Hunter and the others sat at a table outside the cabin when they heard the gunshot—but not the screams that quickly followed it—as he finished dealing the cards and each of them privately looked at what they had.
“Whom is hunting?” Al said.
“Gus,” Hunter said, looking at the two fours on the table and back at his own cards. “I don’t imagine any animals are in danger.”
“And it’s who,” Lars said. He put his cards on the table, facedown. “I fold.”
Al looked at him. “What?”
“I fold. My cards are garbage.”
“No, what do you mean by it’s who?”
“You wouldn’t ask whom is hunting,” Lars said. “Him doesn’t hunt. Her doesn’t hunt. He or she, however, are most definitely hunting.”
Hunter put three nickels on the table. “Raise.”
Al stared at Lars.
“What does how I said it matter?”
Lars shrugged. “Why does it matter if you don’t saddle your horse correctly? You’ll fall off. All rules have consequences, big or small.”
Al put a dime and a nickel on the table. “The only consequence here is that you sound like an asshole.”
“Think of it how you choose,” Lars said. “Another way to see it is that you learned something, and that’s a fine consequence indeed.”
Al shook his head and looked at Hunter.
“Why do you think your brother’s no danger to the animals?”
On the table were an ace, the aforementioned two fours, a queen, and a nine.
“He’s not the best shot,” Hunter said. “Show your cards.”
Al put down his cards, showing two fives and a nine. He grinned.
“Beat that, big man.”
“With pleasure,” Hunter said, turning his cards over to reveal a four and a queen. “My full house beats your two pairs.”
Al scowled as Hunter scooped the coins off the table. Lars grabbed the cards and started shuffling.
“Lars,” Hunter said, “why do you always fold so quickly?”
He cut the deck. “Can’t do much with an empty hand.”
Hunter cocked an eyebrow. “Of course you can. Bluff, raise the bet. An empty hand, used properly, can win a great deal.”
Lars started to say something but was interrupted by yelling from the field.
“Brother! Oh, Brother!”
Hunter turned around. Racing towards him, wearing overalls, holding a rifle one-handed, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, was Gus. Hunter and the others stood.
“What?” Hunter said. “What’s going on?”
Reaching him, Gus dropped to his knees, wheezing.
Hunter took a step forward and smacked Gus open-handed across the mouth, rocking the boy and nearly knocking him over.
“Spit your grits, Gus. What’s wrong?”
Gus looked up, his left cheek red, and the tears were pouring freely now.
“Oh, Brother. I killed a fox.”
They stood at the edge of the great field, next to the dead well and only a few paces from the tree line, looking down at a red fox on its side. Its tongue lolled out and there was a hole between its eyes, with blood staining the grass. Hunter’s fists were clenched when he turned to Gus.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
His lip quivered. “It was an accident. This is a good spot for coons, and I saw movement by the bush and got excited, and next I knew the fox was dead.”
Lars looked at Hunter. “What do we do?”
Hunter didn’t say anything. He was still staring at Gus. Al rolled a cigarette and lit it.
“If we’re being smart,” he said, taking a drag and letting the smoke out his nose, “we’ll throw Gus down the dead well right now.”
Tears welled in Gus’s eyes again. Hunter spun around.
“What good do you think that’ll do?”
Al smoked more of his cigarette. “You kidding me? There’s no way Reynard doesn’t know what happened. He has eyes and ears all over these woods. Some folks even say he’s a shapeshifter.” He pointed at Gus. “We kill your idiot brother here and now and beg Reynard for forgiveness, maybe we have a chance. Maybe we can save the commune.”
Hunter started towards Al and Lars stepped between them.
“Stop it, boys. Stop it. Take a breath.”
Lars looked at Al. “We’re not killing anybody. Get those words off your tongue.”
Al scowled. He dropped his butt and stubbed it out with his boot.
“You lot are dumber than dirt,” he said, and stormed back to the cabin.
Hunter turned to Lars.
