For four years he had hunted deer without success, if success is measured in dead deer. The family had almost stopped worrying that he might bring one home.

He had come to love deer hunting because of the other things it brought him. He had made new friends and unmade some old prejudices about hunters. He had become intimately familiar with several large tracts of woodland and many of the creatures that live in them: foxes, turkeys, grouse, quail, woods and field mice, raccoons, a bobcat, squirrels, rabbits, a bear, turtles, skinks and salamanders. He had added two dozen birds to his life list.

And he had learned about deer. How to read the ground to guess where they would pass; how to stalk them; what they eat, and when, and how. He had heard hundreds of them pass or flee, had seen scores, had watched dozens, studied a handful, played with a few, moving slowly and quietly and drifting up on them until they became as unconcerned, almost, as grazing cows.

But since his second time out he had not shot at one, because that time he'd lost his head and shot badly and wounded a buck and never found him, and the thought of that made him sick and shaky every time he found another deer in his sights. There was always a reason not to shoot: too far, too nuch brush in the way, ppr light...

Now it was morning on a mountain and he was overlooking a woods road when a fourpoint buck materialized below him with the fluid suddenness that always is surprising. The buck was 100 yards away, moving slowly and stopping every few steps to look and listen and sniff the air, turning to one side and then the other. It was a perfect shot, the first such chance the hunter had had since the time he had butchered the buck four years before.

In his hands the hunter held a nearly perfect weapon for the purpose: a well-made rifle with an excellent scope, meticulously sighted in; shells with powder and bullets selected and hand-loaded by a physicist friend whose weekend passion it is to craft guns that shoot better than any shooter can. The hunter knew where the bullet would and should strike and what it would do, and that only gross error on his part could prevent the deer from falling dead instantly.

But he waited. The buck was moving toward him, closing the range. The shot could only get better. And there was something else that made him stretch the moment out, tension and emotion made up of a sense of having the animal in his power, of being master of this wild and beautiful creature, the perhaps-dark and certainly primitive urge of Man the Hunter contending with a learned reluctance to consummate the act.

Minutes passed, and the buck moved so close he more than filled the sights. The hunter did not tremble, he was breathing regularly, the scope did not waver. Still he did not shoot, and finally the buck turned aside into the brush, following the trail the hunter thought he would follow.

For two days he hunted hard and wondered why he had let the buck go. Wondered if he was in fact hunting . Heard some deer and glimpsed a couple, neither of them reasonable shots.

Before first light on the final day of the season he was sitting on a boulder in the center of a wooded swale, said by the land-owner to be the choicest spot on the mountain. In the dark he beard deer pass, and at dawn be heard and then saw half a dozen passing through brush below him, nipping at honeysuckle, nuzzling for acorns, wagging their tails.

He tracked several through the sight, but the brush was so dense he never took the safety off. An hour after the herd wandered off he saw a doe and a yearling below. He was surprised to find himself actually considering a shot that was marginal, and not thinking about the wounded buck. They, too, stuck to the brush and went away.

He decided to move to another rock a couple of hundred feet farther downslope, taking a few steps through the crackling leaves and then waiting a few minutes to listen. Before he was halfway to the new position a doe and a button buck moved into view 85 yards away. Something, perhaps the scent of another hunter downwind, started them running -- not the leaping bounds of panicked deer but the rhythmic trot they use to clear an area that smells suspicious.

As they passed from right to left the hunter looded ahead to an opening they would cross. He wanted the button buck, but it was all but concealed by a fold of groung, and he switched to the doe, aiming high and ahead to kill or miss, and fired, and killed.