“The Last Hunt”

Hank Norton and an old buck meet one last time in the woods. An outdoor fiction story.

Wesley Norris | October 29, 2020

The creak and pop of old joints were the only sounds in the small cabin. Hank Norton stretched and groaned as he shook off the fog of sleep. He stared at the empty spot beside him for a few seconds, fumbled on the nightstand for his glasses. His groping scattered the collection of pill bottles that arrayed the nightstand. He ignored them as some of the bottles rolled behind the nightstand or under the bed. He stood and made his way to the bathroom.

With his bladder relieved, teeth brushed, (remarkably, most of them were still his originals), he did his best to tame the few remaining wild hairs on his wrinkled head. He stared at the old man in the mirror wondering where he came from. It didn’t seem that long ago that a young man stood in the same spot staring back at him.

He made his way into the kitchen and turned on the coffee pot. The rich smell of roasted coffee beans filled the small space with its aroma. He reached for the door to the cupboard and felt his shoulder pop. He grunted through the pain, pulled out the World’s Greatest Mom coffee cup and waited for the dark liquid to fill the pot. He had never been a coffee drinker but had started after she was gone. It was just one more way to hold on to the past. She had loved to sit on the porch in her favorite chair under a blanket and watch the sun rise over the north Georgia mountains with a steaming cup of coffee. It had been her morning routine until the morning he’d woken up and she hadn’t.

He filled the cup, took a sip and muttered a curse as the hot coffee scalded his tongue. It was hot and bitter, but the caffeine worked its magic as it coursed his way through his old body. Setting the cup aside, he shuffled to the closet they’d shared in the small cabin. Her dresses still filled the left side. Bottles of perfume and various cosmetics that he had no idea what they were for filled the shelf over the clothes rack. He ran his hands over the plastic bag that covered the dress she’d worn on their wedding day all those years ago. His touch lingered for a second, lost in the memories of young love. He blinked away the memories and pulled out his faded camouflage overalls.

He felt the muscles in his back tighten and threaten to seize when he bent to grab the worn hunting boots from the bottom of the closet where they sat beside a pair of black high heels. He waited for the pain to ease, then pulled on the insulated clothing.

He tried to shake off the numbness in his left fingers and laced up the boots. It was the first day of deer season and he hadn’t missed opening day in more years than he could count. He wouldn’t miss this one either. Old age won’t stop me, he thought.

He walked to the corner of the living room and turned the dial on the gun safe. The combination was her birthday. The smell of gun oil and leather filled his nose with a flood of memories when he swung the door open. The safe was full. Full of a lifetime of memories of teaching a daughter and four sons to shoot. Full of memories of first deer for excited youngsters and the pride of a father as he watched his children make the transition from consumers to providers. Some of them took to hunting like a moth to flame, some of them moved on from the experience to pursue other interests. It didn’t matter, he was proud of them all.

He stared at the rifles that stood like soldiers at attention. Custom built bolt actions, semi-automatics with long magazines, an array of shotguns, and stubby barreled youth model .22s that he had used to teach his children and more recently, his grandchildren how to shoot filled the rows. His memory wasn’t what it used to be, but he couldn’t forget the looks of joy on each of their faces the first time they squeezed the triggers and saw an empty soda can leap into the air from a well-placed shot.

He reached for the rifle standing in the corner and pulled it out. The old Marlin 45-70 and him were both made in the same year, and it was one of his favorites. He ran his fingers lightly over the wood stock, thought about all the days afield with the big rifle. Part of him longed for the days when its weight wasn’t noticeable as he wandered the woods. He reached up and pulled the gun belt from the top shelf. Inside the worn leather holster a Ruger Blackhawk nestled, an anniversary present from his wife that they hadn’t really been able to afford at the time. It was an old friend that had served him well over the years. The belt also held his skinning knife, a Father’s Day gift from his kids many years ago, and a few tarnished shells for the revolver. Like him, the guns and knife were worn from age and carried scars from a lifetime of outdoor pursuits, unlike him, they would last forever with a little care.  He laid the rifle on the couch and buckled on the gun belt. He settled it on his hips and dropped a handful of rifle shells into his pocket, then made his way back to the coffee.

