The Hunters (Story A Day Challenge 14)


On the edge of a mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood.  It is a hunting lodge of sorts, outfitted in the most Spartan way with a lumpy cot, a sleeping bag and several filthy blankets, a moldy pillow. It has no electricity though there is a fireplace, and the shelves are stocked with the necessities: plastic containers of water, cans of coffee, tins of vegetables and Spam. A few plastic bags of beef jerky lie on the rough hewed wood table next to a large lantern. There is one glass window that’s covered with a film of yellowed plastic.


            The cottage is not inviting. It’s a lonely place teetering at the precipice of the mountain, but the view of the valley is spectacular. The man busily shoveling doesn’t care about the view today. He has more pressing thoughts on his mind.


            In the red-gold light the deer are both intrigued and frightened by the sound of digging. They sense danger, but do not run yet; they remain hidden in the thick trees along the ridge, their breath coming in quick puffs of white.


            The snows are coming. Not tonight, but soon.


            The man’s voice pierces the quiet.  “What do you think, Oscar, have I dug deep enough? Been working on it long enough.”


            A small brown and white dog runs around him barking and pawing at the  burlap sack tied to the back of the bay gelding who stands patiently next to the pile of rocks the man has moved earlier.


            “Now, Oscar, be still. We have work to do.” He cuts the rope that binds the sack to the gelding, and the sack falls with a thud to the hard earth.  Grunting, he drags the sack to the deep hole and pushes it in.


            “Go to hell,” he says and starts to hum. Twilight is coming, and he contemplates waiting to fill in the hole, but knows it has to be done now. He can’t risk the ground freezing.


            The deer move a little closer, watching him shovel layer after layer of earth into the huge hole before he slowly pushes the rocks on top. The area doesn’t look quite the same as before. A buck paws the ground uneasily.


            That quickly the man turns and fires the rifle lying on the ground beside him. The buck falls and the rest of the herd scatters. The man smiles.


            “Did you see that, Oscar? I could feel ‘em watching. What a shot! Almost dark too.” He pulls at the gelding’s reins. “Come on, Forsooth.” Horse and man walk carefully up the embankment to where the stag lays. He’s a young one, but he’ll do. The man slings him over the horse’s back and heads down the ridge with Oscar.


            It’s close to eight when he arrives home. It’s dark and cold now, but there’s a casserole in the oven all warm and bubbly. The table’s set for him, and Sarah places the casserole in front of him. Oscar trots into the kitchen.


            “Walter, where were you?” Her voice falters at the sight of the blood on his clothes.


            “Got me a young buck up the mountain. Was tracking him for hours,” Walter says. He washes his hands and sits at the table without going upstairs to change. “What’s the matter, Sarah, you look a little pale.”


            “You know I can’t stand the sight of blood.” Sarah backs against the stove. She wishes she had the nerve to swing the meat cleaver against Walter’s head, but she has to wait. Soon Edward will come, and she’ll leave everything behind.


            They’ve planned so carefully. Edward will pick her up, and they’ll just go. She’s even hidden money away for it.


            She dishes out food for Oscar who runs over to slurp it up.


            “Yessir, We’ll have some mighty good venison,” Walter says and digs into the casserole. It tastes especially good tonight. “You’re a great cook, Sarah. That’s the best casserole you ever made. What’s in it?”


            “Oh, just the usual. Diced tomatoes, cheese, meat, potatoes, onion, all that.”


            “Well, you’re a good wife, Sarah. I never want to lose you.”


            “I know Walter.”


            “Here, Oscar come taste this.” He snaps his fingers and the dog comes running but he just sniffs at the glob of casserole. “What’s the matter? You ate too much already?” Walter stuffs his fingers into his mouth. “Your loss.” He looks at Sarah. “Ain’t you eating?”


            “I did earlier. I was saving the casserole. I wanted it to be perfect.”


            Walter grunts. “I’m gonna go skin that deer, then I’ll wash up.” He turns and looks at her from the door, his face bland. “By the way, I think that Edward Ames fella up and moved on. I wouldn’t expect to see him around here again.”


            Sarah takes a breath before she answers. “Did he?”


            Walter nods. “Got to get to that buck.”


            She sits down on the kitchen chair trembling when he goes out to take care of the deer and wonders what he did to Edward. She wonders if he’s found her small reserve of cash. She’s afraid to check.


            Sarah looks at the casserole. Walter’s eaten almost half. She places the casserole in the refrigerator and washes the dishes. She goes to bed meaning to read, but can’t concentrate. When she hears Walter enter she turns off the light and pretends to be asleep, but she knows it won’t matter. Even after his shower, he still smells of blood when he crawls into bed.


            “Sarah, I did it for you,” Walter says. He feels a little dizzy, but he can see the outline of his wife in her white nightgown and is filled with desire. “I do everything for you.”


            He grabs her and pushes the nightgown up. He yanks down her underwear  and thrusts himself into her, telling her he loves her, over and over. Sarah doesn’t need to do anything. He squeezes her breasts and comes inside her. She wants to vomit.


