BY CL BLEDSOE
Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love. —Proverbs 5:19
Barbed wire stretched between the trees almost to chest height, nailed to posts when there were gaps, directly to the trees when there weren’t. Posted, No Hunting, and No Trespassing signs were spaced evenly every ten feet or so, with purple paint on the trees in between. “Look at this,” Jimmy said, fingering the fence wire. “Like damn Fort Knox.”
Earl wasn’t looking at the fence; he stared beyond it, into the gray light of the forest.
“Reckon we can get over it?” Earl asked.
Jimmy tugged on it. “Hell, it’s screwed in good. I bet we could climb it.”
“Hold my gun,” Earl said and stepped onto the bottom twine. It held fine, so he worked his way up and slid his leg over top to the other side.
“Mind the barbs,” Jimmy said.
“The hell you think I’m doing,” Earl grunted. He swung his other leg over and hopped down. Jimmy handed Earl’s gun back and then his own. Jimmy climbed up more gingerly than Earl had and struggled at the top to get his leg clear of the fence.
“Mind what you’re doing,” Earl hissed.
Jimmy caught his leg on the top and cried out as the fence gashed him. He fell to his knees on the forest floor.
“You been drinking already?” Earl said.
Jimmy sighed and got to his feet. He bent and checked his ankle where he’d been cut.
“Tore my damn sock,” he said. He rubbed the hurt place and looked up to see Earl glaring at him. “No call for being nasty.”
Earl shook his head and looked away. “You probably just scared everything away.”
They walked for more than an hour, accompanied only by the sound of their boots on the leaves and twigs. Jimmy wanted to ask if Earl knew how big the Johnson place was, anyway, but he was spooked by that look Earl had given him. But the desire to ask pressed on his thoughts, insistent. The words were forming on his tongue when Earl held up a hand to signal they should stop. Jimmy scanned the trees ahead. They’d crossed an arc of a ridge earlier, come down into the bowl in its middle, and were about to climb up the far side. Ahead, at the top of the rise, Jimmy saw her: a good-sized doe. Earl already had his Remington up. For years afterward, Jimmy replayed the next few seconds in his mind. They existed more as the story he’d told over and over than as actual memories. The way he told it, Earl shifted on his feet and made just enough noise to signal the deer. That may have been the truth, or Jimmy may have been the one that made the noise, which, as the years grew longer between his old age and this day, grew to seem the more likely scenario. Or maybe nobody tipped the doe; maybe she just sensed them. Regardless, she looked up, right at Jimmy. He could feel her eyes on him. Earl fired and hit, but not in the heart, where he’d hoped. The doe jerked and fell, wallowed for a moment, and found its feet again.
“Awww,” Earl said as she clattered through the brush. He turned on Jimmy. “You damned idgit!”
“What in hell did I do?” Jimmy said, but Earl was already stalking up to the top of the ridge.
The blood was easy enough to follow. Jimmy trailed behind as Earl bullied through the trees and bushes, following the damage already done. It wasn’t long before they saw a house ahead. They left the trees and entered a mown lawn that ringed a long brick ranch house. The deer was ahead, collapsed in the grass. A man squatted over her. When he saw them, he raised a rifle as Earl did the same.
“This is private property,” the man said. “You’re trespassing and hunting illegally.”
“That’s my deer,” Earl said.
“Earl,” Jimmy said.
“Shut up. Get your gun on him. He can’t shoot both of us.”
Jimmy halfheartedly raised his gun but never aimed it. He shook his head, but Earl couldn’t see him.
“I’m calling the law,” the man said. “You can’t do this.”
The thing that stayed with Jimmy was the realization of how upset the man was. It was a turning point whose relevance he had no idea of. The man was visibly shaken; his voice quaked as he spoke. His hands shook holding the gun.
“Look, friend,” Earl said. “The damage is done. That deer’s done for. We’ll just grab her and get out of your hair.” He paused before adding. “We’d be happy to pay you for your trouble. We’re not thieves.”
“You are,” the man said, nodding. “You’re damned thieves and murderers.”
Earl laughed. “It’s a damned deer.”
“You get,” the man said. “Get off my property.”
Jimmy backed away, distancing himself from Earl. The man stood, his gun still on Earl, but he wouldn’t leave the doe.
“Come on,” Earl said. “Calm down. I’m willing to split the meat with you.”
“Earl,” Jimmy said. Something in his voice must’ve gotten through to Earl because, for the first time, he looked at Jimmy. “He’s crying, I think.”
