By Saige Cross
A GAME IN THE CLEARING
Paul and Barry had been out for at least eight hours; rifles drawn. They’d seen flashes of motion; in the brush, across the creek—Paul had even seen it in the treetops a couple of times.
“Deer don’t climb trees,” Barry said, peering through his scope. “Keep watching.”
Everybody was out hunting, this being the first Saturday of the season. Grocery stores were raided to the point where it looked as if they were going out of business. Lunch meat was usually the first to go, then chips, Gatorade, and dry corn. Paul and Barry sat on a white cooler in the blinder, eating turkey sandwiches, drinking Gatorade Frost, waiting for the mound of white corn to do all the hard work for them.
“When do you think one of them will come out here? Can’t feel my cheeks sitting on this damn cooler now,” Barry said.
“If I knew when one would come, why would I sit here all day waiting?”
“To get out of the house.”
“Fair enough.” Paul said, scanning the clearing through his scope. “I’m dying in there.”
They chose a small plot of land in the middle of the forest that sat underneath the towering oaks like an abandoned helicopter pad. They had placed the bait and buck lure on the branch of a fallen log that sat in the middle, covered with dead leaves. Forty yards away, they set the blinder up at the base of a hill on the back side of the clearing. A group of wiry branches cast themselves over the roof of the blind, making the men invisible.
“I don’t think I’d see this if it were an arm’s length away,” Barry said, stepping away from the blinder, patting Paul’s shoulder.
“Well, good—that’s the point.”
Throughout the day, they hadn’t seen much at all. A couple of squirrels made their way around the log, leaves shooting out from underneath their quick feet. Some inspected the lure, snatching a mouthful of bread as a souvenir.
“You know,” Barry said, “if we can’t manage to score a deer, I wouldn’t be opposed to wrangling a few of them squirrels. I haven’t ever had them, but my cousin Tiny knows how to cook them real well with rabbit gravy.”
“No thanks. I don’t want to waste my ammo on the little guys. Anyway, Anna thinks they’re cute. Wants one as a pet.”
Barry furled his brow. “Little girls shouldn’t keep squirrels. They’re nasty little things. You’re too soft, Paul.”
“Yeah, Beth and I both told her, but she’s fixated on the idea. If I shot one, Anna wouldn’t forgive me.”
“What she don’t know won’t hurt her,” Barry laughed, hitting Paul’s leg with the butt of his rifle.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Paul laughed. “But I’m not soft.”
They had hit the nine-hour mark when they saw the buck creeping out from the tree line, its muscles taut, carefully surveying its surroundings as it made its way into the clearing, toward the bait. It was almost dark now, the light pouring through the trees, stretching their shadows across the clearing like taffy. They could smell smoke—other hunters were celebrating their winnings all over the county. Paul wondered if the buck could smell it. The scent of his kin, reduced to a few thick slabs to be thrown on to a charcoal grill, paired nicely with mashed potatoes, canned buttermilk dinner rolls and raspberry lemonade.
Barry whispered to Paul, “Gotta be a seven or eight point.” He had the look of hunger on his face; skin flushed, pupils twice their normal size, and he was gasping for breath. The buck edged toward the log.
“You have a clear shot?” Paul asked, watching the deer through his scope. He had scored a seven-pointer last season, so he would let Barry have this one.
Barry leaned through the window of the blind, tucked the barrel of his rifle in the pocket of his right breast, and inhaled. The sound like a tree snapping in half, echoing. A flock of birds swelled above them and flew off into the orange glow of the horizon. The deer collapsed.
“Bear, how many shots you fire?” Paul asked. “Sounded like a couple rang off.”
“Nope, just one—and I got him right between the eyes!” Barry said.
This was the part that awakened a prehistoric, primal instinct inside of Paul—the kill. Paul’s wife would ask why he’d hunt. She would ask why he would bring so much death and turmoil. “They’re defenseless animals,” she’d say. He did his best to explain the feeling to her, to relay the urge that all hunters shared. It bore down on Paul like a titanic guilt he could not shake. He explained to her that no one respected God’s creatures like the hunter. “You spend your time looking through the scope, admiring the way the deer move about the world… completely free,” he’d say. “Ain’t nothing tying them down.”
