Erik Christian lives and writes in rural Illinois. He is sincerely grateful to On The Premises for publishing his first work of fiction.
by Erik Christian
The buck was strong and fluid and soundless, walking the field’s edge and stripping lingering soybeans from severed stalks. He nudged a hedgeapple with his muzzle and it bumped towards the woods, into the gap where armored thorny briars became low grass and gnarled hedge trees gave way to limbless sky. The knobby green ball rolled to a stop in the opening and the buck perked up his head. Will held his breath.
“Easy,” Jake whispered. Will’s heart throbbed in his ears. The buck’s ears flicked and turned, and he wondered if the deer heard it, too. The buck had surprised him. Will had frozen his muscles, his lungs, his eyelids and let the deer come so close he could count the points, down to the stubby brow tines. Now the buck tipped his muzzle to the air and steam rose in quick snorts from his nostrils. His wide head dipped and rose and he snorted again, chasing a warning snatched by the wind. But it was gone, and his head swung back to the earth.
“Get set,” Jake said. He was bracing Will for the recoil and the vibrations in his chest resonated through Will’s back. Will rested the barrel against the oak, his left hand supporting the stock, his gloveless right gripping the trigger, waiting for the buck to wander into the shooting lane they’d cleared months before with hatchets and chainsaws in the August heat. The rack appeared and twitched with the movement of the deer’s jaw. Will silently pleaded for two more steps, two tentative hooves on the clumpy farm ground that would return the deer to the earth and allow him to join his place with the men.
The rack disappeared into the brush. “He’s backed up,” Jake whispered in Will’s ear. “You’ll have to be ready. He may only come back for a second and you’ll have to take it when you can get it.” Will nodded. “Make sure it’s there. You’re the only one who’ll know.”
The deer did appear again, but thinner and it was a moment before Will realized he was walking straight away from the stand. The buck wavered slightly to his right, exposing a hint of broadside. “Can you do it?” Jake asked. Will shook his head. His left arm quaked from fatigue and his right hand stung with cold. The buck started to trot, crossing the field and nearing the opposite woods, almost out of range, safe and oblivious. Will held the trembling crosshairs on the buck, his burning arms forged in place by boyhood conviction. The buck reached the opposite edge of the field and Will loosened his grip, felt the blood return to his tingling hands.
Jake let out a whistle, one short, bright, high tweet flitting through the clammy air. The buck turned back to the forest, searching for the source of the noise. His hindquarters tensed and his spine lowered and he pivoted to bolt into the woods. A report erupted from the trees and changed the buck’s pivot into a grotesque hop, a sickly jump as the slug ripped through his hide, shattering his ribs and exploding his heart and shredding his lungs and breaking into jagged pieces that sliced muscle and sinew. He ran three steps before stumbling, like he’d reached some invisible waterway that swept his legs from beneath him and gripped his hooves in the undertow and submerged him, dragged him to where his breath was stolen and his legs were useless and strength was lost. He slumped to the earth, a static mass of brown and white on the crest of the open farmland.
Will was a killer.
His hands shook and his pulse raced in his neck and his mouth was dry and Jake swatted his shoulder. “Great shot! Great shot!” he said. “That was perfect!”
“I didn’t know you were going to do that,” Will said.
“Do what? The whistle?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t ready for it.”
“Really? ‘Cause you sure as hell shot like you were ready!” Will smiled to hear his father swear with him. He gazed at the lump among the bean stalk stubble and felt something unexpected. Not sadness, but not all pride.
“Should we tag him?”
“Not yet. Give him a second. I know he looks done, but you can’t really know from up here. Best to give him time. Your uncle Denny lost a deer like that once. Thought he was dead, so he scrambled down the tree right away and when he got there, the thing hopped up and ran off. Never found him.” Will had trouble imagining his uncle scrambling and thought the story must have been many years and pounds ago. “That deer wasn’t as nice as yours, though,” Jake said.
“Were you there?”
“Then how do you know?” Will persisted.
Jake frowned slightly, ran his hand over his mouth. “Well, your uncle said his buck was eight points. We know that your buck in the field’s eight points. Since your uncle’s tales tend to grow as the evidence shrinks, and since no one ever saw that deer, and since we can see your deer right now, well, I’m inclined to believe your deer’s bigger.”
