There was too long a stretch of open ground to be covered before Tim could get within spear throwing range. He strung his bow instead, and laid aside his crutch. His ankle might give way, but he had to take the chance. Moving laterally, he got directly behind the deer, then began to advance. His ankle sent a shock of pain through him each time it hit the ground. He carried the bow in shooting position, ready to draw and release the moment the muley became alarmed.
To his amazement, the deer did not become aware of him. He advanced slowly, footfalls silenced by the thin layer of snow, to within fifty feet of the animal. It still sat quietly, looking down the slope.
Tim paused. If he did not shoot soon, his chance would be lost. Drawing back his bow, he sighted on the deer’s side just behind the shoulders and released.
The arrow flashed, flying true. There was a thuck on impact and the mule deer erupted from the ground. For a fraction of a second it stared at Tim; then it was gone, bounding away in great leaps, using all four feet in its haste.
Tim stood holding his empty bow, frozen in superstitious terror. For a moment the deer’s eyes had seemed to hold an almost human intelligence. Was this a spirit deer after all – one that could not be killed?
The deer was gone. Only his tracks remained.
Tim staggered forward to where the deer had lain. His arrow was buried head deep in a thumb sized branch of whitethorn, and its shaft had shattered on impact. It was a chance in a thousand with such a large target and such a skimpy bush, but Tim’s arrow had been stopped short.
Tim’s scream of frustration rebounded from the mountainside.
Tim squatted before his fire. In this exposed position at the edge of a small meadow, the constant wind had stunted the growth of a mountain hemlock, twisting it into a whorling shrub that backed against a granite outcropping. Tim had built a fire against the rock so that it reflected heat into the space beneath the hemlock. He had made that space more snug by interweaving branches from nearby shrubs and banking snow against the outer branches.
It was snowing again. The scattered flakes had given way to a steady fall of snow with the coming of night. They did not dance as they had the night before. Now there was no wind and they floated purposefully downward, filling the night with a curtain of white and steadily building up a layer on the trees and ground.
Tim paid little attention to his surroundings. He sat silently, caught up in the rumblings of his empty stomach and the throbbing of his ankle. Today had nearly defeated him. The long stalk in the cold and wind had been bad enough, but it was the waiting, not moving while he searched the brush with his eyes, that had left him chilled through and exhausted.
The fire was dying, but it seemed just too much trouble to put on more wood. Tim’s head dropped to his chest. He really should have saved that arrow, but instead he had taken the already shattered shaft and had broken it again and again, then ground it underfoot in his rage.
If he had hit the deer, would it have died? Or had the deer’s spirit put the branch in the way? more tomorrow