There’s still enough daylight to see the muley halfway down the pasture, but here in the mountains, the sun set a long time ago.
“Hun,” my wife whispers. “Hun, he’s legal.”
The muley is in the dark timber on the edge of the clearing. He is at an angle facing us. He is looking right at us, his big ears up and out.
Every muscle in my body is tense. I don’t feel the cold. There is a scared warmness in my stomach. I can hear my breathing, but it seems like it’s coming from someone else. I put the crosshairs on the shoulder and wait for him to turn.
He is not a big muley, maybe a fork and a spike, maybe two forks. I want him anyway. That’s something hard to explain, wanting him so bad like that.
“Hun,” she says, “just take him. Why don’t you just take him?”
I am waiting for him to turn so I can put one behind his shoulder. But she is right, I should just take him now.
I pull in my breath and exhale. I have the crosshairs on the front of his shoulder. The bullet will blow fragments of bone into his vitals; the bullet will pass through his shoulder and go through his lungs. With any luck it will exit at the base of his lungs and miss his gut altogether.
At the bottom of my breath I begin squeezing the trigger. I don’t think about anything else. I don’t think about the deer, I don’t think about the gun firing–only the trigger, and keeping completely still.
When the gun fires, it surprises me. That’s how it’s supposed to be, but still I don’t like it. I search through the scope for the buck. I swing the gun side to side. The panic and the excitement and the fear keep me from seeing. There’s little light left to see by anyway and all I can make out is shades of gray broken by branches. I look over the scope and search the edges of the forest.
“Hun,” she says, standing up. “Hun, you don’t have to be so desperate. You missed him.”
“I thought I saw him bunch up.”
“He’s long gone now. He hightailed it out of here.”
“Are you sure? I could’ve sworn he bunched up on me.”
“Probably not going to get another shot like that the rest of the hunt,” she says. “That was a one time only.”
We start in the direction of where we came out of the woods. Now I feel the cold. The breeze pushes it through my outer layers, it soaks through the wet on the small of my back.
We walk side by side through the meadow, toward the juniper and piñon. Shame fills my chest and pushes up out of the neck of my shirt. I turn on my headlamp.
“Not yet,” she says. “It’ll be easier to see how we get out.”
Then she turns to me. She reaches to me.
“Hun,” she says. “Hun, that was a difficult shot.”
“I had the crosshairs on his shoulder.”
“I didn’t want to tell you then because I didn’t want to shake you up.”
“He must’ve moved. At the last second. He must’ve moved a fraction of an inch.”
“Truthfully,” she says, “I don’t think even my brothers would’ve taken that shot.”
“You didn’t see him bunch up? I was almost certain he bunched up.”
“I can’t find where we go out,” she says.
We stand there looking up and down the tree line. In the dark everything is the same. In the dark nothing looks like it did.
Just behind the stand of trees is the road we walked up. All we have to do is walk straight through, and we’ll be safe. But the road curves in one direction and the forest goes in another. If we get turned around in there we’ll go in circles for hours.
We’re not but a mile from camp. But it’s dark, a new moon, and I can feel my body temperature dropping. We don’t have the clothes or the gear to stay our here long. We didn’t think we’d need them–we were so close to camp.
A flush of warmth goes down my legs, and my stomach drops out. The idea of being lost creeps over me. I try to calm myself. I try to focus on my breath and look for landmarks. All the excitement of seeing a buck and taking a shot is gone; the shame of missing is gone, just the growing fear, the regret of taking too lightly the mountains.
“There,” I say. “Look. There’s that mound and the open mine shaft.”
There are mounds and sink holes and open mine shafts scattered over the meadow. I’m not sure if this specific mine shaft is the anchor point. But it feels better to be moving toward something, anything, hopefully our way out.
The ground gives under her next step and she grabs for me. Out here you can’t be too sure if it’s the prairie dogs or an old tunnel collapsing under you.
We lurch forward together.
She says, “Let’s just stay off the mounds, ok?”
We get to the mound and mine shaft that is our anchor point and look into the dark timber. I turn on my headlamp and we can see the path.
Game cored out a hollow through the trees large enough for us to duck through, they carved out a narrow trail through the fallen pine needles perceptible enough for us to follow. There through this thicket is our road. And down our road, not but a mile, is our camp.
As we walk past the mine shaft, something possess me to look down it. I know I shouldn’t, but I do it anyway.
“Hun,” she says. “Hun I don’t think you should get too close. Hun, please! Don’t go near there.”
I hear the prickle in her voice, and keep going. Next, I am at the edge of it. The dirt is soft. My feet sink into the dirt.
“What are you doing?” she says. “Get back!”
The mine shaft is a black square, four feet by four feet, the dirt held by wood planks. A ladder goes down. I peer over the edge. Some of the ladder’s cross bars are broken, or missing. The light from my headlamp disappears into the darkness.
My stomach drops forward and it feels like I’m being pulled in. The blood rushes to my head, makes me dizzy. I sink to my knees and crawl backwards.