“Don’t touch the fox,” Lars said. “Let’s go home. We’ll wait for Reynard to show up and we’ll see if we can’t reason with him.”
Hunter nodded. He looked at Gus.
“Brother,” Gus said, his eyes red. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I really didn’t.”
“I know, Gussy. Go back with Lars. I’ll be along in a bit.”
Lars put his hand on Gus’s shoulder, and the two of them walked back.
Hunter stared at the dead fox until the sun started to go down.
Night had fallen and the lanterns were lit when Hunter and Lars sat at the table and watched a lone figure begin to emerge from the field.
“Whatever he says, mind yourself,” Lars said. “Getting angry will make it worse, I guarantee you that.”
“I know,” Hunter said.
“He wants to, he could wipe out the entire commune. We violated the agreement. We’re at his mercy.”
“I know.” Hunter stood up. “Let’s do this.”
Lars followed suit, and the two men waited.
Walking out of the field’s darkness and into the lantern’s light, with a rich smile on his face and a sack slung over his shoulder, was an anthropomorphic fox. Just over five feet, he was slender, with black fur on his paws, legs, arms, nose, and eyes, a very white chest and muzzle, and red covering the rest of his pelt. While both ears were pointed, a small chunk was missing from the top of his left one. He wore a blue scarf with black polka dots that hung below his chest.
Lars swallowed. Hunter nodded once and said, “Reynard.”
The fox twirled, his long, fluffy tail whipping around him, and held out his free paw, palm up, to the men.
“Little men, I had the saddest jaunt today. I scampered through the forest and what did I see?”
He pulled the sack off his shoulder and shook it once, and the fox Gus had killed spilled out onto the grass.
“A poor, murdered foxy, waiting there for me!”
“It was an accident,” Lars said. “He didn’t—”
In a blur, Reynard was next to him, his snout pressing against Lars’ cheek.
“Our agreement states no exception for accidents, little man.” He gestured at the dead fox. “One of mine lies killed by man’s hand. My rights are clear.”
Reynard ran his claw along Lars’ throat.
“I question not if you will scream and beg, little man, but I do wonder for how long will your wailing haunt the night.”
“Let us make this right,” Hunter said, standing tall. “What can we do for you?”
“Oh, brave leader.” Reynard stepped away from Lars and clasped his paws together. “It was your blood that spilled mine, yes?”
Hunter nodded, his jaw tight.
“My brother. Gus is slow. His brain doesn’t work right. He shouldn’t have been hunting by himself. That’s on me. Don’t blame him. Don’t blame the commune. Blame me. Task me with making it right.”
Reynard grinned, his sharp teeth glinting in the lantern light.
“Perhaps your half-wit brother should serve as my example. What a totem he would be! Mind me, little men, for even the weakest among you is subject to my wrath.”
Hunter dropped to his knees.
“Please,” he said, “there must be something I can do for you. There must be some way I can make this right.”
Reynard rested his elbow on his other arm, scratching his chin as he watched Hunter. Crickets chirped in the distance.
“You would go to any lengths to save your commune?”
“And my brother,” Hunter said, “yes.”
The fox god clapped his paws together.
“Then I have quite the task for you, little man.
“Do you know of Mother Eagle?”
Hunter frowned. He looked at Lars, who shook his head.
“Oh, goody,” Reynard said. “That makes this so, so, so fun for me.
“Mother Eagle keeps her nest in the tallest tree our little forest has to offer, and she’s recently laid eggs. I’ve desperately craved one for generations, but the pleasure’s remained out of my reach.”
He pointed at Hunter. “Bring me one of her eggs, little man. Intact, and within the next three days. When you have it, meet me at the dead well.”
The fox god grinned again. “Succeed in your ambitious endeavor and I’ll spare the commune and your brother. Fail…”
Reynard trailed off, sparing a quick glance at the murdered fox.
“Well,” he said, looking back at Hunter, “who knows what could happen?”
