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Higher Ground

by Darren J. Akerman

The moon sketched snow-crusted hills and black pines out of the darkness, stars flecked around its thumbprint like the spatter of white paint. The old Ford pickup truck idled beside the barn. Mark inhaled the aroma of November night: cold air tinged with woodsmoke from the chimney, and the crisp woolly smell of his father’s hunting jacket. His breath clouded as he crunched across the dooryard.  In the cab on the passenger seat, Mark’s face tingled with the dry warmth of the heater. He twisted himself around to examine the two rifles on the rear window gun rack. His father clambered in behind the steering wheel, clicked on the headlights, and shifted into gear.

“Let’s go get us that buck,” he said.

“A ten pointer,” Mark said.

“Might as well shoot high,” his father said.

“Do you think Grandpa’s .30-30 will be okay?” he asked.

“As good as the man who aims it,” his father said. “That  old iron’s bagged more white-tail than mine ever did. You’ve just got to watch the kickback on it like I showed you.”

“Grandpa was some shot, huh?” said Mark.

“A crack shot, son,” he said. “You’d better believe it.”

His mother hurried outside in her housecoat, shaking the thermos of coffee Mark’s father had forgotten, her face tight-lipped exasperation. He rolled down the window, kissed her on the cheek, and handed the thermos to Mark.

“You’ll be careful, Rod, won’t you?” she said. “You can’t afford to get hurt.”

“Yes, Cecile,” he said. “There’ll be a bunch of us.”

“That’s just something else to worry about,” she said. “Hartley Dunn and Norm Wallace. Oh, doesn’t that just set my mind at ease? It’s Mark I’m worried about, Rod. He hasn’t gone out hunting with them before.”

“He’ll be fine, dear,” said his father. “John McCready’s coming along, too. That ought to keep them in line, don’t you think? We’re going to stop for breakfast up around Wilton before we get started.”

“It’s not breakfast I’m worried about, either,” she said. “Rod, you have some of that hot coffee before you get on the road. You’ve been running yourself ragged all fall in the woodlot. You’re no young man, anymore.”

“Young enough to get up before the rooster,” he said with a wink. “The coffee will be gone before we hit Livermore Falls, Cecile. I’ll take good care of Mark. You go catch some shuteye now, okay?”

“Shuteye,” she scowled. “More like a blind eye, you mean. With Hartley and Norm, I’ve seen more than enough to last me a lifetime. Those two no good….”

Mark’s father yanked his red and black checkered cap further down over his brow, pursed his lips, and exhaled a silent whistle.

“I’ll be fine, Mom,” Mark said.

“You stay with your Dad,” she said. “Fifteen years old isn’t a man.”

His father shifted into first gear and started along the rutted driveway. Mark looked back long enough to see the corrugated tin roof and brick chimney of the farm house dip behind the stumps of the woodlot. The headlight beams swept over the banks of plowed snow at the side of the road. He wanted to say how good the tracking should be in the western mountains, where snow had fallen ten inches yesterday according to the weather report, but decided not to speak, saving that observation when they met Mr. McCready, Mr. Wallace, and Mr. Dunn in front of Hallicourt’s Grill on Main Street. The men had planned to start out at three-thirty, drive their pickup trucks to Wilton, and stop at the local grange for breakfast before the hunt in the western mountains of Weld.

“Oh, Christ,” his father said, as they pulled onto the empty Main Street. “They’re already waiting.”

He swung the pickup truck beside the other two parked by the curb, Mark’s father leaned out the window toward the men huddled in front of the dark storefront window. Mark could see the glare of the men’s faces in the streetlight and the tips of their cigarettes.

“Better late than never, Rod!” cried Mr. Dunn in his ear-flapped cap and green flannel jacket. “We were ‘bout ready to send out a posse for you.”

“Sorry, Hartley,” he said. “I had to get the boy up, and fire up the old woodstove.”

