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The Hunters

Jed Foland


ORbits presents a selection of stories which made the shortlist of the Oxonian Review Short Story Competition, 2012. We finish with Jed Foland’s ‘The Hunters’.

“Ya’ll come back with an elk,” said Ma. “I’ll wash the cutting board.”

It was still dark when The Boy crawled out of bed and into the pickup truck. Pa and his friend Jim tossed their packs in the back.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us Ma?” asked The Boy.

“I’ve got church,” she said.

“God’ll understand if you miss Mass to go hunting. God isn’t a vegetarian.”

“There won’t be room in the truck with the three of you and the dog.” she replied, “So ya’ll come back with that elk.”

“We’ll see,” said Pa, “we’ll see.” Then to the dog, “Get on up in thar!” The mutt leapt into the cab of the truck. “We probably won’t see elk: too many wolves now.”

Goddamn wolves!” said Jim as he climbed into the pickup. He spit a wad of tobacco out the window.

“If you see a wolf shoot it,” said Ma.

Ma kissed his father goodbye on the cheek. “Where you going to go?” she asked.

“Gospel Ridge where he shot the first one.”

She exchanged a glance with The Boy.

“Well it’s steep up there,” she told Pa, “so don’t let The Boy fall off.”

“We’ll be fine Ma,”

She waved the three men away.

 

The sun was an hour from rising as they left the trailer park and rode along the canyon. Then they climbed up into the snow line. It would take hours to clear Hell’s Canyon, skirt the Seven Devils, and make their way to the Gospel Mountains. The Boy still delighted in those names: no doubt, the whim of some religious pioneer a century ago.

“Got yer license Boy?”

“Check.”

“Rifle?”

“Right here.”

“Keep the bolt open. Pistol?”

“In the pack.”

“There’s one under the seat too,” said Pa, “Got yer knife.”

“Check.”

“Yer Pa gave you that knife,” said Jim, “You should carry it with you all the time. I don’t go nowhere without mine.”

“They won’t let me take it on the plane.”

“How about bullets?”

“On the plane?”

“No, right now.”

“I’ve got four in the magazine.”

“Put two more in your pockets, just in case.”

They rode side by side: The Boy and the two old men. Their seatbelts were lost somewhere under the cushions. Pa droveand Jim kept watch from the passenger side spitting tobacco out the open window. The Boy in the middle, as always, his place since birth. The dog, whose name was Dog, watched him enviously from the floorboards. The Boy didn’t mind his place—even though he was squeezed tight and his Pa had pushed the gear shift dangerously close to his groin—he didn’t mind at all. It was nice to be near one’s Pa.

The rifles rode alongside them with the stocks at their feet and their muzzles pointed upward between their legs. This used to terrify The Boy: the thought of his seven millimeter suddenly discharging into his face. Now it didn’t bother him. He had missed the smell of gun oil.

Jim reached over the Boy to pass Pa a can of tobacco. The Boy had never chewed when he was younger so the old men didn’t offer any to him. He stared at the fingers of his right hand. They weren’t yellow yet. Could they tell that he had become a smoker? Pa and Jim could smell fresh elk piss three miles upwind; they could probably smell tobacco even though the Boy hadn’t smoked in a week, not since he stepped into the terminal at Heathrow.

“God I want a cigarette,” thought The Boy and he tried to remember England and his college and the French girl, Nicolette.

Jim yawned, “Yer Pa tells me that yergonna be a doctor.”

“Of philosophy,” he thought.

“So tell me boy, how do you get on with all them socialists out there?”

The Boy thought for a moment and said, “Well the English commies ain’t so bad; it’s the Frenchies you have to look out for.”

Goddamn French!” Jim slapped his leg over the rifle, “That’s goddamn right!”

Somewhere, near the bridge, Nicolette was waiting.

Pa shifted gears.

“So what yer doing out there Boy?”

Pa rolled his eyes.

“I’m a historical anthropologist,” The Boy replied. “I’m writing a thesis on the depletion of indigenous culture in post-colonial Africa.”

“Oh,” said Jim flatly.

“Oh,” thought The Boy.

“So you’ve been to Africa?” Jim continued.

“This Boy’s travelled all over the world,” said Pa, “England, Scotland, Ireland.”

He had never actually been to Africa.

“Say, um, have you travelled much Jim?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Oh yeah? Recently?”

“Round-bout your age.”

“Really? Where did you go?”

“Nam.”

They rode again in silence.

The sun still hadn’t risen and The Boy couldn’t help dozing. The truck engine whirred as they began the ascent. He drifted off to the sound of his father saying “Stay awake Boy. Stay awake.”

He couldn’t help himself.

 

He was back in college with a cigarette and a martini in his hands. It was a week ago during the winter Ball. He had stepped outside to escape the dancing and smoke. Stealthily, he set out towards the bridge on the other end of college, but a friend, William, emerged from the ballroom.

“What’s the matter? Don’t know how to dance?”

“More or less.”

“Strange, you’ve been here longer than I have,” said William. “Still not used to the lifestyle?”

“Too many rich kids.”

William fidgeted with his bow-tie.

“Here let me do it,” said The Boy. “I thought all Englishmen knew how to tie a tuxedo tie.”

“Nicolette tied it for me but it came undone.”

“She did a lousy job.”

“Oh, I took it out on purpose. That’s why men need women mate: if you ask nicely they’ll do a whole lot more than tie a bowtie. All the other tossers in there have to snog whomever they can get. No offence.”

