It was his forest. He knew it would be too late to see half worth a damn, but he didn't care.
"Fuck it," he grunted with a grin as he swung the pickup truck gate closed. He stuffed his hat down over his eyes, swung the rifle over his shoulder, turned and started walking. He carried a Winchester Model 70 but in the rather ridiculously big, hot-ass 7mm Remington Magnum caliber. Enough gun to shoot a goddamn rhino, or an elephant or maybe one of those chupacabras they were always talking about down South. It was way more than he needed for deer in any case but he loved the rifle and it was what he felt like carrying tonight. Twenty steps from the truck he was consumed by his forest, by its not-quite darkness, it's moist, sweet air and the crackling colours of fall. The maples and oaks in this area were positively ablaze this second week of October, looking for all the world like Hollywood's best simulacrum of a Canadian autumn evening but he hardly noticed. He walked at a quick pace, head slightly down, focused on the path in front of him, his breath coming hard in his chest, a boyish smile starting to spread over his ruddy features. He quickly found his rhythm, swinging his left arm, his right clutching the rifle to his side, all eight pounds of wood and steel, five stupidly high-velocity 7mm Remington Magnum rounds slickly clicked into the magazine.
It was his dream rifle, the best he could afford considering he was so close to retirement, so close now that he could feel it, all of 7 months away.
"Seven months," he grunted again, almost giggled, as he walked. "Seven months." He had been keeping a running count, announcing the time left to that glorious moment to himself several times a day. Sometimes he said it loudly when no one was around, and now was an appropriate time, he felt.
"SEVEN MONTHS!" he yelled to the forest and anyone who was listening, and let out a cackle. Goddamn if he wasn't happy. Seven months to go in that grey and damp world of pipe fitting and steam coupling, of "industrial wet work" as he called it, making it sound more glamourous than it could ever hope to be. He had spent forty years working for Kleen-Flo Pipe Fitting, starting as an apprentice fresh out of school, working his way through that four or so years of shit talk and abuse, developing the stiff upper lip and strong back that had served him so well afterwards. Then on as a journeyman, working, always working, never slacking off, never calling in after a night of too much whiskey, Wild Turkey his favourite, Crazy Chicken his buddies called it. He liked his Crazy Chicken, but he liked keeping control over that particular urge even more. Never really understood why it felt good to have a couple drinks on Friday with the boys but why it felt so much better to stop after three, holding up his hand, covering his glass with it and rolling out his usual line. "That shit will kill you slowly," he would say, "and there' are too many goddamn deer I'm gonna kill first." And then he would stick around a little longer after that, but not too long, because there was always something to do back home to keep him occupied. Reading the latest Field and Stream was a favourite, as was stripping, cleaning and polishing his collection of rifles. He had several, and they were pristine, as were most things he owned, his house, his truck. An old Silverado, it had served him well and he could certainly justify a newer one, God, the incentives made it so easy, he knew, but the last thing he wanted to do was get stuck into one of those goddamn four-year loans that would start off feeling easy-breezy but before you knew it those payments were starting to yank on you like the world's heaviest boat anchor and you started to look at that gleaming new truck in the driveway like maybe you wanted it to just drive itself away and take its loan payments with it.
No thanks, he thought to himself again. I'll keep the old rust bucket for another season I guess, be pretty stupid to get rid of her now, eh?
He had fallen into his steady but brisk pace, same one he always used when going to the hide this time of year, every day when he could, all season long, as long as it was legal, and who knew how much goddamn longer it would before the clowns running the country decided it would hurt the deer's feelings to shoot them in the fucking shoulder and kill them? How long before Ontario Friends of the Deer or some such granola-eating long-haired types decided that he and everyone like him was a Neanderthal or worse, all hunting-crazy and outdated, tearing a swath through nature's bounty every season? Who could ever explain to them that mammy nature never seemed to figure out the whole deer over-population thing, and just kept making them and making them in ever-greater numbers, so that he could come out here and shoot them whenever he felt like it, whenever it was deemed legal by the goddamn liberal city types? Would they listen if he explained that he cleaned them, left the offal for the scavengers, dragged them back to the truck, and used so much of those deer to make jerky and venison steaks and sausage, so much that he ended up giving most of it away because there's only so much goddamn deer meat you can eat? Sure, he ate it but it wasn't the eating that got him out here. It was the shooting. Oh, was it ever the shooting. Too bad this year he had so little time to what he loved so much. He was positively drooling with expectation.
