The last day of the hunt began just like the previous six. Brittle-dry, frost-covered grass crunched under my boots as I followed my Dad to a new area, and a new ground blind. Including the first doe, I had shot at – and cleanly missed – four deer. My brother was nearly beside himself, since he had not seen any deer while hunting alone – the only deer being seen when his bane (I) was present. This morning’s plan was significantly different from all the previous in one crucial aspect.
The other hunters in the camp were keenly aware of the youngest member’s deerlessness. In an example of what I see as the ultimate in hunter kindness, they had banded together and planned a drive, with me as the only person to be allowed to take shots at the driven deer. As my Dad positioned me in the ground blind constructed of locally collected brush, stacked haphazardly around another juniper, I thought of the men who were amassed at the starting point, one half mile and two rises away. I now realize that these were men who knew what a first deer would mean to this skinny five-year old. That it would mean more and more to him as he grew older. That it would be the type for every fulfilled dream in the realm of hunting and beyond. That it, and other fulfilled dreams, would furnish the fire for pursuing more difficult achievements. This five-year old child would be challenged by his own child one day to explain why he pursued seemingly unreachable goals. These men were helping him construct his answer, “Because I have seen other goals achieved that I didn’t think could be reached”.
My Dad and I sat in our blind and watched the country turn gray, blue, purple, pink and then a different color of gray. We watched the hill opposite from us and hoped for movement. The sun had been up an hour when the first gray/tan form sneaked through the brush in front of us. It was a doe, and she was followed by two more does and a yearling. They weren’t running, but moving steadily down the distant slope. My Dad readied the gun and I loosely gripped it as I knelt behind him once again. When we first spotted them, the deer were 500 yards away, mere dots unless looked at through binoculars.
My Dad’s instructions, given as we sat in the predawn chill, were to wait until the animals moved over the rise immediately in the foreground. This would place them at a maximum of 75 yards. We had, however, misjudged where the deer might come out and they actually appeared in a gap a mere 40 yards away. First a yearling, then an almost fully-grown doe, and finally a mature doe came out. In my mind’s eye I still see her broad nose, her ears moving as she periscoped her neck looking straight at us. I froze until she looked away and then slipped my cheek onto the comb of the stock. The crosshairs settled behind her shoulder, this time remaining steady. The trigger crept slightly and the gun cracked. There was a moment when I saw the doe rear and then start a crouching run so low that it appeared she was on her knees. I watched and wondered if this time I had missed as well. Before that thought was complete in my head she stumbled and went down.
My Dad grabbed me and pounded my back. I jogged toward the doe, hardly believing what had happened. I knelt and placed my finger to the small hole in her side and then stroked her skin. I was thus engaged when the other hunters arrived. They gathered around as my Dad bent over and began the field dressing. After he made the incision, he placed his knife on the doe and stood up. I saw that his right hand was covered with blood. With all of the hunters smiling and quietly cheering, he spread the blood from his hand onto both of my cheeks. As he did this he said to me, “You’re now a deer hunter, son”. His eyes were shining and he gave me one of his infrequent smiles. I know this ritual, now considered too bloodthirsty and dangerous by our comfortably-sanitized culture, marked my entrance into more than just deer hunting. It also marked my joining a society of men and women who truly know the wonder of the taking of wild animals – not merely killing, but hunting. No animal dies in vain if it brings such moments to fruition.