Authors: Matthew F Jones
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Suspense, #FIC031000
Breathing heavily, John stops next to a thorn-apple tree where the deer must have rubbed its wound because the trunk is marred by blood, and from there the trail gets redder. From the way the grass and bushes are bent above the blood, John guesses the buck is dragging one leg. He thinks it can’t last much longer, and, not for the first time, he worries about how he’s going to lug a two-hundred-pound carcass all those miles back to his house. Maybe he can get Simon Breedlove to help by giving him some of the meat. He worries, too, that the farther he has to cart the deer, the more chance he has of stumbling across someone else.
Wiping his brow, he starts across the pasture. It’s not even nine o’clock and already the temperature feels like it’s gone up twenty degrees. John’s clothes are soaked with sweat and he’s thirsty enough to wring them out and drink it. A hundred yards ahead, at the pasture’s edge, he sees the deep grass swaying back and forth. He guesses it’s the deer, but can’t see it to shoot, then suddenly the buck stumbles out of the grass onto the abandoned dirt road that winds up the northwest side of the mountain to Old Man Hollenbach’s played-out
stone quarry. It just stands there, sniffing the air around its knees, looking dazed and ready to cave in. John raises the shotgun to his shoulder but there’s too many trees between him and the deer to get a clear shot off, and besides, he figures by now he can pretty much walk up and put the animal out of its misery. Then the buck lets out a loud snort and, dragging its hindquarters, moves off down the road toward the quarry.
John quietly curses, not because he’s worried about losing the deer—unless it can scale rock walls, there’s only one way in or out of the quarry—but because he’s tired of chasing it and is sorry, too, that the buck has had to endure so much suffering. He hears a dog barking off somewhere and starts to worry again about being caught and wishes it were colder so that he could hide the carcass in the quarry out of sight from buzzards and coyotes and come back for it the next day before sunup. Then he decides maybe he ought to butcher the deer right there in the quarry—behind one of the slag heaps—and bring the meat home in two or three trips. A grouse suddenly breaks cover almost beneath his feet and the frantic beating of its wings nearly gives John a heart attack and he thinks, “Get this the hell over with.”
When he reaches the road five minutes later, the deer is out of sight, but a trail of blood leads directly from there to the quarry, five hundred yards in the distance. The grass on the road looks slightly impacted to John and some of the smaller rocks freshly dislodged. He kneels down and takes a closer look, but can’t tell whether the road has recently been driven on or only disrupted by the hailstorm two days before. “I’m goin’ to go kill that deer,” John tells himself,
standing up and starting down the road in a nervous half-jog. “Take what meat I can easy carry, and clear out pronto.”
A flock of blue jays suddenly flies up from the quarry and starts squawking, flat out scaring John until he remembers that right about then the deer, bleeding and snorting, had probably stumbled inside and startled the birds. Still, he can feel his heart pounding in his ears. Slowing to a walk, he raises the gun to his waist. He smells spruce, the trees lining both sides of the road. At the entrance to the quarry, a small canyon with fifty-foot granite walls, he reminds himself that the deer would be crazed enough to charge whatever gets too close, and could, with those antlers, do some damage.
He flicks off the shotgun’s safety, then warily enters the canyon overgrown with briars, pine bushes, and crawling vines, stops just inside, looks around, and sees the same half-a-dozen slag heaps, junked truck chassis, gutted generator, plastic-covered lean-to, that have been there for years, and off to the right, the deep water-filled pit where John, as a boy, caught frogs, and behind it, the circular opening in the wall he had never dared enter, on one side of which stands a rusted shovel and pick.
John looks down for the deer’s blood and at the same time hears to his left a grunt, then branches cracking. He shoulders the gun, wheels toward the sound, spots behind a briar thicket a moving patch of brown-and-white, aims at it, and fires. He figures he’s hit the deer in the head or heart because, without a sound, it drops from sight as if its legs have been severed.
John levers out the spent shell. Dangling the shotgun in one hand, he starts walking toward the thicket, when suddenly
a loud snort sounds directly behind him. He spins around and sees charging out from behind a slag heap, straight for him, the injured buck.
John doesn’t even have time to cock or shoulder the gun before the deer is so close he can feel the phlegm flying from its flared nostrils and read the rage in its pain-maddened eyes.
