This is based on a true story that happened to my grandfather when I was eleven years old. I don't think he'd mind me crediting it to a new generation of hunters.
Key peeked out of the tent and shivered. More snow had fallen last night although the sky was clear, stars sparkling like cold little fires. Ducking back in, he pulled on his longjohns, his flannel-lined cords, his turtle neck, his flannel shirt, and a sweatshirt. He left the coat, hat, and gloves until after breakfast. Just have to take them off again when he got to the cook tent.
He pulled his waterproof boots on, not bothering to tie them. Just have to take them off again in the cook tent. Ma was real picky about her floor. Giving his brother Tye a shove to wake him up, he stepped out into his family's usual Thanksgiving wonderland. Shivering his way across the clearing, avoiding by memory the campfire ring, invisible in the predawn darkness, he ducked under the cook tent flap just in time to hear the end of an argument.
"I still say he's too young," Ma groused, "but you'll do like you want. Always do." She was piling pancakes onto plates set on the board table.
"Sara," Pa answered patiently, "he's ten. He should have gone out last year, but I caved. Not doing it this year. The boy has to learn to hunt. How else is he going to feed his family?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe go to college and get a good job in the city?"
"I don't want to live in the city," Key protested. "I want to live here." His mother turned, frustration on her face.
"Key, you need to look to your future."
"I am," Key asserted. "Besides, you and Pa both have college degrees, but we still need this elk for meat this winter. Don't see what a degree did for you." Ma threw Pa a really dirty look and turned back to the stove.
"Key, apologize. That's no tone to take with your mother."
"Sorry, Ma," the boy said miserably, "but I don't want to live in a box surrounded by a jillion other boxes. I want to live here."
"I know, Sweetie. I just worry about you. This kind of living isn't going to last forever."
Tye stumbled into the tent, bleary-eyed and needing a shave. "You guys arguing about the squirt again?" he asked, fumbling an enamel cup off the shelf and pouring himself some coffee.
"Ma doesn't want me to go," Key mumbled, thoroughly discouraged. He'd looked forward to his first elk hunt since he was too short to see the top of the camp table. Now Ma was pulling rank, trying to keep him a baby.
"Ma, come on. He's plenty old enough. I was nine when I first went."
"Fine! Whatever!" Ma snapped. "You three are going to gang up on me. I might as well give up now."
Breakfast was quiet at first, everyone uncomfortable with the argument. But then Pa started outlining strategies, and the three males started making plans for the day. The first day of elk season was important. The sooner they got their meat, the sooner they could pack up and go home, leaving the woods to the amateurs, the rich guys from Portland, who came up more to drink and act stupid than get an elk. It was all a holiday to them.
To the four people sitting in the canvas tent that smelled of creosote and cooking grease, this was deadly serious business. No elk meant very little meat over the winter. Lots of beans, mac 'n cheese, and peanut butter. Ma and Pa were teachers and darn good ones, but a teacher's salary didn't stretch very far. They'd gotten two bucks last month during deer season. One was turned into sausages and jerky, and was sitting in their freezer at home. They gave the other to Pa's folks. Gramps had broken his leg falling off a hay wagon in August and couldn't go out with them. They needed the meat as much as Key and his family.
By the time dawn broke over the mountains to the east, Key was sitting on a stand, waiting. Tye and Pa were walking the ridge and the gully, hoping to flush something toward him. He was a good shot. Been shooting since he was too small for the 32 Special he cradled in his arms. If they flushed a bull elk to him, he'd hit it.
The first drive was a bust, so they all moved downhill, toward the Chinaman, a valley north and west of the camp. Pa plunked Key on top of a big stump. Surrounded by thin leafless bushes, he'd be hard to see but could see out fine. Then Pa and Tye slipped over the edge of the hill, down into the Chinaman. They'd drive up this time, hoping to spook any elk hiding in the pucker brush lower down the ravine.
Key sat with his hands between his legs, trying to keep them warm. He didn't blow on them. Elk would hear. He'd been sitting maybe ten minutes when he heard movement down the hill, but south of where Pa and Tye had gone over. He listened hard. The sound was a soft scrape, a sigh, then nothing. Key reminded himself to keep breathing, slow and shallow like Gramps had taught him. No more sounds. The sounds had been downwind, so he decided to look. It was too soon for Pa and Tye to begin the drive up the hill.
Carefully, as quietly as he could, he slipped the bolt on the rifle and chambered a round, then he moved quietly and slowly. Standing at sloth speed, he worked his way carefully out of the brush. Placing each boot precisely, avoiding lumps that might be rocks promising sprained ankles, he ghosted silently toward where the sounds had been. Another patch of brush, a big patch, showed some activity. Broken branches, some hair caught in the breaks, told him some kind of animal had been here.
He plucked one dark brown tuft from a branch and sniffed. Elk. Looked like mane hair, not body hair, which meant a bull. Holding the 32 Special at the ready, he worked his way through the bushes. He was small and thin, which made it easier, but his clothes were bulky, which meant he still had to move with care. Ten glacial minutes later, he could see a small clearing in the middle of the brush. Maybe ten feet across, it had been made by stomping the bushes flat.
Key moved closer, trying to see the ground. He froze, forgetting to breathe. That's not possible, his brain said. He shook his head once to clear it. The light was still pretty weak, so he had to have misunderstood what he saw. He peeked again. It was still there.
Avoiding the grasping branches, he brought the rifle to his shoulder, took a bead, and fired.
Ma met them coming back into camp. She looked at her watch then the sky.
"What are you doing back? Is someone hurt? Are you all OK?" Pa opened the back of the green pickup, showing Ma the head of a five-point bull.
"You got one already?" she asked, disbelief warring with surprise.
"Actually," Pa said, pulling Key forward, "this young man snuck up on it while it slept. Pop couldn't have done any better." Key blushed, pleased. Gramps was the best hunter in the world.
"How in the world did you do that?" Ma asked, pride beaming from her eyes.
"Oh, you know, just snuck along quiet-like." Key smiled modestly. He could see some good roasts and stews in their future, and he had done it.
On his first hunt.
Best day ever!