I could only think of the trophy that I would place above the mantle on the wide, rock fireplace. I would show these boys the Texas style of hunting. I could teach them the art of rattlin’ up the muy grandes. They would already know that South Texas whitetail are legendary. They would be in awe of anyone who had bagged one. It turned out frightfully different.
The group of men that made up Cheat Mountain Surf Fishing Association had never been any closer to the surf than the laundry-detergent box of the same name. If they had anything in common at all, it was that most of them hadn’t even been out of West Virginia.
I was invited to join their hunting and fishing club. I had no illusions---I got invited because two of the guys were manager-subordinates of mine where we worked. If it was a form of ass kissing, I suppose it worked. I jumped at the chance to have a place to hunt.
I had arrived in West Virginia six months before, from the plant I managed in Texas. The transfer was a promotion that I couldn’t pass up---despite the reluctance of my wife Beth, and the outright protests of my son Jon. It was understandable---he was a high school sophomore, rooted in his school and his friends, and just named captain of the golf team. Beth was really involved in the church and was singing in the choir.
Jon’s case was presented to me one night after a particularly bad business trip. His friend Chip and their parents had offered to take him in as a boarder, so he could finish high school in Texas. If I could contribute a hundred dollars a month, for the added groceries and incidentals, he could just move in with them after we moved away.
On some other night, the plan may have hit me differently. On this night, however, the failed contract-signing of an important customer had made me explosive when I should have been calm. I said, “absolutely no way---this family stays together---thick or thin.”
I could have left it at that noble statement---but I just had to launch into the rest of the impromptu speech. It was the whole collection---about how I worked my ass off for the family, the company had given us a good life, and now they ask me to do something for them, and I get resistance.
“Where’s that loyalty when I need you? Where’s that little sacrifice for the good of the whole?"
I walked out of the room, trailing words like “thankless,” and “lack of respect,” and “selfish-self-centered.” Beth would tell me later---as she tossed her house shoes in my direction from the bathroom—“you were a real jerk tonight. Your version of a family conference is like Ross Perot chairing the PTA.”
“When will you learn,” she added, “that kids are people too?”
Perot---my God. My head was on the pillow and I didn’t make a sound, my eyes fixed on the faint glow of the Looney-Tunes nightlight. Her words were only background noise to my thoughts of the career change. I was glad the offer had come before the Noble-Pierce contract was left on the table unsigned. One day later and I might have not even been asked.
Jon and Beth would get over it, like always. It was our seventh move, and they bitched about all of them. Besides, when I was Jon’s age, I had been around the world three times with a father who never even talked to me at all. At least I managed to watch most of Jon’s golf matches. They’ll get over it---they’re troopers.
I fell asleep, dreaming about the contract. It was a weird dream---Noble and Pierce signed the papers in the back seat of a red limo with a wedding cake lit with candles. Then we screwed up their first order and they took it back. I got fired the next day, in a room that was the funeral home parlor where my mother’s remains lay in an open coffin. Jon and Beth were dressed in some kind of white military uniforms. My bosses refused to sign the register when the funeral home attendant asked them. Beth brought a single rose over and stuffed it viciously into the breast pocket of my black suit, its petals crushed and severed.
I awoke in a hard jerk. My eyes were refocusing on the nightlight. I wiped the sweat from the back of my neck with the sheet, and reached over to touch Beth on her shoulder---reassuring myself she was still there. The fog-green digital clock said 3:24 a.m.
Tomorrow was opening day of deer season. The Cheat Mountain Surf Fishing bunch had something planned at the deer lease that they called “Buck Eve”. It was a rite that was sacred---held each year the night before the hunt. It would be my first chance to meet most of men who made up the club. Everyone was to arrive by ten in the morning to gear up for the long-awaited event that came with the next sunrise.
It was silly, but I had in mind a grand entrance. I had deliberately tried to hit every mudhole on the way in, so the Jeep would look rugged. I had the winch cover off so the winch and grill guard would be prominent as I drove up into the clearing of the camp with four-wheel drive engaged. I intentionally left the CB radio on channel 19, because there was plenty of traffic on it and everyone would notice the cracking of the radio. I jerked to a stop, so the eight-foot antenna would swing violently---like on Barney Fife’s cruiser.
