Daniel Davis: The Hunting of Man

marathonlitreview —  January 27, 2013 — Leave a comment

Mitch’s rifle had a shorter barrel than mine; a Savage Model 110, he called it, which I guess meant that’s what it was.  It was an ugly brute, but a damn fine weapon nonetheless: with that scope, Mitch could place a .30-06 bullet dead-center between a doe’s eyes without missing a beat.  The rifle had cost him a pretty penny—he had a custom camouflage coloration—but damned if it wasn’t worth every penny he’d put into it.

He liked to show it off, too.  Always treated it as though he’d just bought it yesterday.  Cradled it like an infant; I’d never seen him hold his daughter with that much tenderness.  He would eye it with love, and look with disdain upon my Winchester.  The two didn’t look that much different, except mine had a longer barrel, and they worked about the same.  But his was the better weapon, no doubt.

Mitch himself was a better weapon, I guess you could say, if you were to define people as weapons (and I wouldn’t blame you if you did).  He was younger in both years (two) and physique (ten).  He knew more about hunting than I’d ever thought possible, could track a coyote through a dry field, and could tell you two hours ahead of time exactly what the weather would be like.  I always told him he should’ve gone to college, should’ve been a meteorologist, but he hated reading and being told what to do, which was why I let him give the orders whenever we went hunting.

I’ve never been much for hunting, though I do it every year and am fairly good at it.  My Winchester, I inherited it from my dad.  He took me hunting as a kid; I didn’t have my own gun, but he let me—made me—take a shot every now and then with his, enough so that I got used to the recoil of the piece.  I reckon he would’ve bought me my own gun when I turned twelve—he placed a lot of importance on that age—if he hadn’t died first.  When he went, I got the gun, and I never got around to selling it.  Met Mitch at the plant, we became friends, and reached that stage where we started hunting together.

Takes a special kind of friend to go hunting with you.  The kind of friend you can share a silence with without one or the other getting uncomfortable.  Two men, they don’t like silence.  That’s why they watch football, or action movies, or go to bars.  Hunting, it’s all about silence, because a noise means shoot—prepare to shoot, ready to shoot, pull that goddamn trigger.  You need to be able to sit with a man for hours on end, not saying a word, and feeling absolutely comfortable with him.  And that ain’t easy.  I’d never even felt that with my father; hate to say it, but it’s true.  I’d just never felt comfortable with him in the woods.  But with Mitch, it was like I was meant to be there with him—like it was just him and me and the animals.  I never asked, but I reckon he always felt the same, because we went hunting every season, whenever Patty wasn’t nagging me about staying home and watching the kids play video games.

Patty, that’s my wife.  A good woman.  I don’t know what she has to do with this, but there she is—a good woman who nags.  But don’t they all?

Mitch was married, too.  So was Danny, and we’ll get to him in a bit I reckon.  Mitch’s wife was Margie, and she had an accent and wasn’t liked by most people.  I liked her.  Couldn’t understand why no one else did.  Sure, she had a mouth on her—but damned if she didn’t know how to make you laugh with the dirtiest jokes you ever heard.  Mitch loved her, and she loved him, I know that because no matter how much they fought, they actually stayed together, are still together today.  All the shit they went through—him cheating on her, her cheating on him, both of them drinking themselves into unconsciousness—and they’re still together.  I guess that’s what love is: no matter how bad shit gets, you stay together.

In the woods, of course, none of that mattered.  No love.  No wives.  Just you, your buddy, and your gun.  I don’t mean to sound too mystical here; I’m not the great hunter.  That’s Mitch.  He was the woodsman between him and me, and I guess I know a thing or two about hunting, but not enough to call myself an expert.  Mitch—Mitch is an expert.  You know those guys they show in the movies, who can run through a forest with a rifle in their arms like they were strolling through a city park, usually played by somebody like Tommy Lee Jones or some Indian fellow?  That’s Mitch.

That last day we went hunting out behind Caldwell’s farm, I drove.  We alternated; that was my weekend to drive.  We got there about five, kind of late but neither of us was concerned.  Caldwell let us hunt on his property, and no one else.  He was Mitch’s godfather, and he had a soft spot in his heart for me as well, so he gave us free range of his land.  It’s wasn’t exactly prime picking—the best land was north of town, just outside the state park, because the deer seemed to know enough to realize there was protected land nearby, but not enough to actually stay there all the time—but it was ours exclusively, and that meant no one else would interfere.  Mitch and I had spent entire days out in those woods and not come across another hunter.

