“What are you thinking so hard about, boy?”
I was startled from my isolation by the voice of Sheriff Eliot.
“Nothing, Sheriff,” I answered, “I was just remembering hunting in these woods with my father when I was just a boy.”
After driving a few more miles on the old asphalt road, Sheriff Eliot added to the multiple creases in his face by smiling. “I remember your father. He was one of the finest hunters that I’ve ever seen. Anyone can buy a gun and a license; your father was a sportsman.”
“He tried to make one out of me, but I never seemed to please him,” I said thoughtfully. “I could enjoy the meat, but the thrill of the hunt was wasted on me. Dad just wouldn’t let me rest until I did everything his way.”
Silence again lapsed between Sheriff Eliot and myself. What more could I say about Dad? He had been the epitome of a hunter. I, on the other hand, could go through the motions, but I never showed the enthusiasm for the sport that my father possessed. I believe that this was at the center of every fight we ever had. My scholastic achievements were average at best, and I avoided sports like the plague. My father and I would fight about my passive approach to life, and to end the heated arguments, we would end up going hunting for whatever was in season. To escape the pressure, I eventually joined the army for a three-year enlistment. After gaining some law enforcement experience in the military, I had returned home and taken a job as Sheriff Eliot’s deputy. Not long after that, my father had been shot in a hunting accident. We never found out who shot my father. Sheriff Eliot has always assumed that it was some greenhorn who mistook him for a deer. I still dream about Dad; he has never rested easy.
“Why are we out on this forsaken stretch of blacktop, Sheriff?” I asked. I was disturbed by this journey into my memory and was anxious to get into more current affairs, like the new waitress at the Park-N-Eat.”
“There’s been a lot of high-powered rifle fire reported in this area, Esau,” replied the Sheriff. “It’s probably nothing, but I promised the game warden that I would take a swing through this area and see if I could see any signs of poaching.”
Rounding a bend in the road, we passed an old green truck parked in the ditch. Sheriff Eliot passed it without saying a word. After another mile, he stopped and turned the car around.
“What are you doing, Sheriff? I didn’t see anything funny about the truck. It looked just like an abandoned vehicle to me.”
“It was too empty, Esau. There was a rifle rack in the cab of the truck, and there was no rifle in it. We’ll just go back and give it a closer look.” He smiled a little, “I’m just trusting my own hunter’s instincts.”
As we rounded the bend again, we could see a figure standing in the bed of the truck. From our vantage point, we could plainly see that he carried a rifle. As he observed our approach, he raised his rifle to his shoulder and aimed in our direction.
“What’s that idiot doing, Sheriff?” In seven years as a deputy sheriff, no one had pointed a gun at me. As if in response to my question, the windshield of the car shattered with the impact of a high-powered bullet.
“Jump, Esau!” shouted Sheriff Eliot as he floored the car and steered a collision course toward the truck. As I jumped and rolled to the ditch, I heard a crash and an explosion. Sheriff Eliot had driven his car into the truck, and both vehicles had burst into flames.
I stood painfully to my feet. I was bruised and scratched, but otherwise unharmed. Before I could take a step, a bullet impacted the ground next to me. Without thinking, I threw myself to the ground and drew my revolver. Had the gunman been thrown clear when Sheriff Eliot rammed the truck? I peered through the smoke and observed a figure running from the burning vehicles. Before he escaped into the brush, I managed to squeeze off at least three shots at him.
Cautiously I approached the burning vehicles and could see that Sheriff Eliot had not escaped he crash. There was no time for mourning; I had to apprehend the gunman before he could elude me in the woods. As I scrambled up the bank after him, I observed several spots of blood on the ground. Elation filled me when I realized that one or more of my shots had found their mark. I was about to crash through the underbrush in pursuit of him when a voice filled my mind.
“Be careful; a wounded animal is one of the most dangerous things in the world. Always use caution when approaching it.”
For a moment I was numb; it was the same advice that my father had always given me whenever we hunted these woods together.
“Dad, is that you?” I whispered. There was no response to my question. I figured that it was just the result of some unknown injury that had occurred when I jumped out of the car, coupled with the shock of seeing Sheriff Eliot die the way that he did.
As I clawed my way to the top of the bank and stood on level ground, I listened intently for the sound of the gunman’s retreat. I was silently cursing myself for my hesitation when the voice spoke again.
“Just because you can’t see an animal doesn’t mean that you can’t track him. Read the trail, and you can follow him to eternity.”
The voice had directed me true; I looked closely at the surrounding underbrush and began to spot broken branches and depressions in the ground marking the route my prey had run. Before I could crash through the foliage, I heard the voice advising me again.
“Don’t go thrashing through the woods like a cow; walk like a hunter. If you run blindly, you’ll warn the beast that you’re coming. Make every step count, and never let your guard down. He may be just resting and licking his wounds in the underbrush.”
