IN LATE AUTUMN, THE ACREAGE waits for me in silent invitation. The birches, the pipping cardinals, the shy deer, the dying wild sage, it accepts me, takes me in. That’s why I like it, why when that September tilt of the wind rustles the trees, I begin to get a sort of stillness inside. I line my bows up against the wall of the garage for restringing, the wall I leave empty just for hunting season, check the string tension, re-head my arrows. I don’t service my guns. Not yet.
Meg understands my little process here. She give me space around deer season, just like I give her space around Mardi Gras when she flies south with about two dozen friends of hers for a week of revelry. That I stay away from—there’s no stillness there—but I love that she loves it.
First is bow season, and that needs its own attention. Can’t rush things. That’s what I learned over 23 years of doing this. That’s what my dad tried to teach me when he let me go out with him, told me without saying a word.
My daughter Casey is only nine. She’s not sure what she thinks about my deer hunting or Meg’s Mardi Gras. I had plans to teach her to hunt early, but Meg says I have to wait until she’s twelve. I figure I can talk her down to ten, eleven at the outside.
Dad died five years past now. Good guy. Taught me some things. Smoker, though. Lungs burned out. Familiar story. We all have reasons to regret our fathers. That’s why I try not to smoke. For him. For his memory. Plus, it dulls the senses. Smokers will tell you it doesn’t, but it does, and I need my sense of smell in the woods. You can scent a deer yourself if you know how. At least, sometimes I think I can.
He taught me, maybe unintentionally, about the silence of the hunt. The internal nature of it, turning your patience over and over, taming it, stilling it, maintaining it. Waiting for each moment. Understanding the steps.
There’s the preparation, the bows set against the wall, each at a different draw strength, the boots cleaned, the arrows tipped, the active stabilizers installed, but it’s not just a logistical thing. There’s a mindset. You have to simplify things in your own head. Get ready-steady. Talk yourself through it. Savor it. Value it.
Some guys are all about the gear. They want every bow, every arrow, GPS, string silencers, elaborate sights, arrows with deployable blades, the works. Other guys just bait deer and shoot them down, easy as pulling beef jerky off the shelf at the grocery store. I’m not in it for that. I’ll get a new bow some years, and I’ll eat the hell out of a venison steak, two three of them, but that’s just a tiny part of the process. The new shiny gear or reward of meat isn’t the satisfaction of hunting.
I change my habits in the days and weeks before I go out. Go to sleep early, rise early. Adjust my diet. Clean it up. Eggs in the morning, maybe but not bacon. Not for these next weeks. Slows me down. I have to eat something fresh. Apples, those little carrot sticks you can buy now, something like that. Not tasty, but makes you feel okay. Casey and Meg give me the eye when I change my diet.
What? I say. Nothing, Casey says, hiding a smile. It’s just that you don’t eat vegetables, like ever, except for during deer season.
Then they both laugh and I make a big show out of eating six or seven little carrots with my mouth open until I totally gross them both out.
THE MORNING OF THE FIRST DAY I have get Casey off to school. She’s nine, so her mind is on things like books and video games. I worry about her getting a pony-obsession and then she won’t want to shoot a cute ol’ little deer. Maybe I’m stereotyping. Casey’s her own person, almost has her own life. Between school, soccer, flute practice and birthday parties, she’s booked solid. I think we’ve spent more on birthday presents for her friends this year than we’ve invested in her college fund. Kids are different these days. Less work, more fun. Adults like to think our childhood is the measure by which we should judge everything, but maybe it’s okay if kids don’t throw hay bales all summer the way I had to. Maybe they’re better off going to soccer camp and enjoying the relative bliss of family vacations.
Casey gives me one of her signature all-enveloping hugs. She smells like raspberry bubble gum. She hops out of the car and then she’s gone, spotting two of her friends, running up to them, me forgotten behind in the truck. I have a flash of her wedding day, her back to me as she goes up the aisle with her new husband—or maybe wife, who knows these days—leaving me behind. I’m probably getting ahead of myself. A lot of these young people don’t even get married anymore, but my hope for Casey is that she will. I hope Meg and I are a good example.
I set out and drive the 50 miles to my family’s land. It’s more than 300 acres. Woods mostly, plus a small pond that’s marshy all around, a few clearings here and there. On the south side the land flattens and there’s a highway, but we don’t own the strip right against the road. Some developer does. Dick of a guy, I’m sure. Homes have cropped up all down that way, built faster than you can fill a glass of water. Just this year people started moving in.
It being bow season I don’t worry about it much. Around Thanksgiving when the guns come out, I have to think more about which direction I’m shooting. Good thing is there’s no one else in the woods. They’re all mine.
Grandma and Grandpa bought the land decades ago, thinking they’d clear land for a farm, but then Grandpa landed a job at the paper factory, a good one, manager and all that. Grandma had her tubes tied after my dad and my aunt and studied up, got her accounting degree, started a little business out of their home. They could’ve sold the land. I know they thought about it. Lots of money to be made, felt like more every year, but they never really got to it. Plenty of land getting cleared and developed, grandpa always said, not so much woods anymore. He was a hunter too, of course. Taught my dad.
They hunted together all the way up until Grandpa had the heart thing and then the surgery and then the recovery. Then he just sat in his easy chair and watched TV until he went to the nursing home and died weeks later. Long life, short death. That’s how it went.
