A hunter becomes the hunted
The Deer Hunter
I love animals. I would never hurt one intentionally. But peer pressure's a bitch sometimes. Alas, I agreed to go to a hunting cabin with the boys - the enticement of booze, poker, and laughs overruling my humanitarian arguments and objections.
I won't shoot anything, I kept saying on the long car-ride north through the growing snow-banks lining the icy roads.
If we're attacked by zombies, said Robert, you'll pull the trigger. A convincing argument I had to admit.
The rental cabin was rustic, as in dreadful, cold and empty, but nobody seemed to notice. With black stove stuffed with wood and radiating oppressive heat, I went through the safety protocols for the shotgun they'd given me. Unloaded, I reiterated my declaration of non-violence to the good-natured abuse of my cabin mates.
Later that evening, drinks warm and cards cold, I retired to bed with a four AM alarm setting. The night was uneventful but far too quiet for my liking, silence weighing heavy on my senses.
At 5 AM, I assaulted the alarm clock for scaring the shit out of me, then dressed in the dark with my eyes closed - a futile attempt to add a few precious moments of sleep before braving the icy forest waiting just outside the big pine door.
Fred had made bacon and eggs, but all I wanted was a cup of coffee, followed by seven more.
We suited up with heavy outerwear and attached all the knives, radios and ammunition we could carry - an additional twenty pounds I didn't need. But, I admit, I felt a Rambo surge run through me, although it wouldn't be enough to take an animal's life.
I was the first to open the door, stepping into the inky morning, like an astronaut cracking the seal of his capsule and staring into the abyss. The wind instantly froze my nose hairs and pellets of snow stabbed at my eyes. Neither sensation was unpleasant. Instead, it felt like relief, a merciful juxtaposition from the super-heated atmosphere of the cabin.
My friends, seasoned hunters, marched with me in single file, away from relative security of the cabins - ten stove pipes billowing white smoke into an alien black sky. We walked silently down a narrow, beaten path then up a steep ragged trail into the treed hills overlooking a small lake. They positioned me on a small outcrop perched over a lowland swamp choked with leaves and ancient tree stumps.
My instructions were clear. If a buck came down the hill to the right, it was my job to radio the guys, and my shot zone was limited to any deer running up the trail across from my position. Safety was imperative - unless you were a deer.
I sat, alone, unimpressed, praying there was no deer in the area, waiting for sunrise and the eventual return to the warmth of the cabin. The only shot I wanted was whiskey.
It was just after eight, and a cold sun had just emerged above the trees east of the lake when all manner of hell broke loose.
At first, it sounded like firecrackers, popping and whirling. I didn't move a muscle, straining my ears for a clear direction. I was certain it was shooting, but the shots were in the dozens, maybe hundreds. There was the familiar pop of the shotguns but also the louder crack of higher-powered rifles which none of our guys carried.
I assumed that another group of hunters were in the same area and must have set upon a deer the same instant we did.
The gunfire persisted long after any single animal could have survived. Rifle and shotgun fire interplayed while shouts and screams emanated from every direction.
I don't know how it got there, but I found my shotgun gripped firmly in my fists. I was carrying extra shells for the guys, so I took a few from my jacket pocket and fed them into the receiver like I'd been shown.
Holding the walkie-talkie to my ear, I pressed the button and spoke quietly into the mic. "Rob, Phil, guys, anyone, you there?" Silence.
The gunfire slowed, but I could plainly hear the shouts and cries of men in the distance. Not a joyous sound, not celebration, something else. Something bad.
To my left, about fifty yards down the hill, the bushes and tree limbs began to crackle and snap, yielding to what sounded like a platoon approaching on the run.
Fear engulfed me. I slung the shotgun over my shoulder and turned around toward the hill. Using handfuls of long grass in my fists as leverage, I sprinted up the grade. Boots slipping in the mud and snow, knees soaked with ice water, my breath burst from my lungs in mushroom clouds of steam.
As I climbed, I could hear thuds of scurrying feet, getting closer, scampering up the hill behind me. Reaching the crest, I spied the lake at the bottom of the hill, stretching out toward the rising sun. A beaten and snowy trail wound down through the trees and appeared to emerge at the water's edge. I moved quickly, bolting down the steep grade, more flying than running, my legs merely postponing each violent crash into the deep snow. My hips glanced off tree limbs and snowdrifts, sending me careening wildly in unplanned directions. With every step, my ankles would bend or twist, catching each new drift or the edge of a frozen snowmobile track. I would not and could not look over my shoulder. With every stumble, I fully expected to be shot or set upon before I could regain my footing.
I emerged from the trees at the trail-head a few feet from the shoreline on a snowy rocky beachfront. Steep tree-covered hills surrounded me, making it impossible to do anything other than hug the shoreline. Exhausted and breathless, I dropped to my knees.
The shooting was sporadic now and more distant, but occasional splashes in the lake were instant reminders of the lingering danger. My energy spent, I could not even stand. I rolled to my ass and spun, facing the trail-head. The trees were moving, not from the wind, which was completely still, but from something else. Limbs moved and snapped back, sending clouds of snow dust into the air. There must be hundreds, I thought.
Pulling the gun off my shoulder, I examined it briefly, then looked back at the massive wave moving through the forest. Decision made, I tossed the gun out in front of me into the deep snow and clasped my hands behind my head.
In a nearby evergreen, a chickadee sang several notes, then stopped on some unseen command.
Directly in front of me, a hulking presence pushed from the trees and into the clearing.
My eyes widened, fear gave way to confusion, then slipped back into terror, my last ounce of strength dripping from my forehead and down the front of my coat. Slowly, I unclasped my hands and held them, palms forward, toward my executioner.
Majestic and monstrous, the eight-point buck slowly and confidently stepped toward me, steam bursting from his nostrils, head lowered in front of him, face almost hidden behind its span of massive antlers. His black fur looked saturated with blood. Gaping pink spots, the size of baseballs spotted his hide.
I raised my eyes to meet his as he towered over me, stopping only two feet away.
I waited, chest heaving, gasping, hoping the pain would be brief, and hell would be warm.
The great animal's breath surrounded me in a fog. He lowered his head to the side, pushing his nose into the snow where I'd tossed the shotgun, then startled me with two quick snorts. Slowly he raised his head back up, re-engaging his stare.
My eyes were full of tears. To this day, I don't know if they were from cold or fear. The buck craned his head high, stretching his neck and pointing his antlers to the grey sky. For a moment, he seemed like a long-extinct bird with a gigantic wingspan, waiting for a strong gust to sweep him on high. It was then he released a deafening roar like a foghorn or tug-boat.
Then nothing, just the sound of the scurrying wind and the lapping of waves against the frozen sand.
I stared into his eyes. I could have stared forever, but he turned fast and stomped back towards the trail-head, shaking his massive head quickly as if casting off flies. Reaching the treeline, he was met by hundreds of other deer, males and females, young and old, out in the open, swarming, silently awaiting his command.
He looked back once, ever so briefly. A message? I'll never know.
I shivered from the cold sweeping off the lake, or was it a wave of relief?
As they vanished, the trees moved in waves once again.
And then all was peaceful.