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The sky is just beginning to purple when he slings his legs out from the truck, expanding like an overripe plum, not yet hollow, like it will be, later, when it all breaks open. Under it, he feels the muck and the shapes crawling out of it, indistinct and unformed. The carkle, shreep, and crew of invisible birds in the bush.
Six degrees are waiting on civil dawn. But he isn’t waiting for it to get civil.
He comes to a place, mesquite twisting out from the kind of emptiness made for something to come into it; a likely spot for a rub. But he holds still on the edge of the clearing. Crouching slowly, he pinches up some dirt, twists it in his fingers and watches it trail away behind him.
His eyes are caught by a bright place down through the
brush, down in the broad gray-green below, a rock angled to the sun,
or water. He blinks and brings his mind back up into his face, resolving
the confusion of outlines and the twist of the trees and the white ring
over its muzzle. Facing him, watching from the other side of the clearing.
He comes up working the lever in one fluid movement, but the sling is
caught on something. He swats at his waist, unhooks it, resights.
At the other side of the clearing, he squats to poke at the earth. Leaf litter, dry bean pods, a lot of rock underneath; the soil, where it’s bare, is hard. But there ought to be something. He wonders for a moment if he imagined it.
Cradling the rifle across his chest, he crosses out to where he spots what looks like a trail. No prints here, either, but it’s the way leading out, he can see it’s led out plenty of times before.
Damn thing was a toad, too. Just stood there, looking at me, the giant sonofabitch. Like I weren’t nothing.
The trail forks and forks again. It’s been winding downhill for a while, and through the sticks he can make out now the arroyo below. The sun’s been coming up faster than he’s been descending, and it has already crested the tall ridge across from him. He can feel the full heat of it in his face when he breaks between the trees.
Weather’s not right. It’s November, for Christ’s sake.
It slides into a river of dust where he breaks out of the brush, and his boots pull up as he sees it, still as day beneath a cedar along the bank. He works the lever and remembers too late that he’d already chambered one. The ejected cartridge clatters to stone but the buck stands unmoving, looking straight toward him. At him.
He draws his breath to three quarters and holds. The soft pad of his forefinger mates itself to the trigger’s curve and, taking up the slack, presses into the break.
The ground comes up hard into his knee as the rifle tears from his fingers and something smacks into the bone of his eye socket. He falls into the scree, plowing head-first down the bank, and the sky is sliding away from him and he’s reaching out to hold onto it. The hills crack, the sound seeming to stick to the air and fold and bound back into him. And there’s something else in it. A cry. It catches in his throat.
It’s stupid how blue the sky. Why the cloud goes, as if it were leaving him.
Hey! he shouts, his voice breaking.
There is no answer.
His hand comes up sticky from his leg.
You. Goddamnit, you sonofabitch.
He yells again.
He feels foolish at this.
Goddamnit! Hold your fire! There’s someone in here!
He squints out the dark spots rotating in blue, dabs at his cheek where the scope hit him. Well, shit. Of course there might be others, you always know that. But shit. Shit. Shit. Maybe they’ll come to look for him, he wonders, but he doesn’t figure so. Most likely they’d have hollered back if that were their intention. Can’t blame them none, either. Get out fast. Who’d want to have to take responsibility for that.
He twists his leg around to see the wound. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of blood, and it’s not pooling onto his fingers. Missed the arteries, at least. He digs his heels into the dirt and pushes until he’s got his back up against the boulder.
With his knee pulled up he can see it better. There’s the exit. It’s gone straight through the inside of the thigh. Not too deep.
He leans out from the rock to unhook the canteen pressing into his back, and takes a good long swig from it. Splashes a little over the wound. A green lizard, startled, stops in its tracks, gazing inquisitively at him. Shock is what it is. You’re in shock.
And then the pain, till now something vague and distant as if it were happening to someone else, fires into stabbing hell. His head reels, and he rolls to his side, spasms shaking his body. When he’s done, he wipes the mess from his chin, and takes another swig and spits.
