Dave arrived at his hunting stand just before dawn. The previous evening had been spent doing the final clean on his rifle as well as getting together some of the more modern conveniences of the hunt like some hand warmers. Dave was tired, but it was a good tired, one born of ritual and a kinship with the Earth. Carefully, he crept up to the old bus seat and sat down on it. A mouse, or some other small critter, shuffled around inside the seat and Dave smiled a little bit.
Dawn, Dave knew, was one of the most opportune times to bag a nice buck. He pulled the clip from his inside pocket and carefully placed it in the rifle. As silently as possible, he put a round in the chamber, grimacing from the sound of the rifle’s mechanics.
Ensuring that the safety was on, Dave leaned back onto the seat to get a little more comfortable. His eyes were red and dry and he wished he had brought some Visine with him.
It seemed like only seconds after Dave closed his eyes to remoisten them that he was awoken by the voice of a young boy.
“I said are you ok, mister?”
“Y-yeah… Oh, hey, there. Wow, sorry. Ugh…”
“Well did you see which way he went?”
The boy’s hunting gear looked brand new. His mittens, blaze orange and clipped to his sleeves, swung like pendulums set in motion by the morning air.
“Who are we talking about again?”
“The buck! You couldn’t have missed him, he ran right through here and there isn’t really that much in the way of cover. Say, were you sleeping or something?”
The boy scrunched up his eyebrows and smiled out the one side of his mouth.
“No, I just… I don’t think he came this way, is all.”
“Uh huh. Likely story,” the boy laughed.
Dave could see the tracks leading up to the short, somewhat stocky boy. They lumbered first nearly halfway into a thicket of briar bushes, then retraced to an easier route, through a smaller thicket of briar bushes.
“My name’s Jake and that’s my Dad, Gordon. You can call him Gordy if you want to.”
Jake pointed with his un-mittened hand over to an area near the field. A man was approaching with a huge grin on his face.
“Howdy there, stranger!” the man said in a voice far too loud for opening day of hunting season, “Did you see it? Did ya see ‘da tirty pointer’?
Dave looked around a little, shook his head, and started to clean the sleep out of his eyes. The boy looked first at his Dad, then again back at Dave in anticipation of what he might say to such a new and hilarious joke.
“Well, what the heck? Were ya’ sleepin’?” said Gordon as he removed his stocking cap. Steam rolled off his head and Gordon wiped some off the sweat off with his hand.
“No, I just, uh…”
“Uh huh. Likely story,” the man said with that same unconvinced grin that Jake had.
Dave, Jake, and Gordon followed part of a short deer trail, then, after Dave noticed some of the blood that they were following make its way off the trail to the left, cut West for only sixty or seventy feet. Dave set his feet carefully, one in front of the other, sometimes repositioning his footfalls to avoid the breaking of a stick or the rustling of last autumn’s oak and maple leaves. Behind him the father and son seemed to find every alarm that Dave had managed to avoid.
Now, with Dave in the lead, the three crested a short berm lined with aging maples planted, no doubt, by the forestry service during the days of the New Deal. During a short break, the boy, fascinated his father’s earlier conjuring of steam, pretended to pour hot water into his stocking cap from a long forgotten syrup tap, now sunk nearly four fifths of the way into the tree.
“No worries, guys. I’m gonna make us some vennie soup!”
“Leave that alone, son”, Gordon said without looking, “That belongs to someone.”
Dave chuckled to himself. Most of the people from the Depression era were gone. Nobody would miss that old tap. It was nearly buried and it had been years since it had produced any sap. Dave knew all about the jobs created during that time by the second President Roosevelt. He thought it was strange that it had been over eighty years since the first men of the Conservation Corps, one of the groups created in the New Deal, had come through this very area, planted these trees collected their government check, and moved on to countless lives of varying fortunes.
The buck was dead. Steam was escaping the deer slowly by way of its mouth, nostrils, eyes, and via the gaping hole near its heart. The bullet had entered behind the front left leg, a little too low to be an instantaneous kill, but close enough to ensure it would never see anther spring. The exit wound, larger and more grotesque, smelled of youth and metal.
