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Neil Harrison


            Now, after almost thirty years, Rick fully understood what his uncle had meant when he painted Rick’s face with the blood of his first deer.  At the time he’d wished his uncle hadn’t been there.
            They’d been hunting the chalk-rock breaks south of the Niobrara River in the Sandhills, when a three-point whitetail worked slowly down the drainage Rick was watching below a half-picked circle of corn.  The little buck ran forty yards after Rick’s shot, to the edge of the trees along the river.  Rick had started running after, to keep the deer in sight.  He came upon it dying in the grass.
            The deer lay on its side, one large eye looking skyward, and Rick’s gaze was drawn at once to its fading brightness.  Thirteen years old, he watched that aqua river of light swirl slowly down and disappear.
            He was crying freely, one hand petting the neck of the deer, when his uncle appeared on the ridge between the washes they’d been hunting.  Rick stood and quickly dried his eyes as his uncle came over the ridge and approached.  Still crying somewhere deep inside, he managed a grin, as his uncle shook his hand.
            His uncle showed him how to field-dress the deer, and when he opened the chest cavity and the blood rushed out, the bullet having liquefied the lungs, Uncle Ray reached down into the sudden stream, then turned and drew two blood-soaked fingers down Rick’s cheek, painting one and then the other with that bright red warmth.

            Rick recalled his uncle’s ritual in detail, as he knelt now with his son over Billy’s first deer.  They were in another of those Niobrara breaks, where at dawn deer still trickled down like running water from the large crop circles on the tableland above.
            As he field dressed the little fork-horn buck, without fully knowing why, Rick dipped his fingertips into the stream that flowed from the open ribcage.  He spread two fingers wide, like his uncle had, and turned toward the sorrowful face of his son.  And even before he painted those two warm streaks down the first of Billy’s cheeks, he saw how that naked strip of flesh between would leave a wide, open channel for the tears.