By Andrew Sharp
A light snow landed on the lazy noonday traffic in an eastern Pennsylvania town. The exhaust fumes from the few cars idling at the stoplights sometimes rose straight up and sometimes careened off down the valley as a fitful wind out of northwest did sprints through the streets.
The wet snow stuck to fences and fire hydrants. It tried to move into the roads but was only successful in coating them with a film of dingy brown slush, churned up by the passing traffic. A well-used pickup churned through the slush and turned off the main road through town, splashing up the road that led up the mountain.
As it passed out of town there was less traffic, and white specks quickly dotted the tire tracks. The truck passed fewer houses here, and the yards gave way to cow pastures. Now the tires kicked up powdery white snow.
Higher still, up on the mountain, the cow pastures petered out and surrendered to an unbroken forest, where the farmers had not thought it worth clearing the rugged, stony landscape. At the clear, undisturbed entrance to an old logging road, the truck swung off the highway and came to a stop. The man inside switched off the engine, and there was instant silence, except for the tiny impact of the heavily falling snow as it hit the windshield, then melted away.
The man got out, strapped a small pack to his back, pulled a warm orange cap over his head, and slung a smoothly worn .270 Winchester over his shoulder. The bluing on the barrel was rubbed away in spots from the thousands of times it had brushed against branches and wool hunting jackets, and the bolt worked smoothly and almost silently as he chambered a shell.
He was an accountant down in the town. But as he left a straight line of tracks on the logging trail, he walked away from the office and swung into the quiet, deliberate rhythm of the woods, a rhythm so slow that loud and ignorant outsiders frequently mistake it for silence. He had been much more comfortable here years ago, before he had gone to college and moved to town. His visits were much less frequent now, and it took some time to ease his mind out of the high speed traffic of thoughts and problem analysis that it was used to.
he logging road wound up over ridges and sometimes back down, but mostly up, for half a mile or so until the truck and the logging road were gone, as if they no longer existed. It was only the trees, lonely or inviting, depending on one’s frame of mind. The hunter stopped to catch his breath, rest his legs, and look at a set of tracks that meandered across the road and up the mountain. He grinned to himself. The heavy snow had barely dusted the fresh hoof prints, which were medium sized—a round fat doe or a decent sized buck. He concluded he might get some venison for his freezer after all, despite taking the chance of waiting until the last Saturday of deer season.
The woods seemed quiet and motionless as before, as if no living thing had moved through the trees and brush for days or weeks. This persistent appearance offers false comfort to those who fear its unknown depths, and maddening impatience for those who are looking for the motion of a game animal. But the hunter knew from many past hasty and false moves that it was a lie, that the trees hid all kinds of life and that it could appear at any moment, especially when he was not ready, puncturing the silence with a sudden flurry of activity, then fading away again. He knew that the deer was not far ahead of him, though many trees and a thicket stood between them.
The hunter eased into the thicket, following the tracks into an opening big enough for a deer, but not made for a man. Powdery snow slid off the rhododendron branches as he pushed them aside, carefully feeling for twigs with his boots. Raspberry stalks reached out and grasped at him as he moved along. He scanned the brush, but there was no movement and the only sound was a rapid, high pitched call as a pileated woodpecker whooshed high overhead, shouting to itself.
As he sneaked along the trail, his attention fastened on a flash of gray. His hand tightened instantly on the stock of his gun and his arm tensed, ready to throw up the barrel and squeeze the trigger. Seeing a bushy gray tail whisk down a thin green pine, he relaxed and laughed inside.
He watched as the little animal hopped through the snow away from him. Then it suddenly sat straight up, whirled and stared in his direction. He was confused. He hadn’t moved a muscle, yet the tiny creature had somehow sensed danger. Instead of jerking its tail and scolding like a squirrel usually would, it almost did a somersault turning around and raced with short rapid strides out of sight. Watching it run made some instinct in him almost want to take a shot and bring it down. But he watched it vanish without moving his gun.
He stepped on into a more open area filled with gray beech trunks. An icy breeze picked up behind him, then shifted directions and blew back downhill. Dry beech leaves rattled and branches tapped together coldly. He focused on the deer tracks in front of him. He knew he had to keep going; the dull gray snowy light was beginning to wane slightly as the afternoon peaked and drifted toward evening.
Working the trail carefully, he moved cautiously and slowly scanned the thick trees ahead, searching for any jump of movement, the flicker of an ear or tail, the outline of a deer’s back or a black nose among the branches.
The afternoon became elderly as the hunter threaded around cedar trees, picked his way over creeks, and scrabbled down a gully and up the other side. Up here on the mountain top, the stony, uneven ground was filled in and covered over with a gently rolling, fluffy white surface that told him little about what was underneath. More than once he lurched forward as his foot found a hole where it expected solid ground.
He saw no sign of the deer except its footprints. As he plowed through a wide thicket of thin beech saplings, he more than once snapped twigs and swished loudly against branches, expecting each time to find running tracks not far ahead. But the biting wind covered his sound, and the tracks stayed close together.
As he leaned on a big poplar and puffed his breath in clouds into the cold air, he didn’t see the deer walk into view up the ridge, but suddenly it was there, out in the open, flicking its ears back and forth and staring in the opposite direction. A longish shot. He quickly knelt down and steadied his aim on his knee, trying not to shake from the icy cold that was now seeping through his hands and feet. When the peep sight settled comfortably on the deer, he paused.
