Stories of the Hunt

Stories of the Hunt – Short Story

Alex Mindt

Every father is a con man. How else did the “walked to school in three feet of snow” routine come about? Maybe there’s something in the chromosome that propels men to erect personal mythologies, some genetic pull towards tall tales. To some it’s as simple as starting on the high school football team–not starring, no stories of great winning moments, just starting–when in fact they stood on the sidelines unhooking the straps of their shoulder pads to avoid a rash. To others it’s more complicated–whole fictions rise from the ashes of their youth. Every one of my friend’s fathers had either been the homecoming king, the lead tenor in a local doo wop group, or a minor leaguer who “almost made it to the bigs.”

My father took it to another level. His myths weren’t just revisionist history, they were part of his everyday life–in the way he popped open the refrigerator, how he twirled the screwdriver before placing it on the head of the screw. My father was a method actor, not content to merely play the character he had created. He became him. I had no idea that he was conning anybody, that he was pulling a great domestic James Dean. I believed him to be the man he appeared to be. And because of this, he was infinitely more exciting than Joey Rutherford’s father who drove a taxi and played darts in a league down at the U-Turn Tavern. And Don Ray Shelton–whose dad worked in the lumber mill–always wanted to spend the night at my house so we could watch my dad clean his guns and get ready.

He’d fold up his hunting gear, stuff his backpack and walk us through the itinerary. “First Mayfield and Dunkirk meet me at the South fork and they hop in the jeep and we take off up past Devil’s Thumb and into the dark and piny, where the road ends and we hike in.” It always began like this. The meeting point figured prominently in his stories, and the names of these men I never met. For some reason I didn’t think of this at the time. Hell, I was eight years old. Who thinks of such things? And the fact that my dad never brought home any venison never mattered either. He’d occasionally lug in a head mounted on cedar with the antlers vaguely pointing upward. This was enough for me. My mother never let such things into the house, so Don Ray Shelton and I would sit up in the attic with a flashlight and poke their marble eyes and dried tongues.

For some kids it’s dinosaurs, for others it’s baseball cards or chemistry sets. For me, it was always hunting, deer hunting, and the more interest I showed, the more my dad embellished, from the cleaning and prepping to the loading and aiming.

When I turned twelve, I began shooting at Coke cans on a stump out at the land fill. I was a good shot, better than Dad. I-[e would talk about his damned glasses or the medication he was currently taking–tetracycline or some vitamin that was throwing him off and shake his head. This was the first step, I would later figure out, in the great unmasking of my father. I didn’t know it at the time. I just took him for his word, although part of me did feel sorry for him. The first pangs of pity a child feels for a parent can almost overwhelm, but like any twelve-year-old I shoved them back into the great denial cavity of my brain, and I told him if he’d get a new set of glasses he’d be smacking those cans in no time fiat. He eventually got new glasses and his shooting didn’t improve, while I was slugging holes in every Coke can in Snohomish County.

One night I heard my mother talking to my dad about an upcoming hunting competition over near Spokane. She was reading about a cash prize for the biggest buck, and a weekend of male gathering. I was shocked to hear her mention my name. “You know what I was thinking?” she said. “What if you took Walt this time?”

“What?” My father sounded annoyed.

“I think he’s old enough now. You know how much this would mean to him.”

“Oh, Jesus,” he said.

I remember standing outside their bedroom door, my body perfectly still. Once my mother was on my side, I knew I had won. I was finally going to go into the wild with my father. I had spent years trying to win her over, but the funny thing was, Dad kept arguing with her.

Buck’s Big Game Journal was a small hunting magazine published twice a year by an old bald guy named Buck Macguire in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It was full of hunting tips, grandiose stories and pictures–black and white photos of various kills, and big game caught in outrageous situations. The back page featured the winning photograph, usually some dead moose or elk with its antlers stuck in a tree or a fence. But the one I remember most vividly is the one of a white-tailed deer tangled up in a clothes line. “Still Alive!” the caption read.

