by Will Weaver
The railroad tracks that ran past the farm figured strongly in our family hunting life. They offered an easy walk for partridge, which liked the sunny edges of brush on the north side, but the railway figured more strategically in deer hunting. Deep in the woods of my grandfather's farm was The Cut. A wide, glacier-gouged swale ran north-south through 80 acres of brush and timberland, the side-hills which were too steep to clear and farm—and which also presented a challenge to the railroad builders. But nothing stopped the march of railroad iron, and The Cut—about 100 yards wide and close to 50 feet deep—was filled entirely by the labor of men and horses. This created a high-banked bed for the railroad tracks (so high that it was scary to walk across when I was very young) but its damming effect also created natural game corridors. On both ends was a heavily-used deer crossing.
My father's deer stand was positioned at the west side of The Cut, at the north edge of the woods on the side hill by a Rural Electric Association pole. Every fall we delivered a fresh bale of straw to the base of the pole. It was important to get the bright yellow, sharp-smelling straw bale (the twine, chemically treated against nibbling rodents, was more pungent than the straw) in position well before deer season in order to let the wind and sun dissipate its color and scent. For the hunt, my father parked his pickup a few yards away, out of sight in the brush, and with a walking stick navigated the rough ground to his straw bale seat—which also held in the heat of his legs. On those gray November days, with a blanket over his lap and with some dried weeds or light brush drawn up around his boots, he was nearly indistinguishable from the REA pole.
His view commanded east across The Cut as well as the main deer trail at the west end—only 30 yards to the side and slightly below. By the 1970s, even his brothers acknowledged that my father could no longer "drive" (that is, walk) and so this prime spot became his. My cousin Gerry and I were resigned to being drivers, trampers, brush beaters for life—or until our fathers died—the epiphany of which (I was in my twenties at the time) was a kind of blue sky moment. I stopped resenting the hard slogs through the brush and began to take great pride in tracking a deer—real hunting, as I saw it—and trying to push one out to my father's gun.
On one of those colorless November days, the drivers gathered on the gravel road a half-mile south of the railroad tracks. We spread out in an irregular picket, about a hundred feet apart, and waited long minutes in silence to make sure the standers were in place. A thin, needling snow fell; a light breeze quartered to the southeast. Usually it was the oldest driver who gave a hand signal to move into the woods, but I had come, over the years, to slowly gather some authority. I was a good shot, a jump-shooter who could knock down a deer when it leapt from its bed, and one who seldom "fouled up" (there are unending ways to miss a deer). On this day, the Weaver cousins and a couple of their friends, locals who knew the drill, looked to me for direction. In hunting, it nearly always pays to wait just a bit longer; I gestured accordingly. Two of the youngest cousins, knowing they had the brushiest, lowest cover to fight through, stamped their feet impatiently. They just wanted to get this over with.
Hunting is largely about the weather and time. There are confluences of temperature, light, and wind when the odds are stacked against the hunter. An overly warm or a bitterly cold day, too much sun or too little, dry leaves that make for loud woods, swirling and inconsistent wind—any of several combinations make the chance of shooting a deer like winning the lottery. While it conceivably could happen, it is not likely. At other times, like that day, conditions favor the hunter. Low barometric pressure. Damp, gray, chilly skies. Light snow drifting straight down, muffling sound and scouring the air. Human scent does not travel well; like wood smoke falling down the sides of a cabin on a still day, it pools at ground level, stays close to the body. Underfoot the oak leaves were limp and soundless. There was an incipience: something was going to happen.
I finally signaled our line forward, and we entered the woods. With rifle at ready, I walked a minute.
Watched ahead and to all sides.
Faint thrashing sounds came from the younger cousins fighting through the brush. I glanced behind, then moved forward again.
About a hundred yards into the woods, two deer—small ones—bounced up and bounded forward out of sight. Marchers halted; we passed a silent wave up and down the line. The deer were headed in the right direction, and we pressed on.