Mark sank back against the seat, a sudden surge of heat rose to his cheeks. It was a lie. He’d been dressed by two-forty five and hauled in cordwood for the woodstove before his father had shuffled into the kitchen in his flannel pajamas. Mark heard the clink of a brandy bottle against his father’s coffee cup. Leaning forward to the pickup truck window, Mark nodded at the faces that inspected him with saturnine, wolfish amusement.

“You fellows remember Mark, don’t you?” his father said.

“Ayuh,” Mr. Wallace grunted, tossing aside his cigarette. His eyes flickered, and he pinched the stubble of his chin.

“How you holding up, boy?” said Mr. Dunn with a face as round and red as a rubber dodgeball. “We roll before the roosters. Cock-a-doodle-doo!”

“It’s your first time out with us, isn’t it, Mark?” asked Mr. McCready.

“Yes, sir,” Mark answered.

“Well, step out over here for a minute,” he said. “I’ve got something that might interest you.”

Mr. McCready walked him over to his new pickup truck festooned with yellow lights and gleaming running boards. The other men cracked jokes about each other.

“I guess we don’t need no hound with that mug of yours, Rod,” Mr. Dunn laughed.

“If I’m going to the dogs, you and Norm damn well own the kennel, then,” his father said.

“Not much left to fetch in that woodlot of yours, anymore, Rod,” Mr. Wallace said. “Hell, there ain’t a trunk to piss on. We cleared it right out, didn’t we?”

“I should’ve cleared you two out,” Mark’s father said. “Busted my peavey and cross blade in one day.”

“Oh, c’mon, Rod,” Mr. Dunn whispered. “John’ll throw you a bone again. Say, how’s them old ribs holding up after your little fall? I swear you ain’t lost that hang-dog look since then.”

“I’m a lucky dog to still be breathing,” Mark’s father said. “No thanks to you two.” 

Mr. McCready opened the driver’s door and retrieved a rifle from the rack. He handed it to Mark, a mild grin creasing his clean-shaven face.

“What do you think of that?” he asked.

It was Remington rifle with a telescopic lens, the stock and shiny barrel unblemished by use. Mark marveled at the lightness of it in his grip and handed it back with admiration.

“It’s the new M700,” said Mr. McCready. “I thought you might like to see what you can do with it once we get tracking.”

“It’s beautiful,” Mark said, “but—”

Mark looked over the hood of the pickup truck to see if his father had witnessed the offer. Still talking with the others, his father hadn’t noticed. Mark handed the rifle back to Mr. McCready with reverent care.

“It’s a beauty,” he said.

Mr. McCready took the rifle from him, and placed it back on the rack in his pickup truck with a smile.

“It’s there if you want to try it,” he said. “I’ve got two of them.”

“Thanks a million, Mr. McCready,” Mark said. “I’ll check with my Dad when we get there, okay?”

“Atta boy,” he said.

Mark followed Mr. McCready and stood outside the circle of men, entranced at the ease with which Mr. McCready established himself among them. His anvil-black crewcut and taut face seemed to slice into the broad talk and slumped figures like a wedge into wood. Mr. Wallace slipped a pint of whiskey into his coat pocket, peering over Mr. McCready’s shoulder at Mark with mock alarm. Mr. McCready withdrew a silver flask from the inside pocket of his jacket and offered it to Mark’s father in full view of all. He waited while it was passed among them. Before pocketing the flask, Mr. McCready poured a measure into the cap and handed it to Mark.

“What do you think, Rod?” he asked Mark’s father.

“I suppose better here with us than with some yahoo from town,” his father said.

Mr. Wallace and Mr. Dunn laughed, their whiskered faces eying Mark with bemused anticipation. Mark took the cap and swallowed the drink. It burned in his throat and sizzled in his stomach; he grimaced, breathing in the cold night air through his teeth to cool the taste.

“Cognac,” said his father.

“Make a man outta you!” shouted Mr. Dunn.

“A gentleman, Hartley,” said Mr. McCready.

“I reckon we’d best get a move on,” Mr. Wallace said, “or the only whitetail we’re going to find will be on the back of somebody else’s pickup truck.”

