By Bettyann Moore
Rufus stood dead still, all his senses alert. He turned his head – and his headlamp – in a slow circle. He couldn't imagine Bud, superstitious, rabbit-scared Bud, taking off on his own. So, where'd he get to? The passenger side door was shut; Rufus hadn't heard it open or close.
“That don't mean nothin',” he said aloud, but not too loudly. “A guy can get pretty het up on somethin' and never hear or see hell-all.”
Rufus shut off the lamp and waited for his eyes to adjust. He listened hard. The quiet was absolute. Not a rustle of critters in the grass nor a whisper of cattails by the pond. The back of his neck prickled. He felt like he was being watched. With slightly shaking hands, Rufus turned on the headlamp and whipped his head around to shine the light behind him. Something, something inky black slithered just out of sight and back into the mist.
He shook his head and blinked a few times. Trick of the light was all. Nothing out there.
He walked around the truck, head down, checking for footprints. Except for his own size-16 Sorels, there were none. Bud had little feet for such a big guy, size 9, tops. He reminded Rufus of those old-timey toys … little egg-shaped people … Wobblers? Wobblies? No, Weebles.
“Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down,” he said, remembering the commercials of his childhood. He snorted just a bit, thinking how he'd start calling Bud “Weeble”, or “WeebleBoy”. Once he found him.
He did another walk around the truck in reverse. No sign that Bud had gotten out to take a piss against a tire, nothing. It was full-on dark now and there was hunting to do.
“Fuck, Bud,” Rufus cursed, “get your ass back here, pronto.”
A thought came to him. He shone his light down into the truck bed. He just knew it had to be …
He pulled back a stack of blue tarps and pried open the lid of the cooler he had hidden beneath.
“Damn, thought for sure,” Rufus said. He knew that Bud would be spooked all night unless he provided some refreshment. The six-pack of long-necks in one of the coolers, though, was untouched. He'd hoped that Bud found it, downed a few and, with the added courage, headed up the road.
Rufus was about to hop back in the truck to drive up a ways – Bud couldn't have gotten that far – but he pictured MarySue's sneering glare if he came back empty-handed. He'd already made enough racket and time was wasting.
“Screw you, Bud,” Rufus muttered. “I got this.”
“Screw you, too, Rufus.”
“What the … Bud? Where the hell are you?” Rufus spun around in circles, headlamp sweeping, bouncing and landing on … nothing.
“Quit the crap, Bud,” Rufus snarled. “Where the hell are you?”
“Here. I think I need some help.”
Rufus felt a tapping on his foot and nearly jumped out of his Sorels. Bud was under the truck. Rufus crouched down and shone the light beneath.
“Christ on stick, Bud, what the hell are you doing down there? How'd you get there? Why didn't you answer me?”
Rufus tugged on his friend's arm and slowly dragged him out.
“I seen somethin', Ruf,” Bud said, smacking the dirt off his pants. “It was lookin' at me in the cab.”
“In the cab. Something was looking at you in the cab.”
“Yeah, big yellow eyes. And fangs! It had big yellow fangs, too. Wish I had me a beer.”
Rufus sighed. “Yellow eyes and yellow fangs. Gosh.” Rufus reached into the back of the truck and pulled a long-neck from the cooler. “Here,” he said, “chase the yellow away.”
Bud's eyes went wide. He snatched the bottle from Rufus' hand, unscrewed the cap and slugged down the cold beer in one swallow.
“So, there's this thing with yellow eyes and yellow fangs outside looking at you in the cab?”
Bud burped wetly. “Yup, 'bout pissed my pants.”
“Mighta been the beer,” Rufus muttered. “So you got out of the cab where the thing was with the yellow eyes and yellow fangs and hid under the truck. I got that right?”
Bud scratched his head and screwed up his face, thinking. “Yeah … well, no … I mean, I think I passed out.”
“In the cab.”
“Yeah, in the cab. You got another one of them beers?”
“Not yet, not yet!” Rufus thought his brain was going to explode. “Just tell me how you got from the cab and then under the truck.”