Hunter and Lars sat outside the cabin, watching the sunrise as they drank coffee.
“Think it can be done?” Hunter said.
Lars picked up his mug. “If I had to guess, yes.” He drank some coffee. “There’s always a chance Reynard’s just playing some game, wanting to see you suffer before he wipes us out, but I doubt it. If this Mother Eagle character is like him, her egg’s bound to have some worth.”
“If she’s like him, getting to her nest will be a handful,” Hunter said.
Lars nodded. They both drank coffee in silence for a moment.
“Will you promise me something?” Hunter said.
Lars looked at him. “Anything in my power.”
“If I fail at this,” Hunter said, “give Gus to Reynard.”
Lars frowned. “Your own brother?”
Hunter nodded. He looked at the ground for a moment.
“But before you do,” he said, and Hunter was looking Lars in the eye now, “put a bullet between his eyes.”
Lars didn’t say anything. He drank more coffee, keeping his gaze on Hunter.
“Reynard will torture him,” Hunter said. “For days, weeks, months. Maybe longer. Gus didn’t mean to do any of this. God made him slow, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let some monster take him apart even slower.
“I don’t want him to suffer, and I don’t want our people to pay for his—for my—failure. You turn him over, dead as any man’s last dream, maybe Reynard will spare the commune.”
Lars didn’t say anything for a moment. He looked at his empty mug and nodded a few times.
“Okay, Hunter. I’ll do it.”
Hunter nodded. He held out his hand and Lars took it. The two men stayed that way for a long moment.
“Safe travels,” Lars said.
Hunter let go and stood, hoisting his pack.
“I will,” Lars said, and as Hunter turned away from him and started walking off, he followed it with, “I’ll see you when you get back.”
Hunter smiled without turning around and journeyed across the great field and into the woods.
It took him well into the afternoon to find the tree, covered with red bark and half-its-size taller than any other in the forest. Hunter drank water as he looked up at it.
“Well, Reynard,” he said, capping the canteen, “you’ve certainly given me a task.”
Hunter dropped his pack, took out his climbing equipment, and began working his way up the tree.
A couple hours into it—after night had fallen, with much sweat, blood, and cursing along the way—Hunter pulled himself up to a particularly sturdy branch, and found it housing a great nest with six eggs. Each one the size of a medium pot, and gold in color.
“Less troublesome than I’d guessed,” Hunter said, and he reached for one of the eggs…
…when a voice from above him caused his scrotum to shrink as a chill ran down his spine.
“Just what do you think you’re doing, two legs?”
Hunter looked up and found himself face-to-beak with an eagle the size of a small buggy hanging from the branch above. Black feathers covered its body and wings, while its head was white as snow. The beak and talons matched; both a tannish-yellow and looking like machetes.
“You must be Mother Eagle,” Hunter said.
“Indeed,” the eagle responded. “By what right do you dare to steal my babies?”
Hunter swallowed hard.
“I only want one,” he said. “It’s to save my commune—”
“I don’t care,” Mother Eagle said, and she smacked Hunter across the chest with one of her broad wings.
The would-be thief went flying out of the tree, smacking a branch on the one next to it and hitting several more on the way down before landing in a heap on the ground.
He didn’t move at first, instead lying there and watching as the world spun around him.
“Okay,” Hunter said, sitting up and rubbing the lump forming on the back of his head. “I’ll try it a different way.”
Hunter turned around. Standing on a log, eyes closed, beak wide open, was a gray owl.
“Do I take this to mean you’re some sort of god, too?”
The owl opened his eyes.
“Who, me?” the owl said, his voice rumbling and gravelly. “Certainly, certainly, that’s what I could be…or perhaps you struck your noggin too hard, which leaves it a mystery.”
Hunter pushed himself up.
“Glad you enjoyed the show,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to figure something else out.”
“Oh?” the owl leaned forward. “Dead set on taking one of Mother Eagle’s eggs, are you?”
