The agreement started with Rid Bellows Sr. He owned the most plowable earth north of Caro, a 1400-acre tract whose western boundary snuggled up along the Cass River. He’d been the only farmer in the county to buy his own crop-duster and had flattened out a runway on his property. He got most of the other landowners around to side with him: there would be no harvesting of a whitetail deer unless it had antlers grown beyond the width of its ears. Levon Cutler was the first neighbor to agree, he was an Army man and drew a pension that could tide him over through the winters, he didn’t need to take smaller deer and shooting does went against his morals. Mark Sterling owned a farm further east, past the river. He had hosted an annual deer camp since 1982 and knew he could come up with some kind of competition between the men who dotted his 500 acres every November. Anyway, most of them didn’t come for the deer so much as they came for the absence of their families. The Southbys to the north didn’t hunt so Rid Sr. didn’t bother asking them. It was an agreement between men, he decided, and what kind of man didn’t hunt?
The last person Rid Sr. needed to speak to about this matter was Sandra McKinnon, Walter McKinnon’s widow. She owned a regrettable plot of woods on the opposite bank of the river, the side that eased its way down to the water unlike his side that sat a good fifteen feet above it. He knew Walter well enough, had hired him on as a farmhand for a few seasons. He worked hard, like he was auditioning for a permanent position. But that would have meant putting him on the payroll and it was easier to pay the man with an envelope of cash tucked in the back of his mailbox every week. That was years ago, though and now all that was left of Walter McKinnon was his obituary. A heart attack at forty-two, had fought with high blood pressure most his life. Rid Sr.’s wife had mentioned it to him one morning and he’d responded that the man had worked too hard, too quickly, and was left with little more than nothing to show for it. Some people, Rid Sr. believed, weren’t cut out for country living. He’d been tempted to buy the land years ago, before the McKinnon’s moved in, but he passed on the idea after he walked the property with the realtor. It was swamped out, in a constant state of sogginess and, by the gradualness in which it sloped towards the river, Rid Sr. knew it was flood hazard. The rinky-dink house on the property would have cost him more to keep livable than it would earn him to have rented it out. By most folks’ estimates, the land was worthless and he ignored it. When the big flood of 1986 came and busted the dam upriver and washed away a handful of homes on that side of the river, he knew he’d made a wise choice.
It was early November when he walked onto the McKinnon’s land. There had been a cold rain the night before and a mist hung around that morning. The trees were naked but the air still held onto the smell of wet fire pits used to burn leaves before the winter rains came. Rid Sr. thought the property smelled like soot and vinegar and was unused to land smelling like anything but grain dust and fertilizer. The same old house stood at the end of the long, packed dirt driveway and Rid Sr. had to give the McKinnon’s some credit for keeping the place upright. When he first saw the house, it looked more like a temporary ticket-taker shack put up outside a traveling circus, any slight breeze might have up and taken it away. Now, though, hunkered behind cedar bushes, with white hardwood smoke churning out of the chimney, it looked as if it couldn’t possibly be anywhere but on the front end of those small twenty acres. Rid Sr. knocked on the storm door and let himself into the breezeway.
“Hello? Ms. McKinnon, it’s Rid Sr.” He poked his head through the doorway leading into the kitchen.
Sandra McKinnon met him there. She was in jeans and a too-big flannel. Her black hair hung down the back of her neck in a loose ponytail and streaks of grease marked her face. She wrung a dirty rag between her hands.
“In the business of letting yourself into other people’s homes?” she asked. She tucked the rag into her front pocket.
“I’m sorry,” Rid Sr. said. “I knocked. I always came right in when you’d have me over for dinner.”
“That was before. What do you want?”
“I’m here with some news from the neighbors. We’ve all been talking about hunting season, and I was hoping you had a minute so as I could get you abreast of what we’ve all discussed.”
Sandra wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, a new grease streak remained. “Fine. You should come in, though. I’m in the middle of something.” He followed her into the kitchen. “Take off your shoes in the breezeway,” she said.
“I won’t be here long,” he said. He crossed, leaving behind quarter-sized pools of water from his boots. The kitchen was large, Rid Sr. saw, it could have easily taken up a third of the entire house. The floors tiles were cracked, but mostly clean, and the sink was an old style ceramic double basin, marked with years of scratches from pans and silverware. In the middle of the room was the table piled with thawing bags of meats, what looked like bread dough, and a gallon of store brand vanilla ice cream. At the far end of the room, beyond the table, stood a small refrigerator and a chest freezer. The fridge had been pulled from the wall and the freezer angled away from it just enough to allow Sandra to crouch down behind it. Rid Sr. sat at the table.
