I touched my Dad on the shoulder and he swung around. “You hear that?” I whispered. You always have to whisper. Deer can’t hear humans whispering.
“Hear what?” He said. His response wasn’t a whisper.
“Those twigs snapping and that clumping sound, it was definitely a deer. Something back by those trees over there. Yeah, look I see it?” I was still whispering.
He followed my extended arm. “I don’t see anything. Where?”
“Right there. See?” I pointed again, starting to get a little agitated.
The shape of a magnificent buck, the one from “Bambi”, was standing just out of the tree line. He was standing proudly, just visible through the fog, his nostrils flaring, sniffing for the telltale signs of humans with guns.
“Do you see ‘em, Dad? He’s gotta be an eight-pointer! Six-pointer at least.” I whispered again, but a little louder due to my excitement at spotting the animal in the distance. It’s hard to whisper when you’re excited.
A six-point buck, for those uninitiated, is a good-sized male deer with three brow tines on each antler. One who has made it through a few hunting seasons in order to grow antlers that size. An eight-pointer, even bigger, and older.
“I don’t see a damn thing. Are you sure?” He still wasn’t whispering.
Well, I didn’t think I was hallucinating this buck, but I might have been. In preparation for my shot, I lifted the rifle to my shoulder and looked through the scope. The buck was there, lined up in the cross hairs.
“Whoa,” my Dad finally whispered, stating toward me. “Are you sure it’s a deer?”
I shook my head in affirmation and sighted the buck again. He had turned his head to the right and I brought the sight lines just below the base of his skull. I was certain he was looking right at me. You know how when you look at someone through binoculars and you swear they looked right at you but they couldn’t possibly have seen you with the naked eye? The buck didn’t budge. He probably figured out what he had walked into by that time and didn’t figure there was much he could do about it but hope I missed.
My Dad was watching me carefully. “Go ahead,” he said, “if you’re sure. Don’t jerk it.”
I slowly squeezed the trigger. You have to squeeze the trigger or the rife will jerk up and you’ll miss. The still, morning air, was shredded by the sound of an explosion. The rifle slammed into my shoulder so hard I had to choke back a cry. You don’t cry on hunting trips.
When the last echo of the rifle shot subsided I looked to where the buck had been standing. I didn’t see anything. No deer body writhing in pain on the ground by the tree. No deer blood. No deer brains splattered on the tree trunk, nothing. I was secretly glad. Almost within the same instant of squeezing the trigger, I wondered how I would have felt had I killed the animal.
“Well, let’s go have a look,” my Dad said.
He found the bullet lodged in the tree about three feet higher than the head of an average buck. At least I had hit the tree. Not bad, I figured from that distance.
“Missed him, I think,” he said.
“Scope must be off,” I said. It was the only possible explanation you see.
He checked the area around the tree explaining that he was looking for any signs that I might have wounded the animal. You didn’t let any animal go off and die if you were the one responsible for shooting it. You had to track it until you finished the deed. That was humane.
My Dad reached up and broke off a “six-point” branch off the tree. It looked remarkably like a deer antler.
“Think this is your buck?” he asked.
“No.” I said it with some manner of indignation. “I can tell a tree branch from a deer for chrissakes.”
“Watch it son,” he warned. “Okay, let’s work this area a little, but if you missed him we probably won’t see anything around here for hours now with all the racket”.
He was a little upset with me for ruining his chances of getting a deer on that particular morning. If you shoot, you don’t miss, I guess. And if you don’t miss there’s no need to carry all that extra ammunition either. After all, he never saw the buck. If he had, I would never have been allowed to take that shot. He would have been all over it for a trophy with them kind of braggin’ rights.
“My feet are freezing,” I whined, wishing he would call the whole thing off and we could just go home.
He reached into an inside vest pocket and pulled out a fifth of whiskey and screwed off the cap.
“Try this,” he said, and handed me the bottle.
“I grabbed it and gulped down a big swig of the golden brown liquid, just like I’d seen him do many times. My stomach instantly burst into flames.
“Take another,” he said with a small smile curling his lips.
“No thanks, I’m good,” I choked out. “I feel better now.” I added that last part so that he wouldn’t think that I wasn’t tough enough to take it. My feet were still cold and my stomach was smoldering. I felt a little like throwing up.
My Dad took an ample swallow from the bottle then slid it back into his pocket. He took a cigarette from the pack in his vest, and tapped the filter end on the side of the box a couple times, and put it in the corner of his mouth. He cupped a lighted match in his hands and the cigarette glowed red. He crushed the match out on the ground by twisting the toe of his boot so the match was safely out and buried under the soil. He dragged heavily on the cigarette and exhaled smoke mixed with his breath into the cold air. Standing there in his gray felt cowboy hat with the cigarette hanging from his lips, I couldn’t help but think that he looked like he belonged there, a true Wyoming hunter, even though he had been born and raised in Long Island, New York.
I, on the other hand, knew with some degree of certainty that I belonged back home in bed.
“Better get on after that buck,” he said.
We never saw another thing all day. The fog lifted, after the sun got higher in the sky, and I still have my feet.
I let my Dad read this story once, years later, and he returned it to me saying “I’m sorry you had such a bad childhood.”
I asked him how the hell he got that from this story.
“I’m just sorry,” he said.
I think he was just sorry I hadn’t gotten that buck.