WITH HIS FATHER’S .243 REMINGTON in the crook of his left arm, Ryan McAllister walked slowly through boot-high snow along the ridge’s edge, looking down into the black-green mass of pines where he knew the old buck was hiding from the cold. He had read deer sign all along the way—the largest droppings he had ever seen, still moist, right on the trail where the buck must have emerged to eat the bunch grasses that poked through the snow like shocks of hair. Then there had been the prints, huge also, and the rubbings along the tall ponderosa a half mile back where the bark had been scraped away from the ground to six feet up the trunk.
The late-November sky shone a clear steel-blue above him, the air crisp and barely stirring. All around him the forest stood silent under the small winter sun except for occasional cascades of glittering snow from the firs and pines. More brush was exposed on the south side of the mountain, and Ryan would have been inclined to search over there except that the weather had been fiercely cold for the entire week leading up to this day, and he guessed his buck was holed up in the much thicker scrub that encaged the valley floor on this side. The beast wouldn’t be moving much; he would have to find it. This meant plowing into deep thickets where briars and dried-up huckleberry bushes would snag and tear at his clothing, and he would have to silently endure the pain.
Of the countless valleys that defined the intermountain West, this heavily wooded tract in Idaho’s panhandle was his favorite, mainly because it was so inaccessible. There were no campgrounds nearby, no fire lookout towers. His trail was an old logging road the Forest Service didn’t maintain. Ryan knew very few hunters willing to go to the same lengths for such solitude. That’s why it surprised and annoyed him to find fresh human prints along the same ridge he was on. He had climbed the backside of the mountain from the south, while the prints, for as far as he could see them, showed that the other man had hiked a good portion of the ridge from the northeast. Perhaps he had accidentally stumbled upon signs of the big buck; perhaps he had been watching this valley for a long time. Either way, Ryan now had someone else to look out for.
He hunted with the wind in his face, but it was tricky keeping it that way. Sometimes a fallen tree or boulder from a rock slide prevented him from taking the course he wanted, forcing him to cut across it at an angle. Sometimes the wind suddenly changed direction for a moment or longer, gusting from behind or from the side, and when this happened he stood still and waited for it to pass. Each time he then assessed the situation ahead of him, and if it looked okay, and if the wind had resumed its former tack, he slowly proceeded again. If the wind kept its new course, he changed his entirely, tacking back and forth like a sailboat, his eyes on a distant point—a pinnacle of rock or craggy gulch to mark the position he was aiming for. Since wind usually travels uphill, and since deer like to keep it at their faces to smell what’s coming, the trick was to get behind them while they moved, so he wanted to gain position on high ground and hunt downhill. A deer’s senses of smell and hearing are acute, but Ryan knew if he was careful in his game of windy chess, and also didn’t make too much noise, he stood a chance of getting off a decent shot. He just hoped this other hunter wouldn’t ruin it for him.
This is the opening section to the story, which was originally published in Homestead Review. To read the entire piece, please support independent literature by purchasing a copy of the issue in which this story first appeared. Order information may be found here. Ask for issue no. 29 (2012).
Copyright © 2012 by Jeff Fearnside. All rights reserved. Portions of this text may be used for review purposes only.