October 28, 2010
Why the deer of my life didn't make the record book.
The wind blew from the northwest, carrying with it the fresh scent of the balsam boughs I had cut to add cover around my portable stand. The extra branches made me nearly invisible; I could draw my bow unseen.
It was Nov. 3, 2007, the day before rifle deer season opened in Minnesota. I was nestled in a balsam tree, just five feet off the ground. The tree bordered a fence line that was surrounded by thick, new growth poplar slash. All of the leaves had fallen, giving the landscape a gray, desolate look as it waited for the first winter snows. Late in the afternoon, the sun settled on the horizon as the temperature slowly dropped. The morning hunt here had been a bust, but hadn't dampened my enthusiasm. I was optimistic for a reason.
Two weeks earlier, during an almost horizontal rainstorm, I saw an absolutely enormous buck chase a doe within feet of the tree I now occupied. The spot was a natural funnel, but it wasn't as apparent at the time. The buck would easily make Pope and Young -- a rarity for our area in Northwestern Minnesota. He was a monster as well, easily weighing 250-300 pounds, field dressed. My bowhunting partner Glen, my Dad and I had taken to calling the monster buck "Mongo" after the character in "Blazing Saddles." Mongo was a true bruiser of a buck and had the attitude to match.
A Sudden Change In Plans
Family and work obligations prevented me from hunting the days immediately after our first encounter, but I was here now, hoping to get another chance at Mongo before the neighbors or someone in our rifle party saw him the next day.
The minutes stretched into hours, and still there were no deer. My hands were jammed into my pockets, having only thin bowhunting gloves to protect them from the cold.
Something started coming toward me from the brushy slash, and that something was making a lot of noise. It sounded unnatural, like a lost hunter bouncing off the brush, not caring who or what heard him. I turned, wondering what could make that much noise.
It was a fawn, without her mother. She lowered her head and began to feed, and I looked for the source of the noise behind her. There was nothing. She swayed, stumbled and lunged forward, catching herself. Then I saw it.
Her right hind leg was gone. Rather, it had been sheared off just above the knee. The jagged bone of her femur was visible, her tattered skin draped over the bone like an accusation. Whether car, fence or predator, something had horribly taken her leg; and somehow, she hadn't bled to death. She swayed, and I saw what remained of her injured leg paw frantically several times, remembering how it used to work before; but now it was useless.
I felt sick. It wasn't fair, but then nature isn't always fair. I imagined how it would end for her. She would maybe make it to December, slowly getting weaker as the snows got deeper. Eventually, a timber wolf would find her, and it would not go away. It would follow her, harass her, and she would collapse and flounder in the deep snows. The wolf would approach from behind, nipping at her flanks until she could no longer resist. Then he would begin to eat her as she silently waited for the pain to end€¦
The vision melted away, and I sat up with a start. She didn't have to die the way I had seen in my vision. I could bring the end quickly, humanely. But with only a single, either sex tag to my name, taking the shot meant there would be no chance for Mongo. There was a decision to make, a decision no one would know about except me. Should I wait for Mongo or take this fawn?
That was the choice, wasn't it? Hunting for antlers or doing the right thing. The last part hit me squarely -- there was only one correct choice here. "Forget Mongo," I whispered as I reached for my bow.
Mission Of Mercy
She was 30 yards away and in the edge of the brush; a poor shot. In the minutes that followed, she hobbled farther away, deeper into the brush. She slumped down, bedding close to one of the few grown trees in the clear cut, about 50 yards away.
The sun sank further below the tree line; it was getting darker by the minute. My heart sank -- there was no chance of a shot at that distance. I could come back tomorrow, but there was no guarantee she would be here. There was only one thing I could do, and it was NOT going to work.
My attempts at stalking deer had always ended in clumsy, noisy failures. Even if I managed to get out of the stand without spooking her, I still had to close 30 yards of brush, leaves and broken trees, and hope there was some opening in the brush that allowed a shot.
