My Reward?

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I am dead.

The specifics of the event are not important here, but it is the one thing that I am sure about.

Soon after it happened I was met by a man whose description eludes me. He said his name was Luke and asked what I wanted.

I had just died and he was asking what I wanted? This was getting a bit weird already. I wanted to be alive again, that’s what I wanted, and I wasn’t exactly polite about telling him that.  Ignoring my outburst, Luke replied with a measured, modulated voice that seemed completely out of place, that he was here to grant my reward and I could have whatever I wished.

He asked what I liked to do best with my time on earth. Well, I suppose hunting and fishing would top the list and deer hunting high in the Green Mountains ranked first.

Suddenly I found myself with my ’06 in my hands, standing at the bottom of a mountain that I knew well. It was one of those perfect days for deer hunting that comes along only once in decade. Snow was coming down in big, soft flakes that seemed to take hours to fall. The ground was sheeted in six inches of soft wet snow and walking quietly was as easy as standing still.

I have climbed that mountain many times and even on my best day it was an ordeal. I always said it was to find the big bucks that hid out in the spruce covered top. Not many hunters were motivated to climb that high and there was always a big buck or two feeling safe up there. Secretly though, I knew the challenge of the climb itself was a factor, it made me feel strong and young.

Now as I climbed it was like riding an escalator. I was walking, my eyes told me that, but it was effortless, my legs didn’t get tired and I didn’t sweat or even breathe hard. Time seemed out of sync and I hit the top far too soon. I had just started into the spruces when a big ten point buck stood up from his bed. The rifle went off without my even thinking about it and he fell in his tracks.

I had just reached for my knife to dress him out when Luke tapped me on the shoulder. He said that it would be taken care of and asked what else I wanted.

“I have always liked hunting partridge,” I stammered out, not knowing what else to say.

“Don’t you mean ruffed grouse?” he replied, and instantly I was in my favorite abandoned apple orchard with my Lefever double-barrel shotgun in my hands.

I noticed that as I walked the thorns didn’t scratch me, I never got slapped in the face with a branch or had my hat pulled off. A grouse flew up about every ten steps and I never missed. With the fourth bird I knew that I had shot way behind and it still piled up. As I stooped to pick up the bird that filled my limit, Luke spoke from behind me.

Again, he said that my game would be taken care of, and without a word from me I found myself on a familiar hardwood ridge. There were new green leaves on the trees and I was dressed in matching camo. I had my Remington pump twelve gauge in my hands, and turkeys were gobbling all around.

I noticed that there was a diaphragm call in my mouth. I never could really get the hang of a mouth call, but a check of my pockets found no other. I let loose with a tentative set of yelps and they sounded sweet and true. With amazement I tried again, only bolder. I doubt that there exists a hen or man, in heaven or earth, that could produce notes so pure and perfect. Instantly a gobbler stuck his head over the ridge top. I shot him and when I picked him up I noticed another turkey directly behind him, just as dead, that had been caught in the shot pattern. Both birds were well over twenty pounds with long beards and wicked spurs. As expected, Luke was there waiting. He said it was time for some fishing.

Of all the boats I had during my life, I really liked the first one the best. My wife and I bought it when we were just starting out. We couldn’t afford it, but we bought it anyway. We always said life was too short and the new garage and the living room carpet could wait. Some of my best memories were made in that boat and I found myself in the back as it trolled slowly through the deep, gray waters.

Lake trout were hitting with a rhythm that found the next one hooked the instant I boated the one I had on the line. Mysteriously, there always seemed to be lines in the water, yet I never put one out. The fish were all big, but fought very little, even for lake trout. As soon as I had my limit I found that the boat was in a weedy bay. I cast the big, shiny spoon that was hanging on my spinning rod and halfway back it disappeared into the maw of a giant northern pike.

Each cast was a repeat of the one before, each one producing a big pike larger than the last. It was perfect really, I never lost a fish . . . and believe me I tried. I horsed a pike that weighed at least twenty pounds and deliberately tried to break him off, but I couldn’t do it! It was as if he just swam to the boat and waited to be netted.