It was a rugged cabin, and Rusty, one of the ones that worked for me, had not done it justice when he said it was primitive. What few windows that had been cobbled into the old barn lumber were all different sizes, and most of the panes had been filled in with plywood squares. The tin roof had been scabbed with mismatched metal so that it looked like a patchwork quilt.
In the yard were four men I didn’t know. I introduced myself around. Not one of them mentioned my grand entry, the Jeep, or the winch. The code of one-upmanship goes like this: If you can’t exceed, better, or improve on something someone else has or says, say nothing. I must have had the best rig there. They weren’t about to say so.
Rusty came out of the cabin, followed by Hal, the other subordinate of mine. We conducted some small talk about the cabin, and Hal asked me if we got such and such order in yet. I figured I would get one bit of housekeeping out of the way right then and there.
“I make it a point to never mention work when I am relaxing.”
“Me too,” said Hal.
Just then, two more guys drove up in a candy-red International Scout. It looked like it had been restored---a magnificent job of it. They hauled out a medium size doe, which had been skinned and gutted.
“Rick---you came through---we got camp meat!” said Hal.
It was part of the ritual. An illegal kill---to be cooked on the big barbecue grill, and eaten with corn on the cob, and beans cooked with wild onions they called ramps.
“Buck-Eve tradition,” said Rick. “Show me to the Jack Daniels’ boys, Mr. Rick has a powerful hankerin’.”
I thought I fitted in nicely. As Buck Eve wore on, we ate plentifully of tender venison, and drank excessively. As dusk began to settle in, the conversation turned to guns, hunting, past kills, and big buck stories. One-upmanship returned in all its glory. They were fascinated with my tales of muy grande deer and the Texas Hill Country.
Rick Stavinhoa was a car salesman from Clarksburg. He looked like a woodsman---neglecting to shave for probably the last month in preparation for this night. He was clothed top to bottom in Eddie Bauer hunting wear. He was chewing Red Man.
The guy they called Mutton worked for Kraft foods. That explained all the rounds of cheese in the cabin and the cabinets stuffed with Kraft products. He was polite but meek. He had very little to say. Rick stayed on his case about his weight---I thought a little brutally.
“When old Bubble-Butt here hauls ass tomorrow, he’ll have to make two trips.” It was an old joke. Nobody laughed.
I liked one of the guys right away. Harvey Stavinhoa was Rick’s brother. He owned the Dairy Queen in Buckhannon. He said it was his favorite time of year, because the store closed in October and didn’t reopen until April.
“We keep the same schedule as Daylight Savings. “Spring-up, Fall-back,” he said.
He turned out to be the storyteller of the bunch, and perhaps had enjoyed most of the real hunting success in the group. Inside the cabin were Polaroid pictures of all the kills, and Harvey’s poses outnumbered everybody else’s two to one.
The guy they called ‘Lyin’ Ray” brought out a three-foot square of plywood. On it was an aerial photo of the 1000-acre lease. Since I was the only new member of the group, Ray took time to explain its purpose. Each hunting stand on the property was numbered, and marked with a pin on the map. Members chose their hunting location, and hung a little tag with their name on it on the pin. That way, you knew where everybody was hunting that morning or evening. If you got to hunting-camp late, you always checked the log-in board before leaving out to hunt---staying out of the way of the posted hunters. When you got back in camp, you removed your tag, making your spot open and available for others.
Everyone started tagging out right then, in name-drawing order. I was last, because I was new. The guys were all making recommendations to me as to the leftovers---all talking at once.
“Hey---try number 27. Cleo killed an eight point from there on opening day last year.” I thought---strange that Cleo didn’t come back to pick it again this year.
Hal came over beside me and whispered. “I picked 23. I always hunt 19, but I was hoping no one would pick it and it would be available for you. It’s the best spot on this side of the creek. But with that Jeep, you can cross the creek anyway. So it’s up to you.”
Guys were grinning, I think they knew he was kissing ass again. I chose 14---Ray said there was no 13---bad luck. 14 was across the creek almost to the western border of the property, but was thick with cover. I wanted a trophy buck, not just anything. I picked it---to Hal’s disappointment.