“What’s going on here?” he asked.
“Freezer won’t keep temperature. Had to empty it just so I could move it off the wall.” The top of her head bobbed behind it and metal clanged every few seconds. “You stupid piece- come on!”
“Do you need help?” He didn’t get up from the chair.
“It could be the thermostat. Or the compressor. I’m not sure.” She rose from her corner juggling a pair of pliers and a screwdriver in one hand and small metal box with copper coils in the other. She laid them out on top of the freezer and pulled the rag from her pocket. “That doesn’t look broke to me. What about you?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
She climbed from her corner and walked passed Rid Sr. to the coffee maker. She poured a cup, smelled it. “You want some?”
“I would, thank you.”
She poured a second cup and popped both in the microwave. She turned to Rid Sr. and leaned on the counter. She was tall, thin, the kind of person you’d lose in a corn field if they turned sideways. “It ain’t old,” she said. “It just needs some life zapped into it. The thing started clanging and buzzing at quarter to five this morning.”
“Coffee is coffee,” Rid Sr said. The microwave beeped and Sandra brought him his. She sat across from him, pushing the ice cream away from her.
“If it’s not the thermostat or the compressor then I don’t know what it could be.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Means a lot of spoiled food and a new freezer I can’t afford. Curt Sterling is over, maybe he could look at it. He’s handy.”
“He out hunting with your boy right now? Bow season’s got a few days left.”
“No, his dad was going to teach him bow this summer but that of course didn’t happen. He and Curt are scoping out a spot to set up a tree stand. Junior found a deer run by the river and has seen about a dozen deer this week.”
“Well that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” He sipped his coffee.
“I’m sixty years old, Sandra. I’ve filled a lot of tags. Dropped a lot of deer and even missed a few in my day. Same as every hunter in the area. But you know what I haven’t tagged?”
“The big one. The buck that makes the front page of the paper. That makes people talk. The trophy that makes the entire county look to us and say, ‘those folks know what they’re doing’.”
Sandra got up and went to the freezer. She grabbed the thermostat, flipping it over in her hand. A new one would only cost her seventy dollars but the thing looked pristine. “Maybe you’re just not lucky enough,” she said.
“Been playing too long for luck to have anything to do with it,” he said. “No what I’ve come to understand is that everyone around here gets themselves a bad case of buck fever every time they see bones on the other side of their shotguns. Don’t matter if it’s a spike or even a button buck. Folks just line ‘em up and, bang. Bag and tag and forget the future that deer coulda had.”
Sandra set the thermometer down and crouched behind the freezer. The back looked like an Erector Set of mismatched parts that she didn’t know what to do with. The food on the table only had the rest of that day before she’d have to find a cold place for it outside safe from raccoons or coyotes. Walter would have been able to drag the whole unit outside, he was big enough to do so. But her and her son were still getting used to making do. “So, what are you telling me?”
“Well the long and short of it is that I’ve talked to folks around here and we’ve all come to an agreement that there won’t be any shooting of deer unless they are bucks. And only then, the antlers have to be grown out beyond the spread of the animal’s ears.” He was looking forward to seeing his home filled with trophy busts mounted on his walls. “Basically, we’re only gonna take deer worth taking.”
“Who agreed to this?” Sandra was elbow-deep into the back of the freezer fussing with the screws that anchored the compressor.
“Everybody. We talked about it before bow season started.” He helped himself to another coffee, drinking it room temperature. He heard metal scrape against metal and Sandra gasp.
“Goddammit,” she said. She threw the screwdriver down, her head shot up. “That was over a month ago.”
“We wanted to make sure nobody over-harvested before firearm season started.”
“And you thought to only tell me this now? When Opening Day is only a week away?”
“Well, I assumed you were, you know, with your husband’s passing and all, occupied.” He grabbed his coffee and returned to his chair. Sandra rose in her corner, a string of blood ran from her thumb. She wrapped the rag around it and leaned on the freezer.
“What do you think all that meat in front of you is? We don’t have beef in our budget. Last year my husband took three deer. My son only got one. That’s what’s left of all of it.”
“I’m sure your husband would have agreed.”
