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I just got back my annual “hunting trip” with the guys. Our wives joke that we only go out there to drink in the woods, and these days they’re pretty much right. Every year I pack my gun and my gear, drive out to our normal spot, and set up camp with the guys. We hang around for two or three days and catch up on what our families are up to and how work is going, the normal stuff. Some meals are cold cuts, others are cooked over the fire. It’s mostly a nice trip.

On our last night in the woods, we eat dinner around the fire and break out our last case of beer. Once we’re all a couple of beers deep and the fire is getting low, it’s time. We go around and tell our stories, same as last year and the years before – you get the point. We never talk about this outside of the annual trip, so this is our one chance a year to admit, out loud, why none of us hunt any more.

Ben starts. He was the first one to stop hunting, and the first time he told us this story, none of us believed him. He was lining up a shot one day, on a massive trophy buck, when it turned its head and stared straight down his scope at him. Steam came out of its nostrils and the rest of its body turned towards him. When he lowered his gun, he saw the entire herd staring him down. He didn’t have the nerve to take the shot. He swears they stood there staring at him the entire walk back.

Chris is next, and he tells his story quickly. He’d been scoping out this one game trail, and when the herd finally came through, every last one of them was running backwards. He hid in his blind for nearly an hour before running back to his car.

Thomas admits he was on edge the last time he hunted, thinking about their stories. He was relieved when he saw a normal deer, walking and acting completely normally. He swears up and down he landed eight perfect shots, but every time, it “flickered” and kept grazing.

When it’s my turn, I finish my beer, shrug, and tell them I saw the same thing Chris did. The other guys nod while staring into the fire. That’s when the guy next to me downs the rest of his beer, stomps the can flat, stands up without a word and walks away into the woods. We don’t talk about him, we don’t look at him, we don’t ask where the log came from that he was sitting on. We never see him sit down, but every year when we’re ready to tell our stories, he’s suddenly sitting beside me. Just like the day I first saw him, when he was suddenly sitting beside me in my tree stand.

He’s the real reason I stopped hunting.