Hal gave me detailed instructions how to find it in pre-dawn, following paint marks on the woods-road. “Use high beams,” Rick said. The stand has reflective paint on the posts.”
“You’ll find a camo-blind 100 yards past the stand to hide the Jeep. It’s easy to spot. Reflective paint on it too,” said Hal.
“I Wish you could have come out before season and scouted the place, I think you would have rather had 19. But 14 is good too---if you like heavy cover. There are three big clearings and a pipeline right-of-way you can watch too.”
One by one, guys dropped off into the bunkhouse for the night. The dew was beginning to settle into the mountains. It was chilly as the campfire began to die. I found my way to my bunk and fell asleep easily---the old Jack Daniels’ knockout punch.
I sat in the creaky plywood box stand, and with my flashlight, figured out how to prop up the slat window openings on three sides. I was too early. I had been in there for over an hour before the gray of the morning began to creep over the top of Cheat Mountain. There was a heavy fog hanging about fifty feet above the ground, in a perfect circle all around me. The sounds of nature were everywhere. I heard a big gobbler come out of its roost to join the birds welcoming in the dawn.
It still wasn’t good light when I heard a shot way off to my left. Sounded like maybe a half-mile. I hoped it was Hal or Rusty bagging something nice.
My thoughts drifted off to Jon and Beth. I smiled as I thought about how well they had come to like West Virginia, just like I expected. Jon was the ace golfer on the team, and had helped win six tournaments for them with under-par rounds. The hilly golf terrain was perfect for his long ball, with its exceptional roll. He played the hillsides to his advantage. Beth had joined a quilting circle at the church, and found the West Virginians to be wonderfully plain and simple people.
As daylight came, I could see several very large rocks flipped over, and the ground beneath them pawed. Black Bear had been through there---maybe last night. Something---maybe the cub---had climbed a nearby spruce tree and had absolutely destroyed it, shredding its bark and stripping its limbs. I would have given anything to see one in the wild.
I was closer to the edge of the lease than the map indicated. I hoped I was in number 14 and not something else. I didn’t think that the fence line should have been that close.
I thought I heard a faint rustling in the brush, then a stick snapped prominently behind me. I turned around in the swivel seat, and opened the remaining slat window to my back. There, crossing the fence about a hundred yards north, was a hunter, in full camo, with no blaze orange anywhere. Harvey had warned me that the lease next to ours was a day-lease, meaning people paid a fee to hunt it by the day. A day-lease was dangerous---you never knew who was in the woods or where, and jungle rules prevailed.
The figure was now on our property, and moving parallel to me. I don’t think he saw my stand, and he couldn’t see the Jeep in its hiding place back to the south.
I wanted to see him better---maybe it was one of our guys chasing a kill---so I broke a rule that no hunter should break. I put my scope on him, with my finger outside the trigger guard.
He was definitely a stranger, and his presence pissed me off. Ruining my chance for any trophy, that’s for sure.
I lowered my gun, and began to wave my bright orange hat out the window, hoping to catch his attention. He was looking at the ground, like he was tracking. He moved slowly---maybe six or so steps per minute. Now and then he would kneel and look at something. I figured he was on a blood trail, or looking for buck scrapes.
I raised my gun again. He was showing me a side-view angle, and I put the cross-hairs on his right shoulder. I studied his face---it was tilted down, and never looked my way. I thought---I could drop this bastard in his tracks---my 7mm Weatherby Magnum would carve him into two pieces. Looking at him that way gave me a sudden chill, and the palms of my hands were sweating. I started to lower the gun.
The crash and echo shook the stand like someone had jumped on its tin roof with all fours. My rifle lurched upward, striking the top of the window as the scope jammed into my nose. Instantly I felt blood running down my face. It dripped onto my blaze-orange vest---a rivulet of red.
I was stunned and confused. My gun had fired. It couldn’t have---my finger was not on the trigger, it had been caressing the trigger guard---I remembered that plainly.
I raised it again to check out the stranger. I bet he was scared shitless. My heart was beating wildly as I scanned the place he had last been. He was nowhere in sight. Probably hit the dirt, crawling back to the fence. I couldn’t even hold the gun steady---I was shaking like the buck fever I usually experienced when staring at a big set of horns that would fill the scope.