Instinctively hop-stepping to his left, John grabs the rifle barrel with both hands, then swings it upward as hard as he can. With a loud crack, the butt connects with the deer’s jaw a moment before its antlers pierce John’s left shoulder. He goes down and the buck, standing above him, lowers its head as if to gore him, then suddenly lets out a pained bleat, starts to tremble as if it’s been electrically shocked, and drops in a heap next to John.
He rolls to his right, slowly pushes himself with his hands into a squat, then stands. With the effort, the pain in his gored and bleeding shoulder doesn’t increase or radiate. A good sign, thinks John. He extends his arm gradually forward and back, then gingerly loops it in a full circle, heartened that he has full motion in the joint.
At his feet, the deer suddenly twitches, its legs kicking out as if it will rise. Startled, John jumps back. Then the buck lies still. John sees it isn’t going anywhere. His shotgun butt has crushed its jaw, forcing its teeth into a grotesque grin; its rear quarters are a mass of blood, thistle-matted fur, and exposed bone; it’s exhaling as much fluid as oxygen; its eyes are clouded as though it’s already in the afterlife. Looking down at the dying animal, John has the same sad feeling as
he did watching his father doing likewise in a hospital bed fourteen years before.
He picks up his shotgun from the grass-and weed-covered gravel, starts to cock it, then, changing his mind, wraps both hands around the barrel, hoists the butt like a post-hole digger above the deer’s head, and brings it forcefully down. The deer’s skull collapses like a rotten vegetable. The buck groans once, for several seconds twitches again, then lies still. Placing the gun on the ground, John thinks it shouldn’t have come to this. The buck should have died in the pines from a single shot.
He reaches up, pulls off his torn sweatshirt, wads it into a ball, then dabs with it at his injured shoulder until enough blood has been removed for him to see a jagged puncture wound, half an inch deep, oozing a slow, steady stream. He unwads the shirt, grips it at both sides of the tear, and rips it in two. He wraps one piece tight around his bicep, just above where he’s bleeding, binding it with a square knot, and the other securely around the wound.
Fighting a sudden urge to turn and run from the quarry, he takes a deep breath and tries to calm the fluttery feeling in his stomach. He picks up the shotgun, wipes its butt on the grass, and closes its breech. He looks down once more at the deer, then over at the briars. Holding the gun ready at his side, he slowly walks the twenty-five yards over to the thicket, stops in front of it, and with the shotgun’s barrel moves the forward branches aside. He tries to peer through the tangled thicket to the far side, but it’s dense as a sponge, and he can’t see anything but more branches and briars. Nor can he hear anything, not even the blue jays, which, oddly,
have gone mute. “Whatever’s there,” thinks John, “is bad hurt or dead.”
He remembers the flash of brown-and-white he saw, and the shovel and pick standing—not lying—by the hollowed-out spot in the wall behind him. He remembers reading in a book once about how lives are begun, altered, and wiped out in a second, and something else about people only coming to know themselves through tragedy. “Where did that thought come from?” he wonders. “And why? I’m a good hunter,” he tells himself. “I followed a wounded, crazed deer into a box canyon, heard an animal grunt behind me, saw it move, then shot it.”
He walks rapidly to the right of the patch, ten feet wide at least and almost that tall, and without hesitating rounds the corner. On the far side, on the ground five feet in front of him, he sees the worn bottoms of two sneakered feet, then blue-jean-covered legs, a slim torso adorned by an earth-stained, white T-shirt, and a dirty-blond clump of hair protruding from beneath a floppy brown hat. The body has a circular sweat spot on its lower back and lies facedown behind the brambles, arms thrown out in front of it toward a small denim satchel.
John is hit by a wave of nausea. Instinctively, he flicks on the shotgun’s safety, drops the gun at his feet, runs up to the body, kneels next to it, places one hand on the white neck beneath the hair clump, and feels for a pulse. He doesn’t find one. “Come on,” he says aloud. He reaches his hands beneath the body’s warm, damp stomach, then carefully rolls it over. He sees first, in the left center of the chest, the slug’s gaping
entry wound, then a woman with her eyes wide open. “Please, God,” says John. “No.”