Clouds moved over the sun and the wind rose and fluttered a lonely leaf in the branch next to Jake. He braced against the chill, but Will, still warm with excitement, didn’t notice the cold. The boy peered around the trunk to check the deer, turned back, checked again. A gray squirrel ran down and around a tree in a stuttering spiral. It chattered wildly and seemed to rustle every leaf on the ground. Another squirrel crossed its path and the two fuzzy balls of gray nuisance chased each other from oak to oak.
“I didn’t even hear him,” Will said. “I thought for sure I’d hear him, he’s so big.”
“That’s why,” Jake said. “It’s the little things that make all the noise. Big things like deer step over brush and use trails. That and he was out in the field, just walking on dirt.”
“Did you smell him?”
“Smell him?” Will crinkled his nose.
“Sure. When they’re close enough, you can smell them, these big old musty ones.” Jake looked to the deer and Will immediately joined.
“Not quite yet.”
“What do they smell like?”
“Like musty old deer.”
Will had asked his father to tell the story of his own first deer so many times that he knew the story by rote. Jake had found a huge oak on the edge of a bluff and sat beneath it. By the afternoon, he’d nodded off and didn’t wake until an acorn fell with a dull thud in the soft ground. He saw a doe and a fawn picking their way along the creek and, with one shot, killed the doe. The fawn, confused and naïve, stayed, walking around the doe’s body, nuzzling it. Jake had to shoo it away. Will wondered if his father had felt the same mixture of pride and sorrow and excitement and shame he felt now. Will had never asked and Jake hadn’t shared. But he had given explicit instructions to pass on does with fawns.
Will heard an engine hum and saw a green vehicle creep through the field.
“Is that uncle Denny?” he asked.
Jake put his hand to the brim of his cap and squinted. “No. No, I don’t think so,” he said. Will didn’t know the tone, but something like it came out whenever their truck stalled out or the cellar was full of water again. Through the trees, he watched the green mass become a pick-up with a light bar and “Illinois State Conservation Police” written on the doors in Caterpillar-yellow block letters. He tensed and sweat beat down his round face and made dark trails in his peach fuzz. “Relax,” Jake said. “We haven’t done anything. Let’s just see if he stops.”
“What if he does?” Will asked.
“Then we’ll go talk to him.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Uncle Denny said the conservation officers are all crazies. He said they’re just a bunch of rednecks who couldn’t cut it as real cops.”
“Yeah, and he said that they’ll haul you off to jail just as soon as look at you. He said the best thing to do is to crouch down in a little ball in your tree, so maybe they won’t see you, ‘cause if they do, he said they’ll probably try to shoot you out. And he said that you should hoot like an owl because even though it’s daytime, they’re too dumb to know the difference. And he said—”
“That Uncle Denny says a lot.”
Will saw his father’s raised eyebrows and slight grin and knew he’d been had. Again. He shifted his weight from foot to foot. He watched the truck park within inches of the kill. The lights turned and the door swung open and two boots pounded the dirt as if they were trying to sound menacing. Army camouflage pants ballooned from the boots’ tops and a camo shirt bloused forth from a blaze orange vest. Beneath an orange ball cap, mirrored gas-station sunglasses drooped toward a thick catfish mustache. The officer glanced at the kill then scanned the trees, feet planted firmly, arms akimbo in a GI Joe stance.
“C’mon down, son,” Jake said to a crouching Will.
“I don’t think he sees us.”
“Buddy, you’re wearing blaze orange and you’re twenty feet in the air. I think he sees you.” Will scraped himself off the gray wooden planks, clumsy in his father’s coveralls and extra layers. “Empty your gun and grab your license and permit,” Jake said. Will pumped the gun to eject the slugs and patted a half-dozen pockets before locating the documents. He looped the supply rope around the gun and lowered it to the ground, then crawled down the weather-beaten two-by-four rungs.
“You come down outta there, now,” the officer said once they were already walking through the brush. He stood over the deer, indignant, as if it were a freshly smashed mailbox. “You shoot this deer?” he shouted. “There’s no tag on this deer. Who shot this deer? What’s that? Who? You better speak up, now!”
“I said my boy shot the deer!” Jake said, out of breath from yelling during the brisk walk across the clumpy ground.
