BEFORE THE SUN is up, John Moon has showered, drunk two cups of coffee, and changed into his blue jeans, sweatshirt, and Timberland hiking boots. He has eaten two pieces of toast, a bowl of cereal, and put out food for his wandering dog. Before leaving the trailer by the front door, he gets his 12-gauge shotgun and a handful of slugs from the gun cabinet off the kitchen.
The grass is damp with dew and the early-June air is heavy and already warm, promising it will be hot within a few hours. A mourning dove is cooing in a tree somewhere to John’s left. Down the road, past the treeline, he hears the gentle clanging of cowbells and the lowing of Cecil Nobie’s herd on its way from the pasture to Nobie’s barn to be milked. The sun is just starting to peek out over the crest of the mountain directly east of the one John lives two-thirds to the top of.
Gazing down at the converging roads winding like miles of dusty brown carpet through the hollow below him, John sees a set of headlights descending the right fork, piercing the three-quarters dark. He thinks this strange since only he and the Nobies live on the right fork and unless there’d been an accident at Nobies’, in which case someone from there would likely have called John, none of them would be driving into town at four-thirty in the morning. John wonders if the vehicle might belong to a conservation officer, then decides he’s being paranoid. No green cap is going to get up before dawn to search for would-be poachers. Thinking two teenagers must have fallen asleep parking the night before, John shrugs, then starts walking up the mountain.
He hikes five hundred yards or so up to the road’s end, then turns right and heads on a narrow path into a forest of pine trees on the state preserve. There’s no wind and it’s so quiet in the forest that, even on a soft bed of pine needles, John’s footsteps echo in his ears as if he is treading on snow. Every few steps, he stops, listens for several seconds, then, not hearing anything, moves on. He is looking for a ten-point buck he has seen three times in the last week, most recently on the previous afternoon from his back porch, where, through binoculars, he watched it graze for several minutes at the edge of the preserve before it loped into the pines. John has figured the buck has a bed somewhere in the pines. He has balanced in his mind the value of a hundred fifty pounds of dressed venison versus the thousand dollars in fines and possible two months’ jail time it would cost him in the unlikely event that he is caught shooting the deer out of season on state land, and has decided the risk is worth it.
As he approaches the far edge of the pines after which the forest turns denser with deciduous trees and brush, in the canopy of pine boughs a crow starts cawing. Several others join in. His senses suddenly heightened, John cocks the shotgun. The sharp click of the engaging mechanism increases the crows’ agitation. A squirrel or a chipmunk jumps from one tree to another above him. A pinecone drops near his feet. Several smaller birds—sparrows or swallows—take flight, slicing through the still air, before landing again.
Sensing the presence of a large animal besides himself, John cradles the gun in two hands and starts slowly walking toward the pines’ edge, where the half-risen sun gives the trees’ upper branches a bejeweled look. A branch suddenly snaps to his left. Then a sound like rushing water. In one motion, John wheels toward the noise, puts the butt of the shotgun to his shoulder, flicks off the safety, and aims at a bouncing tree limb. Just beyond the limb, he sees a tan-and-white flank disappearing into a patch of thistles and, above the thistles, a large rack of antlers. John fires. He hears the buck snort, sees the antlers tilt to the right, below the level of the bushes, then rise up again, and, as he recocks the shotgun, the deer shoot out the other side of the thistles, beyond his range, and disappear.
John pushes the safety in and runs toward the thistles, but before he gets there, he stops next to a large oblong-shaped indentation in the pine needles. He kneels down, touches with his fingers the center of the spot, feels the warmth left from the sleeping deer, even sees some of its coat lying there. He feels his heart loudly thumping in his chest, air rushing in and out of his nostrils, beads of sweat rolling down from his armpits. And he can smell the buck, the adrenal surge it’s released, like John’s own, pungent and harsh.
Holding the gun in one hand, he trots a half circle to the left of the thistles, doubles back on the far side, stops near where the deer came out, squats down, and sees several fresh drops of blood on the ground. So, it was wounded—probably in the right rear flank, given the way it had pitched forward—and is heading deeper into the woods, through thick underbrush and rough terrain, hoping to tire its pursuer out.
John had hoped to down the deer with one bullet, then drag it quickly back to the trailer, afraid that a gunshot, even at this early hour and distance from town, might be overheard by someone—maybe a hiker in the preserve—and rouse suspicion. Now that he has wounded the animal, though, he has no choice but to pursue it. He can’t just let it limp off somewhere and die slowly.
He follows the trail of blood down the east side of the mountain on a zigzagging course through a stand of white oak undergrown with witch hazel, sumac, mountain laurel, and nettles that tear at his pants and shirt and painfully rake his face, until, after several hundred yards, the brush thins out and is interlarded with moss-slick rocks and vine-covered boulders. Here the buck has headed north, along a narrow ridge parallel to one fork of the hollow road a half mile below. For a few seconds, John hears in front of him the sound of the deer’s hooves clattering noisily against the rocks. It’s bleeding thin, sporadic drops, and John fears it might be a while before it gives out.
