Friday, December 9, 2011

The Blood Trail - A Short Story

Authors note - Sometimes I daydream a story and then write it down. Usually these stories are action packed and implausible. I rarely show them to anyone. I have no aspirations of being an author, even if I did I do not have the talent to become one. My latest story was about hunting, so I though some of you might get a kick out of it. Please be nice.

Thick, black smoke hung low in the still air. Its wispy tendrils wrapped around low hanging branches and clung to brush. The sulfur stench it emanated stood in stark contrast to the clean natural smell of pine and snow. An unnatural quietness enveloped the woods. It was as if nature itself was holding its breath. A distant roar could be heard, an echo of death announcing itself. Everything alive within a mile stood stone still, contemplating the danger.

The hunter also stood still, waiting for his ears to stop ringing and the smoke to clear. Unlike the wildlife around him, he had to force himself to stand still. His excitement screamed for him to run and see if his aim was true. The mule deer was not huge like those he read about in the various hunting magazines, but it was large bodied and well earned.

He slowly counted to one thousand and then carefully approached the area where the deer was standing. There was little doubt that the deer was hit, 75 yards with a modern muzzleloader is not an issue. There is always the question of how well it was hit. Just a few inches can mean the difference between an instant death and a long blood trail.

The impact sight revealed mixed sign. Impact and exit wound splatter was clearly seen. The blood trail was easily discernible on the snow, but there was not much. It looked like a single lung shot. The buck was quartering towards, so the bullet must have impacted a little too far back. Not that it mattered; the hunter could track this deer in the snow all day. He pulled out his GPS and marked the impact sight, and then he checked his cell phone. No bars here. When he got to the top of the next ridge he would text his wife back at camp.

After reloading his gun and checking his gear he waited another half hour before starting to track. There was no way of knowing when the deer would bleed out. It probably died within minutes, but there was no point in rushing things.  Sundown was in an hour. Finding the deer before nightfall would be nice, but with the fresh blanket of snow tracking after dark would not be difficult.

The deer ran downhill a couple hundred yards into a shallow gully. From a distance its tracks could be seen entering a thick stand of pine saplings.  The hunter carefully made his way to the saplings, stooping low to make it into their midst. He knew that his quarry probably fell in this enclosed space. In the center of the sapling thicket was a small stand of larger pines. It was more open under these pines and it was here that the buck lay.

The hunter cautiously approached. He took a branch and touched the deer’s eye. No movement. Dead.

As the hunter admired his trophy he noticed something weird. Snow had not made it past the branches of the pines in this area, but it appeared that the deer had been dragged a few yards. With a start the hunter realized the danger and shouldered his rifle, trying to look in all directions at once.

There are only three animals in this area with the desire and ability to drag a deer of this size; a bear, cougar, or wolf. Each posed a real danger to the hunter, especially in this now claustrophobic stand of pines. The predator must have found the down deer shortly before or after it expired. Thinking it had found a free fresh meal it began to drag the deer away, until the hunter disrupted it.

Even at noon it would have been dark under the thick canopy of pines, now that the sun was setting there were many shadows and black holes that something could hide in. It was from one of these shadows that an evil sounding growl emanated. Although he had never heard such a growl in the wild, it was unmistakable.  A cougar was somewhere close. Not only was it close, it seemed willing to defend its meal.

As the fierce animal slowly materialized out of the shadows the hunter’s mind raced. The cougar appeared gaunt, as if near starvation. It was not uncommon to see lions in the town nearby. Some pets had even disappeared. They seemed to be less and less afraid of humans every year. Few people hunted them anymore and the land could not support their numbers.

It is in moments like this that a truly good hunter is distinguished from the average outdoorsman. A hunter has to make complex decisions in a fraction of a second. Many questions have to be answered very quickly. Is the animal in season? Yes. Do I have a tag? Yes. Is it safe to take a shot? Yes. Do I have a clean shot? Yes. These and other questions have to be answered in a blink of an eye, or his opportunity is missed.

The hunter’s new quarry was close, the distance would be measured in feet, not yards. His scope was no good closer than ten yards and he only had one shot. What would happen if he missed? Would the lion run, or be angered? He did not aim his rifle; he pointed it much like he would a shotgun. The explosion of sound, sparks, and smoke was followed by a scream.

