The wind mounted again and John risked another step, guiding his boot through the fallen leaves with painstaking care.
He froze mid-step, as the wind slacked suddenly; a gulping breath.
Ten long seconds trickled down through the trees and he remained stationary, as effortlessly immobile as the young black locust beside him.
The spidery extremities of the locust suckers clutched at his woolen gators, and a low branch of the tree forked over his right shoulder. He leaned into it gently, gaining a measure of stability.
His grounded leg began to quiver, and he melted the tension of his flamingo pose.
Looking down slowly, he searched for a patch of moss and found one, but two feet away, just beyond his stride.
He eased his foot down, canting it on edge to minimize the noise.
Then the wind nudged again, and he skated ahead to the patch of moss.
Planting his right foot, a huge stride, he gained two more quick steps, his feet preceding the rest of his body in the gait of a barnyard fowl.
Breeze plunged through the treetops and slipped crackling across the forest floor.
He moved with it, plotting his steps, island hopping.
Ten more rooster struts brought him along side a modest cedar, and here he reconnoitered.
He reckoned his quarry to be 150 yards down the draw.
The periodic shuffling noise had drawn him over 200 yards and a half hour.
He had been on another course, intent on crossing the plateau above him to the next ridge over when he heard it.
It was intermittent, only enough louder than the scurrying of a squirrel as to suggest something larger at first. The noise ceased for a full two minutes while he debated his course.
Then a definitive crackle of deadwood sealed his decision.
He angled down the far side of the draw, judging the wind to be slightly crosswise to the gully, moving down the opposite side and flowing back up the flank that he now worked his way down.
The sound teased him, occurring only at every critical juncture of indecision. He would have forsaken his quest ten times, only to be lured on at the last by one more ambiguous rustle.
The pale yellow sun drew down far away across the next mountain into bubbling salmon cumulus and stringy orange cirrus, and the half-moon floated overhead, still outshone by the sinking sun like a flashlight beam in the daytime.
He took a knee incrementally, reverently.
His patella found a rock skulking beneath the forest carpet and his mouth twitched but he absorbed the impact into the tendon below his kneecap without flinching.
. . .kept looking ahead, taking in the big picture, searching for horizontal lines out of place, a betrayal not synchronized with the respiration of the wind.
He saw nothing.
He mapped out another twenty steps.
To his right, the angle of the hillside steepened sharply and the trees staggered up the thinning soil.
The earth atrophied in toward the spine of the ridge, and limestone vertebrae sloughed off the crumbling clay, studding the sharp crease with protruding teeth.
To his left, across the gully, the trees were thick and the undergrowth impenetrable.
His path was fraught with cedars, big, brushy swags that carpeted the ground underneath them with yielding compost and feathered the passing hunter silently.
The only detour lay around an ill-placed elderberry grouped close together with a low-sprouting cedar. To go around on the upside would grant him little cover, to find his way on the downside would crowd his prey too soon. He would have to belly crawl under the cedar.
He wanted the noise before he moved again, to zero in on his target.
He got it.
A dull thump, the sound of his boot on the bedroom floor when he shucked it off, preceded by a rustle, the sound of a baseball rolling through the fallen leaves in the front yard.
He waited for the next passing sigh.
The wind muffled his next ten steps, masked his slither underneath the cedar, and died on the other side.
He lay among dead brambles and pungent cedar and glassed the gully with his scope.
Suddenly starting at a fuzzy blur of white and buckskin appaloosa , he glared over the top and made out a peeling sycamore with a low, deformed offshoot running almost parallel to the ground.
He deepened his breathing, slowing his heart rate, barring the floodgates of endorphins, preempting sweat and lowered his head again.
With the falling temperature sucking the breeze harder down the ridge, now was no time for perspiration to dilute the carefully applied scent mask.
He lowered his head to his extended right arm, just listening.
He knew he could hear anything within 600 yards in the dead pause.
The trees, excepting the evergreen, were unseasonably naked, the green flexibility of branch and leaf drained and withered. Sound moved through the shivering trees unhindered.
On top of the plateau, perhaps a quarter mile behind him, a squirrel prattled.
Across the gully, a sapless branch only just bigger than a twig toppled and clung in a black walnut tree.
Twenty feet ahead, one remaining oak leaf died and rasped down through the harsh web to join the cycle of death and life and death.
Nothing moved silently in this brittle arbor.
There came a sound to the void that grew upon him, quintessential not only in its stealth, but also in its organicity. When at last it leaked from his sub consciousness to the more forward corridors of his mind, it irritated him that it had stolen upon him so unawares.
He stole a look upward, craning to locate the source.