“Don’t,” she said. “You don’t get to speak for a dead man, especially my husband. Walter took his tag limit every year. And now my son will have to, too. The State of Michigan allows landowners to take antlerless deer, including doe. Look around you. Where do you think you are? It might not be hundreds of acres of soy or wheat or sugar beets and it may flood during a wet spring but make no mistake, Mr. Bellows, you’re on solid land. That I own.”
“Now listen here,” Rid Sr. said, “I don’t know if you know how much goes into taking a deer. You’ve got the license, the shells, the guns, the camo, blind maintenance. Hell, I’m a working man and my time is worth something, too.” He spun the coffee around in his hands before taking a drink long enough to char the back of anyone’s throat. “So you gotta tell yourself, if I’m going to do something, it should not only be worth it, it best put me out ahead.”
“My husband hunted our land for almost twenty years and the deer he took were what kept us through the winters.”
“But you see, there’s only so many deer and even less worth taking. If you shoot anything, they can’t grow up to be trophies.”
“Worth’s got as many meanings as there are people alive,” she said. “You can’t eat antlers.” Sr. chuckled at this. He set the empty cup in the sink and put his hands in his pockets.
“Well this sure has been fun,” he said, “but let me ask you this. Isn’t it Levon who comes to plow you out every winter when the storms hit? And don’t Mark Sterling rent you a plot of his land every spring to plant your canning vegetables? And weren’t we just talking about getting the Sterling boy to help you with your freezer problem?”
“Yes. Your point?”
“Well this agreement ain’t just mine, you know. They have just as much to agree upon in this as I do, as you should, and I’m sure they wouldn’t take too keenly on knowing that while they’re trying to foster a community, you’re hunkered down in your little patch of woods doing everything in your power to unravel the whole thing. Do you understand what I’m saying, Sandra?”
“Call me Sr.,”
“Then call me Ms. McKinnon.” The two held each other’s names in their teeth, rolling them like jawbreakers, not wanting to swallow them and risk choking.
The back door opened and Walter Jr. and Curt came into the kitchen.
“Saw five just now, Ma. Two does and three yearlings,” the boy said. He pulled his camo jacket off and looked the room over. “Oh, hello,” he said Rid Sr.
“Hey there, son,” he said. He put his hand out.
“People call me McKinnon,” he said. He shoved is hand into Sr,’s and shook.
“Your mom and I were just chatting about firearm season coming up. You getting excited?”
“Yes, sir. School’s giving us the day off.”
“Seen any signs of monster bucks?”
“A few scrapes on some saplings and rubs dug into the ground in the thicker brush. Plenty of doe though.”
“It looks like from all this meat you’re a good shot.”
“My dad taught me. That was a four-point I took late last season.”
“You don’t say. Well that’s exactly what I was talking to your mother about.”
“Why’s all your meat on the table, Sandra?” Curt asked.
“Freezer won’t work,” she said. She held her thumb under the faucet then wrapped it again.
“What’s the problem? Is it the compressor?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Let me take a look at it. I fixed up one in my dad’s pole barn last year.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Rid Sr. said.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Ms. McKinnon here doesn’t seem to understand what it means to be a good neighbor. We should treat her accordingly.”
“But the food,” Curt said.
“No buts, boy. What would your daddy say if I told him I wasn’t going to hire you out no more? What if I told him you were a lazy good-for-nothing? How much hide do you think he’d take off you if I refused to dust his crops?”
“That’s not fair,” the boy said.
“Listen, boy, you’re a part of this community and being a good citizen means listening to your elders. Don’t talk to me about what’s fair. Fair is owning a plane and choosing where you fly it. Fair is letting a button buck grow up. Don’t confuse fair and equal, boy. Now get the fuck out of here. The McKinnon’s don’t need your help.”
The boy backed out of the kitchen. The storm door slammed and Sandra saw him speed down the driveway on his bicycle.
“Now, son,” Sr. said, “don’t act the fool and let this get past the point where I’ll need more than words to get my point across. No does, no nothing but the big one. You hear?” McKinnon said nothing. “I mean it. Both of you. We’ve got our own little slice of paradise this far out. Don’t ruin it. Remember what happened when your daddy tried screwing with the order of things.” Sandra moved between Sr. and her son.
“Get out of my house, Sr.,” she said.
“I was already leaving. Now you two have a wonderful day.” He let himself out.
“What about the freezer, Mom?” McKinnon asked.
Sandra sat at the table and put a hand on one of the bags, a roast. It was mostly thawed. “C’mon,” she said, “let’s find a place to store this.”
