Hunting With My Father

    The crisp sound of fallen autumn leaves crackled beneath their boots as the father and daughter walked. The sun, sparingly peering through the clouds, shone down upon the little girl; she awkwardly held the rifle between her two skinny arms as she attempted to walk in the deep leaf-covered terrain in the hand-me-down hunting boots too large for her petite feet. This day in the woods of Western Pennsylvania was the perfect chance for her first hunting trip.
    “Quietly now. Step. Look. Step,” he instructed, looking down at her with affectionate eyes.
    The little girl did as instructed, awkwardly, but attempting to do her best. She was excited to be out there, not because of the beautiful setting, but because it was her chance to be with her father. Ever since she was young, she would loyally wait by the fireplace in their cozy home for her father, just to see his wind-burned face smiling when he entered from a long hunting day. Now, finally being of age, she was able to enjoy this experience with him.
    The day wore on without a single sighting of a deer. “Sweet Pea, it’s all right. You can’t find one at every second,” chided the father, but he was growing nervous, knowing the chilling fact of how animals could sense upcoming weather. Keeping this in the back of his mind and reassuring his daughter that it was just an inactive hunting day, they strayed farther into the woods, leaving the regular path to avoid any unwanted fellow hunters. Step. Look. Step. They continued on.
    As morning turned to afternoon and the wind became more chilling, his little sweet pea began to grow cold. “Sweet Pea,” he reassured again, “this is hunting.”
    An abrupt, light snow began to fall, but they continued on deeper into the woods and farther from the path. He shuffled her thin blonde hair sensing her weariness and let her sit on a large rock for a break.
    “Sweet Pea, put on your hat,” he benignly told her. “It’s beginning to grow cold.” She pulled out her hand-knitted hat made by her mother just for this particular day and gratefully covered her bright red ears with it. The flakes fell at greater speed as the snowstorm worsened, but he let her sit just a little longer.
    In short time, the day darkened, the snow grew heavier, and the wind more fierce. He, strapping his own rifle to his shoulder, grabbed hers in one hand and her hand in the other and decided to make his way back to the path and then eventually to their car. With every step their visibility became less and the wind more chilling. His pace quickened, knowing he had stayed out for too long, but she was not able to do the same. The snow was now deep past her ankles, and it was too hard for her walk.
    “Sweet Pea,” he chimed, letting her hold the rifle as he lifted her from the ground, “it won’t be long now and soon we’ll be home with mom drinking hot chocolate with as many marshmallows as you please.” She smiled through the cold and they continued.
    The ache came to his arms, and he had to set her back down. “Sweet Pea, please try and keep up with me. We have to hurry back home to mom and the baby.” Again, he grabbed her hand, and they continued through he woods with her lifting her thin legs awkwardly to keep up. The whiteness surrounded their bodies so that soon they were unable to see far past the point of outstretched arms.
    The new look of the woods with the snow confused him. He began to worry, “Have we passed here before? Where is the path?” The questions continued to come with every step, along with the thick snow. “Did we circle around?” The trees began to all look the same and that’s when his acceptance finally came. They were lost. The father sighed knowing he was unprepared, lacking even the common devices such as his lighter and matches.
    “Sweet Pea, come. We must hurry out.” She complained of the pain in her legs and the cold of the outdoors. “Sweet Pea, we’ll be home soon and we’ll have that hot cocoa.”
    The bitter cold became too unbearable and the father had to come to the unbearable decision: He was too tired to carry her, and she was too weary to walk.
    “Sweet Pea, darling, please sit here by this tree. I promise you I will return,” he said with a smile, knowing in his heart how those words may not come. “Sweet Pea, look at me. Do not leave this spot.” He wrapped his own heavy coat around her little, frail body and kissed her forehead as her body shook from the cold. “Sweet Pea, I love you,” and off he walked, refusing to look back for the inevitable teary-eyed face of hers.
    The snow came thickly down with the bitter cold stinging his face, and the depth of the snow made it harder for him to walk through. Unable to fully open his eyes, he would at every so many trees take off a small article of clothing and tie it to the tree. “I must return,” rang through his head as he continued on. With every ten steps he found another tree to tie something to. Step. Step. Step. Off came his left glove first and then he stepped some more. Next came his right and on he walked. “I must do this. I must return to my Sweet Pea.”
    As his strength weakened, the rifle slung on his back became a burden. He had carried it with him in case he saw a hunter so he could signal them or even a deer, whose warm body could be shared between his daughter and him. As he was about to lay it down as a marking, a sudden inspiration overcame him. Quickly, he raised the rifle to the sky and fired off three short shots. He waited a moment, then fired off three long ones. His fingers fumbled into his pants’ pocket in search of the box of bullets. He pulled it out after a struggle, and began to try and load in three more. The bullets fell into the snow. He dropped own on his knees and shifted the snow in search of them. His naked hands pained him beyond belief, but he needed to do this. He needed to return to his Sweet Pea. As he found a bullet, he would load them into the rifle. Once there were three, he stumbled back onto his feet and raised the gun. He shot three more short ones, completing the set. Then he waited for a response. The minutes slowly wore on, and he grew discouraged. Nothing. He set the rifle by the tree, and carried on.
    His teeth chattered and his body grew numb, but he knew. He knew what he had left behind. He knew what he had to return for. He knew. Step. Step. Step. Next went his hat then pieces of his sweater. The weather was unbearable, but he trudged on with his hand in front of him and the other blocking his stricken face. Unable to see and know exactly where he was heading, he continued on. With every thirty steps he took off an article of clothing and tied it to a tree.
    The weather worsened, yet he plotted on. He continued to move on with every fifty steps now ridding of an article. Then through the snow he saw something bright orange. His heart began to race. It was another hunter’s hat. He raced forward with his remaining strength, calling out as he did. The hunter did not turn to look at him as he drew close he began to realize why. His hunter was nothing more than a hat oddly tied to a tree. For the past twenty or so minutes he had walked in a complete circle. It was his hat. Discouraged, he progressed slowly forward through the storm, growing short on clothing and hope.
    “Sweet Pea,” he told himself, “I promised.” And on he continued.
    A few days later when the storm had cleared, two hunters found a man stripped completely naked covered in the fresh, untouched snow on the hunting path. There he laid on the ground frozen to death. The two hunters saw the clothes he tied to nearby trees, making a trail. They followed this for the miles he had walked, imagining this lost man trying to find his way home. At the end of the trail, they stopped dead in their tracks; this is where they came to the frightful sight of a little girl, lifelessly sitting beside a tree in the snow, loyally waiting for her loving father to return.