"Gonna shoot me a deer if I can see one," he announced to his forest. He spat, scrunched the hat down lower, and kept moving, intent on making the hide before too long, before it got too dark, before he couldn't set up a good shot with what little light he had. Should have a good moon anyways tonight, if he recalled. He had heard that on the radio on the way out here, after a human-interest story and interview with a farmer just south of Trout Creek complaining about missing goats. The goats were gone when he got up, he had said, all six of them and he didn't find it terribly funny and maybe the idiot dope-smoking students from down at Trent University could please bring them back? He had spun the dial off after that bit and thought about the clear night and moon light. Maybe do a little night shooting, hell, he didn't mind. He hadn't planned on coming out today, so tired after these extra hours at the shop but coming off work the air had just felt so good on the edge of the city, the light looked so inviting, the leaves so sweet and crisp he just knew he'd be in a pisser the rest of the evening if he didn't at least try to come out and see what he could see. A man only gets so many perfect days like today, he thought, and I'll be goddamned if I'm gonna miss out on it. And so he had come out, glad he had as soon as he cleared the last of the outskirts of the town, so glad to be out here again for the first time in a while, even if it was a last-minute decision, his lethargy shaken off and replaced with a good old-fashioned Canadian buck fever.
This is all I'm ever gonna do he thought to himself for what must have been the millionth time. Gonna retire in SEVEN MONTHS and this'll be it. Deer hunting in the fall and spring, ice fishing in the winter and maybe tooling around in the GTO in the summer. Cruise nights, burger joints, maybe get myself a girlfriend even, yeah, that's not a bad idea. Stop by and see that nephew of mine too, that'd be good, but mostly deer hunting. Oh, I am gonna shoot myself so many deer, it ain't even funny.
He walked deeper into the darkening woods, which just an hour ago had been so full of northern green, gold and yellow, burning orange and razor-sharp reds, the falling sunlight picking its way through the colour spectrum up top now but hardly penetrating through the branches that grew so close together down here, throwing the path into a kind of gloomy half-dusk as he moved briskly along. His thoughts moved back to his work, all those years as a journeyman, then working his way up to lead hand, boy he had been so proud, lead hand, a nice raise, his own van and tool set, way better than the Korean crap he had used as an apprentice. Then more work, more sweat, never slacking, never calling in, just a couple glasses of that Crazy Chicken, not even a lot of beer on the couch, just keeping his eye on the prize, staying reasonably fit and trim, keeping it between the lines, setting up the big goal. Then supervisor, then manager, now twenty-four beneath him and not many above him, better money, more work, more rifles, more in the bank and that dream of happy old man-ness so much closer. He had watched friends at work get distracted, chasing cars, wasting thousands on restoring old muscle that wasn't worth shit when they were done, or the girl-crazy ones, so busy chasing ass they couldn't keep the house in order and everything came crashing down around them again and again, boys so intent on fucking everything up for themselves that their lives became some sort of walking, full-colour advertisement for bad decisions. No thanks, he thought to himself yet again. A retirement of kicking back, a retirement of shooting rifles at little furry things, that's what he had been working so hard for. And here he was, seven months off, so close he could taste it, shit, so close he could swish it around in his mouth, and then it was deer, deer and more deer.
"Gonna shoot me a deer," he huffed.
There were no deer.
That's when it hit him for the first time, a sense of something just slightly off. He stopped on the path. He raised his head, pulled his hat back, controlled his breathing, looked around, the fading light struggling to weakly illuminate the forest he knew so well. He had walked this path hundreds of times over the last few years and he finally realized what was bugging him about what he was seeing. Or, to be just a little more precise, what he wasn't seeing.
Deer shit, he thought.
Where was the deer shit? Place should be covered in deer shit. Deer everywhere this time of the year. Even this close to where he always left his old Silverado, the keys thrown behind the front driver's-side tire. So much deer shit on the path to the hide you could tell the general health of the deer population and what they were eating this year an hour before you saw your first one, eye squinted up to the scope, finger hovering on the safety, ready to squeeze one off.
"Ain't no deer shit," he said aloud and looked around again. He slowly turned in a full circle, peering at the ground around him. He thought about the last time he had been out here, much too long ago for his taste, thank you very much, and remembered there had been plenty then. But that had been weeks ago. Hell, that had been back in August, out of season, hadn't been out here since then and how did he get his priorities so screwed up? But no, this time, and for the first time he could remember in the fourteen years walking this path in hunting season, no deer shit.
"Hmmphh," he grunted again, thinking. He was not a stupid man, and this particular phenomenon struck him as a little unsettling. For some reason, something he couldn't quite explain to himself, he suddenly felt like walking right back to the truck. Why don't I feel so good? he asked himself.
He looked back where he had come. Truck wasn't too far. Maybe a quick five-minute jog, ten if he walked it. He looked up the path towards the hide. Five minutes that way. Clearer up there, a little out of the woods and on the edge of a clearing, which of course was why he had picked that site for the deer hide which had served him so well over the years.
