The Hunter's Tale, a short story by JD Duran
A Hunter’s Tale
John McCullough slowly set down his glass. Weary and drowsy from the day gone by. It had been a day to remember, that was unmistakable. Never in all his years had he been so terrified. After any normal hunting day, no matter the amount of game in the kitchen, he would be drowsy from the fresh air, tired of walking, and satisfied. He recognized and accepted the primal feelings endured while hunting. Adrenaline would be racing through his body, and he would feel like nothing could stop him. Yes, primal feelings. Today he experienced another primal feeling: fear. And it was something he did not enjoy. Woeful about the loss of his long-time companion, he looked at the picture up above the fireplace. There he was, standing in full ornate, next to his faithful friend. Her long, wavy hair, a little messed up by running through the woods, shining in the golden sun. They would never be hunting side by side anymore. Never again, hunting the way he loved it, his l2-gauge over and under Winchester, and his pal side by side. Sammy had been the name of his Chesapeake Bay retriever. 9 years old, she had been his companion on all his hunting-trips in the past decade. Never had she let him down. Smiling, he remembered one specific incident, with a rabies-infected fox. The fox turned around at them, after having received two full shots from the Winchester. Her fangs drawling, she bit Sammy in the foreleg. Never had John seen an animal infected this badly with the fatal disease. The vixen’s head was bald between the ears; her fur was all fluffy, she looked terribly sick. Moreover, the insane look in her eyes, not just fear of dying, but anger. Sammy had backed off, and John had ended it with the back of the 12gauge. Sammy had had her shots the same day, and the veterinarian assured them it would be no problem. Yes, they had surely had a great time together. But that was all over now. With a shock, he suddenly relived the terrible few minutes that had changed his life. A moment he never dreamed could happen, and never thought it to be so terrible. More than anyone could imagine. Two weeks later, one of his hunting friends, Philip, came by. Sitting together near the fireplace, the old man asked John without resumption what had happened to his dog. John froze, and told him he did not want to tell, not yet. His conversational partner frowned, but let it go for the moment. Silently, the two men emptied their Jägermeisters. It was not for another week, until John was invited to join a hunting day with the combination. He was sitting comfortably on an old chair. Except for one beater, who was new, he knew all the men. Philip was sitting on the leather couch, installed in the old barn. They were joined at one of the participants’ estate, an old farm with two houses and two barns, of which one was still in use. The bullocks had home there. Everyone was chitchatting; some of the men were smoking, even one of the older gentlemen was chewing tobacco. John was enjoying a steaming mug of coffee, while talking to one of the beaters. The young fellar was a promising young hunter that sometimes walked with Sammy, on the longer hunts. The young man did not talk much. Rolling a cigarette, he was whistling some old song. He only stopped to lick the cigarette paper. Philip slowly got up from the couch, visibly painful. His leg seemed to be getting worse with every season, but he never missed a meeting. Some of the others claimed he was too greedy, always wanting the biggest trophy. However, John did not care; he liked him, no matter what anyone said. During lunch, a spread of sausages and cheese was presented, together with some soft drinks, and the Schnapps. Philip was carefully considering John, who noticed, but decided to feign ignorance. He knew he was going to have to tell Philip eventually. Rather later, then sooner, he thought. He just didn’t want to be confronted with the incident yet. Outside the barn, John saw through the open door the new beater who was talking with the hunting master. Apparently, they were discussing the tableau of game in the back of the truck. The truck was actually a converted pick-up. Screaming blue, with the likeness of a wild boar on both doors. This brought McCullough back to the Saturday a fortnight ago. Slightly trembling he brought his mug to his lips, and saw Philip staring at him over the rim. He wanted to tell him, but in a little while, in private. He set his mug on the wooden table, mumbled something to no one in particular about finding a tree, and walked out. He hadn’t walked up to the tree line yet, when he heard a voice behind him. “Were you planning on telling me what happened, or do you want to keep it all to yourself?” Philip, obviously. Without turning around, he found the nearest tree, and unzipped his corduroy pants. An unpleasant ammonia smell rose up to his nostrils. Around five o’clock they had a nice tableau laying in front of them. Nine wood pigeons, seven rabbits and fifteen hares in total. Not bad for this particular field especially if the outbreak of myxomatosis last season was considered. John chose himself a fat clay-hare, and two wood pigeons. The latter would taste nice in a chicken soup. He decided then and there he’d cook the hare according to an ancient recipe. All went back inside the old barn, they let the Schnapps flow richly. McCullough took a few too many, and became rather talkative. The young lad was telling some stories about his work in prison, and everybody listened carefully. They always loved his stories. After all, which Hunter doesn’t love a story? He finished his story with one of his many sayings; "and that’s the way it works. John smiled. He really felt sympathy for this young man. Looking down his glass, he felt piercing eyes. Every single person in the room was looking at him. He felt his throat tightening, and his mouth got dry. The hunting master took word. "I think we’ve all heard by now, about