The HuntBy: Josh Hutchins
Ashika leered at the food we’d stored, then turned back to me, giving me an ill and distant look.
“You have to DO something Ethelred. We can’t just keep expecting food to magically appear.” She raised her eyebrows then turned her head towards our two sleeping children. My eyes followed her lead. She continued, “My stomach hurts, and I can feel my milk just…isn’t enough. They’ll starve if we don’t find food.”
My gaze lingered on our two infant children, snuggled together in their warm bed. They used to look so peaceful while sleeping, but now…now that our larder was getting sparse, they seemed to wear a constant grimace.
I cleared my throat, “I think I can convince Jared and Abe to go on a hunt.” Then I sighed heavily and stroked the hair on my chin, lost in thought. Ashika looked worried, and she started to say something, but I cut her off. “Honey, I know. We’ll be careful. I’ll try–”
“It’s not that Ethelred, I would prefer you to go by yourself. Don’t take Jared, and especially don’t go with Abe. Those guys are trouble.”
I shook my head. “I’ll be careful. I won’t do anything stupid.”
“Doing ANYTHING with those guys is stupid. Don’t do it Ethelred. Please.”
I hung my head, “Ok, I won’t. I’ll go alone. I’ll bring home some food.”
“Thank you. You’ll be glad you went alone. Who knows what trouble they’d bring!?”
I flashed another look at the kids. One of them wiggled slightly. Ashika huffed at me, emitting a heavy fog off her breath. It made me conscious of the frigidity and I instinctively shivered. I caught myself looking around the humble shanty of our home, as Ashika, tiring of my obstinacy, attended to the children. She had a slight catch in her walk, and once she was at their bed, she laid down gently next to them. She looked at me with her brilliant gray eyes, betraying the deep concern behind them.
I gave her an approving nod, mouthed the words, “I love you”, and stepped outside.
The sky was gray and dour, dropping fluffy wads of snow. It gave the surrounding forest a hushed feeling…eerily quiet. Our home had a thick coating of white on it, partially concealing it amongst the jumble of dark twisted trees. I shrugged my shoulders and wished my brown coat was thicker. The fog of my breath was freezing on the hair on my face. I heard one of the kids inside the house rouse and begin asking Ashika a litany of questions. If I was gonna get a hunt in, I had to leave before the kids got my attention. Once we started wrestling and tumbling, we’d never stop.
I made a circuitous route away from the house, to make it seem as if I were going another direction, then took off towards Abe and Jared’s place. It wasn’t far, probably twenty minutes. The snow made a deep crunching noise as I sank into it with each step. My stomach reminded me of the importance of this hunt. After I left the woods, the landscape opened up into a vast sea of gently rolling pastures, all covered in white. Short wooden fence posts, with small round caps of snow, made dotted lines in various directions, and the innumerable patches of woods in the distance were dark green, nearly black. I carefully negotiated the barbed wire as I reached the first fence row. A red bird landed on a lone naked branch reaching eagerly over the fence. The bird stared at me quizzically and emitted a chirp.
“I know buddy, I’m cold too.” I replied.
The bird chirped again and fluttered its feathers, then he flew off…probably doing the same thing I was doing—looking for food. Things had really gotten bad this year. Ever since the crash, people were retreating to their homes in the countryside, avoiding population centers.
I reached my destination a few minutes later and announced my presence. It wasn’t wise to approach their place without doing so. You’d find yourself getting ambushed.
“Cm’on in ‘Red.” Abe bellowed from inside.
I ducked my head and went in their home. I knew my place was humble, but…wow. I tried to keep my eyes from rudely wandering around their abode, with little luck. It was a mess…but it did smell incredible. It smelled like…food. Abe and Jared were both plopped down in their living room, lounging comfortably and picking at the remains of their midday meal.
“What’s new Red?” Jared asked me, jovially.
“Same old, same old. You?” I replied, trying to sound chipper.
He shrugged. “You hungry?”
“Nah, I’m good.” I lied. “But, hey, I was thinking…do you guys wanna go on a hunt?”
“Why? We gots plenny o’ food here now.” Abe’s furrowed his brow.
“Well, Ashika says we need more food. And, you know, she’s still nursing the kids, so it would be helpful. I’m was thinking of going alone, but I’d like you two to come with me.” I nervously adjusted my stance.
“Ashika?! Seriously dude?” Jared snapped.
“Yeah, I know…silly right?” I smiled.
Abe took another bite of his dinner and looked at me. He didn’t even bother to stop chewing before he spoke, “So you’s wantin’ us to help you with a hunt, juz ‘cause your WIFE wants you to go huntin’?”
“Well, Ashika doesn’t want you two to go with me. She thinks you’re dangerous. I told–”
They both burst into laughter, holding their stomachs as they doubled over.