The cold came in a week later and on the morning before Opening Day, when Sandra went out to the Ford Escort she and her husband had shared for their entire marriage, it wouldn’t start. She pounded on the steering wheel a couple times. She had planned on handing out her resume that day, had ironed her only pair of slacks the night before and was hoping that some employer would understand the fifteen-year gap between that moment and the last job she’d had. Samson was a small town, surely any HR department would appreciate the work of a stay-at-home mother. But now she was grounded. She fidgeted in the driver’s seat, wanting to have something to occupy her time with. She popped the trunk and fished a set of new wiper blades from it. She’d put off replacing them, she hated the hassle, but if the car was so iced over, at least by the time it thawed, it’s have new blades for the oncoming winter.
Her son walked out onto the front porch with a cup of coffee and a piece of toast.
“Got this for you,” he said holding out the cup. He popped the toast between his teeth and walked out to her.
“Just hold it for a sec,” she said. She pried the blade arm from the frozen windshield and fiddled with the hooking mechanism.
“Sr. was pretty bent last week,” he said.
“You don’t need to worry about that.”
“Sounded like the opposite of that.”
“And what I just said sounded like exactly what I just said.” She twisted the old blade free and tossed it on the ground. She picked up the new one and tried fitting it on the arm.
“Ma, I know about that bull agreement Sr. was talking about. Curt told me. It’s stupid.”
“That’s enough, Junior,” she said. She pushed the blade but it wouldn’t lock into place. People like Sr. believe that their words mean more than others. Most of the time they don’t, though. Sr. just has the money and muscle to back them up.”
“So, what, we just shut up?”
“Mr. Cutler plows us out when the snow piles up. How do you think your father got to work?”
“I can shovel the drive.”
“It’s an eighth of a mile long, Junior. Dammit.” Her hand slipped and the blade fell. She snatched it up and started over.
“I could do it. And Curt isn’t that handy. I bet I can fix the freezer. Ma, I’m telling you, we don’t need those people but we do need to eat.”
“And the garden plot Mr. Sterling sets aside for us helps us do that?” The blade arm snapped back down against the windshield and Sandra slipped forward, her hips cracking into the side of the car.
“But at what cost, Mom?”
“Stop,” she said. “You stop it!” She slammed the wiper blade against the windshield. Then again. And again. Shouting “stop” every time the rubber hit the glass, until she either realized she wasn’t making any headway or that the only other person who could hear her was her son and he was just as helpless as she was. The blade had bent and was now useless. Sandra dropped it on the hood and turned, leaning against the small car that Walter had once picked her up in when he wasn’t a husband, just a Friday night date. This was supposed to be the last winter with the Escort but now that Walter was gone, she’d have to figure out a way to keep its tires spinning, especially with Walter Jr. only a couple months away from sixteen. “Didn’t you hear what Sr. said? Do you remember what he did just because your father set up a tree strand too close to the river?”
McKinnon did remember. He’d helped his dad build that blind, as much as a nine-year-old could help raise a sixteen-foot stand. He mostly held the tools and weather seal. That year, McKinnon’s dad busted into the house on opening day having only been out for an hour. He looked scared, something that a boy rarely sees from his father. His mother kept asking and asking what was wrong until he told them. He’d barely settled into the stand when a hole blasted through the plywood wall. Then another. He’d fallen backwards and almost completely out of the stand and to the ground when he heard a shotgun’s echo. Then he heard the yelling and the swearing. “The fuck you doing, man?” It was Rid Sr. standing on his side of the river, pointing a shotgun across the water. “You hunting my land?” McKinnon’s dad was shaking as he told his story. It didn’t matter that the stand was obviously on McKinnon land. “Don’t matter, you’re aiming out onto my land.” They’d called the sheriff but he was an old township board friend of Sr.’s and the complaint died before it made it off the property and onto the books.
Sandra reached up for the coffee. “Why do you worry so much?” she asked. “Don’t you know that that’s my job?”
“And you’re doing a bang up job of it,” McKinnon said. He smiled with too much teeth and that always made her smile, even if she’d taught him better manners. He got the sarcasm from his father, it was a trait of his she’d grown to love and that feeling doubled onto her son.
She sat sideways in the driver’s seat, rubbing the back of her neck with her tired, sweaty palm, the same she’d used to swat the back of her son’s thighs when he needed an attitude adjustment.
