The rhythmic sound of hooves on damp earth roused the hunter, and he peered from his sleeping bag to see a deer trotting down the mountain toward him, softly detailed and silver-painted by the light of a poacher's moon.
Fifty feet away the buck stopped, tossing his heavy head and sniffing the air for clues to the object in the path before him. The hunter reached for his empty rifle and gradually raised it. In the telescopic sight the animal stood clear as in sunlight, ears and tail twitching, shoulder muscles rippling as it shifted weight from one front hoof to the other.
The moist night air, drifting downslope, filled the hunter's nostrils with the rich rank odor of the buck's rutting glands; perhaps anticipation of mating with the does feeding in the Shenandoah Valley meadows had made the buck momentarily unmindful of the dangers of traveling downwind.
After a few long minutes he began to back up, the only clumsy motion a deer can make, and then turned and trotted into shadowry underbrush, his head ereect and motionless above the bobbing body as if he were balancing a bowl of water in the great upcurving basket of his antlers.
The hunter drifted back to sleep musing on the rules by which men ritualize killing for sport.
By 5 a.m. the moon was down and clouds had closed off the sky. Making his way toward the top of the ridge, armed with a rifle, knowing for a certainty that no dangerous creature but himself was within several miles, the hunter was vaguely frightened. It was part, he thought, of what had brought him there, a mood and a need generated by brain tissues formed in a time when men hunted and were hunted in desperate necessity rather than in search of aesthetics and something to write about. He had rationalized himself almost to tranquility when a black shape, really a black suggestion of shape and movement against a less-black background, appeared in the path.
He raised the empty rifle reflexively and stood there shaking until the reek of mercaptan revealed the night-shape as a skunk going about its lawful occasions.
Moving up the mountain at the still-hunter's pace - three steps and pause, three steps and pause - his movements almost noiseless in the damp leaves, he sensed the close passage of an owl behind him.He heard the tiny, almost subliminal scream of the bird's prey -a white-footed mouse, perhaps, or a meadow vole - but not the sound of the strike.
By first light the hunter had reached the saddle of the ridge where he had been told he would find deer sign. As he loaded it began to rain, which masked the sound of his passage through the light underbrush but would, he had been told, make the deer extra nervous and alert.
The hunter, a man of middle age and limited experience, was trying to use the least effective and most demanding method of hunting deer: solo stalking. It requires, a man he admires had told him, total concentration, alertness to all the sights, sounds and shapes around you, an ability to read terrain from the point of view of the animals who inhabit it, "and more patience than I thing you've got." If you simply want to kill deer, the man had said, use a tree stand or go with others and take turns driving the animals toward waiting guns. It is the difference between hunting and harvesting.
To the west of the saddle the ridge sloped away in a great curve, forming a natural amphitheater that focused the sound of the creek rushing below. Moving at the rate of a yard a minute and feeling hopelessly conspicuous in his fluorescent orange windbreaker, the hunter tried to think (react) like a deer. All the landscape was deer-colored and every bush and branch was antler-shaped. Every flicker of motion seemed deerlike until it became a chipmunk or a sapsucker or a squirrel.
Deer sign was abundant, or perhaps it was just that the hunter was paying closer attention than usual. There were tracks eveywhere, the same heart-shaped prints of does, the smaller and shallower prints of fawns of the year, and occasionally the heavy track of a buck. At least two bucks in fact, one apparently much heavier than the other, the sex shown in the softer ground by pairs of conical depressions where the points behind the heels had sunk in.
Here and there a sapling had been scraped barkless by antlers.On one of them a torn wood fiber sprang back into place as the hunter studied it. "Where you'll go wrong," he had been told, "is when you come on some really fresh sign; then you'll start hurrying."
He didn't hurry. Along the line of the tracks were freshly nibbled greenbriers and honeysuckle. In two places the earth had been torn up by probing antlers, as though rival bucks had faced each other at a dozen yards and dug the earth in threat displays.
The rain turned to sleet and then a flurry of hail that swept the woods like grapeshot, bring down leaves and branches and making the hunter cower against a tree.
Behind the hail came a cold wind that set him shivering. Unconsciously, he started moving faster, and turned his perceptions inward. As he was moving along the edge of a laurel thicket, a patch of overgrown deadfall 50 yards away erupted as a big doe, two or three nearly-grown fawns and a very large buck spooked at his careless approach.
"Boo!" the hunter shouted as he raised the rifle, and the animals froze for a moment. The branches of a pine obscured most of the buck's head and antlers as he stood quivering in the shoulder-high underbrush. His neck, the only reasonable killing shot, was overlapped in the crosshairs of the sight by the head of the doe.
After the deer had fled the hunter stood shaking, seeing in his mind's eye a picture of the buck in the open when it first leaped up, and realizing that he would have had an easy shot if he had been mentally prepared and had shouted sooner. "Can't go wool-gathering through the woods," he had been instructed. "Not if you want to do any deer-gathering."
He followed the trail for several hours, never breaking discipline again. Deer seldom run more than a hundred yards or so when spooked, and then ease along watching their backtrail. The hunter moved in long S curves, staying off the track but cutting across it now and then. Once or twice he got close, but flickers of white ahead told him he had been seen.
After an hour he realized the buck's tracks had disappeared, and he backtracted to the point where it had turned off to the left while the rest of the family went straight ahead, their trail so clear it almost seemed they were scuffing the ground to lure the hunter.
The buck's trail went up and over the ridge and back almost to to the point of beginning before the hunter lost it.When he thought to look at his watch he realized that four hours had passed since he first saw the deer.
Exhausted and trembling with cold and hunger, he sat under a tree and shivered and dozed. He dreamed of a deer moving toward him, and woke at a sound he realized was the click of hisrifle's safety lever.
Dusk came on. The hunter shucked the shells from the gun and made his way down the mountain in the rainy dark, musing affectionately on deer.