He gets out of his shirt, makes a cut across the seam and tears a strip from it. When the wound is fairly well bound, he pulls himself up the bank. His boots slide out in the dust and pain fires like a toothache through his leg. He pauses, collects his breath and hauls himself over the edge. The rifle’s muzzle is clear of dirt, and he wipes off the stock and receiver on the unbloodied trouser leg, blowing dust from the scope. A few feet away he finds the cartridge and pockets it. He realizes then that the hammer’s down; he works the lever, and a spent casing bounces out. So, he did get off a shot.
He lowers the hammer again, scouring the hillside and horizon. The sun’s climbing well over the ridge, and there’s a hard glare burnishing the river rocks. He shades his eyes, but it doesn’t help much. Though the near side of the rise is mostly in shadow, the white light rippling along the crest bleaches out his view. He spits on his finger, wipes it across his eyes and blinks.
Pain jabs through him like a hot wire as he stumbles to the shaggy cedar. He circles the spot, but there’s nothing. Still there’s nothing.
I thought I hit it. I did. I had it. Wait. Yes, there.
He dabs his finger in it.
Yes. Yes, fuck you.
It’s only a few drops, but right now he’ll take it. He pulls the half-roll of toilet paper from his back pocket and ties a strip around a branch, trying to remember which way it had been facing. There, right along the arroyo. Odds are, that’s where she went. He went. When you hit them, they’ll just go the way they’re facing. Can count on that, pretty much. Dumb animals.
The paper’s blowing back behind him, so the breeze is still on his side. Twenty yards on or so, coming back down to the arroyo, he spots another bright red mark on the rock. Training the binoculars back behind him, he can just make out the paper through the tangled brush. He lines himself up with it, then rotates himself a hundred-eighty. Looks like it was headed downhill. He ties off another strip.
The rocks here along the bank are regular and smooth, so he can walk without too much difficulty. Fifty yards on, he finds another mark. Not hard to spot on the rocks. That’s how it is, you tried to hide, and your hiding betrayed you. It didn’t take long, did it, bitch.
But it’s just sparse, bright drops, so a wound to the leg, most likely. It won’t come down on its own, but it might be struggling. He leaves a strip of paper pinned under a rock, long and tailing in air.
The open space peters out up ahead, up where the river bed abruptly narrows, and he’s going to have to get back among the sticks where it overtakes the bank.
It’s thick in here. Roots twist angrily from the earth, branches overhanging and raking. It’s shaded, but not cooler; the trees hold the heat in and sweat runs into his wound. But here’s the blood, hell, here it is, and he ties up another strip, and pauses to watch out. For a horizontal line, mostly, the animal’s back against the vertical growth.
They’re not lines though, they’re circles, around the eyes and snout. It isn’t more than ten feet away, but it doesn’t seem agitated, it doesn’t snort at him or turn its head. He brings the rifle to bear. The scope is weaving and he sucks in his lungs to steady himself. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. Gently, fucking gently, hold it and squeeze it in . . .
His tongue pulls back into his throat and he twists as he comes down. His temple strikes something sharp as his face grinds into the dirt, and his breath yanks through his nose like a rope.
There is a black spot in the sky above, high and turning in it. Circling under a white light, burning and crisping the edge of wings.
Shoulder. Goddamnit, you’ve shot my goddamn shoulder. He slaps the ground with his open hand, again and again, until the pain draws him back to himself and he crawls down out of the rage.
He scrapes up a handful of dust, throws it at the lizard.
There is no lizard.
Hunched over himself, cradling his arm, he weeps into his bloodied sleeve. The world drains from his head and he falls into blackness on the cold tiles.
When he comes to, he remembers, and lifts his head to see. He presses his fingers over the wound. It’s shattered a bone somewhere, he can tell.
It can’t be that they’re actually trying to shoot him. They’re mistaking him for game, it’s just bad luck.
Go the fuck home, he croaks.
He’s back at the edge of the arroyo now, the smooth, wide banks arcing around the base of the hill rising sharply on the other side. He stumbles across the rocks, squinting out perspiration, drags his forearm across his face but he isn’t seeing right, and it pools right back into his face anyway, into the dark hollows of his eyes.
