The desert smelled like September, acrid and dry.  It was the familiar high-desert smell, the smell of harvesttime without a harvest, unless you called the last thin cutting taken from among the willows along the creek a harvest.  In the dead season, all deserts smell alike.  Nothing was missing from the Mesopotamian variety but the smell of cooking fires and bottled gas, fresh bread baking, and, behind it all, lying here and there in pockets like a ground mist, the faint, sharp scent of cordite.

Upstream a mile from the hay field, on the public side of the rancher’s fence, a faded blue Ford pickup truck with two men in it stood parked a couple of hundred yards from where the creek had been bermed to make a watering tank for cattle.  The truck was angled so that it faced across the creek and a line of webby cottonwood trees toward the high, treeless bluff on the far side of the watercourse.  Though the bare hills, golden in the light of the falling sun, looked perfectly barren, the men in the truck continued to study them through field glasses.  They had been sitting that way on the bench seat for nearly two hours, having reconnoitered the area on foot in the forepart of the afternoon.

“I never seen better habitat than this,” Old Merle said.  “Where else you suppose deer are going to find water for miles around that ain’t within easy distance from the county road?”

Merle Baxter, Jr., took the binoculars away from his face and let them drop on their cord to chest level.  “We should have come on sign by now,” he told his father.  “Could be we ought to try up in the mountains tomorrow.”

Old Merle shook his head.  “Them old-timer bucks won’t budge off of a piece of ground the size of your fist, water or no water.  They don’t need new ideas to survive, and so they never get none.  You’re huntin’ horns this year, ain’t you?”

“I’ve spent the last two years hunting men.  You don’t guess I’m going to be satisfied with taking a raghorn, do you?”

“I guess you ain’t.  Looks like you’re going to have to walk your butt off for something better, though.  I know when I got home from Nam, I’d had enough armed hiking to hold me for a good long while.”

They sat on in the truck until the sun dropped below the landline that seemed low-down and level as the ocean horizon, and then Merle Jr. backed the Ford around in the sagebrush and drove off in low gear in the two-track, across the creek below the red clay berm and up from the valley by a tight and winding canyon in which the blue dusk was already rising.  The pickup topped the bluff at the same moment a full moon showed in the east behind the Snowy Range, no bigger at first than auto lights topping the pass coming across from Centennial but swelling fast as it squeezed clear of the mountains to float orange and huge in a cobalt sky above the lights of Saratoga glimmering in the valley of the North Platte River.

“Did the moon look the same in Iraq like it does here?” Old Merle wanted to know.

“Pretty much, it did.  Nothing ever looks the same from anywhere, exactly.”

“That’s how I remember it from Nam, too.”

For convenience, camp was fixed midway between the desert floor and the high timbered country, on a downswept shoulder of the Sierra Madre facing across Spring Creek Canyon toward a series of ridges covered with buckbrush and sagebrush and running parallel to one another.  For shelter, the men were using Merle Jr.’s six-man sidewall tent with a woodstove set inside it on wooden blocks and connected to a metal chimney going up through a hole in the canvas roof.  Before he joined the Army, he’d packed it by horseback every year into the mountains to make a spike camp in hunting season, while his father, who feared and hated horses, raised a 25-man Army tent for himself and his union buddies from the mine for a permanent camp off-road in the valley down below.  By the time they reached camp, the moon had soared above the fire lookout on Kennaday Peak; already, it was diminished in size, the red-orange disc paling toward silver.

While Old Merle prepared the fire pit and laid on tinder, Merle Jr. went in search of firewood with his rifle slung by its military strap across his shoulder.  His father had taught him as a boy that a good hunter is never separated from his rifle until he has filled his permit.  Still, it was different now that he had returned from the Middle East.  It wasn’t nerves exactly, only that he noticed the slightest disturbance anytime he was in the field.  The first day of the season, he’d found himself reaching for his gun at the sound of children’s voices from the back of a pickup truck going by in the road.  Now he stood holding an armload of wood he’d gathered from a small aspen stand when a flick of movement in his peripheral vision caused him to pivot fast on his left foot.  It was an elk, a big bull with a heavy rack, grazing toward him along the forest edge at a range his infantryman’s eye estimated at three-hundred-twenty-five yards.  The bull never suspected he was there.  From hunting human beings, Merle Jr. had become wilier than any wild animal, who, after all, could not shoot back.

He mentioned the bull to his father on his return to camp with the wood.  “Of course,” Old Merle said.  “Deer season smells different to him than elk season does.”  But that, Merle Jr. thought, was only the bull’s perspective.  His own take on the situation was that timing, finally, had everything to do with success.

For supper, they had antelope hearts and cut potatoes fried together in the pan and black coffee with sugar.  The moon was halfway up the sky as they ate, and the wind coming off the pass turned chill.  When they had finished, Old Merle cleaned up while Merle Jr. went to the truck for the bucked logs they had brought from home, a warmer coat, and the whiskey bottle.

Seated by the campfire on folding chairs with their collars turned up against the wind and their gloves on, they drank whiskey from tin cups, moving the chairs now and again when the wind fanned smoke in their faces.  The fire held the camp within a nimbus of yellow light, its circumference intersecting the circle of silver moon overhead.

“I seen on the news where they bombed the airport at Baghdad,” the older man said.  “I’m glad you’re out of that hell-hole, Merle.”

“Listen to those coyotes,” his son replied.  “I wonder what got them going all of a sudden?”

“Hell, it don’t take nothing to start a coyote singing.  There ain’t a thing in the world he likes better than the sound of his own voice.”