He pulled a pen and pad from the junk drawer and scrawled a quick note so his son would know where he was at. He almost laughed at the irony. It didn’t seem like that long ago, he was the one who insisted that the kids let them know where they would be and when they would be home.

He drained the last of the coffee from the cup, rinsed it out and set it in the strainer. The coffee left in the pot went into his thermos.

He paused to look at the pictures that lined the hallway as he headed for the door. Random moments captured forever of an ordinary man and an extraordinary woman. Photos of beaches, mountains, picnics by the lake and camping trips that showed the evolution of a family. His kids and grandkids posed with big grins as they held up fish or knelt beside an animal they’d taken. In one of them his wife held up a 6 pound bass while he stood beside her holding up one that only measured about 5 inches long. That had been a good day.

He touched her face in one of his favorite photos. It was a picture of them sitting on a blanket at the beach while their preteen children played in the waves. She was making a silly face while he sat there looking uncomfortable like he always did when a camera was pointed in his direction.

He didn’t bother locking the door behind him. He breathed in the fresh mountain air. The fall air was brisk and cold, just the way he liked it. The predawn sky was just starting to lighten as night slowly gave way to day. In years past, he would have been settled in a stand by now, listening to the sounds of night creatures as they scurried about their business. Now, he was in no hurry. He had nowhere to be and all day to get there. He tried to shake the numbness from the fingers of his left hand to no effect.

He made his way up the trail behind the cabin. Their dream house butted up to a wildlife management area on the most remote side of the mountain. He’d hunted it for years and the only person he’d ever seen had been another hunter who had gotten lost in the thousands of acres of unspoiled land.

His breath was labored and ragged as he made his way up the hill. Getting old wasn’t for sissies, he thought. Once he topped the slope, he would make his way along the ridge and settle in with his back to an ancient oak where he could watch the trail that came up out of the valley. That valley was the stomping ground of the old buck he’d nicknamed Methuselah.

Methuselah was a huge whitetail buck when he was in his prime, a trophy buck that any hunter would have driven straight to the closest taxidermist. Heavy beamed antlers that spread tall and wide, the bases as thick as a man’s wrist. Six perfect points on each side of his massive rack, with one long drop tine on the right side. He had watched the buck grow up on trail-camera pictures. He had watched the deer disappear into the brush numerous times when he’d lifted the rifle for the shot, the deer’s’ white tail taunting him and waving goodbye as he darted out of sight. The elusive animal had never offered him a clean shot over the years, always too wary and sly to let himself be centered in a hunter’s crosshairs.

Like Hank though, Methuselah was long past his prime. The pictures on the trail cameras this year showed an old deer. One who had defied the odds and surpassed his species life expectancy. His muzzle was gray, his back swayed and the once impressive rack was declining from year to year. Hunter and prey might both be past their peaks, but he wasn’t ready to give up on the old buck yet and he said a silent prayer that the deer hadn’t given up on him either. One more time, he thought. Just one more time for us to meet and see who comes out on top. Your senses and cunning against my fading eyesight and shaky hands.

He crested the ridge panting, with his legs aching from the climb. Despite the coldness of the morning, he could feel a rivulet of sweat snaking its way down his back inside the insulated coveralls. He unzipped the front of his insulated suit to let some of the heat out. He shook his left hand. The numbness was uncomfortable, but he ignored it.

The sun was already peeking over the mountains as he picked his way through the forest, but it wasn’t far to his spot now and he felt good about his chances despite the late start.

Once he settled in with his back to the tree, he slipped cartridges into the rifle and levered a round into the chamber. He eased the hammer down and laid it across his lap. He sipped coffee from the thermos and remembered the many mornings he had kissed her forehead softly before slipping out into the darkness to go spend time afield with his children or friends. She had never complained, just murmured a wish for good luck before she rolled over and went back to sleep.

Hank thought about his life and children while he enjoyed the peace and solitude of the mountain. The kids were all grown now and scurrying about like the squirrels that rustled through the leaves. Digging and scratching their way through life to feed and care for their own young ones. Most of them were scattered across the country and busy with their own lives, but the holidays and summers found the cabin filled with rambunctious grandchildren and stories of the past and plans for the future.