Earl looked and then laughed. “Was that your pet or something?” Earl asked.
The man’s answer to that was to fire.
Jimmy screamed as the first shot hit Earl in the chest. Earl fired wild, and a second shot hit him in the stomach. Earl fell like someone had cut his strings. Jimmy ran. He heard a shot ricochet off a tree but didn’t feel a thing. He ran until he hit the fence, clambered over it, and was out to the road before he realized he’d left his gun somewhere back there.
Jimmy rode in the back of the sheriff’s car up to the house on the Johnson place. The car rolled to a stop, parked, and the sheriff sat there scanning the house and the yard that separated it from the woods.
“I don’t see nothing, Jimmy,” Sheriff Huey said.
“We were around the side, Ronnie—sir.”
Sheriff Huey grunted. He pushed the door open with a creak and rocked to get out of the car. Jimmy waited while Huey ran his sunglassed eyes over the area again and finally came back to let Jimmy out of the back seat.
“Show me,” he said.
They angled across the lawn, around the side of the house, until they saw Earl’s body still lying on the ground. Jimmy pointed, but Huey had already seen it and drew his gun. They were alone, apparently.
“Go check his pulse,” Huey said. “See if he’s breathing.”
“He’s got a bullet in his heart,” Jimmy said, but he did as he was told. Earl still lay where he’d fallen. “He ain’t breathing. He’s cold.”
Huey approached the house and peeked in a window.
“Hey sheriff,” Jimmy said. “That deer’s gone.”
Huey ignored him and moved to the back door, which was about ten feet away from him. He tried the handle and, when it didn’t open, banged on it with the butt of his gun.
“Sheriff’s department,” he called. “Open up.” He waited a few moments and banged again, repeating his order, again with no answer.
“Maybe the front door’s open,” Jimmy said.
Huey looked from the door to Jimmy, then over to Earl’s body. “Yeah,” he said. “But that ain’t where we are.” He reared back to kick the door open, planted one shoe on it, and failed to knock it loose. He fired at the doorknob, which made Jimmy jump, and then kicked it again. After another try, he got it open. “You need to come out with your hands up,” he called into the interior of the house. “I don’t want to have to shoot you.”
There was no answer. Huey turned back to Jimmy. “Go get on that radio and tell them to send an ambulance down here.”
Jimmy jogged several steps away and stopped. “Should I call for backup, too?”
“You hear any shooting, you do.”
Huey disappeared inside.
Jimmy sat in the driver’s seat for a good twenty minutes before Sheriff Huey emerged, followed by Johnson. They came out on the porch, chatting away. Huey saw Jimmy and waved him over. Jimmy hesitated, but left the safety of the car after another wave.
Johnson looked like he’d been in heavy drink. His eyes were red and full of pain. Jimmy figured maybe it was over shooting Earl, but later, after he’d gotten into his cups good, he remembered the man had been crying before he ever shot.
“You call that ambulance?” Huey asked.
As Jimmy was answering, he heard the crunch of tires on gravel behind him and turned to see the ambulance roll up.
“Around the side,” Huey said. “He’s already dead.” The boys headed to find Earl. “Jimmy,” Huey said, making him jump. “You said you chased a deer onto the property, you and Earl.”
Johnson’s hurt eyes were on the floor until Jimmy said, “Yes sir. We did.”
“That’s impossible,” Johnson said. “The fence around the perimeter of this land is six feet high.”
“I’ve seen a deer jump six feet,” Jimmy said.
“Wounded?” Sheriff Huey said.
Jimmy paused and licked his lips. “There was a break—“ But Sheriff Huey raised his hand to silence Jimmy.
“You lie to me again, boy, and I’ll snatch you up so hard you’ll wish you were laying down there with your buddy.”
Jimmy looked from the sheriff to Johnson and lowered his head.
“Yeah,” he said. “We climbed the fence. It was Earl’s idea.” He winced as he said it. “But there was no call for him to shoot Earl.”
“Trespassing, poaching, coming onto his property armed,” Sheriff Huey said. Johnson’s face settled into a resentful smirk. “He’s in his rights to do whatever in hell he pleases.” Sheriff Huey offered Johnson his hand. “I ain’t going to arrest this idiot unless you insist,” he added. “I think enough has been done here. But I’ll get him off your land.”
“That’s fine,” Johnson said. “If you could please just hurry.”
The ambulance crew came with Earl’s body on the stretcher and shoved him into the back of the ambulance. Sheriff Huey waved them on their way. He tipped his hat to Johnson and grabbed Jimmy’s shoulder.