This photo has stayed with me, I think, because of the story I’ve created behind it. Margaret–my name for her–comes out one evening to get her clothes off the line, when she sees this 150-pound buck kicking and whipping his head. Margaret then runs into the house and gets her husband Mike to come out and take a look. Mike goes out and says, “Oh my God!” and runs back into the house to get a camera, of all things. What people think in such situations astounds me. So he gets the camera and slowly closes in on this wild animal. Before he knows it Mike has taken the picture that will win him first prize in Buck’s annual contest, a picture that will enable Mike and Margaret to buy the dryer they always wanted. No, more clothes line tot them! Here’s what the picture looked like: deer antlers, like huge, wooden fork tines, rising out of a pair of boxer shorts, and the deer’s eyes looking hopelessly towards the camera between flowered panties and two argyle socks.

This is the magazine I subscribed to when I was a kid. It had a circulation of maybe five hundred and sometimes it came three months late. But it had everything I wanted, and I never threw out a copy. It all ended though, in the spring of my sixth grade year. Buck Macguire was thrown in jail for several unpaid traffic tickets and some child pornography he’d partaken in when he was younger. He tried to publish the magazine from his prison cell in Pocatello, but it was futile, and I had to learn to be satisfied with Field & Stream.

Eventually, after several arguments–one ending with my clad slamming the garage door–my mother somehow convinced him to take me to what was actually called “The Northwest WhiteTailed Deer Hunting Competition.”

“For one weekend, residents of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington will convene just North of Spokane, in the town appropriately called Deer Park, to partake in the biggest shoot-off on the West Coast,” it said on the cream-colored brochure.

It was still a month off, but I prepared, shooting as much as I could, and then cleaning my new gun–a Savage, bolt-action rifle my dad had bought for me. “The bolt-action rifle,” Buck Macguire wrote, “is more rugged and simple than other rifles, and it is the most accurate rifle on the market.” On this he was right. I never shot better than with that rifle. Dad would make me stand far away, or crouch behind trees, and I could still hit the Coke cans. Dad shot a lot too, but he never seemed to get any better. “Here,” he said once. “Give me that gun of yours.” He took my gun and started firing at the stump, hitting only one can out of five. “Jesus,” he said. “It’s getting dark. Let’s get home.”

My dad worked for Boeing, which, in those days, meant he’d work a few months and then get laid off and then get rehired and so on and so forth. So he’d be there some days when I came home from school. My mother worked in a dentist office, answering the phone and scribbling on a calendar. One day after school, I found my gun laid out on my bedroom floor, in pieces.

“Shit,” my dad said. “Like a deer in head lights, that’s what you look like.” He was leaning against the door frame with a beer in his hand.

I looked at the mess of little gadgets and screws and was amazed at all the things inside a rifle. From the outside it looks simple and basic, but like most things, rifles are deceiving.

“I tell you what, Walt, you put that back together by next weekend and you can go with me.”

“But mom said “

“That you were going. That it’s a done deal. Well, I’ve been thinking about that.”

For some reason my dad didn’t want me to go with him. But I was too determined to give up, and for the next three days I spent every free minute putting that rifle back together. To my dad’s dismay, I had it back in working order two days before we were to leave on our trip. I brought the gun into the living room and set it in his lap. “What’s this?” he said.

I’m done,” I said. “I cleaned every piece, too. It works better now than it ever has.”

“Huh,” he said. “Well, good, Walt. Now go put it away.”

As I moved out of the room, I said, “That’s it?”

“What was that?” my dad said. “Walt. You get back in here. What did I say about that huh? If you got something to say to me, say it to me.” He stared at me and then took a drag on his cigarette. Smoke emitted from his nose and mouth in phlegmy gusts. “You did have something to say, didn’t you?”

“I put my rifle back together,” I said.

“Yes, you did. And I told you I’m proud of you. But, Walt, you don’t do things so others will admire you. You do them for the love and the joy of doing them.”

“The average white-tailed buck weighs one hundred and eighty pounds, although specimens of nearly twice that weight have been shot. It is by far the wariest and most elusive of all big game animals. The cautious hunter will succeed with the whitetail. Keep the wind in your favor because deer have an exceptional sense of smell.” These were a few of Buck Macguire’s hunting tips I read aloud to my father as we drove into the Cascades that Thursday night. It was dark, so I held a flashlight up to the book.

