They came across the buck almost by accident.

Jonathan had thought it unlikely they'd bring anything home. He wasn't exactly what you'd call a hunting man. He went on a hunting trip if invited, but well, he had a farm to run. He couldn't take time off to go scouting and the like, and money earned was better spent on repairs and equipment than the latest hunting gadgets. But he'd bagged a buck or two in the day, and it was sort of a rite of passage. So, as soon as firearms season opened up, Jonathan bought a permit and a couple of hunter orange vests and hauled thirteen-year old Clark out to Bill Riley's property (he was a hunter himself, and didn't begrudge a man a buck so long as he knew about it) with a gun, a pair of binoculars, and a few sharp knives.

The drive was mostly long stretches of nervous silence interspersed with excited chatter. Jonathan tried to tell him they probably wouldn't bag anything, but he could tell Clark wasn't listening. Hunting wasn't about bringing home a trophy, though. It was about discipline. Patience. Spending some time with your son.

Dawn in early December, snow on the ground. Their breath froze in little clouds in the air, and the trees were stark and black against the white and silver world. It was after rutting season, and the deer had gone back to their old habits. Trails were easy to spot in the snow, as well as bedding spots. He pointed them out silently as they went, staying downwind, three steps and pause, look and listen and glass. Move like an animal, he'd said to Clark. Deer don't glide through the woods; they stop and listen and look, just like we are. Clark nodded, all senses strained, clutching the gun with gloved hands. The day crawled on, the sun lumbering higher into the sky. No deer.

You don't spot a whole deer when still-hunting. It's an antler tip glistening in the sun, the flick of a tail, the twitch of an ear. Jonathan hadn't really expected to find a deer; they were too inexperienced, the deer too wily. Clark spotted him first and alerted Jonathan with a touch to his elbow. He was about seventy yards away, already bedded down for the day, almost completely concealed in a thicket. Big fella, maybe an eight pointer, with a thick gray winter coat. It was hard to believe. This sort of thing didn't happen on your first hunt.

Jonathan knew about buck fever, of course; it happened to everyone. You get all wound up, dreaming about the big moment, and when it came you shook all over and couldn't do it, dropped the gun or whatever, and just stared as the buck walked away. He expected it to happen to Clark, his first time out, had a speech ready and everything. But the boy just brought the gun up, nice and slow, and squeezed off a shot. The buck jumped almost straight up into the air and bolted.

Clark made as if to go after him, but Jonathan held out an arm.

"Wait," Jonathan said. Dark blood glistened into the snow. "He ain't going far."

Clark just gave Jonathan the kind of look that said a deer was out there suffering, and hell if he was going to wait around. This was the part where he was Martha's son.

The buck's trail was easy to follow. They found him about 250 yards out, bedded in the snow with his eyes glazed over and his tongue sticking out, still bleeding sluggishly from a perfect shot through the lungs. It was amazing, instruction manual-perfect.

"Hang on," Jonathan warned before Clark could start forward. "He might not be dead." He took a step out, ready to prod the buck in the rump with the gun.

Clark rolled his eyes and brushed past him. "He's dead, Dad."

Jonathan checked anyway, taking the gun and prodding the deer in the rump and then in the head. He was dead, so Jonathan had Clark tag the ear and called Bill Riley for help with the cleaning. They'd eat venison for a few days, maybe a few weeks, unless they could give some of this meat away. Clark squatted on his haunches a few feet away, the gun in his lap.

"I didn't think I'd like that," Clark admitted after Jonathan hung up. Old Bill'd been ecstatic that Clark had bagged a buck on his first time out and said he'd be there in a few minutes.

"Didja?" asked Jonathan.

Clark didn't answer, just looked at the buck. Deer were always bigger close up. This one was still pretty heavy, considering it was post rut and that was when most of the males got thin and strung out, and some of them didn't make it through the winter.

"You were great, son," Jonathan said as he awkwardly squatted down next to Clark. He gave a little chuckle. "Just like a pro. Like you'd been doing this for years."

"Yeah," said Clark. "It was pretty weird. I just. . . I knew exactly what to do. I didn't like it," he added, after a brief pause.

"Clark, I--" Jonathan began.

Clark shook his head. "No, it's okay. I just. . . don't like knowing how to kill things." He looked up at Jonathan and gave him a brief, wan smile. "You said we're supposed to protect the weak, Dad. Help those who can't help themselves."

"It's complicated, son," Jonathan said at last.

"Are we going to go hunting again?"

"No," said Jonathan. "Not if you don't want to."


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