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The game

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The game

photo by TREVOR JUSTICE

The hunter moved slowly down the length of the ridge. His slow pace was not because he was looking for deer or because of his years. He was still spry enough to move at a good pace and had long since lost to need to kill something to have a successful trip afield. He moved slowly, pausing often, to delay his arrival back at the cabin.

He knew his son would be waiting, ready to take him home. The hunter didn't want to go home. The old house in town was empty now, far too big, filled only with memories. He preferred the comfortable hunting cabin. Since Mary's death, the cabin had been his home. But he had grown tired of the argument with his son and finally agreed to live in a spare bedroom in the big, new house.

The hunter knew this might be his last walk through the ridges and creek beds and thickets he had come to know so well. He wanted to prolong the walk as much as he wanted to delay leaving the cabin.

The hunter stopped beneath an ancient beech tree. He lightly fingered the initials carved in the smooth, gray bark. It had been well over 50 years since he had carved them. He and Mary had come to this spot many times through the years.

His eyes, behind the hated but now needed bifocals, did not miss much. A squirrel moved off to his left and ahead, he heard a woodpecker trade insults with his mate. He and Mary had done that, in a loving way.

This was one of those perfect, November afternoons. The leaves were still changing and rearranging colors and the forest floor was now carpeted with brilliant, early fallen leaves.

It would frost tonight and a fire would feel good. He relished the anticipation of a short whiskey in front of the open blaze before he remembered, he no longer drank whiskey and he would not be in the cabin tonight, maybe never again.

He thought about his son, a good boy but too busy, too impatient, not really a hunter. The boy, now in his 40's could shoot well enough and he could hunt well enough but he wasn't really a hunter. He took no pleasure in the stalk or the chase. Didn't enjoy waiting and watching. Just shoot and get back to the Iphone. Never really took time to look around him. Never understood the game.

A dense thicket merged with the slight trail the hunter watched as he reflected. It was right there, he thought. Just across the fence where the Boss liked to cross. That was where the Boss hid out. They had played the game for five years now, he and the Boss. The Boss would leave the hints and clues and the hunter would set the traps and make the stands.

Always something tipped the Boss off. Twice, certainly by happenstance, the hunter could have killed him. Once he had him broadside at 30 yards but he had just filled killed his buck for the day, a lesser buck, respectable but not the Boss. Another time, he could have shot him in the rump as he paused before topping a ridge. But those were not the rules and the hunter played by the rules. He had enough heads on the wall, no need to gamble on a bad shot.

He had not seen the big buck this year, hadn't really hunted. The Boss, like the old hunter would be on his decline now, probably still  above record book minimums but not the Boss of years past. It didn’t matter, he no longer cared anything about antlers.  I'd like one more try, he thought.

The hunter paused, leaning against a white oak tree near the point of the ridge. Through the trees, he could see the lights of the cabin in the deepening twilight. It would be dark soon and his son would begin to worry...between closing deals on the phone.

The hunter sighed and broke off a sassafras twig for a toothpick as he straightened to move on. Behind him, the unmistakable snort of a buck stopped him in mid-stride.

Slowly turning his head, the hunter froze. The Boss was standing at the edge of the thicket near the old fence corner, 60 yards away. The battered and scarred bolt action came to his shoulder as it had so many times before. The crosshairs settled on the massive chest. The hunter's finger began to tighten on the trigger.

The old hunter smiled. Slowly, he lowered the rifle and pushed the safety back on. Still the Boss stood and watched. His antlers spread  past his ears.

Softly the hunter spoke. "The game is over old friend. We have played to a draw, you and me. The thickets, glades, and hollows are all yours now. They are your tools and I leave them to you."     

The hunter smiled again. "This fine rifle, made for me by my friend Mr. Hale, many years ago in England, is my tool. It belongs with the game and those who would play it by the rules. It should be for those who enjoy the game, not the results. I leave it too."     

The hunter turned and shuffled slowly to the base of a hollow, lightning-struck beech. Quietly, he extracted one cartridge from the breech of the rifle and placed it in the hollow tree. Gently he slung the rifle over his left shoulder. “Maybe,” he thought, “my grandson might like this fine gun.”

"I leave it all to you now," he said, "for our day is done and I shall play the game no more. It was a good game and I thank you." With a final salute, the old hunter turned and started carefully down the steep ridge. Behind him, he heard the Boss grunt softly. Yes, the hunter thought, it was a very good game.

Contact John L. Sloan / bowriter1944john@aol.com        

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