Winded, he stops for a short blow, looking east where the sun, now completely up, casts a gold trail from the far mountain to the near. A hawk circles over Cecil Nobie’s red house and barn, which look doll-sized from this height. The day vows to be perfect, if a little hot, but John doesn’t mind hot. He likes to sweat. Taking a deep breath of the warming air, he starts again after the deer.
After nearly an hour more of bushwhacking, he comes to a dry creek bed, crosses it, then follows the deer where it has veered right, up the hill again, toward the west boundary of the preserve. A steep half-hour climb through raspberry bushes and over clear-cut maples and white pine that have been sawed and left by the state brings him finally onto the back side of Hollenbachs’ mountain, where Old Man Hollenbach a dozen years before grazed heifers and sheep. Now the old pasture’s a maze of crab-apple trees, chokecherries, Scotch pine, and brambles, but at least the terrain levels out.
Breathing heavily, John stops next to a thorn-apple tree where the deer must have rubbed its wound because the trunk is marred by blood, and from there the trail gets redder. From the way the grass and bushes are bent above the blood, John guesses the buck is dragging one leg. He thinks it can’t last much longer, and, not for the first time, he worries about how he’s going to lug a two-hundred-pound carcass all those miles back to his house. Maybe he can get Simon Breedlove to help by giving him some of the meat. He worries, too, that the farther he has to cart the deer, the more chance he has of stumbling across someone else.
Wiping his brow, he starts across the pasture. It’s not even nine o’clock and already the temperature feels like it’s gone up twenty degrees. John’s clothes are soaked with sweat and he’s thirsty enough to wring them out and drink it. A hundred yards ahead, at the pasture’s edge, he sees the deep grass swaying back and forth. He guesses it’s the deer, but can’t see it to shoot, then suddenly the buck stumbles out of the grass onto the abandoned dirt road that winds up the northwest side of the mountain to Old Man Hollenbach’s played-out stone quarry. It just stands there, sniffing the air around its knees, looking dazed and ready to cave in. John raises the shotgun to his shoulder but there’s too many trees between him and the deer to get a clear shot off, and besides, he figures by now he can pretty much walk up and put the animal out of its misery. Then the buck lets out a loud snort and, dragging its hindquarters, moves off down the road toward the quarry.
John quietly curses, not because he’s worried about losing the deer—unless it can scale rock walls, there’s only one way in or out of the quarry—but because he’s tired of chasing it and is sorry, too, that the buck has had to endure so much suffering. He hears a dog barking off somewhere and starts to worry again about being caught and wishes it were colder so that he could hide the carcass in the quarry out of sight from buzzards and coyotes and come back for it the next day before sunup. Then he decides maybe he ought to butcher the deer right there in the quarry—behind one of the slag heaps—and bring the meat home in two or three trips. A grouse suddenly breaks cover almost beneath his feet and the frantic beating of its wings nearly gives John a heart attack and he thinks, “Get this the hell over with.”
When he reaches the road five minutes later, the deer is out of sight, but a trail of blood leads directly from there to the quarry, five hundred yards in the distance. The grass on the road looks slightly impacted to John and some of the smaller rocks freshly dislodged. He kneels down and takes a closer look, but can’t tell whether the road has recently been driven on or only disrupted by the hailstorm two days before. “I’m goin’ to go kill that deer,” John tells himself, standing up and starting down the road in a nervous half-jog. “Take what meat I can easy carry, and clear out pronto.”
A flock of blue jays suddenly flies up from the quarry and starts squawking, flat out scaring John until he remembers that right about then the deer, bleeding and snorting, had probably stumbled inside and startled the birds. Still, he can feel his heart pounding in his ears. Slowing to a walk, he raises the gun to his waist. He smells spruce, the trees lining both sides of the road. At the entrance to the quarry, a small canyon with fifty-foot granite walls, he reminds himself that the deer would be crazed enough to charge whatever gets too close, and could, with those antlers, do some damage.
He flicks off the shotgun’s safety, then warily enters the canyon overgrown with briars, pine bushes, and crawling vines, stops just inside, looks around, and sees the same half-a-dozen slag heaps, junked truck chassis, gutted generator, plastic-covered lean-to, that have been there for years, and off to the right, the deep water-filled pit where John, as a boy, caught frogs, and behind it, the circular opening in the wall he had never dared enter, on one side of which stands a rusted shovel and pick.
John looks down for the deer’s blood and at the same time hears to his left a grunt, then branches cracking. He shoulders the gun, wheels toward the sound, spots behind a briar thicket a moving patch of brown-and-white, aims at it, and fires. He figures he’s hit the deer in the head or heart because, without a sound, it drops from sight as if its legs have been severed.
John levers out the spent shell. Dangling the shotgun in one hand, he starts walking toward the thicket, when suddenly a loud snort sounds directly behind him. He spins around and sees charging out from behind a slag heap, straight for him, the injured buck.
