The Stag
                                                                              by Cara Brook

        Elijah Addams lay sprawled on his stomach, his neck extended out over the creek bank and his nose an inch from the sparkling water. His deep, arresting brown eyes hungrily devoured every glistening pebble and flitting minnow in the creek bed, and his ears filled with the gentle music of flowing water and whistling birds. Elijah had been lying thus for nearly and hour already, his khaki-colored trousers and flannel shirt long soaked from the muddy bank, and yet he felt not the slightest bit uncomfortable, tired, or bored. A small, skinny boy of about twelve years old with a pale, peaked face and a mop of curly black hair, Elijah was not at home in the rough and inhospitable environment of the California mining frontier. Introspective and observant, he relished the long hours spent in the woods with the company of his wolf-like dog, Sasha, wandering the alpine forests and splashing through the crystalline mountain streams; and yet, in spite of his love for the California hinterland, Elijah longed to return to the close-walled comforts of his family’s Cincinnati home, where he had spent hours of peaceful leisure time in the company of his father’s extensive book collection, and where no crass, sunburned miners had sneeringly ostracized him. Yet hard times lead to hard decisions, and the Addams family had had no choice but to sell and head west.
        It was the 1879 in the small mining community of Bennettville, California. Silver ore had been discovered in the nearby mountains just two years prior, leading to a second mining rush to California, three decades after the first rush for gold. Elijah’s father, Joshua Addams, had been a well-educated industrial artisan in Cincinnati during and directly following the Civil War. However, economic depression in Europe and America in the late 1870's had forced him and countless others to abandon their tranquil home lives for the unpredictability and insecurity of chancing fortune on the California frontier. Like so many others, Addams had been unprepared for the strain that such a rough lifestyle would wreak upon him, his young son, and his now-late, city-bred wife.

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        Elijah looked up from the creek bed even before he heard the sound. Sasha, who had been napping under a nearby fir tree, was already on her feet and standing over him protectively. It was said in Bennettville that there was something strange about the Addams boy and his inseparable dog companion; at times, they seemed to sense that things were going to happen almost before they did. An so it was that Elijah was already on his knees by the time the crashing reached his ears, and a majestic, golden stag leapt into the clearing along the stream’s edge. The proud, regal animal looked frightened; there was a wild flicker in his otherwise calm brown eyes, and yet, in spite of his haste and sense of urgency, the stag paused on the creek bank to bow his delicate, twelve-point prongs to the boy and the dog. Then, with a toss of his magnificent head, the deer leapt on.
        No sooner had Elijah settled back into is reverie then another creature stumbled into the clearing, a boy this time, carrying a rifle. Elijah at first shrank away from the boy in fear, until he recognized the straw-colored golden hair and dancing hazel eyes of Daniel Rafferty.
        “You frightened me, stumbling in here with your gun,” said Elijah, smiling shyly ast he rose to his feet and attempting to brush some of he mud from his trousers.
        “My apologies,” grinned the other boy, a tall, sunburned youth of about fourteen or fifteen. “I was tracking a stag. He has some of the finest antlers I’ve ever seen. Been noticing him around town lately. Thought Uncle Steven might let me help out a bit at the mine if I brought him back a few pounds of quality venison. But his deer’s too quick for me. I need Sasha to help me chase him down.” Daniel grinned again and patted the beautiful dog on her snowy head.
        “Sasha doesn’t hunt,” Elijah whispered quietly. “Or Hank Jackson Would have stolen her from me long ago.”
        “Aww, I’m sorry, Elijah. I’d forgotten how you felt about hunting.” The older boy ruffled Elijah’s hair fondly. “I’ll talk to Hank about my stag. He’s planning a town-wide hunt for tomorrow night. Bring all the boys out to help.”
        Elijah frowned but said nothing. He liked Daniel well enough but felt no fondness for Hank Jackson, the seventeen year-old son of Bennettville’s most notorious drunk, Brett Jackson. His father had had some problems with Brett, and Hank, himself, was the leading source of most of Elijah’s problems with the town boys, who were incapable of comprehending what enjoyment Elijah could find in the dusty pages of a well-worn novel or why, with such a fine canine companion, he refused to take advantage of the Sierra Nevada’s admirable hunting prospects.
        Sensing his young friend’s discomfort, Daniel Rafferty grinned more broadly and ruffled Elijah’s hair once more. “Why don’t you and Sasha come on over to my place after dinner for the evening? Sarah Keller’s bringing some pie, and we can have a round of horseshoes.”
        Cheered somewhat by this unexpected show of hospitality, Elijah smiled faintly and answered Daniel’s offer with a small nod.

