, who was holding the big side mirror on the truck with both of his hands. “Come over here and distract him, Willy Ray.”
Willy held on to the mirror and closed his eyes tight.
“Willy Ray!” Jim called.
“I can’t!” Willy said, not opening his eyes. He couldn’t let loose of the side mirror.
When he heard the shot, Willy jumped. He never looked but hopped up and scrambled through the open window of the truck door, his feet up in the air. Once inside, he balled up in the floorboard. He could hear Moonshine’s howls coming from outside.
“Goddammit, Willy, I didn’t get him in the head,” Jim screamed. “Come help me so I get a good shot this time!” Willy didn’t move from the floorboard. There was no interruption in Moonshine’s whelps and then another shot rang out.
“Shit,” Jim said.
The dog was still howling when Willy heard Jim above him at the truck window.
“I missed him,” Jim said.
“I wanna go home!” Willy said.
“I can’t leave him out here to suffer and I ain’t got no more bullets,” Jim said with tears running down his face. Moonshine’s howls and moans never stopped for a second.
“Give me that tire iron over there!” Jim said.
“You can’t beat him to death!”
“What am I supposed to do? He can’t suffer like that no more.”
Willy reached over and got the tire iron that was behind the seat. Jim wiped away his tears and Willy thought he looked like their father when he reached over, took the tire iron and walked back toward the dog. Willy didn’t want to watch, but he wanted to see his Daddy so much that he made himself look out the window of the truck.
Moonshine was bleeding bad from the neck. Jim came up to him slow but steady. “I’m sorry, boy,” he said. The dog snarled his teeth. The crazed look in the dog’s eyes was enough to spook Willy again and he ducked back down into the floor of the truck.
He could hear the struggle outside. The dog fought Jim for several minutes. Jim grunted and moaned. Finally, the sound of the tire iron made hollow muted thumps, like Jim was hitting it against the dirt ground. Willy covered his ears and hummed to himself to drown out the terrible sound. After a while he stopped and couldn’t hear anything but long ragged breaths. He didn’t want to look out the window, so he didn’t. He just stayed there and counted to twenty.
He reached for the window handle and pulled himself up in the seat. Jim was sitting next to the chinaberry tree, his shoulders hunched and shaking, his white cotton shirt covered in blood. He still had the tire iron in his right hand and was taking long deep breaths, their Daddy’s gloves laying by his leg. Next to him was Moonshine, in a heap that barely seemed separate from the ground beneath. Jim reached over and put his hand on the dead dog.
Jim was as still as Moonshine for a long time. Then he stood quickly and untied the rope from the tree. He kneeled down and gathered the body in his arms. Jim stumbled forward, then balanced himself and walked over to the opposite side of the levee, the yellow rope dancing a few inches off the ground near his feet.
Willy turned and stared at the dash of the truck. He heard a loud splash from beyond the piled earth of the levee and then looked back.
Jim walked back from the far side of the tree, the bloody tire iron dangling in his hand. He threw the iron in the back of the truck and walked around to the driver’s side. When he opened the door, Willy could see the blood on his face and in his hair.
“You wanna drive home?” Jim asked.
“Okay,” Willy said as he moved over behind the wheel. Jim walked around and got in on the other side. Willy scooted up in the seat so his feet could reach the pedals and turned the key.
The truck jostled back and forth as the two brothers headed home. Willy looked over at Jim, who stared blankly ahead, the blood on his hands still glistening and wet. Willy drove on and imagined the story he would tell his Daddy when he got home. About how Willy had missed every rut and gully in the road the day they laid Moonshine to rest.