Hunter brushed off his pants. “I don’t have a choice. Why? What’s it to you?”
The owl pressed one wing against his feathered chest. “Pardon me for saying it—Mama told me to always wish others well—but I care not for Mother Eagle. For that matter, she can burn in Hell. I would be more than happy to assist in your endeavor.”
Hunter arched an eyebrow. “Yeah? No strings attached?”
“Not entirely. I would have my own small cost.”
Hunter stared at the owl for a long moment.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve had my fill with you animal gods, and I’d just as soon not be in hock to another one.”
The bird bowed his head. “Suit yourself, little man. Should you change your mind and wish me to be a part of your game, simply call out Barn Owl, for that is my name.”
And with that, Barn Owl flew away, leaving Hunter to determine how he might abscond with one of Mother Eagle’s eggs without dying in the process.
The second day, as the sun crept over the horizon, Hunter stopped on the highest branch of the tree next to Mother Eagle’s. He unfurled his grappling hook and, taking a deep breath, swung it over his head several times. When he let go, the hook launched forward, wrapping around the nest’s branch. Hunter pulled his end of the rope taught and tied it to the branch he was on, and then began to pull himself across, inch by inch, his muscles bulging.
He was halfway to the nest when the rope shook violently. Looking back, Hunter saw Mother Eagle situated at its center.
“One would have wagered you had learned sufficiently the first time,” she said, staring at him.
“I can’t just walk away,” Hunter said. “I’m doing this for my family.”
“So am I,” Mother Eagle said, and she leaned down, bringing her beak against the rope and biting it in two.
Hunter screamed as he went swinging forward, missing the tree trunk initially but slamming back-first into it as physics reared her ugly head. A shock ran down his body from head to toe and he lost his grip on the rope, once again falling to the forest floor and landing in a metaphorical pile.
“I wish Mom and Dad had stopped after me,” he said, his face pressed against the dirt.
Hunter spent the rest of the day on his project, and as the sun dipped away, he had an enormous pile of flowers, leaves, and other soft refuse piled up directly below Mother Eagle’s nest. He had pieced his rifle together and was aiming it at the base of the nest’s branch.
Sweat dripping down his forehead, Hunter eased his finger to the trigger.
“Mind if I help with that, no wings?” a voice said from behind him.
Hunter turned in a blink—but the bird god was faster. Mother Eagle latched her right talon around his leg, thrashing him from side to side, rag-dolling the would-be thief back and forth as he cried out in vain. One couldn’t say how long this went on, but when Mother Eagle was done, tossing Hunter against the nearby tree, his clothes were ripped all over and his body was covered in scrapes and bruises.
Mother Eagle held the rifle in her talons. She stared at Hunter.
“I’m done warning you, no wings. Come for my babies again and I’ll do this to your neck.”
And with that, Mother Eagle snapped the rifle in half and flew up to her nest.
Hunter leaned against a tree, looking at the ground as he let out a breath.
“Between a rock and a hard place,” he said, rubbing his arms together.
He sighed again before standing up and looking into the darkness.
“Barn Owl, I’m ready to bargain with you.”
There was the briefest pause as the forest sounds showed no acknowledgment of Hunter’s declaration, and then with a flapping of wings, Barn Owl came into view and landed at his feet.
“It’s music to my ears to hear from you, friend, and I’m happy that you’ve reached the right decision in the end.”
“Okay, great,” Hunter said. “Before we discuss anything else, I need to set my terms.”
Barn Owl leaned forward. “Listening.”
“First off, I have to get away with one of Mother Eagle’s eggs intact.”
Barn Owl nodded. “And?”
“And you have to protect my commune, my brother, and me from Reynard if he tries anything.”
Barn Owl cocked his head back. “The great fox?”
Hunter nodded. “When this is done, if he tries to double-cross me or come after any of my people, you need to back us up against him. Got it?”
Barn Owl nodded. “Certainly.”
“Swear it to me.”
