Benton stood on the rocky outcropping, took careful aim at the caribou and squeezed the trigger on his father’s old rifle. He watched the caribou fall first to its knees and then slide to the ground. Quinn knelt a little off to the side, watching Benton watch the animal.
At twelve years old, Benton was already a fair shot, but only experienced with makeshift targets – old cans and bottles. Grandfather and Grandmother approved of his being able to wield a weapon for defense or for food, but the old missionary couple would not countenance his firing on any living being just for sport.
All Benton’s contemporaries in the village, all the other boys, had already been hunting with their fathers and come back proudly back with game. He knew he was as good a shot as any of them, and better than most. So what if his father wasn’t there to take him? He’d do just as well as on his own. Better. He’d show them.
Now he had what he wanted: a fine caribou felled with his own hands. As he slowly lowered his rifle and let it hang down at his side, a strange feeling came over him. Something he’d never felt before. Not pride. A shivery feeling, sudden bloating in his belly and tightening in his throat.
“I feel sick,” he said, perhaps to Quinn, perhaps to himself, or perhaps to the caribou.
“You should feel sick. You’ve taken a life for no good reason. You didn’t need the meat, you didn’t need the hide, and the animal wasn’t attacking.”
The boy’s inner trembling reached the point where Quinn could actually see Benton’s head and hands shaking and his face turning slightly green. “Nobody else feels sick when they hunt. Do they?”
Quinn swallowed hard and hoped he’d be using the right words. The boy’s whole life might be changed if he guided him rightly at this crucial moment. That’s what he did after all; he was a guide. He’d already saved this child’s life pulling him up the cliff. The spirits, it seemed, had sent him along to do more than that.
“Most people don’t. But you’re different from most people, Ben.”
“I don’t want to be different. Different hurts.”
“It’s not something you get a choice about. Most people just live where they live. You are part of it, the animals, the water, the rocks. When you hurt part of it, you feel it yourself. Your dad’s like that. And your grandparents, only they feel it through a Bible and your dad feels it out on the trail. I guess that’s why they didn’t want you to hunt. They wanted to spare you this.”
“Is that why you tried to talk me out of hunting?” The boy’s eyes still hadn’t moved from the carcass as he asked this.
“I didn’t try too hard. If you hadn’t done this you’d have gone on wanting to.”
Benton’s stood up as straight as he could. “What am I supposed to do now?”
The grandson of missionaries, he could have given the dictionary definition of “atone” but he was still too young to understand that this was what he wanted to do at this moment.
Quinn stood up, then reached down to put his hand on the boy’s thin shoulder. “You make things right the best you can. This caribou – you can’t bring him back to life. How about we carry him back to your house and your grandmother can cook him. Fine bit of game.”
The boy nodded. “I’ll carry him home to Grandmother, then.”
Quinn watched, bemused, while the child marched resolutely up the caribou, bent down and tried to lift the heavy body onto his shoulders. He actually managed to get into a standing position for an instant before collapsing under the weight. Once he had wriggled free, he looked up from the ground at Quinn.
Quinn was almost about to laugh, until he caught the humiliated expression of the boy who had tried to take the weight of his misdeed onto his shoulders and fallen under the burden.
“I’ll help you.” Quinn offered.
“No! I’ll carry it alone. There’s got to be a trick to it. Show me how.”
This time, Quinn couldn’t resist laughing. The load was simply too heavy for this young pup to carry on his own shoulders, but that thought wouldn’t occur at all to the eager boy. He had his father’s determination. What a shame Bob Fraser wouldn’t stay to teach his own son the ways of the land. Yes, the spirits had sent him for a reason. The boy’s grandparents would say “God” but that didn’t change the truth of it.
“There’s two ways you can do it, Ben. You can wait a few years until you get bigger and stronger, that’s one way.”
The boy let out a brief oath his grandfather would have whupped him for, if he had heard.
“Or you can let a friend help you.”
For the next half hour Quinn showed young Benton how to choose the right size of straight branch, just strong enough but not too heavy, and how to twist some running plants together to make a rope. They wrapped the cords around the caribou’s ankles, so that it hung down from the pole and they were able to carry it together.
Then he led the way back to the village where Martha and George Fraser were waiting for their runaway.End.