The irony of it all was that Walter Barlow almost didn’t get up that morning. He’d worked late the previous evening and, according to yesterday’s weatherman, this day was supposed to be cold and snowy with close to a foot of accumulation. The bed wrapped him in its seductive warmth while the 4 a.m. alarm sounded its annoyance. Walter resisted the temptation to hit the snooze button. Instead, he put all that comfort aside, physically shoved the blankets aside, sat up and shut up the bleeping clock. It was his day off-- time to go hunting. Beside him, Gladys stirred momentarily and snuggled under the blanket. For a moment he thought about doing the same.
No. You’ve got a reputation to uphold--the guy who always gets a good buck. Time’s running out. It’s getting late in the season. This might be your last chance.
His arms pebbled with gooseflesh. Turning down the thermostat at bedtime saved dollars, but it made getting out of a warm bed difficult. He started most cold mornings by building a fire in the woodstove. Today he wasn’t going to be home long enough to enjoy one. Let her do it for a change. Long johns and wool socks warded off the chill as he brewed coffee.
Breakfast -- cold cereal--granola softened with milk and sweetened with a drizzle of maple syrup, fresh hot coffee and orange juice. That warm bed beckoned still. He filled a thermos and had a second cup while he put on his hunting clothes and plucked the deer rifle from the gun safe.
Walter left the house downstairs through the shop behind the first floor storefront gallery. The artwork he’d matted and framed the previous evening was splayed across the workbench. He’d straighten things up this evening, do a couple more framings after he’d used up all the daylight for hunting.
Fine snow sifted from the predawn sky as he started the pickup and let it warm. The snow wasn’t sticking to the truck--yet. He ran over his mental checklist to make sure he had everything. Wallet with his license – check; the right caliber ammo in his pocket – check; sharpened belt knife and drag rope – check; hunter orange hat for safety – check; watch on his wrist – check; Remington 700 bolt action rifle -- check.
And yes, he had his cell phone. God forbid Gladys should discover he’d left it at home. He despised the stupid thing. The only time he ever actually turned the phone on while hunting was to make a call, which was a rarity. He didn’t want an incoming call, a ringing or vibrating phone to give him away at the wrong moment, didn’t need or want to talk to anyone when he was hunting. The phone was Gladys’s idea and his attempt to placate her. He wasn’t a cell phone guy, probably one of the few people left in the world still using a flip phone. Just stuff it in a pocket. No worries about cracked screens or butt dialing.
The Tracfone’s carryover minutes kept piling up as he renewed the service each January. Sometimes the damn thing went dead because he forgot to charge it. And then he’d discover he was carrying a useless device. Not that he cared. He didn’t really need a cell phone. It was all about his age. When he hit fifty Gladys started worrying he’d hurt himself out in the woods somewhere, hunting by himself, the way he did.
“You’re out there all alone,” she’d said. Like hunting should be some kind of team sport. “What if you hurt yourself and need help?”
It was a half-hour drive on back roads to his hunting spot for the day. This was the place where he’d bagged a heavyweight eight-pointer last year. He’d kept it a secret in spite of questions from his hunting friends as to where he’d found that big deer. Amazing how everyone asks: “where’d you get him?” Like I’m going to do their work for them. Let them find their own damn hunting spots.
Everyone would have an eye out for where he parked his truck, hoping to find his ‘secret spot.’ He put the Toyota Tacoma in four-wheel drive and turned off onto a faint woods road at the base of the mountain, the light from his headlamps bouncing through the trees. A couple hundred yards into a thick stand of young pines he parked, leaving the truck safely hidden, stashed in an evergreen thicket. Concealing the truck wasn’t hard today, but with the snow to show his tire tracks it would be difficult tomorrow. Maybe he could get Gladys to drop him off, use the damn cell phone to call her and have her pick him up when he was done for the day.
Snowflakes tickled his face and his breath blew a frosty fog as he loaded the rifle and put the orange hat on. New Hampshire didn’t mandate wearing hunter orange, but strongly suggested it. This was the ‘bucks only’ portion of the deer season, which required hunters to look for antlers before shooting, so a lot of hunters didn’t bother with orange, but, hey, you never know. Better safe than sorry.
Walter zipped up his camouflage coat, slipped on his gloves and set out uphill -- finally on the hunt now, just at legal shooting time, the dim light of a half-hour before sunrise. He moved slowly, eyes alert for any movement that wasn’t falling snow. The walking was quiet, not like the previous week when the frozen dead leaves on the ground made it sound like he was stomping through giant corn flakes. One good thing about a snow cover was the silent stealth it provided. Also, the deer and any movements they made stood out against the white background instead of blending in with the overall dull gray and brown of the bare woods. Walter cradled the rifle in his arms, careful not to tilt it vertically and let snow cover the glass eye of the telescopic sight.
He stopped often to scan the woods for any movement, any sign of deer, as he climbed uphill, following a stone wall through an ancient sugarbush.
Strange that the sweetest tree in the forest is also the ugliest.