the accident John had, while hunting on his premises two weeks ago.” “We’re all very sorry about your Sammy, John”, said one of the hunters. The others agreed and offered their sympathies. “Maybe you want to get it off your chest?”, the hunting master continued. It sounded more like a request than an offer. John glared at Philip, whose eyes seemed to say “it’s okay, just go ahead.” John sighed, and poured himself another drink. “Well, ok, but this is hard on me, I’d prefer it if there were no jokes.” " No problem”, said one of the older men in the room. “Ok then, here’s what happened.” As he started talking, every person in the room got serious, and they listened with great expectation. John guessed they would be filled with horror once he finished his Tale. He didn’t want to spoil the mood, however, since they more or less strong-armed him into this position, he felt no remorse. They wanted a Tale, and they’d get one. One they’d never forget. “I got up early, and enjoyed some breakfast, with a few cups of coffee. As always Sammy knew what was in the happening, wagging her tail in great excitement, and walking circles around me. I fed her only half of her normal ration, because as you all know, you want to keep a dog a little hungry on a hunting day. I checked the Winchester, and made sure I had enough ammunition. If I’m not excited enough myself, Sammy makes up for the both of us. It is always difficult to get her into the car. I put some coffee in the thermos, and made some extra sandwiches, just in case. I slipped into my clogs, and tossed the Chameau boots in the back of the Discovery. I locked Sammy in the cage, and was ready to go. John paused to look around the room, and to sip from his glass, then decided to make it ‘bottoms up’. He rolled a cigarette with supplies borrowed from the prison-officer, and went on. “I wasn’t sure what to expect that day, but of course the season was already open for most species. Of course, foxes are always outlawed on my premises, seen the damage they do. In addition, the bad case of myxomatosis from last season, urged me to end their scavenging. I was all ready for a nice walk in nature, and hopefully some game. I drove all the way up to the northern boundary, and parked the Discovery on the side of a path. I let Sammy out, and she immediately started scuffling around, sniffing and marking everywhere. I took the 12-gauge out, put in two shells before putting it on safe, and hung it on my shoulder. Fully prepared, I started walking southwards. We walked not even a few yards when I heard some rustling in the bushes ahead of us. Sammy pointed, trembling nervously. I took the gun from my shoulder, removed the safe, and aimed it toward the bushes, ready to take a trophy. An undersized rabbit came hopping out, and I decided to let it go. The dog thought otherwise, not understanding why she didn’t hear the crack of a shot. Smiling I sat her down, and shooed the rabbit off. After a while, Sammy decided I made the right decision, and we continued on southwards. More alert this time. Sometimes not pulling the trigger is more satisfying, I reminded myself. About a mile further up, a beautiful pheasant cock flew straight up, and the retriever spun out of control. While aiming, I decided I didn’t have a clear shot, and let Sammy rage out. She came back soon, and stayed afoot. The moment we started walking again, another rabbit shot out of the undergrowth, and this time it was of a good size. It tailed off, and I aimed and squeezed. It rolled over perfectly, and Sammy retrieved the trophy as if it were a contest. I hung it over my shoulder with a string, and we continued strolling. Nothing much happened for another half hour, except for some woodcocks flying off, with flapping wings. No commotion whatsoever. Then we stumbled upon a new badger set with fresh droppings next to it. Since the pipe was not clean, I suspected the striped friend had a tenant, probably a fox. Not an exception to the rule lately, since the habitat has become smaller for the red-tails. I made a mental note to keep an eye on the burrow and the surrounding area from now on, in the hope to bring in a fox. Then Sammy picked up scent, and scoffed around the undergrowth of ferns and moss. As I walked towards her, a fox that had apparently tried to sneak around us took off on my left. The dog went after it, growling and whining. They were soon out of sight, and I whistled to bring her back. No result. I knew she had gone down a tunnel now. To her the world now consisted of a dog and a fox. No use calling her, so I went galloping after them. Hoping Sammy would either give up, or bring it in, without too much of a fight. As small as they are, I know how those red canines can fight. Normally I would get worried in such a situation, but today I was boiling with energy. I followed their trail, listening for any sound that might indicate their whereabouts.” Again, he paused, swallowing with a dry throat, and sipped some Schnapps. The others kept him well-stocked, while listening intensely. The group of hunters looked at him with visible anticipation. “John?” Philip. “If you don’t want to go on, we’d understand.” Some of the men glared at him with a mixture of irritation, and understanding. John knew how they loved to listen to Hunter’s Tales, himself included. Although he figured, they couldn’t comprehend what would follow. Even he himself was not sure anymore. However, he had started it, so he would have to finish it now. He took a deep breath, a sip, inhaled some smoke, and continued his Tale. “It was at that moment, that I heard the Sound for the first time. It was a very deep, roaring growl. Never had I heard a Sound like this before. Sure enough, I have heard the impressing roars of many a wild boar. Even the deep troat of a high-point buck can sound scary in the dusk. Nothing like this. A terrifying, chilling Sound. I froze, and for a moment, I wanted to sit in front of my safe fireplace again. Just as I was