I continued, “I know, it’s stupid. I told her she was crazy.”
Jared, regaining his composure and wiping his eyes, said to me, “If Abe and I are gonna hunt with you, we should get part of the reward. Don’t you think?”
I shrugged and kicked at the dirt on their floor. “Sure.” I answered, timidly.
“Okay, then let’s do this!” Jared replied.
“Thanks guys.” I said, showing my relief and breathing in the aroma.
I think Abe caught me casting an envious glance at his meal and said, “‘Red, you wanna bite?”
“Sure.” I replied, even further relieved.
As Jared and Abe both got up and readied themselves, I busied myself with their lunch scraps. I thought about saving some for Ashika, but I didn’t want the guys to see me do it.
“Where have you been hunting lately?” Jared asked.
“Normally I’ve been staying near the house, but I’d like to go north a little, towards the Stevens’ farm maybe.”
“Stevens’ eh? Ok. We need to be careful though, they may not like us hunting on their property.” Jared brushed some dust off his coat and felt the sharp tips of his hunting weapons.
We met eyes and I said, “It’d be nice if we had guns…even one would be helpful.”
Abe jabbed me in the ribs, “Lotta of good it’d do. You don’t even know HOWS to shoot, much less shoot’n in a way to kill somepin’. No, we’z gots all we needs.”
I turned towards the door, and Abe flashed Jared a look behind my back. We set out on a northerly course into the wind-driven snow. An hour later, we were crouching behind a moist rotting stump at the edge of a small wood. The wind had picked up, whipping our hair in our faces…that smell of a wintery nothing forcing its way in our nostrils.
“There’s the Stevens’ house. I don’t see any lights on. Maybe nobody is home.” I said, hopefully.
“Doubt it.” Abe said, ignoring my wishful thinking.
With that, we crept closer, only now, we were outside the protective concealment of the woods. There was a howl in the air, way off in the distance. I couldn’t tell if it was an animal or if it was the wind. I felt my feet getting wet. Clearly the deep snow was just too much.
“Look! There.” Jared froze in place, and pointed towards what looked like a small herd of sheep.
“Seriously?” I asked.
He turned and gave me an angry look. “I thought you needed food? Now you’re gonna get picky?”
“But those are the Stevens’ sheep.” I bit my bottom lip. “I thought we’d go looking for a squirrel or something in the woods away from their house…not kill one of their sheep. How do we know one of them isn’t home, watching out a window with a rifle right now?”
“You was saying the house looked empty a few minutes ago.” Abe retorted.
I tilted my head from side to side, jousting with the image of Ashika and the kids in my mind. Then I let out a breath.
Jared reasoned, “Listen, Red, we could be hours longer if we go hunting in the woods. That would be a waste of time…especially when there are sheep right here! How long would a full-grown sheep feed you and Ashika? A week? Longer?”
I pressed my lips together for a moment, “Ok. Fine. We’ll kill a sheep, but only this one time. I don’t like the idea of hunting the Stevens’ farm animals.”
“Ok then. Red, you go towards the right, Abe and I will go towards the left. If you get in range, kill one. Don’t wait for us. Those sheep aren’t just going to stand still either.”
I nodded and started walking, stealthily. We didn’t have guns, so we had to get a lot closer to kill one. As I stalked nearer to the flock, I could see their white coats, with a slight tint of brown, silhouetted against the vivid white of the snow on the ground. I kept a wary eye on the Steven’s home. Bitter bile was working its way up into my mouth. I HAD to bring food home. Ashika and the kids wouldn’t survive without it. Abe and Jared had disappeared in the haze of blowing snow. I just hoped they’d be ready.
The muffled sound of dogs barking cemented me in place. Damn, the sheep were so close. But soon, the barking stopped, and I moved cautiously forward again. I don’t think the sheep had taken notice of me yet. Barking again. It sounded like it was coming from Jared and Abe’s direction. I panicked, not knowing what to do. Then, I closed my eyes and bit my lip, exhaling heavily through my nose.
“You have to pull it together Ethelred.” I whispered to myself.
Though total abeyance of will, I forced my feet to step towards the herd of sheep. The barking intensified and I picked up my pace. Just a little closer. I felt the sharp tip of my weapon, hoping I would be fast enough to kill one.
“NOW!!” I yelled inside my head.
Two minutes later, I had a dead sheep, and I was dragging it victoriously away from the scene. I hoped for my life that the Stevens wouldn’t notice. Abe and Jared soon caught up with me and eyed my fresh kill.
“Nice work ‘Red. That was too easy, don’t you thinks?” Abe said.
“Easy?” I snorted, eyeing them both intently. “Let’s just get back to your place and we can divide it. I don’t want to hunt here again.”
“No, no, no. This just isn’t enough for us to all split. We need to get another one. I mean, why not? We’re here, we should maximize our time.” Jared said.