This grove of sugar maples contained many old trees, elderly, gnarly, warty trees that had lost limbs and now offered hollow spaces for critters like owls, possums, raccoons, squirrels and porcupines to make their homes; even the younger trees that grew straight and tall looked forlorn, stark without their foliage here on the cusp of winter. Ropes of green plastic tubing crisscrossed the slope, supported by high tensile wires strung tree-to-tree. In a couple months that tubing would guide the sweet spring sap downhill toward collection barrels. The old tin buckets and lids of the past were scattered about on the ground, half-buried in leaf litter, discarded and forgotten, slowly rusting into the duff, starting to disappear under a snow cover now.
Beyond the sugarbush, over one last tumbledown stone wall, was a big piece of woods. He suspected it held at least one trophy size buck. He might just walk around in it all day. He could do it easily, was in good shape for being in his fifties, one of the benefits of hunting as a form of exercise.
He stopped often, scanning for movement, the flicker of a tail or ear, a moment of slow motion shifting, always searching for the horizontal line that might be a deer’s back. He was feeling it now, the inner joy that always came when he assumed the role of apex predator.
Some people called hunting a sport and Walter supposed that was probably correct. More and more there was a general prejudice against trophy hunting, but that was part of what it was all about for him. He wanted to pit himself against the biggest, smartest animals as a test of his hunting talent. Some of Gladys’s friends gave their blessing to his pastime, knowing his family consumed the animals. They felt hunting was justified if it put food on the table. Strange, but none of them seemed to feel or understand what he felt, what he knew, that the hunt was more than just coming to terms with his own killing as a meat eater, that it was a spiritual quest, a way to stay in touch with his inner self and the primitive ancestry that made him what he was, made humans what they are.
He was getting into it now, enjoying the solitude. Since the art business relied a lot on weekend trade, his days off were Monday and Tuesday. That worked well for hunting. It felt like the woods were his alone, everyone else at work. The snow was starting to pile up, more than an inch on the ground now.
And look at this--a track. They don’t get any fresher than this.
The tracks led downhill through bare hardwoods into a bowl-shaped swale of hemlocks. Walter froze in place at the sight of the tracks, still sharply distinct in the snow they were so fresh. He squinted to follow their disturbance down into the evergreen forested basin. Studying this shadowy hollow, he thought that if this deer wasn’t already bedded down for the day, he might catch sight of it moving. Deer like to travel the edges of different habitat. If it was still moving, it would likely do so just inside the cover of the evergreens, mostly hidden, looking out at the open hardwoods. He examined the area, first with the naked eye, then through the rifle scope, looking for a horizontal line, a patch of brown, maybe an ivory antler tip, a black nose, any piece of deer.
He found nothing -- knelt and studied the track itself. It was a big one, cloven prints splayed from the weight of the animal--a toe-dragger--a buck, for sure!
The wind was favorable, into his face, snowflakes catching on his eyebrows and lashes. Walter decided to follow the track. Not directly, though. He circled back to the edge of that sugarbush, descended into the bowl and sneaked along through the hardwoods, tight to those hemlocks, hoping to catch sight of the buck bedded down for the day, chewing his cud. These smart old bucks became very nocturnal when there were hunters in the woods. He could visualize it in his mind. The buck would bed with its back to the wind, watching its back trail.
With luck, he might catch it unaware. If he didn’t, he was bound to come upon the tracks again. Then he’d reassess the situation.
Silently he crept alongside the stream of hemlocks, feet feeling the way, eyes searching ahead, squatting from time to time to look under the boughs of those evergreens. The deer might bed beneath them, in a spot sheltered from the falling snow. If he could catch it by surprise his hunt would be done.
His hopes of seeing the buck before it sensed him exploded as the deer burst out from beneath a hemlock ahead and bounded away through the swale, weaving through the trees, its big white tail up and waving goodbye. It was close enough that he could see the rack of antlers, but fast enough that he couldn’t quite get it steady in the scope for a shot that felt good, felt right enough to squeeze the trigger. The deer disappeared. Walter lowered the rifle that had found his shoulder at the first sight of the buck.
He trembled. Not from the cold, but from sheer excitement. What a set of antlers! They were magnificent, huge. Walter was hooked. He had to follow this animal. If he could somehow outwit it, this might be his biggest deer ever. He’d be the envy of every other hunter. He set out again, lower on the slope now, in the cover of the hemlocks, hoping to stay hidden long enough to get another look at the big deer.
He carried the rifle at the ready, positioned across his chest, butt close to his left shoulder. He had the safety off, the trigger finger of his left hand touching the outside edge of the trigger guard. From this position he could shoulder, aim and fire the rifle in an instant if he saw the deer again. There was enough snow on the ground now that it totally silenced his footfalls as he slipped through the hemlocks, scanning the area ahead.
Jumped deer almost always stop after a short run and then stand to watch their back trail, looking to see if they’re being followed. Walter hoped this one would do just that. Right now they were searching for one another, predator and prey.
