© 1995 by Steven Wagle
I covered her up, until you couldn't tell that a six year old lay in the blanket bundle in the snow. "Warm enough?", 15 minutes until shooting time. The minutes crawled by as I squinted to make out the cedars and brush piles dotting the meadow all the way down the hill to the road. I took a minute to adjust steph's blanket, my partner now fast asleep. After envying her sublime comfort at my feet for a minute and took up scanning the meadow again. Almost instantly, my gaze froze on a small rectangle of grey that had materialized against the pure white background about halfway down the hill. "Deer!" my brain screamed. The deer had evidently been staring at us for some time as I could barely make out a nervous tail twitch. I snicked off the safety of my rifle and brought the scope to bear, she was still there. With the rifle across my knees the hairs came to a relatively slow wobble across her chest and I began to press the trigger as they steadied on her shoulder. At the shot my heart sank as a plume of snow geysered up just over her back. In two bounds she disappeared over the rise. Silence gripped the meadow. It was over so fast I began to wonder if she had ever really been there. I scanned the meadow through the scope to get a bearing on just where she had been standing at the shot.
I looked down to find Steph sitting bolt upright, looking up into my face. Our eyes met. "Get it?", she chirped. "Don't think so, she ran off and I 'm pretty sure I missed her." "A mommy deer?", she asked, her voice not at all hiding her satisfaction that dad's shooting had been less than stellar. "Steph", I explained, "I have to go down there and check to be sure that I missed for sure, will you be alright if you stay here, you'll be able to see me the whole time." "Ok", she said, closing her eyes and drawing her blanket around her as she snuggled back down to catch another forty. It takes a lot to faze Steph. Even at 7:15 a.m. and 10 degrees.
A cursory search of the area revealed no obvious sign of a hit of any kind. I schlumped back up the hill to my once again slumbering daughter, "Zumbo and Boddington have nothing on this kid", I chuckled to myself, pleasantly amused at her complete adaptability to do what comes naturally, conditions be hanged. I elected to sit still for awhile to #1) allow steph to sleep a bit more and #2) allow the sun to get up a bit more so I could examine the deers escape path more thoroughly across the meadow to the wood line. Once the sun had begun to warm things up a bit and steph began stirring again, I took up the deer's escape trail for several hundred yds and determined that the deer was quite unharmed. I returned to the Hawthorn tree and steph began to resign my self to the fact that my second tag would go unfilled. I had blown my last minute chance, but it didn't hardly matter. I was out with my little girl, something I had waited for since she was born. She seemed to be having a ball and that made today the best hunt of the year.
By ten o'clock there had been no shots sounded from any of our party scattered around the farm and I was really starting to feel bad that I had evidently been the only one to get a shot so far. One of the guys in the group, Mike, had to leave by three so it was really getting down to crunch time. We would have to think of something fast. Across the road from the farm was a rolling piece of river bottom farmland that had large wood lots. It was decided that we would deploy a drive on the largest wood lot in hopes getting at least one of us some venison. It was decided Paul would take Art and post a quarter mile away at the edge of a 80 acre corn field. Mike, Art's son-in-law, and I would begin a push from a county road.
After giving the standers time to get into place, Mike and Steph and I and took up positions along the road about an eighth of a mile apart, Mike, being further down hill was sent in first with me taking my line at the top of the wood lot where it bordered a 300 acre public hunting area that was mostly meadow. The snow had crusted over and even though we wanted to take this drive very slowly, the footing make it doubly hard for Steph to keep up, even when following my footprints. But she dutifully plodded along. Her cheeks rosy in the brisk air. As I scanned the stands of ancient pin oaks for any flicker of movement ahead I would periodically hear her stumble and crash to the ground behind me and then flounder back to her feet. After it 20 minutes and 100 grueling yards she piped up. "Is it lunchtime yet?" she said wiping her runny nose on her sleeve. "Steph, when we get to the end of this we'll come back and get the car and go to Hardee's, OK?", I promised, "How are you doing?" fearful that I had started something her little legs could never finish. "I'm OK, how far is it?" How far it was indeed. It was already 11:00 am. It would take at least another hour to pick our way over the rolling ground ahead of us, strewn with slashings, blow downs and two dry creeks to cross. This was great whitetail country, but it was becoming very evident that to ask a six year old to struggle through a quarter mile of foot deep ice crusted snow and back in 15 degree temps was a bit above and beyond the call of being Daddy's little girl. Steph begin to tire noticeably at the first hill, game as she was. She could scarcely put a half dozen steps together before gravity and the snow, deeper than her knees, would cause her to totter over. We had barely made one third of the way point of our route when I decided that I knew a sinking sip when I saw one. Reasoning that even if we went only halfway into the woods we would surely move any deer hiding in the thickets and cedar groves across the top on to the end.