“So, you’re going out hunting tomorrow?” she asked
“We need me to,” he said. He picked up the wiper blade from the windshield and slid it back into its packaging. “I’m sure we can tell Wal-Mart that it was bent when we bought it. We’ll get a new one tomorrow after I come in from the woods.”
“Might snow tomorrow. The news said could get a few inches.”
“Then we’ll go into town the day after that. We’re in no hurry.”
“Not yet,” she said.
It wasn’t his best shot. He’d missed the heart and probably only grazed a lung. “A runner,” his dad would have called it, a shot that would eventually kill the animal, but it would take a few hundred yards before it knew there was no outrunning what was chasing it. It was amazing, really, how perfectly the doe crossed the river, like a knife across a whetstone. She seemed to glide across the surface of the water, avoiding the deep hole dredged by the current where McKinnon’s dad had taught him how to fish. Before the echo of the shot could fade into a buzz in his ear, the doe was already in the tree line on the opposite bank. Its tail was down, a good sign. McKinnon knew it couldn’t run much farther before its strength bled out of the hole he’d just shot into it.
Then it hit him. The doe had run onto Sr.’s property.
“No, no, no,” McKinnon said. He set his safety and slung the shotgun over his shoulder. He climbed down from his stand so fast that had his father been around to see him, he’d have gotten an earful for being so careless. He ran through the brush to where he’d made contact. A small amount of blood had pooled but there was no blowout splatter that would’ve let him know he’d fully hit the doe’s vitals. McKinnon followed where the doe had run, blood landed every few yards, marking where her hooves had hit the dirt and her heart had pumped out the wound. He couldn’t see any corn or chewed vegetation, signs that would’ve shown he’d completely botched it and gut-shot the poor thing. When he got to the river, McKinnon found a large red pool on the bank, washing down into the slow current. She was dead, she just didn’t know it yet. McKinnon squinted out to the other side of the river and hoped she’d figured it out by now.
There was a narrow tree line at the top of a ten-foot drop off on the opposite bank and he hoped she’d found an overhang to hunker down and die underneath of. It had happened so quickly, he had no idea how long it had been between his shot and that moment. McKinnon paced his side of the river. A half mile up was Bucky’s Bridge, he could cross there and climb down to the opposite bank. But that would be half a mile of trespassing and then he’d have the doe’s carcass to haul back. He came back to where the doe had crossed. The river was shallow, even the fishing hole was no more than a couple feet deep. He’d dragged deer through the swamp on the north side of the property before, had cut his way with his Buck knife through tangled brush while getting deer out to a clearing to field dress them in relative ease. He could probably get a deer across a shallow river, he thought. Why not? He stepped into the water. He’d gotten a new pair of rubber boots the previous Christmas and they rose halfway up his calves. If he watched where he stepped, he could stay dry. He took a second step then looked down at himself. From the waist, up, he was nothing but a blaze orange flag in the middle of a drab forest. He ran back up on the bank and stuffed his coat in the Y of tree. He could use it as a marker so he could get the deer back across river. It wasn’t that cold yet, and he didn’t expect to be gone long.
He returned to the water and stepped in. He was afraid of slipping and having his 12-guage fall into the river so he held it tightly against his chest with both hands. He slid each step forward, not raising his feet too far off the rocky bottom. His dad would have beat his butt raw had he known his boy was doing what he was doing but every man, every woman, hell even every fifteen-year-old boy had a claim to what they paid for and McKinnon knew that doe was rightfully his. He’d get to the other side of The Cass River, get the doe, and get home safe before dark. He’d hang her in the barn just in case Sr. or one of the neighbors snooped as they drove passed the house. It was a perfect plan and soon after he’d laid it out, McKinnon was on Sr.’s side of the river. Some water had splashed over the tops of his boots and he could feel his wool socks sticking to his feet. He slung his shotgun over his shoulder and pulled a foot out of his boot, took the sock off and wrung out what water he could before putting it back on. It started to snow while he worked on his second sock.
He found where the doe had clamored up through the brush, blood streaked the bark of an ash tree and dotted the ground. What people measured in feet, deer seemed to measure in inches and the steep bank took that doe only a couple large leaps to scale. McKinnon made his way up slowly, bracing himself against stumps to push himself upwards. At the top of the bank, he couldn’t see a body. He moved forward with the blood, his heart swelling in his throat as he got closer to the farm field up ahead.