John doesn’t even have time to cock or shoulder the gun before the deer is so close he can feel the phlegm flying from its flared nostrils and read the rage in its pain-maddened eyes.
Instinctively hop-stepping to his left, John grabs the rifle barrel with both hands, then swings it upward as hard as he can. With a loud crack, the butt connects with the deer’s jaw a moment before its antlers pierce John’s left shoulder. He goes down and the buck, standing above him, lowers its head as if to gore him, then suddenly lets out a pained bleat, starts to tremble as if it’s been electrically shocked, and drops in a heap next to John.
He rolls to his right, slowly pushes himself with his hands into a squat, then stands. With the effort, the pain in his gored and bleeding shoulder doesn’t increase or radiate. A good sign, thinks John. He extends his arm gradually forward and back, then gingerly loops it in a full circle, heartened that he has full motion in the joint.
At his feet, the deer suddenly twitches, its legs kicking out as if it will rise. Startled, John jumps back. Then the buck lies still. John sees it isn’t going anywhere. His shotgun butt has crushed its jaw, forcing its teeth into a grotesque grin; its rear quarters are a mass of blood, thistle-matted fur, and exposed bone; it’s exhaling as much fluid as oxygen; its eyes are clouded as though it’s already in the afterlife. Looking down at the dying animal, John has the same sad feeling as he did watching his father doing likewise in a hospital bed fourteen years before.
He picks up his shotgun from the grass-and weed-covered gravel, starts to cock it, then, changing his mind, wraps both hands around the barrel, hoists the butt like a post-hole digger above the deer’s head, and brings it forcefully down. The deer’s skull collapses like a rotten vegetable. The buck groans once, for several seconds twitches again, then lies still. Placing the gun on the ground, John thinks it shouldn’t have come to this. The buck should have died in the pines from a single shot.
He reaches up, pulls off his torn sweatshirt, wads it into a ball, then dabs with it at his injured shoulder until enough blood has been removed for him to see a jagged puncture wound, half an inch deep, oozing a slow, steady stream. He unwads the shirt, grips it at both sides of the tear, and rips it in two. He wraps one piece tight around his bicep, just above where he’s bleeding, binding it with a square knot, and the other securely around the wound.
Fighting a sudden urge to turn and run from the quarry, he takes a deep breath and tries to calm the fluttery feeling in his stomach. He picks up the shotgun, wipes its butt on the grass, and closes its breech. He looks down once more at the deer, then over at the briars. Holding the gun ready at his side, he slowly walks the twenty-five yards over to the thicket, stops in front of it, and with the shotgun’s barrel moves the forward branches aside. He tries to peer through the tangled thicket to the far side, but it’s dense as a sponge, and he can’t see anything but more branches and briars. Nor can he hear anything, not even the blue jays, which, oddly, have gone mute. “Whatever’s there,” thinks John, “is bad hurt or dead.”
He remembers the flash of brown-and-white he saw, and the shovel and pick standing—not lying—by the hollowed-out spot in the wall behind him. He remembers reading in a book once about how lives are begun, altered, and wiped out in a second, and something else about people only coming to know themselves through tragedy. “Where did that thought come from?” he wonders. “And why? I’m a good hunter,” he tells himself. “I followed a wounded, crazed deer into a box canyon, heard an animal grunt behind me, saw it move, then shot it.”
He walks rapidly to the right of the patch, ten feet wide at least and almost that tall, and without hesitating rounds the corner. On the far side, on the ground five feet in front of him, he sees the worn bottoms of two sneakered feet, then blue-jean-covered legs, a slim torso adorned by an earth-stained, white T-shirt, and a dirty-blond clump of hair protruding from beneath a floppy brown hat. The body has a circular sweat spot on its lower back and lies facedown behind the brambles, arms thrown out in front of it toward a small denim satchel.
John is hit by a wave of nausea. Instinctively, he flicks on the shotgun’s safety, drops the gun at his feet, runs up to the body, kneels next to it, places one hand on the white neck beneath the hair clump, and feels for a pulse. He doesn’t find one. “Come on,” he says aloud. He reaches his hands beneath the body’s warm, damp stomach, then carefully rolls it over. He sees first, in the left center of the chest, the slug’s gaping entry wound, then a woman with her eyes wide open. “Please, God,” says John. “No.”
He raises his balled fists to the sides of his head, closes his eyes, and prays that when he opens them the dead woman will be transposed into a dead deer, dog, or bear. When he looks again, the body is still human, only now John sees a girl. She is maybe sixteen, with crystal-blue eyes, blossom-shaped clumps of freckles on both cheeks, a small space between her upper incisors where a piece of gum or chewable candy is lodged. The clump of blond hair is a ponytail. John looks up at the sky. It looks just as it did five minutes before. He can’t figure out how that can be.
Copyright 1996 by Matthew F. Jones