The officer glanced at the buck and at Will. “That boy shot this deer?” he scoffed.
“Yes, sir, I shot him,” Will said.
“It’s not tagged,” the officer said. “Why ain’t this deer tagged, yet?”
Jake caught his breath. “It just happened a min—”
“I was asking the boy,” the officer snapped. “He’s the shooter, right?” He bent over and pushed his face into Will’s, his yellow teeth chomping gum in a noisy smile. “Answer the question, boy,” he said, releasing a rancid potpourri of halitosis, cheap coffee and Double Bubble that forced Will’s head to face the “S. Huffnagle” name bar. “Choose careful,” Huffnagle sneered. Will swallowed hard and looked at his father. Jake nodded.
“We were letting him finish, sir,” Will said.
“Finish what, boy?”
“Dying!” Huffnagle said and laughed. “Hell, it ain’t moved for an hour, even I can tell that.”
“It’s only been ten minutes,” Jake said.
“Sir, I’m talking to the shooter,” Huffnagle barked. Jake glared back and Will thought he saw Huffnagle flinch behind the glasses.
“It hasn’t been long, sir,” Will said.
“Lemme see your license.” Will found his hunting license and Huffnagle held it close to his face and frowned. “Gimme the permit,” he said and snatched the deer permit from Will’s already outstretched hand. Huffnagle held it close to his face again. “This is a second season permit,” he said. “You can’t be out here this weekend with a second season permit. You gotta wait two weeks.”
“No, it’s not,” Will said.
“What did you say?” Huffnagle growled.
“It’s not,” Will replied. “Look. Right there. It says ‘Full Season.’ That means I can hunt first and second season.” Huffnagle sniffed and handed back the permit.
“Smart kid. Smart enough maybe to wait around for another deer to wander by? Do a little poaching?”
“No, sir,” Will said, rattling his head back and forth.
“Whose land is this? They know you’re here?”
“Yes, sir. It’s my grandpa’s, sir.”
“He know you’re poaching?”
“We’re not poaching,” Jake said sternly. Huffnagle stepped over the buck and leaned into Jake.
“You’re not? Well, that deer ain’t tagged and if the deer ain’t tagged, then it’s shot illegal,” Huffnagle said, pointing at the trophy deer, chomping wildly.
“We were waiting,” Jake said, strong and calm. “He’s not even cold. Check yourself.”
“I don’t need to check it. I know a poached deer when I see one!” Huffnagle shouted. He was ranting at Jake like a fool, or like someone doing an impression of someone ranting like a fool. “And I didn’t even see this one! I heard it! I was driving by a few minutes ago on the blacktop when I heard the shots and I said, ‘Damn, that’s a poach!’”
“How can you tell from the shots?” Will said. “And I thought you said he’d been dead an hour?” Huffnagle’s head snapped to Will and he stomped to the boy, his boots making snappy thuds in the stalks and dirt.
“What did you say?” the officer grimaced.
Will swallowed hard. “Earlier, sir. You said he’d been dead an hour. But now you just said you heard us shoot him a few minutes ago.”
“You calling me a liar? You saying I don’t know what I’m talking about?”
“No, sir, I ju—”
“Your gun loaded?”
“Gimme it.” Huffnagle held out his hand and Will gave over the Remington 870 that his father had used since before Will was born. The officer opened the empty chamber and pumped the action once to load the shells that weren’t there. He started to hand it back to Will but thought better of it and pumped the action once more. A forgotten slug jumped from the magazine tube. Huffnagle pumped again and the slug ejected from the side of the gun, hurtling end-over-end through the air and bouncing off Will’s chest.
“Oh, Will,” Jake sighed.
“Well! What’s this? Seems like someone’s gun was still loaded!”
“That was an accident!” Will stammered. “I thought I had them all out!”
“How many permits you got? Remind me again?”
“One,” Will said. “But I—”
Huffnagle waved his hand to stop him. “So, you’ve already admitted that you shot this deer, and you only got one permit. Then, you told me you weren’t poaching. Then, you told me that your gun wasn’t loaded. Now, I find you’ve got another slug in your gun! You only keep a slug in your gun to shoot something. Can’t hunt anything else during deer season. Can’t shoot two deer on one permit. Shooting another one would be poaching. Why’d you lie to me, boy? Why didn’t you just admit you were poaching up front?”