            In the morning, Walter feels a little off, but he goes out to do his chores. He chops a load of wood and feeds the livestock. A storm is coming. He can smell the snow. It’s hard, if not impossible, to get out in a blizzard, and phone service can go off at anytime. He thinks about driving into town, but decides he’s tired. He’s had too much lifting and hauling the last few days. He finishes the casserole at lunch, but by dinner he feels gut sick. Sarah gives him chicken soup as the flakes begin to fall, but Walter can only swallow a little before the diarrhea strikes.


            The weather service announces that this will be a bad storm, maybe two or more feet of snow. Sheriff Joe Allan calls to ask if they need anything, and Sarah says they’re fine for now. Joe Allan says to call if they need anything. He always has been a little sweet on Sarah. She could have married anyone on the mountain, but her father was greedy and practically sold her to Walter Nolan because he needed cash to keep his logging business afloat. Joe Allan thinks it’s a crime in these modern times to be able to sell a daughter for cash.


            No wonder Sarah fell a little for that young Edward Ames from Seattle. He’d come through scouting locations for some software business looking to bring jobs to underdeveloped areas. They had big ideas about keeping the area green and growing the economy. Joe Allan isn’t sure a software company is the answer to the job problems in this area, but he has hopes.  Logging is all they have, but he doesn’t want to see his beloved mountain stripped clean, even though he understands that the men need jobs.


            It made him happy to see Sarah with the old twinkle in her eyes. Now she sounds tired and beat down again. If she’d even look in his direction, he’d take her away, but for now all he can do is offer to help if they get snowed in.


            By midnight the snow is falling hard, and everything seems strangely hushed. Even the wind seems muffled by the falling snow. Joe Allan looks out of his bedroom window and watches some small animal–a fox maybe—dart  around the edge of his house. This is light powdery snow that drifts down and sparkles in the emergency lights around his house. Just for fun he takes a ruler outside. It’s already over ten inches. He thinks about Sarah locked up in that big house on the ridge and lifts his face to the sky. Snow brushes his face like frozen kisses.


            Walter lies on the floor huddled near the toilet while Sarah fetches him a fresh ice pack. He can feel the fever building. He must have caught something out in the woods digging. He stayed too late. He should have come back sooner, but what if someone found the burlap sack? He closes his eyes and rests his head against the porcelain rim.


            “Okay, Walter,” says Sarah, “put this on the back of your head. It’ll cool you down. You have a fever is all. You must have got the flu.”


            Walter is so thirsty, but he can’t keep anything down. He starts to see things like Edward Ames’ bloody face right before he wrapped him in plastic and rolled him in burlap. Edward Ames was going to run off with Sarah. That just wasn’t right.


            Walter can hear the stag paw the ground right before he shoots it.


            Sarah watches Walter clutch the rim and babble about the deer and the hole in the ground. She listens to the soft whoosh of the snow and leans over. “You just lie here, Walter, you’ll feel better in the morning.”


            In the morning Walter is slumped by the toilet covered in vomit. Sarah draws him a bath and helps him into it. She props him in the tub and cleans the mess on the floor.


            “What’s . . . wrong . . . with  . . . me?”


            Walter’s face is yellow. His eyes are bloodshot from retching so hard. Clearly his liver is failing.


            “I don’t know, Walter. We don’t have phone service, and it’s still snowing. But I can take the jeep and try to get to Joe Allan.”


            “No, stay here.” Walter tries to rise up, but sinks back into the water.


            Sarah wonders how long he can go on without water or food. “I’ll get you some ice. Maybe you can chew on it.”


            Outside the snow keeps falling. So fast and hard that she can barely see the outline of the barn, but she needs to go out and feed the chickens and the horse. She needs to check for eggs. Sarah ties a piece of rope to her waist and attaches it to the door before she makes her way to the barn. She puts a blanket on the horse, mucks out his stall, and gives him fresh oats and hay. She feeds the chickens and checks for eggs. Then heads back to the house.


            Oscar barks when she returns and sheds her wet things. She feeds him and checks the phone. No dial tone. She checks on Walter. He’s vomited and shit again so she puts him back in the tub when she changes the sheets. She decides to leave him in the bathtub so she can hose him off and covers him with a sheet and blanket. Walter’s eyes look glazed.


            “What happened to me?” he says.


            Sarah just wipes his face with a damp cloth. “Try to sleep.” She brings him more ice chips.


            By evening the snow starts to slow and Joe Allan is out directing the plowing. He glances up at the ridge determined to get up there by tomorrow morning at the latest.


            The moon begins to push through the clouds, an almost full moon—either waxing or waning. The silver light casts eerie shadows on the woods. Deer, foxes and bears watch the men with their plows carve out roads through the powdery snow.


            “There’s some trees down,” one of the men says. “It’ll take a while.


            “Let’s get to it,” says Joe Allan. “There’re people stranded up there.”


            Despite his best efforts, Joe Allan and his men don’t get through to Sarah and Walter Nolan’s house until late afternoon of the next day. He finds Sarah trying to coax Walter into sucking on some ice while he floats naked in tepid bathwater.