I felt an uneasy lump growing in my throat. “No, I just wanted to get this to Ashika and be done.”
“Think about this Red: if you bring back PART of a sheep, Ashika will know you went hunting with us.” Jared said in a low tone.
I thought about that for a moment, but Abe interrupted me. “Lez get ‘nother one, and yous can takes the ‘ntire thing. Jared and I’ll keeps thisun, and the othern’ll be all yours.”
“O…ok” I relented, letting my grip on the dead animal slip.
“Leave that one here, we’ll follow the trail you left in the snow to get back to it.” Jared said.
I said nothing, only nodded. We walked to about where we’d split up last time and paused to look at the farm house again. The barking had ceased, but the nagging lump in my throat and queasiness in my stomach were growing at an alarming rate. I chalked it up to hunger and did my best to ignore it.
“Ok, same as before. Red, you go right, Abe and I’ll go left. Meet back here.”
We all nodded, and I set off quickly. I wanted to get this over with. I was already tired of hunting. I wanted to get back to the warmth of my home, to the welcome arms of my wife, and to the giggles of my children. I was annoyed.
I’d gone a hundred yards or so, when I turned and looked behind me. The wind had let up a little, and I could see Jared and Abe, seemingly having not moved. I looked at them for a moment when one of them waved me on, bidding me to continue the hunt.
I rolled my eyes and said to myself, “I guess I’m doing ALL the work…as usual.”
I was perturbed and eager to complete the hunt, thus increasing my pace towards the flock. But, my clumsiness alarmed them and they soon were all looking directly at me. Dammit Ethelred! Dogs erupted into angry barking again, only this time, I could tell they were barking at me. This was a bust, and I looked back at the guys. Again, one of them waved me on…begging me to continue the hunt. I shook my head and turned back towards the flock. Then I bent towards the snow and slowly lurched forward, calculating each step.
The dogs were getting louder, and I was still yet unable to allay the curiosity of the sheep. My stomach growled. I didn’t want to disappoint Ashika. I needed a kill. Plus, Abe and Jared wouldn’t be able to deny my hunting abilities if I got two kills in one day. I moved closer. The sheep were starting to turn their attention back to the snow-covered grass, ignoring me, but the dogs didn’t. I could tell they were getting nearer, and I looked to see if their shapes had taken form in the misty air and blowing snow. I had to hurry. Although the dogs were yet invisible, I could see the farmhouse as clear as day. I stopped and observed it for just a second, then veered towards the sheep again, when a whipping, buzzing sound came flying out of the air, crashing with my left hip. I collapsed into the snow, and waves of pain shot up my spine.
“AAAAAHHH!” I screamed. “ABE!! JARED!! HELP ME!”
My breath quickened and I entered a quivering panic. I swallowed a mouthful of nothing but dry air and turned my head to and fro. I was on my back in the snow, and couldn’t see anything but white on either side of me. Another fresh wave of pain…I retched with it, grasping the wound as I did. I felt hot and sweaty, and now, light-headed. How much blood had I already lost?
I knew hunting here was a bad idea, but didn’t think one of the Stevens’ would actually SHOOT me. Another shot ripped through the silence of the air. I heard the dogs’ heavy paws hitting the snow nearby, along with the ‘thuds’ of a person’s boots sinking into the soft snow. One of the dogs came up to me and licked my face. He was enormous, probably an Anatoli or similar breed.
“These are MY sheep, not yours!” A man dressed in all green shouted at me. He had a rifle slung on his shoulder and frozen moisture accentuating the grayness of his beard. He held his bare hands to his mouth and exhaled through them, then rubbed them together.
I started to feel numb, and my eyes lost their focus as I stared vacantly skyward. The only sound was the soft landing of innumerable snowflakes all around me.
“Ashika…Ashika…” I gasped.
The man angrily reached down and picked me up by my tail, holding me up to examine. I felt all my remaining blood going to my head as he drudged further into the snowy field. Soon, he was simply dragging me and I could feel the gentle sways in his step through the way the snow touched my pointed furry ears. We were headed towards Abe and Jared. They were going to be so disappointed with me.
The farmer held me up again and looked into my eyes. His sallow and wrinkled face was punctuated by dark beady orbs, tucked beneath a woolen cap. He shook his head slightly and threw me down. I had no strength. I was completely numb. As I lay there, I saw the bloody snow from where our first kill had laid…where MY kill had laid.
“Son of a…” The man clenched his teeth angrily. “That’s the second sheep this week.” He said, staring off into the distance.
Abe and Jared were nowhere to be found. They’d absconded with my food…with my family’s food. The last thing I remember was the farmer turning and adjusting the rifle on his shoulder…as two large dogs ripped open my stomach and consumed my entrails.