Bill Blair rolled his window down a crack and tipped another empty beer can into the night. He’d been driving two hours and had two more to go before he reached his hunting cabin. He drank beer to cut the monotony.
Ahead, at the limit of his sight, he saw a human figure, limned in the monochrome of his headlights. As he approached the figure, its arm lifted, thumb extended. The night was chilly and the road dark.
Bill had to make up his mind about the hitchhiker in a split second., because he didn’t have a set policy to pick up or refuse them. At the last instant, he swung to the right and thrust his foot onto the brake pedal. The truck scrunched to a halt on the gravel shoulder. While the hitchhiker ran up unseen in the darkness from behind, Bill rummaged under the seat for his .38. He set it inside his shirt where he could fire it left-handed at the passenger if necessary.
The hitchhiker opened the door.
“Thanks for stopping, man,” he said, climbing in. “I haven’t seen anyone for hours.”
“No problem,” said Bill. “Where you headed?”
“I can get you to Pepper Creek.”
“Two hours closer. I can try my luck or curl up in the leaves.”
Bill didn’t want to look too directly at his passenger. He grinned and laughed nervously. He didn’t mention his cabin on the ridge above Pepper Creek, either. He didn’t want to hear any crap if, in two hours, he preferred to kick this stranger onto the roadside rather than offer him shelter.
“Want a beer?” Bill asked.
“Thanks,” said the hitchhiker. “My name’s Theo Buckman.”
“Bill,” said Bill. “Cooler’s by your feet. Gimme one too.” He didn’t want to lean forward with the gun in his shirt. It might slide out.
“You up here for opening day?” asked Theo.
“Live around here?”
“Nah. Come out from the city.”
“So. Weekend hunter.”
“Yeah, what about it?” Bill’s tone was only a little defensive. Theo’s had been hard to assess. It might have been scornful.
“Nothing, really. You like venison?”
“Not much. It’s all right. I like shooting.”
“What do you do with the deer?”
“A good rack I’ll take home. If I’m not too far from the road I’ll drag a carcass out and give it to a friend.”
“What if it turns out to be smaller than it looked when you lined up on it? Sorta cover it up with leaves and pretend it didn’t happen? Save your tag for a good one?”
“Jeez, who would do a thing like that?” Bill snorted. Then he chuckled. “You live around here?”
“Oh yeah. Guys around here, they gotta get that deer for the freezer. Some of ‘em do a little jacking, maybe forget to tag one or two. ‘Course they always eat ‘em.”
Bill relaxed a little. This guy knew the score. Hunting was hunting. You didn’t wait all year to shoot one lousy animal in all the weeks of deer season. Hunting was too much fun, and there were plenty of deer. Filling your tag on the first day was like squirting in the first five seconds on a great-looking woman. Hunting all season and only bagging one was like pounding away for hours and ending up too raw to feel it. He preferred to do it several times if he could. None of this “one shot and it’s over” crap.
Of course he had to be careful with the bodies. It was almost as bad as killing a person, the way he had to cut ‘em up and spread ‘em around and obscure his trail. He couldn’t make the deaths look like accidents. Deer didn’t just trip over things or take radios in the bathtub with them.
Presently Bill tipped his can out the window and indicated his need for another. Theo might have taken one, Bill wasn’t sure.
“Where you staying tonight?” Theo asked.
“Got a cabin –“ Bill blurted. He stopped, coughed, started again with a sigh. “Got a cabin up the dirt road from Pepper Creek.”
“I know that country pretty well,” said Theo.
“You own any land there, got any friends who do?” Bill asked casually. He’d blown his secret about the cabin, so he wanted to make sure he wasn’t talking to a neighbor or someone who knew a neighbor, before any embarrassing revelations slipped out.
“Own land, that’s good, that’s good.” Theo chuckled. “No, no land. And I don’t mingle with people much.”
“Just wondered.” Bill had tree stands all around the ridge and had cut a trail for his ATV toward several of them. He’d never bothered to ask permission for any of this. He was out in the woods, after all. This was the free country it had always been, since the white man took it and put it to good use.