There was no sign of him. I looked at my watch. 6:18.
I lowered the gun. I was shaking wildly now, my legs trembling. I was fighting off the possibility…the bizarre possibility….
I left the stand, missing the last three rungs of the ladder and hitting the ground hard--- almost crumpling down in the soft, wet dirt. The barrel of my gun stuck six inches into the mud.
I walked slowly toward where I last saw the man, near the three spruce trees, just to the right of a large clump of mountain laurel.
My heart dropped to my boots. His body suddenly appeared---a crushingly vivid scene--- blood strewn all around. I fell to my knees, unable to move. My left leg was less than six inches away from his bearded face, partially obscured by the cap that had slid forward covering his nose.
I scooted on my knees around to the other side, a better vantage to his face. His eyes were open in a glazed stare. The front of his camo jacket had a hole in it the size of a cantaloupe. There were shards of bone and the gray of lungs.
I sat straight back. I was numb all over---except for the rock I had sat down on and half-lodged between my cheeks. My face burned. I leaned over to the side and I vomited last night’s venison. The stench and sourness of yesterday’s Jack Daniels’ spoiled the freshness of the mountain air.
I forsake every rule, every sensibility, and every bit of my honor. I had no choice. My respectability was gone in an instant. I was out of body---moving like a puppet being controlled by others.
I lost my mind. I buried the man and his rifle in a small ravine on the day lease, piling him completely with rocks, and shoveling three inches of dirt on top of the rocks with the camp shovel from the Jeep. For good measure I got the Jeep and winched a twelve-foot log over the grave. Ten times at least I had an actual verbal exchange with myself---stupid---crazy---all the harsh words that come with arguing with your brain. In the end I could only think about Beth and Jon, my career, and the realization that even if lucky---very lucky---it would still be manslaughter. I could imagine the jury casting its wrath on this idiot from Texas.
I was still acting out of body. I worked furiously, cleaning up the place where he had fallen. I scooped up all of the blood-soaked dirt and put it into the plastic bucket I used for a chair when I dove-hunted. I took a tree branch and swept away all my footprints and the trail the body had made when I dragged it.
Another ten times I stopped and for an instant changed my mind. I thought---I will dig him up and face the music. It was an accident. But people would ask the obvious---how could you have put a scope on a man---ever? And there was that old over-used stand-by---I thought he was a deer. Who the hell would believe that in a scene where I had a full panorama at less than 100 yards?
I was soaked with sweat in the forty-degree weather.
All of this might be moot if this guy had come in there with some buddies---there was a real likelihood of that---and that they saw the whole thing. If they watched me dispose of his body, that would just add to the charges. They could see my Jeep for sure, now sitting in the field where the man had lay.
It took two hours to cover my trail. I want back to 14 and removed all sign that I had been there. I retrieved the 7mm shell, re-secured the slat windows, and brushed the traces of mud from the ladder. I drove the jeep back into the camo blind and sat in it for another hour, watching the clearing for anyone else. I re-thought everything a hundred times. I reviewed all my efforts to make sure I hadn’t missed not even the slightest clue or piece of evidence. Fifty times I must have said---what the hell am I doing?
I was the last hunter to get back to the camp. I wanted to look normal. I felt like I needed to skin myself in order to do so. People can read faces like tea leaves. Damn---I forgot to clean the mud out of my gun barrel. I put it back in the hard case like it was. God---what if one of them wants to see the Weatherby?
There was a big ten-point hanging on the deer rail, and the guys were standing around it. It was Harvey who I had heard shoot early. He was telling the story to the eager listeners. They didn’t acknowledge me walking up.
Finally, they saw me. Mutton said, “Hey I heard that cannon of yours at daylight, didn’t I?”
“Not me, I didn’t see anything but a couple of squirrels. Heard a gobbler just about daybreak---that’s all I can show for the morning. I got lost---never found 14, had to sit under a spruce the whole time. Finally I saw the stand after daylight, but I didn’t want to walk over to it and scare the deer. I missed finding it by about 200 yards. Found the place for my Jeep, though, so it was hidden okay.”
“Hell, if you found the Jeep place, you had to drive by the stand. The old road runs right by it,” said Harvey. He looked at me in puzzlement.