Mark climbed into the passenger seat beside his father. Mr. Dunn got into Mr. Wallace’s rusty lime-green pickup truck, and Mr. McCready got into his alone. In a line led by the yellow roof lights of Mr. McCready’s vehicle, the others followed along Main Street’s shaded houses. Mark and his father trailed behind.

“Now, you don’t say a word about that Cognac to your mother,” Mark’s father said to him. “She’d never let me hear the end of it.”

“I won’t,” said Mark. “Promise.”

“Thank Christ, John’s leading,” said his father. “Hartley and Norm couldn’t find their way out of a parking lot.”

“They sure seem happy to go along,” said Mark.

“They’re happy to do anything that lets them pal around with the likes of John McCready,” his father said. “Awfully decent of John to invite them, seeing as how they just look after the camps he rents out to summer people on Makinachook. I couldn’t afford to keep them on cutting cords with me for John. Not with all their fooling around.”

“Where do you know Mr. McCready from?” asked Mark.

His father scratched his chin and tugged the brim of his cap down.

“From school,” he said. “We knew each other since we were little kids.”

“I thought you knew him through lumbering,” said Mark. “Wasn’t he the one who bought up all the cords you cut last winter from Mr. Randall’s lot?”

“Yeah,” said his father. “That, too. John’s done pretty well for himself.”

The pickup trucks roared up Makinachook Road, paralleling the slate-hued expanse of the lake, then veered onto the Wayne Road. Black pine boughs obscured all but a ragged path of starry sky. With the dips and rises and curves of the road, Mark felt himself rocking into a mood of drowsy jubilance. Excited as he was by the prospect of the hunt, his head nodded, and he fought to keep his eyes open. The dry gust of the heater weighed upon him like a blanket.

Mark wanted to strike up a new conversation with his father, to reaffirm his interest in the hunt, or ask him more questions about Mr. McCready. But the offer to use Mr. McCready’s new Remington M700 rifle left him without words. He feared the very idea would not be as well-received by his father as a capful of Cognac.

He had learned how to shoot with his grandfather’s .30-30 in the back woodlot behind the house. He had pinged cans off stumps and aluminum pie plates dangled from branches all through September when his father had been laid up from cutting cords with three cracked ribs. Between his father’s instructions—how to position the stock and grasp the barrel, how to squeeze off the shot and allow for the recoil of the blast—Mark had listened to the stories his father told him about the rifle.

“Back during the war, your grandfather took down a bull from a hundred yards when it charged the Anson widow one day in Mount Vernon,” his father had told him. “It must’ve gone crazy from the dog day heat in August, and would’ve run her down in her own field if he hadn’t. One shot dropped it on the spot. I saw it myself as a little kid. Saved her life, all eighty-two years of it.”

The tales of his grandfather’s marksmanship kindled in Mark a tangible presence he’d never known, a man who could shoot the tops of ten Moxie bottles off a fence, clip the rooster weathervane on a barn just to make it spin, and never came home after a hunt empty-handed.

Before he drifted off to sleep in the thrumming cab of the pickup, Mark decided he would politely decline Mr. McCready’s offer. He would hunt with his grandfather’s Winchester and make himself a part of the stories his father had told him.

Mark jolted awake when the pickup truck bounced over a dirt parking lot and lurched to a stop. A patch of white clapboards shone in the headlight beams. He pulled on his cap and rubbed his eyes. Had he slept all the way through Livermore Falls and Jay? The engine coughed and quit, the headlights clicked off. The darkness, tinted by the red glare of tail lights and the glint of moonlight upon the pine boughs overhead, echoed with the shot-like explosions of slamming doors from the other pickup trucks.

“Rise and shine, Champ,” his father said.

Mark slid out of his seat. He teetered for a moment on the hard, rutted snow, staring at the rows of parked pickup trucks, the uniform determination of their beds, bumpers, and gun racks. His breath clouded in the darkness. He rounded the hood to join the men clustered around his father. Mr. Dunn took a long sip from his bottle and handed it to Mr. Wallace; he took a sip and handed it to Mark’s father. Mark looked into the darkness for Mr. McCready. His boots crunched toward them with confidence.