The cougar bolted through the thicket with a crash, hitting every sapling it came across. Then silence.

It was dark now. He took out his headlamp and turned it on. His GPS put him a quarter mile from his ATV. The ATV was two miles from his truck. His truck was 11 miles from camp. No matter what he chose, it was going to be a long night. He checked his cell again. No bars.

The hunter had always dreamed of killing a cougar. He did not own dogs and could not afford a guided hunt, so he simple purchased a cougar tag each year, hoping to stumble upon one. This was his opportunity. Possibly the only opportunity he would ever have. This is why he decided to track the lion first. It was simply too valuable of a trophy to loose.

He marked the deer on his GPS and exited the thicket, following the cougar’s path. While he was under the brush it had started to snow. This was not good. A light snow would cover the blood. Not a big deal, as the tracks were still visible. However, the snow would also seriously limit how far the hunter could see. The beam from his headlamp bounced off each flake, making the maximum visibility about fifteen yards and disorienting him. He would have to rely on his GPS. Also, in the quietness of the woods falling snow is quite loud. It covers the sound of footsteps and movement. Falling snow effectively muffles a hunter’s two greatest senses, sight and hearing.

It was getting cold and a wind was beginning to blow. The trail led down the ravine a short distance and then cut across towards a steep embankment. The tracking was painfully slow. Without the benefit of bright red blood on the white snow, the hunter had to rely on basic tracking. He did find the occasional blood speck, telling him he was on the right track.

When mountain lions are wounded they usually run up. That is exactly what this one did. Straight up the steep embankment. The hunter foolishly tried to follow, only to lose his footing and slide down to the base. He would have to go around.

The adrenalin was beginning to wear off and exhaustion was beginning to find cracks in the hunters mind. Was this really worth it? When he first encountered the lion he did not have time to be afraid, he only had time to act. Now that he had time to think of the danger, fear was taking hold. He imagined footsteps behind and around him. He even imagined seeing eyes flash in the distance, just outside the beam of his lamp.  Just the falling snow. A grouse took off from a tree above him, rudely roused from sleep. This made the hunter cry out, startled.

He sat down and rested for a moment, eating his last energy bar and drinking some water.  Then, he pressed on. He had made his decision to follow this cougar; there would be no turning back.

Revitalized, the hunter found the cougar’s trail again at the top of the embankment. The lion exhausted itself in the climb and was now dragging one of its front legs. It was close. He took out his phone. There should be a signal here. Yes, there was. Not strong enough for a call, but a text would probably get through. He sent his wife his GPS location and told her he would be very late, might even have to spend the night in the woods. He had done it before.

Now that he was getting close, paranoia was setting in. He kept thinking he heard something behind, then in front, then behind him again. What if the lion was still alive? Was it behind that tree waiting?  He knew he had the gun and the advantage, but this was dangerous. What was he thinking?

His light fell upon a brown clump, lightly dusted with snow.

Cautious, very cautious. The hunter slowly edged up to the clump. He pulled back the hammer of his rifle and kept it shouldered. After he closed to within five yards he took off his pack and tossed it at the pile of fir. The pack hit it square. No movement. Slow, even steps. He nudged it with the barrel of his gun. No movement. Finally, he stooped down and grabbed the lion’s tail, dragging it out into the open. It appeared that the cougar had climbed a tree, died, and fell to the ground.

The rush of relief was overwhelming. The cat was beautiful, a true trophy. The successful hunter admired his kill for several moments. It stopped snowing. The woods fell silent. Eerie after the soft noise of falling snow.

A soft patter approached the hunter. Jolting out of his euphoria, the hunter looked up. He hadn’t been imagining the noises! A lone black wolf walked into the beam of his headlamp. The hunter quickly shouldered his rifle and pulled the trigger. Nothing. In the excitement of shooting the lion he had forgotten to reload! The wolf raised its lips and let out a low growl. The hunter grabbed a speed loader and poured powder down the barrel of his muzzleloader while screaming at the wolf.

 Another appeared to the right of the large black wolf and then another at its left. Powder, then bullet. The hunter rammed it down with all of his might. Yelling and cursing at the predators, his fear was out of control. He pulled out the ramrod and dropped it to the ground. The three ultra-predators approached.

As the hunter fumbled for a primer he heard a piercing howl behind him. He looked over his shoulder. “Aww, crap!”

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