Steve and Stan got up early. It was about six o'clock and they could tell because the sun wasn't over the distant trees of the forest, but there was still some dewy pink light in the sky. Silently, but with great excitement, they put on their warm clothes and tiptoed down the creaking wooden steps of the farmhouse.
In the kitchen, their father was sitting at the dinner table, sipping at a cup of coffee that looked tiny in his huge, weather-beaten hands. He had on some dirty coveralls and pair of tiny horn-rimmed glasses were perched on the edge of his nose, creating a rather comical caricature of the stern man in the dim yellow haze of the kitchen's old light. As the boys entered the kitchen, he glanced up away from his newspaper and smiled at them. The glasses still gripping the tiniest portion of his nose.
"Today the day?" he asked, and the boys both nodded.
Stan, the younger boy, seemed nervous. He stood in the faint light of the kitchen, changing his stance from one foot to the other. His mild blue eyes were expectant, and his father knew what he was going to ask, even before he asked it. He decided to let the boy come out on his own to ask the question that was bothering him; he was going to have to start growing up sooner or later. Steve was already taking down his own rifle and checking to see if it was loaded. Once he was done, he nudged his younger brother. "Go on," he growled.
"Dad," Stan hemmed and swayed. "D'you think I could take the .30-30 out?" he stammered. "The .22 ain't for hunting deer..."
His father slowly took the little glasses off his face and considered the boy thoughtfully. He was going to say yes, and he was proud of his son, but he wasn't going to just let the boy take the big gun out hunting without running down the checklist with him.
"Did you clean it the last time your brother had it out?" he asked.
"Yes dad, he was shooting down by the creek at some beer bottles we found and I took it apart and cleaned everything."
"You use the good rags in your momma's hamper or the old ones in the workbench?"
"Workbench daddy, momma'd skin me alive if I used her dustin' rags."
The boy had learned his lesson watching his brother catch hell for getting grease on the good dusting rags.
The man grinned and got up from his chair; he walked over to the stone fireplace on the other side of the room and took down the old Winchester .30-30. He levered the yoke down, peered inside the chamber, and then snapped the yoke back up. The gun was unloaded.
"Since you been doin your chores so good this last month, an you promise to be careful, I'm gonna let you take the Winchester. Watch the kick."
"I will daddy!" The boy had fired the gun once, while Steve had it out, but he would never tell father, and he had sworn Steve to secrecy. He took the gun from his father's hands and ducked away when his father tried to give him a kiss on the cheek. He was too old for that!
The two boys then clambered into their great coats and slung their game sacks over their shoulders. As they marched out the door, their father called "good luck" after them, not even looking up from his paper.
The boys made their way past the pole barns and the two sheds that served as a garage and a fix-it area for their father. A rutted and grass covered road led about a mile back into the property and ended at the first eaves of the forest. As they took the road, they began to crunch over grass and weeds; the noise was quite loud in the still morning air. Both boys grinned at each other while Stan readjusted the .30-30. The rifle was heavy!
"Do you think we'll see something?" Stan asked in a whisper.
"Shhhh," Steve hissed. "No more talking until we've shot off a round."
Stan shifted the big rifle again with a huff and picked a frozen cattail from the ground. He neatly stripped off the bottom leaves and stuck the sweet end of it in his jutting jaw, they were going to get something, he mused, they just had to!
Finally, they made it to the end of the long road and had to fight their way pasted the pricker bushes and vines that barred the forest from them. Both boys were scratched and the vines clung to their great coats, but they made it with little trouble, and now the wide, old oak forest stood before them. It was silent and the trees looked huge and gray in the early light. Sometimes Stan thought it was like a church out here, but it was too great to pray in this church, the trees would steal your breath and voice away.
Now the boys were being extra careful and quiet. They were in the forest now, and any sound or motion could ruin their hunting trip. A squirrel hissed at them from the top of a tree. Neither boy paid any attention to it as they worked themselves deeper into the trees. There were no paths in this forest, it had never been cut or logged. There were a few clearings where, with momma and dad, they had picnics in the summer time, but nothing even closely resembling a campfire ring remained. The boys were looking for a stump or a stand of bushes to hide in. That way they could see the deer before the deer could see them.