Caldwell was up—old people wake early, old farmers even earlier—but he didn’t come out to greet us; never did.  We parked far enough away from his house that he probably wouldn’t hear us, though he could surely see us if he looked out his kitchen window.  There was a slight mist rising; it had been a warmer night than usual, though the morning was cold as hell.  I was trying hard to keep my teeth from rattling, and Mitch had laughed about it on the way out, and I’d laughed some too, though he was beginning to annoy me with it.  I’d pointed out his teeth were rattling also, but that didn’t seem to matter much to him.

We got our rifles out, loaded them, and checked them over one last time.  We didn’t speak.  You don’t talk in the woods, and when you’ve hunted with someone enough, you don’t talk before the woods, either.  I’m surprised Mitch and I even talked at all; we were pretty good at communicating without words.  Known each other for years, since our late twenties or so, when we both happened to take jobs at the factory at the same time.  I won’t go so far as to say he’s like my brother, but he’s certainly something.  It’s not really anything special; you spend that much time with someone, you learn to communicate with them.  It just happens.  Patty and I are the same way, and we’re beginning to get that way with the kids.

We set out into the woods, Mitch leading the way, even though we both knew where we were going.  About a mile from Caldwell’s farm was a wooded canyon, with gently-sloping sides that fed down to a field of tall grass.  Great place to find whitetail.  Even now, with a light dusting of snow, the grass would be tall enough so that the deer were mostly hidden, which added to the thrill of it.  One could walk within ten feet of you, and you wouldn’t even know it.  Deer are tricky things.  Quiet at one point, squealing like a stuck pig the next.  Truth be told, they’ve always scared me a little; they’re cowardly most of the time, but sometimes they’ll get so damn close to you, and not by accident either, that you’ll wonder if they don’t have claws instead of hooves.  I’ve never been attacked by a deer, but I’ve heard stories, and seen some stuff on TV.  I can tell you that bucks have an attitude, and I wouldn’t put it past one to try and gut me with those antlers.

I let Mitch lead us out there, because that was his role—he was the leader.  I followed, and didn’t mind too much.  It was nice out, crisp, the sun not up yet, but you could tell it would be a beautiful day.  The sky was gray, getting lighter, but in the trees it was still almost dark as night.  We traveled almost by instinct, making as little noise as possible, even though there probably weren’t any deer nearby, and even if there were, we were still too close to the house.  Caldwell didn’t mind us hunting on his property, but I’m sure he would take umbrage if we started putting stray bullets through his windows.

The only wildlife I saw was a few squirrels, and they watched us from a safe distance, nibbling on their morning nuts and generally pissed off that we were there.  I’d shot squirrels as a kid and thought I was hot shit, but I didn’t know a single grown man who shot squirrels for anything other than food, except maybe Danny, and even then I’d never seen him do it, just figured he would if given the opportunity.

It took us a good while to get to the canyon; I’m not sure exactly how long because neither of us was wearing a watch.  I’m sure Mitch knew what time it was, probably within four or five minutes, but all I could tell was that the gray had lightened significantly, and the mist had subsided enough so that I wasn’t afraid of tripping over it.  It hadn’t warmed up any, really; I was still chilly beneath my camouflage jacket, wishing I’d worn my long johns under my sweatshirt and jeans.  Mitch, I’m sure, wasn’t cold in the slightest.  Didn’t move like it.  He was walking fluidly, every muscle in his body working exactly as it was meant to.  I’d heard Margie describe him as “feline,” and while that was a bit more metaphorical than I would’ve gone—and Mitch himself would’ve shit a brick if he’d heard it—I had to say it fit.  I personally would’ve chosen “natural.”  He looked like he belonged out there.

Mitch told me once that he’d been hunting since before he could remember; that even when he was an infant, just a year old, his father had brought him out into these woods.  I had to laugh, picturing a baby Mitch—complete with beard and nicotine-stained fingernails—cradling a small rifle, decked out in camo.  Patty had sure thought it was funny, and for weeks after Mitch told her the story, she was telling me.  A good story just never gets old.