Now should I amble on back to the truck, drive home, knock back a few glasses of the Crazy Chicken and come back another day or should I just push on to that hide and see if I can't find some sign up closer to my usual spot? he wondered. Didn't feel good right now. Couldn't say exactly why. Just didn't feel so good. He had spent so much time in the woods that he was so tuned-in, so good at picking up on the signs and spawn that help a good hunter become a great one and right now his outdoorsy-type sense was telling him something was just a little, well, a little different. He was feeling a little tingly vibe in his gut, a little low-frequency vibe, like the kind you got as a kid when you messed around with an electric train set and when you fired her up that smell of ozone filled the room and you grabbed a couple of contacts that were a bit wonky and you could feel a little buzz, just a touch of something much stronger lurking below, like to shock you but good if you weren't careful with those insulators on those old things. It was just a little tingly feeling, but it was there, and he wasn't a stupid man, no sir, and he didn't like to run a lot of risks and he didn't like how he was feeling.
He waited a few moments longer on the path, the flat autumn light receding faster now, the shadows filling up the space between the ferns and the ground, his feet now in darkness, his shins, almost his knees. Truck or deer hide?
"Screw it," he said, a little softly because now he had this crazy idea that he should lower his voice just a little bit, why did he feel like that exactly? and decided to go out to the hide and set up anyways, see what he could see in the fading light. Could he see enough to hit anything moving that far out, two, three hundred meters out? But still he hesitated, something playing on the edge of his senses, something just a little odd going on here.
Bear, he thought to himself. Bear have moved in, that's it. Food got a little too scarce up near Powassan this year and they're nailing deer down here, that's all. Happens every once in a while. Sometimes they get a little too hooked on deer and before long they're following them east into Algonquin and the city types get all riled up and scared because they've never been face to face with a goddamn bear before and they piss in their satin panties and go home early. Keep sandwiches in your tent, you'll eventually get a bear to snuggle up with at night. A good story to tell the kids in the minivan on the way to soccer practice, he thought, looking towards the deer hide. Yet he didn't move. Not yet anyways.
Bear, he told himself again. You've been picking up on bear for the last couple of minutes without realizing it and that's why you're spooked. He cocked his face to the left, feeling for breeze, finding none. Did he smell anything different? What does bear smell like anyways? Was there something he was smelling, maybe bugging him a little in the back part of his mind? Not much, just something on the edge of his ability but he couldn't quite place it. Yeah, something. Now what was that smell?
He closed his eyes, concentrated, willed himself to focus only on what his nose could tell him, attuned so closely to this forest, this little stretch south of Powassan and closer to Trout Creek, this little area of crown land he liked to call his, never another soul ever seen in this area near his deer hide and what was he smelling?
"The fuck is that?" he asked too loudly, startled by how strident his voice sounded. He realized he was picking up something, a little something that stank like maybe, well, just a little bit like deer carcass, the kind you occasionally find destroyed by coyotes or wolves or...
...bear, he thought again. I'm smelling a dumb old deer that got nailed good and proper by a bear. There's no deer shit here because the bear been rolling through here like it's one of them goddamn Chinese all-you-can-eat buffets, there's no people around and those dumb-ass deer are at least smart enough to stay the hell away from hungry bears trolling for food because all the development a few clicks up at Trout Creek and again at Powassan are coming in near the creek and that goddamn bridge that spans it is driving the deer down here to cross and those furry black bastards are just eating 'em up left and right down here and over in Algonquin and I'm not gonna be able shoot anything tonight because there's no shit here at all which means there's no deer here and that is really...
He stopped abruptly. Another piece clicked in his mind and it made him just a little more unsettled still. There was no deer here because there was no deer shit here. OK, that's fine, and there you have it. But if the bear had cleaned out the deer, then where was all the bear shit? He wasn't sure, but he didn't think a bear could eat a deer without leaving some kind of horrific pile of ground-up Bambi-shaped shit behind. Hadn't seen anything though.
He swallowed a dry click, and took a few cautious steps up the path towards the hide, conscious now of just how little light was illuminating the way. He changed his stride to a quiet, low-pass of his feet over leaves and twigs, slowly placing the heel down first, then rolling ever so slowly the ball of the foot down, moving the crunchy stuff out of the way with the toes of the boot before settling his considerable weight down at each step. Don't want to surprise no bear, he thought to himself. He moved a good fifty feet this way, eyes moving back and forth, soaking up the details of his surroundings, swivelling left and right, down and then farther up the trail, or what little of it he could see at this point, god damn it and where exactly did the sun go now that he needed it? He was sweating now, in spite of the cool, autumn air this far up in Ontario in mid October. Night was falling, it was getting chilly, and he was sweating.