“If you fellows were going to have a party,” he said, “I’d have gotten here a little quicker.”

Mr. McCready accepted the pint from Mark’s father, took a long swallow, and handed it back to Mr. Dunn. Mark squatted down to tie his boot laces, hoping not to be offered a taste of whiskey, which, he surmised by the pinched and puckered faces of the men, probably tasted like Cognac.

“Just a little nip to help us work up an appetite, John,” Mr. Dunn said.

“You’re a regular connoisseur, Hartley,” Mr. McCready said.

“That’s what I keep telling him, John,” said Mr. Wallace, “but he keeps thinking I’m calling him French.”

“French toast and bacon ought to hit the spot,” said Mark’s father. “And coffee wouldn’t hurt, either.”

“Step lively, gentlemen,” said Mr. McCready. “Breakfast is served.”

Inside the grange hall sat rows of hunters at benches, hunched over their breakfasts in jackets and vests and caps. They proceeded toward the fluorescent lights of the serving kitchen, took their trays, plates, and utensils. From steaming hot plates of bacon, ham, sausage, scrambled eggs, home-fried potatoes, French toast, pancakes and beans, they loaded their trays. Mr. McCready paid the cashier. At a scarred oak table in the far corner of the room, they ate without speaking amid the grumbling chatter and forthright clatter of the other hunters.

Mark poured maple syrup on his pancakes and sopped it up with pieces of sausage. The men blew on their hot coffees with haggard, reflective faces, and Mark scooped up brown-sugared beans and dripped ketchup onto home-fried potatoes. He finished before the others and excused himself to sample a plate of apple crisp, savoring its flaky brown crust and molasses-spiced apples.

“This boy’s ready for a hunt if I do say so myself,” proclaimed Mr. Dunn. “Son, you’re going to bust a gut if you keep that up.”

“No gut-shots for me, Mr. Dunn,” said Mark.

“That’s the spirit,” said Mr. McCready. “Maybe you’ll show us all a thing or two when we get tracking.”

“Speaking of spirits, John,” said Mr. Dunn, patting his inside coat pocket. “I could stand a shot of something with a lot more kick than sugar in my coffee. What d’yah say?”

“You drive a hard bargain, Hartley,” said Mr. McCready. He pushed his mug toward the center of the table.

Mr. Dunn glanced around the room and tipped the bottle into all the coffee mugs on the table. The men clinked their mugs and drank, laughing. Mark’s father shook his head with tepid tolerance.

“You’re one of a kind, Hartley,” he said.

“Just kind to the ones he likes,” said Mr. Wallace.

“You’ll all be liking me plenty when we get out there and start freezing our toes and fingers off waiting for the first sign of whitetail,” he said. “There’s nothing like the hair of the dog to keep you from going astray.”

“Long as you don’t go chasing your own tail,” said Mr. Wallace. He wiped the breadcrumbs from his mouth with his hand.

“We’d better get rolling,” said Mark’s father.

“By God, Rod, you’re right,” said Mr. McCready. “It’s still half an hour from here.”

Outside, Mark peered at the pines and snow-covered hills. The night sky had faded from the color of tar paper to pewter gray, and the trees trunks became visible. In the pickup truck, Mark watched as the headlights reeled after the red tail lights of the other two trucks. He followed each bend in the road with renewed alertness, almost as if he were driving. His father clicked on the radio below the phosphorescent glow of the dashboard. The wheezing sighs and crooning voices of country music filled the cab like an aural residue of the grange hall. He wanted to speak to his father with the same winning grace of Mr. McCready, the same haughty cries of Mr. Dunn, the same dour retorts of Mr. Wallace; instead, he sat silently, looking out the windshield at the low-slung pine boughs brushing past and fiddled with a box of cartridges.

“Don’t spill those things,” his father said. “They’re all we’ve got.”

