Things went south just after eleven, when Les headed back into the woods. At first they thought he was taking another piss. He drank a cup of water for every beer, which sent him frequently out behind the tangle of stunted swamp pines and fallen vines. He lurched out of their clearing, bouncing first against an oak, stumbling over its gnarled root, down to one knee, then up over the rise. Through the haze Russell saw splotches of fluorescent orange on his camouflage coat reflect, then vanish beyond the circle of firelight.
Russell laid his head back on a log. Above, embers from the fire drifted into a dense canopy of branches, mingling there with fat autumn snowflakes swirling in the wind, a dance of fire and ice. He closed his eyes. Jimmy hassled Brian over his miss, a sharp stick prodding for a weak spot.
“Did you sight it in right?” he asked.
“What do you think?”
“Well, I wonder. You missed high so I’m thinking maybe the BDC is off.”
“You missed high.”
“I just checked it.”
“I don’t know how I missed.”
“Ninety yards, at the most, I’d guess.
“The only buck we’ve seen.”
“Aim small miss small.”
“Ah. Okay. Whatever.”
Brian crushed his empty under one heavy boot.
“Well, I’m going,” he said.
Russell pulled the old plaid hunters cap down over his eyes. Adjusting one fur-lined flap over his left ear, he turned and listened with his right into the woods, doing his best to block out the talk and instead pick up the quiet sounds made by dry leaves and imagined small animals along the ground. Smells of wood smoke, damp earth and whiskey mixed in his nose, reminding him of long distant Novembers when hunts such as these had no agenda beyond the friendship of men and the teaching of boys. He bitterly wished it could be so again. He struggled to stay alert but the fire was warm. After a time he drifted away.
A sudden flash of heat across his cheek. He startled awake and snapped around to see Brian’s shape silhouetted by a wall of flames. He towered in front of fire, shirt off, arms thrust skyward, fists clenched. His bulky hunting trousers slipped to mid thigh, revealing white long-johns.
“I have made fire!” he roared at the top his lungs, splashing more kerosene into the fire pit, then doubling over and falling to the ground near Jimmy, who was also laughing uncontrollably, silently, tears in his eyes. Fierce yellow light briefly illuminated the woods around, penetrating just to the two field-dressed does hanging twenty yards in, then retreated as the fuel burned away, leaving them back in near darkness, remaining coals glowing faintly.
“Idiots,” Russell mumbled, and rose, rubbing at a dull pain in his neck.
He looked around. Crumpled beer cans. Strewn wrappers. Dead quiet.
“Where’s Les?” he asked.