I hear the deer before I see him, though he makes less noise than a squirrel—the gentle crunch of snow, a snapping twig, the soft whuff as he roots around for dead grass. I can hardly believe my luck.
As quietly as falling snow, I raise the butt of my daddy's Hawken rifle to my shoulder and peer down the muzzle. A crisscross of branches narrows my view. The deer must be allowed to wander into my sights, but that's all right. I am patient. I am a ghost.
I've tucked myself into a deadfall, the result of an ancient, dying oak looming above me. Snow fills the cracks between branches, creating a barrier to the wind. I can barely see out, but I'm almost warm. The snow around me clinks and tinkles like bells, melting in the early morning warm snap. The hem of my skirt and the petticoats underneath are ragged and soaked. If the girls at school saw me now, I'd hear no end of it, but it doesn't matter. We have to eat.
Which means I have to make this shot. If only I could conjure up fresh game whenever we needed. Now that would be a useful magic.
Finally, a deep, tawny chest and a white throat slide into view. He bends a black nose to the ground, and I glimpse tall, curving antlers—at least three points on each side. His neck is long and elegant, feathered with winter fur. He's so close I can almost see the pulse at his neck. A beautiful animal.
I pull on the rear trigger—soft, steady pressure, just like Daddy taught me. The click as it sets is barely audible, but the buck's head shoots up. I refuse to breathe.
I am patient. I am a ghost.
He takes a single dancing step, nose twitching. But I'm downwind, and after a moment he returns to grazing. I shift my finger to the hair trigger. The deadfall blocks my view of his skull, so I aim for the lungs.
It will only take the slightest pressure now, the effort of an exhale.
Church bells clang. The buck startles a split second before my gun cracks the air. He crumples, flails in the snow, scrambles to his feet, and darts away, tail sprung high.
I rip off the ramrod from the barrel as I plunge through the windfall. In good conditions, I can load and shoot again in less than half a minute. Though my fingers are chilled, I might still bag him if I'm quick.
Of course, I wouldn't need to reload if someone was hunting with me, ready with a second shot. Everything's harder when you do it alone.
I'm reaching into my satchel for my powder horn when crimson catches my eye. Bright red, sinking wet and warm into the snow. He left a puddle where he fell, and a trail of lighter drops to show me the way. I flanked him good.
I follow at a brisk walk, loading as I go—first gunpowder, then a ball nestled in paper wadding, all shoved down the barrel with my ramrod. I won't waste another shot on the deer, but there's a big catamount been prowling these hills. In a winter this mild, the scent of fresh blood might even draw a bear. It's not quite the hungering time—when a critter that's naught but fur and fangs and ribs will attack a near-grown girl—but I'll take no chances.
The trail veers sharply to the right. I pass a bloody depression in the snow where the deer's legs must have buckled again. I stop to load the cap and rotate the hammer carefully into place, then I lift my skirt and petticoats with my free hand and run—smooth as I can so as not to jostle my gun. I have to reach that deer before anything else does. Never bring home meat that's already been et on, Daddy always says.
The blood trail plunges down a steep bank thick with young birches. Crimson smears darken their white trunks. My wounded deer is heading toward the McCauley claim, where Jefferson lives with his good-for-nothing da. No sense paying a visit after my hunt, because they're certainly not home. Jeff's da attends church every single Sunday, no matter what, on the misguided notion that regular bench sitting makes him decent.
The slope ends at a shallow but swift creek. The water's edge glitters with ice, but the creek's center runs clear and clean. My boots are well oiled. If I'm quick, I can cross before the water seeps into my stockings. I hitch my skirt and petticoats higher and plunge in.
Midway across, I freeze.
The gold sense sparks in the back of my throat, sharp and hard. It creeps down my throat and into my chest, where it diffuses into a steady buzz, like dancing locusts. My stomach heaves once, but I swallow against the nausea. We don't have enough food in the cellar for me to go wasting a meal.
I force my belly to relax, to embrace the sensation. Best to let it wash over me, through me. Allow it to settle in like an old friend come to stay.
It's only bad like this the first time I'm near something big. A nugget, usually, but sometimes a large vein. From habit, I close my eyes and focus hard, turning in place to find where the sensation is strongest. If I hit it just right, it will be like a string tugging my chest, like something sucking . . . There. I open my eyes. Just across the creek, behind a young, winterstripped maple. The blood trail leads in the same direction.
All at once I'm shivering, my feet icy with cold. I splash through the creek and scramble up the opposite bank, which is slick with snowmelt. How long was I standing in the water? It seemed like only moments. I wriggle my toes inside my soaked stockings, hoping I haven't ruined my boots. We can't afford another pair right now. Good thing I wore my old hunting skirt. The hem is already a disaster and won't suffer much from being dragged through the stream.
At the top of the bank, I check my rifle, and it seems dry. At least I had sense enough to not let it dangle in the water. As I step around the maple's trunk, the gold sense grows stronger, but I ignore it because the deer lies in a small depression banked with bloody snow.
He pushes up with his forelegs, antlered head straining in the opposite direction. I whip up my rifle just in case, but he collapses back into the snow, his sides heaving.
I prop my gun against the tree and pull the knife from the belt at my waist. "I'm so sorry," I whisper, approaching cautiously. Neck or kidney? He'll fight death until the very last moment. They always do. I know I would.