“You think Buck is going to be there?” my father asked.

“No, Dad. He’s in prison.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I forgot about that. Look, you’re going to want to get some sleep. Believe me we’ve got a shot at winning some of that purse, but only if you get some shut-eye. You got the vision. Just don’t lock up and you’ll be tine.”

“I won’t,” I said. “If I see a deer, I’ll kill it.”

“That a boy.” He reached over and put his hand on my head. “Now get some sleep.”

It was the beginning of November and the Cascades were covered with snow. At one point, I remember waking up and seeing my dad putting chains on the tires. We had another seven hours of driving ahead of us and snow on the pass was not going to help. When he got in the truck, he said, “Rest those eyes, Walt. And be sure to say a prayer for us.” He was so tender at that moment. I often wonder if it was a dream. I lay down, resting my head in his lap. He put his hand on my shoulder and I drifted off.

My dad was a handsome man and when he smiled, people smiled back. He was an expert in the art of small talk, and he had a way of making people feel instantly at ease. When we got out of the truck at the Deer Park Elks Club I watched him as we stood in line. “Boy, it’s cold,” he said. “Makes my nipples hard.”

“Be careful,” a large man said. “You don’t want to get me excited.”

A few guys laughed, and before I knew it, the line had become more like a group with everybody joking around. There were a few boys there my age, and a cute girl who looked like she was in high school. “Don’t get outshot by her,” my dad whispered. “Nothing worse than getting outgunned by a girl.” I kept quiet the whole morning. I didn’t expect so many people, and so much chewing and spitting. This was an inauguration for me. All the Coke cans in the world couldn’t have prepared me for the barrage of camouflaged testosterone that littered the countryside. After a while, an old, wiry man stood up on the bed of a pickup with a blow horn in his hand.

“Welcome to the first annual Northwest White-Tailed Buck Shoot-Out. As you know, there are some pretty big cash prizes and some nice consolation gifts. For example, whoever brings in the buck with the strangest antlers, as judged by my wife Marianne, and her three friends, Hazel, Vi, and Sharon …” The old guy pointed over to the front door of the Elks Club. Four ladies were standing there in floral patterned jackets. They waved to us. “… will receive a free tune-up at my shop in Spokane.” He went on to explain the rules. We would have all weekend. The deadline for bringing in the kills would be set at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. The official hunting territory began on the north side of Deer Lake and continued northward into the Kaniksu National Forest. “Just follow the signs, gentlemen. There’s plenty of room for everybody.” He went on to give us safety tips that everybody knew and then he said, “Remember, we’re only going after the bucks. Please leave the women and children alone.” He then held a pistol up into the air and yelled. “Boy howdy! Let’s getta’ hunting!” He pulled the trigger and the gun blasted, sending echoes across the fields. The men started whooping and hollering while climbing into their trucks.

My dad pulled out a cigarette and said, “Well, what are you standing there for? We got some bucks to kill.”

This was it, I knew that much. This was the pinnacle, the culmination of every childhood fantasy that had ever found its way into my consciousness. This was akin to a kid who spends all of his time looking at the stars through a telescope, finally hopping on a space shuttle and actually going up there, up close and looking at Ursa Minor with his naked eye, taking pictures and, I’m sure, like me, shaking in his boots. What if I did lock up? What if my finger magically refused to pull the trigger? All of this ran through my head as I climbed into the truck. What didn’t cross my mind was the conspicuous absence of Dad’s hunting partners–Sheen, Dunkirk, Mayfield, Rodgers, Leone, and all the others he’d mentioned in the past.

The fact is, all of these names were either pulled out of books or B-movies, and it took me years to find the basis for each reference. What I wasn’t aware of at the moment, sitting in the seat beside him, I’d soon understand as the day went on. My father was no hunter. He betrayed every rule, every tip I’d ever read. And he made things worse by attempting to cover this up by espousing some shamanistic credos he’d learned from what he called, “Our red brothers.”