He stopped because there was something ahead of him on the path. He looked and he couldn't understand what he was looking at. What the hell, he thought and then, well that just can't be.
His curiosity drew him forward, slowly, the image slowly assembling itself out of the shadow and the fading light and he couldn't be sure until he was almost on top of it, all greys and whites and yellows, looking so out of place.
It was a goat. Except it wasn't either. What it was, to be precise, was the head of a goat. And just below the head was a stump and some blood and that was it.
He was quiet, staring at the odd spectacle for almost a full minute before the next logical thought came to him. Where the hell is the rest of it?
And that's when he heard it. A kind of snort, the sound a bear might make when it's eating and suddenly notices an interloper shuffling too close to its prize. He jerked his head up again, sweat beading at his upper lip.
"Big goddamn bear," he whispered, scared now. Sounded like a big goddamn bear, or what he thought a bear would sound like if he were close to one and it were a little pissed and the bear weighed maybe eighteen hundred pounds and it was eating a goddamn goat. What was going on? He realized he wasn't exactly sure what he had heard, but it had a sort of nasal quality to it, a sort of wet huffing, a little explosion of air from something big. It sounded very close. He couldn't see it. Couldn't place the location either. Getting dark, something big is out there but he couldn't tell from in what direction other than sort of up the path and where was it? He had no urge to get too close to a black bear this time of the year when they were eating everything they could find and were aggressive and easily pissed. What kind of bear goes for goats? A hungry kind of bear, that's what kind and you don't want to run into a hungry bear out here at night. Or a grizzly.
He knew there couldn't possibly be grizzlies down here, not this far southeast but he suddenly realized that he needed to get that damn rifle off his shoulder and into his mitts where it could actually do him some good and he felt he was going to need it soon and that fact did not make him a happier man. He had come out here with a big smile on his face but now he felt about thirty seconds away from pissing all over his new Cabela camouflage hunting boots. Had paid too much for those too, same weekend he picked up his big-ball 7mm Magnum rhino-killing rifle. He slowly moved his right hand up the sling to where it attached to the barrel and pivoted the rifle off his right shoulder, grasping the walnut stock with his left, bringing the butt up close to his right shoulder but not into a firing position just yet.
Well maybe I'll just bag me a bear tonight and I don't particularly give a shit if it's in season or not. Who's gonna know?
He took a few more steps forward, the low-frequency buzz in his gut now turned up higher, not so much a buzz now as much as a rough jangling electric scraping, something he had never felt before when hunting, like someone had grabbed one of those old Variac voltage transformers, hooked it up to his guts and just gave the dial a good old spin to the right. He had never felt like this, his senses tingling, hell, more like on fire, attuned to everything around him. It was the most extreme hunting buzz he had ever experienced; an alertness he had never even imagined existed. But it was different this time, this intense. He couldn't explain why it was different, but it just was. Not in a good way either. He thought he'd be just fine if he never felt quite like this again. Then he got it.
Feel like it's the other way around this time, he thought. I'm not walking through my hunting ground.
I'm walking through someone else's.
He didn't want to go forward but he was so scared and he didn't want to go back either and he just wanted to shoot something real badly because it was so nice to be the big man with the big gun, shit, this 7mm Magnum round could knock anything onto its arse, no matter how big a bear and it would make him feel so good to just reassert his manhood a little by putting something bigger than him down from a hundred meters, down on the ground to twist and cry and roll in pain.
Then he saw it.
It was far off, still a good thirty meters up the path and slightly to the right, God, it was so hard to see it was getting so dark and it had its back to him, but it was a bear he was sure of it, it was huge, Grizzly, down here? he thought quickly, hunched over a carcass, it must have nailed something and it was sort of hovering over it, but it was moving in an odd way, sort of hunched over with its front legs bent back a little, its back curved, but something was wrong, it must be the...
It stood up suddenly and turned slightly and in the darkness he saw it in profile and understood in that moment that it wasn't a bear, it couldn't be, it was too tall, too distorted, it's face and jaw and teeth too big, too white, too pulled out in front, like something had squeezed its features forward, its claws too long and twisted, and then it turned more until it was facing him with its yellow eyes and he felt his bowels loosen, his mouth open to scream and his heart hammer once, hard, and then stop.
He fell on one side and with the last of his sight as his eyelids grew slack he saw the moon, so yellow, hanging like a rotten, grinning pumpkin above the trees and he heard the sound of its breath and its heavy tread as it moved towards him and he knew he would die now, here, in the dark.
In his forest.