He raises his balled fists to the sides of his head, closes his eyes, and prays that when he opens them the dead woman will be transposed into a dead deer, dog, or bear. When he looks again, the body is still human, only now John sees a girl. She is maybe sixteen, with crystal-blue eyes, blossom-shaped clumps of freckles on both cheeks, a small space between her upper incisors where a piece of gum or chewable candy is lodged. The clump of blond hair is a ponytail. John looks up at the sky. It looks just as it did five minutes before. He can’t figure out how that can be.
He loses sense of time and objectivity. He sits down on a small rock next to the body and, as the sun heats his naked back, declares himself a murderer. For the moment, he forgets that the body is even there. He focuses only upon his act of killing another human being. He would like to spread the blame around, but can find no one else to fault, not even the dead girl for wearing tan and white in the woods, because it’s not even hunting season and John, after all, is a trespassing poacher.
He picks a small stick up from the quarry floor and doodles with it in the dirt. The blue jays perched above him begin to sing again. A red fox wanders into the quarry, stops and sniffs the deer carcass, then, possibly sensing John’s presence, turns and bounds out again. A hog snake slithers over the dead girl’s feet. The crows caw, alerting others to the death.
John thinks about how he has grown up in and around
these woods—on the Nobie side of the mountain—and, like his father and grandfather, has hunted them since he was a boy, and though they fought in wars and he didn’t, he is the first among them to kill someone. He thinks that if his father hadn’t lost the Moon family farm, with its rolling meadows and three hundred acres of game-rich forest, John would not have to trespass and poach to feed his wife and son. They might even still live with him. He looks at his watch. Almost an hour has passed. His left shoulder throbs. His shirt is damp around the wound, but the bleeding, for the most part, seems to have stopped.
He forces himself to stand up, walk over to the dead girl, look down at her lying in the grass like a rag doll casually tossed aside. Boiling with black flies, wine-colored blood slowly oozes from her open chest. John reaches down, brushes several of the flies away, then pulls back his hand wet with blood starting to congeal. He thinks of the hundreds of animals he has shot, gutted, and cut into strips of meat. All the blood he has seen. The wounded deer that he chased for miles to kill. Blood is blood, he thinks, wiping the girl’s on his pants. And dead is dead.
He moves his gaze from her chest to her face. She is beautiful, he thinks, not like a greenhouse flower, but like a wild rose raised in bright sunshine, bitter cold, torrential rain. Sun-chapped lips, parted as if to speak, a bent nose, slightly running, make her seem still alive. A tiny anchor-shaped birthmark mars her right cheek. Kneeling down near her head, John smells orange-blossom perfume, the same three-dollar-a-bottle fragrance he used to buy for his wife. What is your name? he silently asks her. Where are you from? What
were you doing in the quarry by yourself? He bends forward and tenderly kisses her lips, then, shocked at his own behavior, quickly rears back and glances around the canyon, up the rock walls, into the white-pine and cedar-tree forest orbiting the upper rim, as if someone might be watching him. Suddenly John feels certain someone is. The thought hits him like a punch: she wasn’t alone. He sees nothing to substantiate this, though. He reaches down and with his index fingers gently closes the girl’s eyes.
He stands up, walks over to the blue satchel, picks it up, carries it back over to the rock where he had been sitting, sits down again, then opens the satchel. Inside he finds a woman’s pink bikini underpants, matching gray socks adorned by galloping horses, a T-shirt with a winding, white-capped river on its front and, on back, “Ride the Wild Snake,” a wax-paper bag containing a partially eaten tuna-fish sandwich, a half-filled plastic water bottle, two rolled marijuana cigarettes, an open box of Kools, a nylon tan wallet, and a jackknife.
John takes the items from the satchel, places them in a neat circle on the ground between his feet, and, for several minutes, sits there looking at them, feeling as if he’s opened a door to the dead girl’s life and not sure he’s up to walking through it. Again he’s hit with the uneasy feeling that he’s not alone, that someone is watching to see what he’ll do next. When he hears a small plane fly over the mountain, he wonders, for a panicked moment, if someone might be searching for the girl. He looks up, shielding his eyes from the sun. The plane is so high it’s only a silvery dot marring his vision. Beneath it, a hundred or so yards above the quarry,
a large pair of turkey vultures casually circle. John silently screams, “Why’d you put her here today, God, of all days?”