John was loading up the flatbed with the tents and food and beer, throwing them like they weren’t worth nothing but I’d spent two hundred on that tent and I’d told him. Mike was in the store getting thousands of rounds by the looks of it and I was sat up front in the truck, oiling the stocks and blacking the barrels before zipping them back into their bags. We had been planning this trip into the woods ever since Frank from accounting had come back bragging how he’d bagged four deer in one weekend and we weren’t gonna let no numbers jockey get the better of us so Mike had found the name of the company he’d booked and where it was so we were loading the flatbed ready to head west to Rooster Woods. John climbed in and took his rifle off me with nothing more ‘an a grunt, making a big show of checking it like he knows what it’s all about but he just zipped it up and put it back between my legs and I gripped it real tight. Mike gets in next to me with a crate of ammo and a big grin like he’s just won the lottery or something. He prises off that lid and I’ll say I’ve never seen so much brass in my life but I tell him it ain’t no use having so many bullets we can only fire one at a time but he’s all excited and pushing me til my hat falls on the floor by my feet and I have to push the rifles out the way to get to it and they nudge John who’s starting the truck and he jerks into first gear so I bang my head against the dash.
Getting out of town is easy, roads are clear as water so soon we’re in the woods on a dirt track. I’m stuck between the guys so I can’t see so good either side but in front I’ve got a great view of these redwoods like barbed spears reaching to the sky and piercing the blue. Suddenly we come on this deer, right in the middle of the road and it’s just looking at us, staring me right in the eyes so I stare back. John shuts off the engine just to look but Mike’s already fighting at my legs to get his gun. I’m not moving at all and he’s getting frustrated all I can look at is this animal staring right at me with these brown eyes that seem burning like fire right through my brain and I’m getting this thought that maybe it ain’t such a good idea to go killing. Mike finally gets his gun out but he’s so clumsy he pulls it right out and into the roof of the truck which makes this noise and scares the deer back off into the wood, this white diamond against the red brown trees. Mike punches me on the arm and tells me to get a good look cos that’s all I’ll see this weekend and I tell him to get a good look himself cos if he hits me again I’ll stick his head up one so fast but he doesn’t shut up and the next three miles all we hear is Mike saying how many Bucks and Stags he’s gonna bag. John’s silent the whole way with this deep river thing he’s got going on not saying nothing just driving steady, I don’t reckon he really wanted to come but Mike said he had to cos if it was just me and him then it’d look gay, they needed a third to make sure it weren’t gay.
I ain’t been in the woods since I went with my Pop when I was eleven. We’d set the tent out then sit on a tree stump and he’d be feeling in his pocket for the cigar he knows is there, this big stogie he always takes with him hunting that smells terrible foul. I only ever saw him smoke when he’s hunting. One time we was in the woods and there weren’t nothing for hours and hours and we were about to leave but then this big stag, antlers must have been four foot or nothing and he takes his rifle and fires on and it goes down, but even as were walking over we could hear it breathing so my dad takes out his knife and slits its throat and I watch the blood sprat over his face and he doesn’t even wipe it, just takes out his cigar, strikes a match on the tree and takes this big lungful of that foul cigar. I’m looking right at this bloodstained barbarian standing over his kill and I started thinking that day. I still got that knife strapped to my belt right now as we jump over this dirt track and the handle knocks my side every time we land.
Soon we’re at this big compound, chain link fence and all razor wire round the top and I figure somethings funny and we stop at this little booth and this little man in a big uniform comes out all official and starts asking us for our names and licenses and shit. We hand it over and he goes back into his little booth and starts radioing to some other little guy in a little booth. Soon he’s out and he’s giving us back our licenses and he raises the gate for us and tells us to go along the road til we get to the big house at the end. Sudden all the road noise stops and we’re on proper flattop not that dirt track and it looks kind of funny gliding over this perfect black and having these big trees either side like everyone on our street decided all of a sudden to plant these trees out front to hide their houses. Above us some kind of bird swoops down and right across the front of the truck and into the trees on the other side and I reckon it’s a crow but Mike keeps on that it’s an eagle and that he’s seen an eagle and he’s gonna tell Frank when he gets back that he saw an eagle and how does he like that but I reckon it was a crow. When that little fellah said big house he didn’t quite lie but it weren’t the perfect truth. The truth would be a big mansion, that’s how I’d put it.