about to turn and run, I remembered my retriever taking off after his smaller family member. I stumbled forwards, hoping to find my Sammy very soon. Hoping to get out of these ‘haunted’ woodlands. As I approached a clearing in the woods, surrounded by pine and oak, I again heard the low, spine-chilling Roar. Afraid as I was, I noticed it was closing in on me. I stepped into the clearing, and then I saw it. It was a massacre. Red fur and blood everywhere. Plucks of hair stuck to small ferns. Dark bloodstains marked freshly cut wood. At the center of this horrible scene, I noticed a bump. As I came closer, I smelled copper in the air, mixed with the smell of freshly-cut pine. And I smelled something else. Rage. If that has a smell. Not until then did I see what the bump represented. A skull grinned up at me, the eyes balled out, as in surprise. The triangular ears flat to the back. The fox. I couldn’t, and more importantly, didn’t want to believe my loyal four-legged friend could have done this. Where was the rest of the corpse? Where was Sammy? More pressing though, what the heck did this? Was it the Roar? What kind of animal would do this? I did not want to find out by experience. I made up my mind. I’d come back for Sammy later. Right then I just wanted to return to the car. The deep red Discovery, that seemed to draw me back. Safety. I did not know exactly how far back I parked it. I guessed it would take me twenty minutes to get back to the boundary. I turned around, and went off, in order to find the four-wheel drive.” He swallowed again, feeling his heart beating in his chest. Trembling he rolled another cigarette, gathering his words. “I hadn’t walked a mile or so, when another Roar stopped me in my track. It sounded right behind me, now. I felt my knees getting weak, and totally froze. Fear. It does have a smell after all. I managed to turn around. It seemed to take me forever. With unsteady hands, I took the Winchester, made sure the safe was off, and broke it to check the shells. I had forgotten to reload for the first time in my life. Trembling with fear, I took the empty shell out, and put it in the left pocket of my jacket. I reached in the right, to take out a loaded slug. It was empty. I felt again, to be sure. Nothing. Then I realized the buttons were open. I had lost the ammunition while running! I felt stupid. Only one shell. One shell to protect my life. Protect it from whatever Creature was in front of me. A sound. Ruffling leaves. A terrible stench. Death. Scraping hooves on the ground. What on Earth, was this Monster chasing me? Chasing me, and possibly killing everything on its way. Darn, what it did with the fox, it could’ve done with Sammy. It could do the same with me. Whatever they say in movies, whatever you read in those horror stories; my life did not flash by. I could only think of the skull grinning at me. The branches bended, and then I saw it. A huge Boar stepped out. Never had I seen this big an animal. It seemed to match my shoulders in height. It let out a terrifying Roar. The Sound. It certainly matched the humongous shape. I found myself frozen again. It scraped its hooves once more, and then came in motion. It ran right at me. Blowing and growling it came closer incredibly fast. Out of nowhere, Sammy came bashing through the bushes, and leaped onto the Monster’s neck, digging her teeth deep into its bristles. The huge Boar stopped in its track. It stopped. That wasn’t possible. An animal of this seize, and especially a pig, never stopped this fast. This was the weakness of big game, and the hunter’s luck. However, this one did. It just made a halt, and shook the dog off, as if waving away a fly. It blew smelling steam. Stinking hot, bloody steam. I fell to the ground. The Boar glared at me, with its undersized eyes. Huge tusks smiled at me. I felt death approaching. Lifting up the l2-gauge, I remembered what they had taught me during the course, a long time ago. - A 12-gauge will not penetrate the flesh of a pig, especially in winter. The fat layer is around 4 inches thick, and the skin is too tough. Always make sure you carry a side arm, equal to a caliber .44.- I knew myself dead. At that very moment, Sammy came to my rescue once again. For the last time. She grabbed the Boar’s tail. Good old Sammy. I quickly pointed the barrel at the throat of the Pig, and pulled the trigger. The gun backfired against my hip. I remember thinking it would become a nice bruise. I witnessed the back of the neck exploding. Throwing out samples of hair, flesh and blood. The monster blew out a last, loud snort. The Roar that shook my body for the last time. I fainted. When I came to, I was laying half under the corpse of Sammy. Good old Sammy. She had saved my life, giving hers. I softly shook her head, but no reaction. For a while, I just laid there, sobbing, holding her warm body. I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t want to. I held her for a while, - I lost track of time -, then gently pushed her off. What I saw, struck me like lightning. I saw … nothing. The Boar had disappeared. It was gone. But I had seen its brains flying out.... All that was left was a puddle of blood, with recognizable brain tissue. Still weeping, I picked up my sweet friend and left for the car. I drove home, where I buried Sammy in a special place.” John softly sniffed, and looked down. The group of tough hunters was quiet. Finally, he looked up, and saw looks of horror. For a long time, no-one said anything. “Did they find the Boar, or even a blood trail?” The young man. He handed me the tobacco. “No. I filed a report the next day, after sundown. A tracker went to look for it, with two bloodhounds. They found nothing.” The hunting master spoke. “That is a remarkable Tale, John. A true Hunter’s Tale.” Nobody replied. They all sat silently. Smoking and drinking a little more than ususal. John started to feel drunk. Everybody sank deep into their own thoughts. Thinking about the Hunter’s Tale.