The bullet’s precision left no sign of life in the buck’s body; there was no fight or struggle in his empty, black eyes when they stood over him to inspect the kill. Paul watched Barry kneeling, running his fingers over the buck’s impressive rack, antlers that sprouted from the buck’s skull like the branches of an ancient tree. Barry stood, and they silently assessed the kill, wringing out the moment like a wet towel, careful to collect every drop of euphoria before reality settled back over them.
“One of the prettiest ones I’ve honestly ever seen,” Barry said, wiping the sweat from his brow. He patted his pockets. “Dammit—I left all my dressing tools in the blind.”
“I’ll follow you,” Paul said.
They made their way back to the blinder while Barry spoke incessantly, still euphoric.
“I can’t believe that Paul—gotta be the biggest buck I’ve scored.”
“Yeah, he’s a good one for sure. Must feel pretty good, huh?”
“Damn right it feels good. Especially with that shot,” Barry said, pointing between his eyes.
Paul watched Barry. He was bouncing as he spoke, completely elated. A giddy, adolescent smile stretched across his cheeks, making his words much brighter than they normally were.
“Where do you think I should put him? Dining room? I was thinking above the mirror on my bar counter… so he could stare at you when you pour another bourbon,” he said, wheezing from the excitement. “That’s the beauty of being single—I don’t have to consult nobody about where to put him.”
Paul took Barry’s jabs lightly, understanding the grounds from which he was coming from. After all, Barry had nothing but a trophy buck on an otherwise empty wall to greet him when he got home. He had been engaged for three years until his fiancé questioned his commitment and left a week before Thanksgiving a few years back. She wanted a date for the wedding. Barry always found a way to dance around an answer—but his ambiguity made her nervous. She’d given him an ultimatum, insisting they set a date. He didn’t, and she left. Now, Barry was alone.
“Yeah,” Paul said, “I don’t think Beth would let me hang a buck on our wall.”
“How do you put up with that?” Barry said, shaking his head.
Paul couldn’t answer.
Paul and Barry froze, as a group of three men, dressed in full camouflage, walked out into the clearing, rifles clutched to their chests.
The leader was a skinny man with short, stubby white facial hair, and green eyes that sat far back in his skull. When he saw Paul and Barry he jumped.
“You boys scared me! They say the coyotes are bad in Bamberg county this season. We’ve been on the lookout,” he said. He was an obvious smoker, with a subtle wheeze blanketing every word that sprang from his thin, papery lips. The two behind him laughed.
“Yeah, I heard a reporter say they’ve been eating cats,” Paul said, eyeing the blinder nearby.
“Well,” the man said, “good thing I don’t have any cats, then.”
They all laughed, and the man held out his hand.
“I’m Ralph. These are my nephews, Rich and Charlie. You boys set up camp here?”
“Yeah, weren’t sure we were going to see anything at all—until that beaut trolled on by.”
“Yeah, we’d been out here all day too,” Rich said, “but we got lucky with that one.” He tipped his hat. Charlie pulled out a large buck knife from a pouch attached to his belt as they began towards the dead buck.
“What’re you doing?” Barry demanded.
“Dressing my buck.”
Barry’s chest swelled, his forehead furled. “No, buddy. That was my buck. Our lure and everything.” Barry said.
Paul stood behind him, arms across his chest, stomach tight.
Ralph stopped walking and turned towards them, gun across his shoulder.
“What’d you shoot it with?”
“M48 Liberty. Same as yours,” Paul said, pointing to his gun where it rested against the fallen tree limb.
“Bullshit. Let’s see it then,” Charlie said.
“I swear to God—same gun,” Barry said. His voice began to quake—a sign to Paul that he was beginning to lose his temper.
“Look. I’m telling you I shot it.”
“I shot him. Which means your bullet didn’t land.”
“That’s a neat story pal, but I’m going to need you to turn right back around and head to where you came from.”