I couldn’t remember my first time, though I was probably eight or nine.  My father was a good hunter; not nearly as good as Mitch, and maybe not even as good as I reluctantly became, but he was a decent enough shot with both a rifle and a bow, and he had patience.  That’s the one thing most people lack: patience.  It might surprise you who has it and who doesn’t.  Most days, when I’m not in the woods that is, I’m not a patient kind of guy.  I hate lines, and I watch the clock at the factory as though my life depends on it.  But out there in the woods, that melts away.  I think it’s the cold, largely; the cold seeps through you, until even your bones become sluggish.  For guys like me, at least.  For guys like Mitch and Danny and a few others I’ve known, patience is as normal a trait as breathing.  They’ve just got it; they can wait hours for a buck to cross their path and not even seem to blink.  I’m a patient hunter, but even I can’t do that.  After about an hour, I get a little antsy; two hours, and I’m ready to go home and devour a pot of chili.

The trick is to distract yourself.  You don’t pay attention to the time passing; in fact, you don’t pay attention to much of anything.  You think you do—the squirrels, the cold, the lightening sky, the dry bark of the trees—but you don’t.  It goes in one eye and out the other, as it were.  You think you’re paying attention to those things, but really, you’re thinking about something else entirely, like I thought I was watching the squirrels, but was really thinking about how I wish I could’ve stayed in bed with Patty a couple more hours.

My mind wandering like that, we seemed to come upon the canyon without really coming upon it.  It was just there.  The word “canyon” is a bit misleading, though that’s what we’ve always called it: the canyon.  It was more like a gently sloping valley, just a few yards across at its bottom.  A cleft section of forest, like someone had taken a scoop and dug lightly across the surface.  There were a few small trees at the bottom, but mostly it was that tall grass, which stayed there throughout the year.  Deer congregated there like it was their own private church; we’d once seen about twenty deer down there at one time, and neither Mitch nor myself had shot any.  It’s not fair to take deer when they’re grouped up like that; not fair, and bad for business.  Deer aren’t smart, but they aren’t idiots, either.  They watch one of their kin die in a spot, they aren’t likely to return there any time soon.

That morning, Mitch took a quick look through the scope on his rifle, crouching down at the head of the canyon.  He shook his head, indicating that he didn’t see anything.  He cast a questioning glance my way, and I pointed to the right.  He motioned me to lead, and I went slowly, without his grace but with the same level of determination.  We walked a ways around the rim of the canyon, until we got about half a mile from where it had begun.  Then we stopped, I glanced at Mitch, he nodded, and I kept on going, while he took up position there.  I went another half a mile, until I knew that any deer within my range would be out of his.  Then I stopped and sat on a stub.

Truth was, I took no joy in shooting animals.  I didn’t do it for pleasure, of course; I ate everything I killed, and the parts I didn’t eat, I sold to people who would.  But I went out for the camaraderie, not just with Mitch but with nature.  It sounds corny as hell, and perhaps it even is; but that doesn’t make it any less true.  If I saw a deer I would shoot it, no hesitation and no regret, but that wasn’t my main motive for being out there.  I knew of a lot of hunters who were like myself, and you read about them all the time.  Hunters are among the leading conservationists.  It always sounds crazy to people who don’t hunt regularly, but the truth is, a lot of us are out there simply because we love nature.  The killing is secondary.

Instead of setting up right away, as Mitch had done, I waited.  My breathing slowed, the breath coming out in plumes that disappeared in front of my face.  I tried to blow rings with it, as my son could, but the best I got was like a hazy oil slick.  As I let myself become adjusted to being still, I listened to the forest around me.  A squirrel was barking somewhere not too far away, and something else—another squirrel, or a rabbit—was walking among the dead leaves and twigs.  A couple of birds, distant.  I heard nothing bigger, though deer are quiet for their size.

