It was a pleasant surprise that summer to watch wild deer drink from a stream just a few feet from where I came to sit every day. Some of the female deer had fawns, their tiny cinnamon-colored backs sporting white camouflage dots.
Perched on one side of the creek was a mineral salt lick. Its purpose was practical but that didn’t include deer. They used it anyway, and sadly one majestic buck would soon die, because of it and because of me.
The stream bordered a clearing near our wilderness farm where I was assigned the job of tending a small herd of cows and calves during the months while school was in summer recess.
June had been unusually hot. July and August promised more of the same. My parents worried our dozen milk cows and seven newborn calves might overgraze the small pasture on our remote farm.
“I need you to do something,” my dad said one day. He looked somber. We were hauling hay into the barn. Or, rather, he was hauling hay into the barn and I, at eleven, was helping as best I could.
“Do you remember telling me about a clearing in the forest you found last summer?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s a couple of miles north of our fence line.”
My older sister and I had found it the previous summer while exploring. The clearing was big… larger than a shopping mall parking lot. Tall succulent green grass carpeted the clearing, hemmed by dense bushes and surrounded by a varied collection of tall trees.
She and I had found an opening in the underbrush, near where a narrow stream meandered into the clearing for a few yards and then disappeared back into the bush.
“I need you to take on a big responsibility now that you’re on summer vacation,” dad said. “Do you think you could trail the cows up there every day after milking and bring them home in time for evening milking?”
“Sure!” I said eagerly.
This meant I’d escape the drudgery of endless summer chores that Mom always seemed to have for my two sisters and I. Who would not want to escape cleaning the chicken coop and barn, or weeding our family’s huge garden, or splitting firewood, or painting fences?
My new job began the next day. Dad and I trailed our cows and calves up a narrow path in an abandoned overgrown road right-of-way beside our farm, to the remote clearing. It was several miles away. I herded the cows. Dad carried the heavy one-foot cube called a salt lick. The blue-tinted block contained salt and other minerals the animals needed to maintain good health.
Every day, I herded our cows up that narrow trail to the clearing after the morning milking and brought them home in time for the evening milking.
After the first few days, I found it boring… watching over cows and calves as they chomped on grass… and defecated. In and out… in and out, I’d chuckle, trying to amuse myself. Even Towser, our aged border collie, was restless for the first few days. We found little for either of us to do. Heavy underbrush surrounding the natural pasture, including wild bramble bushes, discouraged exploration farther afield. It was almost impenetrable in most places.
Towser and I habitually sat under a particularly large and bushy tree on one side of the clearing. For the first few days after we’d arrived, he’d sniffed and peed on just about every stray bush in sight. Thereafter, Towser slept most of the day, evidently having decided his ardent placing of territorial markings had done its job.
One afternoon, for some unknown reason, I began to see my surroundings as never before.
I began to notice for the first time that all around… the air, the trees, the bush… were filled with creatures of all sorts, large and small, four-legged, crawling and winged. And the deer came every day, often with single fawns or twins, unperturbed now by Towser and my presence.
One day, I watched as a coyote wandered along the edge of the clearing. A few curious cows raised their heads and then went back to grazing, unconcerned. I was surprised. My job was to protect them from predators and I’d been warned about coyotes and wolves, yet the cows appeared unconcerned.
A few days later, however, I again noticed a coyote peeking out from the edge of the forest. I watched closely as the coyote crawled up behind the bushes just outside the clearing. This time the cows gathered in alarm, tucking their calves under their bellies, bobbing their heads up and down and side-to-side, snorting and bellowing toward the wild canine until it finally left. Towser and I chased after it, but it was gone.
Later, I learned that carnivores, such as coyotes and wolves, hunt not with malice or anger, but only when hungry or needing to feed their young. Somehow, their prey knows the difference. The cows did.
When I told dad about the coyotes, he decided I needed more protection than Towser and my handmade walking stick. Although only eleven, I’d learned to use dad’s .22-caliber Winchester. It was a single shot rifle. Later, I would come to realize the weapon might offer protection from an angry field mouse, but little else.
Thus armed and guarded by a loving albeit aging dog, terrified of gunfire and who hid from thunder, we were deemed all set to resume the long daily vigils ahead.
The day it occurred, the sun was bright and warm.
Towser was dozing as usual. I was struggling to stay alert, lest a hungry coyote or wolf on the prowl might once more take an interest in the spring calves.
Squirrels were scampering around in the trees. They’d given up scolding Towser and I., a kind of acceptance I suppose. Birds of all types were chirping or squawking away, searching for insects and other tiny creatures to feed their young. Bees, wasps, horseflies and mosquitoes, and the dreaded black flies, droned above in search of nectar, or blood… human, canine or bovine… it mattered not.
My young mind became aware that I was thoroughly immersed in the flow of Nature. I was surprised and a bit intimidated at first, partly by the newness of this emotion, and partly by the awe and contentment I was experiencing. It was all very strange and uncanny. Later, I would realize that I’d become mesmerized by the flow of Nature, and by the privilege of being able to experience it.
Sadly, the joy of that experience would be repressed for years by another, more disturbing event soon to come.
In remote areas, farm families rely as much as possible on what they raise, grow or can hunt. Their days are devoted to tending fields, vegetable gardens, and a range of animals: cows, pigs, chickens, geese, turkeys, and others. Often, farmers pay no attention to hunting regulations, and usually, no one bothers to enforce them. Wild game is an indispensable supplement to their homegrown diets. The more successful the hunting, the more farm-raised animals they can send to market in return for scarce cash income.
Wilderness farmers hunt mostly in the late fall after harvest. The priority is on the market-cash balance and what their families need to see them through the winter. Most hunt in groups. It improves their chances. Proceeds are shared equally. Depending on the region of the country, they hunt for deer, elk and moose, and sometimes bear.