“Well, I missed it. Nice deer, Harvey.”
I listened all over again about his kill. I heard the words, and I nodded and smiled a couple of times, but my mind was going over what had happened---over and over---like a shirt tumbling in the dryer.
“Sure you didn’t shoot?” Hal asked, his face plastered with a grin. They wanted to press me on that because the custom was to cut your shirttail off with a knife if you shot at a deer and missed, then tack it to the rookie tree.
“Wish I had.”
I left the camp after lunch, explaining that Beth was feeling bad and I better check on her. I could just hear them after I drove off. There would be talk and poking fun. I could imagine what they might have to say …
“Not even making the evening hunt on opening day---who invited that fool?”
“Little bit of a wimp, isn’t he Hal? Still feel like sucking up to the wimp, Hal?”
“That asshole shot that cannon---I can tell a 7mm from anything else in the woods. He missed a buck and lied like hell. I bet he never killed a deer in his life, let alone a muy grande or whatever the hell he called it.”
“Give him a break,” Hal probably said. “He’s an office-type.”
I crossed my fingers tight on both hands. I hoped they wouldn’t go out there and poke around, looking for an empty shell.
As she did a hundred times before, Beth was shaking me violently from my dream. She had a wet towel in her hand, swabbing my forehead and wiping my chest. My pillow was saturated and the sheet was clammy. My eyes bulged with fear. I could barely breathe.
“You need to get a checkup. This is happening every night---wrecking my sleep too,” said a hoarse-voiced Beth. “I think you eat too late. Maybe we should eat when you first get home at night.”
I didn’t dream of unsigned contracts anymore. I had a sequel---I knew I would never be free of it.
I walked the same ground night after night, leading three men behind me---picks and shovels in hand. I was handcuffed, and a ten-foot log chain connected my wrists to one across my ankles. Somebody would poke me from behind with a nightstick. I would stumble. I pointed to the spot, and the men began to dig. Out came rocks so familiar I could have given them names. The men had on paper masks that covered their mouths and noses. They were dressed alike in business suits and blue ties, but wearing Eddie Bauer hunting boots and leggings. One of them was always Harvey. Another one was always the President of my company.
They fished the corpse out of its hole, dragging it up onto a black plastic sheet with zippers that had red tassels tied to them. There was a lit candelabra there.
Gently they turned the corpse over, one of its ears coming off. The face was brilliant with terror, its hollow eyes wriggling with worms. It was me. It was always me.
The author is a former corporate vice-president who left the boardroom in 1998 and returned to his roots in ‘Deep East Texas’---the fountainhead for much of his writing. He retired to a small farm near mysterious Caddo Lake and the historic steamboat town of Jefferson. In the solitude of those surroundings, when not writing, he walks the piney trails among the muscadines---with his ‘ever-encouraging’ Australian Shepherd, Quigley.
Life experiences have been splashed freely into his writings. His early years were like a pinball game, shuffling among caring family members between stints at military school. His parents divorced early, and his father was always away---following his dream, soldier of fortune style. There were the years of adventure---life in strife-torn Indonesia, Burma, and a year on board a steamer-freighter sailing the world. In high school he joined a circus---only one event in a series of rites of passages that he reflects upon in his stories.
He has written and published many of those works. A novel-length anthology of memoirs, “Firefly Rides,” has been recently completed and is pending publication. A non-fiction work in progress, “Offspring of the Tiger,” will portray what he calls his ‘dizzy’ relationship with his father---one of the storied Hump pilots of World War II.
The author has been published in: Stirring, Electric Acorn, Carolina Country Magazine, Calliope, Millennium Shift, AIM (America’s Intercultural Magazine), The Alley, Writers’ Choice Literary Journal, Progress, Southern Ocean Review, and Story Bytes.
A four-story fiction anthology, Natcherly Bad, was published in Creativity Magazine, August 2000.
Other writings are scheduled for publication in Danforth Review, New Beginnings, Twilight Times, Comrades, and in Millennium Journal.
He was a winner in the July 2000 Fiction Competition of Carve Magazine: ( The University of Washington). In addition, his works have earned him Hawkeye Studios’ Wordhammer Award, and Roberts Publishings’ Silver Quill Award, both in 2000.