In all the time I had been fishing, I never tangled a line, stuck a hook in my hand or hit bottom with the boat. I had not lost a lure, or snagged a submerged stump.  Even though I had reeled in a lot of big fish in a non-stop marathon my arms never got weary. The sun didn’t burn me or hurt my eyes, it didn’t rain, the wind didn’t blow, the lake didn’t get rough and my feet never got cold. It was, I suppose, a sportsman’s dream come true.

So why did I feel like this?

I screamed in rage and threw the rod into the lake.

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Suddenly it was fall and I was in a duck blind. Mallard drakes were flying everywhere and when they tried to land in my decoys my shotgun killed them as if it had a mind of its own. My limit was filled quickly, with one shot producing a double. When the last duck hit the water, I was sitting in my canoe.

I was floating on a stretch of river that I have always savored for brook trout fishing. It was a two man operation to fish it, because you needed two vehicles. I always looked forward to fishing here and I was selective about who went with me. I enjoyed the companionship as much as the fishing, but now I was alone.

I flipped the ultra-light spinning rig into the water and started a retrieve. A brook trout that weighed about two pounds hit the Mepps spinner. He was much bigger than any fish I ever caught in that river in thirty years of fishing there.   Still, twelve casts produced twelve brookies, and the first was the smallest.

I blinked and when my eyes opened I was back in the mountains. The snow was deep and the beagles were singing. I was wearing snowshoes yet walking was effortless. I never fell in the snow, or even tangled my feet in the brush. My feet weren’t cold, nor were my hands, everything was dry and snow never fell off the trees and down the back of my coat. The dogs chased a snowshoe rabbit (Luke referred to them later as “hares”) and my shotgun barked. Of course, the rabbit piled up. The dog came along and after sniffing the dead rabbit rooted another out from under a spruce. I deliberately shot thirty yards behind the rabbit, the “hare” flipped twice before skidding to a stop, stone dead.

I screamed and threw the gun as far as I could and before it hit the ground, I found myself in a tree stand with my old compound bow in my hands. Below me, only ten yards away was a buck that I had spent years trying to outsmart. I knew it was the same deer because of his distinctive drop tine rack and because of the scar across the bridge of his nose. He wore the rack from his middle years, much larger than the one he grew the year I found him in the spring with nothing left but the rodent chewed antlers and a few white bones.

For five years I was obsessed with this buck. I watched him year round and hunted him relentlessly during every deer season. Twice I had a chance at him. The first time was when he followed a doe past my tree stand and I fell into the amateur’s trap of looking at the rack instead of picking a spot to shoot at, and I bounced an arrow off his horns.

The other time was in rifle season. There was a big swamp that he hid in when the shooting started and he never came out in daylight. Each day the tracks would tell a story written in the snow of how he had spent the night breeding does and thrashing lesser bucks. But those tracks always led back the swamp no matter how early I got there. A man couldn’t follow, the water was too deep and treacherous to wade and the vegetation was too thick to use a canoe. One year though, it was exceptionally cold during deer season and the ice froze early and thick.  By mid-season it would easily support my weight and I followed his tracks into the swamp to some high ground in the middle.  I jumped him from his bed and had a pretty good running shot which I simply blew. My bullet center-punched a ten inch cedar tree and never touched him. That was two years before the coyotes finally got him.

Now he was right in front of me again. I drew the bow and, aiming carefully, shot at his antlers. The arrow pierced his heart precisely through the center and he just stood there looking at me, pumping blood out, until he fell.

I screamed and raged, I cursed the heavens and I ranted like a man possessed. When Luke suddenly appeared I grabbed him by the throat and asked what the hell was going on. He smoothly slipped from my grip and replied simply “This is your reward,” before disappearing.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t an angel during my life and I did some pretty bad things, but I always thought that if there really was a God he would forgive me.

Now, I’m not so sure.

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