It had started to snow and the trails we hiked in on had a light dusting that displayed human footprints. The wind was at our back, sending our scent, like a piece of mail, right up to any deer’s olfactory mailbox. He assured me that when we got in further we would find a fresh trail and embark on “our singular mission.” The day was not going the way I’d imagined, there was no majesty to it, no thrill. But this plan satisfied me, for a while anyhow. Dad pulled out a cigarette and started smoking one after the other. We walked on for an hour or two or three and suddenly we were right back at the roadside. “Well,” Dad said. “Would you look at that?” He shook his head and then hiked down to the truck.

“Where are you going?” I said.

“I don’t know about you but I’m freezing.” He hopped into the truck and cranked it over. I stood on the hillside, snow landing softly on my shoulders, and I looked at him in the truck, rubbing his hands, blowing on them. The afternoon was creeping on and I knew we were done for the day. I climbed into the truck and said, “That was fun.”

“Hey, listen,” he said, “we weren’t going to get anything today anyway. You knew that. What’s the first rule of the hunt?”

“Um, let’s see, no smoking?”

He put the truck in gear and said, “What do you say we go back to the motel, get some shut-eye and wake up real early? Sound good? Tomorrow we can be miles in as the sun rises.”

This would have been fine if all the other hunters weren’t camping deep in the woods. I’d never even heard of hunters staying in motels.

The next morning, we started hiking in the dark and as the gray early morning light spread its way through the snow-covered forest, Dad spotted some fresh scrapes on a Douglas fir tree. Bucks rub their antlers on trees to mark their territory, and this buck looked big because of the size of the tree.

“See this?” Dad said. “There’s another one over there. Done last night. He moved right through here.” He was much quieter now and he motioned for me to follow him.

“Dad,” I whispered.

He stopped and looked back at me. I was grabbing the pheromones out of my back pack. “What are you doing?” he said.

“I’m going to spread this on the tree. It’ll draw him here. It’s doe scent.”

“Walt, we have to go to the deer. It won’t come to us.”

I spread it on the tree and pulled out the deer rattle I had ordered from the back of Buck Macguire’s Journal. “Dad, all we have to do is climb up a tree and rattle this for a while until the buck comes back.”

“What are we? Monkeys? Do I look like an ape to you?” he said. “Tell you what partner, you climb the damn tree. If you want to freeze to death, go ahead. I’m going to hunt down this son-of-a-bitch and I’m going to kill him.”

“But Dad, in all the books it says that when it gets cold they start to reproduce and they compete with other males, that’s why the rattle works.”

“You and all your damn books,” he said. “What are you going to believe, some ink on paper, or me? Huh? Now I’m heading down this trail, are you with me?”

I knew I couldn’t stay alone in those woods, so I put the rattle back in my pack, thinking maybe he was right.

We moved slowly and deliberately down a thin trail that looked as if it was created by animals. It didn’t have that loose sloppy feel of a man-made trail. It wasn’t long before Dad found deer tracks, little heart-shaped prints in the snow. We crouched down and spied through the bushes. He gave me his binoculars and I panned all the way around us.

“Let’s stay down and inch along this trail awhile,” he whispered. “Follow his tracks.”

It looked like the buck was heading down to the lake. I told Dad this. He nodded and we hunched low and strained our way down the trail. After a few minutes my thighs were burning and my heart was jumping all around my chest. I could feel that we were getting close.

But as the day went on, the buck’s tracks disappeared under the layers of falling snow, and soon our only concern was finding our way back to the truck. I wanted to keep hunting. But Dad convinced me that before too long it would be dark and we’d be stuck. As we walked back, Dad told me stories, trying to cheer me up. “One time Murphy gut-shot this old elk and we had to chase that damned ugly thing for miles, until finally it runs out on this ice-covered lake. Well, Murphy shoots it again, this time smack dab in the heart. So, the thing stumbles around and splat! It falls onto the ice. And guess what happened? The ice breaks. No kidding. There was this long squealing sound as the ice slowly bent under the elk’s weight. One second that old dumb elk was there, the next it was lying on the bottom of the lake.”

We moved on and eventually Dad was silent and I knew we were lost. It was still snowing and it was now beginning to get dark. Eventually Dad stopped and pulled out his flashlight and compass. We were due east of where we’d begun. “Well,” he said, “move west young man!” I could tell he was nervous, that he was covering.

