First Hunting Trip by Berrien Henderson

He unlocks the gun cabinet while his son watches.

The father chooses the .22 rifle. The gun is over sixty years old–an artifact from a Europe mostly known from textbooks–with a solid bolt action and a single piece of wood running from the buttstock to the foregrip. It has accompanied the father on many, many trips into woods, and he hopes to afford something similar to the patient child nearby.

The father loads the five-round magazine. He kneels in order to be eye-level with the boy and cradles the gun.

“These are the rules.”

“Yes, sir.”

“All guns are always loaded. Never point the gun at something you’re not ready to destroy. Be sure of your target and everything around it. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Those are the rules.”

“Be safe.”

“Yes.”

To his son he gives a Gerber mini-tool and the Tasco mini-binoculars; these the boy calls ‘noculars in the clipped argot of a child. They leave the house.

The truck shudders along a two-path road beside a tiny pecan orchard at the tail-end of the grandparents’ house. They go to the back of a field once full of peanuts and now barren even of the peanut hay. The father holds the gun, and they repeat the rules spoken before they left the house. The son walks on the father’s left side since the gun hangs from a sling on the man’s right shoulder.

Wind blows against them as they walk to the far corner where the same wind teases the limbs and leaves of the oaks in the hollow. The son notices a track in the dirt.

“Deer, Daddy.”

“Very good. Can you scan the treeline with the binoculars until we get there? If you see any squirrels, let me know.”

“I see your head.” The son smiles as the father looks back, and the sun is in his eyes while the sky is in the boy’s.

The father can’t help but smile back. “Please help check the trees and not my head.”

They enter a game trail, a cleft in dog fennels and briars, and follow it back to an old deadfall from last year’s clearing of trees. There are plenty of bullis vines back here, but they won’t last much longer since the first frost hit this morning. As he picks his way along, the son falls behind.

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t leave me.”

“I won’t.”

The wind gusts and rattle-rasps the trees. A crow squawks somewhere in the coverts of the oak hollow while the father and son pause at its fringe.

“What was that?”

“The wind and a crow.”

“I want to go back to the truck.”

“Why?”

“I’m scared.”

“This is part of going hunting. I would do my best not to let anything bad happen to you, you hear?”

“Yes, sir.”

The son scans the trees again with the binoculars. Neither of them see movement, and the wind has picked up.

“Daddy?”

“What?”

“Can I go to the truck?”

“Not alone. I’ll go back with you, but you have to show me the way back.”

“Why?”

“We must pay attention to the way we enter the woods so that we can get back out.” It is a simple test and one he knows the boy won’t fail.

“I know the way.”

“Then you lead. I’ll follow.”

“Come on, then.”

They pick their way back through the subtle snares of bullis vines and the crackling dry rot of year-old branches. The son leads with care but overshoots the trail they followed in because the wind has coaxed the dogfennels into bowing just so. It is an old trick the father knows, but he has a trick of his own.

“Heath.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You lost the trail. Stop and look. Look up. See that tree?”

“Is that the one where we came in?”

“Very good. Now, show me how we get to the truck.”

“Follow me.”

“Because you’re . . .”

“Leading.”

“Anything else?”

“I am brave.”

“You sure are.”

The corner of the field waits where they left it, and the sun reminds them why there shadows were so long coming from the truck. The son jogs to catch up and gets on the father’s right side.

“You should be on my right, Daddy.” The boy moves.

“Why?”

“’cause you’re carrying the gun on your right, so I gotta be on your left.”

“Exactly.”

They stop at the truck. The father ejects the magazine and hands it to the son.

“Can you shoot one of the trees?”

“No. It’s unnecessary. You never shoot unless it’s necessary. The tree’s done nothing, and I’m not wasting a bullet.”

He then ejects the unspent cartridge and replaces it with its fellows after the son returns the magazine, then sends the magazine home again. The gun goes in the back seat, and father and son get in and go.

“Just because we didn’t see any squirrels to shoot doesn’t mean the trip wasn’t worth it.”

“Well, maybe next time, huh?”

“We’ll see. Did you like going?”

“Yes, sir. I liked holding the ‘noculars.”

“You did a good job. Thanks for leading us out, too. Remember always to pay attention to the way you enter the woods so you can get back out. Let’s go home.”

They jounce along the two-path road and past the little pecan orchard, the barn, the old oaks. On the drive home, the father sees a squirrel bounding to a pecan tree at the corner of an abandoned farm lot. There is no use stopping, and the owner of the property is unknown to the father. He watches the squirrel scamper up the tree’s trunk.

“I had a good time, Daddy.”

“Me, too.”

“Can we go again?”

“Sure thing,” says the father as they ease into the driveway. Inside the house they return the rifle to the gun cabinet, which finds itself locked and holding new sets of memories with its old friends.