She was just past the tree line lying in a fold of dirt, her head propped up on a clod of tilled earth. It was forty yards out in the open in perfect view of three tree lines. McKinnon crouched down at his line behind a row of logged hardwood. It looked as if Sr. and his men had split it the season before and that didn’t sit well with McKinnon. It meant that he wasn’t sneaking on a forgotten corner of Sr.’s land. He was trespassing right in the middle of it.
He’d have to be quick and careful.
“Son of a,” he muttered. He saw where he’d left his coat across the river. It was a speck of orange barely visible through the falling snow. He could see it because he knew where to look for it. Opposite the field, though, McKinnon had no idea who might have eyes on the doe. He scanned the trees for any trace of human life. Any orange would be a clear giveaway and, if they were out there, whoever they were, they’d have definitely seen the doe come busting through the cover into the field. Certainly they were waiting for whomever shot it to attempt to come and claim it. He remembered seeing the holes blown into the walls of his dad’s stand when he helped him tear it down.
McKinnon felt hunted in those moments when he searched for another hunter. The snow fell in large, heavy flakes and in the quiet of it all, he could hear them as they fell against the branches and along the ground. They sounded like thousands of pencils on notebook paper.
Sr. had been madder than any man McKinnon had ever known when his mother told him off the week before. Madder than he’d even seen his own dad when McKinnon had snuck out one night and drove the Escort into a ditch. He felt that from any point along the stretches of trees and scrubs some angry SOB might have a barrel pointing right at that doe waiting to fire. McKinnon regretted bringing his gun along then. He was already trespassing but now he was armed and Sr. could make up any number of excuses to fire. Maybe he’d told his family and anyone else hunting his property about his run-in with the mother and son across the river. Surely he’d told them about the agreement. How many eyes were out there, he thought. Watching. Waiting.
McKinnon had lingered on that final thought long enough for half an inch of snow to fall. The doe’s body was still warm and snow melted as it hit its tan fur. It stood out in the white.
A wind had come in and he was glad his father had taught him the proper way to layer his clothing so as to keep out the coldest drafts. But his socks were damp and the crouching was keeping his blood from flowing properly. He felt pins shooting into the tips of his toes and knew he had to act soon.
“Get moving,” he told himself. “Move your feet.” He said it in a way that he’d remembered his father saying it, urgent but playful, as if he was happy to have a son to inconvenience him from time to time. He took in the trees one last time then he went. He kept low and moved slowly to the body. He could grab her by the hind legs, drag her to the trees, and field dress her by the river. He would be able to kick her insides into the water and they’d be gone, the snow would cover his tracks and any remaining blood. Nobody would know he’d been on the property. Nobody would know that he’d broken the agreement.
The ground was softer than he’d thought. From behind the log pile the field had looked like a slab of uneven concrete. But he was sinking in mud with each step. He was ankle-deep when he came up next to the body. His footprints dotted the snow behind him like brown exclamation points signaling his arrival.
She was bigger than he thought she had been. It was something that his father said never happened. “They all look big between the sights but not up close.” McKinnon assumed she’d be around 120 pounds and would dress out to just over ninety. She would be manageable enough to smuggle back home. But this time, McKinnon’s father’s advice had been wrong and the doe at his feet was easily fifty or sixty pounds larger. In fact, it was one of the largest deer the boy had ever shot and having that realization made him want to cry. He bent over the body and placed a hand on its side. She was barely warm and had collapsed with the bullet’s exit wound facing up. He ran his hand from her side up to her shoulder, the fur ruffling and falling back into place as he passed over it. He was right about his shot, missed a good chunk of vitals. The slug had torn away the fur and left a dark red, almost black, burn just behind the front leg. She’d suffered only for a short time but he wondered if that was still too much.
A shotgun blast called across the field and it sent McKinnon belly down into the mud beside the deer. It had happened, he thought, Sr. had spotted him and was going to see to it that the punk kid next door learned a lesson impossible to forget. A second shot followed but now that McKinnon had an ear to the distance, he realized that it was further up the field, closer to the front of the Bellows’ land. Peeking over the deer, he saw half a dozen deer running back towards the river. They were over a hundred yards away, out of any sensible person’s range and that settled the boy. The snow hadn’t eased up and it was starting to accumulate on the doe’s carcass, it was after four and the daylight wouldn’t last much longer. He knew whoever had shot would be eager to get their trophy.