Finally, just as the Sun was poking through the far off trees in the east, they found a small boggy area that had some reeds and bushes tall enough for them to hide inside; a ring of higher and drier ground surrounded the wet area. Steve swore under his breath as he topped the small rise; his foot sank into the black mud, but he quickly pulled the boot out and moved to a drier spot. Stan quick-stepped his way over the wet spot and sank down on a small hump of dirt that was covered in old leaves.
Both boys shifted the twigs and growth that was in front of them out of the way to better look across the wide area in front of them. Across a small gully that ran in front of them and off in the dim distance were a few huge old oaks that kept the undergrowth down and the forest was clear for about a hundred yards. Everything looked like it was covered in orange carpet because of all the leaves, but here and there, an old branch stuck out like a black pencil scar on some deep autumn colored paper.
They had found the perfect spot so they took the time to check their weapons and to take off the game bags. Stan's hat went cockeyed as he pulled the strap over his head, Steve grinned at him. Both boys set about looking over their rifles and putting some bullets in them. As Stan picked his first bullet out of his pocket, he looked at the smooth brass coated thing. The tip of the round was dark orange and metallic, it was shiny and, he thought, very pretty. He resisted an urge to fog some breath on it and polish it on his jacket, but he did silently say to it, "you are my first, this isn't like messing around at the creek with Steve, this is real. You are my first, and you are gonna fly straight and you and I are going to get us a deer." While he was thinking, Steve looked at him oddly, as only an older brother can.
It took the forest about half an hour to get used to them. The cries and hubbub that followed them had died down, and now the huge and vast sound of nothing surrounded them. No, it wasn't really a nothing sound, there were many noises, but some of them were far off, and some of them made you think you were tiny in a huge world. A drop of water could sound like the gong of a bell in some great abbey in Europe. The hiss of wind through the reeds could make you think a dragon was sneaking up behind you. A leaf falling in the autumn air could sound like a scythe cutting wheat on a September afternoon.
But it did die down, and the animals that were overhead accepted their presence, as if they had figured out that the boys were not a threat. The squirrels stopped spitting and the birds stopped crying. The boys lay prone and waited; they were tighter than coiled springs.
Steve thoughtfully considered the expanse in front of them; he had been in this bog before and had seen deer trudge right in front of it, using the gully like an impromptu path leading to the other side of the clear area. Because they were right on top of the gully, they could see in both directions forever. Steve remembered the last time he had seen a buck stop and drink from a tiny pool nearby. He hadn't had his gun with him, and he cursed himself a few times for not taking it because he had had a perfect shot. However, he did feel good about having Stan along with him this time, with both boys having a rifle along, maybe the boy would get his first deer.
After what seemed like hours, they heard a small crunch. Both boys instantly came out of whatever daydream they had been in and stared expectantly off across the clearing towards whatever had made the noise. There, about fifty yards off, blending in as if she were invisible, a doe silently nosed her way down a small rise towards the gully. Stan made to aim his rifle, but Steve reached out his hand and put it on Stan's shoulder. He made a shushing motion with his free hand. If there was a doe coming, there should be more, and perhaps a buck leading them all. Just be patient.
The doe reached the gully and stared right at the blind the boys were hiding in, she considered the wall of reeds and shrubbery for a brief second. She must have been comfortable, and didn't see anything because she went forward without looking again, right to some water held in a small indent in the ground. She drank and the boys eagerly kept their eyes on the place where they had first seen her, if another deer was coming, it would come from up there.
The doe finished her drink and nimbly picked her way along the gully, stepping around large craggy rocks and keeping to the sandy, more stable footing. She was close now; Steve almost took the shot, but then thought better of it. He wanted his little brother to get one, the doe looked very young and small. She could not have been two years old yet, probably born in the spring. Something was moving along the far ridge.