They drank in silence for a while.  Finally, Old Merle spoke again.  “When I come back from Nam, there was plenty of soldiers wouldn’t talk about the war on account of their being ashamed of having fought for their own country.  You ain’t that way, Merle.  Are you?”

Merle Jr. didn’t answer right away.  It was true; he didn’t like talking about the war.  But that was because he didn’t feel the need for it.  Unlike the returning Vietnam vets, he didn’t feel disoriented or tormented.  He didn’t feel anything particular at all.  That wasn’t to say he didn’t come home with certain ideas, though.

“Merle, you ain’t like that—are you?”

Merle Jr. supposed he might as well get it said now, as later.

“It isn’t the same thing, you see,” he said at last.  “Your generation saw things from a different perspective than we did.  Fighting in Vietnam, they felt guilt.  Guilt at killing the enemy.  No one I fought with in Iraq had any problem with doing his job.  We were volunteers and career officers, after all.  Killing was what we were paid to do.  I never knew anyone who had the least bit of trouble with that.  The men I knew who had nightmares over there had them on account of something else.”

“And that was?”

“The responsibility we felt for helping  stick the knife in the back of our own country.  Like we were an army of Julius Caesars.”

The moon stood directly above the camp now, diminished in size but so bright at the zenith that its light blanched the fire, which had subsided to a tripod of half-consumed logs standing above a bed of coals.  Old Merle reached the bottle from under his chair and poured a finger of whiskey into each of the tin cups.

“I don’t pretend to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to tell me,” he said, “but you’re a smart kid—you always were—so most likely the problem ain’t you, but me.  Like you say: A thing looks different according to where you happen to be looking at it from.  Vietnam seems like only yesterday, but it ain’t.  I know that.  It’s a long, long time ago, now.”

They locked the rifles away in the truck, damped the fire, and turned in, after placing their sidearms beneath their pillows.  Merle Jr., who did not care for a sleeping pad under his bag, worked his hipbone into a depression in the ground and fell asleep at once.  Toward morning, when the hard cold set in, he did not sleep so well, dreaming that he was back in Iraq.  His dreams were not of resentful black eyes peering from burqas or urchins clutching grenades under their shirts.  Instead, television sets fixed around the recreation hall were blaring programs from stateside.  The voices were triumphant and loud, the faces flushed and self-congratulatory, and he was trying to argue with them.  But the words wouldn’t come right, the voices wouldn’t quit, the blurred faces refused to go away, and so he gave it up finally, and awoke, frustrated and tense, to discover he’d been grinding his teeth again in his sleep.  In the gray dawn, he shucked away the sleeping bag, pulled wool trousers and a wool sweater over his long johns, half-laced his boots, and went out into the cold to revive the coals in the fire pit and set the pot to boil for coffee.

After breakfast, the two Merles made the decision to hunt high for the day and see what they could do.  Carrying the rifles under their arms, they crossed the road and walked together through buckbrush to the head of the canyon where they separated, Old Merle staying put while Merle Jr. climbed down through the brush into the drainage.  He did not have the enthusiasm he ought to feel at the start of a day’s hunt in prime deer country, after a hot breakfast of game liver and scrambled eggs with coffee.  Perhaps it was getting older, he thought hopefully.  He couldn’t fool himself, though.  The truth was, there were more important things in the world now than hunting deer.

When he was still a hundred and fifty yards above the creek bottom, Merle Jr. stopped and looked uphill to where his father stood watching in his orange hunting coat.  Then he started forward again along a deer trail that traversed the canyon slope at an angle.  The sun breached the eastern range as he went, flooding the vast country between him and the mountains with its fast-rising light.  The up-canyon wind was in his favor, but if a chance to shoot came anytime soon, he’d be aiming into the low-down sun, which was no good.  In that case, perhaps he would let Old Merle, who’d have a downhill shot across the sun’s rays, go first.  Whatever the opportunity, Merle Jr. promised himself, he wasn’t going to shoot anything less than a big four-point.  His father never minded filling the freezer.  He’d let him handle the job, since it gave the old man such pleasure.

Across canyon, seven deer—four does, two fawns, and one other, he couldn’t tell what—were moving on the slope halfway between the creek and the ridgeline.  He found them in the field glasses and followed them uphill for a way.  He made it five does, before a filament of light gleamed briefly beside a pair of the big forward ears: a spike, maybe a forkhorn.  Merle Jr. tucked the glasses into his coat front and glanced at his father trudging slowly against the slope above, out ahead a little and holding his rifle cradled with the barrel pointed uphill.

Alert as he was, the buck nearly caught him off guard.  It came up out of the brush ahead like a marlin breaking water and kept on going, down and then up again, as though it were running on the tops of the bushes, its feet never touching the ground.  It was a six-point, heavy bodied with a massive rack: a huge deer, one of the biggest Merle Jr. had ever seen.  He brought the rifle up fast, found the deer in his sights, and led it.  But then he did not squeeze the trigger.

Two shots came from above: Old Merle’s old .264, a gun with an outsized and, to Merle Jr., obnoxious report.  The buck was only yards now from an aspen stand ahead.  It covered the distance in three or four bounds and vanished into the trees, just ahead of a spurt of dust raised by his father’s final bullet.

“Why didn’t you shoot him?” Old Merle shouted from uphill.

“My gun jammed!” Merle Jr. was about to shout back, but didn’t.  He could not tell a lie.  He’d made his mind up that, next time he shot, it would be something really big.  He wasn’t sure, just yet, what that was going to be.