The Short, Happy Trip Of

With a rifle in his hands, he calmly surveyed the horizon. Squinting in the appropriate manner, he was aware of how he looked. Last night’s bug bites were long forgotten. The time was not long after noon, and he was on the track of his kill. 

The morning had been easy, and he had woken to his second alarm. After showering, he had decided to not shave; the small stubble seemed suitable, and he had instead only trimmed some of the hairs so as to give his face a better rugged look. He had missed breakfast, but when he drove his UTV to the ranch’s headquarters, he had been able to make himself a meal of the leftovers. It was there and then that he was introduced to Sandra Hannis, and she was driving the truck he was in now.

“Look,” Ms. Hannis said, lifting a hand from the steering wheel in order to point. “See them over there?”

He followed the woman’s direction and saw a small group of deer warily standing beside a dry creekbed. Low trees bordered either side of where water used to be, and the sight reminded him of when tall trees on either side of a road create their own tunnel.   

“Thomson’s gazelle,” Ms. Hannis continued. “They’re as fast as they come. If you get a chance to see one really run, be sure to watch.”

“Whose?”

“They’re no ones. Thomson’s gazelle is just their name.”        

He nodded and looked away from the animals. 

Ms. Hannis was a woman he estimated to be in her fifties. Though the day felt hotter to him than he had ever experienced, she was wearing a long-sleeve flannel, jeans, and boots. The skin about her face was weather-beaten and wrinkled, and he found this ironic given how covered she currently was from the sun. She was wearing a small, tan bucket hat, and he thought it made her look ridiculous.

The truck rose a small ridge then, for a moment, topped it before following the road back down. He was, in this moment, afforded a rolling view of the surrounding land. The heat in the air seemed to be so intense that it had its own noise, yet covering the scope of his view was the color green. The sight stuck him as paradoxical; the grass as far as he could see was as brown as desert sand, yet trees rose everywhere, and those trees, if anything, looked as if they were too full of the color of life. Further, of those trees, he didn’t see a single one that he would normally consider worthy of the name, and they seemed to him more like gangly shrubs. It was as if life in the area had made an effort to both pull itself up from the ground and keep itself from the air, and the result was this sea of the middling that covered the land like algae.

“It’s all theirs in that whole direction,” Ms. Hannis said. “As far as you could see, at least.” 

“How long have they had it?” he asked, not interested. 

“As far as owning it, I’m not sure. They’ve been doing hunts for about ten years, I think. I’ve only been here for three. Maybe three and a half, actually. I should remember exactly because of when I was hired, but I don’t.”

For the last hundred yards, a fence had been running along the gravel road, and trees were planted along its inside such that the physical barrier had an optical one. He was looking across Ms. Hannis and trying to peer through the barriers, wondering if it was something dangerous that was inside.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why should I remember? Well, I was hired amid controversy, you could say. Not with me, though. That’s not what I mean. When I was hired, they were worried about closing.”

“Why?”

“Well, they always worry about it every now and then. Whenever there’s controversy, you could say. They start getting nervous whenever there are news stories about hunting. At least a little. When I was hired, they were worried because it was just after that guy killed that lion in Africa. Do you remember that? It was supposedly the most worried anyone’s ever seen them.”

“Yeah.”

“I was hired and there were folks saying I could be as bad as I wanted because I’d lose my job along with the whole ranch before I’d even have any chance of getting fired. They were serious, too. At least kind of.”

“Did anything happen?”

“No. Not really, at least. They were worried about protestors every day, though, I can tell you that.”

“Were there any?”

“Maybe some online. They were worried about them being out on the road every day, though.”

“So, nothing happened?”

“Well, they had us try to do little things like having guests take fewer photos for a while. They say that trophy photos are going to be the things that end us, so they always try to limit them whenever there’s potential controversy. The anger always blows over, though. If people were actually upset, they’d do something.”

The truck made a turn, and the road fattened at the bend to allow room for a vehicle to park.

“Start keeping your eyes open,” Ms. Hannis said. “This is where we may start to see them.” 

