By Ron Baker and Ernest Shute

December 16:

The small doe coursed slowly through the newly fallen snow. Occasionally she stopped and raised her head to sniff the sharp air. Reaching an open area, she began to browse on the buds of red maple saplings. Suddenly she tensed, then turned and swiftly descended the ridge that she had been following. Restlessly she entered a grove of open-grown beech trees and began to paw away snow and feed upon fallen beechnuts.

The wilderness slept beneath a heavy cloud clover and a light breeze sighed through bare branches. Only the rustling of a few dry beech leaves disturbed the quiet December woods. Despite the tranquility, a sixth sense warned the doe of an unseen presence and she frequently lifted her head to drain the air of sights and sounds. But she detected no danger, so she continued to feed.

Hank Savage grew nervous as he moved stealthily along a ridge top. It was the final day of the season and already late in the afternoon. He was anxious to find a target. His index finger tapped restlessly on the stock of his rifle. Despite the chill, sweat formed beneath his red cap.

Suddenly he froze, straining his eyes. There was movement far below. A light brown form was vaguely outlined. As it moved into clearer view, Hank’s pulse quickened and his heart pounded. Slowly he raised his weapon.

Without warning, three rapid thunderclaps pierced the silence. One of Hank’s slugs shattered the doe’s jaw. Another tore into her hindquarters and the third hissed overhead.

Hank’s muscles tightened. He had hit the deer at least once, possibly twice, and had felled it! He hastily re-aimed his rifle, but heard only a dull click as he squeezed the trigger. He swore softly. He was a confident hunter and he usually finished the job with one or two shots. But distance and partially obstructing trees now made sighting difficult. In the second it took to reload, the wounded deer regained its footing and moved beyond his field of vision.

The doe leaped over underbrush and pounded frantically through a grove of evergreens. Driven by pain and fear, she raced into a ravine and scrambled over ice-slicked rocks.

With an outstretched arm braced against tree trunks, Hank swiftly descended the steep hillside. A hundred yards below the snow was spattered with the blood where the deer had been wounded. Hank’s lungs ached and stopped, gasping for breath. Slowly his stony features relaxed into an expectant grin. “Looks like it’s hurt pretty bad,” he said. “It won’t get far. That deer is mine!”

The doe bounded shakily into a rock-walled ravine, spraying the snow with blood at each leap. She halted for a moment as the pain became more intense. Wearily she struggled toward a familiar swamp, grown thick with tall, low-branching spruce and fir. Here she might find temporary shelter.

Half an hour later, dusk was rapidly approaching and Hank reluctantly began to backtrack toward the road. Frustration overwhelmed him. He had planned to swagger into the paper mill the following morning and boast about his kill. On the way home from work he would have stopped at the Log Cabin Bar and traded tales of bloodshed with his drinking buddies. At night, he would have bragged anew to his wife and sons. But now fate and the relentless hand of time had ruined his scenario. He was forced to return home without a deer carcass tied to the hood of his pickup truck.

“Guess it isn’t hurt as bad as I figured,” he thought bitterly. That damn thing sure lit out in a hurry!” In disgust, he kicked the ground, and a miniature snowstorm swirled briefly around his feet.

Hank was an experienced hunter. Guns were his deities and for more than half of his forty years, he had idolized them with a religious fervor. They possessed him; he was intoxicated by their firepower. Became of them he had developed a dominant self-image. But this time his god had forsaken him. Dejectedly he removed a half-pint bottle of bourbon from his coat pocket and drained its final drops. Confidence and power usually flowed freely from this strong elixir – but not now. A dismal melancholy, gloomy as the sky overhead, descended upon him. His eyes misting, he inhaled deeply, then expelled his breath in a growling lamentation. “Damn it! If I’d bought that scope I would’ve dropped the mangy critter right in its tracks!”

Hank paused and glanced at the bottle in his hand. Then, in a brief fit of anger, he hurled it into a cedar grove. It shattered with a crash that echoed off a nearby rock ledge.

That night, when his two young sons were in bed, Hank walked slowly into the living room and slumped into his recliner. He stared into the fireplace, silently watching its flames blaze and then die to a flicker. His wife Doris carried two cups of coffee from the kitchen, placing one on the stand next to his recliner. Then she retired to her rocker. Her husband’s unusual quietness disturbed her. “Is anything wrong?” she asked.

