“There he is!” shouted my brother.

I had my shotgun pointed down at the ground and quickly swung it up to my shoulder. I flicked the safety off with the thumb of my right hand, lined up my shot, and pulled the trigger.

As the firing pin struck the primer, there was a flash, explosion and kick. The power of a .410 shotgun, while considered a small gauge, is still impressive. My ears numbed as the shot echoed off the edge of the woods on the far western point of the farm, and the pungent but pleasing aroma of gunpowder blew back in my face. I could feel my heartbeat throbbing in my cheeks and ears, but there was complete silence, save my instinctive “click-clack” ejecting of the green shell casing and the sliding of the safety back on.

It had all happened in two seconds, maybe less. I waited for the smoke to clear to see what I had done.

I got my first gun for Christmas when I was 13 years old. I’ll never forget waking up that morning and finding the long, narrow, plain cardboard box that held my brand new Remington. It was a complete surprise. I had been asking for a gun every Christmas for as long as I could remember, so I could hunt and shoot sheet and generally be manly enough to hang out more with my brother, Bill, who was 10 years older, and quite possibly the coolest guy I knew.

The gun was a work of art, the metal bluing smooth and flawless, and the brand and specs stamped on top near the breach. The wood finish was dark walnut, with lots of visible grain, just like my dad’s rifles and shotguns that he kept locked in his bedroom. Most importantly, my shotgun was pump action, just like my dad’s favorite 12-gauge, the one my brother and I would always argue over when it was time to hunt or target shoot. Daddy’s Sears Ted Williams model semiautomatic was smoother and faster and more accurate, but there was something about a pump action — the racking, the fluidity acquired through practice, and the timing required to realign that made that gun more appealing to shoot.

For the rest of that Christmas break, tin cans, pie pans, clay targets all became casualties of my obsession with practice and accuracy. I had seen Daddy’s medals for marksmanship in Korea, and wondered if that was a trait that could be passed on. I didn’t want to leave it to chance, so I practiced. Santa had provided ammo, but two boxes didn’t last long. I don’t think Mama particularly cared for the constant gunfire going on in the backyard. I don’t know how she controlled her protective urges over her baby, the youngest of five children by a good measure.

When I was around nine, I was allowed to use Bill’s old lever action Daisy alone in the yard. Even though the gun could not propel a BB fast enough to break a tin pie pan at 20 feet, I was certain I would be able to keep crows out of the corn, take down some birds for supper and possibly kill a bear, despite the fact I’d never seen one on the farm. Daddy and Bill had drilled gun safety into me from what seemed like the crib: Every gun is loaded. Never take a gun more powerful than a BB gun out of the rack without an adult present. Always carry a gun with the barrel pointed at the ground. It is acceptable to carry a gun on your shoulder, but not if there is anyone behind you. When climbing a fence or crossing a stream, lay the gun down where you are going, barrel pointed away, first. Anywhere you can’t do this, don’t go. Never look in a barrel. Never swing a gun parallel. Safeties might be off even when they look on. Empty a firearm before entering a house, load outside. Never clean a gun with anyone else in the room. Never shoot without knowing what is behind what you’re shooting at. Never hunt anything you don’t plan to eat, with the exceptions of rodents and pests.

These principles were not exclusive to my family. Guns are an essential part of the home in rural North Carolina. They help put food on the table and provided home protection where the nearest law enforcement help was a half hour away. In high school, many classmates went hunting before class during deer and duck season, and hung their shotguns and rifles in gun racks in the back windows of their locked pickup trucks. The FFA chapter had a skeet shooting team, and they practiced on school grounds, just like the athletic teams. Despite the fact that I think my mom was overprotective, I would not for a minute consider allowing my smart, responsible eight-year-old out of the house with a BB gun alone.

That Thanksgiving of my last squirrel hunt with Bill was one where the sky looked like it does an hour after sunset, all day long. Bill lived with his wife and newborn on the north side of the farm. He came by early for a pre-lunch trek to the woods.

Despite the warmth of my bed, and a rare day to sleep in, I was up quickly. I pulled on old jeans, a flannel shirt, and my hunting vest that had slots for plenty of rounds. It was ironic that in a dozen forays into the woods over the past two seasons, I had fired a total of one time at a squirrel, but had room on my vest for an entire box of shells.

I grabbed a biscuit as we headed out the door, and felt the pinpricks of cold on my face that foretold winter. We hiked just past the soybean field that in less than a decade would become the lot on which my wife and I would move a mobile home, and then later build a house. But that day, the field ended at a two-track path the width of a tractor. We found an opening in the poplar, pines, oaks, black walnuts and maples, and started our walk, careful not to drag feet across dry leaves. We looked for evidence of our prey: cracked acorns, nut shells or scat. We had never hunted there before.

Some hunters stalk squirrels or use dogs. Bill’s method was to find a quiet place with a good field of vision, a spot where the hunter could sit on the ground with his back against a tree. He would drop me off and then move farther along for his own spot, where we’d have safe ranges of fire. Then we sat and waited.