During hunting season, we used to hear rifles fired all through the day. Deer get crazy that time of year, straying out of their usual territories, jumping fences into back yards, even wandering into homes or businesses, boxed in by hunters in every direction. One fall when I was a kid, grandpa and dad came back from a day in the woods empty-handed. Not unusual. I was inside, wasting away my Saturday morning doing who knows what but had wandered out to the garage. They were drinking Old Style out of cans, their guns resting against the siding, belching in sour, wet gasps, staring out toward the road. We had three acres and a thin strip of woods between our house and the neighbor’s long driveway.
Grandpa gave me a nod of acknowledgement. My father smiled in his own satisfied way. He was most relaxed when he was hunting. I asked if they’d gotten anything. They said no. We all looked up as fat doe broke across the gravel driveway and plunged into the strip, picking her way careless of the noise she made, breathing hard. You want to take the shot, grandpa asked my dad. Thought you might, my dad said. Up to you, grandpa said. Then the deer was gone. Neither of them had even picked up their rifles.
THE FIRST DAY OF THE SEASON, I park at the northeastern corner of the acreage, pulling my truck in along the gravel at the side of County Trunk L, which runs the eastern length of the property. I hang one of my bright orange hunter’s hoodies out, roll the window up to wedge the hoodie tight. Don’t want it to blow away. The thick fabric ruffles in the breeze like a flag of warning.
Maybe it’s overkill, but I want people to know there’s someone in here hunting. We don’t mark the land in any way. I don’t put up “no trespassing” signs or anything. Never had a problem. Plus, I don’t want anyone knowing. A determined person can look it up at city hall, but who’s going to do that? The hoodie gives everyone the same understanding: stay clear. I stow my phone in a spot under my seat. Meg knows she can’t get ahold of me when I’m in the woods, and the phone is just one more thing to tear my attention from what I’m doing.
The first day, I just like to walk. I take my bow just in case, but I don’t use it. Deer aren’t stupid, and I’m not that quiet, not as quiet as I’d like to be. Late September is a hell of a month. Cold or hot, depending. Wet or dry, depending. This fine Wednesday morning blue clouds threaten rain but the heat is on me like a fur coat. Can’t wear anything but long sleeves in the acreage, at least until it gets below 60 degrees and the mosquitos go back to whatever gaping hell maw birthed them in the first place. I slap a few of them away, sling the bow and tromp off through the heather.
I walk the eastern edge for a start as the wind blows in from the southwest, and I’m looking to see the deer in action. I look for anywhere they’ve bedded down, their trails, where they’re eating bark and grass and where they’re not. Hoof prints, droppings, the whole bit. The stillness really begins to set in then.
There used to be box turtle in the woods, but they’ve all gone. Used to be soft spiny turtle in the pond, too. I remember red fox and blue bird and night jar, but I haven’t seen any of those for a decade. Gosbeak and bunting are still here, painted turtle, snappers and jumping mouse and even a marten or two. Once the houses started going up on the south side of the acreage, I think some of the animals went on their way, but they were already on the move. That’s how I remember it.
I make for the edge of the stand of birch trees 100 rods or so away, keeping my eyes on the ground, sniffing, not catching scent of anything but the metal on the wind and the earthy dullness of brown leaves underfoot. It takes me a few days to get my nose right in the new season.
I could do this little exercise here, the walking, before the season starts, but I don’t. It’s not that I can’t admire the majesty of a whitetail on its own, but I don’t want to pass up an opportunity either. With a bow, you gotta get close, and the opportunities are few, at least for me. Maybe I have skill as a hunter, maybe I don’t, but I get a deer every year. I make sure of it.
The air’s sticky, and I’m slick with sweat within a few dozen steps. That’s another thing. Getting comfortable with discomfort. A lot of guys make a big deal out of ignoring pain and discomfort in the woods, but I have to adjust to it over time. The mosquitos, the sweating feet, the pain in the back and knees from staying crouched still and waiting for long periods of time, hunger and thirst and the want of something to entertain my spinning mind. It all fades to the background after a few days, but the first one can be a sort of intentional, continuous hell.
I get to the stand of birch and look up at the jack pine behind them, the long needles waving in the wind. I can smell the pitch from here, so my nose isn’t that bad. An indigo bunting spies me and lets go a stream of whistling chatter. I watch him hop to another branch, his iridescent feathers flashing in the sun, before he peeps again and takes flight. Somehow I feel proud I’ve spotted him. He saw me; I saw him. There’s something right and proper about it, and the stillness gets a little deeper.
A pungent, soapy scent comes in a the wind. I sniff at it. Shampoo, maybe. Or dyer sheets. That makes sense. Exhaust wafting from one of the dryer vents from the houses along the highway, probably. It’s gone.
I spot the marks of deer chew on a young and yellow birch and step up to get close. Then I pause. I can’t explain why. Sometimes that happens. The senses are an interesting thing. There are moments when I’ve detected something without knowing it. Once it was the far off sound of a bawling buck. Another time it was a deer trail I’d seen but not registered in my mind. If I stop long enough, I’ll figure it out. Hold still. Wait. Like a deer, I guess. Wait until you’ve figured it out.
Today I don’t locate what exactly gave me pause. Whatever it was , it’s gone now. I run my fingers against the grooves in the birch bark. They’re dark and smooth. Old. Could have been a rabbit, but the marks are probably too high. I move on, slipping by the birch into a clearing of white canterflower and ryegrass and dying thistle. I can see still see where I parked along County Trunk L from here, and the sight of it shakes some of the quiet loose. Then I’m back into a red-leafed canopy of sumac, pushing the branches out of my way as silently as I know how, pushing on to the southern end of the acreage.