It took me about ten minutes to work up the enthusiasm to get into a good position.  I looked at the trees around me.  I’ve never been one for stands; my father liked them, but I found that simply using the trees themselves—or rocks, or bushes, or whatever—gave everything a more primal feeling, not to mention flexibility.  I wasn’t limited to just one spot, which was good for hunters like me who liked to move around.  But Mitch didn’t use a stand either.  The fewer accessories, he’d once told me, the fairer the fight.  Perhaps that sounds silly, since we were both out there with advanced intelligence and firepower, and we weren’t fighting anyways—I’ve never hunted game that fought back, and since even deer unnerve me sometimes, I’ve never really had the desire.  But of course, there would never be anything fair about it.  We’re men, and they’re animals; even the most die-hard conservationist has to admit that.  We’re more advanced.  You could say that I should’ve used a bow, then, or perhaps a long stick, but guns are the only hunting implement I’ve ever been good at—I tried the bow as a kid, even the stick on a few occasions, but I missed more times than I didn’t, which doesn’t make for strong encouragement.

I selected an oak that branched out enough a few feet up to allow me to sit comfortably.  It wasn’t the best place to shoot from, but it would provide back support, and some protection from any breeze that might make its way into the forest.  I climbed up there easily enough, slipping only once in a patch of ice.  Once in the tree, I brought the rifle down to my lap, leaned my head back and closed my eyes.

During my climb, the forest had gone silent.  After about two minutes, the noises started up again.  There was a small squirrel in the tree I inhabited, further up; he seemed agitated that I was there, pacing back and forth, making no noise except for the movement.  You spend enough time in nature, you begin to wonder if the animals think; it sounds crazy and even childish, but it happens.  I know they don’t, of course—dolphins and monkeys might, to an extent, but the smaller animals, even the mammals, don’t think in the same sense we do.  They run on instinct, which is the only way to survive in the wild.  But the thought that there might be intellectual processes going on inside their heads is exciting, even if you know it’s bullshit.  I passed the time trying to think of how I would explain myself to this squirrel, if given the chance.  How I would try to reason with him that I was not there to bother him, but was just calmly observing nature (with a gun in my lap).  Such thoughts occasionally came to me while hunting; I’d told Mitch once, when we were out drinking.  He’d laughed good-naturedly, but I’d never brought it up again.

Mitch is serious.  Don’t get me wrong—he’s a good man, he knows how to have fun, and he loves the outdoors as much as I do, is even as dedicated a conservationist as you can get in southern Illinois.  But he doesn’t think like that, ever; I only do on occasion.  I’ve never been much of a reader of fiction, or an overly creative guy; even the telling of this story is a bit beyond me, as I’m not much of one for gossip.  Few guys I know are.  But Mitch is even less so than me; if this was Mitch’s story to tell—and perhaps it is, though perhaps more so mine—he wouldn’t tell it.  You could ask him and he might say something on it—”Yeah, that happened”—but he wouldn’t tell the story.  I haven’t decided if that’s a character flaw or not.

What Mitch deals with are concretes, usually something revolving around NASCAR or hunting.  His rifle for example; that’s a fine gun, a bit more than he could reasonably afford, and yet he’s never once regretted purchasing it (except maybe during a fight with Margie over finances).  Mitch’s gun will last a lifetime, unless it breaks or he comes across something better.  It’s a good gun, solid, dependable; I expect he’ll be passing it on to his kids, as my dad handed down his gun to me.  To Mitch, hunting is everything, next to Margie, friends, and work.  Some people would say that makes his life unfulfilling, but you gotta understand what it’s like around here: that is fulfillment.  The forest is, perhaps, the exact opposite of the factory: out here, there’s no one to tell you what to do, your life isn’t run by a clock, and things go by easily, without any forethought or planning.  What happens, happens.

This—and talking animals—is the kind of stuff I’m prone to think of when I’m hunting.  It helps to take your mind off the fact that there are no deer.  And there aren’t.  You don’t go out and meet a whitetail; you may go weeks without seeing one, even in regions where they are plentiful.  The problem is, they can smell you.  Some hunters use that to their benefit: they cover themselves in deer urine, or other smells.  Some buy stuff to hide the smell.  Yet again, for hunters like Mitch and myself, that borders on cheating.  And, if I may be perfectly honest, I’m not one for perfume, no matter the purpose.

I must’ve been in the tree a good twenty minutes by the time the squirrel stopped its anxious pacing and decided I didn’t care about it.  I heard it climbing lower, and about that time I detected movement down in the canyon.  I knew, even from up here, that it wasn’t a deer, but I thought I’d have a look anyways, and brought the riflescope up to my eye.  The squirrel hissed at the sudden movement and resumed his normal place and pacing.