Off to the left, a faint contrail enlarged and dissipated in the high sky.
Ahead, the offending aircraft caught as much of the waning sun as a flinging drop of water.
What irritated him as much the noise was the obtrusion of the passengers slouched in their respective rows.
Casting a jaundiced eye upon them, he saw in rear coach a pudgy, wobbly, self-satisfied man doffing his Longhorn’s cap over his fleeing hairline, fingering Sky magazine with oily fingertips. In front coach he saw a family of three, screaming and cajoling, the mother looking wistfully at a full-page travel advertisement of rippling bronze and silky russet swept round in elegant swimwear, of perpetual sunsets and frothy breakers. He saw the business traveler set apart from them by the veil, as highly symbolic as that shroud of concealment hung upon golden rings in Solomon’s temple, but sadly, not as thick. He saw the dashing lines on the Blackberry, the dancing fingers on the Mac.
Perhaps most infuriating was the sleeper two seats ahead, presumptuously arranged just so in a window seat with her coiffed hair salvaged by a tubular flight pillow tucked in the curve of her neck. The sun, not so dimmed by its proximity to earth’s atmosphere, slanted in the multi-paned Plexi-glass, firing up millions of invisible scars left by 700 mile-an-hour airborne sediment. Blinking daintily, she reaches groggily for the shutter, nails softly scrabbling, and shuts out all that does not pertain to her nap. (That scraping keratin set his teeth on edge at least as much as the screaming turbines.)
In the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot discussed the recent emasculated mediation of their union and the voracious consumption of their retirement accounts.
Back on earth, a jaunty sow bug scaled a perpendicular twig eight inches from his face.
Slowly, he crooked his right arm back and tucked his forefinger behind his thumb.
Clenching teeth, he flicked so viciously it shook his shoulder and for a falling moment the roly poly paralleled the trajectory of that airborne vessel.
He fixated again upon the constellation of trees that contained his prey.
Short cedars clustered so tightly with scrub oaks that the evergreens appeared to sprout deciduous branches from their folds. From the midst of the gathering sprung a black walnut, so towering and so spreading even in its autumnal embarassment that it might’ve hatched from rotting hull when the hunter wore leather on his feet and fur on his head.
Beyond and obscured by that historical marker was the approximate ground upon which the potential trophy stood, perhaps even now suspecting that it was hunted.
A sudden, boyish smile, suppressed and crooked, creased his face beneath the mask.
He saw the upraised head, the molten gaze, the trembling, ungainly crown.
The thought converged energy and focus and he gladly waited longer.
With the onset of dusk, it would doubtless emerge on the uphill side of the grove. If he was any competent reader of sign, it had not passed this way, and was doubtless en route to better grazing on the plateau above.
He melded with the ground, a perfect predator.
The sling wound around his right forearm and his left hand cradled the barrel of the Ruger.
The day’s growth on his chin conceived an itch and he scraped the stubble against the synthetic stock, working his jaw in the manner of those aboard that disappearing jetliner with pressurized heads.
The breeze came again, slipping over the ridge and plunging downhill to find its level.
. . . Gusting.
He took advantage and wiggled his left ankle which was beginning to ache and flexed his right bicep which was beginning to cramp.
The wind ratcheted up and he strained to hear.
Leaves rattled. Acorns rained.
The smaller trees quailed.
A sudden dissonance in the wild song startled him, as did the sight of a scampering object, cylindrical and pinkish.
He seethed. The sun-bleached Coke can ambled over dried leaves and clattered over protruding stone, flushed from its hiding place by the wind. It spun and tumbled end over end in the gale, and the popped tab rolled about inside like the ball in a jingle bell.
It found its next home in a bramble bush, joyfully leaping into the tangle with a screeching din.
He grimly glassed the grove again and thought of the one who had let fall such an object in such a place.
A group of them, roaring through the glade on ATV’s or worse, dirt bikes. His blood curdled at the scream of two-stroke engines trampling upon the solitude, running wild like un-churched toddlers through the Sistine chapel. They had swarmed up the valley with the tranquility of a flock of swamp-boats, veered up the draw, then up the steepening grade because. . .it was there, and idled here, laughing at nothing.
One of them pulled a Coke from the back boot, and popped it open, swigging it down, guzzling carbonated caffeine, and artificial flavor, and caramel coloring.
Another pointed up the draw and revved his engine. Draining the last draw, the cretin held the can up high like a trophy, snapped the tab inside, crumpled it with a flourish, let it free-fall to the ground, and flung earth from his tires after the others.