I know the houses are coming. The sight of them, the anticipation of it, throws me farther out of the stillness. I try to recenter, taking a moment to examine the sumac’s jagged crimson leaves flicking in the wind, hearing the scuff of my boots against the dry soil. I can cut west early and avoid the houses altogether—sure as hell don’t want to hunt anywhere close to their backyards—but I want to see how the property line is faring.
The houses come blaring out into the open as I pass a set of three drumlins I’ve always imagined as buried trolls biding their time. It’s what you would think. The houses, I mean. A dozen of them now, all in one of three or four colors. Development homes today don’t just come with walls and floors and jacuzzis and wine cellars. They come with a whole writ of acceptable behaviors. Lawn has to be no higher than four inches but no lower than two. Dogs can’t bark after 10 pm. Basketballs can’t bounce after nine. Don’t park your car on the street, except if it’s a work truck. Then it has to be parked on the street.
The nitrogen-rich turf blazes green against the gold of the switch grass at its edges. I get a faint whiff of phosphorous. No one has taken liberties with our property line except one jackass built a shed in the long grass and mowed around it. I could knock it down, legally. I could also complain, but then there’d be an annoying thing where I have to follow up and check and then I spend my mental energy wondering if the guy has taken down his shed yet, and then I’m in the woods hunting thinking not about deer but about this guy’s shed. See? That’s why you shouldn’t get worked up about the small things. I kick a little hole through the brand new sheathing on the backside just to mark my territory, though. Does the spirit good.
There’s even a treehouse built in the space between three maples, not more than a couple of feet off the ground, nailed together like crap, just like kids would do. I’ll allow for a tree fort or two. I used to do the same thing when I was a kid. Trespassing signs shouldn’t apply to kids.
I swing away from the property line, moving deeper into the woods, away from dormers and soffits, pillars and limestone facades, the reminders of everyday life. It’s quiet, but it’s also a Wednesday. Kids are at school or will be; parents at work. A buoyant, tickling feeling enters me. The same thing I felt as a kid on a snow day: special. Like the contours and borders of the everyday world had given way to a sort of time vortex where chores, school work and daily demands had no hold on me and the day stretched out endlessly before me like a highway of time.
This week I didn’t have to go in to work at all. Five days of pure hunting plus the weekend if Meg will give it to me, but I’ll probably stay home on Sunday regardless. I start to feel bad if I haven’t seen Casey and Meg for a few days. So six days. If not a highway of time, then a winding gravel road disappearing into green hills. The stillness inside me pools.
Just before I pass out of sight of the houses, I hear voices. Kids’ voices. Someone’s off to school. I can tune out the sounds and I almost do, but then I’m out of the trees and the house is like ten rods south of me and the kids voices are getting louder. There’s a huge blue Silverado with its door open idling in the concrete driveway at the side of the house. Diesel, maybe.
The wind shifts and the sharp, heavy smell of fuel confirms it. A girl maybe a year younger than Casey darts out from the side of the house, dark ponytails swinging. She leaps into the truck. When nothing else happens, I start moving again. Lawn is long in the back, growing up around the swings. They’d better watch it. Neighbors are going to get upset. In fact, the switch grass has made a foray into their backyard. I smile at that. Nature finds a way. Well, until the lawnmower comes out, anyway.
“Into the truck. Now!” It’s the voice of every frustrated dad this side of their kids’ high school graduation.
I glance back to see a preteen boy sag toward the truck, toss his bag inside and then get in himself. A man follows. Fit, good posture, dark eyes. Lawyer maybe. The house is big enough. Plus, he’s shrugging on a gray blazer over a white button-up shirt like he was born to it.
“We finally ready?,” he says angling his head to look into the back seats. “Jesus Christ. About time, Adam. You got your binder? Good.”
I don’t mean to pause there, to watch. The scene just sort of plays out in front of me. I’m in my long sleeve cammo shirt, but that’s for the deer. They have good noses, good ears and bad eyes. Anyone can see me plain as day standing there. Sure enough, the man looks up and spots me.
His eyes go wide. I put up my hand in a half-hearted wave. He shoots me a dark look. Then he turns away and hops into the truck. Christ. Should’ve stayed deeper into the woods. He’s probably thinking about his kids, figuring he’s got to keep them out of the backyard for the next month, away from misfired arrows or bullets. He starts up the truck and takes off.
THE GRAY SKY LETS GO a misty drizzle. In minutes, my shirt is coated in beads. I can stay under the cover of the canopy to avoid the worst of it. Soon as I track west, I start to see deer trails. Good ones, too. Well traveled. Clean, shiny footprints in the clay soil. I count half a dozen winding trails running deeper into the trees and several other suspicious breaks in the foliage that might be new trails. I complete the southern end and turn back up north along the western edge of the acreage. On the other side of the barbed wire fence marking the property line is a thin parcel of woods and then a wide cornfield owned by Roddy Kalbach, a guy I went to high school with. He’s a good neighbor. We each respect the fence. His fields are nothing but cut stalks at the moment, stalks which will be plowed under before the frost comes.
By the end of the morning, I’ll have completed the circuit, but the interior of the woods is where I’ve done my best hunting. The sound of snapping branches and crackling leaves erupts to the east, on my righthand side. I freeze and twist silently toward the sound. I hadn’t noticed the trail yet, but a matted deer path cuts around the side of a chest-high chokeberry, its black fruit long gone, and into the underbrush beyond a stand of poplar.