It didn’t take me any time at all to find the spot in the scope; I had too much practice.  It was a cardinal, a large one, perched atop a bush that didn’t seem big enough to support its weight.  Sure enough, after I’d been watching it for a few seconds, something shifted in the bush, and the bird took flight, alighting on the limb of a tree a little ways up the opposite side of the canyon.

I panned across the floor of the valley.  No signs of other movement, except the usual rustling of grass and shrubbery that you sometimes write off as the breeze, even if there isn’t one.  It’s movement that’s meaningless, though sometimes eerie—shifting grass when there is no wind and no sign of animal life, the grating sound of dead leaves rubbing against each other.  The kind of stuff that used to make men think of ghosts or spirits; nowadays, we just write it off as shit that happens.  I suppose that’s what they call “progress.”

As I drew the scope across the valley’s bottom, going first to the left, then starting back to the right, I began to notice something odd.  It took me a moment to place it at first, though I’m sure Mitch would’ve picked up on it right away: someone had been down there.  The grass was parted in certain areas, sometimes precisely so; animals, when they part grass, do it haphazardly, as they need too.  There had been someone else here, not too long ago.  My first thought was Caldwell, though he’d told us he never went back there anymore, because of his knees.  His grandkids, then, though this was far for amateur explorers to go, and certainly not the most promising territory.

Another hunter?  I began to move the scope slowly, a millimeter at a time.  I’m not sure what I expected to see, but I looked hard, more thoroughly than I’d looked for a deer.  I reached the bush where the Cardinal had almost fallen through, and kept on moving further down the valley.

I didn’t notice the blood right away; it was subtle, just a few spots here and there that, from that high up, could be written off as other things.  But then it started to show in larger amounts, until I was certain a wounded animal had traveled the area.  A hunter, and a poor one, then.  One of Caldwell’s kids or grandkids, inexperienced at hunting?  It looked as though they’d shot something sizable, but had only wounded it.  Surely they knew enough to put another bullet in it, or follow the trail and finish it off.

And they did.  The trail stopped in the thick grass, which had been carefully trampled down in something resembling a crop circle.  A deer lay in the center of it, a medium-sized doe.  Its legs were splayed, its head twisted at an unnatural angle.  Even through the scope, I could make out the look of torment on its face, its tongue lolling out the side of its mouth, one dark eye open and glassy.

Whoever had shot it had finished it off by snapping its spine—an odd way of killing such a large animal, but effective.  A waste, I thought, studying it through the scope.  They’d left the body, which meant a senseless killing, no food to be had.  It was recent, too—scavengers hadn’t gotten at it yet, meaning it’d been shot just the day before, perhaps even during the night.  But why hadn’t the hunter taken the meat?  Even if they didn’t want it for themselves, they could’ve sold it for a fair price.  The deer was big enough to fetch a solid amount of money.

I noticed the blood pattern in the snow.  I’m not one to watch those CSI shows, but I’ve shot enough animals in my life to know how blood flies, and the sorts of patterns it leaves behind.  It varies, every time, of course.  And if you shoot a deer right the first time, you don’t get much blood; even if you shoot a deer wrong the first time, there isn’t much blood, unless you nick a major vein or artery.  I couldn’t tell, from up there, where the deer had been shot, but there was a large amount of blood in the area.  Far too much for it to have only been shot one time, especially considering the fact that it had been shot further up the canyon.  Without getting any closer, I couldn’t say for sure, but it looked as though this deer had been shot several times.

And just like that, the thought came to me.  It chilled me more than the weather could, froze my fingers against my gun and turned the crisp winter taste in my mouth sour.  Staring through the scope, the horrible idea passed through my head before I could turn it away, and suddenly I knew, whether I was right or not, what had happened.

“Shit.”

The word startled the squirrel above me into a strenuous barking.  It finally got fed up, and jumped to the next tree.  I barely noticed.  The scope was pressed tightly against my eye; when I finally drew it away, it was with a soft plop, and the rim of my eye felt warm and swollen.  I bit my lip, wondering what I should do; then I fired two shots with my rifle, into the forest opposite me, and climbed out of my tree to wait.