I know where you’ve been going. I can see it. I know. You can’t hide from me.
His knees buckle under him halfway across the riverbed. The sun is slanting steep down the side of the rise, searing him on the hot, flat rocks where he’s fallen, pressing into his ears with a sound of roaring water. The shoulder bandage is leaking down his side.
He feels the cool shadow as it passes over him. A dense cloud sits on the cliff edge above, casting itself over him, the edges burnished golden by the sun behind it. He turns his eyes back to the earth.
The shadow moves again. Splinters.
Squinting back into the corona he sees the cloud turn its head, the antlers silvered in the golden light.
You goddamn sonofabitch. You bitch.
He pushes himself to his feet with the rifle’s butt and staggers to the cliff side. He can still see it from here. It sees him, too. It knows he’s coming, and still it watches him.
His left arm won’t come up like it should, and he hooks the rifle through the crook of the weak arm and digs the butt into the dirt to brace himself. Grunting, a few inches at a time, he drags his way up the cliff face.
A tuft pulls out in his hand and the butt slips. The trigger guard slaps him in the mouth as he lurches back, his feet kicking out uselessly as he slides. The dead tree, parched silver in the sun, comes up hard into his groin. He wipes the water from his eyes, fighting to steady his breath.
You can’t do this to me. You can’t hurt me like this.
Swaying under the silver glare, he gets back to his feet.
He abandons the rifle, resting it against the tree. He won’t be able to aim it anyway, so the .45 will have to do. He climbs half blind now, feeling for holds with his blood-muddied fingers.
And then, somehow, he is heaving himself onto the ridge. He lies there, panting, and after a moment pulls himself to his knees. He can see the arroyo below him, he can see the riverbed winding back into the morning. Something white flapping from a tree. I can see everything now. I see everything, bitch.
All the turns you took. The places you hid from me. Thinking you couldn’t be seen. Thought you’d covered your trail, didn’t you? Like no one would ever know. But I knew. I knew. And I found you, didn’t I? I waited and watched and I tracked you down and I will make you understand.
It’s wet where he’s kneeling and the iron smell of it reaches his nose, it’s coming thicker than he expected, and it’s all over the white porcelain. He needs to wash it away, but the river is too far below, and the water is gone from the river.
He retches, heaving onto the rock. When the spasms have subsided, he falls back onto his ankles, his mind suddenly empty, as if something has been discharged from him. A stick insect, angular and lurching, is inching its way up a leafless bush in front of him. It looks so much like the dry brown stem, trapezoiding along it up to the sun, that it almost isn’t there.
What are you climbing for? What do you think you’ll find there? It only comes to an end. He reaches toward it, thinking to . . . What? To take it down? To hold it. Cradle it in his hand. His hand hovers before it, climbing to emptiness, reaching into the light.
I had better be getting on, he thinks. There are things to do. I’m not sure. Ought to make my way back. It’s hot. The truck is cool inside. That’s nice to think of.
He edges himself over, feeling carefully with his feet. There’s a dull ache coming from somewhere, and a burning sharpness, too. He can’t place it, but he’ll see to it later. He figures he must have tripped somewhere. Bumped into something.
It’s slow going, and he’s having trouble with his arm, and maybe his leg, too, but gradually he works his way down. He chuckles to himself. How did I ever get up there?
Feeling the ground levelling under him, he gets his feet
planted and rolls over to rest his back, and sighs. There’s a
dead tree in front of him, crystal in the light and branching up to
the heavens, and standing beside it, shimmering tall and muscled and
powerful, a bright silver ring cresting its snout, is the most beautiful
buck he has ever seen. As he watches, it rises to its hind legs, towering
above him, its bright crown piercing the white sky. He sees now that
it is injured, a wound in its thigh, another in its shoulder, and he
wonders for a moment if he should help it. Without taking its eye from
him, the buck reaches down to take up a stick leaning at the base of
the tree. Holding it aloft with its forelegs, it rotates the stick,
and places the shining end against its heart, the wooden end out toward
him, and it reaches down the length of it, its empty eye on him, and
presses its hoof against the trigger.
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