One evening that fall, a group met at our farm. Three farmers and my dad gathered at our kitchen table, along with one other farmer’s son and me. The neighbor kid, Ben, was big: he had to be at least fourteen or fifteen. I was sure Ben knew a lot more about hunting than me. In fact, Ben hinted he knew a bunch more about a lot of things. He was feeling superior and proud of it. I felt intimidated and annoyed, at myself as much as at Ben.
The farmers/hunters began discussing places where they’d heard big game had been spotted in recent weeks. The locations were far away and would mean staying overnight. None of our families could afford an RV and there were no motels in the wilderness. The locations meant everyone would have to sleep in tents at below freezing temperatures, or in their pickups.
I could see the farmers weren’t eager to face any more cold nights than they already had to, and I wanted desperately to be included in the hunting party.
“I know a place where deer come to water,” I volunteered. “It’s not far from here.”
That stopped all of the conversations.
“North of our place,” I added, turning to dad. “You know… where I took the cows last summer. There’s a little creek. The deer come there to use our salt lick and get water.”
I’d pronounced it “crik”. That was the grown-up way.
I could see that I had their attention. It made me proud. I could see also that Ben, the big kid from down the road, was impressed too. That made me even more proud. I was one with them now. Hey, good for me, I thought.
“Son, why don’t you tell us about that clearing,” dad said. I understood he wanted me to get all the credit. Dad already knew the location. I described for the others the route that Towser and I had taken with our cows each day during the eight-week school summer vacation.
He asked me if I would show the hunters the way to the clearing. My heart soared! I would get to guide these grownups… and the big kid! I eagerly agreed. Now, I would really be one of them… a real hunter! The men decided on a date for the hunt. It would be late the following week.
Earlier, dad had made a point of showing me how to use his hunting rifle. The recoil from the .306 was fierce. Although dad had shown me how to hold the rifle to minimize kickback, still I had ended up with a huge black and blue bruise on my right shoulder. Okay, I’ll admit it: I was mighty proud of it!
I showed off the bruise to my sisters and displayed it proudly to mom. I could see she wasn’t all that excited about a large self-imposed blemish on her only son’s skin, nor about my learning how to us what had caused the bruise.
Finally, the day of the hunt arrived. The hunters came to our farm early in the morning. Everyone was there by 2:30 a.m. The hunters planned to make their way north to the clearing in light from a carpet of stars. They wanted to set up a hunting blind and be ready well before dawn.
Everyone was getting settled in the blind when dad leaned over and whispered to me: “Son, this is your find. It’s only right that you get the first shot. Here, take my rifle.”
I was startled. My pride leapt to new heights. Dad was going to trust me with his rifle! I had thought that dad had shown me how to fire the rifle just to make me feel more like the other hunters. I was really liking the sound of the thought: like the other hunters. I was feeling closer to dad that morning than I ever had before.
The other hunters were quietly amused and indulgent as they watched dad and me. Perhaps they were remembering their own first hunts. Some had sons they’d trained, like Ben, who’d come along.
Boy, I thought, Am I ever going show that kid a thing or two!
We all quieted down and waited.
Just as dawn began to show in the sky, Dad nudged my arm and pointed cautiously through a slot in the piles of fresh-cut bushes in front of us that formed the blind. There it was… a huge buck deer with a massive set of antlers.
The buck stood above the mineral block, sniffing and eyeing it warily.
A pang of guilt came over me – I remembered that I had been told to retrieve what was left of the salt lick on my last trip home with the cows. By spring, it would be gone, disintegrated by the weather. Then I realized – hey, I may have forgotten but it brought the deer to us. I was relieved; dad wouldn’t scold me now… not with a huge buck right in front of us, less than 25 yards away.
I felt dad nudge me again, smiling and nodding at his rifle. I was holding it as dad had shown me. I must confess that I’d been so enthralled by the magnificent buck I’d forgotten all about the rifle resting on my lap.
Again, dad nudged me and nodded once more… a tiny bit impatient this time.
The buck lowered his head and sniffed the salt. Then he licked it. Suddenly he raised his head and began sniffing the air and snorting quietly. Nervously, he turned sideways to where we were hiding in the blind.
Maybe he’s heard or smelled us! I thought.
The buck swung his head back and forth, acting even more skittish. He stomped his feet and skittered around as he moved his body slightly further away from the blind.
I was struggling to pull my attention away from the beauty of this wild animal when I realized that everyone else in the blind was watching me and tensing up.
Oh, oh! I thought, looking back at the buck. He’s going to run.
I lifted the weapon. The barrel was resting on a stout horizontal branch placed there for that purpose. I peered down the barrel, being careful to center the sight as I’d been taught, just behind the deer’s front shoulder, now clearly visible. I squeezed the trigger. The magnificent buck jumped and started to turn to flee, then he stumbled and fell. He lay still, obviously dead. I suspected the bullet had pierced his heart, right where I’d aimed.
A cheer when up from the other hunters. Now, my shoulder was hurting even more fiercely. Dad hugged and congratulated me. I felt the firm slaps of congratulations on my back and shoulders. Even the older boy, Ben, thumped my back with his hand… a bit harder than he needed to, I thought.
“That was a nice clean shot!” dad told me with obvious pride. “You bagged a big one, son. Well done!”
“Just like an experienced hunter,” someone else added.
I accepted their compliments but felt no cause for celebration. I wondered why at first. Then it came to me… I was feeling like a traitor.
From that day on I would carry the guilt of having broken trust with what Nature had been teaching me: the magnificence of its creations. I had grievously misused privileged knowledge by bringing the hunters to that special place. Above all, in my heart, I knew that I’d betrayed that majestic buck deer.
I never went hunting again.