Bud clapped his big paws over his face and rubbed them up and down, up and down like he was scrubbing his face. His seed cap bobbed on his head.
“This ain't a test, Bud.”
Bud pulled his hands away. “Might as well be cuz I ain't got no answer,” he said, a bewildered look on his face.
Just then the bulb in Rufus' headlamp went black.
“Ruf, turn that thing back on, wouldja?” Bud pleaded. He took a couple of cautious steps toward his friend until he was practically standing on him.
“Get back!” Rufus said, pushing Bud away. “Battery's dead and, no, I don't have another one.”
“So … so … we can go now?”
“No, we can't go now, Bud. We come to hunt. We been messin' around too long already. Check the glove box, might be a flashlight in there.”
Bud didn't have to be told twice. He groped around for the door handle, grateful when the light in the cab came on. Sure enough there was a small mag light and it worked, too.
“Save it,” Rufus ordered. “We might need it.
Reluctantly, Bud shut off the light, then put it in his pocket. He used it a couple of times while the two men piled equipment onto tarps.
“We bringing the cooler?” Bud asked. “I mean, it ain't no trouble carryin' it.”
“No, we're not bringing the cooler, Bud,” Rufus snapped. “It'll be a little reward. You shine me a deer, I shoot it, we clean it, bring it back to the truck and you get you a beer. How's that?”
“I guess so.” Bud couldn't see it exactly, but he stared longingly at the cooler as the two hoisted their gear and headed out across the field.
It was a good half an hour before the two settled down to wait for deer. Rufus sat perched about six feet high on a hang-on tree stand while Bud sat hunkered down behind a bush just below him. Bud didn't like looking out at the mist-covered pond, but it was better than having it behind him.
“Half an hour, Bud,” Rufus whispered from his perch.
“Half an hour with no talking, belching, farting, coughing, sneezing or teeth grinding.”
“Or sighing,” Rufus added. “I want quiet. In half an hour, turn on that beam and show me what's out there. Got it?”
“Got it. You gonna tell me when time's up, cuz I ain't go no watch.”
“I'll tell ya.”
“But then you'd be talkin'.”
Rufus had half a mind to shoot an arrow into the ground near Bud's head.
“I'll tell you just after half an hour.”
“And only bucks, Bud. Bigger the better. Clear?”
“Good. Time starts now.”
“Yeah, but what if I see somethin' out there before then?”
“Half an hour, Bud.”
“Half an hour, got it.”
Rufus sat back in his seat and enjoyed the half-hour of quiet. The hang-on couldn't beat the heated stand he had on his grandpa's property, but easy to set up and easy to take down were more important on days like this. A bigger guy, like Bud, might not find the mesh seat and metal frame very sturdy, but it worked just fine for Rufus who weighed in at 145 pounds and stood 5-foot-6 in his stocking feet. It would be just perfect if only he could smoke; the chaw would have to do. He resisted the urge to spit down at Bud and used his spit cup instead.
It seemed like the longest half an hour in Bud's life. It was bad enough that he was staring out at the mist that seemed like it inched toward him, then shrunk away. Rufus had his back, but what if that yellow-eyed, yellow-fanged creature rose out of the pond and headed for him? Half an hour or not, damned if he'd keep shut up then. Bud shifted a little, trying not to make a sound. A damn rock was poking into his knee and it was starting to hurt like hell. He guessed he could put up with it for a while longer. At least it kept him from falling asleep. He didn't tell Rufus, but that's what had happened when he was under the truck. He fell asleep like a kitten under a wood stove.
“Now,” Rufus hissed. Bud nearly jumped out of his skin, but managed to flick on the spotlight's switch.
All they saw was prairie grass and a couple of low shrubs between them and the pond. Bud swept the beam slowly over the area. There, there was something. He could just barely hear Rufus shift in his seat behind him. A doe, it was just a doe. She raised her head and the light made her eyes glow an eerie yellow-green. She looked behind her and Bud followed her gaze with the light. Bud's hands shook – there he was, the daddy deer, eyes glowing, head held high. Had to be at least a 12-pointer. Bud trained the light as steady as he could on the animal's neck. He was spooked, for sure, but moved slowly, putting his body between them and the doe.