Mark placed the box back on the seat between them and folded his hands in his lap. “I won’t, Dad,” he said.

Half an hour later, the pickup trucks turned off the back road and jounced along an unpaved road toward the mountains. The sky had brightened to cobalt blue through the mesh of trees and branches below. The high white peaks of the mountains seemed to rise higher, glanced by the pink edge of dawn. The little town center of Weld seemed further away than the few miles they had traveled since passing through it.

Mark stared through the windshield. He rolled down the window a crack and sniffed at the mentholated-like aroma of pine and blue spruce. As they drove further along the rutted road, he felt an allegiance to the need for men to laugh and joke and make their voices heard, because the wilderness outweighed anything they would ever do or say. He thought he understood the real purpose behind the hunt, to bring back to their world a part of the wilderness that confirmed some part of the wilderness within them.

“Almost there,” his father said.

He snapped off the radio.

“Is this where you and Grandpa used to hunt?” Mark asked.

“All through these parts,” his father said, waving his hand expansively.

The pickup truck lurched to the left as the red tail lights of Mr. Wallace’s pickup truck flared in front of them. A sickening dread filled Mark’s stomach. His father stomped on the brake. The vehicle fishtailed toward the banking. All three pickup trucks skidded to a stop at the side of the road only inches from each other.

“Jesus H. Christ, all mighty!” his father shouted. “Those two goddamned jokers….”

Mark scurried out of the pickup truck after his father, trotting behind him as he stalked toward Mr. Wallace’s pickup truck. But his father’s stalk became a saunter when he came upon Mr. Wallace stepping out of the door.

“You fellows trying to get us killed?” he asked Mr. Wallace. “I nearly rammed my front end into you. What the hell’s wrong with you, jamming your brakes like that?”

“Now, Rod,” Mr. Dunn called, climbing out of the passenger seat, “I thought you knew this place better than any of us.”

“Well, this ain’t the place,” Mark’s father said.

“’Course ‘tis,” Mr. Dunn said. “The field is just up beyond this banking.”

“You’re dead wrong,” he said. “It ain’t nowhere near—”

“I guess we’ve arrived,” said Mr. McCready. He joined the men in front of Mr.
Dunn’s pickup truck.

Mark’s father looked at them with an unbelieving scowl. Then he shuffled back toward his pickup truck.

“I guess we could start tracking from here,” he said. “I’ll just get my gear.”

Mark hurried along behind him, hoping Mr. McCready wouldn’t mention the new Remington M700 rifle in his truck. As his father slipped on his hunter’s cap, pocketed the box of shells on the seat, and retrieved the guns from the rack, Mark listened to him muttering, “Those two would spin the bottle before they’d use a compass. Think they know these parts. Huh! Here, hold this.”

Mark took the Winchester and pointed the barrel toward the ground, the way he had been taught. He heard the other men laughing among themselves and the slamming of doors.

“C’mon, Rod,” Hartley called. “That boy of yours ain’t going to find no bucks out here in the middle of all this traffic.”

“Or with you hollering all over the place,” his father said.

“Let’s get a move on,” said Mr. Wallace. He shouldered his rifle.

“Lead the way,” said Mr. McCready. “It’s just over this banking, you say?”

“Sure as shooting,” said Mr. Dunn.

“Okay, Daniel Boone,” Mark’s father sniped. “Lead the way.”

Climbing the bank, they dug their boots into crusted snow. Mark followed the pocked footprints like steps until they crested it. Beyond the pines and evergreens, a wide field quilled with brittle stalks of ragweed spread out before them at thebase of a mountain.

“That’s Little Jackson,” said Mr. Dunn to Mark. “And this here is the field your old man says ain’t nowhere near here.”

“Looks pretty much like a field to me,” said Mr. Wallace.

“We’re way over on the eastern side,” Mark’s father said. “A good mile from the place we started last year.”

“Now, Rod,” Mr. Dunn said. “Sometimes I think you’ve been cutting wood so long you can’t see the forest for the trees.”

