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The entire earth sighed with a long, slow breeze that made the grass and trees flow and sway like the sea. Shadows were growing longer and longer, cast by the muffled light of the sun sinking below the horizon. The red-orange glow of the dying star lit up the side of a white house before fading into oblivion, giving way to the bright sparkle of the stars and the soft shine of the moon.
The house was an old house, located along a desolate, crumbling highway in the middle of nowhere. The house stood on a grassy hill, right at the border where the plains ended and the forest began. The forest, huge and ominous like a slowly approaching army of giants. The building itself was a simple two-story structure with off-white plastic siding that was tinged green from years of mold. The screen door had large rips and holes hastily patched up with duct tape. Two figures were seated on the porch, sitting in the kind of cheap plastic chairs that bend when one sits on them.
“It’s coming – I can feel it,” the old man said. He got up from his chair and stared into the forest. “It’s the right time of year. It only comes when the summer is turning into fall, when the leaves start to brown and the wind begins to blow.
“What’s coming, Grandpa?” The other figure said. He was young and unknowing, just beginning to learn his way in the world after fifteen years of existence.
“It’s a long story. I –”
“Will you please tell it to me?” The teen interrupted.
“If you really think so, if you have the patience,” the old man responded. He was weary, the wrinkles on his face magnified by the low light. His hand reached to an old, worn rifle that was leaned against the wall of the house next to him.
“You know my answer,” the boy countered.
“Okay then.” The old man closed his eyes, remembering the course of events passed.
“It was a day like this: the beginning of hunting season. The walls of the gun stores were emptied by young men who all wanted to become the greatest hunter in the county.”
“I was one of those men. We would all go to town – you may know this place now as that shopping mall that took the place of the older buildings five miles down the road – and stock up on food and ammo before going out to hunt. One day I was sitting down on the porch of a store when I was greeted by a hard kick to the behind. When I looked to see who kicked me, I realized who it was. It was a man, the greatest, most brutal hunter in town. He went by the name of ‘One Shot’. I dragged myself off of the gravel and got up to face him. Well, not face him, because he was almost a whole foot taller than I was.
‘Hey, little boy, why doncha go back home to your mama.’ He taunted me. I didn’t respond. ‘I said, little boy!’ he was yelling at me now. I picked up my gun and tried to walk away, only to have his cronies shove me back. ‘Okay, you think you’re so good? Let’s see you hunt them. No ordinary hunt, either – we’ll be hunting the King.’
I looked up in horror. The ‘King’ was a huge mountain lion that held a strangle hole on the hunting businesses that ran by his ‘lair’ by stealing the kills.
‘You and me, little boy. Get yer stuff. The hunt begins . . . now!’ he laughed cruelly.
The old man picked up the rifle and stroked its rough, scratched stock. He peered out into the deep shadows of the forest, looking for a memory. The soft glow of the moon and the harsh yellow light from inside the house provided the only illumination.
“The forest was cool and dark, with sharp rays of sunlight that occasionally pierced the canopy. I was slowly trudging up the gradual slope of the mountains, listening for the smallest noise. Great, blocky monoliths towered over me. Finally, I reached the bald cap of a mountain and sat down on the lichen-covered stone. Suddenly, I was pushed down on to my face by an unseen strength. I struggled to get up, but I was still being forced down. The mountain lion! I turned over to face my assailant. It was One-Shot! He pushed me down a rocky slope. I grabbed on to a rock to steady myself, and by the tine I got up, One-Shot was gone.”
“I then systematically searched the mountains from windy peaks to deep ravines. I built a simple shelter to rest in one night and occasionally refilled my canteen at the pure cascades of water that tumbled down the rocks and smoothed them to pebbles. After two days of fruitless searching, however, I began to think that this was a joke. One-Shot tricked me into this, I thought to myself. I sat down on a damp boulder by a stream and stared into the trees. The trees with deep grooves scratched into them, grooves that could have been left there by only one being. It was the King of the mountain; the great cat whose territory this was. The thoughtful silence afterward was punctured by the sharp crack of a rifle. I picked up my gun and ran towards the source, empowered by a new vigor.”
With this, the Grandfather went inside to the kitchen to get himself a glass of water. He took a sip, gulping it down as if drinking water after a bout of vigorous exercise.
“What happened next?” The teen inquired.
“I suppose I should continue,” the old man propped his legs up on a small table outside.
“When I reached the source of the shots, I saw One-Shot in the middle of a forest clearing below me, checking his gun for ammo. He was out. In desperation, He dropped the gun and pulled a large hatchet off of his belt. He eyed the wilderness around the clearing, feverishly searching for whatever he had been shooting at. Then it came. It leapt from the shadows as a golden blur. The cat was bleeding from a bullet wound on its previously healthy coat, now glistening with its own blood. One-Shot ran over and brought his hatchet down, but the cat dodged the swing and pounced on him. One-Shot, however, brought his weapon around and sliced into the great animal. It hissed in pain and jumped back. My fingers nervously twitched around the trigger. Below, the two opponents circled each other, readying for the final kill. I finally made my decision. I took my aim and pulled the trigger.”
“Well, that’s my story,” the old hunter concluded to the boy. He was about to get up when the boy asked him,
“What happened after? Why didn’t you keep the mountain lion as a trophy? After all, you did shoot it.”
“Ah . . . you don’t understand,” the old man replied.
“Every year, about now, something changes around here. The deer are not as brave in open places, the birds don’t sing quite as loud as they should. At first I wasn’t sure why this happened. I was confused by this change in atmosphere. And then I realized: the King was not dead after all.
“But you shot it!” the teen said with a puzzled look on his face.
“Oh no – One-Shot got what he deserved with one shot.”
As the old man went inside, the teen thought about the tale he had just been told. He seriously doubted the truth in it. After all, a story was only as truthful as the person who told it, and it was not uncommon for Grandpa to exaggerate. Before the boy went in, however, he took one look back at the shadowy forest. Then there it was. A majestic creature crept into the field. It was something that you could not see all at once. A flash of gold, a whisker, a pair of glowing eyes. The teen looked away and looked back before stepping inside, but it was gone.