A twig popped as the animal shifted its
weight and Jake Keller spied the deer under the low canopy of an oak off to his right.
The old man’s vision was nearly as
poor as a deer’s and the half-light and ground fog and jitters that brought water to his eyes didn’t help. So,
he was not surprised when it was his ears that located the deer. Sound had halted his passage, stopped him dead in his tracks
and with the rifle half raised to his shoulder, and it was sound that found him the deer, a sound as familiar as the tick
of a clock. The snort of a deer catching wind of him and sneezing in distaste. Keller knew it was close, watching for him
even as he searched for it, both of them peering round in the dim light, eyes seeking some movement, ears straining for sound.
Silhouetted trees on either side of the
hollow shut out the weak light of the rising sun and wreathes of mist floating off the stream shrouded the draw. Keller sniffed
and thought he detected a trace of the musk a Whitetail gives off when nervous or excited. The damp air was heavy with a mingling
of scents – the buttery odor of decaying humus, the tang of pine, the acrid stench of oak. The smell might only have
been in his imagination. Still, the man’s hands quivered, his heart quickened its pace, his throat went dry and his
eyes watered again. “Steady, fool,” he cautioned himself, “you never got buck fever before and there’s
no reason for it now.”
A crow cawed in the distance and Keller
cocked his head. That wasn’t the sound that had stopped him but it was quickly followed by the one that found him the
Nervously, the buck paced, straining its
dim vision to locate the man, ears erect and twitching, snorting now at every other breath, blowing to rid its nostrils of
the man stink. Keller grinned as he saw the buck had foolishly trapped itself in a position with only one avenue of escape.
Thick, tangled walls of catbrier and laurel hemmed it in on two sides and, on the stream-side, a high, eroded bank prevented
escape. The only exit was to come past him. Keller raised his rifle and waited.
The buck an old and grizzled warrior, snorted
once more, threw back its antlers and lunged. The buck came running, passing on his left, not more than fifty yards away.
A perfect shot. Keller sighted and fired.
The Whitetail somersaulted, skidding its
front against the earth. Then, with a sudden and painful display of exertion, the deer pulled itself erect, stumbled into
the brush and was gone.
Keller’s rifle, as old as he, had
jammed after the first shot. By the time he expelled the spent cartridge and chambered another, the animal was out of sight.
Keller growled, spitting a stream of tobacco juice into the brown leaves at his feet. Belly-shot! Never had he made such a
poor shot. Sure, the light was poor. Sure, he’d been rattled (hadn’t even expected to see a deer so soon let alone
one with a rack that big. Jeez, had to be at least a twelve-pointer). But, hell, there weren’t adequate excuses for
a shot like that. He didn’t know whether to blame himself, his ancient rifle or the circumstances. Voicing a string
of profanity released the tension a little, though it didn’t entirely dissipate his anger.
Sighing, Keller settled with his back against
an oak, sinking down carefully on creaking old legs, then flopping heavily the last few inches.
Propped against his tree now, Keller sighed
again and shook his head. Nothing he could do now but wait. He would wait a half hour until the wound began to stiffen and
loss of blood forced the deer to rest. Then he would follow its spoor, easily discernible by the spattering blood of a stomach
wound, to where the creature hid. Then, he would complete the kill.
He wasn’t one of those city-slicker
hunters who were all over his mountain these days, fools who never even took their rifles out of the case let alone practiced
before opening day and who blasted away at anything that moved and who were more interested in drinking beer and bragging
to one another down at Molly’s than they were in hunting. They belly-shot deer; plenty of them. Keller had found some,
too late to do them any good.
If a hunter didn’t track a belly-shot
deer and finish the job, then the animal would crawl off to some secluded place and suffer a long and painful time before
death. That wasn’t going to happen to his deer. Sureshot Keller had killed a lot of deer in his time, but no one could
say he had ever purposely left one to suffer.
Still, Keller had to admit, his priority
now was not compassion for the animal he had crippled. He had to dispel this discontent he felt with himself. He had failed
in his ability as a hunter, and this hurt him most of all. Not many understood what it meant for him to be identified as he
was for so many years. Paul had, because it was the same with him. Jake doubted if Andy and Janet did. Leda had understood
him from the beginning, and he had loved her for that as much as anything else. She’d known he was a hunter. And, he
had not lived by his profession, but for it.
Jake Keller, the hunter. That was how everyone
in the village knew him. Some called him lazy behind his back and said he might have prospered if he’d worked his land
as hard as he hunted. Mostly, the men envied him and the women were glad their husband weren’t like him.
He was a hunter. It was as certain a fact
as the rugged mountains surrounding the rural Pennsylvania valley where he lived. He had supported his family by farming.
But, it was only when he was in these mountains pitting his wits against some wild creature that he lived his true profession.
That’s how it was, and he’d been proud of his reputation.
That’s how it had been, he thought,
and now it was gone. He’d refused to listen when Andy tried to tell him. But, what would he do now? A man is his vision
of himself and when that’s taken away, can he continue to exist?
Now, having belly-shot a deer, crippled
it, when he should have killed it clean with one humane, accurate shot at that distance, now Keller could only wonder –
was he still a hunter? Or, instead, was he only an old man who used to hunt?