He saw it all and wondered: If litter has lain so long that it has become as native as the youngest saplings and the decomposing deadfalls around it, does it become such a part of the composite that its raucous relocation becomes as mundane to the ears of wildlife as that of a dropping walnut or falling tree?
The thought, as helpful as it might be, pained him.
Would a trout in a mountain stream not dart away at the sight of cellophane wrapper, or did caribou really group around the Alaska pipeline?
He almost snarled. Would a city fright at the sight of a mounting Teton in the midst of its downtown grid, or would subway passengers yawn at a timber wolf rising from the floor?
The sun bled like a punctured yolk and pooled all over the boiling clouds and the osmotic chill probed up through the wool and the flannel.
It came again, the sound he waited for.
The wallop of a boot dropped on carpet, the crunch of a ball in the leaves, identical to the former sound.
Quickly, he ducked his head and glared through the glass at the magnified arboreal tangle. He thought he saw a branch nodding with the acknowledgement of some passing force.
If he were immobile before, he now became as inexorable as the eroding soil. His breath escaped from his lips as silently as the vapor dispersed.
His focus gained interminability. A glacier might have overtaken and buried him. Yet, his blood was quickened and warmed.
He felt the unforced keenness of feline intensity measure every movement.
His relaxation balanced unconcernedly on the edge of a knife
The term “buck fever” brought another blurting smile to his face.
The climax of the hunt brought him anything but uncertainty. Rather, it distilled all the forces of instinct and habitual skill he had acquired into an effortless concentration.
The utter joy of his ability surged in his flowing blood.
He had plenty of hunting buddies that dissolved into thumbs and nerves at ground zero.
Their passion undid them at the crucial moment.
He thought of that well-meaning enthusiast that had accompanied him two years ago on a guided elk-hunt in the Rockies. After two nearly successful kills, spoiled within inches by his clumsy friend, Roger, the guide had jokingly referred to him in the terms of an amorous adolescent boy. Whether it was the guides remark or his own amusement that he didn’t attempt to conceal, Roger had fallen uncharacteristically silent, and minutes later announced he was all in, and going back to the campsite.
Within an hour, they had made a kill.
“Hope I didn’t offend him.” the guide offered as they field dressed the elk.
To which he had responded with a cryptic chuckle. He knew his friend well, since high school, and knew that his fragile ego was no doubt completely disassembled and when they returned he would be well on his way to erasing his many thwarted attempts at hunting and adolescent exploits with the aid of Jim or Jack or any other of the empathetic spirits packed in the Igloo cooler. Tomorrow, he would awake with a splitting headache but his pride would have made a miraculous recovery, a triumph of medicinal whiskey.
In particular, Roger would be swilling away a memory of their high school prom night.
Eight years prior, a 3 a.m. conclave of giddy, freshly graduated eighteen year old boys lounging on tailgates and sprawling on hoods was surreptitiously joined by the stocky second-string lineman. John was sitting in his truck, nipping a bottle of Corona. Roger had found him quickly, and snatched a communal flask balanced on the top of his pickup. He choked on it, and began sobbing softly. Head tucked, he jumped into the cab of John’s truck. Ill-at-ease, John had asked nothing of his friend, just turned the music up a little louder. A half-hour later, with the glow of the dash lights on his face, Roger unloaded with the abject pathos of a penitent sinner in a dark confessional. When he related the conclusion of his failed conquest, “I . . .couldn’t.”, John asked, “Couldn’t what?”
Roger swore for a solid thirty seconds, claiming back some of his obliterated manhood, punctuating his outburst with a vicious punch at the dashboard. It was then that John had broken into a premeditated laughter, gulping hysterically, his beer shaking in his hand. Some of the other guys gathered in to share the fun, and Roger had quietly opened the passenger door, and stumbled for his car, taking the flask with him. Amidst demands for the joke, John protested mildly, snickering between sips, and then proceeded to let it be dragged from him. The punch line left several helpless boys lying gasping in the gravel, and several more sagging against the bed of his truck, pounding feebly on the rim of the bed.
He told himself the next day it was the liquor that had loosened his tongue, and when Roger had rejoined him two days later, mumbling that the girl had apparently “kissed and told,” he cussed her along right along with him.
Laughing, he told another friend about it later. “Only thing wrong with that is, there never was a kiss!”
He never drank anymore. He didn’t need alcohol. He didn’t need to forget anything.
It wouldn’t be long now. He stretched imperceptibly, thrusting his legs out behind him and slowly rotating both ankles. Then he swiveled his head, his eyes never leaving the grove in front of him.
The noise came again, more definitely this time, maybe closer. He never moved.
The sun had submerged into the roiling cloudbank, and blasted rays of purpling light up over the horizon.