A brown shadow crosses a gap in the leaves. She’s a yearling doe. The round head and stubby snout are dead giveaways. It makes me smile to see families of deer living in my little woods. I don’t pursue. I’m after both buck and doe, but adults, preferably ones past their reproductive years.
I finish my circuit having spotted a number of interesting trails and marks for later exploration and pick my way back towards my truck. I’m not paying enough attention. I should never have gotten so close to the houses, should’ve traveled a tighter circle. Then more of the stillness would still be with me.
I have time to make a foray into the interior. Could even set up my stand. The pieces lay in the back of the truck. Could wait until tomorrow, but then again, it’s good to get a head start. I see the shine of the truck’s paint spotted with rain through the trees. I’ll take a look at the pieces of the stand, see if I think it’s worth getting up right now. Then I realize in a deflating moment that I forgot my ratchet set. No stand today.
The sun is just aching up toward its zenith as I reach County Trunk L. The road is empty and quiet. I reach back to wipe away the slick of sweat at my neck and stop cold. My orange hoodie isn’t hanging out of the truck. I pick up my pace, reach the truck and pull the door. The rain-spattered handle is cold against my hand. The truck is open. The hoodie is there on the seat. Impossible. I’d locked the door and wedged the sweatshirt in the window like I always do. Even sixty mile an hour winds couldn’t have pushed it into the cab, and the weather is calm as a buried stone. Sure enough, the window is rolled down further than I’d left it. Someone must have gotten in with a wire or coat hanger. Snagged the window roller, yanked on it, got the window down enough to reach in. Or jimmied it.
My breath catches in my throat. Someone has rifled through the folder of maintenance records I keep in the glove box. Papers are scattered over the passenger side floor mat and seat. The glove box hangs open, and the receipt of my recent caliper job sits in there on top of the granola bars and small tool set I keep there. Someone went through my truck.
What were they after? Loose change? We have an opiate problem in Douglas County, and it isn’t getting better with time. Could be some tweaker. But then why go through the maintenance records? Why were they scattered? Then again, ascribing intention beyond larceny to someone willing to break into a vehicle may be too charitable. I check to see whether my phone is still under the seat. I let go a held breath of relief when I find it. I grab it, stuff it in my pocket. I’d kept it in the truck because it’s just a distraction in the woods, but here it could have been stolen. The violation pisses me off, but it also does something surprising. It scares me.
I STAND THERE ON THE ROAD, the stillness vaporized, replaced by a gnawing sense of unease. A door swinging open in the wind. I reach into the truck, snag the lighter and half-full pack of cigarettes in the console, fire up the lighter, put it to the end of a cigarette without quite knowing what I’ve done. I haven’t smoked in a couple of weeks. When I was a regular, lighting up just felt like quenching a thirst. Going back to it is different. It’s a hell of a feeling. The familiar, pressing numbness of nicotine tunnels through each limb of my body, bounces off my brain, soothes me in its chemical weight.
I glance into the cab. Could’ve been some teenagers out for a thrill. Of course, they should be in school. Then again, maybe the kind of kids who’d break into someone’s truck don’t have a stellar attendance record. I’ll park in the woods tomorrow, hide the truck. I blazed a short, narrow dirt road few years back, mostly overgrown now. Haven’t used it because I like people to know I’m in the woods. Now I’m not sure I should be advertising my presence.
I have a friend in the sheriff’s office. Donny Schmidt. We were classmates, and have stayed in touch over the years, gone fishing, that sort of thing. Not exactly my type of guy but close enough so that we see each other a couple of times a year. I could call him, report this. But then what?
Five years ago, somebody broke into the house when Meg and Casey and I went off to see Meg’s parents for a week. Took some stuff. Loose cash, my guns, some of Meg’s jewelry. Stirred us up for sure. Terrified Meg. We bought new locks and installed a security system after that.
Thing is, I’m more worked up now about my truck than I was after that break-in. Someone was just in my truck, could’ve been just a few minutes ago. The body’s a strange thing. Maybe it’s just a reaction, but I feel like there’s something I’m missing. I should be relaxing, doing the very thing I love.
I suddenly know why I’m feeling anxious. I’m not hunting. It’s morning on the first day of bow season. I should be out there, deep in the acreage. Why did I leave? Some guy at a house looks at me cross-eyed and I scamper off? Some teenager breaks into my truck and I can’t handle it? Screw that. I have one week off a year for this. I either hunt or I don’t.
I lock up the truck tight and head out toward the center of the wood. The sun is ticking ever upwards in the eastern sky, casting its light between breaks in the pewter clouds. The rain has tapered off, and with the sun coming out, the day heats up again.
An hour later, I’m leaned up against a fallen poplar deep in the center of the acreage, listening to the silence. Everything smells of earth and clean rain and brown leaves. I’ve perched at the southern edge of a small clearing downwind of a good deer trail that cuts past a grove of three oaks. Acorns cover the forest floor all around me, gathering in small piles in the low spots. It’s exactly the sort of feast a deer seeks out. The stillness starts to settle into me. I feel the releasing of my chest, the relaxing of my shoulders the longer I sit.
I feel resolved about this choice, this spot. I could sit here all day, not see anything and be happy about it. I know too, that if I wait long enough, the deer will come. I test the bow tension for the sixth or seventh time, a habit formed by many years in the woods. The arrows lie in a quiver against the log. If I get a shot, I want to penetrate right to the heart, hard and clean. No blood trail to follow, no worrying whether the deer will wander off north into the adjacent property or into traffic or Roddy’s cornfield or find a hole somewhere to die where I can’t find it.
