The two men in camo crept through the woods, past the many No Trespassing and Private Property Absolutely No Hunting signs posted on the perimeter trees. Both were armed with compound bows and wicked hunting knives. Both knew legal hunting season and legal hunting areas were weeks and miles away. But waiting for the government's okay would take too long. The best bulls would already be gone. And why blow all that money on a license when it could be better used for ammo?
They were miles from anywhere out here. Who the hell was going to know?
"We should nail a turkey on the way back," Jeffries said. "I thought I heard some while we were hiding the truck."
"No turkeys," Clayburn said adamantly. "Not from this part of the mountains. They're protected or something. Didn't you hear about Sully? Went on a turkey hunt, came home and found out somebody'd blown up his house. Nailed a paper to what was left of his garage. Gobble gobble this, ass-monkey. I don't hunt turkeys any more, and today neither do you."
"Fine by me." Jeffries shrugged. "Elk tastes better anyway. I can't wait to sink my teeth into a nice thick steak."
"Sink all you like. I just want the rack. I've got a spot on my wall already picked out."
"Take some meat. Shame to let it go to waste."
Clayburn grunted. "Wolves'll get it. Wish we had time to hunt wolves. I'd love to have one of those tails for my bike."
"Hey! We can use the elk meat as a lure."
"Yeah, there's a thought. Now we have to take an elk. You sure there's a bull up here?"
"All the sign says there is. And this." Jeffries showed Clayburn the photo he'd snapped on his cell. Even blurry with distance, it was clear the elk was a monster. And those antlers … ! Clayburn's belly did a backflip. He'd have to rearrange his other trophies to showcase them.
"Here's to the great outdoors," he murmured. He slipped between the trees, with Jeffries just behind.
# # #
It wasn't long before the hunters spotted their quarry. The enormous bull elk stood alone in a braod meadow, grazing on summer grass. Now and then he'd raise his head, peer left and right, then dip his muzzle to the grass again. Clayburn marveled over how he could even lift his head under the magnificent spread of those horns. Those were record-setters, sure as shootin'.
They crept as close to the bull as they dared. The bull gave no sign it was aware of them. He lifted his head and looked around twice, but never in their direction.
Clayburn moved so that the bull presented a perfect broadside target. He fit an arrow to his bow, a monstrous apparatus with enough tech on it to qualify for inclusion in a Star Trek movie. No rifles for Clayburn, no sir. Bow hunting all the way. Just like the pioneers.
"Say good night, George," he murmured, and took aim.
"Wait a minute," Jeffries said. He was staring at the elk. "There's something weird about—"
There was nothing weird about that rack. Clayburn let fly.
The arrow hit a textbook target, right through the lungs. Clayburn saw the shot strike home and jumped up in a whoop. They wouldn't even have to chase the damn thing. It would probably collapse where it stood.
Except it didn't. The elk continued to graze as if nothing had happened. It raised its head. Looked left. Looked right. Lowered its head again.
Clayburn's whoop died away. "What the fuck?" he said.
Jeffries was already trotting over the grass toward their unmoving target. He stopped within spitting distance of the elk, which totally ignored him. When nothing bad happened to Jeffries, Clayburn also moved forward. He nocked a second arrow to his bow, just in case.
Jeffries shouted something. "What?" Clayburn yelled back.
"It's a robot!" Jeffries yelled. "A freakin' robot! Look, you can see the joints on the neck and the head." He lowered his volume to conversation levels as Clayburn drew nearer. "Like those things they have at Disneyland. The whatchamatronics."
Now that he'd gotten up close, Clayburn could see what Jeffries was talking about. The elk's body was a hide stretched over a frame. Straw stuck out here and there along its form. When it raised its head, he heard the whirrs.
The "rack" was made of painted Styrofoam.
"Are you kidding me?" Clayburn said. "Who the hell would do this to people?"
"Us," a voice said from behind them. "Howdy, boys."
The hunters whirled. Two men had stood up from a dip in the contours of the meadow. Huge men, with bulky muscles, straggly chestnut hair and long, horsey faces. Naked men, in breechcloths like Native Americans of centuries gone by. Unlike the Native Americans of centuries gone by, they carried modern rifles, both of which were trained on Clayburn and Jeffries.
"Tsk tsk," one of them said. "Hunting out of season, and on posted property, yet. Didn't you guys see the signs?"
"And bringing bows to a gunfight." The other shook his head. "What passes for brains these days?"
Jeffries automatically held up his hands. "This isn't what you think it is."
"Oh, I'll bet it is. It's called poaching, and we take a dim view of that here in the Peak. Now how about you lose those weapons, boys?" He cocked his rifle.
The hunters tossed their bows and knives away. Clayburn also had a pistol, for close-up work. He wasn't close enough to beat a rifle. The pistol joined the bows and knives.
"Now your clothes." The spokesman gestured with his gun. "If you'd be so very kind."
When the men had stripped down to their undies, the spokesman started counting. The hunters took the hint and ran for the woods.
The two with the rifles exchanged looks, and grins. "I love this part."
His partner nodded. "It's hunting season, bro."
They ditched their breechcloths and shifted into their elk forms. The twin bulls charged after the hunters. Their horns were large and very real, and eager to taste poacher butt.
# # #
Afterwards, with the hunters successfully driven off, the elk returned to pick up their decoy and examine the haul. Phil took charge of the bows. "The Turkles will want these," he said. "The pistol, too."
Jake was going through the clothing. "They've already got bows and pistols."
"They can use 'em for trade, then. Who gets the knives?"
"We can probably get a few bucks for 'em at the sporting goods store. Hey hey!" Jake picked up Clayburn's cap and twirled it on his finger. "I'm keeping this. Maybe I'll start a trophy room."
"Suit yourself." Phil was trying to judge the size of Jeffries' camo trousers. "My nephew's got a birthday coming up. You think these'd fit him?"