Next thing Bud knew, the doe was scampering off and the buck was falling to his knees. Bud never even heard the arrow sail over his head.
“Let's go, let's go,” Rufus said, lowering himself from the stand. “Grab a tarp!”
Rufus shot past before Bud could even get to his feet. By the time he got there with the tarp, Rufus had slit the buck's neck and was cutting out the arrow.
“Nice shot,” Bud said, panting. “Look at the size of that rack!”
“Not bad, not bad at all,” Rufus said, pleased. “Couple more like this and I'll call it a good night.”
The two men rolled the buck onto the tarp and dragged it back across the field near the tree stand. Cursing and sweating, they finally managed to get it strung up. Rufus pulled his hunting knife out of its sheath and pointed the handle at Bud.
“Do the honors? You did some nice shining there, Bud.”
Blushing, Bud took the knife and made the long slit down the animal's belly while Rufus held the light. The blood and offal splattered on their boots and pants, but Bud didn't care. Rufus had said something nice.
They lowered the carcass down onto a clean tarp and headed back to the truck. Rufus poured ice from one of the coolers into the cavity before they wrapped up the body good and tight and hauled it into the truck bed. He grabbed a beer out of the other cooler for Bud, who, for once, savored the cold brew.
“If you gotta piss, do it here and not near the blind,” Rufus said. “Piss long, piss hard and piss wide.”
Both men relieved themselves on opposite sides of the truck before heading back.
“Coyotes or big cats get a whiff of that, they ain't gonna come near that carcass,” Rufus said as he zipped up. “Same drill as before, Bud,” he added. “Things go well, we could be out of here in a couple hours.”
Bud liked the sound of that. It sure seemed to him that the mist from the pond had gotten thicker, whiter and closer. He made sure Rufus stayed between him and the water as they walked.
Back in their positions, the men settled in for the half-hour wait. This time, Bud searched out a rock to kneel on; that last beer made him powerful sleepy.
Rufus spent his time fantasizing about how MarySue would thank him when he handed her a couple of big bills and told her to go shopping. In the city. For herself. “Bring a girlfriend, have lunch,” he'd say, and hand her another bill. Oh yeah, life would be good.
Bud kept replaying Rufus' words in his head. “You did some nice shining there, Bud,” he'd said. He imagined them walking into Grub's Pub and Rufus announcing to one and all: “My buddy, Bud, he did some right fine shining the other night. Barkeep, bring on the brews for my buddy here. They're all on me.” What a night that would be.
When the “Now!” came, Bud was ready. He shone the light like no one had shone it before. His sweep was precise and all-encompassing. He imagined Rufus right behind him, following every move.
And there, there it was, the biggest buck Bud had ever laid eyes on. Eighteen points at least, and look at that span! Had to be three foot, maybe four at least. How did he even hold up his head?
This time, Bud heard the whiz of the arrow as it shot over him and in that split second, as it sailed toward the buck's sweet spot, a doe stepped between it and her boyfriend. The arrow pierced the doe's tiny neck, slammed her backwards and lodged in the buck's shoulder.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Rufus yelled. Bud was on his feet already, watching as the buck reeled away, dislodging the arrow and staggered off toward the pond. The doe dropped hard on the ground.
“Bud, run, follow him!” Rufus shouted. “Get him and all the beer is yours. Go, get!”
Without thinking, Bud took off. It wasn't the first time he'd done something crazy for his friends, or for beer. As he plunged into the fog, the light actually creating a wall of white before him, he thought of the time when he was 14 and streaked a freshman assembly in high school when someone promised him a 12-pack afterward. He ditched his clothing under the bleachers and ran down the steps, across the gym and over the stage where Mrs. Lorinda Sweet was giving her boring talk on “personal responsibility.”
He'd spent a week in detention and his mama swore she could never face their neighbors again, but his pop had smirked and offered him a high-ball. That's when Bud knew he liked beer better. He drank the 12-pack in the privacy of his basement room in three days.