Hank continued to stare blankly into the flickering fire. “The end of the season and I didn’t hang one up!”

“Don’t take it so hard,” Doris replied. “We really don’t need the venison.”

Hank turned sharply toward his wife. “You don’t understand! It’s not just the venison. I don’t spend all kinds of money on guns, ammo, hunting gear, licenses and stuff, and take time off from work just to get some meat for the freezer!”

“Well, I know you love to hunt…”

I guess I’m just disappointed that I didn’t finish that last one off.” Hank paused momentarily, then stared at the floor. “I’ll be in for some ribbing at the mill tomorrow. All the other guys in the rolling department got their deer.”

“Then you can remind them of that,” Doris said, glancing above the fireplace at the antlered trophy staring toward her with sightless eyes.

Hank’s memory regressed swiftly to three years before: The tense stalk through newly fallen snow; the sighting at close range; the swift aim; the crippling wound; the slow, deliberate re-aim; the effortless touch of his forefinger on the hair trigger; the thundering deathblow; the overpowering ecstasy of the kill; the supreme reward and the exultation that followed.

A satisfied smile transformed Hank’s face. “Yes sir, that sixteen pointer was the biggest buck anyone bagged in the state that season; I had all I could do to lug it out of the woods. Got my picture in the Gazette, too, right beside Wayne Gretzky.”

From her rocking chair, Doris smiled reassuringly. “See, there’s no need to be gloomy. Besides, now you can go coyote hunting…” Dull embers gleamed dimly in Hank’s dark eyes. He slowly sipped his coffee. “Yeah, you’re right,” he finally replied. “But just wait ’til next year! Anyway, when Mike and Todd get a little older, I’ll bring ’em along and teach ’em the right way to hunt. They can learn how to drive deer.”

Hank nodded in self-agreement. He was determined to perpetuate his family’s tradition. His father, Big Pete Savage, had been a hard-drinking, brawling man and a foreman at the paper mill. On Hank’s eleventh birthday, Pete had given him his first gun, an ancient .22 with which he had decimated the local red squirrel and blue jay populations. Then at 14, he had been rewarded with a powerful .30-30 and had been instructed in the fine points of venery by the elder Savage. He had felled his first deer a year later. It was then that he fully understood the devastating power of his weapon. He had experienced a fierce pride and a brutal satisfaction when at last the large buck had ceased its futile life-struggle.

Doris beamed expectantly. “It’ll be nice to have the boys out of my hair for a few weekends and into something constructive. The fresh air and exercise will be good for them too.” She stared briefly into space. Thank God they’re being brought up right. When I think of some of the neighbors’ kids who’ve been in trouble for all kinds of terrible crimes!” She shook her head and marched into the kitchen.

“And I’ll bet their fathers never took ’em hunting, either,” Hank grumbled…

From the recesses of Hank’s mind emerged the image of a pitiful young boy. Timid little Perk Langley had been seven or perhaps eight by the time Hank accumulated a decade of pugnacity behind his rawhide belt. Hank wondered why the memory had returned. The months of whining and cringing. “Please, Henry,” he had implored. “Please, I don’t want to fight!” There had been small bumps and bruises and perhaps one or two brief, bloodied noses. Then had come the ill-starred black eye administered by Hank on the walk home from school. And the thrashing Hank had received that evening in Big Pete’s woodshed.

“Boy,” Pete had warned, “next time you beat up some brat you make damn sure he don’t blab to his old man or old lady!” The red welts had lasted for more than a week. The humiliation had lingered a little longer. Then Hank had met Lambert…meek little Lambert. Hank grinned for a moment as he remembered the beatings he had given the terrified boy. “If you squeal to your mom or dad, you’re really gonna be sorry,” Hank had warned.

Doris emerged from the kitchen with a coffee pot. She refilled Hank’s cup and poured the remainder into her own. “Here’s tonight’s Gazette.” She smiled, handing him a newspaper. He unfolded it, exposing page one. A bold headline glared offensively. “Government may renew military draft,” he repeated slowly, then mused. “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about getting shot at.” “Rambo” Savage has already put in his time “six thousand miles this side of the rice paddies!”