“So what do you do for work?” asked Theo.
“Sheet metal. Ducting. Heating and cooling stuff.”
“I dunno. Kinda sucks, I guess. ‘Nother beer?”
“How much you got in here?”
“Twelve cold. More in the back. Gonna be a long weekend.”
“You meeting friends with all this beer?”
“Couple guys said they might come out tomorrow. Let ‘em bring their own damn beer.”
“What are you gonna eat?”
“Beer,” laughed Bill. “What are you, my mother?”
“Nah,” said Theo, laughing too. “Just getting hungry and kinda drunk.”
“Yeah, me too. Great, ain’t it? In fact, I gotta take a leak.” Bill aimed the truck toward the roadside, shifted into neutral, set the brake and hopped out. Only when it clattered to the ground did he remember the Smith and Wesson, now warm from his belly. He bent to pick it up, glancing quickly at Theo, who was just dismounting from the other side of the truck. Bill tucked the gun in the back of his pants and undid his fly. He swayed slightly. He’d had a long day.
“You want to stay at the cabin, try for another ride in the morning?” he asked.
“Thanks,” said Theo.
Bill had no trouble concealing the .38 again before he climbed back into the truck. He stole a glance at Theo by the dome light before he shut the door.
Theo had brown hair. He wore a denim jacket and jeans. He looked like any number of young men Bill had seen around here. He would have looked equally appropriate front and profile on a wanted poster or driving around in a rusty station wagon with a teenaged wife and three kids. Just a country kid.
A couple of beers later, they passed a sign that said Pepper Creek, Unincorporated, and a darkened cluster of trailers and rickety shacks. They turned onto the next dirt road and began to climb. The truck jounced through puddles. Ruts occasionally yanked at the steering wheel. Bill slowed. An owl swooped through the headlights. A rabbit bounced into view from the right and curved back out into the darkness.
The cabin nestled in a clearing barely bigger than itself. Bill pulled up and parked, but left the lights on. He wedged the .38 in his waistband inside his outer shirt before he left the truck and stepped to the cabin door. He undid the padlock and the deadbolt, unlocked the knob and pushed the door inward. The cabin had the chill of long emptiness.
Bill returned to the truck and pulled his lantern out of the back. He carried that and the first duffel bag that came under his hand. Theo followed with a case of beer under one arm and a duffel bag hanging from his other hand.
The light made a bright circle in the square room. The men cast distorted shadows away from the table.
Bill crumpled paper and put it into the little wood stove. On top of this he added small sticks, and then larger splits of wood. He touched a match to the paper. Yellow light and a lively crackle rewarded him.
“I’m a woodsman, yessirree,” he said. “Know how to light a fire.”
He and Theo brought in the rest of the gear, including his rifle from the rack in the truck cab.
“You can take that bunk,” said Bill, pointing across the room. He had already dumped his bedroll on the firmer cot in front of him.
“How about some more beer?” asked Theo.
“I don’t know, boy, I’m pretty beat.”
“Hey, you want to start this hunting season off right, don’t you? Get that first deer right off?”
“What do you mean, ‘first deer?’”
“You know what I mean,” Theo said conspiratorially. His large brown eyes held Bill’s gaze.
“Well, first deer or only deer, do you know a spot that’s guaranteed?”
“Oh yeah. Not far from here. Maybe you’ve been there.”
“Could be. Why don’t we get some shuteye and go there first thing?”
“Hell with it. I gotta get to Winfield and we’ll probably both be hung over and tired if we try to sleep and wake up early. Hell, it’s almost early now.”
Bill had to admit that Theo made sense. Maybe they should go to this place. If it was great, he’d get a deer, Theo would leave and never know if Bill hunted again that season. If he didn’t get a deer, he could come back to the cabin, sleep, and go out again near dusk to one of the spots he already knew.
“Let’s try it,” said Bill.
“All right,” said Theo.
