The man stamped his feet hard against the stoop when he stepped outside of his cabin. It was an hour yet before sunrise and cold enough that his breath frosted the air, hanging white against the dark of the trees. Even through the layered flannel shirts and down jacket he was wearing, he felt the bite of winter.
Shouldering his rifle, thermos in hand, he walked through the woods to his stand. Birds’ sleepy chirps fell silent when he walked by, twigs snapping under his boots. There was just enough light for him to make out the path. When he reached his stand and climbed up the ladder, he saw fresh claw-marks from the black bear that roamed in the area on one of the trees nearby. They shone white against the dark tree bark. He was glad for his rifle.
Dawn slowly drifted through the forest, brightening the scattered birch trees and gleaming from the remnants of snow drifts from Saturday’s brief snowstorm. That had been a day to stay in the cabin and play pinochle. Today looked like it would be clear.
He pour some coffee from his thermos and settled down for the day. After an hour or so, the red squirrels started chattering to each other, content that there was no one to listen to their gossip. He poured himself some more coffee. His grandpa used to pay him fifty cents for a red squirrel tail, and it was, he thought, a bargain at the price. A blue jay flew past the stand, screeching its derision.
After a while a few finches flitted down to settle on a tree branch in the distance. He poured himself some more coffee and settled back. He watched the forest wake. A woodpecker rapped against a dead but not yet fallen tree. Below the stand, a gray fox poked its nose out of the brush, only to draw back sharply when it caught his scent.
He sighed, shifting, and pulled his lunch, a turkey sandwich, out of one of the coat’s pockets. It was squished and still slightly warm from being in his pocket. It tasted better than restaurant fare to him. The fresh, cold air always made food taste great.
After lunch, he leaned back, comfortably full. All was right with the world. A cardinal flew down and landed on one of the ladder rungs leading up to his stand. It cocked its head inquisitively. He smiled and surprised himself and the cardinal both by yawning. He remembered sitting in the stand with his grandpa around this time of year. His grandpa, a man who liked a challenge, would pick up the muzzleloader he favored and explain to him, curious boy that he used to be, how to clean it and load it and why only real black powder would do, and he would nod and hold his .22 and keep an eye out for red squirrels. Just to keep in practice, because he wouldn’t risk shooting and startling away better game. The memory was as clear as if it had happened yesterday.
The sun was sinking below the treetops when the man froze. His hand slowly reached towards his rifle and then stopped. A massive white-tailed buck, in his prime, stepped into the clearing in front of the stand. His rack was bigger than any the man had seen that year or even heard bragged about. The buck looked around with majestic unconcern and then slowly walked across the clearing and disappeared into the trees. The man looked at the sky. It was time to be heading back.
He took a small, battered notebook out of his back pocket and carefully printed December 2. Below the date, he recorded the wildlife he’d seen. He noted where the buck had stopped and which direction it came from. He mentioned the bear sign. He even wrote down the birds that had perched nearby, though he wouldn’t hunt any of them. Those red squirrels, now, they were a different matter….
He thumbed back through earlier pages. September 9 was the last entry. Before that they were scattered like buckshot, Saturdays and Sundays peppering the weeks and months when regular gun hunting season was closed. He smiled a bit, looking at those notes, and then went back to the entry he was writing.
He wrote down his memory of his grandpa, and he felt the satisfaction of a successful hunt. He patted the wall of the stand. This old place held so many memories that he never went home empty-handed, even when it wasn’t hunting season.