Hunters like Mitch and I, with as much experience as we have, rarely need to fire two shots in a row like that.  We get our deer with the first shot; or if not, it takes us a few seconds to line up the second shot, assuming the wounded deer isn’t capable of running (which they almost always are—a wounded deer is merely not as fast as a healthy deer; they may not get far, but they’ll do their damndest to put distance between you and them).  Two rapid shots like I’d just fired were a signal Mitch and I had worked out a while back, though I’m not sure we’d ever had need to use it.  It meant: Stop what you’re doing and get your ass over here.

I waited, forcing myself to keep the rifle aimed at the ground.  I was, quite honestly, scared.  It took Mitch a few minutes to get there, and the whole time I was fighting the urge to run.  I wasn’t sure where I wanted to run to, but I felt I had to get out of there, that I wasn’t safe.  It was crazy, of course, but you try telling your instincts that they’re wrong.

When Mitch finally got to me, he didn’t ask anything at first—he saw by the way I held myself that it was bad.  He just looked around, trying to find whatever it was that had spooked me; and when he saw nothing, he gave me an inquisitive look.  I told him.

“Shit,” he said.  He paused, holding my eyes for a while, making sure I was thinking what he was thinking.  Then he said, “Danny.”

I’d been hunting with Danny once, as I’ve said.   It had been the previous season, and we’d gone up near the state park.  I wasn’t about to share Caldwell’s property with Danny; I only agreed to go out with him because he’d bugged me so much the year before.  “I heard you’re good,” he said, in that southern drawl of his.   Sometimes I think it’s an act; other times, I believe he truly speaks like that, even in private.  Some folks around here do—not sure where they get it from.  Maybe I do, too, and just haven’t noticed.

I regretted the trip with Danny the whole time, of course.  Mitch had laughed when I told him where I was going; I’d invited him along, but him and Danny didn’t get along too well, so he’d slapped my shoulder and said he hoped I didn’t get shot in the back.  I was thinking pretty much along the same lines as myself, as I walked beside Danny through the forest.

About half a mile into the woods, he broke the silence by saying, “Lou, you ever see what a thirty-ought-six does to a buck’s eye?”

I couldn’t think of a reply at first.  Of course I hadn’t—such a shot is damn near impossible, and after a few seconds of confusion, I said as much.  Danny said, in the most matter-of-fact voice you can imagine, “Not when the animal’s tied down.”

I didn’t even attempt to say anything to that.  I looked at him, but he seemed so casual.  I don’t think he had any idea he was talking out of the ordinary; his pace didn’t falter, the expression on his face didn’t change.  He didn’t even look at me to see how I was taking it, as though he had this sort of conversation all the time.

“The eye just kind of implodes,” he said.  “It just disappears.  There and gone, like that.  I ain’t never seen nothing like it.”

I didn’t shoot anything that day.  Danny did; he hit a small doe, the kind you’d pass up unless you were looking for food.  Danny wasn’t looking for food; he shot the doe in the throat, one shot, clean through.  It didn’t die right away, but it wasn’t strong enough to flee.  I remember hearing the shot, and then him traipsing through the forest, making all kinds of racket.  I got down out of my tree and followed his sound; I found him standing over the animal, leaning on his rifle, watching it squirm in pain and terror.  It was bleeding to death, quickly too; the ground was soaked in blood, the deer’s throat a raw, spurting would.  I could tell it was trying to make some sort of noise, but it couldn’t with that wound—just a hissing sound, air coming in and out through the ragged bullet hole.

Danny said nothing, just watched it die.  So did I; couldn’t think of anything else to do.  Finish it off?  Tell the truth, I was afraid that Danny would turn, shoot me in the throat, and then watch as I struggled for life.  The way he just watched the deer…it was the way he’d looked while he talked earlier.  It was the way you or I look when we order a cheeseburger.  It wasn’t anything special.

I told Mitch, of course.  I almost didn’t, but a couple weeks later, driving back from Caldwell’s farm, I just started talking.  It was probably the longest speech I’d given him since he and I met.  I just kept talking and talking, repeating myself, making no goddamn sense whatsoever.  And he just sat there and listened, nodding at certain points.  His face was blank, calm, but not in the way Danny’s had been.  Mitch looked as though he’d expected it; and though he never said as much, I have the feeling he’d already known something about Danny that I’d only learned out there in the woods.

