Despite the good graces exhibited, Kuhns remained fearful of the captain. Every summons gave rise to fears of discovery. So it was with that sense of apprehension he had responded to the captain’s beckon to join him in the kitchen.
“Shooting?” Titus asked.
“Yes,” Schlussel responded with a smile, continuing to clean the fowling piece he fondled as affectionately as though it were as beautiful a woman as his wife. “I find myself with some free time today. The grouse are feeding in the beeches up yon’ mountain I’ve been told. I thought you might like to join me. We’ve had little time to talk lately.”
“I’m not familiar with the sport,” Titus said, warily, unwilling to spend time alone with the man.
“All the more reason to go. A man should seek out new experiences. We have a tendency to go stale otherwise.”
“I don’t know…”
“Have you ever dined on grouse? Succulent, pure succulent. You must come. I insist.”
With no way to graciously refuse, Titus acquiesced despite his reluctance.
Off they went, laden with their shotguns, horns of powder, bags of shot and necessary paraphernalia, a spaniel snapping at their heels, across the orchard and down the meadow. Here they paused while Schlussel gave him a rudimentary lesson in loading and priming and they test-fired their weapons.
The acrid scent of gunpowder still tingling in his nostrils, they continued on. It was a bright and sunny morning, the air crisp and biting against his face and bare hands. The excitement of shooting a gun for the first time in his life, the anticipation of the hunt fed by anecdotes Schlussel offered as they walked, the eagerness of the dog, yapping and bounding through the tall grass ahead of them, combined to raise his spirits. He took sensual delight in the tawny grass which swished around their knees, the crimson sumac and blue chicory which accented the field here and there, the rusty willows and, beyond them, ascending the mountain, the scarlet maples and beeches and the ocher hickories and oaks.
Schlussel halted once more by the spring house. “Mark this place?” he asked.
Puzzled, Titus could only affirm he did, though doing so stirred guilt over what had transpired there last August.
“A man who betrayed by trust died here,” Schlussel said, soberly.
Titus shuddered, nearly dropping his gun. Did the captain know? Was this a test? “What happened?” he managed to croak.
The captain leaned on his gun and looked him in the eye. “A man I brought here in good faith to help set up my mill. A strange but talented man named Doremus Seidlinger. He gave his word, took my money, then attempted to sneak off before fulfilling his contract. Apparently he hid himself here awaiting nightfall.”
“How did he die?”
“Drowned. We found him with his head immersed in the spring.”
Schlussel shrugged. “He had a tendency to imbibe too much. We surmise he was drinking to bolster his courage, passed out and fell into the water.”
Without reply, the captain walked on. With a glance at the spring house, Titus shouldered his gun and followed, wondering what oblique message was contained in the tale.
Soon they came to the foot bridge which crossed the creek. Treading carefully, grasping the ropes that sufficed for side rails, he could see the rushing water between the uneven slabs of the bridge. Glancing up, he spied the former Cadwallader cabin on the other side where Inch now lived.
Reaching firm ground again, he turned to Schlussel. “I have been told your father-in-law met his end here.”
Schlussel’s dark eyes clouded. He nodded. “A tragic accident.”
“Did he not also drown?”
“He celebrated too much the New Year after our wedding. We prevailed upon him to stay the night with us. He would not hear of it. A slip on the icy boards and he was lost, swept away downstream to deep and eternal waters.”
“Drownings seem to bade poorly for people in these bleak hills.”
Schlussel gave a callow little laugh. “Perhaps people who choose to drink should avoid watery places.”
They passed the house and entered thicker woods which ascended steeply up the ridge. The dog raced ahead, silent now, disappearing from sight in the laurel that grew densely around the bases of the tall trees. Squirrels scurried overhead and chickadees, juncos and nuthatches darted from their path and querulously sailed off into deeper thickets.
Conversation ceased now. The precipitous height demanded attention and no waste of wind as they trudged upward over the escarpment.
Red-faced, wheezing and panting, Titus pulled himself up the rocky face and broke through a tangle of catbrier. He paused, gulping deep breaths of the tangy thin air. He did not see the captain but heard him crashing through the brush nearby. Just then, a grouse shot from beneath his feet. Then another. Schlussel’s gun boomed off to his left. Too startled, he had not raised his own. The captain shouted something but he could not make out the words for the ringing in his ears. Another bird sailed by, a brown streak silhouetted against a patch of sky. Titus threw up his gun and pulled off a shot. The bird flew off, unharmed.
“Got one,” Schlussel said, joining him. He held aloft a matted tangle of feathers, then stuffed it into his pouch. The air was thick with the scent of burnt nitro.
Reloading, they tramped on along the ridge, raising more flights. Schlussel added several birds to his bag. Titus continued to miss. After a time he began to discern a pattern and means of gauging where to expect the birds. The dog was the surest indicator. When it stopped, tail erect and twitching, muzzle pointed to a patch of brush, Titus would shoulder his gun, alert and ready to seek a target. Still, the erratic sudden zigzag flight of the grouse made it difficult to develop a lead and he continued to miss.
Finally, whether through luck or practice, Titus scored a hit. The bird tumbled in mid-air, tilted and plummeted earthward. Yipping, the dog pounced and throttled the flapping grouse. Picking the bird up in its mouth, the dog shook it, turned and dropped the bundle of feathers at Kuhns’ feet. “Good shot,” Schlussel said, grinning broadly. “A week or two more experience and you might be as good as me.” The dog smiled up at him, wagging its tail.
Titus stooped, picked up the bird in his hand. It was still warm though light as if the weight had left with its dying. His fingers were stained with blood from the torn brown and white feathers. He felt queasy to his stomach.
After a brief lunch, they turned and came back along the opposite side of the ridge. It was nearing three o’clock when Schlussel signaled enough. Titus was glad. He was tired and had long since sated any blood lust he may have harbored. Still, he could not deny the experience had been unique and enjoyable. His thighs ached from the up and down traversing, but he was pervaded with a sense of contentment and would now have his own hunting tales to share. The game bags held nearly a dozen grouse, including two downed by Titus. Schlussel complained they should have had more, but he was satisfied.
Descending, Schlussel led the way along a well-trod path. Neither man spoke but Schlussel whistled a happy tune. Halfway down, they found the way blocked by a fallen tree. The captain leaned his gun against the tree, picked up the dog under one arm and began climbing over. One leg across the trunk, he suddenly snapped a hand round the dog’s muzzle and motioned for Titus to be still. Titus leaned and looked around him. A deer stood below, just off the trail at the edge of a stand of dark pines. The animal raised its snout, sniffing at the air. Its ears pivoted below a heavy rack and rheumy eyes searched for whatever scent or sound had disturbed it.
Titus’ eyes strayed from the deer, lighted on the captain’s broad back. Schlussel was intent on watching the deer, vulnerable. In that moment, Kuhns was seized by an impulse contrary to his nature. He felt the gun, heavy in his hand, still loaded and primed. Squeezing shut his eyes, a vision of Nan flashed through his mind. When he looked again, the captain still leaned upon the tree, unaware of the turmoil with which his companion struggled. The dog whined, strained to be free.
Titus trembled, torn with a mixture of love and desire that was quickly outweighing fear and moral considerations. “Nan. My Nan,” he whispered, raising the shotgun.