His antlers still pose too great a threat for me to slice his jugular. He squirms uselessly as I near, head tossing. It needs to be a quick thrust, aimed just right. I raise the knife.
My hand wavers. The gold sense is so strong now, its buzzing so merciless that I feel it down to my toes. It's almost good, like being filled with sunshine. It means gold is somewhere within reach.
Deer first, gold later.
I plunge the knife into his left kidney. He squeals once, then goes still. Hot blood pumps from the wound for mere seconds before slowing to a trickle. It steams in the air, filling my nose and mouth with bright tanginess. I'll have to work fast; if that catamount is anywhere near, she'll be here soon.
He's too large for me to carry over my shoulders. I'll have to skin and butcher him and take only the best parts. The great cat is welcome to the rest, with my blessing.
I place the point of my knife low on his soft white underbelly. The gold sense explodes inside me, so much hotter and brighter than the scent of fresh blood. I can't help it; I drop the knife and dig furiously at the snow—dig and dig until I've reached a layer of autumn rot. Muddy detritus jams under my fingernails, but still I dig until something glints at me. Sunshine in the dirt. Warmth in winter.
The nugget unsticks from its muddy resting place without much effort; this time last year I would have had to dig it out of frozen ground. I scrape away mud with the edge of my sleeve. It's the size of a large, unshelled walnut and rounder than most nuggets, save for a single odd bulge on one side. Must have washed down the creek during last spring's flood. I gauge its heft in my palm, even as I let my gold sense do its work. Close to ninety percent pure, if I don't miss my guess.
Worth at least a hundred dollars. More than enough to buy meat to last the winter.
I sit back on my heels, nugget clutched tight, staring at the animal I just killed. I don't even need it now. Waste not, want not, Mama always says. And Lord knows Daddy could use a fresh venison stew.
Today is my luckiest day in a long time. I shove the nugget into the pocket of my skirt, pick up my skinning knife, and get to work.
* * *
The sun is high over the mountains when I finally haul my venison up the stairs of the back porch. Everything I could carry is wrapped in the deer's own skin, tied with twine. My shoulders ache—I carried it a mile or more—and though I bundled it up tight as I could, my blouse and skirt are badly stained.
"Mama!" I call out. "Could use a hand."
She bangs out the doorway, a dishrag in her hands. A few strands of hair have already escaped her shiny brown bun, and the lines around her eyes have gone from laughing to worried.
"Daddy's not doing so good, is he?" I ask.
Her gaze drops to the bundle in my arms and to the rifle balanced carefully across it. "Oh, bless your heart, Leah," she says. She shoves the dishrag into the pocket of her apron and reaches out her arms. "Give it here. I'll get a stew on while you tend your gun and feed the chickens."
As I hand it over, I can't help blurting, "There's more, Mama. I had a ﬁnd."
She freezes, and I leap forward to catch the package of meat before it slides out of her arms. Finally, she says, "Been awhile. I thought maybe you'd outgrown it."
"I reckon not," I say, disappointed in her disappointment.
"I reckon not," she agrees. "Well, take care of your business, and we'll discuss it with your daddy when you're done."
She disappears into the kitchen. I hitch the Hawken over my shoulder and head toward the henhouse. Just beyond it is a break in the trees. We keep the land clear here, so nothing can sneak up on the chickens easily. It's a good hundred-yard stretch—all the way to the scar tree, a giant pine I use for discharging my rifle. I whip the gun down and cradle the butt to my shoulder. The wind is picking up from the north a bit, so I aim a hair to the right. Best aim I ever saw from such a wee gal, Jefferson's da once told me, the only compliment I've ever heard him give.
Rear trigger, soft breath, hair trigger, boom. Splinters fly into the air as my shot hits its target. The chickens squawk a bit but settle quickly. They're used to me.
I lean the gun against the side of the henhouse. I'll clean her while I'm at the table talking with Mama and Daddy. It will give me an excuse to avoid their worried gazes. "You hungry?" I say, and I hear my chickens—who are not nearly as stupid as most people think—barreling toward the door for their breakfast.
I lift the bar and swing open the door, and they come pouring out, squawking and pecking at the toes of my boots, as if this will summon their breakfast even sooner. They forget all about me the moment their feed is scattered on the ground. Except for my favorite hen, Isabella, who flaps into my arms when I crouch. I stroke her glossy black tail feathers while she pecks at the seed in my hand. It hurts a little, but that's all right.
I have a strange life; I know it well. We have a big homestead and not enough working hands, so I'm the girl who hunts and farms and pans for gold because her daddy never had sons. I'm forever weary, my hands roughed and cracked, my skirts worn too thin too soon. The town girls poke fun at me, calling me "Plain Lee" on account of my strong hands and my strong jaw. I don't mind so much because it's better than them knowing the real trickiness in my days—that I find gold the way a water witch divines wells.
But there's plenty I love about my life that makes it all just fine: the sunrise on the snowy mountain slopes, a mama and daddy who know my worth, that sweet tingle when a gold nugget sits in the palm of my hand. And my chickens. I love my loud, silly chickens.
Only four eggs today. I gather them quickly, brushing straw from their still-warm shells and settling them gently into my pockets. Then I grab my rifle and head inside to face the aftermath of witching up another nugget.