It’s not until sometime later that I heard the faintest crackle of hoof on dry leaves some dozens of yards or so west of my position. Every sense erupts inside me. In perfect silence, I slip an arrow out of the quiver. It’s 200 grains with a 20-inch carbon fiber shaft tipped by a clean and sharp-as-hell mechanical broadhead, each of which is a reassuring bulwark against the vagaries of chance. I put the arrow loosely to my bowstring and wait.
The buck steps into view just south of the trail, about five rods from me. He sniffs the air then snorts in the shaded coolness of the inner acreage. Everything else in the world vanishes. The forest become part of me, or better put, I’m a part of it. Maybe I imagine it, but I can feel the footfalls of the deer through the soil, hear the creak of branches as song birds hop about in the canopy above me, smell the unique musk of a buck in autumn. The arrow, the bow, my hand, my arm. They are all one thing, suited to one purpose.
My head is pounding with the blood of my rabbiting heart. I stare until my eyes water, my fingers on the shaft of the arrow. I don’t draw yet. His ears raised, his eyes wide, his haunches shivering in sharp alert. He pauses and stands perfectly motionless. He suspects I’m here. Maybe even knows. He’s just far enough that I don’t take the shot. Not yet. I don’t want to spend the whole day tracking. I don’t want to wound. I want to kill. One arrow, one deer. That’s what dad taught me. That’s what I’ll teach Casey. If only I can practice dad’s lesson myself.
Even beneath my raging heart, the stillness has a foothold. I can wait. The opportunity will present itself. Don’t force the shot. Create the circumstances under which it can occur. I’ve done everything right: brought the right gear, found a good position, waited, stayed quiet. Now I’ll have my chance. If only he comes up to the trail. If only he’s hungry for sweet bark and acorns and what’s left of the summer grass. C’mon.
I hold and wait. He steps closer, stiff and careful. His eyes dart. He huffs in vague warning. I can smell him. All musk and sweat and high tension. C’mon. He steps closer still, nosing a patch of switch grass at the edge of the trail. I draw. He’s close enough now. He just needs to turn. There’s never the perfect circumstance. Some guys would say I’ve waited too long already. I should’ve taken the shot. Then sometimes the moment comes like a tiny, perfect window cut from the fabric of the world. Like now.
He takes a bite, relaxes, turns and steps down onto the trail. I raise the bow and gaze through my 30 yard sight pin. His chest comes into view, fully exposed. I can almost see his heart beating under his coat. I draw back smooth and even, my fingers belying the thunder in my heart.
A gun shot rents the air.
I jump, fumbling the arrow. The bowstring snaps against my hand and the arrow flies, skipping off the narrow trunk of a sumac and skittering down into the bracken.
“Jesus!” I hiss, shaking out my numb hand.
The buck lets go a frightened bawl and bolts down the trail. I look around, still wringing my hand. A goddamn gun shot. Rifle shot. No doubt about it. I examine my hand. The skin is swollen and red where the bowstring stung. It’s also numb from the palm down to the fingers. I flex and stretch the hand, rubbing it. Where the hell did that shot come from? I can’t see anything, but probably from the east. The cornfield maybe?
It was loud enough I feel like I can still hear the echoes crackle in the air. A .30-06 maybe. Or .270. Definitely a deer rifle. I’m pissed the buck fled. I’m pissed at my hand. I’m pissed at this whole day, but I realize above all I just heard someone shooting from no more than a couple of hundred yards, putting them squarely in the acreage. Someone is hunting off season in my woods. And they could’ve killed me.
I pick up my bow, stow the arrows in the quiver and throw it over my shoulder. I’m about to set off to find the bastard who thinks they can break the law nine ways from Tuesday when I stop. I have to think this through. Someone willing to trespass and hunt off season, someone willing to poach, really, probably won’t react well to a confrontation. Plus they’re armed.
I tense as I hear a stick breaking. Something’s moving, rustling the leaves, but it’s far off, and as I listen, it moves away and the woods is quiet again. Screw this. The truck was one thing. Trespassing and shooting off season I won’t abide. I pull out my phone and call.
“Sheriff’s office,” Donny Schmidt says in his regular, sleepy voice. Like I said, I’ve known him since high school. Guy drinks like a fish and doesn’t sleep well. I didn’t know that until two years ago, he put together what he called a fishing trip to Ontario but which turned out to be five guys drinking on shore half the day and drunkenly steering a boat around a series of lakes for the rest. For some guys, that’s fun. When the only conversation topics are beer, whiskey and pussy, I don’t enjoy it so much.
“Donny, it’s Harris,” I say, keeping my tone even. “Some asshole is hunting in my woods.”
“Harris? Been trying to get a hold of you.” Donny says, his voice all at once clear and crisp. “Some guy called us an hour back,” I hear paper shuffling. “Said he saw someone in your woods there. I figured it was you.”
“Well, it could’ve been,” I admit. “I’m here, and I wandered over there. Some guy saw me.”
“Who were you hunting with?” Donny interrupts.
I pause. “Just myself.”
“This guy said there were three of them. He called because they had guns, not bows.” Donny says. “Wasn’t you then.”
“No. ” I say as a chill rides through me. Three of them. I’m glad I didn’t try talking to them myself. “Jesus.”
“You see anybody else?”
“No, I just heard shooting, Donny. They’re here now.”
“Right now?” Donny says, his voice suddenly authoritative.
“Yeah.” Sweat prickles at my neck. “Can you come over here? I know about where they’re at, but I’d rather talk to them with you.”