“I didn’t lie! It was an accident!” Will shouted. “I thought they were all out! Dad, I thought they were all out!”
“It’s OK,” Jake said to him.
“No it ain’t!” Huffnagle shouted. “Everything I see says poaching. And my opinion’s the one that counts!”
“It was a mistake,” Jake said. “You know it was.”
“What I know is that deer wasn’t tagged and his gun was still loaded. I know he had shot that deer and was still hunting without a permit. I know that poaching’s a class B misdemeanor. You want a misdemeanor on you, boy? You ain’t even shaved, yet. You want that on you?”
“That’s enough,” Jake said, walking toward Will. “He’s a kid. He hasn’t done a thing wrong. You want to do something, then do something. But this nonsense is over.” Jake placed his hands on Will’s shoulders, felt him shaking through the dense, insulated layers, pressed gently.
“Do something? Fine, let’s do something. How about I take you in? Yeah, how about I take you in for poaching and hunting without a license and contributing to the delinquency of a minor and… and… what?” Jake and Will were staring at something far off and Huffnagle turned to stare, too. “Now what the hell is this?” he said.
A blue pickup bumped and clattered across the open field, its driver jostling and bouncing like a bareback rider. Banjos and slide guitars blared from the windows, picking and grinning their way through the tilled dirt and stubble. The brakes squeaked to an easy stop near the scene of Huffnagle’s imagined crime and Denny leaned out the window, his hulking frame filling the space. He nudged his dirty camouflage cap back on his head, spit tobacco juice, and smiled at the trio in the field.
“What’d you do, Willy?” Denny shouted over the music. “Your first hunt and you already got your dad in trouble! Goddamn!” He laughed and spit again. “Officer.”
“Turn down that music, sir,” Huffnagle barked.
“Turn down the music!”
“I can’t hear you! Let me turn down this music!”
“Turn off your—”
“Y’know, I better kill the engine, while I’m at it, don’t you think?” Denny clambered down from the truck, slamming the door and ignoring the officer’s glare. With a hand front and back he hiked up his pants and walked toward the kill, spitting along the way. “Well, goddamn, that’s a buck!” he said. “That yours, Will?” The boy nodded. “I’ll be damned, that’s a nice deer. Don’t you think so, officer? I think so. Why’s he just lying here?”
“We were letting him finish—” Will started.
“I’ll ask the questions,” Huffnagle interrupted.
“OK, boss,” Denny chuckled.
“Who are you?”
“Denny Cushing. Non-hunter,” Denny said, extending a hand that was not received. He wiped it on his hip and put it back in his pocket. “Well, not today, anyway. See, I kinda tweaked my back at work, pickin’ up these pallets. Well, not really pickin’ up the pallets so much as swingin’ ‘em around. See, me and a couple of the other guys at work, we got this game where we try to smash each other’s toes, but it won’t hurt nobody, ‘cause we’re all wearing steel toes, and the other day I thought that I had a really good shot on Pete, ‘cause he’s the reignin’ champ—you get to be the champ by gettin’ everybody else’s toes without gettin’ yours hit—and so I thought I could get him with these great big—”
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, I guess you won’t get to hear the end of my story,” Denny muttered.
“Answer the question.”
“I’m just here helping my brother and my nephew on his first hunt.”
“That’s all. Check the truck. There ain’t nothin’ in there.”
“I’ll decide what I’m gonna do. You just go stand over there and keep your mouth shut,” Huffnagle said.
“Alright, alright. Goddamn.” Denny leaned against his truck and spit again. Huffnagle turned and Denny winked at Will.
“Tell me again why this deer ain’t tagged,” Huffnagle said to Will.
“He already told you,” Jake said.
“Then he shouldn’t have any trouble telling me again,” the officer said, keeping his gaze on Will.
“We had just shot him, and we were waiting for him to die.”
“That’s a good move,” Denny chimed. “I shot one once and I didn’t wait long enough and up he ran and was gone. He was a big buck, too. Little bigger than this one, probably 12 points, if I remember, but this one’s nice, too. Good thinkin’ to wait, Willy. It’d be a shame to see a nice buck like—”
“I thought you said you don’t hunt?” Huffnagle sneered at Denny.