It swiveled its ears toward him and stared in his direction, then flipped its tail and began to paw the snow and nibble at the ground. The hunter felt the satisfaction of knowing he was unobserved, a motionless piece of the landscape. He rested his finger on the trigger and considered. It had no antlers, and wasn’t that big. He didn’t value antlers that highly, but he didn’t think this was the decent sized deer he was tracking. He would be happy enough with it, but there would be that feeling that he had been impatient, settling for the first deer he came across when a bigger one might be nearby. The deer glanced back his way, and suddenly became alert. Both ears strained toward him and the animal froze. The hunter narrowed his eyes in irritation. He had not moved a muscle, the wind was blowing in his face, and he had no idea why the deer suddenly was on high alert.
The animal bounded forward. As it did, the hunter instantly made up his mind, prompted by a strong instinct not to let prey escape. The rifle’s muzzle followed the brown form confidently as it bounced, with the familiarity of years of practice. The sight settled naturally and when it felt right, the hunter squeezed the trigger. The silence was blown away by a resonating boom that he barely heard, and the stock punched backward into his shoulder, a kick that he barely felt.
A ringing silence filled the cold air as the gunshot rolled away across the valley. The white tail continued to bounce away through the trees without faltering, then disappeared over the crest of the ridge. The hunter cursed quietly, but he was not that upset, only scolding himself for taking the shot at all.
He knew, however, that he might not have failed, or that even if he had, the deer might be wounded. So with an effort he pushed himself up out of his crouch and walked over to where the deer had stood. The snow was mixed with dark brown leaves where the deer had churned forward into a run. There were no red spots of blood or clumps of brown hair, and they should have been easy to spot in the blank whiteness. He sighed, then smiled, took off his hat, and ran his hand through his hair. Another one in a long list of deer that had gone on to eat another acorn after his errant shots.
To make sure he had truly missed, he strolled along the trail for a good hundred yards or so, never finding a trace of blood. Satisfied, he considered what to do. The light in the solid gray sky was beginning to dim and although he was not afraid of the dark, he knew that it was useless to start tracking again with so little time.
This was a good spot for deer though, with several trails of hoof prints cutting across the ridge in the new-fallen snow. It was worth sitting on a stump for the few minutes until dark to see what might happen by, if there were any deer that hadn’t been scared into the next valley by the shot.
He brushed the snow off the rough bark of a fallen oak and eased himself down. The woods was now deathly silent, except for the rising and falling sigh of the wind in the bare black branches. The dark trunks of the trees stood out sharply against the snow. Little caps of snow topped the brush and the scattered stumps.
Then behind his back, a blue jay began screaming. He couldn’t see it, but he could see nothing in that direction and assumed it was screaming at him.
He faced forward again, but a branch snapped behind him and he jerked around and saw a fox, running full out and low to the ground. It passed within a few feet of him with flattened ears and its tail bushed out. He looked right into its eyes as it flashed by but it took no interest in him whatsoever. Behind it was nothing, only the deepening murkiness among the beech trees.
An owl hooted over the hill and the outlines of the branches began to grow fuzzy and melt into the flat gray twilight. The hunter checked his sights, and finding that he had trouble seeing them, stood up to leave. He was bothered by the fox. He had heard no dogs barking or men shouting, but it had been clearly terrified. The woods seemed less friendly in the gloom and he had a sensation of being watched.
He shook his head at his imagination. He had more than a mile to go to his truck and he didn’t like the thought of making his way through all the ground he had covered with that cold prickly feeling on the back of his neck. He cleared his throat. The noise sounded loud in the dim trees. He clicked on his flashlight and the dusk immediately grew deeper outside the puddle of harsh light. As he marched along, flashing the light over the boot prints he had made on the way in, he tried to think about a warm truck, steaming coffee and his wife waiting with supper. She would smile and ask him if he had seen anything. He had a story to tell, at least.
His attention was jerked back to the blackening surroundings as his flashlight played over an unusual pattern in his tracks. He bent over to look closely at the small circle of brightly reflecting snow with sharp interest. In the center of his footprint was a deep impression that he had seen somewhere before. The cold prickle ran down his back and he almost choked as he realized that he had seen it before in his own yard, but it was much tinier there. It was the footprint of a cat.
His breath was quick now as he stared around into the shadows and he mentally cursed the heartbeat that thumped loudly in his ears. He knew he could see more if he turned off his light, but it seemed like his only security, a small dyke holding out the lapping waves of darkness. He didn’t want to leave it on, either—he couldn’t shake the image of two glowing eyes that forced its way into his imagination. Two glowing eyes that did not appear.
He looked down at the tracks again, to make sure they were actually there. They did not cross his tracks, but stayed with them, always in the thickest cover on one side or the other. Always following.
It was all wrong. The big mountain cats were long gone, all killed by the first settlers in the valley. But these tracks, twice as big as any bobcat, said it was a lie. Some might doubt, but he had seen too many tracks and he knew. He knew. He clutched the cold stock of his gun with sweating hands. There would be only a split second to react if…
Mountain lions rarely attack people, he knew. “Rarely” did nothing to shorten the long black mile to his truck, or the horrible sense that there in the dark, on the lonely mountain, a dark form was coiling to come hurtling out of the deep shadow.
He began to run.