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        Daniel was already throwing horseshoes by the time Elijah arrived at his house just before dark. Sarah Keller, a fair, intelligent girl about Daniel’s age, sat on the porch watching Daniel intently as he made his tosses. When she caught sight of Elijah, however, she let out a small exclamation of joy and rushed down the steps to envelop the small boy in a hug, laughing and patting Sasha as she leaned back to examine Elijah’s pale face.
        “How have you been, Elijah? God knows you don’t come to see me often enough,” said Sarah with a friendly smile, as she looped her arm around his narrow waist and led him back to the porch. “And I don’t care what Daniel told you; you are not going to spend this visit tossing horseshoes. I need to talk to you. And Daniel, if he’ll listen,” she added angrily, casting a furious look over her shoulder a the older boy.
        “All right,” said Daniel, dropping his horseshoes and joining Sarah and Elijah on the porch. “I’m listening. What is it you’ve got to say?”
        Sarah turned her wise, gray eyes to Elijah and spoke in a leveled whisper, as though it was difficult for her to control the emotion in her voice. “Daniel’s been off on this nonsense about working the mines for several weeks now, as I’m sure you are aware,” she said slowly. “Only just this evening he’s informed me that his Uncle Steven has consented to his pleas, and he’s going to start helping out the men in the silver tunnels tomorrow. The mines are no place for a boy with as much talent and potential as Daniel; don’t you agree, Elijah?”
        “I’m not a boy,” snarled Daniel, now nearly as angry as Sarah. “I’m nearly a man. And Hank Jackson has been working the silver fields for over a year now. I am plenty ready.”
        “Hank was older than you are when he started mining,” cried Sarah, tears of anger, frustration, and fear now starting in her eyes. “And he had no education, no talent or intelligence, and no prospects for the future. Already, you waste your days hunting in the forests when you ought be home studying books. You can make something of yourself, Daniel; go to college and start a career. You are not destined to a life of enslavement in the silver mines.”
        “The mines are not such a bad way to end up,” said Daniel slowly, forcibly suppressing his fury. “If they were good enough for my father, they are good enough for me.”
        “Your father died in the mines, Daniel, and you will, too, if you choose that path in life,” Sarah moaned in exasperation, tears now falling down her cheeks freely. “Elijah, help me,” she implored, turning to the younger boy for support.
        Elijah stared at Daniel Rafferty for a long time before speaking. He felt a kinship, almost a love, for this carefree, golden-haired boy, though he could not say why exactly. Perhaps it was because he radiated such jollity and good cheer, perhaps it was because he showed kindness to Elijah where no others did, or perhaps it was because he had earned the love of this girl, Sarah Keller, who more than any other, understood Elijah’s reverence for nature and wild things. Whatever the reason for it, it was love that made Elijah say what he did that evening.
        “The mines are no place for any boy or man, least of all one like you, Daniel,” said Elijah, a melancholy smile creeping across his delicate face. “But I can see that you are bent on working them tomorrow, no matter what Sarah or I try to tell you. Yet I fear for what may become of you; I fear that if you go to work tomorrow, you may never know the great scholar or layer or writer you could have become. So I ask you to take Sasha with you. You may find that you will need her companionship before the day is through.”

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        Elijah Addams didn’t need his father to come running down from the silver fields the next morning to report that there had been an accident. He didn’t need to be told how his beloved Sasha had leapt in front of Daniel Rafferty as he was about to take a step on a narrow precipice that gave way as soon as it came in contact with weight. He didn’t need to be told how an older miner had grabbed the boy’s shirt and pulled him back from the edge, while his Sasha plummeted to death in the inky depths of the mining chasm. He had known it from the minute he saw Daniel in the clearing the day before, and he accepted it. It had been his decision, after all.
        But that didn’t make the loss any easier for Elijah Addams. As the young boy lay on his back, deep in the pine forests of California Sierra Nevada, he felt a gnawing pain so sharp and new in his empty heart that it brought fresh tears to his already lachrymal eyes. And so it was that Elijah Addams did not notice as the day passed into night, nor did he hear the whoops and hollers as the Bennettville boys, led by Hank Jackson, departed for the night’s town hunt that was not be altered because of a minor accident in the silver mines and the death of a common dog. And thus, Elijah Addams, who saw so much coming before it happened, did not realize what the night was to bring until the twelve-point stag leapt once more into his woodland clearing with a look of panic in his soft brown eyes. And so when Elijah saw the flash of a carefully-trained rifle, he did not stop to think but leapt forward with a cry so soft that it was drowned out by the crack of the gun. And it was not until later, when all the boys rushed on to the scene, that Daniel Rafferty, who had fired that shot realized the mighty stag had vanished, while his true, wise friend lay dead on the needle-strewn forest floor.

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        One year after that fateful night in the woods, Daniel Rafferty sat with Sarah Keller on his front porch steps as he had done once before, in the presence of his now-departed friend. The last year had passed slowly for Daniel, riddled with guilt and sorrow that were little assuaged by Sarah’s assertions that Elijah Addams had never really belonged to this world, anyway. For Daniel, the death of his friend had been a harsh awakening to the brevity and mockery of life. He no longer squandered his days with the hunting rifle or entertained idle thoughts of joing his uncle in the silver mines; Daniel Rafferty would be leaving for college at the end of summer, and he still had some studies to complete before his departure. Head bowed in guilty gratitude, Daniel had slowly come to realize that his friend’s death had very much been a sacrifice resulting in his own new chance at life. Elijah had been too good and too pure for the lawless world of the California mining frontier; in many ways, he had been dead since the day his father sold the last of his books.
        As he was rising from the porch to head back inside, a flash of movement on the edge of the woods caught Daniel Rafferty’s eye. A graceful, young stag, no more that a year old, leapt out of the trees and bounded lightly across the street. The beautiful creature paused for a moment and glanced at Daniel in the doorway, and the boy would have sworn for a moment that there was something familiar about the stag’s deep brown eyes. As the deer bounded away, Hank Jackson emerged from the trees, rifle in hand, demanding of Daniel, “Did you see a young stag run through here?”
        And as he shook his head “no,” Daniel thought for a moment that, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sarah smile.