The Hunt by Martin Dodd

The afternoon grew colder as the December sun slid behind the trees. In a back yard, a boy stood, bent over, gripping a paper grocery bag with the open end held low and wide between clenched fists. Squinting, head unmoving, he stared at the darkening path between the house and fence that separated neighbors.   

That's where they'll come, he thought. He licked his lip, tasting salty mucous. He brought his shoulder against his cheek and wiped his runny nose on the sleeve of his corduroy jacket, all the while keeping his eyes on the spot.   

He was alone except for a small, tan, short-haired puppy. It ran around the yard then returned and sat a few feet in front of him, with the tips of its ears flopped forward, and its tongue out, panting. After a moment, it yipped several times, and then took off running for him to chase. At last, when the boy again wouldn't join the game, the puppy returned and lay down facing him.   

The others had voted and picked the boy as the bagger. They would act as drivers. Once they had positioned him behind the house, the others had gone out front. He heard them yelling. He imagined them with sticks, searching for birds, hitting bushes and raking under them.   

Smaller than the other boys, once he had cried when hurt playing touch football. After that, the others left him out of games and often teased him. They even “pantsed” him in front of some girls. Embarrassed and confused with his trousers around his ankles, he pulled one leg out and ran dragging his pants behind the other leg. The girls still giggled when they saw him. He couldn't stand any more teasing. Now things were going to change.   

It seemed a long time had passed. His back hurt, and the cold numbed his fingers. He could smell smoke from burning leaves in some nearby yard. When he straightened to ease his back, the puppy rose and bounded toward him, barking.The boy dropped one side of the bag, pulled a dry clump of grass with a little dirt in the roots, and threw it at the animal. “Go ' way, puppy, you'll scare 'em.” It retreated across the yard and sat next to the house, watching him.   

The boy resumed his position, bag ready. He no longer heard the others shouting and thought maybe they're looking further down the street. One of the boys had explained, “They're kinda like quail, hard to see, blend in with the grass and bushes, but they're here, okay.”   

The boy narrowed his eyes to slits, and gripped the bag tighter, his knuckles white. I’ll show them I can do my part. Snipe probably got wings—little ones. Maybe they flap like chickens, not really fly, just hop higher. Imagining a bird running toward the space between his legs, while another flapped and hopped, he waved the bag up to catch the hopper, and then down to bag the runner. “Gotcha, gotcha.”

Then, from the side, he heard faint laughter. He glanced toward the back of the house and focused on the sliding glass door facing the patio. Is someone inside? He stared for a few seconds, but couldn’t see into the darkened interior. He turned his head back toward the spot and watched the patio door out of the corner of his eye. Again, low laughter then a light flashed on inside the house followed by a muffled yell. The room went dark again, but in that brief moment he saw the others pointing at him and laughing.

It’s a trick! He began to shake, tears filled his eyes and his breath came in short, choking spasms. Slowly, he straightened and walked toward the path between the house and fence, dragging the bag in one hand. The puppy jumped up and ran to him, barking. As the boy neared the corner of the house, the tears spilled over and ran down his cheeks.

The puppy yipped and ran between his legs, almost tripping him. It clamped its teeth on the bottom of one pants leg and shook its head, growling playfully. The boy jerked his leg forward, dragging the animal along and freeing his pants from its grip. The puppy, with tail wagging, looked up at him. He pulled his foot back and kicked hard, catching the animal with a glancing blow, but with enough force to knock it on its side. The puppy yelped, scrambled to its feet, and slunk away between the fence and house, whining, tail down.

The boy dropped the bag and yelled, “Damn dog, I told ya to go away!” Sniffling and wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand, he followed the puppy down the shadowed path.