He had much the same look now, as he and I climbed down the canyon carefully; the sides weren’t steep, but the snow was slick, and there were plenty of holes and branches and roots.  Gravity carried us most of the way to the bottom, and from there we picked up the doe’s blood trail.  Mitch led; he was better at it than I was, but frankly, I didn’t want to be in front, and he knew it.  I would’ve walked with my eyes closed, if the terrain had let me.  I didn’t want to see the deer up close, but I had to.  Sometimes, you just have to know.

The scene was more gruesome than I could’ve imagined—it was bad enough for me to think of it as a “scene.”  I’m not even sure how to describe it—blood and fur and flesh.  The scent of death was still there, strong enough to keep smaller animals away and to draw scavengers in, though none had arrived yet.  I stepped up beside Mitch, and we stared down at the carcass.

He knelt.  I remained standing.  I almost expected him to touch the deer, but he kept his hands on his gun, using it as a sort of crutch.  He was down like that for two or three minutes—the smell must have been terrible—then he stood.

“Shot in each leg,” he said.  “Probably a few other shots elsewhere, nowhere vital.  Neck’s snapped; looks like one of the eyes has been gouged out, probably with a knife.  An attempt was made to skin it; you can see along the spine there.  But it was alive, and must’ve struggled too much.  He stabbed it instead, several times.  We’d have to skin it to be sure just how much.”

The tail was missing, too, but I didn’t say that.  It was obvious.

“He kept it alive,” Mitch said.  “He was careful.  Good shot.  Nothing that bled too much, nothing that knocked the animal unconscious.”

He almost sounded like he admired the precision of the task, except I knew that his thoughts, if not his voice, were cold and clinical.

“Danny,” I said, my voice uneven.  I wanted to make sure he still thought what he had earlier.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Only other guy I know could do this is me.”

What made it so bad, I think, is that it was so well thought-out.  “Premeditated” is the word they use when something like this happens to people, and though it usually isn’t applied to animals, that may be from lack of incidence more than anything else.

Mitch stepped back from the carcass.  He shook his head once, to himself.  I watched him, because I couldn’t look at the doe anymore.  He said, “Goddammit.”

“Do we do anything?”

“Can we?”

I thought about it.  What Danny had done—assuming it was Danny, and though I was sure, though I knew, there was no proof—was awful.  It was unethical and immoral and about every other kind of thing you can think of along those lines.  I’ve only told this story a couple times before, but both times, someone said it was evil, and I wasn’t inclined to disagree.  I’m not sure about God and the devil and all such, and I don’t equate killing a deer with killing a man, but I gotta say, if you see evil in an act like that, you probably aren’t far off the mark.  There are words for such behavior, but they usually concern children who do those things to small animals.  There’s nothing, as far as I know, for adults who do it to larger animals.

So I didn’t answer Mitch’s question, because the answer was no, and I didn’t want to admit that.  He knew it too, though I’m not sure he felt as strongly as I did.  Mitch isn’t the callous type.  He just, like I said, isn’t creative.  Neither am I, but maybe I’m getting there, after all.

We left.  We didn’t tell Caldwell about the deer, or anyone.  I saw Danny the next week at work, and there seemed to be nothing different about him.  He carried himself the same way, talked the same way, told the same dirty jokes and had the same high-pitched laugh.  He’s never admitted to killing the deer, and I’ve never asked him about it.  How could I?

We never hunted behind Caldwell’s farm again.  We went up near the state park, where everyone else hunted.  We said it was because the dead deer had probably scared off the rest; you leave a deer carcass out like that, it’s a constant reminder of death, and even deer are smart enough to stay away.  But really, I think the reason we never went back is because we were afraid of finding more carcasses like that.  There wouldn’t be any in the more popular areas, because Danny’s no idiot.  I don’t know for sure about any of it, of course.  Mitch and I never talked about it much, but I’m sure he felt the same way.  And truth be told, I haven’t shot a deer since, though I’ve seen plenty.  Maybe that says more about me than it should, but after all that, I don’t care.  Mitch still shoots them, and I’m sure he doesn’t care what that says, either.

 

Daniel Davis is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine.  His own work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com, or on Facebook.

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