The boy jumped quickly up to the head of the carcass. Unceremoniously, he lifted the head, laid it in his lap, and began counting the tines.
“Dad! Dad! Hey, Dad! This deer has 6 points on one side and only 5 points on the other side!”
The father clumsily managed to work in the word ‘asymmetrical’ into his response, followed by one of those sideways smiles, before the knife was unsheathed.
Dave could feel the muscles in his neck and back getting sore. He lifted his head, arched his back a little, and listened to the reverberation of the little joints cracking up his spine through his skull. A family friend had once told him that he would regret cracking his neck and back like that when he got older but Dave always thought this felt pretty good and never put much stock into the advice. Still, he wondered if someday in the future the family friend might be proven right and he’d get some new kind of arthritis in his neck.
Dave watched as the father and son performed a ritual as old as human kind. Dave stepped back a few paces give them a little privacy. He watched as the father explained the minor nuances of cleaning a deer with skill, patience, and respect for the life taken. He continued to watch as the boy, slightly trembling with anticipation, respectfully mangled the animal with all the grace of a hyena ravaging its first kill.
Dave looked down at the deer, then at the entrails piled beside it, then at the deer again. The words spoken by the father and son seemed distant and garbled. For a second Dave thought he’d have to send the boy to his truck to grab him his heart pills. After a moment of deliberation he decided that that wouldn’t be necessary.
“Looks like you guys have it pretty much wrapped up.” Dave said.
“Sure do!” said Jake as he poked at the gut pile with long, thin stick. “You can have the rest…”
Jake looked first at his Dad and then to Dave to make sure the joke wasn’t too much to tell a guy he hardly knew. Dave let out a hardy laugh and any question of appropriateness was dismissed.
“Are you guys going to want some help dragging that beast out of here or…?” Dave halfheartedly offered.
“No, no. You’ve helped us so much already, Dave, after we interrupted your nap, no less!”
The group laughed sincerely at this and little shafts of light shone through the tree cover onto the area illuminating the hunting party and their kill. Dave knew that it wouldn’t take long for one of the local scavengers to find what they had left behind. A sense of completeness filled him for a moment as a crow called in the distance. It had turned out to be a pretty good day, he figured, and a nice hot bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich might just be the perfect cap for it.
“Well you guys enjoy the rest of your hunt. I’m going to head up to my stand for a minute or two and then I think I’m going to head home. Good meeting the two of you.”
“Good meeting you too, Dave!” Jake said a little too loudly as he shook Dave’s hand with a little too much vigor.
“Of that, I have no doubt, young man.” Dave said.
“Nice to meet you, Dave. Thanks again.” Gordon said.
“You too, Gordon.”
Dave sat quietly at his deer stand. The seat seemed so comfortable in that moment. After a few minutes of sitting he could hear the distant sound of the father and son crashing their way through the woods. The words seemed garbled but he could hear the excitement in both their voices.
Dave’s eyes began to get heavy and dry again. He decided that since the sun was still pretty high in the sky it might not be such a bad idea to lay back and take it in for a bit. After all, the day seemed a little brighter and warmer than it had in recent weeks and he knew that days like that shouldn’t be squandered around a TV eating soup and sandwiches. There would be plenty of time for that later.
Dave could hear the mouse (or similar sized critter) in the bus seat again and it reminded him of when he was a kid and the mice would run through the walls of his parent’s house, the old single room shack where he had grown up along with his older brother Herbert. He remembered Herbert telling the family how he had been hired to the Conservation Corps and that the money would keep them afloat until the economy got back on its feet. He thought of how hungry he had been at night listening to the snow drift 5 or 6 feet high and to the mice make their beds in the walls. Mostly though, he remembered being happy.
Dave listened again to the sounds of the forest. The sound of the father and son were growing more faint. Dave heard the sound of a crow calling from over by the hunter’s gut pile. He knew that the crows would soon call across the forest to their brethren for a great feast. He felt happy and content for a man who was 96 years old and as his heart began to give way he knew that not only this moment and location had long been linked to his destiny, but that all moments that he had experienced in his life were connected to the destiny of all of those he had met. Dave smiled.