“I don’t think we should come back here,” she says. “I don’t think this is a safe place to hunt.”
She is at the edge of the dark timber, waiting for me.
“You’re right,” I say. “I don’t think this is a safe place to do anything.”
On the other side of the dark timber, almost on the road, we hear something that sounds like a bugle from a bull elk. We turn to each other and smile. The musical sound of a bugle comes as a relief. But somewhere in the back of my mind I am confused. The rut is far over. They stopped bugling a month ago. Then a second bugle from the same place.
“That’s not a bugle,” I say.
“No,” she says. “No, I don’t think so.”
“That sounds like a wolf.”
There comes more howling from different places in the forest, just on the other side of the road.
“Do you think those are wolves?” I say.
“Wolves?” she says. “No, I don’t think so. No,” she says. “We don’t have wolves around here.”
“Yea, I know, but do you hear that? They sound just like wolves howling.”
“I’m pretty sure there aren’t any wolves in these parts.”
“Maybe they’re coyotes.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe those are wolves.”
“Probably just coyotes,” I say. “But still, c’mon, let’s go.” I shift the rifle to my left side and finger the forty-four caliber Ruger on my waist.
We make our way down the mountain road with headlamps on. It is a dark night, a new moon and stars begin to unveil themselves. Soon the Milky Way will spread over the sky.
The road bends around a rock outcropping and comes into an opening where one of the abandoned side-paneled homes sits behind a barbwire fence. The wind blows the open door back and forth against the wall. I try to ignore the house as we pass. I don’t want to look at it.
It takes a moment for things to set in when we return to camp. I pass the beam from my headlamp over our things. The clothes from our bags are strewn about. Upon closer inspection some are in pieces. The tent is torn up, sleeping bags ripped open, the down blown in piles and moving around our feet.
“C’mon,” I say. “C’mon, we need to get out of here. I don’t think someone wants us to be here.”
Over the wind blowing through the pine, and sounding terrifying, there is only a flap from the tent beating against the side. Then the howling starts again from different places around us.
“Honey!” she says, shining on the tires. “Look!”
The tires are flat. I go to the other side. All four tires are flat.
“Someone cut them,” I say. “Someone cut our tires.”
She is picking up clothes. She is wrapping what’s left of her clothes in part of the sleeping bag.
“Let’s go,” she says. “We’ll have to walk out.”
She starts walking. I grab our heavy jackets from the truck and join her.
The sound of our walking falls in stride so that it sounds like one person. The howling is getting louder and comes from different locations, as if they are funneling their prey into a dead end. The smell of night and cold and mountains all join together.
“Coyotes don’t hunt deer, do they?” she says.
“When we hit the main road,” I say, “what will be faster? Ancho or Jicarilla?”
The howling stops, then an eruption of excited yips and sharp barks centered in the gulch to our right.
“Do you think they got something?” she says. “Coyotes don’t hunt deer like that, do they?”
“If we go past Jicarilla,” I say, “there’s those ranches mixed in with the forest land near the bottom.”
Our road disappears in a meadow that slopes into the gulch down from the coyotes. Most of Jicarilla is there in a clearing to our right. If the night were brighter we’d be able to see bulky silhouettes in the dark, abandoned homes waiting for their owners to return from the mines.
Then we’re at the main road and a truck comes over a hill and floods the road with light.
For a moment I don’t know what to do. Then they’re on us.
“Howdy,” says the passenger, and he looks at the rifle on my shoulder. Their cabin is darker than outside, I can’t make them out. “Hunting modern?”
“Modern?” I say. “We’re hunting rifle.”
“We just had the muzzleloader hunt last week,” he says. “That’s about as modern as I like to get.”
“How did it go?” I say. “Did you make out?”
“Saw two bucks right in this area, but soon as they saw the truck they lit for the hills.”
“Just took a shot on one,” my wife says. “Must’ve been one of the ones you saw.”
“You two heading back to camp?”
“That’s right,” I say. “My buddy’s on his way to meet us.”
“Is that right?” he says. “Huh.” He rubs his chin and looks at something behind us. “Why don’t you two hop in and we’ll give you a ride. Hop on in and we’ll drive till we see your buddy.”
“No,” I say. “No, we’re alright.”
“Mighty cold out here.”
“No,” I say. “No, it’s not cold out here, not if you’re moving.”
“Look at your pretty little girl,” he says. “Look at your pretty little girl, she’s shaking she’s so cold.”
“My buddy,” I say. “My buddy’ll be here any minute. We’ll just wait for him.”
“Is that right?” he says. “Huh.” He rubs his chin again and looks at something behind us again. “That your camp back there? The one all torn up?”
“That camp?” I say. “Oh. That camp back up there by the schoolhouse. We saw that camp. Looks like someone tore it up good.”
“That ain’t your camp?” he says. “I thought that was your camp.”
“My buddy’s coming up now,” I say. “We’re camped down off the road a ways.”
“Is he now? Well,” he says. “Guess will just be on our way,” he says. “Guess will just head on back to the fam. Nice meeting you folks.”