And there it was again, whirling and running, kicking up snow. The rifle swung to his shoulder. The scope filled with deer hair. The recoil kicked him as the sound of the shot ruined the silence and echoed away. In the magnification of the scope Walter saw the running deer flinch and then it was gone, disappearing into the evergreens again. He’d hit it. He was sure. Was it a killing shot? He worked the bolt to eject the empty round and chamber another.
He followed, ready to shoot again if necessary. A splatter of blood and hair on the snow, confirmed his impression of a hit. He was on a blood trail now, the dribbles of red already starting to disappear, snow on the ground absorbed the blood, falling snow tried to cover it. Normally he would wait a bit, give the animal a chance to bleed out. He couldn’t afford to wait for this deer to bed up and die, though. He had to find and finish it now, before the snow filled in the tracks, covered the blood.
He peered through falling veils of snow and saw movement in the hemlocks far ahead, a hundred yards or so, the horizontal line of a deer rising. There it was. The rifle came to his shoulder again, kicked and barked. The deer dropped. Walter heard the shot echo away. He sighed with relief. Got him! He worked the bolt again, chambering a new round just in case. But this time he put the safety back on.
Stealth no longer necessary, Walter marched forward, anticipating the sight of those magnificent antlers. Halfway there he sensed movement, turned to look to his left, and was shocked to see the big buck foundering in the snow, trying to rise again for another attempt at escape. He brought the rifle up and shot again, saw the deer sag into the snow, roll on its side and expire, blowing one last steamy red mist of breath from the hole in its ribcage. The sound of the shot echoed again … and again.
What the fuck?
The exhilaration of the kill evaporated. Something was badly out of whack. He wasn’t halfway to the tree he’d marked in his mind as where he’d dropped the deer with his second shot. If this was the big buck he’d been dogging, then what deer had he shot up ahead under that hemlock tree?
The buck was lying on its side, the antlers rose a good two feet. What a massive spread! He took a moment to count tines--twelve, by God--before turning to confront the possibility he’d somehow managed to shoot two deer. What if it’s a doe?
If he had shot a second buck he could always call his buddy, Alan. Alan would be happy to tag the extra deer and claim it as his own. It wasn’t exactly legal, but in Walter’s mind it was better than letting a deer go to waste. But a doe wasn’t legal game any way you looked at it. A doe would be big trouble. He’d have to become a poacher, or turn himself in, own up to his mistake and lose his license for a year. Maybe just leave the deer and let it rot or become bear or coyote fodder.
But when he reached that tree and saw what he’d done … it was as if his heart stopped. His lungs seized, leaving him unable to breathe … no … no … no … he shook his head in denial as his legs went weak, dropping him to his knees. He squeezed his eyes shut but couldn’t escape the sight of it. Life as he had known it was over now. He’d thrown it away in a moment of carelessness. It wasn’t another deer he’d shot. It was a man, another hunter. Momentarily blinded by bloodlust he’d rushed to make his kill and taken a human life. His heartbeat thundered in his ears. How could he have done this? He knew better. Reaching out from the past the voice of his dead father admonished him: always be sure of your target, because you can’t call that bullet back.
He replayed the shot in his mind. Saw the figure rising like a deer getting up from its bed. The hunter had been sitting on a short stool in under the boughs of the big hemlock. He must have seen the buck and started to stand, leaning forward trying to get a good look at the deer, maybe taking aim, when Walter saw what he thought was the horizontal line of a deer’s back and shot. The man’s rifle was caught upright, butt on the ground, barrel snagged in the branches.
The hunter he’d shot lay there staring at him with open, unseeing eyes, wearing a rictus grin of surprise, shock and pain. Walter could see the shot had gone right through him, spraying blood for more than a yard beyond. He swallowed hard, fighting nausea. The supine hunter was dressed entirely in camouflage, wasn’t wearing hunter orange. That was no excuse, though. Christ, this was bucks-only season. At a minimum a person needed to see antlers before shooting. This was a man … nothing at all like a deer.
His breathing returned with a gasp. Even though he had little doubt the man was dead, Walter still pulled a glove off and reached out to put two fingers on the dead man’s still warm neck, hoping to feel a carotid pulse that simply wasn’t there. He studied the man for a moment. The dead hunter appeared to be about his age. He looked familiar, but Walter couldn’t place him. Where the hell did he come from? Walter stood on shaky legs and looked around. He searched the open hardwood slope above, peering through falling curtains of snow. He told himself he was looking for help, but in a dark corner of his mind he knew that maybe what he was doing was searching for any witnesses.
Walter dug his cell phone from the pocket of his coat, flipped it open and turned it on. He needed to call for help.
The phone lit up and played its electronic jingle. It displayed his remaining minutes, now up to 1942, and the need to renew his service on January 13. By the time it booted up the screen that would let him make a call, he’d had a chance to think.
What was a call to 911 going to accomplish? It was obvious to Walter no one was going to revive this man. He folded the phone and slid it back into his coat pocket.
He may not be able to save this man, but maybe … maybe he could save himself.