His middle son lived closest and was always stopping by to pry him out of his recliner, more so since her passing that spring. The trout were biting, or he’d seen a long-bearded gobbler cross the road, Aiden would tease to stir him from his melancholy. The boy had always loved the outdoors the most of all his children and made sure the old man got out of the lonely cabin full of memories.

The peaceful stillness of the morning lulled his senses. The warmth of the morning sun drove the chill from his bones. His eyes were heavy and he was contemplating a nap when the snap of a branch came to his ears. He felt that familiar thud in his heart that came whenever he knew an animal was about to appear. It didn’t matter if you were eight or 80, a deer had that effect. He slowly moved his hands down to the rifle and laid a thumb on the hammer. He would shoulder the weapon and ease back the hammer only when he had a clear view of what made the sound. He watched and waited, tried to calm his breathing and ignored the dull throb making its way up his left arm.

Methuselah lumbered his way onto the ridge. The old deer was seeking the greenery that covered the sun kissed peak. His teeth were nubs, worn down to nothing from the long years. Acorns were hard to chew, but the tender plants that covered the ridge weren’t. He was no longer the dominant buck in the area. The younger bucks forced him away from the does, despite the fact that he had sired most of the upstarts. Steam poured from his nostrils from his labored breathing. He was old, scarred and arthritic, nearly blind in one eye, his energy sapped from the climb out of the valley. He nipped at the vegetation and meandered his way along the ridge in search of the most tender plants.

Heart pounding, Hank raised the rifle as Methuselah came into sight. His ragged breath fogged his glasses as he tried to sight in on the deer. Methuselah had appeared, just like he knew he would. He ignored the burning sensation along his arm and tried to hold the rifle steady. One good shot and this contest would be over. The rivalry between the old hunter and the once trophy buck would end this morning.

He settled the crosshairs high on Methuselah’s shoulder. The shot would drop him where he stood. He took a deep breath and let most of it out. Held what was left of the breath and watched the crosshairs settle. His finger found the trigger. Squeeze, don’t pull, he reminded himself.

He paused as Methuselah looked toward him. This is where the deer would disappear if he didn’t shoot. Time seemed to stop for both of them. This would be the last time either would see the other. The deer studied him unblinking, unconcerned, then returned to his grazing.

Hank took his finger off the trigger and lowered the rifle. He no longer felt the need to take the shot. He had gotten what he always wanted, one clear opportunity on the clever buck. He watched as the deer grazed its way toward him. The deer didn’t seem to care that he was so close to the man who’d been hunting him for years.  When he was 10 yards away the deer lowered himself to the ground and lay in the vegetation. The sunlight danced off his coat and his antlers stood tall and proud, even though they were a shadow of his former glory.

The deer lowered his head to the ground at the same time Hank felt the massive eruption of pain spread up his arm and through his chest. His heart seized in his chest, and he knew his time was up. Just before everything went black, he heard her voice call his name, telling him it was time to come home.


Aiden Norton watched as the coroner loaded his father into the van. He had the old man’s gun belt and rifle slung over his shoulder. He would make sure they were well taken care of. Aiden and generations to follow would carry them into the woods. He wiped his eyes and made the first of four calls he would have to make that evening.

“Hey sis,” he said when the voice picked up on the other end of the phone.

“Dad’s gone to be with Mom. I found him on the ridge up behind the cabin.”

He listened to his sister as she asked him questions, then responded.

“I don’t think so. They think it was a massive heart attack. Strangest thing though, Dad was sitting against that tree with a smile on his face. Methuselah was bedded down a few yards away. He was dead, too, but there wasn’t a bullet wound or mark on him. I think they went together.”

He smiled through his tears as he listened to her voice then said…

“Honestly, I don’t think that was a bad way to go at all.”

Editor’s Note: Wesley Norris is an Air Force veteran, full time industrial mechanic, part-time gunsmith and part-time writer living in south Georgia with his wife and children. An avid outdoorsman who loves all things hunting and fishing, Wesley would love to hear your feedback on his first fictional story in GON. He can be reached at [email protected].

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