He sticks his hand out the window. “I’m Red. This here is Jay Bob.”
His hand hangs out the window waiting to shake. I step forward to take it.
“Hun,” she says, but before she can finish, we’re shaking.
His grip is firm, not so firm I couldn’t break it. Then he’s bringing me closer, and it’s much firmer now. Firm now so I can’t break it.
“Why don’t you hop on in,” he says. “Hop on in now and warm up. Your pretty girl,” he says. “Your pretty little girl is getting cold.”
From behind me, my wife shines her headlamp into the cabin and cocks the hammer of her three-fifty-seven caliber Smith and Wesson. Red hears it too and lets go of my hand.
“Woe,” he says. “Now hold on. Jay,” he says. “Jay, let’s get out of here.”
Jay Bob eases their truck into gear and they start off.
“Jesus,” Red says out the window, as they leave. “You people are fucking crazy.”
My wife is shaking and hands me the revolver. I am shaking too. I try to let down the hammer. It’s not possible. I put it on the ground facing away from us.
“Hun,” she says. “Hun, I was trying to tell you.”
We hold each other and feel each other shaking. Her cheeks are cold against mine. Her nose is wet. The wind picks up and blows through the trees around us. The wind picks up and makes the sound of waves crashing against us. We hold each other in the dark and the cold, and feel the other’s shaking body.
“Ancho,” I tell her. “I think we should head for Ancho.”
“No,” she says. “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.”
“We’ve got to get moving,” I say. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“I’m freezing,” she says. “I’m so cold I could die.”
“We’ll warm up soon enough. We’ll warm up once we start moving.”
She shivers. She can’t stop shivering.
“Can’t we just go back to the truck? All of a sudden I feel like I’m going to fall over. I’m so tired I can hardly stand.”
She rests her head on my chest. I put my arms around her and rub up and down.
“Can you stop? Please?” She stands back and, looking in the direction the truck went, crosses her arms. “I just want to go back to the truck. I can’t stay out here any longer. I can’t take it a minute more.”
“Listen,” I say, and make a move to touch her arm. “Listen to me for just a second.” She ducks back and doesn’t let me touch her. “Those guys back there, those guys mean business.”
I pick up her revolver and try to let down the hammer. My hands are still shaking.
“Those guys?” she says, and her eyebrows shoot up, the corner’s of her mouth turn so slightly I know she’s fighting to suppress a smile. “I’d be better off with them. I’d be better off with them than a guy like you.”
I look at her. I see her chest moving. I hear the air coming out of her nose.
“You just stood there,” she says. “You weren’t going to do anything.”
“What are you talking about? He had me pinned to the truck.”
“A real man would’ve done something.”
“They were the size of gorillas! And there were two of them! What do you expect?”
“What were you going to do? Just stand there and watch them rape me?”
“No–Jesus! Of course not. I mean–fuck, I wouldn’t have let it come to that.”
“No? You wouldn’t’ve? So when exactly were you planning on stepping in? Give me that, I don’t need your help.”
he tries to take the gun from my hands.
“I was about to pull out my forty-four,” I say. “Just let me finish, would you? Right when you cocked your’s I was just about to pull mine out.”
“But you didn’t.”
She tries to take the revolver from my hand a second time and the gun fires and leaps out of our hands.
“Jesus!” I say and grab her shoulders. “Are you OK?”
She just stands there, her lips curl into a snarl and her forehead tightens across the temples. A muscle in her left cheek twitches, then all is smooth, all is smooth and white and so very, very smooth.
“Look,” she says, shrugging me off. “We’ve got to figure out what to do.” She picks up her revolver and holsters it. “I can’t walk to Ancho tonight. There’s no way. Either we go back to the truck and take turns being on lookout, or walk down past Jicarilla and hopefully make it to one of those ranch houses down low.”
Headlights appear over the hill, disappear as the truck goes down and reappear closer and brighter.
“There they are!” she says. “Shit, I think that’s them!”
I pull the rifle off my shoulder and kneel.
“Hun,” she says.
I pull back the bolt, load a round and thumb off the safety. I rest my elbow on my knee. I aim above the driver’s headlight.
“Hun, hold on! I don’t know–”
And I fire. I don’t hear or feel a thing, and look over the scope to see if I made the shot, then up at my wife.
The truck keeps coming, I hear my wife exhale and I load another cartridge.
“Hun,” she says. “I’m pretty sure that isn’t their truck. I’m not sure, but I don’t think that’s them.”
Then the truck takes a slow turn off the road, goes into a rut and jumps out the other side. I hear it scraping through the bushes, I hear the shocks and springs jumping up and down, then it smashes into a ponderosa.
We go after it, and the closer we get the more certain I become it isn’t their truck. Then I see the Game and Fish emblem on the door and collapse to my knees.
“Hun,” she says, the muscle in her left cheek twitching. “My God, Hun, what have you done?”
BIO — AV Boyd lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work can be found at http://chughole.wordpress.com.