Photo by Dom Roberts on Unsplash

Christmas at home again. They got the decorations up earlier every year. Sea winds swaggered the dark streets of the Florida port city like merchant seaman warm with grog seeking frolic, and elbowed low-lying landlubber clouds among the lighted insurance-company towers. Buck’s almost-new sports sedan left the city lights behind and raced west along the interstate. The sky was turning gray out over the ocean, and he let the little V-8 have its head, feeling the old heady certainty he could smell any hiding troopers up ahead.

A half-hour later, he was forty miles inland, on a two-lane state road. The dawn wind in the pine woods was docile by comparison, and the clouds were like soft chilled cotton. The woods were wet and seemed to him to be charged with hunter’s fever. First hunting season after the Army.

He turned down the logging road in a rain that melted instead of splashed down the windshield. Immediately, he saw the wavery outlines of the buck in the road through the slash-slash of the wipers. With all the hounds that would have been loosed in the pines, and all the pickups patrolling the sodden roads, the buck appeared unconcerned. Just moseying along.

He killed the wipers and grabbed the binoculars. Sure enough, a saber curve of rain-shiny antler above the big left ear. He opened the door and started to get out, bringing the big rifle with him. The buck moved back into the timber without seeming to hurry, but he was gone from view when the cross hairs swept the logging road.

Then Buck saw why. A pair of pickup trucks came up out of the deep woods, breasting through the mud puddles like tugboats on a misbehaving river. He waved his arm violently, trying to motion them down, but they came on faster. When they got up to him, the lead driver leaned out. He was big, florid, wearing a Stetson. He looked like a successful contractor or maybe a big landowner. The guy beside him looked like a defector from Skid Road.

“What’d yuh see?”

“A buck. Back there.” Buck pointed. “I tried to flag you, but you came on.”

“Where’d he go?”

“He was walking. He wasn’t spooked, just getting out of the road.”

“Wasn’t ahead of our dogs, then. No need to try to look for him back in there, is there?”

“I guess not.”

Stetson let in the clutch and rolled out onto the highway. The second truck pulled abreast, mounting a couple of grizzled replicas of Hungarian freedom fighters. One had a bandolier of shot shells across his broad chest.

“See somethin’?”

“A buck,” he said again.

They nodded and kept right on going, as if they were hitched to the bumper of the big man’s truck. A battered Jeep came along not far behind. When the traffic died down, Buck kept standing there, feeling the whitetail out there in the brush, not three hundred yards away, waiting for rush hour to be over.

He started walking down the center of the logging road in the rain, holding the big rifle carefully horizontal to keep water off the scope’s four-power eye. Christmas was very far away then, but home wasn’t. He had grown up yearning to hunt and then hunting, yearning for some guns and then owning some. That was all before it suddenly seemed to come over other people, who didn’t know anything at all about it, to call hunters bestial and guns evil and to start trumpeting through the news media on a holy war to end bestiality and evil by ending hunting and guns.

All of that was very far away now, too.

Now there was this deer waiting in the woods, and there was him. It was the old cat-and-mouse game, and each knew his part. The deer’s, to hold cover; the hunter’s, to step carefully closer and closer, bluff him out of hiding, and to shoot quickly and cleanly. Step, step, step…pause. Look carefully under every branch and behind every trunk. Now, really look. Could the deer have re-crossed the road while he spoke to the other hunters?

No. Buck knew the deer knew he was there. Step, step. Pause. Suddenly there was a dismayed snort, and the staccato thud of hooves — behind him.

Reflex took over. He pivoted, not remembering later how his feet moved, and as soon as he looked toward the sound, the rifle was snuggling into his shoulder, cross hairs magically centered on a driving, rippling shoulder. Peripheral vision of the white tail hoisted, of the beast soaring up in a brush-clearing leap — then the momentary doubt: the buck, or a doe traveling with it? He swung the sights up. Good God, a good rack! A big rack, bigger than it had looked in the binoculars…

The recoil of the big rifle was nothing, not remembered. His hands worked without volition — the expended shell racked clear, plopping in the mud, the solid snick of the bolt sliding the new one home, scope tracking, re-crossing — nothing. Then a glimpse — moving slow now, flag still aloft. One glimpse, no time for a shot. Then nothing. And for a long time, long after the sodden pine reaches soaked up the final whispering echoes of the shot, nothing. A miss?

He turned and waved and hollered down the rutted road to his new wife, along today for the ride. She got over in the driver’s seat and brought the car up.

“Did you get it?” she asked.

“I don’t know. That’s a refuge area over in there where it ran to,” he said. “I ‘m afraid to take the rifle with me. But maybe they won’t say anything if I just scout in a little, to see.”

“What if the game wardens come by?”

“Tell them what happened, and where I am. Here, I’ll put the rifle in the trunk so they can’t accuse you of hunting. Just wait here and keep the engine running and the heater hot…”

He left the road and started trying to feel out in his mind the moves the deer would have made. A big noise and possibly pain comes from the direction of the open trail, so you flare toward deeper cover. He moved slowly and used the binoculars a lot, wiping the lenses dry with a bandanna until it was too sodden to do anything but smear the water around. His pants began to feel as if they weighed fifteen extra pounds. Cold, clammy pounds.