“All right, then,” Huey said.
The screen door slammed behind them as Johnson went back inside.
“You’re not going to arrest him for killing Earl?” Jimmy said.
“You heard everything I have to say on the matter.”
Jimmy spent some time at The Frog, the only decent bar in town, sharing his story and collecting all the gossip he could on Johnson, which mostly amounted to the image of a loner, a weirdo, someone who was probably up to something, or why else would he have all his business out where folks could rifle through it? When Jimmy’s money was gone, and night had long since gathered up all the light in her skirts, he found himself pulling up to the gate at the end of Johnson’s driveway.
He left his truck there, took the handgun out of the glove compartment, and made his way the rest of the driveway on somewhat shaky legs.
He could see light inside coming from the center of the house, but all the other lights were off. Jimmy didn’t even bother with the front door, but went around to the back door Ronnie Huey had kicked and shot open.
Inside, there was music playing. He was in some kind of sitting room. There wasn’t a lot of furniture, but there were rugs on the floor and one recliner. He went through to a living room, which was similarly open and empty and also the source of the music: a record player was going, but Jimmy still didn’t see Johnson. He did see that the light was coming from the next room and stepped through.
He found a big, flat bed, and lying on it, the deer. It was on its side, bloody, and, Jimmy figured, dead. Its head lay limp on the pillows, and its legs were sticking straight out. A blanket covered the legs and some of its side.
Jimmy thought it was dead until it looked at him and made a little noise. Johnson—who Jimmy hadn’t even noticed was kneeling on the floor beside it until that moment—rose and turned on him.
“Get the hell out of my house!” he thundered.
Jimmy retreated, still trying too hard to understand the tableau to realize his own danger.
“What in the world?” Jimmy asked.
Johnson looked at the gun in Jimmy’s hand, reminding him that he still held it. Jimmy pointed it at the deer and then Johnson.
Before Johnson could even try to come to grips with what he was seeing, the deer made a noise that sounded like a cough.
“No, no,” Johnson said.
“What are you…?” Jimmy said, but Johnson was ignoring him. He bent over the deer and stroked its head. The deer shuddered and Johnson whimpered.
“Don’t go,” Johnson said. The deer shuddered again; its whole body seemed to clench like a fist, and then it stopped. “No, no, no!” Johnson said. He was blubbering, weeping like nothing Jimmy had ever seen.
“It’s a deer,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy never told anyone what he saw next. He gave variations of the story, a kind of bragging to keep him relevant, about him returning to the house that night, but never this part. As he stood behind Johnson, trying to think of some way to explain to the man that he was getting all upset over a damn deer, it wasn’t a deer anymore. There was a light—it was the only way to explain it—a glow that suffused the deer’s form in the bed, and the deer shrank until it wasn’t a deer; it was a woman. Her hair was the brown of a deer’s hide, and her skin was the white of a deer’s belly. For one shining moment, her eyes opened and locked on Johnson’s. She smiled—at least that’s how Jimmy remembered it. She was beautiful in a way that Jimmy tried to forget for the rest of his life. The bones of her face were delicate, and that smile struck Jimmy like a bullet. And then she was gone.
Jimmy didn’t know how long he stood there, just looking. The woman stayed a woman after she died. Johnson was huddled over her, crying, and Jimmy was sniffling some, too. After a while, he put a hand on Johnson’s shoulder.
“Hey,” he said. “You okay?” What else was he going to say? It took another couple minutes of him shaking Johnson to rouse him from his stupor. When Johnson finally turned his red-rimmed eyes up at Jimmy, all Jimmy was looking for was some kind of sense to be made from this. Johnson wanted something else. His eyes went to Jimmy’s gun, and Jimmy kept it down. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I ain’t going to—”
But Johnson already had a hand on it, trying to wrench it away. Jimmy squeezed the trigger without even thinking. The bullet entered Johnson’s body and buried itself in his liver. Johnson was already dead.
When he told the story, years later, as the old man on the cellblock, Jimmy would say he went back for revenge.
“Earl was my buddy,” he said. “So I went back to shoot that bastard that shot him. And when his wife showed up, I shot her too.” Every so often, one of the bucks would make a joke about Jimmy having his way with her, but Jimmy always silenced that kind of talk. “She was a beautiful woman,” he said. “She had something about her. Something that kind of didn’t make sense.” Some of them understood, in a way, and some didn’t. “In a way, I did him a favor,” Jimmy would say. “Man has a taste of a woman like that, he doesn’t want to live anymore without her.”