The spike buck sat in the crosshairs of my scope for a few seconds after he had arched back and forth in front of my hillside position for five minutes, nervously eyeing my outline broken only by the small bushes that conveniently grew between us before finally giving up on his quest to figure me out. He had made his way halfway down the hill, past the next stand of buffaloberries and out into the open, giving me a chance to raise my gun and follow him. In those moments, I brushed aside the thought of the slight whitetail with the two curling antlers forming a half-halo inside his ears bearing the tag which was folded in my pocket. Despite the late hour in my hunting season, it was better to let him go and grow, than to simply fill a tag for the sake of filling it.
This afternoon hunt would be my last of the firearms deer season, regardless of the outcome. With the proverbial levy holding back all of the things at home and in the inbox that had piled up over the past couple of weeks which needed to get done before the Thanksgiving rush, there would be no other opportunity for me before the season closed. My thumb didn’t budge the safety and I slowly pulled my head up from the reticle to watch the youngster wander slowly down into the brush and disappear into the drain.
Only he didn’t. Instead, he cocked his head stiffly with a glance over his shoulder, his curled tail sprung into the air and he cleared the last thirty yards of the open meadow in three sudden bounds, vanishing into the oak bottom of the draw.
“What was that about,” I wondered internally; “I know he didn’t see me move,” I mentally tried to reassure myself following the slight motion of my cheek coming off the gun stock. I slowly turned my head to the left and looked down into the opening at the base of the hill where the run of scrapes led down from the valley above me and into the tightening draw bordered with the twisted trunks of ancient bur oaks and the diagonal deadfalls of other trees long dead. There was nothing but the calm of the late afternoon and the darkening shadows in the depths of the valley.
I turned my head forward, to see if the little buck had come around after his sudden sprint. He hadn’t. Again, I shifted my gaze to the left and this time caught three notable white tines bobbing and moving into the gray cover of the brush. Far more built than the little brown buck which had obviously spied him and skedaddled, the large flanks and wider shoulders of his smoke-hued replacement confirmed he was a shooter.
Quickly, I laid out the plan. If the buck took the treeline down, I’d likely have a quartering angle at about 100 yards if I just stayed put. Not a great shot, but a makeable one and I banked on a bleat to turn him to set up something better once he was away from the screen of brambles. If instead he made a curl around the brush in front of me, he’d be broadside at 60, which was the ideal scenario and I hoped for that opportunity.
Certain my slight movements were shielded by the bushes, I found him in their bare branches with my scope and followed the flicker of his white antlers in and out of view along the top of the brushline as he angled back toward me and the open meadow. He cleared the obstruction with his head up and stepped out. I lowered the crosshairs and placed them a few inches back of his shoulder.
The shot was clean and within a few yards, he came to rest at the bottom of the angled V-shaped opening in the hillside tree claim. Shaking with the rush of a hunt just completed, I flicked my gun on safe, emptied the chamber, tucked the spent casing in my pocket, cleared the magazine and looked up to make sure he was still there, hardly believing the fortunate turn of events after some misadventures and many exciting moments that didn’t quite pan out over the past two weeks. I walked down the hill and knelt next to the buck, an even four-by-four with good browtines and cream-colored beams. Placing my hand on his side, I closed my eyes and recited the hunter’s prayer:
To everything there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under heaven.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up.
Alone on the piece of public access land my whispered words fell over the deer’s body, and I shook with a combination of fatigue, elation and reverence for the animal and what had transpired. While it wasn’t like I hadn’t done it before, and in fact had done it alone before as well, this time felt different in that rare way for me, one where words escape. Perhaps it was the amount of solo work I had put in this particular fall, in hopes of improving my skills in the field.
Maybe it was just the buildup of an autumn’s worth of hunts and the sudden release from the fevered pitch that firearms season often brings. It could have been the last of the adrenaline working its way out in conjunction with the sobering moment of death, but it all felt so final and so real as I placed the tag and began the process of breaking down my harvest.
As I did, I replayed the moments and the days leading to it: from a wild opening afternoon, to a surprising visit from an unexpected buck, to the spike and his curious behavior and quick departure, to the ideal turn my quarry had made just minutes before. Setting to work field dressing the deer with those instants in mind, a seed of excitement was also planted amidst the newly minted memories for the next season’s opportunities, should I be so privileged to experience them…in our outdoors.