            “Oh thank God, you got through,” Sarah says, and throws her arms around Joe Allan. “Walter’s been so sick for the past day. I don’t know what it is. I tried calling but the phone’s been out.”


            Joe Allan looks at Walter. He’s a pathetic specimen right now. Jaundiced, red-eyed, wasting away, he looks like something from a horror movie.


            “I don’t think we can wait for an ambulance. We’ll get him out of here now, Sarah.”


            They wrap Walter up as best they can and load him into one of the heavy- duty plows.


            “Jesus Christ, what happened to him?” someone says.


            “Just get him down to County General,” says Joe Allan. “I’ll bring Mrs. Nolan down myself.”


            “Can I make some coffee for you and the boys, Joe?” Sarah asks. “I’ve got a big urn.”


            “We’d appreciate it, Sarah. What happened?”


            Sarah frowns. “I don’t know. He came home a couple nights ago with a buck. We had dinner, and by the time the storm started, he was sick as a dog.” She sighs. “It was awful, Joe. Vomiting. Diarrhea. Talking crazy. He said he saw Ed Ames down a hole way up the mountain near his cabin where he shot that buck. Is that even possible?”


            Joe Allan shakes his head. Now it makes sense. Before the storm hit, he’d gotten a call from Edward Ames’s company. The guy hadn’t checked in or called in over four days. If he is buried up that mountain, they won’t find him until spring.


            Joe Allan pats Sarah’s hand. “Tell you what. I know you’re worried about Walter, but driving down the mountain tonight is crazy. You should wait till tomorrow. The roads’ll be better then. I’ll find out about Walter then you can take what he needs to the hospital.”


            “Joe, that’s just so kind of you. I’m so grateful. Tell the truth I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since he’s been sick.  Here, I’ll make you that coffee.”


            After the sheriff and his men have left, Sarah takes the coffee grounds and lays them on a piece of plastic. She goes to the freezer to remove the jar with all the scrapings from the casserole. She triple wraps everything in plastic and puts on her boots and coat. She slides a pair of extra batteries in the pocket then grabs the lantern. The snow is up to her knees, but she makes her way to the barn, clears a space under the hay and begins to dig. She spends a long time at it because the ground is hard. At last the hole is deep enough, and she drops the package into it and shovels the dirt on top. She stamps around the place she was digging until the dirt looks flat and undisturbed then mixes some hay on top of it. She makes her way back to the house and washes her hands.


            At the hospital the tests will show that Walter has ingested a massive amount of Amanita phalloides mixed in with Amanita virosa or death angel mushrooms mixed with destroying angel mushrooms. Unfortunately the toxin from the mushrooms has destroyed Walter’s liver and kidneys and his systems are shutting down.  He’s dying in the Intensive Care Unit despite the hospital’s best efforts.


            “If only we’d gotten to him earlier,” Dr Kitteridge says, “He might have had a chance. The damn snow.”


            “I just don’t understand where Walter would have gotten mushrooms at this time of year,” Joe Allan says to Sarah as they watch Walter struggling to live.


            She looks at him with wide blue eyes. Her lips tremble slightly. “I just don’t know, though you know how he always said he could live off the land. He kept all kinds of things in that cabin of his.”


            Eventually, she knows they’ll find a glass jar with the residue of those mushrooms and maybe some packets of beef jerky, though she figures that Walter ate the jerky. She knows her fingerprints have long been wiped clean on that jar.


            The doctor waves Sarah into the room. “I’ll give you a little privacy,” he says. “He hasn’t got much time.”


            Sarah takes Walter’s hand gently and smiles. She leans very close to his ear as if she’s kissing him. “When you die, Walter, I’m going to put you in a hole too,” she says.


            Walter’s eyes grow wide and his pulse jumps erratically. He can’t speak because of the tube in his throat.


            Sarah lays Walter’s hand on his chest. “Goodbye, Walter.”


            She walks out to Joe Allan, and puts her hand on his arm. “You’ve been such a rock for me, Joe. Would you stay a little longer?” She lays her head against his shoulder. She’s always liked Joe; he’s kind and good. She could get used to someone like that.


            Joe Allan feels his heart swell. “Anything for you, Sarah. Anything for you.”


            Walter lies in his bed dying. He remembers the stillness of the high mountains, the peace. He doesn’t know how Sarah knew about Ed Ames, and he’ll never know. That’s the hell of it. He thinks about the buck hanging in the barn and realizes she got him just like he got that buck.


            In Walter’s cabin mice scurry about looking for crumbs of food, but find nothing. Walter has removed anything they could eat. Beef jerky wrappers lie on the floor. Water drips through a hole in the ceiling onto the spot near the fireplace, and great icicles hang from the eaves.


            Out on the mountain the deer pick their way though the deep snow foraging for whatever plants they can find. They come to the rocks near the cabin and sniff. Something is different: something dark and decaying lies hidden deep beneath the earth.


            A stag lifts its head. The scent of death and danger hangs in the air here, but it dissipates in the biting wind.