“You’d make a bundle with all that mountain for a woodlot,” said Mr. McCready.

“I guess I would,” said Mark’s father.

Mark wanted to get away from the men into the calming stillness of the land with his father. He wanted to smother the flame of his father’s resentment at being proved wrong among his friends. His hands felt the chilled iron barrel of the .30-30. He wished something would lift him from the wounding words and wasted replies of men who seemed to care nothing for the hunt now that they were to begin. Then Mr. McCready stopped and fished out beer cans from the pockets of his jacket. He tossed one to everyone, including Mark, and snapped open the top.

“I was saving these for later,” he said. “But it sounds as if all you fellows could stand a conciliatory round.”

“By God, John,” laughed Mr. Dunn. “You really do come prepared.”

“He’s a regular boy scout,” added Mr. Wallace. “Eagle Scout, that is.”

Mark’s father downed the beer in a few swallows, and then walked off with the empty can to a fieldstone. Placing the can on it, he walked back to the group, took the box of shells from his pocket, and handed them to Mark.

“Load up,” he said. He took the half-full beer can from his son and sipped it.

Mark split the stock and inserted the shells into the Winchester. He clacked it shut and looked at his father.

“Let’s make sure that old rifle is ready for some action,” he said. “See if you can’t hit that can from here.”

Mark felt the eyes of the men fix upon him. He set one foot back, held the stock of the .30-30 against his crook of his shoulder, and raised his elbow high. Squinting, he sighted the can and squeezed the trigger. A dead click echoed through the air.

“It’s jammed,” said Mark, lowering the rifle.

His father grabbed it away from him, split the stock, and shook out the shells in the palm of his hand. Reloading, his father took aim at the beer can and pulled the trigger. Again, it clicked.

“Damn!” his father shouted. “This old piece of junk.”

“Probably got a rusty spring,” said Mr. Dunn.

Mark’s father glowered at the .30-30 and raised his eyes with hatred at the inert beer can on the fieldstone. The ruddy hue of his face whitened.

“Heads up,” cried Mr. McCready to Mark, tossing a set of keys to him.

He caught them, stilling the dissonant jangle.

“You set that old-timer back in your Dad’s truck and fetch that rifle from the rack in mine, okay?” Mr. McCready said. “We’re not going to let something like this get in the way of a hunt.”

Mark turned to his father, who handed him the .30-30 without comment. He downed the rest of Mark’s beer, crumpling the can.

“Sure thing, Mr. McCready,” Mark said, trotting off toward the bank. “And thanks!”

When Mark returned to the field with the new rifle, the men stood dispersed in the field. Mr. Dunn and Mr. Wallace passed their bottle between themselves. Mr. McCready surveyed the western rim of the field with a pair of black Zeiss binoculars. Mark’s father sat on a boulder, staring at the peak of Little Jackson. Sunlight sifted through the trees and spread a pink sheen across the snow-caked field, catching on the stubble of ragweed, mounds and fieldstones. Mr. McCready whistled to Mark before he could reach his father.

“Let’s have a look,” said Mr. McCready, taking the rifle from him.

He gave Mark a box of shells and showed Mark how to split the stock and load. He explained how to sight through the telescopic lens by using the crosshairs. Mark nodded and accepted the rifle again. Mr. McCready called to the others to join him.

“Why don’t you take a practice shot?” Mr. McCready said. He pointed to the beer can his father had placed on the fieldstone.

“From here?” Mark asked.

“Sure,” Mr. McCready said. “Just use the lens to sight it.”

Mr. Dunn and Mr. Wallace grinned. Mark’s father stared off at the minuscule cylinder of the beer can across the field, laughing.

“John, it’s got to be another twenty yards from where he stood the first time,” he said.

“He can move up on it,” said Mr. McCready. “I thought he might want to try the lens.”

“Don’t think that it’ll get away,” said Mr. Wallace.

“I’ll try,” Mark said.

