John told me that he knew a few things. He pulled the pistol from his waistband and jacked a round into the chamber. He told me he knew that Id knocked up Nikki, his girl. He knew that our visit to the free clinic in Portland had nothing to do with him, even though the two of them were engaged to be married, for Gods sake. He said it was clear that I wasnt his friend, because people dont do their friends like that.
His words were a flat recitation of fact, but they were burned into the air. I had nothing to say in return and the cab of my truck felt very small. We were at the end of an unmarked logging road where wed planned to do some target shooting. John had found a way to get us perfectly alone, and I didnt want to go out that way. Anonymous. Disappeared. Or just another accident. No, I wanted to get my own gun from the glove box. I wanted to wrap my hand around the grips of that cannon, get John to come to his senses, maybe make a sick joke of it. But the skin around his eyes was red, and I began to believe that my time was almost up.
I noticed the pits and cracks in the trucks windshield, the big firs swaying in the wind, the thin spots in the overcast that couldnt fully conceal the blue sky above. I saw a deer walk out of the woods. It moved toward us. The thought entered my mind that if John was going to shoot me, at least there would be a witness. I could see with the clarity that adrenaline brings. The does belly was swollen. She was pregnant, and I watched her graze on a lush patch of grass. A ray of sunlight reached through the clouds and warmed her back and she looked happy. I smiled because it wasnt a bad last thing to see.
But then John followed my line of sight and saw the deer. He narrowed his eyes and he jumped out of the truck. Before I could say anything, he fired once, twice, three times. I saw the deer take a hit down low in the guts. She stood still for a few seconds, then she ran for the timber. I could see that she would get away and go into the trees and bleed and hurt before she died, and I knew what I had to do. John was still shooting, but he seemed to be having second thoughts. His shots were going low and only kicking up mud.
I got my hands on the .44. I leaned out the window of the truck and put the sights on the bounding deer. A few yards from the treeline she slowed and turned so I could see her flank. She turned as if she had a question and I pulled the trigger. My shot took her through the lungs. She fell on her side and kicked a few times and then lay still. Her breath condensed in the cold air. A wisp of steam came from her nose, and then she only appeared to move when the wind ruffled her hair.
I held the big revolver loosely. I let the muzzle wander. I waited for the ringing in my ears to fade enough for me to hear my own voice.
I cant sleep nights, I said to John.
Too bad for you, John said.
We didnt have much of a choice.
Maybe not. But you made some choices before that last one.
I wasnt exactly pointing the Magnum at John, but he stood up straighter. I got out of the truck, the barrel of the .44 moving like a divining rod. Johns knuckles were white on the grips of his pistol. We looked at each other, standing tense and grim at close range, but then John let some of the air out of his lungs. I didnt waste any time. I took the pistol from his hand and unloaded it and put it in my waistband. I hiked across the clear-cut to the doe, just to be sure she was finished, and it was rough-going through the stumps and piles of slash. I was breathing hard because of the adrenaline and the altitude, and it took some time for me to get there.
When I saw the size of the spoor spreading beneath her, I knew she was dead. I dropped to my knees and pressed my palm against her pregnant belly. My hand came away wet with a clear fluid. The does swollen flank moved once, a small kick from inside, and then it didnt move anymore.
There was nothing else to do. I dragged the carcass into the trees. I covered it with brush, tucking it carefully into its final bed, and then I scrubbed my hands with cold, Oregon mud until they didnt seem to be made of anything so disposable as flesh and blood.
This is a tip o’ the hat to William Stafford’s poem, Traveling Through the Dark. It didn’t start out that way, though. The initial scene poured itself onto the page seemingly of its own accord, and it was only in revision that I saw WS’s influence. It had been 20 years since I read Traveling Through the Dark. Ah, the power of words.
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