In the silence that followed, Hank reflected briefly. He was a proud man. During his four decades of existence, he had never been corrupted by humanitarian ideals. With his weapons cradled firmly in his grasp, he was a Charlemagne, a Caesar, a Genghis Khan. He was a vanquisher and a despot. Within Hank’s mind was a murky, cavernous universe in which the province of the strong was to oppress the weak. In the cobwebbed catacombs of this inert galaxy, love and tenderness, mercy and compassion, especially for the defenseless, were intolerable weaknesses. For as long as he could remember, he had despised weakness and cowardice in others. From the cold steel of this unmuffled pickup truck, “God, Guns and Guts” shouted defiance and intimidation.

Insecurity unexpectedly seized him like some snaring jungle beast clawing at his vitals. He swallowed with difficulty, his jaw tightening. “You know, bein’ on the business end suits me just fine – as long as I’m around to enjoy it,” he said evenly. “But it always got me edgy thinkin’ about somebody tryin’ to blow my lousy head off.”

Hank quickly cleared his throat and spoke with conviction. “Now don’t get me wrong. I’m proud to be a patriotic American.” Then his mood soured and he flung the newspaper to the floor. “Hell, I don’t want to read bad news, or even talk about it! I need something to cheer me up.”

“I have just the thing,” Doris smiled. She walked slowly to the stereo set, then knelt and removed from the rack an album in a vivid scarlet jacket. “I bought this while you were out hunting.” From the twin amplifiers flowed soothing strains caroled by a choir. In the background, chimes blended harmoniously. “SILENT NIGHT, HOLY NIGHT; ALL IS CALM, ALL IS BRIGHT…” Contentment swept over Hank as he eased down into the recliner’s comfortable padding.

Meanwhile, high on a ridge, in the dark, wind-swept woods beyond town, the doe shuddered as freezing rain and sleet lashed at her. She struggled to her feet and retreated into a dense spruce thicket, then collapsed into the snow. She tried to curl into a fetal position but pain clawed at her and she was forced to lie helplessly on her side. Throughout the long night, she lay quivering while the storm spent itself.

December 17:

By dawn, the tempest had abated, but the doe was weak from hunger and loss of blood. Even if she had wanted to forage, her broken jaw would have made feeding impossible. But hunger did not matter now. The wound below her spine had become inflamed. Saliva dripped from her mouth and lead poisoning intensified her violent quaking.

Exerting every muscle in her stricken frame, she raised herself from the cold ground. Dazed and weary, she moved languidly through a pine forest. Clouds parted, sending countless diamonds of sunlight sparkling from ice-glazed trees. The brilliantly shimmering landscape was slowly transformed into a surrealistic world. No gunshots shattered the serenity. The wilderness radiated a spectrum of colors, softly beckoning the dispirited into its heart.

That night, Hank lazed in his recliner in front of the television set. He was consuming his sixth can of beer and the message from the loudspeaker came in broken phrases. “Interview with the state fish and game commissioner…Deer harvest lower than last year, but not a disappointment…Sportsmen’s contributions will continue to insure sound management practices…Carefully controlled hunting will stabilize and increase the size of the herd…We wish hunters a merry Christmas and a happy deer hunt next season.” Hank glanced at his trophy buck. He grinned and raised his beer. “Here’s to next deer season,” he said and took a drink. His smile slowly faded and he clenched his fist, crushing the can.

December 18:

Beneath the ghostly ice-haze of winter sunrise, the doe lay stiff and motionless on the flinty, crimson-stained snow. The night before, while some of the townspeople were shopping for Christmas presents, she had at last received her gift of peace. Now a delicate fawn, in its first heavy winter coat, muzzled the silent form, uttering low, muted cries. Nearby, beside a moss-covered boulder, shards of glass littered the frozen earth.

As the day wore on, clouds slowly obscured the sun. As dusk approached, snow began to fall, gradually cleansing the bloody scene. Then darkness enveloped the wilderness. Amid the intensifying storm, a slowly sculptured mound formed a somber memorial to a once-graceful creature. Through snow clouds in the east, a celestial radiance began to bathe the forest in its soft glow. Far in the distance, Christmas chimes purled a gentle euphony.

Ron Baker is a wildlife biologist and naturalist who is an editor and contributor to the Backwoods Journal. He homesteads in the Adirondacks with his wife Merry. Mr. Baker is vice-president of C.A.S.H. and the author of The American Hunting Myth. He can be reached through C.A.S.H.


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