A hunted grey squirrel can sit perfectly still and not make a sound for at least an hour. These animals are not the type you find in parks and on college campuses, a pet-like fur ball that will approach a human within a few feet out of curiosity and desire for a handout. Grey squirrels in the wild are crafty, smart survivors. They are athletic. You rarely see fat squirrels, because fat squirrels are slow, and slow squirrels don’t live long among foxes, coyotes, owls, hawks and other predators.

I was not a natural outdoorsman. Never growing out of childhood impatience or desire for action, I had long ago given up on pond fishing. I just couldn’t handle the sitting and waiting and swatting insects in the heat of summer, nor did I have any desire to dine on catfish, crappie or bream. But hunting was different. Deep in the woods, trying to be still, required concentration and heightened the senses. Once the hunt began, Bill and I didn’t talk until we exited the woods. I sat and listened and thought. I heard leaves rustling, and then nothing. Birds finding their way back to nests. I wondered about the hunters who came before us, how much of the landscape was the same. Some trees were bigger and some had fallen, but essentially the forest floor was unchanged in the last 100 years or so. I thought about history, how soldiers had camped in woods just like these, for shelter and protection from the enemy in the Civil War, and I considered the haunts of a sentry’s imagination when hearing the same rustling I heard. My brother and I were the only armed people in those woods. What sheer terror it must have been to hear footsteps, to be the prey, not the predator, and to know the only defense was a primitive, one-shot musket. I thought about what my future would be like, what I would do, how I would one day return to the same woods with my son and show him the same places I once sat.

Time slipped away quickly that morning. After a couple of hours, Bill walked over to me.

“Seen anything?” he asked.

“Nothing. How about you?”

“Not a thing. Let’s go eat.”

We went back through the opening and had just stepped on the path when my brother shouted. I realize now he passed on the shot for me to take it. I didn’t hesitate and tracked the squirrel across my sights as he jumped from one branch to the other. He seemed as big as a dog. I fired. Before the smoke, I saw him flip downward.

“You got ‘im!” Bill shouted.

We hustled over to the edge of the woods, not wanting to let a wounded animal get away and suffer. That was another rule. “He’s a nice one.” Bill said. “Good shot.”

I didn’t know how the squirrel would taste, but I knew it couldn’t be better than that sounded.

Even in the hands of a skilled knifeman, dressing game is at once violent, graphic, bloody and real. Back at the house, my brother pulled out his hunting knife, and dispatched the head, paws and tail of the squirrel. I presumed he learned this from Daddy. He handed me the tail as a souvenir from the first kill, saying we’d preserve it (which we didn’t) and then proceeded to peel the hide off the squirrel like a doll’s jacket. The squirrel seemed much smaller in this state, and it was obvious that it would take a bagful of them just to be a side dish for a family meal. He washed the carcass under an outdoor spigot and used the knife to remove spent pellets from my .410. I fetched a zipper bag from the kitchen and he tossed the meat into Mama’s freezer with assurances that we cook and eat it soon. We never did.

That was the last time I went squirrel hunting. While I thought my brother and I would hunt together forever, that was one of our last outings in search of small game. We went dove hunting the next two seasons, which was far more challenging and rewarding, and we grilled our success the night of the hunts. But by that point, I had come to realize that hunting was not going to be a long-term interest. The image of that field dressed squirrel has never left me. There is an old saw in sports that says you have to be able to see yourself making the shot, or the catch, first, before you can complete it. I never could see myself pursuing, killing and cleaning. That was what I took away that morning, rather than food for the table.

I preferred competition, whether it be skeet, or handguns, or rifles. This was part of the appeal later when I earned my concealed carry permit — a certain number of shots had to be placed in a specific range in a fixed amount of time to qualify (in addition to safety training, a written test and a background check). Sport.

The following falls, I hunted pickup basketball games, choosing well-placed elbows and turnaround baseline jumpers to do my dirty work, rather than a long, sharp, unsheathed blade.

My boys, eight and six now, frequently ask about fishing and hunting. My wife, whose grandparents lived on the Neuse River, usually takes them fishing. I have suggested we might try fly fishing, something I’ve never done, because it is active, and they were intrigued by “A River Runs Through It.” Hunting is yet to come.

My eight year old asks when I will allow him to have a BB gun. We’ve already talked about gun safety quite a bit, and I’ve made no secret about where the guns are kept — locked — and how they are to be feared, respected and handled. Their time will come soon enough, and I won’t deny them the experience. I want to share it with them, much like we do sports now. I appreciate those moments, because Daddy never played basketball or catch or went hunting with me, and I have kept that promise to myself that Kent and Lowell will never have such a void. We’ll go in those same woods one day, and find our spot and wait. I don’t know if the boys, who are more energetic than I was, will appreciate the quiet time and the concentration required. But I hope they don’t kill anything. I never learned how to field dress a squirrel.

Michael K. Brantley is an English instructor at Louisburg College. His creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry has most recently been published or is forthcoming in Word River, Bartleby Snopes, Revolution House, The Smoking Poet, The Fat City Review, Short, Fast, and Deadly, The Rusty Nail, The Circa Review, The Cobalt Review and Prime Number Magazine.