a single shot

a single shot cover

  He rolls to his right, slowly pushes himself with his hands into a squat, then stands. With the effort, the pain in his gored and bleeding shoulder doesn't increase or radiate. A good sign, thinks John. He extends his arm gradually forward and back, then gingerly loops it in a full circle, heartened that he has full motion in the joint.

At his feet, the deer suddenly twitches, its legs kicking out as if it will rise. Startled, John jumps back. Then the buck lies still. John sees it isn't going anywhere. His shotgun butt has crushed its jaw, forcing its teeth into a grotesque grin; its rear quarters are a mass of blood, thistle-matted fur, and exposed bone; it's exhaling as much fluid as oxygen; its eyes are clouded as though it's already in the afterlife. Looking down at the dying animal, John has the same sad feeling as he did watching his father doing likewise in a hospital bed fourteen years before.

He picks up his shotgun from the grass- and weed-covered gravel, starts to cock it, then, changing his mind, wraps both hands around the barrel, hoists the butt like a post-hole digger above the deer's head, and brings it forcefully down. The deer's skull collapses like a rotten vegetable. The buck groans once, for several seconds twitches' again, then lies still. Placing the gun on the ground, John thinks it shouldn't have come to this. The buck should have died in the pines from a single shot.

He reaches up, pulls off his torn sweatshirt, wads it into a ball, then dabs with it at his injured shoulder until enough blood has been removed for him to see a jagged puncture wound, half an inch deep, oozing a slow, steady stream. He unwads the shirt, grips it at both sides of the tear, and rips it in two. He wraps one piece tight around his bicep, just above where he's bleeding, binding it with a square knot, and the other securely around the wound.

Fighting a sudden urge to turn and run from the quarry, he takes a deep breath and tries to calm the fluttery feeling in his stomach. He picks up the shotgun, wipes its butt on the grass, and closes its breach. He looks down once more at the deer, then over at the briars. Holding the gun ready at his side, he slowly walks the twenty-five yards over to the thicket, stops in front of it, and with the shotgun's barrel moves the forward branches aside. He tries to peer through the tangled thicket to the far side, but it's dense as a sponge, and he can't see anything but more branches and briars. Nor can he hear anything, not even the blue jays, which, oddly, have gone mute. "Whatever's there," thinks John, "is bad hurt or dead."

He remembers the flash of brown-and-white he saw, and the shovel and pick standing--not lying--by the hollowed-out spot in the wall behind him. He remembers reading in a book once about how lives are begun, altered, and wiped out in a second, and something else about people only coming to know themselves through tragedy. "Where did that thought come from?" he wonders. "And why? I'm a good hunter," he tells himself. "I followed a wounded, crazed deer into a box canyon, heard an animal grunt behind me, saw it move, then shot it."

He walks rapidly to the right of the patch, ten feet wide at least and almost that tall, and without hesitating rounds the corner. On the far side, on the ground five feet in front of him, he sees the worn bottoms of two sneakered feet, then blue-jean-covered legs, a slim torso adorned by an earth-stained, white T-shirt, and a dirty-blond clump of hair protruding from beneath a floppy brown hat. The body has a circular sweat spot on its lower back and lies face-down behind the brambles, arms thrown out in front of it toward a small denim satchel.

John is hit by a wave of nausea. Instinctively, he flicks on the shotgun's safety, drops the gun at his feet, runs up to the body, kneels next to it, places one hand on the white neck beneath the hair clump, and feels for a pulse. He doesn't find one. "Come on," he says aloud. He reaches his hands beneath the body's warm, damp stomach, then carefully rolls it over. He sees first, in the left center of the chest, the slug's gaping entry wound, then a woman with her eyes wide open. "Please, God," says John. "No."

He raises his balled fists to the sides of his head, closes his eyes, and prays that when he opens them the dead woman will be transposed into a dead deer, dog, or bear. When he looks again, the body is still human, only now John sees a girl. She is maybe sixteen, with crystal-blue eyes, blossom-shaped clumps of freckles on both cheeks, a small space between her upper incisors where a piece of gum or chewable candy is lodged. The clump of blond hair is a ponytail. John looks up at the sky. It looks just as it did five minutes before. He can't figure out how that can be.
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Excerpted from A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones. Copyright © 1996 Matthew F. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Strauss, Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Delta Trade Paperback edition published May, 1997.