Halfway to the railroad tracks, the timber grew taller and in the swale the brush thickened. On a steep, oak-covered side hill, I spotted a bare oval of brown oak leaves—a deer's bed. From the size of it, a buck had lain here. I knelt and put my bare palm on the leaves. They were not warm, but not cool, either. It was a perfect spot to lie and watch: The buck could see in all directions, take the breeze into his snout, plus he had two quick escape routes—one high, one low.
I paused over his tracks, big, wedge-like triangles. They were pointed in the right direction, but I held back. To the sides, I saw glimpses of red as the other drivers struggled through the tangled brush. When I caught the attention of Gerry, I pointed to the ground—to the deer bed—then to the sides and forward. Hand signals, catcher to pitcher. Our own language. He waved back and moved forward.
I eased sideways to a nearby brush fall and hunkered down by it to break my silhouette. The snow continued to fall, and at quickened pace, enough that I had to blink and blink to see well. I was glad to have an open sight—"iron sights"—on my .30-06 rifle; a telescopic sight would have been useless in the snow.
A few minutes later two shots barked farther east—not my father's gun—and then a shout somewhere along the line, the pop of a smaller gun—one of the younger cousins. Someone called, "I hit him!" The woods were silent again.
Whenever there is action on the drive, the spell is broken. The forward line breaks; the drivers, especially the younger hunters, forget their task in order to hurry among the trees toward whomever fired the shots. Curiosity. Relief, perhaps, that their work is over.
I waited. Five minutes. Longer. I took off the glove from my shooting hand so that I could feel the bare trigger iron of my rifle; I got ready.
The buck and I saw each other at the same time. He was sneaking back through the broken picket line, head low, weaving his antlers through the underbrush; I saw him as he lifted his head to look at me. I threw up my rifle, but he whirled like a heavy brown trout in a swift current and was gone.
Sometimes hunting means running. I jumped up and raced like a crazy man, flailing through brush in order to cut off the buck's passage. Sweitzer Lake lay just over the side hill, and I managed to reach the slope to where I could see all the way down to the ice—and have a clear shot should the buck turn fully south. He didn't show.
After I caught my breath, I worked my way east then west, east then west in widening swings until I picked up his trail—scuffed oak leaves across the snow. The trail was obvious at first—a running track—then less so as he slowed and began to sneak.
Occasionally his tracks turned sideways: he had stopped to look over his shoulder. Lift his nose and take in the air. A deer will "snort" or whistle when surprised; however, the sound is not an exhalation but a sucking in of air—a quick nose-full to parse out a scent that should not be in the woods. A spooked deer will always remain silent.
As we moved forward, me on his tracks, him out of sight but not far ahead, it was clear that he wanted to turn back. Each time I correctly guessed his intent and direction and pushed him forward again. Suddenly ahead, over at the east field, a pickup motor started; then came voices of my cousins and the thud the pickup's door. They were clear of the woods, but I knew my father would remain on his stand until I came out to him.
Barely 50 yards from The Cut—I could see patches of its wide, blank face beyond the aspens and oaks—I lost the buck's trail. It disappeared. I backtracked, but found nothing. I let out a long breath, stood up straight and slung my rifle over my shoulder. It had been a good hunt, a good try. It was enough.
My father's rifle report rocked the woods—a single shot—and I hurried forward even as the echo fell away into the trees.
At the southwest edge of The Cut lay the buck, a long and beautiful animal, its brown side heaving, rear legs thrashing but slowing even as I approached. I held my rifle at ready—my father once broke a rifle stock in defense against a lunging, injured deer—but this one was dead. A single shot to the neck. Clean kill.
I stepped into the open where my father could see me and pumped an arm. He waved back. He stood up only now, his shoulders and cap shrouded with snow. Using his walking stick, it took him a few minutes to make his way down to the trail. I took the buck by his antlers and dragged him forward. His smooth-haired sides slid easily on the snow and flopped twice across the iron rails. It was not a heavy animal but had tall, pale, elegant antlers—a beautiful 10-pointer.
"One shot," my father said as we met. I could only smile.