He raised the rifle, sighting the beer can until the crosshairs framed it. He inhaled the smell of linseed oil on the stock, held his breath, and squeezed the trigger. The shot roared across the silence of the field. The beer can clanged and jumped three feet into the air.

“Son of a bitch,” said Mr. Dunn. “That lens does make a difference.

Mark felt the weight of his father’s hand on his shoulder. Mark split the stock, inserted two new shells, and closed the rifle with authority, happier than he had been since breakfast.

“A regular William Tell,” Mr. Wallace said.

“I got something I can put on your head, Norm,” hollered Mr. Dunn. “But it ain’t no apple.” Mark’s father laughed for the first time that morning.

“All right, then,” said Mr. McCready. “I guess we’re about ready. I’m going to stake out that far corner.”

“We’ll go out that way some,” said Mr. Dunn, pointing southward.

“What about it, Champ?” Mark’s father asked.

“How about across the field and up toward the mountain?” he said.

“Sounds good to me,” said his father.

“The herds tend to favor lower ground, son,” said Mr. Dunn.

“I’ll let him call the shots, Hartley,” Mark’s father said.

“See you later, then,” said Mr. McCready. “Good luck.”

“Dad, let’s bring along the .30-30 just to see if we can’t get it working,” Mark said. “I think if I can just tinker with that latch, I might—”

“Why not?” he said. “We’ll haul that old iron along just for luck, then.”

After they crossed the field to the tree line, Mark looked back with a sense of relief when he saw that the men had disappeared. Slowly, he gained confidence among the silence of the pines. He didn’t speak. When they toiled up the slope, a dense region of twisted trunks and tumbled rocks, Mark waited at the crest for his father. A frigid wind rattled the branches and showered powdery snow from the spruce boughs. His father clambered up the slope to him, breathing heavily, and put his rifle down against a trunk. With his hands on his knees, he hunched over, gasping.

“I don’t know, Champ,” he wheezed. “We’re getting pretty high up here.”

“Just a little further,” Mark said. “I’ll bet we can set up a blind when it opens up a little.”

“All right,” his father said. “Lead the way.”

They followed another slight rise through brown-veined brambles and rocks until a small clearing appeared. Mark’s father slipped and swore as he fell chest-forward, holding his rifle to the side, the old .30-30 clattering against a root.

“Jesus Christ,” his father said.

A shot echoed below, muffled and distant, then another. Mark hurried ahead and crouched behind a boulder. His father shook the snow from his jacket and loped after him.

“Nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “Probably just Hartley and Norm shooting each other.”

“Let’s wait here,” Mark whispered.

“I could stand a rest,” said his father. He settled down with his back against the boulder, leaning his two rifles against it. “God, these ribs are aching me again.”

Mark peeked over the top of the boulder at the clearing, the vacant patch of brittle milkweed stalks and strewn pine needles, perfectly still in the yellowing light. He placed Mr. McCready’s rifle against the boulder, and listened to the obtunding silence of the mountain. A quarter of an hour passed, and he worked the latch on the .30-30 back and forth with numb fingers until he felt it loosen. His father rambled on about Mr. Dunn and Mr. Wallace.

“If those two spent half as much time working as they did dodging work, they’d both be millionaires by now,” he said.

Mark listened to the emptiness of the woods. The wind appeared to pick up once more; he listened to its dry rasp in a faint breeze.  But the milkweed stalks remained still.

“By God, if I made the money John McCready did, we’d both have ourselves a couple of brand new rifles with telescopic lenses and—“

“Shh!” Mark said.

His father stared at him, frowning. Mark nodded his head, gesturing him to look over the boulder. A great buck appeared out of the blue spruce into the clearing and froze, it’s taut body and antlered head superimposed in a stance of alert poise. Mark took up the .30-30. He loaded two shells, locking the stock so that the click was no more than the whisper of a branch ticking against another. He took aim, the stock braced against him, and squinted across the top of the boulder. His father’s face appeared beside him behind the extended barrel of his own rifle.

“Use John’s rifle,” he whispered. “You’re going to scare that buck off if that old iron tanks out on you again. It ain’t worth it, son.”