There were only 10 minutes of light left. It wasn't going to work, but in the final judgment of myself, the fact I tried would be all that mattered. Marking her position by the tree, I tied my bow and arrow to my haul rope and lowered it to the ground.
The exit from the stand went well enough, but every scrape and movement seemed magnified in the still evening air. I crept on my hands and knees to the fence line that separated us, avoiding the twigs and leaves that littered the ground. The fence presented a problem; I couldn't go over it as she would see me, and if I pushed the barbed wire strands, the noise would also alert her. There was barely room to go under it, so down I went.
Sliding my bow under the lowest strand, I backslid under the wire before I realized my error. Ice cold knives shot into my back as the leaf stained waters of a puddle soaked into my carbon suit. The leaves had camouflaged the water, and now my gloves and back were soaked with freezing water. Normally just an annoyance, the temperature made the soaking a condition that could get out of hand quickly.
I crept forward, keeping to bare and grassy areas, always watching the base of the tree for any sign of her. A slight fog was forming, and the increasing darkness spurred me to hurry more than I would have liked. When the distance was 20 yards from where she had bedded, I slowly rose to my knees, scanning for her.
She was gone. Somehow, she heard me and had slipped away, maybe when I fought with the fence. Dejected,
I turned and started toward the stand when a movement caught my eye. It was her ear -- she was still there but blended in perfectly with the brush. I needed to get closer. When I closed to 15 yards, she stood up and turned to me. I had risen to my feet and was fully exposed. She stared, and I closed my eyes to avoid hers.
She moved away from me a few steps at a time. I followed slowly, closing when she looked away. A twig near me snapped, and I froze again. I couldn't move my head, knowing the noise was made by another deer. A long minute passed, and then the woods exploded with the sounds of another deer bolting away. The doe stopped 30 yards away and blew alarm snorts more times than I could count. Her calls were insistent, pleading calls from a mother to her fawn to run from danger.
The fawn looked from me to her mother. She ignored her mother's warning, not running or stepping in her direction as the doe distanced herself from us. Maybe she was tired, or she didn't see me as a threat. When I reflect back on it, maybe she just knew more than her mother or I did.
She turned to me one last time, catching and fixing my eyes in hers. I tried to look away, not wanting to spook her, but couldn't. Her deep, brown pools locked with mine, and we were connected. She seemed to be looking for that place in me that could hear her message, and then she found it. My heart spoke out with what she needed to tell me: I understand.
She blinked, and our connection was broken. The fawn turned away, seemingly satisfied that I had heard her, and limped to my right two steps, exposing herself in the only open lane in the brush. It was a perfect, quartering away shot. The crippled princess looked back to me one last time, then lowered her head and began to nibble at a small bit of brush we both knew she didn't really want.
It was permission in the purest sense, and I took it.
Things slowed down in those last seconds. My body acted as if on auto pilot, going through the shot sequence it had practiced thousands of times before. Draw, anchor, steady, aim€¦
I held on her vitals. There would be no "a little high" or "a little right" excuse this time.
This shot had to be perfect. The muffled slap of my bowstring echoed off the brush around me, and I watched my arrow strike exactly where it should.
She ran from me far faster than I would have thought possible, then I heard her fall just beyond a large brush pile. Quickly it went still. The last glimmer of twilight vanished, and I turned back to my stand, alone in the darkness.
Passing The Test
Stumbling through the broken aspen slash, I began to gather my gear. My gloves and my back were soaked, and it became apparent I was a lot colder than I realized. My fingers could not undo the treestand chain or the rope steps easily, and I began to shiver uncontrollably. It took a lot longer to pack away everything, but eventually I finished. My bow and knife were in my hands, but I could barely feel either when I began walking back towards the brush pile.
The normal night sounds of the woods were absent; only the crunch of my boots on the fallen leaves broke the silence. Deadfalls and the aspen slash made the foggy night walk a challenge, and I had left my light behind on purpose. There wouldn't be a need to find a blood trail; I knew where she would be. The dark mass of the brush pile slowly formed in the darkness, and her soft, still form lay before me. I sank down next to her, my hand reaching out to touch her face.