“Sure, I hunt. Just not today. I might get out second season, but like I said, my back ain’t right since I went after Pete’s toes. See, it was this great shot, one you only see come along once or twice a month, and—”
“Shut it,” Huffnagle said and glared at Denny.
“Yes, sir,” Denny said. He spit deliberately and wiped his chin with his sleeve.
Huffnagle turned back to Will. “So, I’m supposed to believe you weren’t poaching? That you were waiting for it to die and didn’t unload your gun on accident?”
“Yes, Officer Huffnagle, that’s what—”
“Do you know me?”
Will glanced at his father. “No, sir, I don’t think so.”
“Then why are you using my name?” Huffnagle shouted. “How do you know my name? How in the world can you know who I am?”
“I, I read it on your shirt, sir,” Will stammered, pointing to the name bar. Jake let out a snort and turned it into a clumsy cough. Huffnagle’s face became crimson behind his flared nostrils and he inhaled and opened his mouth wide.
“Hey, I know that name,” Denny said.
The officer cringed. “I don’t think you do,” he said.
“Sure, I do. Stanley, right? The one who got into all that trouble? There was that wreck, over on Judd’s Hollow Road. Something about a bridge. What was that? Jake, do you know?” Jake shook his head and watched the officer shrink with each word Denny struck. Of course Jake knew. Even Will knew.
“Yeah, you didn’t see that the bridge was out. How’d you miss all them signs anyway?”
“It was dusk and I didn’t have my glasses.”
“Yeah, you did. You had them mirrored ones, ‘cept they wasn’t prescription. You know, the ones you bought at the Gas ‘n Go back in town? I remember ‘cause it was in the paper, and Shelly and I was talkin’ and she said she sold ‘em to you. We figured the state didn’t have no prescription cop glasses, mirrored and all that, and we thought that was funny.” Denny laughed. “Yeah, it’s crazy what people remember, ain’t it? What they see?”
Huffnagle clenched his jaw.
“I bet your bosses didn’t like it. I bet they was fit-to-be-tied. I know the feeling—man, do I ever—’cause that’s how my boss is every time I get caught playin’ Toe Smash. That’s what we call it, Toe Smash, ‘cause the point is, well, you’re a smart guy, you get it. Anyway, he yells and screams and gets all red and pissed and then we gotta act sorry and cool it for a while. I bet they was tellin’ you to cool it, huh? Must have you on a short leash. That’s how things get for us, anyway. We have to be real, real careful and make sure we don’t do nothin’ stupid. We gotta make sure we’re on the straight and narrow,” he said, punctuating the phrase. Huffnagle stood, fuming, watching Denny spit and hike his pants and spit again.
“Ahh, but you don’t want to hear about my problems. You had some other business here with my nephew. What was you talkin’ about when I showed up? Somethin’ about taggin’ the buck and poaching? Seems kinda hard to prove to me. There’s one buck and there’s one tag. ‘Course, I’m not an officer of the law, not like you, but that’s a tough one. I’d hate to be wrong, ‘specially with a kid involved. ‘Specially after that whole bridge-out, car-crash, Dukes-of-Hazzard-jump thing. Might not look so straight and narrow.” Denny paused, watched his boot scuff the dirt, lifted his eyes to Huffnagle.
Will didn’t know everything that was happening, but he knew this was some kind of showdown. He could hear Huffnagle huffing and blowing and ferociously chewing, searching for a way out. He saw Denny breaking dirt clods with his boot, gently tapping them into piles of subdued dust. He heard his father’s teeth grinding above him. Will tilted his head back, prepared for the shock of a bristling Jake. Instead, he saw his father’s head turned away, over his shoulder, turned as far as possible from the tension in front of them.
“I’m sorry, here I go runnin’ my mouth again,” Denny said with false camaraderie. He made a sweeping gesture with his arm and maneuvered next to Jake and Will. “You’re the man. We are at your disposal.” He stood with a hand on Will’s shoulder, a broad smile on his face. Jake, his hand still on Will’s other shoulder, reluctantly turned to face the scene. He dropped his gaze and counted the hairs on Will’s head. Will moved his weight from foot to foot and his eyes shifted in time, from the deer to Huffnagle to Denny’s truck to the blue-gray November sky.