“Westward ho!” I said, covering myself.

He smiled at me and then turned and started moving quickly now. There was desperation in his movements and this scared me. After a while it was pitch black except for the beam of light scanning the trail in front of us.

“This was the trail we came in on, isn’t it?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“Jesus, I didn’t know we’d hiked in so far,” he said.

It had been dark a long while now and the temperature had dropped considerably. My toes and fingers were getting numb and my nostrils were freezing shut.

Dad suddenly turned around and put his arms around my shoulders. I fell into him. “Don’t worry, Walt. It’ll be okay. We’ll be fine.” He held me up. I was exhausted.

The evidence was now overwhelming, and I couldn’t deny it anymore. My father was not a hunter. He couldn’t hit a Coke can from twenty yards, he didn’t know how to track, and worst of all, he didn’t know how to find his way out of the woods.

He turned and said, “We’re close, let’s just keep moving.” As we plodded on, and as I looked up at his back, moving through the darkness, all of the pieces began to fall into place, all of the holes in his charade became clear to me, and I began to list them under my breath.

“What was that?” he said. “What the hell did you say?”

“There was never any venison. You never brought home deer meat.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You can always buy a deer head.”

He stopped and pointed the flashlight in my face. “What do you want me to say to you Walt? Huh? You want me to come clean, is that it?”

“You’re not a hunter,” I said. My whole body seized up a little. I looked down to get the light out of my eyes.

“So now you know it all, huh?” he said. “But you don’t know nothing.”

I didn’t want to pursue it, because part of me, a large part, wanted him to be what he always was–a courageous woodsman, a man who knew how to get us back to the truck, to safety. But for some reason I looked up and said, “You can’t even shoot straight.”

He pointed the light down on the trail between us. And he was silent for a moment. He took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, well.” And then he turned and started moving away from me. I wanted him to fight, to prove me wrong, counter my claims with evidence to convince me otherwise. It was amazing how faced with the truth, the truth that I myself had spoken, I’d still wanted to be told, and to believe, a lie.

When I caught up to him, he was pulling the flair gun out of his backpack. “I’ve hunted a few times, Walt. But I’ve never killed anything.” He said this with a nonchalance that betrayed everything I was feeling, as if it was a bit of news from the Sunday paper. He obviously didn’t understand the impact it had on me. “But you’re right, Perry Mason. You’ve found the guilty party, and it is I.” He held up the flair gun and pulled the trigger. The little ball of fire shot up and hit a branch of a tall pine tree with a loud smack. It ricocheted and spiraled down into the snow and fizzled out. But it had given us enough light to see that we were only a hundred feet or so from the road. When Dad saw this, his body changed, and before I knew it we were both running to the end of the trail. The truck was just a ways down the road, and as we climbed in Dad turned on the heater and told me to take off my boots. “Get some circulation to your feet,” he said.

I didn’t find out the real story until years later. It turns out that whenever he went away on one of his hunting expeditions, he was actually seeing a woman named Anita Brice in Vancouver. I found out later that Anita had two daughters, neither of whom were my father’s, but with whom I now share a friendship. My father had helped support them through some rough times as he had invested money in Anita’s brother’s fishing boat.

Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. All I cared about, as I sat in the front seat of the truck, was getting feeling back into my toes and fingers. It was so dark that even with my adjusted eyes, my dad was hardly visible. “That was crazy, wasn’t it?” he said, his voice filling the darkness. “You thought we were goners. Admit it.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“You were scared, weren’t you? Admit it.” He turned on the lights. The dashboard lit up and I could see the smile disappear on his face, as he looked out the windshield. “How do your hands feel?”

“They hurt.”

“That’s good. That means you’re getting some feeling back.”

When the truck was warm, Dad pulled out onto the highway. The road was dark and empty and as the snow descended, I got sleepy. I could feel myself quickly giving into the warmth, letting it cradle me, as my head eased down against the door.