About seventy yards up, a patch of orange came through the trees. McKinnon watched it, it had to have been Sr., nobody else was with him. The hunter moved quickly in the opposite direction of the doe. There was every chance that they’d have seen the doe and McKinnon but the figure didn’t look back as it followed the trajectory of the deer. As soon as the hunter hit the trees, the boy was on his feet, tugging at the doe’s hind legs.
The mud hadn’t frozen, not even close, and he couldn’t get a solid footing between where he’d been and where he wanted to be. He dragged the doe, stopping every few yards to catch his breath and readjust the load. The bright side, he said to himself, was that he’d be able to stretch the meat of a deer this size for weeks. And, despite the trees and the river, he was less than one hundred yards from home. He could do this, he knew he could.
McKinnon got to the log pile and dropped the carcass behind it. He needed to rest, to gather his wits. The last thing he, or his mother for that matter, wanted was for him to be too tired to get across the river. The current had taken a handful of lives in its day and McKinnon, of course, did not want to be one of them. He grabbed a log from the pile, dusted the snow off, and used it for a chair. He laughed. He was going to pull it off. Sr. could talk all he wanted, a big man walking into folks’ homes thinking he’s got something to say worth hearing and thinking he’d be able to enforce whatever nonsense he spouted. Rich folks, McKinnon thought, they could get like that when there were people like him and his mother around to boss.
He shivered. The wind had finally cut into him now that he’d worked up a sweat. He rose from the log and turned towards the river to see a flash of orange only a dozen yards up river. It was Sr. for sure, McKinnon could make out every grey hair on his temples. He was standing over a buck, of course he was, and he had already gotten it open, its innards hanging out over the open side of its chest cavity. The boy hunkered against the log pile and watched as his neighbor cut the body free from itself. He was quick at it, too, quicker than anyone he’d seen and in less than ten minutes, Sr. was walking back up the riverbank, leaving the buck in the snow. No way he’d work himself to death getting that carcass back up to his barn, McKinnon thought. He’d nixed the idea of hauling his doe up to the road so of course this old man was going to grab a tractor or more likely a four-wheeler to do the heavy lifting for him.
That meant McKinnon had less time than he wanted to field dress his doe and get her home. Had she been as small as he’d thought, he would have entertained the stupidity of hauling her, guts and all, across the Cass but she was way too big for that. The realization of this that had hit him back in the field returned and the tears burned the corners of his eyes.
He wished his dad were there to yell at him. He’d be mad, sure, but at least he’d be there to help him.
McKinnon snapped out of it and grabbed the deer by the legs again. He pulled her to the edge of the bank and she slid down to the water’s edge. He got over her and spread her back legs. She was starting to go stiff and it was getting darker. McKinnon had gutted enough deer to know the steps, but never in the dark and never anywhere other than the safety of his own woods. He grabbed the soft white fur around her teats and pushed the knife into the skin. The knife was sharp and the skin pulled apart easily and he drew the blade up like a zipper on a coat. The white-blue of the skin spread revealing the faded green-purple of her intestines. He stopped before he got to her stomach and pocketed the knife. Her legs wouldn’t stay open, he needed to break her hips to allow himself more room to work. He stepped on one hind leg and pulled the other out as far as it would go before stepping down on it. He gathered his balance then shot his weight downwards onto her bones. She cracked easily and on the second stomp, she broke. McKinnon got the knife and knelt back down. He grabbed at the open edge of skin to restart. His eyes were trying to adjust to the dark and when he found where he’d left off, he sunk the knife back in. He heard a soft pop then.
“Oh no,” he whispered. He lifted the knife barely half a centimeter and cut upwards more revealing his mistake. He’d punctured the stomach. Chunky green goo oozed out of the small opening in the stomach, the pressure of which forced the hole to widen and more goo spilled out. Then came the smell of rotten grass, bile, vomit, and corn and McKinnon forgot then about being cold. The only thing he thought about was maintaining, about keeping his own stomach from purging itself. He couldn’t stand and do the job correctly, he had to be there, close, inside of it all to do it properly. He took a breath and dove in. The blade reached the ribs and he forced it into the sternum. A thick layer of fat covered the bones. The blade progressed in half-inch stretches.
Ten inches past the stomach, McKinnon stopped. There was blood, a lot of it, covering the liver and the lungs. He found the heart, or half of it anyway. So he had nailed it, dead on, after all. She had ran so far, though, without a heart, crossed an entire river and scaled its high banks just looking for a place where it could be safe. Maybe she was on her way home when McKinnon zeroed in on her and she thought that if she gave it enough oomph, that she could get there and everything would be alright, that she wouldn’t die that day, surely not in the middle of a muddy field.
