Runner, the protagonist and narrator, greatly resents his controlling father, and as a result, he has an aversion to involvement of any kind with his classmates or other people. In keeping with his reserve, he chooses cross-country as his sport and runs at length for both exercise and escape. In Chapter 8 Runner is in his U. S. History class with Mr. Walker, who is filling in for Mr. McIntyre. (This novel takes place during the Vietnam Conflict.)
On this day, Mr. Walker does not follow his usual procedure; instead, he addresses the class that needs no "settling down" this morning:
"It looks like we better do some thinking about it."
While others seem to understand his remark, the detached Bullet is uncomprehending. But, as he listens to the others, Bullet gathers that a black student entered the student lounge to get out of the rain, and was then attacked by white boys when he came out to the parking lot. The class is divided in opinions and reactions. Mr. Walker turns to the chalkboard and poetic lines, one at a time, in order to get the students to think, rather than pass a cursory judgment upon either side. Finally, he writes the title and the author of this poem:
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
Mr. Walker uses this poem as an example of thinking, rather than judging, as the students have been doing about the recent incident. He hopes that the students will reflect later on this poem. At the end of class, Mr. Walker asks Bullet (Mr. Tillerman, Walker calls him) to stay for a moment. Walker tries to engage Bullet, but he is uncooperative; in fact, he suppresses a sarcastic laugh. Once outside, he thinks,
The guy was a jerk, a smart jerk, but still--not smart, educated. Trying to get people to think... a few years of teaching would show him what was what.
The next day in the lunchroom, Bullet sits with the "wimps" because they merely say "hello" and move over for him. As he eats, Bullet notices that some of the white boys are missing, and he hears a wimp say that he will stay home a couple of days; there is much tension in the air. As Tamer, the boy who was beaten for going in the student lounge, gets up, he is tripped and his food and drink spill onto him. Momentarily it is quiet; then, with a growling sound the black boys stand, and the white boys do the same. Bullet catches a flash of silver, and knowing how these "vocational" boys fight, he realizes that someone has pulled a knife. Swiftly, he tackles the owner of the knife and forces it from the boy's hand. Bullet pulls the boy up, twisting his arm behind his back; suddenly, he notices someone reaching for the knife, but he steps on the hand and covers the knife with his shoe. "Not in here," he says threateningly.
Tamer tells his friends to sit down, and Bullet holds his man, glaring at him until anger and fear leave the other's face. As Bullet leaves the cafeteria he hears low voices, "Thanks, man." Uncharacteristically, Bullet has become involved.