That bull wouldnt let them. Ive been watching him for five years, and any time a cow or calf even looks at that fence, he tips tipped his antlers at them and herded them away from it."
Jyl saw that such an outburst was as close to a declaration of love for the animal as the old man would be capable of uttering, and the three of them looked down at the massive animal, whose body heat they could still feel radiating from it the twin antlers larger than any swords of myth, and the elks eyes closed, and still only what seemed like a little blood dribbling down the left shoulder, from the exit wound the post-rut musk odor of the bull was intense and all Jyl could say was Im sorry.
The younger brother seemed almost alarmed by this admission. You didnt shoot him on our side, did you? he asked again. For whatever reason maybe a cow or calf had hopped the fence, and he was over there trying to get it back into the herd he was over on the public land, and you shot him, and he ran back this way, jumped over the fence, and ran back over here, right?
Jyl looked down at her feet, and then again at the bull. She might as well have shot an elephant, she thought. She felt trembly, nauseated. She glanced at her rifle to be sure the chamber was open.
No, she said quietly.
Oh, Christ, the younger man said the older one just glared at her, hawkish, but also slightly surprised now and again the younger one said, Are you sure? Maybe you didnt see it leap the fence?
Jyl showed him the scratch marks on her arms, and on her face. I didnt know the fence was there, she said. The sun was coming up and I didnt see it. After I shot, I walked into the fence.
Both men stared at her as if she were some kind of foreigner, or as if she were making some fabulous claim and challenging them to believe it.
What was the second shot? the older man asked, looking back toward the woods. Why did it come so much later? As if suspecting that she might have a second animal down somewhere, back in the forest. As if this frail girl, this child, might have a vendetta against the herd.
The gun went off by accident, when I walked into the fence, she said, and both men frowned in a way that told her that gun carelessness was even worse in their book than elk poaching.
Is it unloaded now? the younger brother asked, almost gently.
No, she said, I dont guess it is.
Why dont you unload it now? he asked, and she complied, bolting and unbolting the magazine three times, with a gold cartridge cartwheeling to the black dirt each time, and then a fourth time, different- sounding, less full sounding, snicking the magazine empty. She felt a bit of tension release from both men, and in some strange way of the hunt that she had not yet learned, the elk seemed somehow different, too: less vital, in her letting-down. As if, despite its considerable power and vitality, her pursuit of and hunger for it had somehow helped to imbue it with even more of those characteristics, sharpening their edges, if only just a little.
The older brother crouched down and picked up the three cartridges and handed them to her. Well, goddamn, he said, after she had put them in her pocket and stood waiting for him to speak would she go to jail? would she be arrested, or fined? Thats a big animal. I dont suppose you have much experience cleaning them, do you?
She shook her head.
The brothers looked back down the hill in the direction of their farmhouse, Jyl supposed. The fire unstoked, the breakfast unmade. Autumn chores still undone, with snow coming any day and a whole years worth of battening down, or so it seemed, to do in that narrow wedge of time.
Copyright © 2006 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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