He was 12 years old then, on his first deer hunt. You had been a good teacher. He could tell if a scrape was fresh or old. He could blow a grunt call like a seasoned veteran. Despite his youth, he could sit quietly for hours on end. He was more attentive than most kids his age, focused completely on the task at hand. He wanted more than anything to kill a deer.
After four days of hunting, however, his patience wore thin. He had seen only does. It was a bucks-only season. You worried. If he didn't kill a deer, he might not want to come back.
It was late the last day when you joined him on his stand. "It'll be dark soon," you said. "There are plenty of deer here. Too many, really. So if a doe walks out, go ahead and shoot her. We need the meat. We'll drag her out after dark, and no one will know the difference."
He shot the doe. He was ecstatic. He finally had his deer. You hid her beneath some brush then came back that night and carried her out. No one was the wiser. And as you'd hoped, your son couldn't wait to go hunting again.
He's 23 now, but he can't hunt with you this season. He lost his license after his third conviction for poaching.
She was just a child then, 10 years old. It was a beautiful autumn day. The acorn crop was good. Squirrels were plentiful. So you decided to take her hunting on the back forty. It was a great way to spend some time together.
She was excited about hunting with you, and despite her endless chatter, you managed to sneak up on a couple of bushytails. She wasn't an experienced shooter, however. She missed both squirrels.
She didn't need to kill a squirrel to enjoy the outing, but you thought she'd enjoy it more if she did. "See that big ball of leaves," you told her, pointing to the treetop nest. "Shoot it out, and we'll have a big ol' squirrel to eat for supper."
"But Daddy," she whimpered. "What if there's a baby in it?"
"Darling, squirrels don't have babies this time of year," you answered. "You just shoot the nest like I say, and we'll have squirrel and dumplings for dinner."
You helped her raise the shotgun and aim it. She pulled the trigger. Leaves flew. Two bloody flying squirrels fell to the ground.
"Oh, Daddy!" she wailed. "I told you there were babies! You made me kill them!"
She's 35 now, an activist for PETA.
He was a teenager then, your constant hunting companion. He killed a turkey that spring, a nice buck that fall. In December, the two of you took the beagles out to run some rabbits.
You had killed three nice swamp rabbits when a fourth holed up in a hollow tree. You should have pulled the dogs off and gone on, but you didn't. You never could admit defeat. Instead you sharpened a forked stick and ran it up inside the tree, determined to pull the rabbit from its sanctuary. Each time you twisted it, the rabbit squalled. It was a horrible sound. Your nephew winced and covered his ears.
When the stick didn't work, you built a fire to smoke the rabbit out. It worked. The scorched swamper fell to ground and scampered out, dragging his entrails behind him. When you stomped him to prevent his escape, he squalled again. Not for long though. You smashed his head against the tree and silence fell over the woods.
Your nephew is 27 now. He worshipped you once. You were the father he never had, a teacher, a friend. No more. He quit hunting when that rabbit died. In his nightmares, he still hears it scream. And you are its tormentor.
It's just a little thing, you think a momentary breech of ethics for an otherwise exemplary hunter. What harm could it do?
In truth, an unethical act is never a little thing. It is a force that can change lives.
Think before you act. Ask yourself, "What consequences might my actions have? If I do this now, what will happen then?"
If you are truly a sportsman, the path you choose will be the right one.
To contact Keith Sutton, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.