“You wander around too much. Can’t sit still,” Jamie said to himself in a voice deeper than his own. “Just post up someplace, boy.” He kicked at whatever brush fell underfoot as he went. Leaves went flying. Sometimes the rotting leaves from last fall hid muskrat burrows, and if he twisted his ankle in one, he wouldn’t be able to carry anything back.
The leather strap of the rifle cut into his shoulder, but it wasn't so bad. Last time, it was just too long of a day, he figured. He had found a doe that time, but he knew to leave her. “If we kill a doe, she can’t make more bucks for us,” Papa said. “Charlie and his boys don’t care. They’ll starve us all keeping at it. I told him, if I catch his boys shoot one more doe, I’ll shoot them.” Ma said it was just talk and he wouldn’t do it, but she didn’t hear Papa say it like he did.
Then he saw it.
At the river’s edge, sharp depressions cut into the mud. The animal’s hooves pushed in so deep, they splayed out. And they were still wet. He put his hand next to one of the larger V-shapes. From the tip of his finger, it came down almost to the knuckle. His eyes widened. It could be a 6-point buck. It wasn’t too small for that. They pointed downstream and he took off.
He moved quickly now, still careful about his footing, tracing the outline of each overturned log, each bend in the river, searching for a white tail, a flag to target. The way the morning light trickled through the canopy, more than one birch tree flashed white and his heart jumped into his throat.
He found more tracks near the mouth of the river. These pressed in the rough dirt around roots of a tree, not clean like the last set. He couldn’t be far.
The cattails rustled to his right, but there was no breeze. He dropped to one knee and fumbled at the bolt of his rifle. He drew it back, forward, and locked it into place. He leveled on the cattails. But the rustling moved away from him, deeper in by the lake. He knelt, rigid, pointing at the brush long after the cattails were still. Eventually, he sighed and lowered his rifle.
He looked up at the tree and found a hand hold. He slung his rifle back over his shoulder and hauled himself up. With a sure seat, he perched there, and looked out over the lake. He leaned back, resting his rifle in his lap — nearby mourning doves cooed. Along with the gurgle of the river, it was like a lullaby. The sun passed in front of him while he sat. He stirred and squinted.
The cattails rattled again, practically at the water line. He leveled the iron sights, but could not see the deer. His arms started to tremble. He couldn’t put the rifle down. It was coming back now, the cattails rattled closer.
He slowed his breathing and fingered the trigger. It was so close, almost clear of the brush. Then it burst through.
He held back the shot. A muskrat trundled out towards the trunk of his tree.
“God dammit!” he yelled, lowering his weapon, and it skittered away. But in the corner of his eye, something else moved. He had been so focused on the rustling that he hadn’t noticed. A deer stood close to fifty yards away at the edge of the brush. It turned its attention to the noise.
It wasn’t a 6-point. It looked almost too tall to be a yearling, but the two stout antlers sprouting from its head proved it. Its big ears flicked forward. It tilted its head back and forth, antlers tottering, as Jamie lined the shot. He had never seen a deer do that before. He couldn’t risk missing the moving head, so he aimed for the shoulders. He breathed out slowly. When the last of it left his lungs, he squeezed the trigger.
The deer took off into the brush.
Jamie stared, transfixed for a moment. Then he ran.
As he got closer to where the deer had stood, he found two cattails waving in the breeze, tottering.
“Oh, no...” He stumbled toward the thrashing noises in the shallow water. “I had to miss. I was shaking.” But he found blood on the leaves.
“Nothing vital.” The noises went back on land, but sounded strange and staggered. “Please…”
He found the deer laid out on the bank, breathing ragged, its back covered in blood. Its hindquarters twisted and kicked the air.
“No, no, no…” He threw himself on the ground.
She was a fine doe with a fat belly.
Her breathing stalled out and he wept there next to her.
“I can’t leave her now. She’s already gone.” He howled.
Between sobs, he field-dressed her as best he could and tied the hauling rope to her legs. He wasn’t used to carrying big game alone and he tripped and fell some on the hike back. She had more meat on her than the last few yearlings that Papa got, but he’d probably be mad about that, too. They’d eat well for a while, at least.
Morgan Tiene is a technical writer for a Fortune 500 company who currently resides in northern New Jersey. He often reflects on his outdoorsy youth while he sits in traffic. Tiene has no previous publications.
The Hunter is a 2016 Fiction War Fall Finalist entry. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @kelsikkema