“Fair enough.” He clears his throat. “Wait. That mean I gotta tromp through your whole damn woods?”
“No. They’re pretty close to the southern property line. You come now and pull up to the acreage at the southwest corner just beyond the houses, I’ll meet you.”
“Fine. Just—” He clears his throat. “Just give me five minutes.”
I CUT THROUGH THE CENTER of the acreage, skirting the marsh and hike my way south toward my meeting point with Donny. I’m tense as all hell, listening for another gun shot, a branch breaking, the sound of voices. I don’t see or hear a damn thing.
When I get to the spot, Donny’s already waiting for me, smoking a cigarette out the window of his cruiser. I resist the urge to bum a smoke.
“So where are they?” he says before getting stiffly out of the cruiser. He’s gained weight since I last saw him.
“You see a truck parked anywhere off the road?” I ask him. “Can’t figure where they entered.”
Donny shakes his head. “Looked. Didn’t see a damn thing.”
“You happen to drive up L, see if they parked up that way?”
Smoke issues from his nostrils. “You said to meet here. I thought you knew where they were.”
I nod hurriedly. “Up that way, along the property line. Best guess. Didn’t see anything on my way down. I must have just missed seeing them.”
Donny hikes up his pants and give me an appraising look. “Trying hard, were you?”
I snort. “Not at all. Wanted to wait for you.”
“If I get shot by some redneck,” he says, adopting a dour expression. “You’re going to have to explain that to Patty.”
“Christ man, you’re scaring me.” Patty is his wife, of course. She’s a formidable woman, as they say. And they do.
He twists his lips in apparent disapproval. “Buck up. This ain’t my first rodeo, Harris. I did call Roddy just in case it was his boys.”
Roddy is the farmer who owns the cornfields to the west of the acreage. I went to school with him, too, but he was three years older. He and his boys know well enough not to hunt in my woods without permission. I’d be happy to give it. They’ve just never asked.
“Yeah?” I say. That would solve the whole thing. Misunderstanding. Roddy’s boys ventured onto my property. No big deal.
“It’s not his boys.”
“Did he say he heard anything?”
Donny drops the cigarette and snuffs it with the toe of his shoe. It annoys me, but if a little littering is all I have to put up with to get some poachers off my land, I’ll deal with it.
“Nah. Said not to get shot, though.”
“Always.” Donny laughs.
He keys the radio at his chest.
“I’m at L and Hwy 202.” He says.
The radio crackles, but I can’t understand the murmured response.
“Okay,” he nods to me. “Let’s see if we can find these assholes.”
A FEW MINUTES INTO our hike along the western property line, Donny is huffing and puffing. I glance back a few times, but he just frowns and finally waves at me to knock it off.
“I’m fine,” he growls. “Not all of us are frickin’ Olympians like you.”
We’re making a hell of a racket. Donny is anyway. Doesn’t matter. They have to be out here. Either that or headed back to County Trunk L, where their vehicle might be, which means it’s parked next to mine, which means I’m feeling like I should get there before it gets ransacked again.
The west side of the property sits higher than the rest. The land climbs in altitude south to north, apexing just before the rusted barbed wire fence separating my parcel from the one north of it, which is also owned by Roddy along with the cornfields. He had an idea years ago to clear this property north of mine, but he hasn’t yet.
A humming noise trickles into my consciousness. A car engine somewhere north of us. Impossible. Can’t drive a car through the middle of the woods. Impossible that is, unless the car is in the Roddy’s cornfield. I look back at Donny.
He nods and points toward the sound. “Let’s go.”
I’m already moving. There’s something about all of this that’s tearing at me, an aching, anxious feeling. A trespasser would be one thing. A poacher presents another level of complication. I want to catch him, or them. Now. I practically sprint up the incline, charging for the top.
“Slow down,” Donny puffs.
“I’ll meet you at the top,” I call back. “I want to get a look at them.”
“Be friggin’ careful. Don’t—” he gasps and then he’s behind me in the woods, invisible behind a screen of foliage.
The clearing at the top of the land will give me a view I can’t get anywhere else on the acreage. If I can’t see them from there, I’ll pick my way down until I can. Starting to huff a bit myself, I barrel up the hill and break over the peak.
The northwestern corner of the property slopes down to a low, flat area that stretches beneath my barbed-wire fence into Roddy’s corn fields before rising again to a high point where the farmhouse and barn and outbuilding sit. Panting, I gaze over the forest ahead and the cornfield through the trees to the west, my eyes darting, looking for any bit of hunter’s orange, for movement, for anything. I want to know who the hell shot that gun. There’s nothing but the call of a crow in the fir tree above me and Donny’s crashing steps as he catches up.
“Jesus,” Donny rasps, bending over and putting his hands on his knees. “How the hell do you move so fast?”
I hear the question in a far off corner of my mind. The other hunters have to be here. Are they hiding?
“Hey!” I shout, my hands cupped around my mouth. “Whoever’s hunting out here, this is my land. You come on out now, and we don’t have a problem.”
It’s a lie. I’m going to make sure they get everything that’s coming to them. Legally, that is. Somewhere, a car door slams. Then another immediately after.
“You hear that?” Donny says, alert all of a sudden. His hand comes to rest on his gun.
Then I see it through the trees. The tail end of a red pickup with a topper, the kind old fishermen like to drive. It sits alongside Roddy’s field, just inside my western property line, maybe seventy, eighty yards from our position. Must’ve driven straight up the edge of the field. My stomach swims. I grab my binoculars and glass the area. The truck’s at a bad angle to see the rear plate. I put a hand on Donny’s shoulder to alert him.
