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Volume 2, Number 8
August, 1997

Hunting Season

by John Merz

 "Whaddya think?"
 I looked at the corpse. "Yep, I'd have to agree with you."
 "So it was a wolf?"
 I nodded. "Uh, huh. Big one." The throat had been ripped out. Massive blood and tissue loss.
 The fat sheriff hadn't seen anything like this before and as much as said so. "What would make 'em do this?"
 "Could be rabies."
 "A rabid wolf?"
 "Could be." He chose to let that go and looked at me. Regarded my unkempt beard, long hair and dirty jeans. He wasn't happy.
 "Can you...y'know, take care of it?"
 I looked at him. Scared. A donut eater coming face to face with a big wolf. This kind of thing wasn't in his plans when he took the job. Today he was lucky. "Yep."
 I'm a hunter by trade. It's what I do. Explaining why would be like asking a fish what's so special about water. So, I won't even try.
 But I'm one of the best.
 I'd been trekking cross-country like I always do this time of year. Autumn. Hunting season. Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, I love the Northeast woods. It's wide open wilderness up there and if you weren't careful you'd get so damned lost you'd better know how to eat pine bark.
 The town had a problem. I stumbled into it pretty much by accident, picking up some new ammunition for the Remington I carried. I stayed a day and had lunch at the diner. One of those old ones, looks like it was dumped there by some strange time warp. Good cherry pie.
 Talk runs cheap in diners like that and I'd pretty much overheard the entire story by the time my second cup of coffee arrived. I finished, paid up from the small amount of cash I carried in my bedroll and strolled down a side street to visit the sheriff.
 Like I said, he wasn't happy. I told him I could help. He asked for credentials. I showed him the Remington.
 We walked to the body holding area at the local graveyard. Most of the cemeteries have them up here, but don't use 'em that much anymore. Ground gets so cold during the winter months they used to have to stow the bodies until the soil thawed out and they could be buried.
 The deputy was definitely dead. Probably took less than twenty seconds for him to die. Having your throat ripped out isn't pleasant.
 The two man police force had just been halved and Sheriff Cruller Boy wasn't looking forward to running the place alone. He hadn't had many volunteers for deputization either. He looked me up and down again. I hoped this wouldn't take too long. He grinned that nervous smile that people who live and die doing everything by the book smile when they realize they're about to step off a page.
 "Good luck."
 I nodded and left the town.

 Octobers in Maine get damned chilly at night. I was in the woods, pretty sure of what I'd be facing. Wolves are magnificent animals and supreme hunters. I respect them and keep my distance. They don't like people and would rather leave them alone. A rabid one changes things. Poor creature'll be out of his skull with madness, doesn't know which way is home and he'll be driven to kill over and over again until he dies. That could take a long time.
 There are parts of Maine where the trees grow so thick and close together you'd sure as hell better not be claustrophobic. Balsam firs and cedars and pines hedge you in everywhere you turn. It's not easy hiking. If you're not careful the damned forest'll swallow you whole and spit you sideways when she's done.
 My moccasin boots gripped the ground. They were made from deer skin and cow hide. Durable and quiet, they left very little in the way of tracks.
 It was damp this time of year from the rain that precede the snows. It was soft from the sea of pine needles that cushioned the forest floor. Sounds get muffled. Everything is closer than it appears to be. Good if you're hunting, like I was. Bad if you were hunted, like the deputy.
 The lake was the only source of water in the area, save for some decrepit, muddy puddles. The wolf would need water.
 I set my back against the heavy pine and waited. It was cloudy. The moon was a dull glow behind a cloud, climbing higher in the sky as time marched on. The wolf didn't show. Around two I fell asleep, let the Remington meander into my lap and shut out everything but sound.

 I woke up wet. I was lying in the lake with four inches of water around me. I must have rolled from my perch into the water. I was soaked.
 Getting a fire started wasn't easy but the waterproof matches worked and soon I was pretty warm. I collected some water from the lake, boiled it, strained it, and boiled it again and then added some pine needles. The tea warmed me and gave me some vitamin C.
 After I scattered the fire, I checked the shoreline for tracks. I came upon them right away. Big ones. By the depth and clarity, they'd been made last night. While I was asleep. That wouldn't happen again.
 I followed the tracks with the Remington slung across my back. They circled lazily around the lake and my perch. Damn thing knew I was there. The tracks took off and headed deep into the woods and then emerged by the edge of a small farm. Sheriff Cruller Boy's car was parked out front, sideways, TV cop style with the lights flashing. The wolf had killed again last night.
 The tracks went across the field but I didn't follow them. I didn't need to. I knew what had happened here. What was important was for me to figure out where it was bedding down during the day. I searched the perimeter of the field for returning tracks and found none.

