They had agreed to meet at 7 AM. There was a time, many years ago, when they would be up at 4 AM and in the woods before sunrise. But not now. Even 7 AM had been a compromise. One of the group had suggested 8. The thermometer registered twenty eight degrees as he headed out the door, up the driveway to the woods behind his house. They had all been hunting this land together for over twenty years, and they each had their own routine. He had prepared a new stand overlooking a ridge that he liked to hunt, and he decided to take a long route there and "still hunt" - one step at a time - ever so slowly - to the ridge.
It was still early in the season and there was no snow on the ground yet to cover the leaves that had fallen last month, and they crackled underfoot as he walked. The prior night's frost only made matters worse, and every step he took echoed through the woods, foiling any attempt at stealth. Still, he thought, it was a perfect day for hunting. The crisp morning air felt good on his skin, and he wondered if he should shed a layer of clothing as he climbed to the top of the ridge.
As he surveyed the woods around his stand he tried to detect which direction the wind was blowing. It was almost perfectly still, but he sensed the slightest current of air on his face, coming directly from the north. He was happy at that discovery; he would be downwind of any deer that crossed below the ridge. The sun had barely risen above the eastern horizon, on a southerly arc behind his back. This too was to his benefit, and he had positioned the stand to take advantage of the morning light. The surrounding woods had been carefully trimmed to open lanes of view to any deer that meandered through the forest. The woods had been logged thirty years ago by the prior owner and all of the hardwood had been cut down. All that remained of the oak were the stumps, standing like moss covered tombstones among the pines.
He propped his rifle against the cedar next to his seat, and he began his annual ritual. He sat on a hemlock stump that served as a hunting bench. He knew all of the surrounding trees by their bark, and he tested himself each year during deer season, trying to identify the tree without looking at the leaves. He knew the crocodile skin of a young hemlock, and the wild cherry like scabs of an older one. The blistery smooth skin of the beeches stood out from everything else. Horizontal lines on the bark marked the balsams that peaked to form the spires of his cathedral in the woods. He sat cross legged on the stump, and strained to hear a sound, any sound.
A whiff of smoke told him that the wind had changed, and he wondered if it was coming from his wood stove, or one of his neighbors' on the pond. It didn't matter. It was still a perfect day for hunting. He looked at the hunting pack that he had hung near his stand. The leather LL Bean cartridge case was worn from years of use. He wondered if Bean still made them. He had not looked at a hunting catalogue in years. He wondered how old the ten 32 Winchester cartridges in the case were.
He heard a crow fly directly over the treetops. He knew it was a crow by the sound of its wings, there was no need to look up. A blue jay squawked in defiance. It was the only sound he had heard in a while.
He was startled by the sound of a shot. He was surprised to hear a shot that close, but he thought it might be too far away to be either of his hunting companions. He was surprised by his feelings. He hoped it was someone else's hunting party that had shot at the deer. He didn't want to ruin his morning with dealing with a deer. Field dressing, dragging it out of the woods, hanging the deer, and then deal with the butchering? No, that is not what he wanted to do. That is not why they hunted these woods. In twenty years of hunting this land, none of them - ever - had fired a shot. He didn't want to change that right now. Because it was a perfect day for hunting.