She was surprised by how hard it was to follow his blood trail: only a damp splatter here and there, sometimes red and other times drying brown already against the yellow aspen leaves that looked like spilled coins as if some thief had been wounded while ferrying away a strongbox and had spilled his blood upon that treasure.
She tried to focus on the task at hand but was aware also of feeling strangely and exceedingly lonely remembering, seemingly from nowhere, that her father had been red-green colorblind, and realizing how difficult it might have been for him to see those drops of blood. Wishing again that he were here with her, though, to help her with the tracking of this animal.
It was amazing to her how little blood there was. The entry wound, she knew, was no larger than a straw, and the exit wound wouldnt be much larger than a quarter, and even that small wound would be partially closed up with the shredded flesh, so that almost all of the blood would still be inside the animal, sloshing around, hot and poisoned now, no longer of use but unable to come out.
A drop here, a drop there. She couldnt stop marveling at how few clues there were. It was easier to follow the tracks in the soft earth, and the swath of broken branches, than it was the blood trail though whether she was following the herds path or the bulls separate path, she couldnt be entirely sure.
She came to the edge of the timber and looked out across a small plowed field, the earth dark from having just been turned over to autumn stubble.
Her elk was collapsed dead out in the middle of it the rest of the herd was long gone, nowhere to be seen and there was a truck parked next to the elk already, and standing next to the elk were two older men in cowboy hats. Jyl was surprised, then, at how tall the antlers were taller than either man, even with the elk lying stretched out on the bare ground; taller even than the cab of the truck.
The men did not appear happy to see her coming. It seemed to take her a long time to reach them, and it was hard walking over the furrows and clods of stubble, and from the looks on the mens faces, she was afraid that the elk might have been one of their pets, that they might even have given it a name.
It wasnt that bad, as it turned out, but it still wasnt good.
Their features softened a little as she closed the final distance and they saw how young she was, and how frightened she could have been either mans daughter and as she approached there seemed to be some force of energy about her that disposed them to think the best of her; they found it hard to believe, too, that had she killed the elk illegally she would be marching right up to claim it.
There were no handshakes, no introductions. There was still frost on the windshield of the mens truck, and Jyl realized they must have jumped into their truck and cold-started it, racing straight up to where they knew the herd hung out.
Used to hang out.
Plumes of fog-breath leapt from the first mans mouth as he spoke, even though they were all three standing in the sunlight.
You shot it over on the other side of the fence, right, over on the national forest, and it leapt the fence and came over here to die? he asked, and he was not being sarcastic: as if, now that he could see Jyls features, and her fear and youth, he could not bear to think of her as a poacher.
The other man, who appeared to be a few years the elder they looked like brothers, with the older one somewhere in his sixties, and fiercer- looking interrupted before she could answer and said, Those elk knew never to cross that fence during hunting season.
Copyright © 2006 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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