What happened next felt like a dream. I awoke to Dad swerving all over the road and sliding to a stop. “Holy Jesus,” he said. He slammed the truck in reverse and went back a ways and slid to a stop again. And then he brought the truck forward onto the side of the road. In the headlights before us lay a buck, his body jerking and kicking. Dad shut off the engine and jumped out of the truck. The deer froze. I could hear the snow crunching under my dad’s feet as he approached the deer. He stopped and stood over it, his shoulders and head ascending into the darkness above the headlights. It was so quiet now, and still. Snow was everywhere. Everything was covered. Dad’s door was hanging open and I could feel the cold air on my skin.

It took me this long to realize that Dad had hit the buck, that by some freak accident, after unsuccessfully tracking deer all day, one had jumped out in front of us as we were driving back to our warm motel room. Dad moved away from the deer and looked down the road. He glanced around suspiciously and then ran to the truck and grabbed his rifle. “Come on, boy!” he said. “We got ourselves a buck!”

It had to be a dream, I told myself. This couldn’t be happening. My dad climbed onto the hood of the truck and pointed the rifle down at the lame deer. It was now scraping its front legs on the snow. The shot blast went off and the deer kept moving. Dad didn’t hit it in the heart. He hit the chest, but too high up, too close to the spine, and the deer kept breathing. Blood had splattered on the snow. Dad climbed down and looked in at me. “Are you gonna help me or what?” I slipped on my boots and got out. Shadows moved around Dad’s face as he stepped over the deer. “I’ll get the torso, you grab the head.”

It was an eight-point buck. Its antlers were huge, making his head seem small by comparison. Dad put his arms around the buck’s belly and I wrapped mine around his neck. His eyes were open and he was looking at me. Breath shot out of his nostrils in tiny puffs. He had stopped kicking. He was now waiting to die.

Dad crouched down and counted to three and we hoisted the deer onto the hood of the truck. Blood was everywhere. It covered my shoulder and arm and it dripped down the grill of the truck. A large red patch of snow was at our feet in the pool of headlights. Dad got the rope out and tied the buck down. It was obvious he didn’t know what he was doing, as the knots were rudimentary and crude. He wrapped every part of the buck’s anatomy, until it looked like a ridiculous mess of rope and flesh.

When we got back to the motel, Dad was afraid to leave the buck on the hood of the truck all night, afraid someone might steal it. “It’s a competition, Walt. There’s a lot of money at stake.” I refused to help him, deciding instead to crawl under the covers. He went outside. After awhile the door flew open. Dad staggered backward, trying to maneuver the buck’s legs through the door.

When I awoke in the morning, the putrid scent of blood and deer musk filled the room. Dad was snoring lightly. The clock said it was almost ten. I could hear the cleaning lady vacuuming the room next to ours.

I got up and put on some clothes. The buck lay there watching me with his dead, blank stare. His mouth was hanging open, like he’d died expecting something, or maybe he just couldn’t believe it. He was probably the head buck of his territory, probably fathered several fawns and thought that he would never go down at the hands of man. If he only knew the incompetence of the man who had killed him.

A little later, while Dad was out tying the buck down, I was in the motel room, scrubbing the blood that covered the carpet. Dad’s plan was to go to the Elks Club and claim that he’d shot the buck. He’d created an elaborate story in case anybody asked, and he wanted me to go along with it. But I was now so disillusioned with my father, so thoroughly disgusted that, while I scrubbed, while the blood soaked into my damp rag, I came up with a different plan.

A gray pall had covered the early afternoon sky. Snow was no longer falling, but it was everywhere, packed onto the parking lot of the Elks Club, causing the men to slip and stagger as they untied the deer and carried him to an old rusted scale. I sat in the truck and watched as my dad approached the guy who was running the competition. Several men watched as they put the buck on the scale.

I climbed out of the truck. “Two hundred and twenty-three pounds!” a guy yelled out. Everyone started talking about it. My dad was signing papers and bragging about the buck. I moved slowly across the snow-packed parking lot, through the hoards of men who were murmuring about the biggest buck of the competition now slumped on the scale by my father.

“Sir?” I said. “Sir?”

