Presented by Bernard+Associates: Five a.m., opening day breakfast hadn’t changed much. Hank, Frank and Floyd, two of the brothers nursing hangovers, Pastor Fred, Harry and Earl still commandeered the corner table, raucous as crows in a cornfield.

Earl owned the place, “The Shot,” he named it, one of those small town bar/breakfast joints that smelled of coffee and smoke and burned bacon and eggs, good smells to a deer hunter. Folks ladled out jam and jelly with a communal spoon and poured cream from the same pitcher and sugar from the same jar.

Winston still tasted good like a cigarette should, everybody carried lever actions and wore wool, and most downed a deer by season’s end. A shot of Earl’s coffee in the morning, a shot at a deer during the day, and a shot of Earl’s whiskey in the evening . . . no matter what, everybody took a shot. Hence the name. Time seems to stand still in a small town.

Jack Troutwine sat in a back booth sipping bitter black coffee and listening to their voices. Twenty years gone as a boy and back as a man, no one had recognized him but he remembered them, the rhythm and cadence of their words familiar as old friends. Snippets of conversations reached across the restaurant and across the years to his booth, making him smile.

“Dogs and dopes are going to inherit the earth and I hope it’s the dogs,” Father Fred intoned, disgusted with some chicanery somewhere.

“Not the poor?” Frank winked at Floyd, figuring he’d goosed Pastor Fred in the gospel for once.

“Hell no. That’d mean dopes like you two would be in charge. Give me a Chihuahua anytime. At least it has enough sense to sit in an old woman’s lap instead of chasing her from bar to bar half the night and throwing away good money hand over fist.”

Whistles and jeers greeted the retort, flushing the brothers deep red as the Woolrich coats that hung from their chairs. “Don’t think I didn’t hear about you two boys stuck in a poor man’s hoist last night.”

The brothers glared accusations at one another before Frank spoke. “How’d you know we were in the ditch? We didn’t tell anybody, did we, Floyd?”

Floyd shrugged.  “I sure didn’t.”

Pastor Fred grinned like he had God in his back pocket. “The Lord is my shepherd, boys, and keeps a good watch out for the wolves who threaten my flock.”

About then Earl’s wife dropped steaming plates of breakfast around the table, stilling the din for a second, long enough for Hank to lambaste the food starting with the bacon, an opening day tradition.

“Hey Earl, these pigs of yours fly?”

“What do you mean, Hank?” Earl winked and played along while everybody leaned in for Hank’s jibes, wondering how he’d outdo last year’s tirade.

“Pardon me, Pastor, but for chrissakes, Earl, the bacon looks like a couple of hummingbird tongues, the eggs look like scrambled canaries, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say the toast is burned blacker than the stain in a hobo’s undies. You expect us to eat this mess?”

Laughter and disgust drowned most of the conversation and as the restaurant filled, the last voices Jack heard were Harry’s complaining how his deer-chasing shorthair always ripped his tongue on briars and bled like he’d “swallowed a box of knives,” and one of the brothers bragging how his new girlfriend could swat down grouse like she was “backhanding stepchildren.” From their gestures, though, he knew they’d turned to buck stories, each measuring invisible spreads bigger than the others.

Finishing his coffee, Jack rose to leave, never able to eat on opening day, his nerves likely to jitterbug with anything in his stomach, his excitement keen as ever.

“Jack? Jack Troutwine? Well I’ll be damned,” Pastor Fred remarked, catching Jack’s eye and rising to stand unsteadily on his cane.

Jack reached across the table, careful not to squeeze the pastor’s hand too hard, and nodded at the others. He noticed a walker behind Hank, his face a geography of gullies and ravines, and grey hair curling from beneath the brothers’ caps. Even Harry, the youngest, wore a web of spider veins in his cheeks, the patina of age purpling his skin. Time had found another entrance, separating then from now.

“Home for the hunt?”

“Yessir.”

“How’s your father? I haven’t seen him in a month of Sundays.”

“Good. A little slower.”

“Aren’t we all.”

“You hunting the marsh or the swamp field?”

“The swamp field, I think.”

“It’s as good an opening day spot as any, I suppose. Been an awful dry summer, though. From what I heard, even the turtles were packing canteens. Collar-up weather today, though.”

Jack grinned and nodded. “How ‘bout  you?”

“None of us old farts hunts much more than memories, Jack,” Pastor Fred responded for the group. “We still do breakfast, though, and talk deer like when you were a kid, and Earl still antes up a free drink if you shoot a good one. Right, barkeep?” He slapped Earl on the back and laughed.

Small talk gave way to pause, allowing Jack to leave before the silence stretched to awkward. Good lucks followed him out the door where a light snow drifted across the parked trucks, swirled into small tornadoes by the wind. Backing out, he glimpsed crow tracks walking the edge of his eyes, shook his head ruefully and pointed his headlights toward the swamp field.

Rituals remain, he thought, hearing the whispers of his own mortality, but we don’t. Grateful to still be part of the hunt, he watched the restaurant fade in the rearview mirror.

An hour later Jack Troutwine shivered in the darkness before dawn, happy with his discomfort while awaiting the most important morning of the year. He believed in hunting the hard way, with no blinds or bait, just an overturned bucket in a field overlooking a cedar swamp with the wind in his face. Jack had always hunted this way, believing a level playing field made the experience true.

