Hunters in the Field

Hunters in the Field

A Story by Thomas A. Morgan

 

Pine trees and birches edge the wide pasture that slopes eastward from the road toward the mountain ranges we’re familiar with from maps.  Monantuck Mountain, which is 20 miles away, surges almost a mile above the valley and surrounding villages.  Unlike the other mountains around it, it meets the sky at a point rather than a cresting dome; all the other mountains in the county, including the one we’re on right now, are dulled from glaciers they say ripped through here thousands of years ago.  We’re 2000 feet above sea level on an unremarkable rise that, if you were standing on Monantuck’s top right now, you wouldn’t recognize it since there are a lot of alpine meadows and vacant mountain tops for miles and miles.

            Rex and I came up here tracking a deer that Mr. Loller said he’d seen in the afternoons.  Loller said it was a ten-pointer, and Rex’s eyes lit up.  He had just got through a one-week hunting trip up in Maine where he bagged a huge bull moose.  He pulled up at my apartment on Garland Street in Pillsbury at about 11 o’clock last Wednesday night.

            “Hey, Perry!  Come on down here!”

            I joined him out on the street with a six pack.  He was still wearing his bright blue flannel shirt and jeans that were caked with moose blood.  His hands seemed large and protruded from the tight cuffs fleshy and thick.  We smoked a couple of cigs and he told me all about the kill.

            “On a ridge, right?  And I’m still ‘cause I hear something coming up the hillside.”  He glanced around.  “Now, it was a logging road, bright golden leaves everywhere.  Colder than a witch’s tit, okay?  And I’m thinking, ‘Is this a friggin’ bear here?’  So I push myself up against the embankment.  I’m wearing my camo field jacket.

            “Okay.  Suddenly it’s dead quiet.  Nothing, only a slight breeze.  I look up—and I’m downwind, so he don’t smell me.  Well, he comes over that ridge, and the first thing I saw was that rack.  It was huge.”  He took a breath and glanced at the beast in the back of the truck.  I looked around: there were more of us.

            “Now,” Rex continued, “he’s stopped on the ridge, all catching his breath.  He don’t see me.  I got no choice now.  He’s gonna continue, or he’s going down.  I pulled—Bam!  He was quartered right there.  Man, that buck shot echoed through the valley like you don’t know.”

            Everyone smiled.  Rex bagged a bull moose up in Maine.

            “Where is it?” Billy Gibbs asked.

            Rex turned quickly toward him.  “Back at the house, hanging in the old man’s garage.”

            Billy nodded as though that actually meant something to him.  We all hung out drinking beer for a while longer and talked of hunting glories and defeats and how much meat a moose carries.  Rex glowed warmly and didn’t say much.  His large hand gripped his beer, and he smiled and laughed at the tall tales.

            Then last night, when he called me up about Loller’s ten-pointer, I got out my Winchester and told him I’d meet him at the break in the wall at the foot of the pasture.  He agreed and said that he couldn’t wait to hunt again with me.

            The day started dark and cold.  I had made extra coffee for the Thermos and packed some sandwiches, thinking it might be a long day in the woods.  On the ride to the pasture I saw a late formation of Canadian geese honking in the smoky stillness of the hunter sky.  I stuck my head out the window to watch them course toward the low southward hills, then the V dropped behind the treeline.

            Rex was leaning against the wheel well when I pulled up.  He was clutching his shotgun.  He hailed me with a bright grin and leaned the gun against the truck bed.

            “Can you believe this morning?” he said.  “It’s beautiful!  Did you see them geese?  S**t, I coulda taken out the captain, and you would’ve seen the whole squadron take a dive.  We woulda been eating geese for three months!”

            “We could’ve sold them for ten bucks each,” I said, “then maybe you could buy yourself a new gun.”

            Rex hunted with an old .306 that had been his father’s.  It was a pretty hunting gun, but old.  He said it always brought him luck.  He called it Lady.

            He laughed and pumped my hand and said he was glad I made it.  We clipped our hunting licenses to our field jackets and entered the broad pasture.

            The pines and birches were in a row at the edge of the half-mile wide run.  The closest house was two miles off; Loller hays this thing twice a year, and the last I heard there was going to be a trailer park thrown together near the north side slope.

            Rex and I didn’t talk much after starting into the field.  He seemed a bit skittish, less fluid.  He shouldered his gun and loped through the tall, blond grass, eyes fixed ahead.  I walked beside him a step or two back.

            At the crest of the meadow, which starts down hill into a deep forest, set apart from the pines, the half dozen birches must’ve been spared from when they started clearing this hill five years ago.  There was talk (before the trailer park idea) of making it into some kind of ski hill but it’s really not that big, although it is steep.  Dirt bike kids call it “Suicide Slope” because it’s hard to get up with a motorcycle.

            When we reached the edge of the slope, Rex said, “Let’s take a birch to our selves.  That way ol’ ten-point won’t see us.”