Bill took his rifle, a flashlight, his heavy jacket and a small pack with compass, first aid kit, some food, matches, and toilet paper. He slipped a box of shells into his coat pocket. His handgun was now well concealed under his outer clothes.
Theo led the way into the darkness. Bill followed closely on his heels.
The route led up the ridge through hardwoods. Leaves scrunched underfoot. Bill breathed heavily. Sweat greased his skin beneath his heavy coat. Theo moved quietly ahead of him, extending the distance between them and then slowing slightly, as if towing Bill by a stretchy bit of rope.
They swung left along the contour of the hill, then jogged up a ravine, clambered up a rocky outcrop still overstood by trees, and crossed a saddle to the other side of the ridge. Bill thought the ridge seemed too low. The saddle was unfamiliar.
“How far?” he hissed.
“Not far. Shut up,” said Theo. “They’ll hear you.”
Bill trudged on, trying to set his feet down as quietly as Theo, but his boots fell heavily and his legs felt hollow. He belched sourly. Then he nearly blundered into Theo’s back as the other man stopped.
“This is it,” Theo breathed in a barely audible whisper. “Hunker down by this tree and wait for light. The deer are close in front of you. If the wind shifts you’ll have to move. Good hunting.” He stepped away.
“Just a second,” Bill croaked. “You leaving me?”
“Yeah. You’re a big boy, aren’t you? I have to get to Winfield, remember?”
“How you planning to get there?”
“Same way I got to your place. Hang my thumb out.”
“Bullshit. My truck’s back there. You stay here with me.”
“Look, you came to hunt, keep quiet so you’ll have something to hunt.”
“Get back here.” Bill pulled out the .38 and thumbed the hammer back. The click carried through the cold, still night.
Theo turned slowly. “What are you going to do, kill me because you think I might be going to steal your truck? Fine. Let’s sit down and wait for light.”
Bill relaxed when Theo capitulated. He settled to the ground beside a tree and watched the dark silhouette opposite him slide down along another trunk. He stared into the gloom with wide eyes. As his face grew heavy with the weight of his eyelids he decided it would be safer to ease the hammer down and tuck the handgun away.
In the pearly fog of predawn, Bill’s dim perception was of coldness. He felt around for a blanket or something to pull over himself. His hands found something fuzzy. He pulled it up and rolled himself in it without fully opening his eyes.
In his dream, Bill was in a canoe. The boat kept settling lower and lower into a dark river. He knew he didn’t want to fall into that river. He was going to get wet if he didn’t wake up and do something about that canoe. He opened his eyes a slit. His bladder felt as big as a watermelon. His mouth felt dry and tasted sour. His legs felt damp and cold. His feet were bare.
He snapped awake as he realized that he was naked except for the blanket he had pulled up in the morning dusk. That blanket smelled a little rancid. He stared at it for several seconds before he realized it was a deerskin.
Heart pounding, he leaped to his feet. Theo! A gray curtain blocked his vison and then unraveled as blood made its way to his suddenly elevated brain. He snapped his head from side to side, looking for any sign of his clothes, his guns, his survival pack. He saw none of it, but the leaves were all scuffled up around where he lay. Piles of deer droppings showed they had been there. How had he remained asleep when some of the droppings were practically on top of him? How drunk had he been?
His bladder wouldn’t be denied, so he attended to that first. Clutching the deerskin around himself, he surveyed the scene grumpily. There were no deer now.
He couldn’t be far from his cabin. They hadn’t hiked that long. That bastard Theo couldn’t have taken everything from the cabin, there wasn’t room in the truck. Bill was bound to find something to wear besides this smelly pelt, and maybe a can of beans to heat up on the wood stove.
Here it was, opening day and he’d fallen for a scam that left him naked in the woods. He should yell for help, but he didn’t want anyone to see him.
“Wait a minute,” he said aloud. “I’m wearing a goddam deerskin! That asshole! I shoulda shot him!