He crisscrossed the area. Game trails, with water standing in them. The steady rattling of the rain in the dead leaves and bare branches of a stand of oaks. A patch of pink moss, shading toward ruby at one end, toward conventional moss green at the other.

Pink moss? Ruby?

His leather gloves were sopping wet anyway, so he dug fingers into the moss. Some of the pink came off on the leather. His annual winter virus kept him from getting the odor of it. He crouched along another few feet. A fresh-cut, deep hoof print, hidden beneath a ground-sweeping branch. Then a dime-size pink spot on another patch of moss. Finally, a blade of grass daubed capillary red, the kind of red you get when you nick yourself shaving.

The rain was coming down harder. A drop hit the blade of grass, then another, and the red disintegrated, bled down the shiny green into invisibility. Buck moved on.

The trail ended against a patch of cypress swamp with dank brown standing water. Just the kind of hammock deer used to throw hounds off the scent. What rain filtered through the sodden Spanish moss overhead dimpled the water into overlapping rings. The last sharp hoofprints were a dozen feet from the edge, pointing right at it. No more blood. No roiling of the mud beneath the surface of the water.

Buck squatted there for what seemed like a long time, waiting for some telltale sign or movement from the silent bog. The steady rain began to blur the sharp edges of the last tracks. He didn’t curse himself for missing. The only kind of telling wound that left so little blood was when you gut-shot him, and when you gut-shot him, the blood was deep red, and that flagged tail dropped like a shattered kite.

Hit solidly anywhere else at that range with a rifle as heavy as Buck’s, he wouldn’t have got this far. That’s why Buck used it, instead of the conventional fast-firing carbine. One clean shot, or a clean miss. He must have grazed the buck’s withers. “Just uh graze,” like they used to say in cowboy movies.

He didn’t wonder if the anti-hunters, in their hermetic environs, feeding their ignorance on shrink-wrapped beef and predigested theories about how to keep men from playing with sharp-pointed toys, would ever succeed in sealing these woods and his quarry from him. Or burn his fine guns in a furnace the way they once burned up books in Germany.

He just squatted there. It wasn’t supernatural or telepathic, and it wasn’t Zen. It was just him and the woods and the rain, and out there somewhere the quarry to be honored for escaping, but which he surely would kill tomorrow or the next day.

When he came back to the car through the rain, it was like awakening from a dream. He shucked his soaked Army field jacket with the wet threads hanging where his Army rank used to go. He dried himself and hugged the heater while she drove cautiously back toward the highway. The rain was getting serious and the low-slug car was better suited to interstates than muddy logging roads.

Christmas again. After three strange Christmases away from home in the Army. Back in their apartment, he hurried to clean the rifle and spread his clothes to dry by the big oil heater. There were Christmas presents to be purchased and hurried across the country to newly acquired in-laws. He showered and changed into city attire, knowing the boots and binoculars and gear all were there, still ready to do their job on a blood trail in the rain.

The winds still were buffeting downtown when they got there, whirling plastic cups and newsprint in a Christmas jig. They found a fine cuddly bear of pristine black and white in a specialty store. Then, in a department store’s toy section, he found a clever plastic replica of the Vietnam M-16 that sparkled gaily and went rat-tat-tat when the trigger was pulled.

“This for your nephew,” he said. “How old is he this year?”

“He’s four. Too young to understand how to work it.” She looked around uneasily. “I thought this store wasn’t going to sell toy guns this year.”

“I have never seen a boy who did not find out how to work a toy gun soon enough,” he said. He named a small cousin from his side of the family. “He’s not much older, and he sure liked that one I got him.”

She began to look pained. “It’s not really that, I guess. I don’t know whether my sister — well, she never buys the boys guns. She doesn’t believe in them. You know.”

So they didn’t buy the gun. But no, he didn’t know. His Gene Autry cap pistol had been his childhood pride-and-joy. Then his twin Longhorn Specials with imitation ivory grips; they fired fifty caps apiece. His grandfather had a shoemaker handcraft a leather twin-holster set for them. Buck knew he would never forget the sadness it gave him the Christmas he realized he was too old for a new gun-and-holster set. It was the year they came out with the Nicholls Six Shooter that loaded little round caps into imitation cartridges. A real honest-to-God six-shooter.

Somehow his magical world of cowboys and Indians, and his solid reality of cold weather and hunting, had been invaded by alien beings who saw John Dillinger where he saw a small boy nailing imaginary bad guys. Who saw dark minds plotting assassination and junta where he saw boys-grown-older chasing deer that had a better-than-even chance of getting missed. Or sometimes stung by a very near miss.

She was quiet on the walk back to the car. He was lost inside himself wondering about a lot of things. He marveled how her half-apologetic words at a bedazzling toy counter could slice right through his holiday enthusiasm and hurt way down deep.

Christmas again. Christmas Present, resembling Christmas Past. Burdened with gifts, with the cold wind shoving at him. But with the joy gone. He was a hunter who had once been a boy who spent Christmases past playing happily with shiny toy pistols, never once dreaming he was a monster.

He wondered if any of these other anonymous men on the street were his brothers in this. Orphans, in this bold new cold new world.

*Orphaned short story from 1968 that never made it into one of my published collections. Adapted from a published Sunday Magazine article.