Jeremy’s fingers were turning numb. The sky blushed and the first star glittered. In half an hour, darkness would descend and temperatures would plummet.
The sixteen-year-old shifted his burden to his other shoulder and shivered.
I’ll never get back to the hunting shack tonight. I wonder if my father's even worried.
He trudged through knee-deep snow, each step more difficult. A branch snagged his foot and he fell, the carcass he carried thudding into the snow beside him.
No more! his body protested. Rest awhile, the snow blanket whispered.
“Yes,” he murmured and closed his eyes.
Get up, son! Keep moving! If you sleep, you’ll die! Jeremy tried to clear the cottony drowsiness from his head.
“Grandpa?” he mumbled. Impossible! Grandpa had been dead for two years. Two long miserable years in which Jeremy seemed to do everything wrong in his father’s viewpoint.
He could not leave his prize behind. This doe, the first the boy had ever bagged and dressed by himself, would win a tiny bit of his father’s heart. Maybe.
Jeremy struggled to his feet and grasped the doe by its forelegs.
He remembered another time, another hunting trip. His grandfather had dropped a ten-point buck with his 30-30 rifle, then showed Jeremy how to field dress the kill. They had taken turns dragging the buck. When they arrived at the shack, they discovered Jeremy’s father in a drunken stupor. Late into the night, while Jeremy’s father snored away his inebriation, grandfather and grandson talked man to man. When Grandpa sent them home the next morning and closed the deer camp by himself, Jeremy understood why.
He tugged at the doe, tears obscuring his sight. His breath puffed in the frosty air. The prints he had made in tracking the doe and which he was following to find his way back had melted into the darkness.
Struggling on was futile. The boy instinctively knew that. Lying down in this cold was sure death. He knew that, too. He would have to wait until the moon rose to light his path.
Jeremy dropped the doe and stood, stamping his feet and clapping his gloved hands together, working feeling back into freezing flesh. He thought about Grandpa’s wisdom, the lessons he had taught about hunting and life.
“Your father thought he could drink heartily one night and be able to see straight to shoot the next day,” Grandpa had said. “I won’t be in the woods with anyone who does that!”
“Why not, Grandpa?”
“Too many drunk hunters shoot their companions coming through the brush. Either that, or they have a quick trigger finger and shoot at anything that moves.” Grandpa had peered at Jeremy and wagged his finger. “Don’t be like that, son. Don’t impair your vision in any way. And don’t shoot at nothing you can’t see clearly.”
“Your Daddy's forgotten a lot of the lessons I taught him. He lets things get in the way of seeing what he must do. He doesn’t follow through when all the signs are there to keep him on the right path.”
“I don’t understand.”
Tears had glistened in Grandpa’s eyes. “You will someday, young Jeremy, when your Daddy can talk about it.”
Jeremy’s memory switched to a scene beside a hospital bed. Grandpa, hooked up to an IV and heart monitor, stared vacantly at the tiled ceiling, seeing nothing. Jeremy sat beside the bed clasping the hand that had guided him in so many ways. His father sat at the foot of the bed, his gaze directed to the floor.
“John!” Grandpa’s voice startled Jeremy. “John, tell Jesus I’ll be there soon!”
When Jeremy asked his father who John was, he clenched his fists and left the room. Grandpa died that night, Jeremy by his side and his father drinking away memories in a tavern.
“Why!” Jeremy shouted at the risen moon. “Why can’t my father love me?”
He tugged with new vigor at the doe.
“Jeremy!” A voice nearby signaled that someone was looking for him.
“Dad!” Jeremy shrieked, hysterical relief and sobs mingling in his throat.
“Jeremy!” His father’s arms surrounded him. Warm tears dripped on his neck. “I thought I’d lost you!”
“Would you have cared?” Jeremy challenged.
His father stepped back. “I have a lot to explain, a lot to change" He met Jeremy's gaze. "When we get back to the shack, I’ll tell you about my brother John and the terrible mistake that killed him.”
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