            He leaned his rifle against the tree and started to shimmy up the trunk to the lowest branch.  I handed the rifles up to him and climbed the other side.

            Birches are tricky because they’re flexible.  They’re always the ones that snap during ice storms.  But this one was pretty thick so I didn’t see the thing splintering under our weight.  From up here, about twelve feet from the grassy ground, we could see most of the river valley and the surrounding mountains with their winter-golden meadows.  Patches of snow from a brisk squall that blew through here a few days earlier lay in shaded borders where the forest met the open land.  Among the dark conifers were milky-white birches, their golden, autumn leaves still radiant this late in the season.

            Rex handed me my rifle.  “You watch from that side there.  It’s a clear shot there toward the woods.”  He turned the other way and stared toward the far-off hills and their ghostly, vacant alpine meadows.

            After an hour it was almost 10:30.  No ten-point, just a gaggle of turkeys and few rabbits.  It was getting colder but the breeze was very slight.  The light was flat beneath the low clouds.  We didn’t say much to each other until Rex said in a low voice,   “Y’know, that was a good time up in Maine.”

            “Yeah?”

            “Good hunting up in them dark woods.”

            “Wish I could have been there,” I told him.  “Had to work.”

            “Yeah.  Some land, all right.”  He took a pinch of Red Man and handed the pack to me.   Stuffing the wad into his mouth, he said,  “Them light leaves of the birches up there, and the pines.  Thick and deep.  It was all dark and light.  Came across a clearing, a wooded hilltop.  Looking up could see the blue sky, but all around was the bright, golden leaves and dark pine.  That was before the moose kill, because out there in the sun I found the logging road.”  I could hear him spit, then:  “Yeah, she was a beauty.”

            I folded the tobacco bag at the crease and gave it back.  “Who?”

            “Huh?”

            “Who was a beauty?”  I whispered.

            “Aw, just this girl I met.  She looked a lot like Dana.”

            I didn’t say anything.

            Dana was a girl Rex had met at the tech school in Nashua.  Her old man was a truck driver and was away most of the time.  Before he graduated Rex asked her to come back to Pillsbury with him.  She did, and for a while the three of us rented a place on Gilbo Avenue. 

            “She was a beauty,” Rex said.  “You know, those blond clumps of hair and dark red lips.  I coulda sworn it was her but when I got close—this was in a bar—I saw that it wasn’t.  Her boyfriend gave some lip and I had to lay him out.”

            “Did you?”

            “Yeah,” Rex said, “but I told him out right to watch it.  He just didn’t listen.”

            “What about girl?”

            Rex stared off towards Monantuck Mountain in the distance.  The setting sun ignited it a brilliant reddish purple.  Toward the west, the sun’s honey-light was about ready to drop behind the cool, shady mountains.

            “She’s dead,” Rex murmured.

            I could hear his breath, feel his motionless body against the tree.  His hands were gripping the stock of that rifle hard.

            “What the hell’re you talking about?” I hissed.

            “The girl I met in the bar,” he sighed, “is covered in birch leaves a half mile from where I killed the moose.  She started to run and I shot her—but not with this gun.  With another.”  He paused for a moment.  “I think it’s because the moose was way down in the ravine that he didn’t hear the gun blast.”

            I turned around, grabbing the branch over my head.  “Tell me straight, Rex.  What’re you saying here?”

            “She looked like Dana,” he said.  “And acted like her.  In fact I think it could have been her.  I don’t know.”

            His voice was steady.  He wasn’t moving at all.  The sun passed behind some evening clouds, darkening the hushed forest that surrounded the field.  And Rex wasn’t moving at all, just sitting there still as can be.

            I reached over and touched his arm.  “Hey man.  Let’s call it an afternoon.”

            “What about Loller’s ten-point—?”

            “Screw the ten-point,” I said, hanging my rifle on the broken branch of a lower limb.  “This is bullshit.  Let’s get out of here.”

            I started down the tree and Rex glared at me, his rifle gripped in his large hands.  “You know how she was.  How she acted.”

            I jumped to the ground and quickly reached for my rifle.

            “You remember, right?”

            “That was a long time ago, Rex.”

            “A few years.”

            “Dana was younger than us.”

            “I know that.”  He smiled, spitting a plug of the amber tobacco to the ground.  “You think I don’t remember, do you?”

            “Don’t start that,” I said.

            “Just like now, right?  Sun setting.”  He looked across the domed hills towards the clearing a few miles away.

            “Rex, come on—”

            “No, wait.”  He pointed, stretching his long arm.  “There it is.”

            There was this field a few miles away up past Loller’s towards the Lily Pond.  We’d go up there riding and Dana usually rode with Rex.  I can remember how drawn she was to the place; she loved it, even though she said we went too fast.  A few weeks later she’d left, and Rex went looking for her, gripping a new 30-odd-6.  He said he was going to find her.