Mark waited until the buck tensed and started to leap out of the clearing, startled by scent or sound.

Holding his breath, Mark fired the .30-30. The shot blasted through thin cold air like a belated echo. The buck dropped, its hind legs quivering for a moment. They hurried out from behind the boulder, slowing as they approached. Blood spattered the snow. The buck’s head lay twisted at an ungainly angle, propped by an ivory-white rack of ten points.

“Holy Jesus,” he said. “You got him, Mark. That was a crack shot if ever I saw one.”

Mark’s father instructed him to find a strong branch capable of supporting the carcass. Within half an hour, they gutted the body by lashing it to the branch. They hefted the immense weight of the animal upon their shoulders, staggering down the mountain the way they had come, slipping on roots, crashing through brambles. They rested at intervals with smiles instead of words. But they did not rest for long, reaching the field by the time the sun had risen. Their legs were tried. They carried the buck to the pickup truck, laid it in the back, and waited for the others. 

“How did you know to go up there?” his father asked.

“The shots from below would flush him out up there,” said Mark.  
“But you knew,” his father said. “How?”

“Only a guess,” Mark said. “Didn’t Mr. Dunn say the herds tended to favor lower ground?”

By ten o’clock, the other men arrived with their rifles, otherwise empty-handed. They gathered around the bed of the pickup truck, laughing and joking with incredulity at the size of the buck, which lay stiffening in the sun. It smelled of trees and tawny wet fur.

“Dear Lord!” howled Mr. Dunn. “Rod, don’t tell me your boy bagged this himself. I think we missed this very one a few hours ago.”

“It’s all his,” Mark’s father said.

“You’re joshing us, ain't you Rod?” Mr. Wallace said. “Here, son, let me check out your rifle.”

Mr. Wallace split the stock and checked for the shells, sniffed the barrel, and handed the rifle back to Mark.

“Well, I’ll be goddamned,” he said. “You took him down with this old thing?”

“He’s a ten-pointer, no less,” Mr. Dunn said. “That’s some shooting, son. I’m
sure this is the one we saw.”

Mark turned his head from the men, staring at the buck to keep from grinning. When Mr. McCready appeared, he tossed everyone a beer from the cooler in his pickup truck. Mark swallowed his in gulps, enduring its sour, fizzy taste. He gave Mr. McCready back the rifle and thanked him.

“That telescopic lens really did the trick,” Mr. McCready said.

Nobody said anything to dispute him.

Mark’s father poured a full can of beer out behind him, crumpled the can, and tossed it into the back of Mr. Wallace’s pickup truck with a dim clang.

“Hey! I don’t need your litter, Rod!” shouted Mr. Wallace.

“Save it for target practice,” Mark’s father said.

When they started out in their pickup trucks along the mountain road, ten minutes passed before Mark realized they were leading the way. Their old pickup truck rumbled, groaning with the added weight of the buck. Maybe they were bringing back a part of the wilderness to confirm some part of the wilderness within them. But Mark knew they were bringing back something more important.

“I think we’ll get that old .30-30 of Grandpa’s oiled up right,” Mark’s father said. Have a gunsmith look it over. God knows what you could do with that.”

His father laughed at the soreness they both felt in their shoulders, their aching bones and tortured muscles.

“See if there ain’t anymore of your Mom’s coffee left in the thermos, Mark,” he said. Mark unscrewed the top and balanced the cup in his hands to pour what was left.

“A goddamned bull’s eye if ever I saw one,” his father said. “Say, we might take a look at what’s left of Randall’s woodlot tomorrow and see if we can make a go at it. That old peavey of your grandfather’s still got life in it, you know.”

Mark’s father told stories all the way, and the ride home seemed much shorter than when they started.


Darren J. Akerman is an administrator for a rural Maine school district. His fiction has appeared in Rosebud, North Atlantic Review, Sugar Mule, Prick of the Spindle, and others. He has completed two novels: Fables of the Fatherland and City Song.
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