He followed her direction and scanned the country. He could see nothing but land and unhuntable life, and he instinctively squinted. Ms. Hannis said nothing, so he continued to search. He had assumed that, when the time came, black and white stripes would be easy to spot.

Somewhere out there, he said to himself, it’s waiting for me. It may be watching me now, in fact. When my sudden precipitation into action without opportunity for worrying beforehand comes, I won’t hesitate. I’m ready for the dam to break, and my heels have already dug footholds. I’m here to face nature, and I won’t blink in its sight.

He lifted up his rifle so that it rested on the sandbag covering the dashboard, and its barrel stuck through where the truck’s windshield would normally be.

“See anything,” Ms. Hannis asked, noticing the change.

“What’s that?” he asked, brought to attention by her question. 

“Do you see anything?”

“No, just getting ready.”

Ms. Hannis smiled slightly.

“We may need to move on a little,” she said after a moment. “No use in waiting here if we don’t end up waiting for anything.”

He nodded and pulled the rifle back down. After giving one last intense scan of their surroundings, he again nodded to indicate that he found it prudent to follow the woman’s advice. Ms. Hannis then herself nodded.

“We’ll just creep on a little bit,” the woman said. “I got a feeling they’re around here. This is one of their main places.”  

Restarting the truck, Ms. Hannis directed it off the road’s bend in favor of a tire-made path that struck out into the country. She kept the truck at a low speed, but the natural earth frequently bounced the tires, and it was as if the pair were passing over mini speed bumps every few feet. The path made a turn and narrowed, and branches of brush began to make scratching sounds on the truck as it went by.

“Just a little further,” Ms. Hannis said. “It gets a little skinny here, but it’s about to open up here in a second, and then we’ll have a good look all around.” 

He nodded and directed his thoughts to his goal. Imagining the scene that was soon to happen before him, he closed his eyes as if dreaming.   

“Here we are,” Ms. Hannis said a moment later, and he opened his eyes to find the truck had left the chute it was in and had come out upon a large plain.

“And there they are,” the woman continued, pointing to a small group of zebras just over two hundred yards away. The zebras were standing just outside the ring of shade offered by a lone cedar tree, and each had turned his or her head in the direction of the truck; their ears all alertly twitched and their eyes all lazily watched. Intermingled with the zebras were a few exotic sheep that he didn’t know the name for. Ms. Hannis slowed the truck but kept it inching forward.

At the sight of the zebras, he had felt his pulse inside of him, and his heart began beating as if trying to embarrass him. The moment had burst upon him, and his mettle was decidedly strong.  

This is what it’s like, he said to himself. This is the feeling of being confronted by nature. Two beings entering a particular point in time from which only one can emerge. The great antagonist of will is will, and the contention both destroys and creates.  

He raised the rifle, rested its barrel on the dashboard sandbag, and began to aim. Ms. Hannis instantly lifted a hand from the steering wheel and slapped at the rifle barrel.

“Not while we’re moving,” she said. “Don’t even have it up yet. We’re still way too far away, anyway. It’s dangerous, too.”

He nodded and did as told. The truck continued moving forward slowly, and he watched the zebras as they watched the progress. When comfortably within one hundred yards, Ms. Hannis shut off the truck’s engine.

“You think you got it from here?” she asked.

He nodded and raised the rifle onto the sandbag. Like before, his blood began rushing with anticipation. As if in reassurance, the sight of the five zebras and three sheep became clearer once he put his eye to the rifle’s scope. He felt tingly all over, and he tried to force himself to not get too excited.  

“Which one?” he asked.

“How about the one on the right?” Ms. Hannis offered.

He nodded and changed the direction of his intent.

“Let him walk clear of the sheep, though,” Ms. Hannis continued. “Make sure there’s nothing behind him, too.”

The chosen zebra was watching the truck and stood as motionless as a statue. One of the sheep was aimlessly grazing near this zebra and stood in the way of the shot. He lifted his eye from the scope and exhaled loudly.  

“They’ll move in a minute,” Ms. Hannis said. 