“None taken,” said The Boy.

William continued. “And nothing compares to a French bird in bed. It’s a shame they don’t like Americans. You’re all too fat.”

“You’re women crazy Will: you’re like an elk in rut.”

“What’s a rut?”

“Something my old man taught me about back home. It’s when a bull elk goes in heat and starts to chase after lady elk. They get stupid. That’s when we hunt them.”

“You shoot elk?”

“I did. I don’t like doing it, of course.”

“Of course,” replied William. “Speaking of hunting, have you seen Nicolette?”

“I haven’t,” said The Boy. “There. Your tie looks better.”

“Ta,” said William as went back inside.

The Boy waved goodbye and looked down at his own shoes. He could almost see his reflection in the patent leather. Would she notice?

“Wake up Boy.”

 

The Boy found that he was still squished between the two old men. The sun was rising. It was legal to shoot.

They were crossing the River of No Return onto Gospel Ridge. He wanted to be asleep again. He wanted to be back in college, to finish his cigarette, to find Nicolette. She would be standing on the bridge in her golden ball gown.

“I have a boyfriend,”she had said.

“He doesn’t have to know.”

 

“You still with us Boy?” asked Pa.

“I’m awake. I’m, awake.”

“You remember this spot?”

“Of course,” said The Boy.

“This is where you shot your first elk.”

“I remember.”

“You were thirteen.”

“I was thirteen.”

Thirteen was a year too old for a first elk. The legal age was twelve.

“Where did you shoot him?” asked Jim.

“Shoot what?”

“Yer first elk.”

“In the head.”

“How big?”

“A six point.”

“We didn’t get the antlers mounted,” said Pa, “because the skull was too damaged.”

The Boy had spent the following year practising his aim in the gravel pit after school until he became a perfect shot, but he had never shot at another animal since.

Pa pulled the rig over. Jim opened his door. The dog tried to leap out. Nicolette was waiting on the bridge.

The Boy took his rifle and stretched.

Pa held a little plastic bottle in his hand. He whispered: “Spray this on your boots.”

“What is it?”

“Elk piss.”

The boy did as he was told.

“Jim, go and circle around the ridge. The Boy and I will wait on top. If there’s elk down there, kick them up to us. If we hear you shoot, we’ll come to you. If you see a wolf, shoot it too.”

Goddamn wolves.”

Jim wandered off into the trees.

The Boy and Pa walked single file to the ridge top. It was steep country.

“Don’t make so much noise when you walk,” said Pa. “Elk’ll hear twice as good as you and see twice as much.”

Carefully, they climbed over boulders, under fallen trees, and through brush.

Pa held up his nose. “I can smell elk.”

“It’s probably my shoes,” whispered The Boy.

“Nope.”

They found a lone tree in the clearing and sat beneath it for cover.

“Now we wait.”

“It’s a shame Ma isn’t here,” whispered The Boy.

“She doesn’t have to be.”

The Boy knew not to say any more. He stared into space. Snow and frost had turned the bushes and fallen trees white. He shivered.

“Stop fidgeting,” said Pa.

“I’m cold.”

“It’s because you’re too skinny. You need to eat more over there.”

“I’m still cold.”

“Here then.” Slowly, the old man put his arm around The Boy.

“Thanks Pa.”

They waited.

An hour passed.

The Boy began to fall asleep again but was awakened with a squeeze from Pa.

“I hear something.”

They had waited on this exact spot then, those years ago when Ma had been with them.

“Put your gun up,” said Pa now, “Use your knee as a rest.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“Listen.”

The Boy remembered Pa saying the exact same thing before, during the first hunt with Ma. He remembered seeing the bull elk lumbering among the trees. “I don’t have a shot,” he had said again and again, “I don’t have a shot.” He recalled it all in flashes tempered by the years. He remembered being terrified as the elk climbed towards them, a fine six-point, all the while his father saying, “Now! Do it now!” and he remembered hesitating, then firing a shot into the air, killing nothing more than a tree branch. The elk startled and ran down the hill. “Damnit!” his father cried. His mother fired after it, breaking its back with a single bullet. They ran down the slope where the elk lay writhing, moaning. Quickly, his father grabbed the gun out of The Boy’s hands and shot the creature through the head.

When it was finished, Ma had put The Boy’s tag on the elk. “It was your gun that killed him,” she had said, and she left it at that.

 

Now another creature was coming through the bushes. A brown giant.

“That’s a bull! That’s a bull!” Pa whispered, excited.

The elk bugled a long deep cry.

“Take your safety off.”

Slowly, without moving more than his thumb, The Boy slid the safety trigger forward.

He peered through the rifle scope and saw trees, fur, then trees. Steam rose off the animal’s hide.

“Shoot it!” Pa commanded. “Before he smells us.”

“I can’t! There’s too much brush in the way.”

The elk’s head was down. He could not see many antlers, only two little horns through the thicket of bushes.

“It’s only a spike.”

“A spike will do,” Pa whispered. “Shoot it anyway. Shoot it!”

“I don’t have a shot.”

“I’ll whistle,” said Pa, “he’ll lift his head up for just a moment before he runs away. When he does, you shoot. Shoot him in the neck or the head; you’ll have only a second. Shoot him.”

He whistled.

Instinctively, the bull raised its head.

“Now!” said Pa. “Do it now! Shoot it. Shoot it!”

 

 

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Jed Foland is a member of Wolfson College, Oxford.

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