After three hours in the back country they found their first spoor, a tuft of fur clinging to the bark of a pear tree whose leaves had already gone to gold and orange.
“Do you think it’s a buck?” Daniel asked.
“Maybe,” his dad said.
“A big one?”
“You should scan it.”
The boy handed the rifle to his dad and got close to the tree.
“Remember your tweezers, so there’s no cross contamination.”
Daniel glared at his dad and showed him the little plastic tweezers.
The boy plucked fragments of fur from the bark and dropped them into the clear plastic container topping his phone. His fingers blurred through the app’s interface.
“It’s a male! A buck!”
A few more screens flashed by quickly.
“That sounds old,” his dad said.
“But I’m twelve.”
“Yes. But you’re not a deer.”
His dad’s phone buzzed. He shuffled the rifle to the crook of his arm so he could check his incoming messages—
“You promised no phones.”
“It might be work.”
“You said it would just be you and me,” Daniel said.
“Then let’s both turn our phones off,” his dad said.
“Fine.” Daniel powered down his phone, slipped it into his coat, and zipped shut the pocket.
“Fine.” His dad did the same.
Daniel held out his hand for the rifle.
“Careful.” His dad handed the rifle back.
“It’s not a toy.”
They stood in the afternoon sun and surveyed the mixed groves of oak and pear trees.
“Do you think this is a track?” The boy kept the rifle pointed straight up as he knelt in the dirt. He pointed to a spot without loose grit.
“Let’s try it.”
They crossed a meadow of yellowed wild grasses. At the far side a dry gully ran through the middle of a dense copse.
“There!” Daniel pointed at a scratch in the bark of an oak. “His antlers did that, didn’t they?”
“We could use our cameras to identify the marks.”
“No?” His dad was surprised.
They continued on their tack and came to another meadow where they caught their first glimpse of the deer. Daniel tried to count the points on the antlers. Ten. Maybe more.
“He’s big!” The boy’s eyes were wide.
“We should call him a stag,” his dad said.
“Yes. A big stag,” Daniel said.
“No older than me.”
“For a deer is all.”
They watched the stag a little longer, then the boy leveled the rifle. He sighted down the barrel and asked, “Will it hurt him?”
“Just aim for the heart.”
“What if I miss?”
“Then you miss. And he runs.”
“But I don’t want to miss.”
“Then don’t. Remember, it’ll be loud.”
Daniel sighted again and drew a deep breath through his nose. He exhaled slowly through his mouth as he leaned forward. His finger was solid against the trigger. His dad hovered, wanting to help but the time to help had been earlier, when they practiced at the range. This moment belonged only to Daniel. His dad could do nothing but watch and hope for his boy’s success.
The rifle was loud. There was no flame or smoke. The beam was clean and invisible.
The deer ran swiftly further into the woods, up the slight hill, and out of sight.
“Did I get him?”
“I don’t know.”
“We should check.”
“We said no phones.”
“But how would we know?”
Daniel unzipped his pocket, took the phone out, and powered it back up. He shuffled back and forth while it connected to the local tower. Finally, the boy opened the app and flicked through screens.
“Well?” his dad asked.
“Right in the heart! Twenty four hundred points!”
They gave each other a high five.
“Why do they make the rifles loud? The beam is silent.” The boy looked at him.
“It’s sporting, I suppose.”
“But they’re loud after the shot.”
“I didn’t make the rules. Maybe it’s a tradition.”
“Was it like this when you were a kid? A tradition?”
“My parents didn’t like guns.”
“But you like guns?”
His dad shrugged.
“I would have liked to watch him more,” Daniel said.
“We can follow him. But you won’t get more points.”
“I just want to watch.”
The hill was mild but the deer had run fast and far. It took them another hour before they were able to catch back up with the big stag. When they found him, he was shaded under elk and spruce, sipping water from the stream that cut its way through the rocks to meet with the river further below.
The boy watched the deer through field glasses.
“He’s amazing, isn’t he?”
“Yes.” The boy shouldered the rifle like he meant to fire.
“You can only get points against each deer once,” his dad reminded.
The boy aimed high into the air and pulled the trigger. At the crack of the rifle, the deer bolted, ran crashing through several short bushes and was gone from sight around a bend.
“Why’d you do that?” his dad asked.
“There’s other hunters over there.” Daniel pointed with his finger at a pair of bright orange safety vests in the tree line. He had the rifle slung against his shoulder with the barrel pointed upwards. “I didn’t want them to catch up with me on the leaderboard.”
“That seems a bad reason to startle the stag.”
“He was going to.” Again he pointed.
“But his intent was good. Now he’ll have to track the stag and startle him again to get the points.”
“But he didn’t get them this time.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“So I won,” the boy said.