We park up out front and this guy comes out saying he’s our guide for this weekend. He’s got proper camouflage gear on and all this stuff on his hat. We’re all impressed so he tells us to shut our eyes and count to ten so we do it and when we open the he’s gone and we’re looking round when he walks out from the trees and none of us had seen him. Mike’s going on about where he can get that stuff and how much it is but the guy’s all business and he takes our stuff into the house, saying that the other guys will take it onto the campsite and we’ll hike the way with the rifles and see if we can’t get lucky. I’m sore from all the sitting and driving but the other guys are peachy keen so we head off straight away, Mike hands out the ammo one by one from his box the guy saying that they have all the ammo they need in the house but Mike’s so damn proud he refuses any on all our behalfs so he’s left carrying this big box of ammo and it won’t fit in his pack but he makes like he don’t care.
Each step I take I crush more leaves and that sends up that autumn smell of dead leaves and bonfires and all that straight into my brain and like that I’m back with my Pop taking potshots at birds cos he don’t think I can handle a deer yet but I know I can. Soon Mike and this guy are having a real quiet argument cos Mike’s lit up a cigarette and the guy’s telling him he can’t smoke because the deer’ll be downwind and they can smell it and they’ll run but Mike’s saying he’s needing a cigarette because it’s an addiction and an addictions a medical problem so he needs it, his doctor says so but I know his doctors told him to cutback but he won’t for no one. We’re walking about five miles and there are all these trees around and we can hear all the life in this place and I get to thinking why I’m here and all those big questions but then Mike’s arguing with the guy cos he’s raised his gun to take a shot at a bird to get the aim and guy’s explaining why that would be about the dumbest thing he could do. John’s just standing by a tree watching all impassive like he is a tree so I go stand by him and watch. I like John, when Pop died I was cut up pretty bad and wondering why we had to live just to die, why my Pop had to live if he was just gonna die and John takes me over to a mirror and makes me look at myself and just says, ‘That’s why’. I like John, he reminds me of Pop.
We’re back walking but not for long cos we stop again but this time it’s cos the guy’s stuck his hand up for us to halt and then he tells us to get down slowly and quietly. We’re crawling on our bellys up to him and he points and over just between two big trees a big stags grazing at ground. He ain’t seen us but we can see him for his big antlers. Mike’s first up with his rifle and he starts taking aim at it with the guy checking his range and aim over his shoulder. Mike agreed he should have first kill so me and John just wait on our stomachs in the mud but I bring my gun up anyways just to sight it and as I do it stands up proper like it knows we’re there and what’s coming and doesn’t want to die with its head buried in the ground it wants to go like a picture on a stamp or a whisky bottle, head up with the sun off its antlers.
Finally the guy’s happy so Mike takes his shot but he’s wide and down my sights I watch it fire splinters out of the tree and like a snap I fire and I know I hit it, but I know it weren’t a killing blow.
Mike’s bellyaching all the way over bout how I stole his kill and how he’s gonna tell everyone bout how I broke a gentleman’s agreement but I just ignore him because as we’re getting closer I can hear this breathing again and I’m back with my Pop but this time the knife’s on my belt. There’s this brown heap, its head all whacking against the ground and twisted cos the antler’s stop it from lying proper and finally Mike’s silent because there’s this beast, bout ten times bigger than down the sights of a gun and its lying there, this big hole in its ribs and all this blood staining its coat red and we’re watching and it’s lying there. The guy takes a step forward and reaches to his belt but John gets a hold of him because I’m reaching to my belt and taking out Pop’s knife and I don’t say nothing, I just reach down with the blade and cut its throat, this warm liquid covering my face.
I don’t wipe it or nothing, I just take out a cigar, strike a match, and smoke til I can’t smell the blood no more.