He aimed the lamp at his feet and followed the blood into the gloom.
Rufus would have followed him, would probably be in the lead, if it weren't for the damn mesh of the hang-on. Somehow, he'd gotten his bow stuck in the seat. He struggled to get it free in the pitch black that surrounded him. He knew Bud was a good tracker and runner, but damn it all, Rufus felt ridiculous perched up there trying to get free while Bud did all the work. Plus, Bud had both of their lights.
Finally, Rufus felt the mesh give way. He unsnapped the seat's safety belt and lowered the bow to the ground.
Just as the rancid scent of the big cat reached Rufus' nostrils, the cougar was on top of him, its back claws digging into his leg. His cry of pain and surprise came out as a bloody gurgle as the cat sunk its teeth in his jugular. As the life oozed out of its kill, the animal leaped down, took Rufus' boot between its powerful jaws and pulled. Once the body was on the ground, the cat slowly dragged it across the field to its cache in the woods. Its cubs would eat well that night and days beyond.
While the cougar pulled and dragged, stopping every 20 yards or so to rest, a depressed Bud dragged himself back to the blind, empty-handed. He'd gotten close, close enough to see the wounded buck bound into the pond's black water, but no way was he going in after it. Rufus would be pissed.
But where was Rufus? The body of the doe still lay where it'd fallen. Bud figured Rufus would've taken care of that first thing. He shined the spotlight on the stand, but Rufus wasn't in the seat. He got closer, then saw the blood and saw the drag marks leading toward the woods; the huge paw prints. He knew, he knew right then what happened. It was the creature and it got Rufus.
Bud stood shining the light, first up at the stand, then back down the drag path, then back up to the stand where his friend's blood dried and blackened.
“Tell me what to do, Ruf,” Bud said. “I don't know what to do.”
Should he follow the path? No, that would be stupid. Go get help? Maybe. Of course, he'd get arrested for off-season hunting and drinking. And fined. Call without leaving his name? Maybe that was it. But he had to get to a phone first. Did Rufus leave his cell phone in the truck maybe? Bud headed back to truck to find out.
The first thing he caught in the beam of the spotlight didn't make sense to him. It looked like a blue whale thrashing around in the back of the truck. That didn't make sense, though, so he stopped and watched. Soon, there were multiple pairs of glowing eyes staring back at him.
“Coyotes!” he said, causing the critters to leap out of the truck and tear off into the mist. They had been feasting on the carcass beneath the blue tarp.
It was too much for poor Bud. “Guess pissing long, hard and wide don't do the trick,” he muttered. He approached the truck cautiously and when he saw it was clear, he inspected the damage.
“That deer ain't worth shit no more, Ruf,” he said. He leaned his head against the cab and shook it back and forth. “One thing's for sure, they didn't touch no beer,” he figured. He took the whole cooler out of the back and took it with him in the cab. By habit, he got into the passenger seat. He clicked the locks, then guzzled three of the beers, one after the other.
He switched on the dome light and started rooting around the cab, looking for Rufus' phone, or keys – something – while he drank the last beer.
Finally, his hand latched onto something flat and hard between the console and the driver's seat.
“Ha!” he said, dropping his empty to the floor. Bud never had a cell phone, but he pressed button after button and finally, the phone came to life.
“Who should I call, who should I call,” he wondered aloud. Since he knew nothing about cell phone address books, or any numbers by heart, that was an easy one. He hit 9-1-1 and waited. Nothing. He looked down at the screen. “No service,” it read.
“What the hell does that mean?” he said, scratching his head. “No shoes, no shirt, no service? No funeral services for Ruf? What? What?”
Just then he felt the truck bounce and heard a thump in the bed. Coyotes were back. He reached over and laid on the horn. He wished Ruf still kept his Colt in the glove box. He wished the whole damn day were over. With tears in his eyes, Bud whipped the useless phone out the window. He curled up on his seat and cried the first tears he'd cried since his daddy drowned a litter of puppies.
He was out of beer.