            Well, he did.  She was in the field with this guy from a few streets over who used to work in the Honda shop on Mechanic Street.  Dana suddenly was a motorcycle enthusiast and I should have known but at the time I was busy with my own life.

            Story goes Rex followed them out there.  And it’s sketchy, but what happened was he, the motorcycle guy, was drinking and started shoving Dana around.  Rex pitched the rifle after he missed a few times, which was funny because he’s a crack shot.  He went after the guy with a buck knife.

            Rex says the motorcycle guy’s buried in the corner of the field, deep like six feet.  He dug all night, and made Dana swear she’d never tell anyone.  A few days later she moved out.  And I never saw her again.

            I don’t know if I believe Rex all the time; he’s a hunter, full of stories.  And there was nothing in the news about the motorcycle guy gone missing.  Rex told it like he usually did, and you either believed him or you didn’t but you never call a hunter on a story. 

            “I feel better, you know,” Rex said.  “Getting that off my chest.”

            “I’m glad,” I said turning.  “I’ll see you around.”

            “Wait.”  He jumped down and leaned his rifle against the tree.  He placed his arm on my shoulder.  “You know it’s all bullshit, right?  All that Dana stuff?”

            I nodded.

            “She went back to Nashua, right?”

            “That’s right,” I said.

            “And I bagged a big one up in Maine.”

            “You always do.”

            He smiled.  “I want to get this ten-point.  Hang with me.  You can stay down there, but keep it low and quiet.”

            Rex climbed back up into the birch and winked as I handed up his rifle.  I looked up to see him checking the sites.  He looked down to me and smiled then crossed his arms, the rifle resting close to his abdomen.

            “I hope it’s a big ten-point, come bounding out of those woods,” he said at length.  “A clean shot from up here.  I know where it’ll come from.”  He pointed:  “Not there, but there.  Straight up, because that’s the way they run from guns and scents, right?”

            We waited in silence, and just before the sun was about to go down, a huge ten-point buck moseyed up through the thicket towards the tall grass of the field.  It didn’t see us because we were still; it didn’t even smell us because there was no wind.  There was nothing but the rush of blood pounding in my ears.  The deer moved so close to the tree.  He was graceful like a wise old buck, like a survivor.

            The buck hung its head to graze peacefully.

            I very slowly looked up to see Rex aiming his rifle, his face focused and indifferent.  The deer was maybe 20 feet away.  Rex took a breath and the deer suddenly looked up—

            Rex’s Winchester exploded, tearing a bullet through the buck’s neck.

            The deer took a few fleeing steps before it tumbled and fell where it flailed wildly, kicking clumps of cold meadow into the air.  The thrashing subsided, like a clock winding out, then the ten-point exhaled, steam rising from its mouth.

            I breathed and looked up as Rex jumped down from the tree.  He let out a loud cry and slapped my back.

            “Did you feel that?”  A smile cut across his face.  “Did you see the way it fell?”  He started toward the carcass and turning, said, “That’s almost what it’s like.  Almost.  So quiet before and after.”

            Rex set his rifle down on the ground next to the deer.  He placed his hands on its massive rib cage.  “Still warm.  I love that.  Come here and feel.”

            I stood there staring at Rex.  He killed the deer, as we’ve all had to at one time or other.  When he pulled out his large buck knife, I knew it was a matter of survival; mountains and alpine meadows only wait to great the sun above, but the rest of us have to run toward it to feel its warmth.  For Rex, it wasn’t the steaming carcass or cold dry ground upon which it lay; he didn’t care about the deer anymore than the next hunter.  The thrill is in the telling.

            “Give me a hand here,” Rex said, thrusting his large knife into the swollen abdomen.

            We cleaned the ten-point then dragged it back to the road.

            After loading the carcass into the back of Rex’s truck, we leaned against the wheel well and smoked a few filterless cigarettes.  It was a pretty sunset, with tall cold-weather clouds above the hilly horizon.

            Rex cupped his burning cigarette in his blood-caked hand.  He turned and said, “It only matters if you’re on the other end of the steel, right?  I mean, if it’s going to happen to you, y’know?”

            I nodded.  “That sounds about right.”

            Rex spat shredded tobacco from the lip-end of the cigarette, smiled and slipped into his truck.

            “Hey, did you really kill a girl up there?” I said.

            Rex smiled and winked.  “You’re gonna have to go up there and find out, now won’t you?” 

            “Tell me,” I said.

            He dropped his truck into drive.  “I’ll see you around.”

            The taillights disappeared into the darkness.  When the pickup dropped behind the hill it was quiet again by the field.

© 2008 Thomas A. Morgan


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Added on April 24, 2008

Author

Thomas A. Morgan
Thomas A. Morgan

L.A., CA



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Working on an epic poem called "California Variations". It'll be divided into at least six parts and will be totally free form. I'm pretty excited about it. But the writing--that's where I find mys.. more..

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