In the distance, Sr. cranked on his four-wheeler, he had the choke on all the way and was letting it warm up. McKinnon only had a handful of minutes left.
He cut the remains of the heart out and laid it off to the side. He reached up into the chest and pressed the knife into the esophagus then down the spine. Every few inches he cupped a handful of organs and pulled them away from his work. He lost his footing when he heard Sr. kick the bike into gear and slipped, his entire left arm falling into the slop that spilled from the stomach.
“Damn,” he said. He wiped himself on the doe’s fur, she’d wash in the river anyway, and went back to work cutting the organs free from the abdomen. Sr.’s bike started its way back to the river. In a minute, he’d be right on top of McKinnon and he didn’t want to know what might happen then. When he’d made his way back down the doe’s body, he pressed the knife into the groin and used all his weight to slice the through the pelvis. He tucked his knife away and squatted down, siding his hands under the doe’s body. He lifted her and rolled her stomach down into the Cass, letting what had kept her alive fall out of her. The four-wheeler’s lights rippled through the trees and by the time Sr. reached the top of the bank, McKinnon was halfway home, river water flooding into his boots.
On his property, McKinnon dragged the doe until his legs and lungs gave out. He sat against a tree and peered through the undergrowth back to the river. A flashlight bounced along the bank. He moved closer, staying behind the trees. Sr. had stopped where McKinnon had gutted the doe. The light panned across the river.
“You out there, boy?” Sr. yelled. McKinnon didn’t answer. There was no way Sr. could prove he’d been on his property. Then McKinnon remembered the heart. Did he throw it in the river with the rest of the organs? He couldn’t remember. Either way, Sr. was standing in blood and not enough snow had fallen to cover it.
It snowed nonstop for three days after McKinnon hung the doe inside his barn. The county had all but shut down, only plowing the state highways and salting on the roads closest to Caro. His mother had tasked him with sectioning off an area in the barn to keep the venison cold and away from critters. He chipped away at the chore during the blizzard. He offered to shovel a walkway for his mother from the front door to the Escort but she refused.
“It doesn’t make sense to shovel anything until the last flake lands,” she told him. McKinnon thought about telling his mother the story of the hunt, how he’d been able to tag a doe he worked twice as hard to get and was rewarded with enough meat to last them a while. He didn’t, though, he didn’t want her to get angry with him or, worse, to worry about what might have happened had her son got caught. The neighbors, these men with voices louder than the law, wouldn’t lose any sleep over the poor McKinnons in the swamp. It was best to just lie and tell her he’d downed the doe with a shot that would have even impressed his father. She’d like that.
It stopped snowing early on the fourth day. Sandra woke up just before sunrise and turned on the local news. The storm had dumped close to two feet across the entire Thumb Region, the hardest hit area in Michigan. It had come close to breaking a single snowfall record, even. She kicked her feet up on the couch her husband had claimed for himself and listened as the automatic drip on the coffee maker kicked on. Levon was always around before noon to plow her out. She wasn’t in any hurry. She could enjoy her morning.
McKinnon woke up a few hours later but stayed in bed thinking. He was still reeling from the hunt and beginning to feel impressed by himself. Eventually he’d tell his mother, years from now. She’d bring up hunting in conversation, something about him having to track a deer farther than he should have and he’d tell her of the time he pulled a fast one on Sr. and the rest of the uptight neighbors. Probably after Sr. was in the ground and the Sterlings had all moved or gone bankrupt or died, whatever happened to folks after they’ve spent their lives taking and taking and taking. That would be a fun time, McKinnon thought, he and his then elderly mother enjoying the life they’d won, happy to be the last ones standing. He got up just after ten, later than normal, but the doe wasn’t going anywhere. He could process her later. He walked into the living room, Sandra was reading on the couch. The drive hadn’t been plowed. He flipped on the TV and surfed the few channels they had. Sandra finished her book and started another.
At two in the afternoon, Levon still had not come to plow the drive.
McKinnon butchered the doe that afternoon and cooked a section of the backstraps, the prized, buttery tenderloins, for himself and his mother.
“He probably had to spend all day plowing himself out,” she said across the table.
“Probably.” McKinnon poked at a piece of venison on his plate. They went to bed early that night.
By noon the next day, Levon still hadn’t come.