The day was dying, and a confident knowledge of the habits and feeding patterns of large bucks rooted him to the spot.
Glancing up at the void sky where he’d last seen the west-bound jet-liner, he just made out floating puffs of exhaust, blotting the darkness with faint sponge-marks.
The wind was picking up even more, with slight pauses where the infrequent breezes had been an hour before.
He flicked his tongue out of the left corner of his mouth, moistening the skin next to his lips. Then the right side. The left daub dried quickly, the right took longer. The wind was still in his favor, if only slightly.
He waited patiently, only clenching his teeth occasionally to assuage the tightening sinus pressure across his cheeks and temples.
The last rays of the sun vanished, the swift shroud of a late fall evening drawing quickly over the overhead dome, sprouting dim stars in its advance.
He waited still, not particularly bothered at the prospect of an illegal kill, but as the last light hemorrhaged into the dusk, he weighed his narrowing time window against his night vision and began to consider the idea of stalking again, but on his hands and knees.
The idea grew on him as the night grew on the day.
Imperative as time was, the challenge it presented made a stronger argument. To enter that lair and steal upon his prey. Not to outwait, but to outwit.
Eagerness spread through him quickly and he blessed the wind as he rose to all fours.
It was an absolute Indian aspect he presented, a formless patch of charcoal in the gathering gloom that did not move, no, it seeped across the diminishing yardage of egg-shell leaves and ceramic twigs.
He entered the upside point of the cluster of trees ten minutes later, and melted further inward, slithering, all elbows and toes.
When the sound came again, it was so close it sounded as the thud of a hoof and he petrified, for fear the prey had caught wind of the predator and was bolting.
But nothing except a soft rustle trailed the impact.
He strained to see now, unwilling to go further until he had made out some aspect of his quarry.
At last, he made out an intermittent movement, a horizontal image stirring with the unconcern of a buck nipping at foliage.
Nerves he had now, not jumpy, nor of steel, but of spider silk! They only swayed in the heated blast of adrenaline, holding strong, but not taut.
He rose like a mist from the forest floor. He found no clear path through to the target, so in the absolute supremacy of the perfect predator, he stood majestically, all joints silent, even in this cold, head level, rifle butt growing up into his armpit.
At last, he leveled and looked through the sights underneath the scope. He could now make out the network of antlers, nodding and swaying.
He took the trigger breath; long, steady inhalation, brief hold, then longer, steadier, exhalation, finger pressing the trigger like a plunger, knowing the exact ounce of pressure that drove the firing pin into the awaiting primer, releasing the kinetic death that went where he sent it.
He paused. This moment contained the essence of life. It was in these seconds, when he weighed death in his hands, that he knew what he was made for.
He had always believed that every soul held the potential of a diamond. But few withstood the pressure to harden past coal.
He’d discovered the joy and realized the passion. The rest of his life worked well. Everything else fell into place.
Why would anyone be given such a proclivity? If there were a purpose for everything, a mission for every talent, what path might his inherent skill lead him down?
His eyes narrowed, smiling.
Encapsulated within his gift was one small counterweight to the balance of nature.
He was the yang to his prey’s yin.
If there was a time to kill, there were those gifted to kill.
Benevolence swelled his soul, gratitude toward all things living that contributed to the whole ordered universe.
The grass gave to the rain, and the rain to the grass.
But also the rabbit to the wolf, and the wolf to the rabbit.
He pulled the trigger.
The trees around him blanched and he barely heard the sound, never felt the recoil.
Before the last echo had escaped from the winding valley below, he had slipped the mini Mag Lite from his belt and flooded the grove with LED.
He stepped forward, and saw a young sapling bent almost parallel to the ground. At its end grew a curiously perpendicular network of branches. It was nodding slightly, like the ungainly antlers of a foraging buck.
Behind him, something bolted.
Swiveling in his tracks, he clapped the light alongside the raised rifle.
Thirty yards away, a huge buck scrambled up the draw, flaring white tail stark in the dusk.
Without thinking, he slid his right hand back to the trigger and planted his right foot.
Something large and round rolled under the sole of his boot, and he went down hard, light splashing off branches, deafening report resounding off the hills, nose scraping on the ground, cheekbone crunching into the abrasive forearm of his Ruger.
He heard the bounding escape receding up the grade.
In the shock of silence, one more hedge-apple fell from high above, crackling down through the dead leaves, striking him on the shoulder with the thud of a hunting boot falling on carpet, and rolling through the leaves like a baseball, coming to rest in the bluish glare of the LED Mag Lite.
Book Review: Peace for Today
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