“I see it,” he says.
We start moving toward the truck. A stand of red-leafed sumac blocks our line of sight to the front end of the truck. Might have thought they’d blend in pretty well for anyone looking from the cornfield toward my property.
“You recognize it?” Donny murmurs.
I shake my head.
Donny chews his lip. “Alright, but if this is nothing—if this is just somebody Roddy knows who’s hunting up there in his woods, not yours, then I’m going to be friggin’ hot.”
“Okay,” I shrug. “You didn’t have to come out here.” Donny is pooped and tired as hell of being the woods. I get that, but here we are.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” he says, waving a hand. “Let’s go.”
The land between us and the truck is steep. We have to grasp at branches and roots to lower ourselves down to the base of the ridge. Whoever is inside makes the decision for us. Before we can react, the pickup roars to life and pulls away. Without thinking, I bolt after it.
“Hold on!” Donny hisses, but I’m off.
I burst out the foliage just at the pickup whips around in the harvested cornfield. Soft brown dirt churns under the tires. I squint into the dust. I catch the glimpse of an local plate —R37 something—and get an eyeful of the driver inside through the dusty glass. He’s mid-fifties maybe, gray tucked under a black and white duck hunter’s cap, glasses.
He startles and whips his head toward me. The vehicle slows for a moment, the wheels bumping up over groves left by Roddy’s plow.
“That’s my land,” I say jerking a thumb back over my shoulder. His eyes go wider as Donny clears the brush. He throws up his hands as if to say ‘I didn’t know’, guns it and takes off down the field.
“Stop!” Donny shouts, but both of us know he won’t.
We watch as the truck wobbles and jumps its way through the plowed field, climbs the ravine to the highway and takes off west, clods of dirt flying out from the undercarriage.
“Well,” says Donny. “That was something.”
I take a series of deep breaths, trying to calm the storm inside of me. “I got the plate. Part of it anyway.”
“Okay,” Donny says gasping. “Okay, good.”
“Guy looked old.” I say.
Donny eyes me. “We’re not that young ourselves anymore, Harris.”
He calls dispatch, gives them the partial plate and the vehicle description. We wait while the dispatcher runs the information. Eventually, the radio crackles again. I let Donny talk as I gaze out into the acreage.
“No hits yet,” Donny says behind me. “They’ll sift through the records. We’ll find the owner soon enough.”
I walk Donny back through the woods to his cruiser.
“Tell me if—if anything else happens or if you get more information, okay?” I ask him.
He looks at me in that nonplussed way of his. “You want a ride back to your truck?”
“Hell yeah I do.”
The caller had told Donny there was a few hunters in the woods. We just saw one. Where are the others? The last thing I want is to get shot by some jackass who doesn’t know bow season from gun season. Or who doesn’t care.
When the sound of Donny’s cruiser fades to silence, I place my gear into the back of my truck, pull the orange sweatshirt on. It’s cold with the light just starting to fade. The traffic on the highway has already picked up, commuters on their way back home from jobs in Klarbach and Redding, maybe even farther out. A semi downshifts. Cars purr or grind past, depending on their upkeep. A truck engine grumbles by and goes silent.
The unsettled feeling hasn’t left me. It should’ve. Donny’s on the case. He’ll catch up with the owner, get him set straight. Best thing for me to do is go home, let the sheriff’s office take care of it. Then I’m not involved. Then I don’t have to worry about doing anything on my end. It’s a simple matter of waiting it out.
The orange autumnal sun has tangled itself in the treetops, its light leaking from the sky. The trees throw cold shadows, and the air carries the sharpness of the coming winter ice. Autumn retreats continually into winter.
My mind starts winding in on itself. Why was that man in the field? If it was his gunshot I heard, why did someone report a group? Plus we heard the door to the truck slam shut twice. Did we miss seeing someone else in the cab? Unlikely. Maybe he was just loading up gear, had all the doors open. Or maybe he dropped someone off. Or a few someones.
I stand with my hand resting on the tailgate of my truck, looking into the acreage and the near setting sun. There’s still the urge to go out there. Still, even if not for everything that’s happened, it’s no good to hunt near dusk. Makes dangerous hunting. Anyone knows that. The angle of the light turns hunter’s orange to a dull brown, much like a deer’s coat.
THIS TIME THE GUNSHOT goes off less than a hundred yards from me. I throw myself to the road alongside my truck, pressing my face to the asphalt.
“Hey!” I shout, hands pressed flat against the warm road, ready to run if I need to. “Hey!”
“Who’s there?” a male voice shouts from the other side of the trees.
“I’m coming your way.” I say and raise myself up in increments off the blacktop. I’m breathing hard. “Don’t friggin’ shoot.”
I make my way cautiously around the truck, my legs shaking with adrenaline. I pick my way through a screen of goose berry that grows at the road’s edge, and now I can see them. Two men that look to be in their forties wearing orange cammo jackets, hats and pants. Complete overkill. The third has a bright orange jacket but sports a red and black plaid guide’s hat with furred ear flaps. As I get closer, they spot me.
“Hi there,” waves one of the all-orange men. He’s red-cheeked and eager as a bull in rut, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
I hesitate then wave back. There’s three of them and one of me. It crosses my mind I should call Donny, but now I’m in front of them. The man in the guide’s cap gazes warily in my direction. It’s him. The guy from the truck. I glance back toward the road. Sure enough, there’s his truck, pulled off deep into the bracken. I judge it’s hidden pretty well. Brown weeds are matted down in front and behind the truck. Where the weeds stand at full height, there’s still some green on them. He’s parked here before.