Suddenly, a sound the humans couldn’t hear arrested the attention of the animals, and their eight heads immediately faced the same direction. After a few tense moments, they once again relaxed and seemed to regard the potential threat as a false alarm. Nonetheless, as if disconcerted by the sheer sense of danger, the group began to break up, and each animal began a slow walk in the direction of the rest of his or her day.

He put his eye back to the scope and followed his marked zebra. The animal was walking away from the truck but with his whole side revealed.

“Now’s the time,” Ms. Hannis said. “Just watch for what’s behind him.”

He nodded slightly, keeping his attention focused. His mind was swimming with glee and his heartbeat fluttered with excitement, but he made sure he remained outwardly composed. He spent several moments focused on his breath.

“Don’t let him get too far,” Ms. Hannis said.             

He nodded slightly. The zebra was continuing in its path, and he followed with his scope and tried to decide which stripe of the animal’s would be the most perfect to aim for.   

“Wait,” Ms. Hannis suddenly said. “Don’t shoot.”

The zebra had turned in its walk such that it no longer offered a broadside to the hunters but rather only the stern. Through the scope, he watched the big buttock muscles work and the short, stubby tail swish.  

“Can’t take him now,” Ms. Hannis said. “I’m pretty sure where they’ll all be going, though.”

He kept his eye to the scope. His interior levels were returning to normal, and he felt cheated.  

“We’ll drive around and get another shot at them,” Ms. Hannis said. “Okay?”

He nodded then removed the rifle from its readiness. All eight animals were still within view, and he felt as if he was surrendering the field. Ms. Hannis restarted the truck.  

“We’ll go back the way we came then circle around on them,” she said. 

“Do you think we’ll get another shot?” he asked.

“Definitely,” she answered without hesitation. “I know the next place.”

This next place was reached by retracing their path back to the gravel road, following it a little further, then leaving it again for another cutout into the country. Like before, this beaten semi-road was small and twisting before coming to the edge of a largely open plain. Once the truck was out on the plain, a group of four zebras was readily visible, and they watched the truck’s approach.    

“I’ll get us to the perfect spot,” Ms. Hannis said, and she got as close as possible without spooking the animals.

This is the moment, he said to himself. Now’s the time to face what must be faced and bring it under heel. It’s nature versus nature, and nature emerges better for the contest. I’ll show what I’m made of.

“Ready?” Ms. Hannis asked. 

He nodded then went through the process of getting ready to fire.

“Wait,” Ms. Hannis said. “I’m actually going to get out and set up this time. This could be the last chance of the day, after all.”

He nodded and waited for the woman to exit the truck. It took her hardly any time to get ready, and once so, she was several feet from the truck and evaluating the zebras through a scope of her own. He gave her a disconcerting look.

“I’m just making sure he doesn’t get away,” the woman explained. “You shoot first, and then I’ll shoot.”

He nodded. His hands felt sweaty but wiping them would admit the sweat’s existence. He tried to force a clearness to come over him.  

“Which one?” Ms. Hannis asked.

He lifted his eye from his scope to make his choice. 

“The second from the left,” he said.

“The second from the left,” Ms. Hannis repeated. “I’m ready when you are.”

The four zebras, like the earlier group, had stood watching the hunters for the entirety of the latter’s appearance. Each of the four stood poised and suspicious but remained where he or she was, as if defiant toward appearing skittish. The zebra on the far right appeared to be chewing while watching, but the other three had empty mouths.

The second zebra from the left was much like the others, and her prime difference was that she had a striping pattern that was unique only to her. The zebra stood slightly facing the hunters with her head cocked and her chest was fully exposed to view. Her right-front hoof was raised in a dressage-like fashion, and she looked ready to run.

“I’m ready when you are,” Ms. Hannis repeated.

Through the scope, he stared down the zebra that was staring down him. He counted to three and fired, and then Ms. Hannis fired after him.

 

 

Stewart Michael Berg lives in Austin, Texas. He recommends Little Free Library.

 

Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Sunday, March 1, 2020 - 23:40