I didn't want to shoot a rabbit that cold November morning in 1992. Most men and boys I knew--and even some girls--lived to hunt wild game in the North Georgia woods that surrounded Newtonville.
But not me.
One day when I was five, I came up on Dad and his younger brother, Clay, skinning some rabbits they'd just killed in Sartain Woods. I tried not to breathe in the dead smell as Dad's big, rough hands ripped a rabbit's fur off like it was a candy bar wrapper. Right then, I decided hunting wasn't for me.
Uncle Clay had a different idea when he gave me Granddaddy Sartain's old .410 shotgun for my eleventh birthday. That gun, with its smooth walnut stock and long black barrel, had hung over the fireplace mantel in Clay's cabin for as long as I could remember.
"I didn't think I'd ever get Granddaddy's .410," I said, sighting down the barrel at a cardinal perched on a mimosa tree outside Clay's kitchen window. I hadn't ever thought about killing a bird, either. But I could feel the power of that possibility with Granddaddy's gun in my hands and my eye focused on those red feathers.
"Pop would have given you his shotgun before your eleventh birthday, if he was still around," Clay said. "It's past time you learned how to hunt and it don't look like your daddy is ever gonna stop drinking long enough to teach you."
I thought about Dad ripping that dead rabbit's skin off when I was five as I traced the swirl design on the gun's black metal faceplate with my finger. That firearm had felt good in my hands. Still, I couldn't imagine killing anything.
But if Clay said I ought to hunt, I figured I should at least give it a try. He got me started on reading comic books and now I couldn't put them down. So I slipped out of the house before daylight the next morning with my shotgun and followed Clay up Mouse Creek Road.
"Invited your daddy to come with us," Clay said in his deep voice as we walked in semidarkness along the ragged asphalt road edge.
"What'd he say?" I asked, trying to imagine Clay offering Dad that invitation. They were brothers, born from the same parents and raised together right here in Newtonville, in that cabin Clay still lived in. But Dad, who was thirteen years older, and Clay hardly ever spoke to each other unless they had to.
Mom said they hadn't gotten along since the car crash that killed their parents over on Hooper Gap Road when I was six. I can't remember much about that accident. I do know that Granddaddy's old green Ford pickup rammed into an oak tree. And that made Dad and Clay co-owners of the Sartain land--more than three hundred acres.
"Ray said he'd think about coming with us," Clay said. "Maybe he's still thinking about it right now in his warm bed. You ready to shoot some rabbit?"
"Past ready," I said, feeling the weight of the .410 in my gloved hands. "Bet I can get my limit today--all twelve."
I wasn't past ready to shoot anything, but that seemed like the right answer to Clay's question. What I really wanted to do was turn around. Turn around and sprint all the way home so I could crawl back into my own warm bed.
"You might have a better chance of bagging your limit if we got us some beagle dogs," Clay said, leaving the road and tramping across a meadow in his camouflage hunting boots.
I knew that some of the hunters around Newtonville used dogs, but I didn't think it mattered much if we had dogs or not. I was only hunting because Clay said I should try it. Who knew if I would ever hunt again?
Up ahead, I saw the sun, a glowing ball of light, spreading its yellow-orange color over the treetops. Maybe it'll warm up some, now that the sun's coming out, I thought, squaring my shoulders and crunching my boots against frosty grass, trying to walk like Clay as I followed him into the woods.
Our woods, Clay always said when he told me stories about our ancestors. The Sartains were some of the first settlers in Georgia. Hunting was how those pioneers survived, Clay said. No Winn-Dixies to feed them. They were on their own out here in the wilderness, with the Indians and the elements and wild animals.
I couldn't eat a piece of fried rabbit without thinking about Dad skinning that one when I was five. I was partial to grilled cheese sandwiches. The way Mom made them, oozing with marbled Colby-Jack. No one had to shoot those--or rip off their skin.
Clay glanced back over his shoulder at me as we headed up the pine-straw-covered path between the trees. "Better keep that shotgun pointed down, like I showed you last night," he said, snapping a branch with his heavy boots. "Can't be too careful when you're handling a firearm."
I looked at my gun, making sure it was pointed in the right direction. Clay had gone over safety rules in his cabin the night before. One of the things he'd told me was not to load the shotgun before I left the house this morning.
"Have it cocked open, ready for the shell," he'd said.
The round hole of the empty barrel stared back at me now like a black eye as I walked, shivering in my parka.
"When can I load?" I asked, feeling the sharp coldness chill my lungs as I inhaled pine-scented air, then let it whoosh out in a breath cloud.
"Wait till we get a little deeper into the woods," Clay answered. "You brought the cartridges, right?"
"Yep," I said, feeling to make sure the box with the rabbit picture on the side was in my coat pocket.
"Know what? Now that we're hunting partners, we really do need us a couple of dogs," Clay said, puffing his own warm breath clouds into the air. "They'd flush out every cottontail from here to town, huh, D-Man?"
To everyone else, my name was Daniel. But Clay, who had taught me everything I knew about superheroes, had nicknamed me D-Man one night about a year ago. We were playing touch football in the front yard, pretending we could see where we were going in the dim porch light with our secret X-ray vision.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Gone from These Woods by Donny Bailey Seagraves. Copyright © 2009 by Donny Bailey Seagraves. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.