The rest of the herd was about a mile away; he could smell them on the crisp Autumn night air. His wet black nose flaring, taking in every scent. Testing the air for danger. The young buck wove through the pine trees, picking his way carefully. Winding his hooves into the best places to step so he wouldn’t make too much sound. He must get to the herd. Even in the woods, he felt exposed. A predator could find him at any moment, and without the other deer, he would be the only target. His wide ears swiveled and twitched at all of the sounds, velvet-covered antlers dipping as he stepped. He was a tawny brown and white shadow passing through the trees, trying his best to camouflage with the oak scrub brush and the rough-barked pine trees.
Leaves crunched under his weight as he picked up speed. He must get to the herd.
The grazing was better at lower elevations, but it was dangerous there. At dusk, they would pick their way down, down, down to the open fields to eat the cool and dewy green grass. Perfect, delicious, and out in the open. He could almost smell the grass from where he was, along with the flowers and weeds that would help him grow strong for Winter. His wide liquid-black eyes tried to take in as much of the forest as he could as he steadily traveled downhill. Without a Summer of grazing on the fattening grass in the lower valleys, he wouldn’t survive the scarce Winter, when his only food would be the dying grass and the roots buried beneath the snow.
The way began to flatten out, and he was faced with the first opening in the trees. He could see the next grouping of trees across from a wide meadow, lit by the bright moon above. Beautiful… and dangerous. Maybe on another day he would stop and graze in such a place with the herd, but today he was alone. His muscles tensed and coiled as he stood at the threshold. Then, with a mighty spring, he bounded across the meadow, leaping high in the air and tucking his nimble legs to his body. Moments later, he was safe in the trees again, his heart pounding.
A noise to his left made him spring into the air one more time, so that he almost collided with a wide pine tree that had been split in two by lightning. He turned to the source of the noise and saw a fox staring, face in its permanent grin as it stalked mice in the long grass. The fox turned and trotted along on its way, leaving the buck to catch his breath under the wide-needled branches of the pine tree.
As he walked away, a tuft of his coarse tan and white fur caught on the rough bark of the tree and stayed there, a waving flag in the light breeze of the evening. The next morning, a squirrel would take it into his den to use as bedding.
The herd was very close now; he could smell his mother and other familiar deer. Their closeness filled his heart with hope as he picked his way along the ever-sparser trees. Soon, he would be grazing with them and flicking his ears back and forth in pleasure as his herd-mates did the same, in silent agreement that they had found a good place to graze.
The terrain grew steep again, and he had to lean back as he picked his way down the rocks and trees. In front of him was a wide-black expanse, just wide enough that he thought he could not jump the whole thing in one go. He knew this hard ground—his mother had shown him when he’d still been a speckled fawn that it was safe to walk across. Yet he did not trust it, especially when he was so close to being reunited with his herd. So, he tensed his powerful muscles again, winding up his hindquarters against the steep hill and then letting them unwind in an explosive motion, launching him across the road.
The light was so bright and fast-moving, rushing toward him as he flashed through the air, elegant form lit by the spotlight. The car rushed forward, barely beginning to break. The tires squealed, and with his ears pinned back to his head, he could only continue his flight through the air.
The driver of the car squeezed her eyes shut as the passenger screamed. “Deer!”
He stood on the edge of the road, staring at the steel monster that was watching him with bright wide eyes. The people in the car remained just as still, slowing their hammering hearts as they looked at the green-flashing eyes of the buck who stood safely on the other side of the road.
Once he’d gathered his wits about him again, he turned his tail to the car and disappeared back into the brush. Relieved. He crossed the road and was safe. He would never stray from the herd again. He trotted through the scrubby bushes and low trees, toward the groomed expanse of green that awaited him. From here, he could make out the white-tailed rumps of his herd-mates.
He was so absorbed with his destination that he failed to notice the mountain lion, coiled up on the rocks above him. She was waiting patiently in silence, as she had been for hours. Tucked against the shale and rocks, invisible but to the sharpest eye.
The buck did not have the sharpest eyes, and he was trotting out in the open, still too far from the herd.
The teeth and claws came, slicing open his back and neck like a hot knife. The mountain lion lashed and bit as he bucked desperately with all of his strength, attempting to remove the heavy hunter from his back. The mountain lion’s claws scrabbled for purchase on his skin, ripping open more wounds that stung in the cool air. He cried out, and the heads of the herd rose from their sweet grass. She clung to his back as he bucked and whipped his neck, biting and clawing and snarling as she did so. He used every ounce of his strength to kick and buck the monster from his back. The pain boiled as blood streamed from his wounds. His muscles burned, and he could feel his strength fading—her hold was too strong.
The ground rose up to meet him as he crashed into the dirt, the mountain lion on top of him; the feline’s puncturing front teeth sank deep into his neck. Crimson bubbled around the mountain lion’s tawny jaws, soaking both of their fur, sticky and hot. The two made eye contact as the last life ebbed out of him, with his wild liquid-black eyes locking with the golden ones of his conqueror. He moaned one more time, looking at the green fields that he’d come so close to.
He would never leave the herd again.