Barry and Ralph held the same look of bloodlust in their eyes, and the cadence of their voices revealed in both men, a fuse, ready—even eager—to blow. Paul realized that this was no longer about sport.
Ralph stood for a moment, rubbing his facial hair. He held a finger in the air.
“How about a game,” he smiled, “to see who really killed the buck. We both say we’re the better shot, so why not back it up?”
“Now that’s not necessary,” Paul started to say, as Barry shot him a chilling look, and said:
Ralph threw his leg on a large stick and adjusted his pant leg.
"Whoever guns down the first thing that shows up in the clearing, gets to keep the buck.”
“You mean like, squirrel, rabbit… stuff like that?” Paul asked. Ralph nodded.
“I mean all stuff like that. If it’s moving, it counts.”
They all agreed and took positions on the same side of the clearing, flanking the blinder. Kneeling at the edge of the tree line, both groups sat motionless. Barry pierced a large green bush with his scope, surveying the clearing. The corpse of the buck lay in the middle, beginning the infant stages of decomposition.
“Barry,” Paul whispered, “why are we doing this?”
“It won’t take long, Paul. I’m gonna nail whatever wanders in here and we can go home. This guy’s a pompous asshole and I’m gonna teach him a lesson.” He spat in the dirt. “Besides all that, married life’s suffocating you. You couldn’t wait to get out here.”
“Relax. Do you really think that killing a fox or coyote is going to teach him a lesson?”
Barry didn’t say anything. He watched for movement like a starving, rabid animal.
“What’s this about, Barry?”
He turned from his scope, to Paul, his eyes black like marbles.
“I’ll take what’s mine.”
Paul watched Barry’s, spine curve, stretching the fabric of his shirt when Barry turned away.
Paul thought of Beth and Anna. He traced the scar on his wrist, the scar left when Beth turned, scalding skillet in hand, and dropped it on him while he was washing dishes. The rage that he spewed afterward came as effortlessly and naturally as an apostles’ prayer. Across the kitchen, he saw Anna’s eyes observing from behind the table, her curly hair tousled on her tiny head. His mind shuffled through instances like these—where his discontent festered deep within his chest, until it manifested itself in front of his girls, his family. The darkness settled heavily on him as Paul found himself struggling to breathe.
A shot rang out from Barry’s rifle. He snarled, driving his fist into the ground. Gritting his teeth, he whispered something inaudibly and turned to Paul.
"You gonna help me watch? Or just sit there?”
It was as if he spoke another language; for a moment, Paul didn’t recognize Barry, his cold glare assessing Paul as if he was a mirage. Barry’s frame seemed larger, the rifle smaller in his arms. Sitting behind the bush like he belonged there. Like it was his home. Paul tightened the grip on his rifle.
“Barry?” Paul whispered. “Bear?”
A few moments later, at the edge of the thicket, a squirrel ran down one of the trees and dashed towards the buck carcass. Both rifles fired. The squirrel’s body flew across the clearing as Ralph and Barry stood to revel in the kill.
Paul watched the Barry and Ralph bound towards the spot where the animal lay, peppered across the brush. He couldn’t hear what they were saying but had a notion that they’d forgotten about the buck and the squirrel as they towered against each other, yelling, chests puffed. He could see this continuing, each man unwilling to relent, their bullets tearing into the darkness all night long.
Paul slung the rifle on his back and found the opening in the tree line where he and Barry had entered the clearing that morning. The blind could rot as far as he was concerned. Let the birds make nests; let the squirrels take shelter inside—Barry and Ralph would shoot them all before the game was over, he thought.
Paul continued towards the trail head. In the darkness behind him, he could hear animals fighting; quick barks and snarling gave way to the shuffling of leaves, whimpering, then silence. He was at the edge when he heard another shot. He didn’t turn. Barry could find his way, he thought.
Paul thought of Anna, of Beth. He took another step, crossing the creek and making his way up the hill, the flashlight guiding his way home.
SAIGE CROSS is a writer attending the University of Central Oklahoma, where he studies music performance and creative writing.