Barn Owl pressed one wing against his chest.
“I will do all I can to defend you, your brother, and your commune from Reynard the great fox, or I’m no owl indeed.”
Hunter leaned back against the tree and let out a breath. He closed his eyes. After a moment, he opened them and crossed his arms.
“Okay,” he said, “what do you want me to do?”
The following day, as the noon sun hung high, Hunter started climbing Mother Eagle’s tree again.
And when he was halfway up the trunk, he heard shouting.
“Get away from my eggs, vermin! Away! Away!”
A small shadow passed over Hunter, followed by a larger one, and he looked up to see Mother Eagle flying after Barn Owl. The latter bird flapped around one tree and another, keeping ample distance between him and his pursuer.
“Get back here! Who taught you to fly like this during the day?”
Hunter went up the tree as fast as he could while Mother Eagle was distracted. Reaching the nest, he found the same six eggs as before. Hefting one up, he shoved it into his pack and lowered his gaze back to the nest.
“Okay,” he said, breathing deeply. “Okay.”
Sparing a quick glance to the tree line, Mother Eagle was several trees away, her focus on Barn Owl. Hunter took one last breath…
…and shoved the nest, remaining eggs included, off the branch.
He was down the tree and rushing through the forest before he heard Mother Eagle’s screams, but the pain of it followed Hunter all the way home and still shows up in his dreams.
Hunter leaned against the dead well, Mother Eagle’s surviving egg at his feet. He heard flapping from the nearest tree, and a moment later Barn Owl landed nearby.
“Get back in the trees,” Hunter said. “Reynard will be here any moment.”
“Indeed, indeed, but even as you fear, consider that Reynard may already be here!”
Hunter frowned, and a moment later it was replaced with a look of horror.
In the blink of an eye Barn Owl had disappeared, only to be replaced by Reynard, still wearing his scarf and grinning.
“Well, well, well, little man.” The fox took a step forward. “You sought to make a deal against me.”
Hunter gulped once and stood tall.
“Only if you were to try something,” Hunter said. “So long as our arrangement is honored, there won’t be any need for drastic measures.”
“Perhaps I’m gravely offended,” Reynard said, moving closer. “Perhaps I feel my offense can only be made right with blood.”
Hunter put his foot on Mother Eagle’s egg, and Reynard stopped dead in his tracks, the grin slipping off his face.
“Try anything,” Hunter said, keeping his voice firm, “and I’ll smash it.”
Reynard paused a moment and then smiled again.
“Be calm, little man. Just a little fun. Give me the egg and let our business be at an end.”
Hunter stared at Reynard. Taking a deep breath, he moved his foot off the egg, picking it up and holding it out. The fox god grabbed it eagerly.
“Oh, yes. Oh, yes,” he said, holding it in one arm and rubbing it with his free hand. “Such a delightful omelet this will make.”
Reynard waved at Hunter. “All done, then. Back to your people business.”
The fox god turned around and began to walk away.
“That’s it?” Hunter said. “The commune and my brother are safe?”
“Yes, yes. Your commune’s perfectly safe.”
Hunter frowned. “And my brother?”
“Oh, he’s been dead for days.”
Hunter’s stomach dropped. His face turned pale.
“You…you promised.” He took a step forward. “You fucking promised!”
Reynard turned around.
“Indeed I did, little man, and by my word, I harmed neither your commune nor your brother.”
He grinned again and his eyes seemed alive with fire.
“The dead fox—my sweet kin, as they all are—died of natural causes. When I observed your half-wit brother fall down the dead well and break his neck, I simply took his form, fired a shot into the poor foxy’s head, and came running to you with a sob story.”
Hunter’s jaw dropped. Reynard’s grin widened.
“Easy as cornering chickens in a henhouse.”
The fox god turned back towards the forest.
“Thank you for fetching my treat, little man. Until next time!”
And off he went, as Hunter fell to his knees and sobbed, staring at the dead well.