Vern moved lightly across the desert landscape in the early morning haze, alert for the small movements that might betray some critter out hunting for a last meal before finding some cool shade for the heat of the day. But this was not his hunting habitat, for sure. Instead of the lush and verdant hills of Kentucky, the southern Californian desert was a dusty, rock-strewn wasteland, with a meager scattering of wiry brush and an occasional cactus. Unlike those born and raised in this environment, Vern saw none of the desert beauty that inspired many. He hated the oppressive summer heat, a dry heat that irritated his throat and nose, and made him sweat uncomfortably, unlike the more humid summers back home where a cool drink in the shade would render the heat not merely tolerable, but almost delightful. He hated the winters here, the air even drier than in the summer, with bitter desiccating winds unbroken by forest trees, unlike the soft snowfalls that coated the countryside in blankets of white, back in Kentucky.
But Vern had little choice. Kentucky called him, but pushed him away at the same time. The two ex-wives, to whom he owed money, the gambling debts, and the local warrant for his arrest, made his escape to California an unfortunate necessity. Now, with a reasonably decent job as a janitor in a local printing plant, and a boss who saw no reason to ask too many questions, he could at least live like a human, and spend his weekends hunting in the desert instead of being hunted across the counties of Kentucky. At 58 years old, with no education, no assets, and no friends, Vern realized he was lucky to have a job and still have his health, and it wasn’t such a terrible life after all.
Vern crested yet another hill, carrying the 22 caliber rifle in both hands, ready to aim and shoot if he spotted a rabbit, although his eyesight, diminished with age, precluded much hunting success these days. Nonetheless, today was a good day; his knapsack contained the carcass of a jackrabbit, the successful shot having come just twenty minutes before. These desert hares were thin, stringy, with a bitter flavor from eating the local desert vegetation; they were nothing like the fat, slow rabbits of the Kentucky countryside. But hunting was in Vern’s blood, deeply ingrained, seemingly a genetic trait passed down from father to son in Kentucky. Vern’s own son would break that chain; the son was a punk, a local hoodlum, living off a succession of girlfriends, launching a series of get-rich-quick scams and petty crimes, never making the big score. Vern had long since resigned himself to his son’s fate, blaming himself mostly for his frequent absences, but knowing that it was far too late to do anything about it.
Instead, Vern was satisfied to be able to hunt occasionally, even if the prey was nothing more than a stringy, tough desert jackrabbit. He would cook up the rabbit, in the same way he did so many times back home, and ignore the bitter taste while in his fantasies he’d be back in the Kentucky hills with his father, in an age that passed so long ago.
Cresting a small hill, Vern looked down, blinking his eyes and squinting for a clearer view. Suddenly, there was a brief flash of white, over by the hollow just a hundred yards away. Reflexively, Vern raised the rifle to his shoulder, barely able to take aim at the flashing spot of white before squeezing off a round. The crack of the bullet echoed around the hills, magnifying the sound. Vern was still trying to get his eyes fully focused when his prey hit the ground, sending up a small cloud of dust.
Wait a minute, there’s too much dust. A big cloud of dust was kicked up, far more than what a jackrabbit would make. Perhaps I only winged him, Vern thought, and he dropped his rifle down to his side and began to trot down the hill toward the target.
Oh, sweet Jesus... it’s a man...