They ringed the clearing that crisp autumn day in November 2006, waiting for him to come out of the trees. The clearing was large and sunny, near a ravine. It was quiet that morning; the only sounds were the birds chirping and the faint echo of water tumbling over rocks in the stream that ran into the gully. There were four of them, three eager to take him down, one undecided about it. “Like three damn hounds with guns,” he thought. The tracker, leaning against a silver birch with rifle cradled in his arms, had a sick feeling in his gut about the whole thing. Ben Swanson had led the other three straight to this site early that morning in the crackling dawn. Quiet, confident and in control, Ben now wanted to turn tail and run like a scared puppy and didn’t know why.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t done this before. He had many “trophies”, so to speak. Years of this had earned him some respect, but today the whole situation seemed different. The other three guys he’d known and worked with for years. He was confident of their abilities. Okay, Bruce was a bit iffy on trigger control, Ted couldn’t see all that good anymore and Jack…well, Jack followed along just to be part of something. Overall though, the four made a capable team.
So why this gnawing…whatever the hell it was? It pissed him off. Maybe it was time for a new…new anything. Just not this anymore. He just didn’t feel the fire anymore inside him.
The odd part was that this quarry wasn’t any different than the others, really. He was older definitely, and a bit bigger than average. Ben could tell that by the depths of his tracks and the length of his stride.
He was a wily one, too. He’d been eluding the others for weeks now and they were feeling and looking like damn fools. Ben had gotten so tired of hearing exaggerated stories about “Bucky” as he had been dubbed. He’d be seen 25 miles north of here in the morning and then back by nightfall. Not even remotely possible with the terrain in the area, not to mention the time involved following those deer trails. Deer didn’t walk in a straight line so Bucky would have meandered all over the hills if he kept to trail. The name irritated Ben too, for some reason. Disrespectful.
Ben knew that a folk lore was in the making and that Bucky would get bigger and smarter with each telling. He really didn’t want to bring this one down. It was amusing watching people run in circles and he’d developed a sort of respect for Buck. Wishing he’d put his bourbon flask in his pocket that morning, he mentally and physically prepared himself for what would happen and sighed.
It took quite awhile, waiting in the morning shadows. The prey knew something was going on that wasn’t normal. He watched the clearing, scanning the edges but could detect no movement. Rubbing his shoulder lightly against the silver birch he stood under, he eased an itch.
Immediately, another materialized on his left leg. Rubbing one leg against the other, he leaned forward from the birch to crane his head out a bit further. Nothing. Looking up at the sun sparkling through the trees, he made his decision and gingerly stepped a few feet out. Turning his big head, brown eyes scanned left, right, left again. He stopped, and listened.
Startled, they saw him materialize out of the shadows as if an apparition. For a few seconds, he was admired. Tall, muscular and handsome even with the gray on his face. Ben straightened up, heart pounding with a rush of adrenaline. Shaky fingers thumbed off the safety, then put it back on. He could almost hear Bruce’s fingers jittering on the trigger, eager to fire. They knew to wait though, until he cleared the trees. If one of them missed, back into the shadows he’d go and be lost again for days. Ted probably hadn’t even spotted him yet, not through those dirty pop bottle glasses of his. Jack was waiting to see what everyone else would do.
Buck walked close to the edge of the trees, knowing instinctively that his coat blended in with the sun stippled dimness and made him difficult to see. He moved smoothly and stealthily, a practiced veteran. He walked a few paces, stopped. Head up and alert, he listened, then moved on. The sun glinted off of the gray on his face as he wove in and out of the dappled shadows. He was thirsty and the water in the gully wasn’t very far. He lifted his shaggy head and with a long perusal of the clearing, stepped completely out into the sunlight.
The first shot caught him in the shoulder, spinning him around. Blood streaming, he kept his feet and made a break towards the ravine, knowing he could find cover there. He could hear them burst out of the trees across the clearing. He knew he was faster and was sure he could make it.
Running full out, chest heaving with exertion, he felt his left leg disappear under him. He went down but scrambled back up within seconds, eyes wild, heart pounding, and breath whistling in and out of his open mouth. Turning in the other direction, he limped-ran-stumbled back towards the cover of the trees.
He heard more shots, someone yelling, and felt the bullets smack into his back and the side of his face. He fell but somehow struggled to his feet again. He couldn’t see much, not with the blood running in his eyes. Everything was viewed through a fiery red haze as he turned again and pushed his tired damaged body towards his only hope at this point-the water and the ravine.
He could taste the memory of it on the back of his throat, sweet and cold.
Ben couldn’t believe what he was seeing! Running out of the cover of tree line, he saw Bruce firing his gun like it was an SKS. Bruce ran, stopped, aimed and fired, ran a few more feet, stopped, fired again and again, not even aiming anymore. He had a dazed, drooling look on his face as he shot. Ted was there as well, off to the left and back a bit. He too was pumping out bullets like a crazed man. Jack was firing into the air wreaking havoc with everyone’s nerves, screaming nonsense at no one and nothing in particular.
“Stop! Stop you assholes! Let him get to the water, to cover!” Ben yelled at the top of his lungs as he ran towards the carnage going on in front of him. “Stop shooting! He’ll have to lie down there to rest!” No one listened. They just kept shooting and shooting manically.
Buck valiantly pushed himself across the ground on his chest, towards safety and the gully. Blood streamed from his wounds. Half his face was gone in a mess of bone and tissue. His left leg hung by a few tendons and the right was useless at this point, broken by someone’s bullet. He could hear the water gurgling.
Ben kept running, knowing Buck couldn’t possibly see anymore and that it was pure adrenaline and the will to live keeping him going. He left a trail of blood and gore as he inched his way to the stream, the three men walking behind and now simply shooting the ground around him in glee.
By the time Ben got to the scene, the shooting had stopped. Buck was still alive, but barely. The other three were huddled together, staring at what they had done.
“Shit!” said Jack, “Ain’t a whole lot left to him is there?”
Ted shook his head and turned away, with a strange look on his face.
Bruce was the scary one. He had a look of something wild in his eyes, finger still on the trigger of the rifle. Ben had the distinct feeling that if any of them moved too quickly, Bruce would instinctively fire.
Walking slowly over, Ben looked down and blue eyes met brown. No words were spoken; none were needed. The man and the deer that lay dying at his feet understood what had happened.
The man had seen it in other men in his past; the deer had seen it in the coyote and wolf. Bloodlust did not differentiate between animals. Ben knelt down and put his hand on the buck’s heaving side and said hoarsely, “It was not a just contest, my brother. We both know that.”
He turned and scowled at the men behind him as he drew his hunting knife. They stepped back quickly, not understanding what was happening but instinctively knowing Ben was now dangerous.
Ben looked up at the sun coming through the trees for a moment, then gently bent the buck’s noble head back and finished what had been started. Blood gushed and the two great heads went down. Ben bent his head and drew in the last breath of the deer. As the other three watched, blood slowed and the fire in the eyes of both animals-one human, one not-faded, then winked out.