Pulling the gun to his shoulder like an old friend and aiming at an oak across the field, he felt confident knowing it fired where it pointed and huddled down into the rhythm of the hunt as snow stung his skin like slivers of ice. Weaving among ragged, grey clouds, a half-moon glowed like a gem in the black ear of night and the sky wore a sparkly number sequined with stars, both promising sunrise despite the snow that powdered the trees and clung to his coat. It reminded Jack of an old time ticker-tape parade layering the landscape with confetti.

The snow also coated the fur of a swollen-necked buck resting under a cedar deep in the swamp after a night of carousing. If Jack had known, he would’ve shivered with more than cold.

The morning’s music was sung by the usual choir, owl song and pheasant reveille followed by mallard chuckle and the whistle of wood ducks seeking refuge elsewhere. Woodpeckers banged the timpani, startling loud-winged doves onto the low branches of a hawthorn. Bluejays shouted the sun’s coming as the sky brightened beneath clouds turned to cotton candy in the pink wash of dawn, pools of blue forming between them as if someone had broken through ice. Across the field young maples mixed with birch and poplar began to glow like sparklers in the gathering light, their yellow leaves bright as finches, while a clump of shrubs blushed red knowing nakedness was soon to come. Of all moments, these were Jack’s favorite, the hymn of color and sound that foreshadowed morning.

Minutes later three apparitions hugged the swamp edge. The color of shade, they eased from the cedars cautiously and angled toward him, jittery in the wind, ears alert, ghosting into the brown grass invisible as chameleons. Lifting and lowering their heads in syncopation, they moved with stealth, furtive and shy and impossibly silent as they closed within 15 yards, eyes locked to his, sensing wrong. Jack hung a crosshair on the biggest deer when all three heads dipped.

Pow!

He heard the shot in his imagination and watched the doe fall before lowering his rifle, dry run done. Cutting man-scent in a swirl of wind, the deer whirled, grabbed her sisters by the hand, it seemed, and disappeared as if never there.

“Goodbye, girls,” Jack whispered, staring at an empty field except for the trees and grass and rising wind that loosed snow squalls from a bank of black clouds. The rest of the morning snow and sun traded turns as Jack squinted for another glimpse of the supernatural.

By noon his concentration flagged and his mind sifted through memories of other hunts. He remembered every deer he’d ever killed, from the orchard eight-point to the first one as a 14-year-old boy, a doe taken with a .410 slug on the last day at dusk deep in the cedar swamp he studied now. Searching in the dark, uncertain of his aim, he finally found it dead under a thicket of pin cherries when his flashlight reflected green off the doe’s vacant, iridescent eye. Bending to touch its fur, he choked back tears, overcome with joy and sorrow.

Gathering himself, he struggled the deer to a small stream that meandered among the dense cedars, in his mind feeling again the cold water pressing against his boots as he floated the doe downstream through the swamp on a starry, cold night toward camp.

Hearing the shot, his father had waited anxiously in the light of a gas lantern, the hiss of its mantle sinister to the old man as he watched for his boy before breaking into a grin when he caught sight of him holding his gun in one hand and a hoof in the other. Together they gutted the deer and dragged it to the truck, their breath white as moonlight in the cold, before emotion overwhelmed him and Jack cried openly.

“It’s the way you’re supposed to feel,” his father counseled.  “If you felt otherwise, you wouldn’t be a hunter who honors what God gives you; you’d be a poacher, which is the same thing as a killer. Wait here.”

He went to the animal and returned to touch its blood to Jack’s lip. “You’re not a boy anymore.”

Jack accepted the covenant, understanding that hunting had imbued in him a compassion and respect for life unlike any other experience, teachings he would honor for the rest of his life, and he knew that day he could no more stop hunting than he could stop breathing. The music played too loudly in him. The irony of taking a life to revere it, however, was not lost on him, a dilemma he would never resolve, and he knew his elation in taking an animal always would be tempered by grief for its death.

Late that afternoon the resting buck arose rejuvenated and hungry. Sidestepping a downed cedar, he moved silently through the thick underbrush toward the edge of the swamp where a gnarled oak littered the ground with acorns, the same one Jack aimed at in the morning. Wind-gusts paused his pace and the deer stood still as a statue while reading a thousand sights and sounds and smells from the landscape, recognizing them all, sorting safety from each.

Jack saw no movement even after the deer entered the field to follow the doe trail. By now evening veiled the swamp and joined the deer, draping shade over the snow-powdered grass.

Something out of place caught Jack’s eye, something extra, a stump he hadn’t noticed before. Raising his rifle slowly, he laid the crosshairs against the object just as sunset seeped under the clouds to reveal a row of red candles glimmering in the dusk, seven in all, a moment’s menorah.

Swamp buck, Jack thought, noting the reddish-dark horns. Heart racing, he braced his elbow on his knee and aimed. In the instant between the touch of the trigger and the sound of the shot, the buck fell, heart and shoulder shattered by the bullet.

Trembling from the hunt’s crescendo, Jack racked the rifle and watched for the deer to rise and run. Struggling to quell his emotion, he waited 20 minutes before walking toward the oak where the buck lay dead. A red splash darkened the snow like spilled wine. Taking a thin wafer of the dark snow, he placed it to his lips and listened to the wind sing in the field.

“Thank you,” he murmured, kneeling to care for the deer before heading back to Earl’s, his heart filled with the song of the hunt.

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