Both boys strained their eyes to look through the oaky gloom that the trees shed over the hill. There were two more does moving down towards the gully, both a few years younger than the doe that was right in front of them. Then, as if waiting for his court to settle, a buck came over the rise, his antlers like a king's crown. He boldly strode down the hill to meet his does, not even bothering to glance at the weedy blind that dominated the hill above the water. Stan could hear his breath snorting in and out of his huge nose. He did a silent count and saw that the buck would have been a 12 pointer, if he had not lost an antler in battle. His head was huge.
Steve gave Stan a nod and silently willed the younger boy to pull the yoke and chamber the round in his rifle as silently as possible. The buck was almost to the water now, the clomp of his feet made small thumps on the ground that sounded like a horse. Stan raised the .30-30 and took careful aim at the chest of the mighty buck. His breath squeezed out of his lungs in tiny bursts.
Something made the buck jump. Just as Stan fired the Winchester, the buck jumped straight up and seemed to pivot in mid air. He had heard them. The bullet, once aimed at the buck's heart, missed that vital area and clipped the buck in the back, just above his mighty haunches. Both boys jumped out of the blind like a rocket leaping out of a tube. The buck didn't care, he spun as if he had not been hit and in six great leaps went back over the rise where he had come from. The three does scampered off in the other direction; their white tails were a flash in the early morning mist and they were gone.
Stan, watching the does scurry off, was a few steps behind his older brother as they both leapt after the wounded buck. Steve's longer, stronger legs would carry him off faster, far outdistancing his brother. He knew that the animal was only wounded; he had to get to it and finish what they had started. Soon, he was far beyond Steve, going over the hill and leaving the younger boy further and further behind. His boots mashed down on the orange leaves and the birds; jays, robins, and sparrows were crying again.
He followed the drops of blood he saw on the leaves, here and there spattered in bright contrast to the dun colors of the forest. Nothing quite looked like that red color, he mused to himself, nothing at all. He chanced a look back at Steve, but the boy was far behind, almost out of shouting distance, he looked like he was going to sit down. No matter, I'll find this buck and then he can help me drag it back to the farmhouse...the lazy bum!
Stan rounded a small stand of brush that had grown up around the base of an old oak. The buck was not far off; he could hear it wheezing some place nearby. On the other side of the stand, there was a large splash of blood on some weeds, and there, crashed against the side of another tree, the buck laid, his eyes wild with fear and pain.
His pace slowed to a crawl. He had never been this close to a wounded animal before. Every other time he had shot a deer, the kill had been clean. He knew he should just shoot it and be done with it, but the sight was something terrible and he could not take his eyes off the straining deer. He came within a few feet of the animal, the great, proud eyes rolled up to meet him and he knew that the animal was dying. There was blood on the tree, the ground, and all over the lower part of the buck. The blood was tinged black, and it seemed as if the animal had lost all control of his legs and bowels, they both pumped rigidly in a way they weren't supposed to work. The animal had shit all over himself in his terror and agony.
Dimly, he could hear his brother calling after him and blundering through the brush. The deer was not going to die fast enough. He could not let Steve see this. Stan got closer to the heaving animal and had to hold his breath, the shock and smell of the animal was almost too much. He took a firm hold of the buck's antlers and pulled the great head up, he could not use the rifle, or Stan would know that something was up.
He quickly brought out his knife and cut into the mighty buck's throat. The sound was an almost unnatural sound that resembled the noise a cantaloupe makes when it is cut. The sound was hollow. Blood began to ooze out on his hand and then shot out like a hot faucet, covering his arm. The buck died silently.
Steve stepped back and wiped his knife on his trouser leg and then walked towards the belly of the animal, preparing to gut the thing before Stan could arrive and question the kill, he was arm deep in the carcass when Stan came puffing along.
"Found you!" he cried, and then looked at the buck with inquisitive eyes. "Did I get'im? Did I get'im in one shot?" He asked.
"Yeah," was all that Steve said.
"Wow, what a lucky shot! I don't know what spooked him; I thought for sure that my shot missed him by a mile!"
Steve took his arm out of the buck and sat down on his rump, he took a deep breath.
"What is it Stevie?"
"Lucky shot, you got him good. Now get down here and help me." And said no more, but in his eyes, there were tears standing, not ready to roll down his dirty cheeks.