I stir, remove my binoculars and replace my sunglasses then zip everything securely in my bag. I hoist it, fasten it. I linger long enough to scan the meadow one more time, then another “one more time”. Still empty of the things I seek. I take off a glove and slip it over the barrel of my rifle to bar dirt from slipping in, then gingerly place it at the edge of the rock. I sit on the edge and brace myself with both arms. My foot stretches to the tall stump and now that I am balanced I can step down onto the top of the slanted log wedged into the crack in the rock. My other foot reaches and with two feet planted I retrieve my rifle and replace my glove. I jump from the log to terra proper and lumber upwards towards the trail. This maneuver is far from graceful but it is well practiced.
I take my time returning to the cabin. As with my ascent this is in no way related to concern for my corporal form. This may even be worse. I am perusing (in the TRUE sense of the word) each meadow along my route. I am still hunting. More than I was hunting in the morning darkness. Maybe I missed a deer in one of the valley rifts, perhaps a bear wandered into the field while I was walking to my wheeler. Should there be something, anything, I would not hesitate to slam on the parking break and leap from my wheeler, scurrying the requisite number of feet away from the trail to a stump while chambering a round to take my shot. I've practiced this scenario countless times in my mind as I have ventured up or down. Even now, as I scan for some animal that has made a critical mistake I plan out the process. But this degree of concentration on the open spaces and primed actions by definition reduces focus on the trail to the barest minimum required to keep the quad on course. No attention is spared to steer around the dents and divots as I drive down and down and down. There are far gentler ways to reach my destination.
I am met by an old man in a pickup hauling a trailer with a fancy-dancy quad on it. It has a wind screen. A WIND SCREEN. Seriously? This is clearly government. Why on this green planet would you drag a truck and trailer way the heck up here (cause I am WAY the heck up) over all of the Kelly-humps and waterbars when you could make the trip in half the time and twice the comfort on an extra fancy wheeler? And seriously, what real live person actually has a wheeler like that? Oh…and he has a key to the gate that keeps your average local from getting to the trail with a motorized vehicle in the first place. So he is either with the timber company or some government branch. Either way I would take his gate key over his wheeler any day. I pull off the trail in a wide patch of huckleberry bushes to wait for him to pass.
It is more than obvious what I am up to seeing as how I am the color of the wilderness with a thin strip of orange on my face and the rifle slung across my back. His appearance gives less away. I eye him suspiciously and nod my head in acknowledgement of his presence. He doesn't eye me at all. I want him to wonder how I got up here on the wheeler. Everyone asks that question when they see us on that side of the mountain. You can get around the gate but it isn't common knowledge. It is unintuitive and tricky and it makes me all over adrenalined and what with all the taking the guns off and having to do a three point turn on the side of a hill, it isn't any faster than the trail we cut through the back of our property to get to the old logging trail even though it is a good half mile or more closer to the cabin so I avoid it.
He is gone and I pick up my focused and calculating decent. I note every stump that looks like something else. I cut the throttle often when I think I see a something. To date this has always been something like a change of perspective on a shadow or a leaf falling in my peripheral vision or my extremely overactive imagination. Down and down the dusty road until I have passed the last of the meadows. I pick up speed and shift my focus to the trail. Now that I can and choose to see I can miss nearly all of the bumps. I am traveling faster than in the morning dark but the ride is smoother anyway. I am still alert. Grouse like to sit on the edge of the road. I like to chase grouse. They will fly in front of the wheeler until you almost catch them and then they dive into the brush. Dad thinks they do it for fun, to mock you and it seems right. Since I chase them also for fun this seems fair. If they are too far off the road I will stop and give them a long stare which they will return until they get bored and take one or two steps into the bushes and utterly vanish. This too is a game. We also chase the rabbits that run down the road but that isn't as fun for either party…they are in the way and too panic-stupid to leave the trail and usually they are only out after dark when all we want is to be home eating dinner.
Today, no large game. No small game. No chicken game. No game.
Just before I make the turn onto the ancillary trail that connects our property to the main road I see a wheeler pull out. It is a carbon copy of the wheeler I recently passed and the old man driving it might as well be the same old man. I am still not convinced that it wasn’t a glitch in the matrix. He is carrying an official looking piece of yellow paper, some form documenting some bureaucratic information about the quality of the forest or noting the work to be done. He DOES choose to eye me suspiciously though he does not ask my origin, purpose or destination. For my part I slow, give a friendly-like wave, and wait until he has turned his attention forward before I dive onto my trail.
I feel alarm. They are going to log this piece, my favorite part of the trail. I can think of no other explanation. This is bad bad news. If they log it they can gate it or otherwise block our entrance. Granted, one of our friends would very likely unblock it with his tractor but that just starts up a pissing contest. I have seen that at every location where a barrier was set on this mountain. You never know if you can make it through until you get there because you never know who is winning. We hunt this side of the mountain because we can do it easily and because no one else can. What will happen when they cut the timber?
I force myself to refocus on the trail. On the present. Things that are certain. Holes that can throw me over the hill and into a creek. For my dedication I am rewarded with a string of bones in the center of the trail. Three other wheelers had come this way in the past hour and no one had seen or crushed this treasure that had been there for who knows how long. I determine that it must have spawned there just for me. “You have found strange bones. 1. Poke with stick? 2. Investigate? 3. Place in backpack? 4. Ignore?" [Investigate bones] "You do not have enough exp to determine the type of bones. 1. Poke with stick? 3. Place in backpack? 4. Ignore?" And like any good RPG player I place the new item into my nearly bottomless cache. Contents: 1 rifle, 8 rounds of ammunition, 1 knife, 1 flashlight, 2 pieces of jerky, one apple, 1 flask of water, one change of clothing, 1 bones. I will present them to the taxidermist in residence of whom I am an apprentice. I will gain +1 research exp and I might be able to barter for something at the market.
I've crossed the culvert that the beavers are stuffing with anything they can chew now. Up the hill and I am home again. The last one home. Why am I always the last one home? But as soon as that negatively skewed ponder rises up in my mind it is driven out of existence by the odor of bacon wafting out of the open front door. Getting home late has its perks.