Sunday, November 4, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Hunter’s Moon,” by Edward Ahern

“You headed out tonight, Otis?”

“Got to. Clear sky, full moon. None better.”

“Maybe not. Tom Sizemore went out two year ago, never come back.”

“Tommy was a drunk.”

Otis reached up to the gun rack and lifted off a Savage lever action .308. He was forty years old, and the gun was a lot older than he was. As he mounted a flashlight atop the barrel, he talked to it. “All right, buddy, let’s go jack a deer.”

Marlou knew better but tried again. “Pond’s froze over already, Otis. Wait till it warms up tomorrow morning.”

“And the wardens have finished their coffee. You know better. Deer moving now, enough light to spot ‘em. I’ll hunt from my perch, they’ll never see me till they get shined.”

Otis pulled on insulated hunting boots, lined black pants, an insulated camo jacket and a black stocking cap. He stuffed insulated gloves into his pockets. Bulkier than he liked, but sitting still for hours he’d chill down bad, and if he was shivering he’d be apt to miss. He put a drag harness over his shoulder, grabbed the gun, and looked over at Marlou. They didn’t talk much anymore, just screwed some.

“Be going out the back cellar door, in case somebody’s watching. Don’t turn on no lights unless the wardens show up. If they do, turn on the back door light so I can sheer off.”

“It ain’t worth it, Otis. We’ll get by.”

“Hell we will. We don’t get deer meat we starve sweetie. I’m off.”

Otis went down to the basement and out the ground-mounted cellar door. Despite stepping gently, the autumn leaves rustled as he moved, the only sound in the night still. It was just after midnight, and in the cold, clear winter air the moon drowned out the stars.

He side-stepped his way through scrub oak and alder until he reached the wider-spaced, bigger trees of the deeper woods and could move quicker. The only sounds were his footsteps and his breathing, his noise making any nearby critters go silent.

The directional blazes he’d put on the trees were meant to be hard to see, and even in full moonlight he walked slow. After twenty minutes he came to the rock outcropping he was after. He set the deer harness down at the base, slung the rifle onto his back, and clambered up.

Ten yards below him and twenty-five yards away was a small clearing, where two deer trails came together: the killing zone. Otis sat down, cross-legged, and checked the sighting on the gun. And waited. His breathing slowed and softened down to noiseless.

He didn’t measure time out here, but after a longish while he began to hear the stirs of mice and wood rats as they burrowed through the leaves. An owl off to his left began to softly hoot. His ass had gone cold, but he was used to that, and if he didn’t move he’d warm the patch of rock under his backside to bearable.

And then it got quieter. Too quiet, like something else was moving that he just couldn’t hear, but the critters could. Coyote, he wondered, bear maybe. They both worked death quiet at night. But after more minutes, hearing nothing, he went back to watching the deer trails.

Slow time passed. False dawn was just giving the horizon a lighter shade of gray when he heard the deer, then sighted it as it slow-stepped into the clearing.  Buck, six, maybe eight points. Otis liked doe meat better, but he’d run out of time. He slowly raised the rifle from his lap to his shoulder. The round was already chambered, safety off.

He reached his left hand up to the flashlight and flicked it on, freezing the deer, dropped his hand to the gun’s forearm and squeezed off a shot. The slug hit, but the deer didn’t drop and Otis levered in another round and shot again. The deer dropped, but Otis knew better than to get down. He waited some, gun loaded, watching the deer for movement. Last thing he wanted was to be chasing the buck through deep woods.

The rifle shots had deafened him. As his hearing came back, he thought he heard rustling in the brush off to his left, but listened harder and heard nothing. It was time to go to work. He slung the gun onto his back, scrabbled down off the rock, picked up the harness, and stepped out into the clearing.

The buck was stone dead. Otis checked close. Both shots had gone into its side behind the shoulder blade, decent heart or lung shots. He set down the harness and took out a curve-bladed skinning knife. He slit the deer open, belly and anus, cut through the esophagus, and pulled out the guts. He took pride in field-dressing deer without spoiling any meat.

The smell of blood and organs was strong, and Otis hurried to rig the harness to the deer before he drew the attention of other night prowlers. He took a strain on the tow rope and grunted. The buck was heavy, hundred-ten, hundred-twenty even after getting rid of the guts. He began to drag it ass-first, so the antlers wouldn’t catch on brush. Then Otis heard it again.

He jerked his head around and saw branches and twigs waving from the brush. Too high up for a bear or a coyote; had to be a moose or a man. Otis felt the fear tear through his nerves, making him shiver from more than cold.

He stopped dragging, shook off the tow harness, and took his gun off his shoulder. And tried to think. Any warden would have already braced him. Whatever it was had waited till Otis downed the deer, so likely couldn’t run down a buck on its own. Smart, it waited to move till he was loaded down. It didn’t have a gun or he’d be shot at already.

Otis refused to leave the carcass for some rustling branches. He put the harness back on, held the rifle at port arms and started dragging, all the while still thinking. If it was smart enough it would come at him from behind, steps masked by the noise of the dragging. Otis had good sideways vision, and kept turning his head a little, left and right, scanning for company.

Fear squeezed his heart and made the pulling harder. He had to slow down a little. The strange thing’s rustling softened as Otis hauled the deer back into old forest trees. He didn’t like it, tree trunks big enough to hide a man, but no choice, it was the way out.

His chest heaving, Otis had a worse thought. What if the deer was just bonus and it was hunting him? Waiting till he was loaded down for an easier kill? Nobody knew about his spot, if he wasn’t himself dragged off to be eaten he’d just rot where he lay. Like Tommy. Got to be smart.

Otis knew if he was going to make it, he needed to take a stand till daybreak. Trees were thick enough that he’d have a hard time swinging his rifle, so he needed a little space. And found it. He set his back against a trunk wider than his shoulders and crouched. The moon put faint light through the bare branches, not enough to help much.

He needed to piss so bad it was distracting him, but couldn’t put down the gun. The hell with it, he thought, and let go, urine running hot down his leg under the lining. Head clearer, he kept his ears wide open and widened his sight.

It was dead still, like the critters were watching the standoff. Otis forced himself not to look at the horizon for the coming dawn; it was a dangerous distraction. Despite the cold, his hands were sweaty on the rifle stock. Whatever it was, it had the next move.

And took it. Something reached around the bole of the tree at Otis’s back and ripped through his throat. As he dropped, Otis spun and got off a shot, but there was nothing to shoot at: it was still behind the tree.

And stayed there. Otis realized it was letting him bleed out rather than face the rifle. Smart. His vision faded, but his hearing held on. Something dark-colored came out from behind the tree, grabbed the rifle, and tossed it aside. Then it grabbed Otis by the shoulders and started dragging him toward the deer.

Gonna eat both of us, Otis thought. Tough drag. And a last, stray thought. Take the rifle. Don’t let it rust in the woods.

Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over two hundred stories and poems published so far, and three books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of five review editors.

Ed’s first appearance in our virtual pages was “Happily Ever After” in SHOWCASE #9. We’re happy to welcome him back with this story, which we just had to run on the opening weekend of deer season. 


Robert said...

Well played.

Jacob said...

Nice! Is there more? I want to know what the bad guy is, and how it gets brought down.

nimarii said...

Enjoyed many of the details and the voice but the ending felt a little flat...definitely want to know more...