My name was called kneeling under that oak tree looking at squirrel sign with Luke and his father. Rob later said my expression was really like I, but nobody else, heard perhaps my wife calling my name or the phone ringing. Luke asked �What?� and I put my finger to my lips. I was suddenly very alert, but still unsure why, or what called me. We kneeled silently together for a moment, and I remember how beautifully quiet it was, and how lovely the faint rustling of the dead oak leaves still on the branches sounded. Luke and Rob were looking at me intently, like I was either going to tell a joke punch line or break some bad news. Instead, I smiled and slowly, deliberately, removed the three bird shot shells from the �magical gun of mystery�, and replaced them with three deer slugs. I wasn�t sure why.
From the squirrel�s vantage point high in the swaying branches of the oak tree, this is what he saw. Directly below him, at the base of his tree on the ridge, were three humans with guns, nothing unusual this time of the year, crouching, looking at his acorn peelings and footprints, pointing here and there. The squirrel barked warnings to them, declaring his rights to privacy and property so that they will leave the place where he has buried a nut or two. Far below the squirrel, down in the ravine, in the blackberry bramble on the far side of the creek, rest three does, their ears twitching, nostrils flaring, puzzling out mixed signals on the wind. They are laying low in the snow where they often seek refuge, riding out the winter weather in the shelter of the gully. The humans with guns often walk past them where they lay quietly. This day they snort nervously, aware of a predator, of impending danger. The sounds and smells are strong, though intermittent. They decide to depart quickly.
Meanwhile, on the ridge the squirrel sees the human with the orange coat rise and motion to the other two to follow him. The little one follows next, followed by the one with no hat. The squirrel turns his gaze again to the deer, now standing up in the snow, twitching their tails and snorting. One is big and gray, one is slightly smaller and more tan, and one is younger and tan colored. Looking back at the humans, the squirrel sees that they are walking towards the edge of the ravine, to a clear spot recently logged. The deer are moving now toward a switchback trail up the far side of the ravine, running. The humans have reached the edge of the ravine. The little one is pointing at the running deer and the one in the orange coat is snapping his gun up to his cheek. Bang! The squirrel drops his nut and dives into his tree home, where he is greeted by the noisy chatter of his tree mates.
I shot three times, the �magical gun of mystery� performing flawlessly for once. I lowered the gun and it registered that I had just seen deer and shot at them. I heard a squirrel chattering. On my left I heard Rob say, �You got �im,� incredulously. �We got a deer!� Luke exclaimed. At first I couldn�t see anything. We were standing side by side by side on the ridge in the fading light as the snow fell. Then I could see a big gray doe laying on the deer trail across the creek about 120 yards down and away. She was still. Two other deer were running up the trail, pausing for a moment looking back, cresting the rim and bounding out of the gorge and out of sight.
I turned my head and looked at Rob and Luke, who were smiling. �I am going to the deer,� I said. �Would you gentleman mind keeping your eye on it from here in case she gets up, or I can�t see her from down there in the thick stuff? I�ll give you a shout to come down when I get to her.� We all agreed to the plan, and as I excitedly and hurriedly slid down on my backside down the snowy ravine (which I must remember to do again as it was quite exhilarating!), I could hear Luke speaking with exuberance to his father. While chambering a few shells in case the deer was not finished, I resolved then to do all I could to help Luke own this hunt.
As I feared, it was difficult to see anything in the tall brambles, and slowly I picked my way through the brush. I called to Luke, �Luke, can you still see her? Am I getting close?� Simultaneously, both Rob and Luke answered. Luke said �Yep, you�re almost there,� while Rob said �Keep going, a little to your right.� Then, after a few more steps, I saw the gray fur and white tail. When I got to her, she was quite still and dead. I called for Luke and Rob to come down, and emptied the shells from my gun. I leaned the gun in a low fork of a tree, and knelt down to my downed deer. I felt for her wound and finally found an entrance and exit wound in the neck, where the lead slug had severed her spine. She died almost instantly. No wonder she disappeared from view so quickly, which also better explained my instinctive second two shots at the other bigger deer.
Luke and Rob came up behind me and I could hear Luke saying �Wow, it�s bigger than I thought.� I was feeling her fur, and I invited Luke to check it out. It was then that I felt that �performance pressure� ease away from me, and a feeling of immense gratitude came over me. I realized how fortunate we all were to experience this, in this unique way, together. I became aware of how fortunate I was to be hunting in such a beautiful place that happened to be my back yard. And it occurred to me to impress upon Luke the importance of gratitude versus gloating when we have the good fortune of our hunt including a kill. I looked at Rob, and he communicated without words his deference in this situation, which is a compliment to another, as any father knows. I said �Can I get serious for a minute with Luke?� Rob said �Yes, of course.� So I said to Luke, �Remember how I said in hunting, as in life, things don�t always go our way? Well, today they went your way Luke, and my way too. We killed a deer. Now, we must be thankful for this deer, for this life we have taken. We don�t have to do anything fancy, we should just be quiet for a minute and think about this beautiful deer in this beautiful place and be thankful.� After a few moments as we knelt around this gray doe in the snow, giving thanks how we each saw fit, I heard a squirrel�s chatter from the big oak tree up on the ridge. I looked at Luke. �Kind of a strange squirrel hunt, huh Luke?� He had a shy look, turned his head away. �Yeah� he said, sort of laughing.
I asked Rob to go up to the house and get my butchering equipment and some baling twine from the sheep barn while Luke and I found a small lodge pole. While we waited for Rob�s return, we sat on a log and had target practice with the .22 on an old tree trunk that had gnarls in it that looked like the rings of a target paper with a bull�s eye. Luke showed that he was a pretty good shot. We ran out of rounds for the .22 just as Rob appeared up on the ridge. As he was picking his way down to us in the fading winter afternoon light, Luke said �This is the best hunting trip I have ever been on.�
�Sorry we didn�t get you a squirrel� I said.
�Well, getting a deer is pretty good too� he replied.
�Yes,� I said, �because deer are pretty smart.�
We laughed as we stood to greet Rob, having returned from his mission.
Working quickly, we had the deer field dressed before dark, and we hung it from the lodge pole just like in the Davy Crocket books I read when I was a kid. Rob took the front, I took the rear, and the successful hunting party labored under the load of the heavy doe up the path to the top of the ridge as darkness fell. As we approached the farmhouse, we could see the warm yellow lights of the windows and we could all imagine the cheery fires and food, fun, and family waiting for us inside. My children and wife, as well as Rob�s wife and daughter were waiting at the door for us when we returned, and I couldn�t help thinking I was in a Currier and Ives dream state, or that Norman Rockwell would be sitting with his easel in the yard.
So, despite not having shot a trophy buck, my deer drought ended on a happier than could have been expected note. From what I hear, Luke is still telling his New York deer hunting tale. I never told Rob about how preposterous it was that an instinctual snap shot on a running deer at over one hundred yards down hill in bad light with a dubious gun shooting 2 � shells through a stuck poly choke last set for ducks with two witnesses resulting in an instant kill neck shot was. That it was unbelievably lucky, never repeatable, I mean. Not that it wasn�t meant to be. I have told Rob that the hunt I shared with he and his son was one of the most memorable hunts, if not moments, of my life. I am hoping Luke will be willing to go after squirrels with me on my next trip for Moose in Maine or Elk in the Rockies. I hope that in life, as in hunting, things will continue to go Luke�s way.