 That night the sky was pretty clear. The lake was well lit by the moon and I felt pretty confident that my wolf'd be back to drink again. If he hadn't lost his mind entirely, he might be playing with me. After all, he'd run circles around my hide last night. He could easily have scented me.
 The Remington nosed through the grass by the shore and waited patiently. I figured it would approach from the West which was where the farm was. His tracks hadn't returned and if he was bedding down by his kills then he'd be back this way soon.
 I snuggled down again and waited.

 I don't know what time it was when I woke up. It was mid morning at least. I was tired and groggy and the Remington was gone. The lake was numbingly cold. I was lying in it again. A fine gray mist had settled over the area. I brewed another batch of tea and warmed myself as best I could by the fire.
 Something was bothering me about the lake. There was a definitive lack of animal life. There were a ton of new tracks pressed into the mud, but they all belonged to my wolf. There was nothing else. No raccoon, no deer, and especially no squirrels. A few birds lingered in song here and there but they were scattered aways south from the lake.
 I felt no need to eat. I really didn't need to. I'd gone for days without eating when I'd hunted before like this. I'd pork out when I got back. For now the teas I brewed from the local plants were enough.
 I was tired again, and I wanted to know where the Remington was. I had a bad feeling it was somewhere in the lake. How it got there, I had no idea.

 Another night by this damned lake. I'm beginning to experience a type of deja vu. I don't like it. Every night starts out like this, although tonight I have no rifle with me, just the hand-made Bowie knife I got from a tracker in Texas.
 The blade catches the moonlight and glistens. The lake is bright under a canopy of stars and the full moon which outshines everything close to it in the sky.
 I've slept for most of the day. I'm so fatigued I don't understand it. It's only been two, maybe three days since the cherry pie at the diner. Boy that was good. Definitely going back there when I find this wolf.
 Damned wolf! Where the hell is it? I'm staying awake tonight. I'll kill the damned thing with my knife and hands if I have to but I'm staying awake tonight. Why am I so tired? My eyelids drop once and then I drag the Bowie across my palm to stay awake.
 The blood flows freely. Blade was sharp as a bastard. In the crisp air the copper smell lingers around me. Cautiously I lick the blood from the cut. I don't want it falling to the ground and having the wolf go crazy to get it. The copper stings my throat and my eyes water. I hesitate and then ease forward to lap a bit of water from the lake. Stupid I know. There's a lot of organisms in the water that'll have me squatting for days. But I needed something to wash down the blood.
 The moon's so damned bright. Feels like the sun. Nice and warm. Hot even. I glance around and make sure the wolf isn't here and then remove my green and black flannel shirt, lay it down carefully by the tree. Moonsunlightshine warmer warmer warmer. Sweating now. Jesus, what did that blood do to me? My camouflage pants come off with my moccasins so I can squat in the lake to cool off.
 The water touches me and I shiver once before I begin sweating again. What the hell is going on here? Ouch! What was that? Itch. Need to scratch my back. I drop the knife and reach behind to scratch my shoulder. Damned hairy back's what I've got. Blame my mother and father for that. It's a genetic thing.
 More itches make me scratch at every pore of my body, I look around for the poison ivy I must be sitting in, but there's none around. Damn, I'm going to need a haircut pretty soon, for my body. I didn't realize I had this much.
 For a moment I can't see, and then at once my vision is restored, but different. I see things now. I hear things too. I smell more blood. My hand is caked with it. I sniff at it curiously. My tongue scrapes across the leathery skin of my palm and my saliva swells with the taste of my own blood.
 I need more of it.
 I move, easily, nonchalantly through the woods, sniffing, listening, tasting the air. My moccasins are gone, replaced by my paws. My fur clings to branches as I pass.
 I'm acutely aware of the rhythm that flows in the woods. The rhythm of life. It runs parallel to me. I can leap into that flow at any time to disrupt it, take from it. Whenever I do, it closes up behind me and I'm left with my kill, my meal.
 But for now, I have nothing.
 And now I hunt.
 I told you I was the best. Maybe I'll wander around Sheriff Cruller Boy's way and see if he's convinced. A cycle of twenty eight days and a full moon is all it takes to make me complete.
 It feels good to remember again.
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