Huffnagle chomped. He pointed at Will. “You tag this buck.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy gulped. The officer gave them all a pathetic glare, sniffed, and climbed into his truck.
“Thank you so much, sir,” Denny shouted as Huffnagle drove away. “We do appreciate it. And I like your new glasses!” He turned triumphantly to Jake and Will. “Well, that’s that!”
Jake exhaled loudly. “Tag your deer, Will,” he said. He crouched and rummaged through his pack with quick, sharp movements.
“Now c’mon, Straight. Don’t be like that.”
“I’m not being like anything,” Jake said.
“All pissy, that’s how you’re being. He’s gone! It’s done!”
“I was taking care of it,” Jake said. “Will, tag that deer.”
“Hey, is this a big brother thing?” Denny said. “Don’t like little brother savin’ the day?”
“It’s a right and wrong thing, Denny. I was handling it.”
“I know, I know, but there’s lots of ways to handle it, Straight.”
“Why do you keep calling him that?” Will asked. He stood over the deer, absently holding his permit and knife.
“’Cause that’s how he is!” Denny laughed. “Straight as an arrow. You never heard me call him that?” Will shook his head. “Yep, that’s him. Keeps things straight. That’s why he never wins throwing dice.”
“I don’t throw dice, Denny.”
“And that’s why you never win!”
Jake looked up from his pack and shouted, “Tag the damn deer, Will!” Will shook with a jolt and dropped to a crouch by the buck’s hind leg. He pierced the hide between the bone and the tendon and sliced up, then peeled the permit sticker from its backing and slipped it through the slit, wrapping it around the leg and back on itself.
“Now, don’t take it out on him,” Denny said. “I’m not,” Jake said.
“He needs to tag him before another officer comes along.”
“Hell, there’s no other officers, Jake. There’s only that one jack-ass for the whole county and he ain’t comin’ back, I promise!” Denny laughed. “There’s different ways, Straight.”
“Well, your way is practically blackmail,” Jake said, standing up with the long-sought skinning knife. “And I don’t want Will to start thinking that’s OK.”
“But, he is gone, Dad,” Will said. “I think Uncle Denny’s right about that.”
Jake furrowed his brow. “A man old enough to know what’s right is old enough to clean his own deer.” He walked toward Will, dropped the skinning knife next to the buck and strode on.
“But I don’t know how,” Will whimpered.
“Ask your Uncle Denny. Seems like he knows everything.”
“Hell, I don’t know!” Denny said. “That’s why I always get you to do it.” Jake kept walking. “Where are you going?”
“To get the truck,” Jake said without turning.
“But it’s right here,” Denny yelled.
“My truck!” Jake shouted.
Denny shook his head and turned to Will. “You’ve seen him do this before, right?”
Will rested his head against the bench seat and let it bounce along with the gravel road. He scraped the dried blood from the base of his fingernails and smelled them. The crude rinse at the old farmhouse pump had left his chest aching with cold and his hands still rich with the gamy tang of wild blood. A candy bar slid across the vinyl, one of a few snacks forgotten in the pre-dawn black, and Will captured it and nibbled. The truck droned a steady hum and the cab was warm and he nodded. His father was quiet.
“Thanks for taking me, Dad.”
Jake looked at his son. “You did a good job, buddy,” he said gently. “You did everything right.”
Will looked out the window. The cut bean stalks moved by more rapidly than the taller corn stalks on the hill behind, which moved more rapidly than the aluminum-sided farmhouse on the hill beyond that, and it all reminded Will of one great carnival shooting gallery. He remembered last year’s fair, how Uncle Denny told him that the targets in the back, the ones with the big prizes, were heavier than the rest; that nobody ever won those because the guns weren’t powerful enough to knock them down. “You can’t win playing that way,” Denny had said. “So, you got to find another way. You got to pump the gun a ton of times or lean in close when they ain’t lookin’. Take advantage when you can. That’s how you win.”
Will had pondered this advice for days before asking his father. Jake had studied his son for a long while, then frowned slightly and ran his hand over his mouth. “Seems like time to find a different game.”
Copyright 2015 by Erik Christian