"Poor bastard," Alvin said.
"Youre lucky," Norman said. "Lucky he didnt look up and shoot you. A local. Probably needs the meat."
Michael wiped his lenses with a Kleenex. "Youre breaking my heart."
"Revenge on the underclass," Norman said. "Nothing like it."
"Oh, come on," said Michael. "Dont be so fucking high-minded."
"We all enjoy it," Norman said. Then he said, "You know, more game wardens get killed in the line of duty than any other law-enforcement officer?"
For a while they talked about populism and guns and militiamen. They had fallen silent in the dimming light when Alvin put a delaying hand on Michaels arm. Everyone stopped where they stood. There were deer, four of them, an eight-point buck and three females. One of the females looked little older than a yearling. The deer were drinking from the icy river, upstream, upwind. The three men began to ease closer to the stream, where a bend would provide them a clear line of fire. The deer were something more than thirty-five yards away. Michael tried shuffling through the snow, which was topped with a thin frozen layer, just thick enough ice to sound underfoot. He stepped on a frozen stick. It cracked. One of the does looked up and in their direction, then returned to her drinking. Finally, they came to a point beyond the tree line and looked at one another.
The target of choice would be the big buck. If they were after meat, the does, even the youngest, were legal game. The buck was splashing his way to the edge of deep water. In a moment all four of the deer tensed in place, ears up. A doe bent her foreleg, ready to spring. There was no more time. Everyone raised his weapon. Michael, without a scope, found himself sighting the shoulder of the buck. It was a beautiful animal. Magical in the fading light. Things change, he thought. Everything changes. His finger was on the trigger. When the other men fired, he did not. He had no clear idea why. Maybe the experience of having a man in his sights that day.
The buck raised his head and took a step forward. His forelegs buckled, and he shifted his hindquarters so that somehow his hind legs might take up the weight being surrendered by his weakening body. Michael watched the creatures dying. It was always hard to watch their legs give way. You could feel it in your own. The pain and vertigo.
"If he falls in that stream," Norman said, "hell float halfway to Sioux City."
But the animal staggered briefly toward the bank and toppled sidewise into the shallows. The does vanished without a sound.
"Did you take a shot?" Norman asked Michael. Michael shook his head.
Examining the kill, they found two shotgun wounds close to the animals heart.
"Guess we both got him," Norman said.
"Hes yours," said Alvin Mahoney. "You shot first."
Norman laughed. "No, man. Well have the butcher divide him. Three ways."
Michael helped drag the dead deer by its antlers out of the water.
"Anybody want to mount that rack?" Norman asked.
"I dont think my wife would live with it," Michael told him.
"I wouldnt care to myself," Norman said. "Anyway, its not trophy size."
They were only a short distance from the canoe, but it was dark by the time they had hauled the deer aboard. Paddling upriver, they came to the place where Michael had dropped his flashlight overboard. The beam was still soldiering on, illuminating the bottom of the stream.
They secured the buck to the hood of the Jeep and set out for the state highway. This time they did not stop at the Hunters Supper Club but drove all the way to Ehrlichs to get the deer tagged. When they had finished the forms for Fish and Game, they went into the restaurant and sat down to dinner. Mahoney was the designated driver and abstained from drink. He would, Michael thought, make up for it at home. He and Norman had Scotch, but it was not nearly as good as the Willoughbys. Then they ordered a pitcher of beer.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Stone. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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