“If anyone does see me, they’re just as liable to shoot me before they see I’m a man. If I call out, they’ll see I’m a man dressed in a stinking deer hide and I’ll look like the biggest asshole in fourteen states. I gotta try to get to my cabin without someone seeing me.”
That would seem easily done on a deserted hillside on a gray morning. Bill started down the ridge until he remembered he and Theo had crossed it. He angled back up as the world spun to reorient itself with his new sense of his position. Overcast hid the sun. The air was raw. Rain or snow would come by night. He needed the deerskin for warmth.
The bastard didn’t need to have left the head on, Bill grumbled inwardly. It was a four-point buck, a narrow rack. It was an animal he would have shot for fun, but he wouldn’t have bothered to take the antlers for a souvenir. The head hung down behind him, but he had no knife with which to remove it. He moved gingerly in his bare feet.
He finally saw his track from the night before. He was glad now that he had shuffled tiredly. But soon he noticed other ruffled tracks crossing and tangling. The deer herd had foraged through here. He couldn’t pick out his own trail for sure. He took his best guess.
He stumped along for a few minutes, planning to drop to the ground or duck behind a tree if he heard anyone else, before he realized that anyone hunting would very likely be concealed and silent. How could he get by without being mistaken for prey or discovered as a shamed man?
Maybe someone would shoot at him and miss. What could he do? Hide? Yell out? Maybe someone would shoot at him and not miss.
Maybe someone would see him, realize he was a man and let him come in close to get a good look and a good laugh.
Suddenly the way back to the cabin seemed very long.
He sat with his back to a big tree. The wind blew across the ridge. A hunter who knew what he was doing would hike into the wind, but not everyone knew what he was doing, especially on opening day. Still, the odds favored him to meet someone coming the opposite way to the one he had to take.
In open woods, someone could see him and try a shot from a long way off. He could crawl from cover to cover, walk normally and trust his luck or climb a tree or hide in a hole until dark and then try to find his way home through bad weather with no light.
As soon as he stood and stepped away from the tree, the rush of fear made him feel dizzy. How many times had he himself fired at something brown and white between tree trunks? At least he had never just blazed away in the direction of a sound. Some people did, though.
Whoever shot would probably miss, he told himself. He’d be fine. Hitting the quarry was hard.
No, that wasn’t any good. His own friend Ray could light a wooden match at thirty feet with a scope, resting the barrel on the hood of his truck. With the next shot he’d blow the damn thing out. And what about the local boys, who grew up with their guns? Bill had had his K Mart Remington for eight of his thirty-eight years. He’d heard these hillbillies got their first rifle as soon as they could close their hands and were nailing squirrels from the basinet. He could only hope they were good enough to identify what stood before them as an overweight sheet-metal worker, the victim of one of their own good-ol’-boy pranks. Bastards.
He wished he had a big plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and hash browns, with a cup of coffee. He wished he had a stacked waitress leaning over his table saying, “can I warm it up for you?” and then he’d say something smart back to her. He wished he wasn’t standing in dead brown leaves on a cold hillside columned with silver and black tree trunks. He wished he wasn’t wearing this stupid deerskin.
A step at a time, pausing to listen every few steps, he tiptoed up the ridge. He even caught himself stopping to sniff the air. He’d never been this careful before.
He froze as a flicker of motion caught his eye. He turned his head slowly toward it. It was a deer, perhaps thirty feet away to his left. It hadn’t gotten his scent yet, or maybe the deer hide masked his odor.
Bill hadn’t seen too many live deer from ground level, certainly not this close. Hunting from a stand was too easy. He could sit behind camouflage burlap, watching and listening for any creature that approached his ambush. Sitting in comfort, he found it easy to remain quiet. He would even fantasize that he was a sniper or an assassin. Now, however, he was on nearly equal footing with the prey.
He almost yelled at the deer. It made him nervous. But some shred of pride stopped him. The deer moved away. Bill resumed his cautious advance. He realized his footfalls sounded like the deer themselves, stopping as he did to look and listen. When the wind made the dry leaves patter, he felt a surge of irritation because he could not sort out other sounds. The wind would cover his own noises of motion, but he still had to worry about being seen by hunters he couldn’t hear.