I remember a lot of tears shed that night as I sat next to her; and a prayer said aloud that asked God to guide her to that special place where he keeps the innocent.
The field dressing went mercifully fast. Stand, bow and gear were picked up, and I stiffly began the half-mile walk back to my father's truck. I drove back as far as I could, and then half dragged, half carried her to the bed of the vehicle. It took three attempts to get her body into the truck bed. Physically, there was no strength left in me. After closing the tailgate, I slumped against the metal fender, the cold steel pulling the remaining warmth from my water-soaked back.
My thoughts went back to her. Don't get me wrong, I've taken over a dozen deer with my bow, but this one was different. Tonight had been a test, and I had passed.
A Scorned Trophy
The drive home seemed to take forever, though it was only half an hour. When I turned into the driveway, it was full of trucks and SUVs from our rifle-hunting party. They were all inside Dad's house enjoying the annual walleye dinner he makes just before deer season starts. I parked the truck and opened the tailgate. Although I was absolutely bone-tired, I managed to drag her into the garage, but there was no way I could tie her up into the rafters on my own.
I walked to the house porch but stopped just short of the door. Inside, there was good-natured banter going on, each hunter giving another a little needle just for sport. But at this moment, we were worlds apart. How could they understand what happened tonight?
They would just see a fawn, and wonder why I even bothered.
After all, it wasn't Mongo, was it? But to me, she meant more than Mongo ever would.I opened the door and tentatively walked inside. The scent of cigarettes, fried fish and cocktails assaulted my nostrils. I rounded the house entrance, and there they were, all seated at dinner. It was obvious I was very late.
The good-natured ribbing began. "What happened?" "Did you get lost again?" "Couldn't find your way back from the stand?" I turned toward the kitchen sink, now suddenly aware of how dirty and bloodied my hands were.
"No, I€¦got one," I said.
Several hunters jumped their feet, energized to see what I had brought home. They remembered I had seen several big deer and were wondering if Mongo had met his end.
"What did you get?" they asked. "Did you get the big one from two weeks ago?"
"No, I shot a fawn," I answered.
"A fawn? You shot a fawn?" they asked in disbelief. "Why did you waste your time?"
I began to dry my hands and murmured, "She's in the garage."
They smelled a trap. There was probably a big deer in the garage, and everyone began piling out of the house, eager to see this mystery deer.
We walked to the garage, and they looked around eagerly. The disappointment on their faces was obvious when they could see only her in the center of the garage floor. They helped me raise her into the rafters and started joking immediately. "She is so small, you would have been better off shooting a mouse." "Are you sure you didn't hit her with the truck?"
A cold anger was rising in me.
We were friends, but after what had happened tonight, they were so far beyond the line. I choked out the obvious," Did€¦Did you notice that she only has three legs?"
The jovial, partying atmosphere was replaced with an awkward silence. The sounds of nervous, shuffling feet filled the garage. They looked away from the fawn, some of them embarrassed at what they had said earlier. There was a rift between us, and it was getting bigger.
My father ended the silence. He crossed the garage and placed his steady hand on my shoulder. In a voice now huskier than normal, he said simply, "You did the right thing."
There was pride in his voice, and some sadness as well. Somehow, he knew what I had been through that night, and he approved of what I had done. Moreover, I knew he would have done the same, as would my bowhunting partner Glen if he had faced the same choice. To say it is an honor to be able to hunt with both of them would be an understatement.
We fell in behind Dad as he made his way back into the house to enjoy a warm walleye dinner and warmer still friendship. We were whole again.
Mongo lived through the rifle season. Last year, I hunted that wily buck hard, getting within 15 yards of him on three separate occasions. But Mongo showed me why he is the King of the Forest when he gave me the slip each time. I guess it's the reason we hunters will always keep coming back for more.
There may be bigger deer in my future. Maybe one day, I'll get a clear shot at Mongo or one of his offspring. But for me, the deer of my lifetime was€¦just a fawn.