The red-cheeked man presses on. “Sorry about that. We were just heading out.”
I ignore him.
“Hi,” I say, gazing at the guide in what I hope is the picture perfect calm.
“Bow hunting, huh?” the bearded man says with a big smile. He nods at my composite.
“Yeah,” I say, still looking at the guide. There’s the scent I smelled earlier. Shampoo. Aftershave.
The guide reaches back to scratch under the back of his hat. “We just got a little turned around. Sorry. We’ll move on.”
We’re standing almost at the southern edge of the acreage. There’s no legitimate place for them to come from. South’s the new houses and the highway, east is County Trunk L, west is Roddy’s farm and north is Roddy’s woods. The man is lying, pure and simple. They’ve been here all day. I decide to play dumb.
“You know there’s houses right behind you,” I say gesturing toward the tops of the trees.
“We do,” the guide says. “Turns out we’re not where we wanted to be.”
I cock my head. “What the hell were you just shooting at?”
The bearded man grins, nodding to the chipped bark of a boxwood two or three rods to the west of us. “Just a little target practice. I’m rusty. Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
I grit my teeth. The damage to the boxwood galls me. Weed tree really. Probably hundreds of them out here. Still.
“Again,” the guide says, “We apologize. Just strayed a little from—”
“It’s not gun season.” I shouldn’t say the next part, but I can’t help myself. “But I think you know that.”
At this the guide’s expression goes hard. He shakes his head a little.
“It’s not?” says the bearded man. His smile shows the first hint of slipping.
The bald man frowns. “Wait. What? You said—”
The guide waves a hand. “Starts in a few days,” he shrugs. “Figured we’d get a head start on the other guys.”
I snort. “There’s six weeks of bow season before you can even shoot a musket around here. Regular gun opener is November 21st.”
The bearded man’s eyes go wide. “We didn’t know,” he says, turning ever so slightly to his bald friend. “We’ve been hunting here for three years, last three seasons. I always thought the gun opener was earlier.“
They don’t know the gun opener? Anyone from around here knows—all at once the whole thing comes together. It takes me a moment to register the last part of what he’s said. When it does, a furious heat rushes to my face.
The guide raises his hands in mock surrender. “Look,” he says. “I understand this is your land now. We’re sorry. Why don’t we just head out, and we won’t come here again.”
Something’s up here, and I think I know what. “Where are you guys from?”
“Oh, we’re from out of state,” the bearded man says proudly. “But we love it here. Come up here every year. John here gives us a good deal. He’s a native, so he knows all the best places to hunt. Plus he guarantees us a deer. Buddy here got his yesterday. I’m a little slow. Took me three days last year, but then we were up in early September, so that was probably it. Deer just weren’t hungry enough.”
The man trails off as my look gets darker and darker. I’m not upset at him. My anger is placed somewhere else entirely.
“I’m going to call my friend.” I say slowly. “At the sheriff’s office.”
I’m vaguely aware of the sound of a car going past. It idles and comes to a stop at the roadside behind me. All around us, the trees grow long shadows that draw the cold down into this low part of the acreage.
“We’ll leave, okay?” the guide whose name I now know is John says, his eyes darting toward the road. “Let’s not let this get ugly.”
“Ugly?” My anger changes to rage, boiling up in me.
The bearded man sees the flashing police lights before I do. Donny. I hear a car door slam.
“Harris?” Donny calls. “That you?”
“Over here.” I shout.
”You okay? Neighbors called again. Said they’d heard shots.”
“Listen,” John says, his voice betraying panic. He steps close and continues in a low voice. “Why don’t we settle this right here? Five hundred bucks. Five hundred we leave, you stay. We won’t come back again.”
I shake my head. He must have an iron clad set if he thinks he can pay me off. Trespassing. Making money off my land.
“Harris?” Donny says. “Which way?”
“Over here.” I shout.
“A thousand,” John hisses, reaching behind him.
I don’t know what makes me do it, but my fist connects with his nose before I even know what I’m doing. I feel the cartilage flex under my knuckles. He grunts and flails backward. The gun slung around his back swings forward and as he hits the ground, it goes off.
For a moment, everything goes still.
Then the bald man falls to a knee, his eyes rolling. “Oh my god!” he screams. “Oh my god!”
The bullet’s clipped him. A bloom of blood darkens the torn orange cameo just below his knee.
“Harris, everything okay?” Donny shouts, still behind a screen of poplar and boxwood.
“Stop!” The bearded man reacts a beat too late. He pushes me, and I step back. “Jesus. Okay. Stop.”
“Sir!” Donny barks at the bearded man, pushing through the brush. He has his weapon drawn. He holds it with a practiced calm, moving smoothly and steadily toward us. “Move away from him. Put down your weapon.”
Startled, the man unslings his rifle, leaving it laying beside him in the switchgrass.
At my feet, John blinks and puts a hand to his face. “What the hell, man?”
And then everyone is shouting at once and the bald man is moaning and I’m thinking I just want a cigarette and whether Meg and Casey might be home by now and that I should go there and be with them and there are guns on the ground and drawn and ready and the acreage seems terribly bright in the lights of Donny’s cruiser and the homes behind us are lit up and glaring and the traffic on the highway roars and the stillness shrinks away into a tiny point and blows away on the wind.