The old man behind the table looked up from the papers my father was signing. I knew that what I had to say was going to hurt my father in a way I couldn’t fully understand. I was about to betray the man who now was turning, pen in hand, and looking down at me, the man I had once held a kind of reverence for, whose acceptance I had yearned for throughout my childhood.

“Yes?” the old man said. “What is it?”

My father was looking at me as if I was going to add detail to his fallacious story. It was obvious that he had no idea what was going to pass through my lips. My fists were clenched and my breathing had quickened to a near pant. Other men were looking at me now as my breath scooted into little gusty clouds.

“What is it you wanted to say, son?” my father said.

The man behind the table ran his hand over his beard.

I looked up at my father, at his now squinting eyes. “Walt,” he said, his voice a kind of dog growl, “what do you have to say?”

I turned to the old man, and just as he was about to go back to the forms on the desk and forget about me, I said, “Sir, he didn’t shoot that deer.”

“What?” my dad said. “What did you say?”

“You didn’t shoot that deer.”

It was suddenly silent.

“What did you say, boy?” the old man said.

The faces of the men were turning in my direction, their breath visible in the cold air, their cheeks flushed. “I said, he didn’t shoot that deer.”

The old man turned to my father. “Is that true?” he said.

My father peered up at all the faces looking at him, and then he turned and faced me. He let out a sigh and shook his head, a smile forming on his face. “It’s true,” he said. “It’s true.” All the men started to talk. I suddenly felt sorry for him. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Wasn’t it enough that I knew, that the truth was just between us?

My father took his eyes off of me and looked around and said, “What can I say? It wouldn’t be fair to the boy for me to take credit for something he did.”

It took a moment for everyone to comprehend the full meaning of what he’d said. But then everything happened so quickly, like a swift current, taking me by the ankles and yanking me under. The men were suddenly shouting, all around me, loud voices, hands clapping. “How old are you boy?” someone yelled. They circled around me and pushed me up to the table.

“Twelve!” My dad shouted. He was smiling, a proud father. To him it was a simple revision of the story, no less glorious–I was the son he had reared to be courageous in battle, as if I was genetic proof of his own indisputable bravery.

The voices grew louder at the mention of my age. A pen was placed in my hand. The old man behind the counter put his finger where it said signature. And for some reason I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t stop any of it. As my hand moved across the paper, I saw my name scribbled out–Walter Berry–and I suddenly thought that the name was not mine, that it was a creation, a name of a character formed in someone’s imagination, a character in a story perhaps, like those absurd hunting tales in Buck Macguire’s Big Game Journal.

“Can you imagine, a twelve-year-old kid winning the big prize?” someone shouted. I was going to be a celebrity, they said. My picture in Field & Stream, write-ups in various papers. The youngest person to ever win a major hunting competition. They started taking pictures of me posed along side the deer. Some guy from the Spokane News Tribune told me to smile and relax. “Don’t look so shocked!” The flash popped. “One more,” he said.

My dad stood back, in the distance, smiling at me. It all happened so quickly that the truth never came out. What can you say with all of that excitement around you? If you do say anything, don’t you spoil their fun, their desire to hope, to believe that the impossible is possible? But now I had learned of the irrevocable nature of stories, how they turn necessarily by their own design, formed by circumstance and longing.

As it turns out, someone came in later that day with a bigger buck and I got second place, and a prize of five hundred dollars cash. The same two men who untied the deer, tied him back onto the truck with a precision that I’m sure embarrassed my father.

After the awards ceremony in the Elks lodge, Dad and I pulled out onto Highway 2, and we glided, in silence, through the bleak countryside of eastern Washington, and I knew that his stories of the hunt would no longer be told and that I would have to get used to this silence and eventually we would have to learn to talk about other things. But as we headed into the apple orchards of the Columbia River basin, and as we passed over the swirling blue water, I was concocting my own stories–of how I spotted the buck in a clearing hundreds of yards away, how my rattle brought him to me, and how I looked down the barrel of my gun and calmly pulled the trigger–stories I would tell my friends at school the next day, my teachers, my mom, anyone who would listen.

Alex Mint’s stories have appeared in Fiction and The Southern Review

COPYRIGHT 1999 Fairleigh Dickinson University

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