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Try as he may not to make a sound, Jason managed to repeatedly dislodge twigs from their resting place and to crush dried leaves under his misplaced steps. Raven managed a little better. Omar was cat-like.
“You see, boys, everything that walks, crawls, or slithers leaves behind a trail. Look here where these leaves are turned over. This tells us that something large passed this way recently. Look at how a single branch is broken and leaning away from the others. What signs can you see of a disturbance, Jason?”
“Something has spooked a bunch of sparrows ahead,” Raven commented eagerly, before Jason had a chance to answer. Omar gave a look up ahead, flashed a condoning smile and moved off in the direction of the agitated birds.
Omar soon came across a set of tracks. “The tracks indicate that there’s a young whitetail buck ahead of us,” Omar pointed out. “About 350 pounds, I would say. But, we must plan our approach. We can’t just waltz up to it. The prevailing winds are moving east to west and the deer is moving in a southerly direction. Deer have keen eyesight, but their sense of smell is even keener. He will never allow us to get close enough to get off a shot. We have to get ahead of him, remembering to stay up wind.”
Jason was enjoying a surge of adrenaline from their little game of hide-and-seek almost as much as Raven.
“Boys, let’s work our way around to his right flank and take up a position on the ridge above him.”
“But, Dad, shouldn’t we hurry before he get away?”
“There is a field just ahead of him, he won’t pass up the chance to feed on the sun-sweetened blades of meadow grass. It pays to know the terrain as well as your enemy when trying to anticipate his next move.”
“Father, the deer is not our enemy, is he?” Jason asked. Omar’s frigid glare reflected the question and soured Jason’s taste for the hunt.
“Look there. You see him just short of the clearing ahead?” Omar whispered, brushing aside a branch from their line of sight.
“Yes,” both boys answered in tandem.
“Jason, it’s time to lock and load.” Jason unslung the rifle, a Remington 30 ot 6, from over his shoulder, and held it nervously. “The buck will make his way along the edge of the field. Wait until he steps into the clearing. Now, make sure that you down him with the first shot. Out here, a second shot can give a nearby enemy a fix on your position.”
Jason posed spread-eagle on top of the ridge, pressed the rifle stock squarely against his narrow shoulder, and dug his elbow into forest mulch. Raven laid beside him.
Jason’s hands were calm and steady and his breathing was slow and deep. On the inside, however, he was a volcano about to blow. He imagined the deer’s family waiting somewhere above them in the rocky high ground.
Cautiously, the whitetail sampled the air with his snout for any hint of danger. The buck then inched closer stopping briefly to munch.
“He’s within range; now remember everything I taught you,” Jason heard his father whisper.
His finger was wrapped snuggly around the trigger, gently reducing the slack. The barrel rested snuggly in his curled palm. With one eye shut and the other trained down the gun sight at the unsuspecting quarry, Jason grabbed a deep breath and held it.
Anticipation of the kill threatened to engulf him. It was becoming too easy. The act seemed to be taking on a life of its own, compelling him to squeeze the trigger. He tried unsuccessfully to distance himself from the dark sensation. Jason wrestled with something ancient, something visceral in nature.
Just before releasing the shot, the rifle angled slightly to the right sending the bullet whizzing pass the mark. The stag did nothing, awaiting his keen instincts to take over. The startled animal bounded across the open field, leapt over a fallen tree and was about to disappear. Then an echoing shot rang out, causing Jason to flinch. The Whitetail plummeted into the thick brush.
“You got him,” yelled Raven.
Jason rolled over to see his father looming over him, his father’s face partially masked by the sun’s glare. Before Jason could speak, Omar and Raven were off to claim the prize.
Jason curled up and fell off to sleep. In his dream he was kneeling and drinking from a mountain stream. Suddenly, the water churned with scarlet billows. He could feel every atom of his body being transformed. He thirsted for more of the river of hate. Long gluttonous gulps could not quench his prodigious thirst. Rising from the river’s edge, his face dripping in blood, he let out a guttural roar. His outcry sent shockwaves deep into the forest, consuming all life as it went. Only death remained.
His eyes blinked open to a tangled web of tree limbs overhead. He found it odd that the occasional leaf remained from the summer, surviving against the odds, clinging long past its time. Brown and crumpled, it should have dropped to the forest floor weeks ago with the others. The image conveyed a profound sadness, yet was strangely comforting.
Jason heard voices. He turned to see his father and Raven returning. “Get up, Jason. We’re going to need you to help hauling the deer back to the camp,” said Omar.
The three of them headed back to the village in quietude. The deer hung from a long tree branch, the branch resting on their shoulders. Omar easily supported the front end while the boys struggled in the rear. The deer’s dangling head repulsed Jason while Raven quietly reveled in the glory of the kill, the tag’s bleed staining his hands. When they reached the village, Omar ordered one of the men to see Raven home.
That night, when Omar and Valora thought Jason was asleep, Omar expressed his feeling about Jason’s missed shot. “He has to learn that sometimes it is necessary to kill in order to survive.”
“Keep your voice down, Omar, you’ll wake him.”
“He will one day lead this clan. That much we both know!”
“We don’t know anything of the kind, Omar, except God has plans for our son. What these plans are we can only guess! Omar, my love, you must trust in God and let your faith guide you.”
“Faith? I could not have made it this far without it. But, everything has changed since we left the city.” Omar paused, his tone softened.
“Faith is what the clan has in our son. Since he was born, the clan has swelled from a hundred to over a thousand. Survivors from all over the northeast, desperate for answers, will flock to his side before it over. One day a nation will form around him. Honey, I just want our son to be ready when…”Valora took his hand in hers and squeezed gently.
“I share your concern,” said Valora. “I have fought beside you for the past twelve years and I’ve never seen you more preoccupied with anything as much as with this. You must step back and let life take its course. Let us not forget that Jason is still a boy.”
“That’s precisely why his spending time with Sean is a mistake; it can only mean trouble,” Omar argued. “His pacifist ideals will only confuse the boy, if he hasn’t poisoned his mind with them already. That man has been trouble since the day he arrived. I know that we don’t turn folks away, but I’ve considered banishing him since day one.” Omar groaned, his temper starting to flare. Valora shot a glance in Jason’s direction. Omar got the message, kissed Valora, and doused the lamp, ending a long day.
The next morning, the ground was blanketed in a milky white frost and a fog drifted though the encampment. Several clan members were packing for a hunting trip when one by one they looked up to see a white stag coming out of the cave where Omar’s buck had been stored. The hunters were frozen in disbelief. Not one of them could lift their firearm to take aim. The deer showed no signs that it feared them.
By the time Omar awoke, the news had threaded the camp. He was informed of the mysterious white stag. Some even claimed to have seen Jason standing in the mouth of the supply cave earlier that morning. They said that when they called to him, he turned and strolled back into the cavern.
However, when the cave was later searched, they found the food supply intact, except Omar’s kill was nowhere to be found, and neither was Jason. Omar’s own inspection revealed a single set of deer tracks at the edge of the clearing leading into the woods. Another set of tracks appeared beside it, human tracks, tracks made by some one about twelve.
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