The voice had always advised me correctly, so I was quick to listen to it’s council. I chose every step carefully, and as I stopped to catch my breath, I caught a glimpse of the gunman at the top of the ridge. He was moving clumsily through the brush as if he were unaware of my presence. I slowly drew my revolver, pulled the hammer back, and tried to align the sights on my quarry. It was a long shot for a pistol, but with luck I could hit him.
“Don’t shoot unless you can kill with the first shot. If you wound him, you’ll only make him more dangerous. If you miss, you’ll only let him know that you’re on his trail.”
For the first time I began to argue with the voice.
“Listen, Dad, or whoever you are, I’ve got to take a chance. Even wounded, this guy is outrunning me, and I will lose him if I don’t do something soon.”
I perfect calmness the voice replied, “If you can’t outfight or outrun a critter, then you have to outthink him.”
As I stood there learning heavily against a large maple tree, I tried to come up with a plan that would make trapping this man easier. My mind was a total blank; my thoughts simply would not organize.
The voice again interrupted my confusion, “Don’t let your thoughts wander. Breathe slow and easily, and let an idea come to you.” Remember, animals run by instinct; a hunter is guided by reason.”
I forced my ragged breathing to slow, and this brought about a calmer state of mind. With the head start that the gunman had on me, I knew that I could not overtake him. In the distance, I heard a sound that electrified my imagination. It was the far-away sound of a train whistle. With elation, I remembered that the valley was spanned by a long train trestle. If I could only jump onto one of the freight cars and ride it across the valley, I could position myself ahead of my prey.
Like a madman, I dashed through the forest and climbed the steep embankment to the tracks. I estimated from the sound of the whistle and the vibration on the tracks that the train would pass me in about two minutes.
“Use this time to reload and catch your breath,” said the voice. “A good hunter never wastes motion or time.”
I followed the advice of the voice without question. During the entire chase, it’s directions and advice had always been correct. The freight train was struggling to make it up the steep grade that lay just before the valley trestle. By the time the train passed by me, it was moving at just the right speed to run beside and pull myself onto the side of a freight car. As I clung to the side, I avoided looking down into the valley. The wind was already threatening to rip me from the side of the train.
After what seemed like an eternity, the train passed over the trestle onto the other side of the valley. The train began to slowly gather speed, and I leaped from the train and landed in some small bushes. I climbed from the bushes, scratched and blood.
“Don’t waste your time licking your wounds,” said the voice. “A good hunter learns to ignore discomfort and concentrate fully on the hunt. Lay a trap for your prey.”
In a flash of revelation, I remembered that years ago I had constructed a tree stand at the highest point of the ridge. If it was still in fair shape, I could have a view of the entire ridge and easily trap the gunman.
The tree stand was still in surprisingly good shape. I remembered when my father helped me choose the spot and material for the stand. “Get the animals used to the stand. The sooner they get used to seeing it, the easier it will be for you to take your prey. The foliage will cover it, and it will be much easier for you to bring the animal down.”
To my amazement, the stand was weathered, but sturdy. Branches had grown up around it and concealed it from view. As I climbed the tree and pulled myself onto the tree stand, I could see the flash of the gunman’s shirt making his way up the ridge toward me.
“Wait for him,” said the voice. “Don’t take him too soon, or you’ll only scare him.”
I pulled my revolver and tried to put him in my sights. As he ran through the dense brush, it was an impossibility to get a good shot. With an eerie coldness I saw that his path would bring him directly under my tree stand.
“Don’t shoot,” said the voice. “It wouldn’t be sporting at this distance. Take the animal with your bare strength.”
Like a man possessed, I leaped from the tree and landed feet first upon the gunman, knocking him unconscious. He was wounded and bruised, but still breathing steadily. I slowly took my handcuffs from my belt.
Jonathan Cain was a consummate loser. His entire life had been a series of poor judgments and incorrect decisions. The only way he had been able to make a living was by robbing other’s traps and taking game out of season for their hides. Once in the process of skinning an illegal buck, and old man had burst from the underbrush babbling about Cain’s breaking of the “hunter’s code.” Cain was startled, and without thinking, he raised his rifle and shot the old man in the chest. There had been questions asked throughout the county, but no one had reason to suspect Cain. He had gotten away with it.
He had no idea why he had shot at the Sheriff’s car. There was no illegal game in his possession; perhaps guilt had forced him into a panic. He only knew that someone was after him with a vengeance. Just as he thought he had escaped his pursuer, a weight impacted him upon the head and shoulders. Darkness closed in around him. As he awoke, he was shocked to find his hands handcuffed behind a small tree. Ten feet away from him was a deputy sheriff wearing a tattered uniform. As the officer placed larger branches upon a small campfire, he muttered something over and over. Cain’s last instants of life were filled with terror as he realized the content of the hunter’s words.”
“Always eat what you kill. Always eat what you kill…”