The trip home would take him a couple of days at this rate.
Despite his beer belly and his preference for driving somewhere rather than walking, he was not yet forty. His senses responded as he extended them, assuring him he was safe from moment to moment. He just had to remember to keep checking. A few steps. Stop. Listen. Sniff. Look in all directions.
Hours passed. He felt he had to be nearing his cabin. He began to look for familiar trees and contours. Yes, he was getting there.
A branch snapped and he caught a scrap of human voice. It was the first human sound he’d heard all day except his own, and he’d stopped making those a while ago.
He dropped to the ground and crawled over toward some fallen trees. He wanted to burrow under them completely, but he imagined discovery and then had to fight an urge to get up and start running. He peered out trying to locate the source of the voices.
Two men were talking. He couldn’t make out words. He heard their scrunching footsteps dwindle. When they got upwind, he smelled cigarette smoke.
As Bill twisted to back out of the log pile, he grabbed a branch stub and it snapped off.
The gunshot was almost instantaneous.
Bill felt his heart and lungs burst into flame. A sob escaped his chest as he dropped back to the ground. The bullet had whined by, high and to the right, but three more shots followed it. Then silence.
“Jesus. Sound shooters,” moaned Bill. His heart roared like an outboard motor lifted from the water at full throttle. He lay still, waiting for the crunch of boots in the leaves. The footsteps did approach, but then he heard a voice say, “guess it was nothing,” and the footfalls receded.
“Something sure made that stick snap,” said the other voice, fading.
“Squirrel,” was the final faint word Bill heard.
“Nothing. Squirrel. If they’d killed me nothing would have happened to them,” Bill said bitterly. “‘Jesus Christ, you shoulda seen this nut in the deer skin. Of course I shot him, the animal-fucking weirdo. Who the hell goes out in the woods on opening day dressed like Bambi’s dad?’”
Slowly he raised his head again, looked, listened, sniffed. He eased himself out of the woodpile and began to walk.
The slow pace suited his bare feet, but they were still bruised, nicked, cold and sore. The deer head thudded against his back whenever he took a couple of quick strides or twisted sideways. He stopped to try to cut it off on a sharp rock edge, but got too cold in the gloom and the first pellets of dry sleet. He hugged the hide around himself and trudged on.
He was going to sell the damned cabin and take up fishing. No one ever got hooked, gaffed, dragged in and clubbed because someone mistook him for a bass. Nothing was worth what he was going through now. The surge of anger warmed him a little and made him step out more vigorously. His defensive vigilance relaxed a little more with every shift his mind made toward aggression. He sensed he must be near home. He no longer cared if anyone saw him. He’d sing right out if he saw anyone else. If they laughed he’d rip their throat out.
Dusk was falling, the end of this sunless day. He’d had enough of crawling along wondering when something horrible would happen. And then he found his trail, the one he had made into the woods from his cabin. He stepped around a big tree and stubbed his toe on a rock.
As he sprawled across the trail, the tail of the deerskin flipped up and the head flopped forward. A flash of light blinded him as a hot spear blasted through his rib cage and a bang like an instant thunderclap deafened him. He fell on his side.
Heavy boots thudded toward him. He couldn’t catch his breath.
“Jesus! It’s Bill,” he heard a voice say.
“What’s he doing in a goddam deer skin?”
“I don’t know. Man! I got him in the lungs!”
“Would’ve been a good shot if he’d really been a deer.”
“This ain’t funny, man. We gotta get him to a hospital.”
“Ain’t gonna happen. We might not even get anybody on the radio, and he wouldn’t travel real well in the truck bed. I think he’s going right now.”
“Bill! Hang in there! You’re going to be all right!” Someone was kneeling beside him now, but Bill felt like they were kneeling on his chest. It didn’t really matter. He felt no strength in his limbs and just gave way to sleep.
“But what was he doing in that stupid deerskin?”
For one final moment he wished he knew.