"Steph, If you can hang in there 'til we reach the top of that hill over there, we'll drop down to the jeep road and go get lunch, OK?" "I'm not cold, Dad", she said through chattering teeth, "I can make it." We slowly picked our way, stealing from oak to oak. If giving advice to someone on how slow to go when one still hunts whitetails, "Hunt as though there were a foot of snow on the ground and you have a heavily bundled six year old with you", would pretty much hit the nail on the head. We topped the hill of our goal and as it afforded a good view ahead as well as behind us, we took good pause before heading back to the car. Steph had just caught her breath when I caught sight of motion downhill from us. A deer!!! Pulling the classic whitetail escape ploy, this deer had lain low for our entire approach and had steeled herself against exposure until she could stand it no longer and was now scooting back the way we had come. If not for the snowy background I would not have seen her. "Steph! A deer." I whispered to her. "Where?!",she asked struggling to her feet from watching a small spider she had awoke from it's slumber under the bark of a large dead limb. "Freeze!!", I hissed, mostly for her safety, for this deer had our number. A kaleidoscope of tree limbs,a bobbing pennant of wispy tail, sky, and nimble legs whipping the snow filled my scope for a few brief moments. Then she was gone. "Touche', madam", I congratulated the doe under my breathe.
Now we faced a dilemma. One deer had, although outwitting us, shown itself. For the moment we watched silently in the direction she had come. Steph remained still and silent, quite a feat for any six year old but an undertaking of considerable scale for the freckle faced combination Broadway singer/circus acrobat on her hands and knees in the snow at the base of the oak tree I was leaning against when the deer appeared. She had been on enough scouting trips with me to know that where there is one deer there could be more and she watched the wood intently. "Did you see her, Steph?" "Oh yeah", she answered, matter of factly. The sight of game has never flustered her like it always does her old man. If she is able to maintain this trait through to her hunting days and can shoot even half as well as her mom, she will shame almost every hunter I know. As another deer was not now forthcoming, we had a tough choice. Go back now, as planned, or press on and complete a more effective drive and maybe get a snap shot at another deer escaping from it's bed on the ridge. "It's much easier going from here to the end Steph, do you think you can make it?" I was completely aware that if she did remain on her feet for the next few hundred yards I would surely have to carry her out. Her face sank. She was clearly played out. "We made it this far, hon', there may be other deer laying down along here." We had the wind and they would sit tight as the last one did, before circling out around us.
The sun had cut the chill of the morning so I unzipped her coat and put her scarf in my pack. We shared our last juice box which seemed to refresh us both. "Dad, I gotta potty", these were the words I knew would be coming and I was prepared. I helped her balance to keep her bottom out of the snow, hiding behind a tree, as her feminine dignity dictated even here in the middle of nowhere. "Better?" I asked, once again very glad to be a man as I helped her shivering, back into her snow pants. "Can you make it, snooky?, it's not too far" I asked. "How far?", she asked accusingly, I was after all the kook who had drug her out this far. It was a fair question. "About as far as we've come, another half our walk, I'll give you a piggy ride out when we're done". I heard myself say before I realized that she was a bit bigger than the last time she'd been on my shoulders. "Ok, that sounds like a good deal", she beamed back, "I'll hold your gun though, it'd be too much for you to carry with me on your back too". "Well, steph it won't make any difference.....", I stopped in mid sentence, the whole thing made just about as much sense as her askew physics and I knew we'd be back at the car before I could explain it to her. "Well thank you, sweetheart, that's very nice of you, but you know rifles are heavy and dangerous, so I'll just unload it and tote you both back, ok?" I could not let her honest generosity pass, "Here hon, could you take these now though", I passed her my compact binoculars," take care of these for me would you?"
We picked our way along the top of the ridge toward our rendezvous with the standers, Art and Paul. Squirrels scampered and chattered ahead of us in the warming sun. Chickadees and blue jays flitted from tree to tree looking for a morsel as the limbs shed their snowy cloak. After what I'm sure seemed an eternity to Steph, I spied the glow of Paul's fluorescent orange face mask through the trees. "We made it, Steph!!." Her face lit up, "Yaaay, Hardee's!!". "Well, we have to walk out yet, let's go get the guys and head to the road." Paul spotted us and motioned us over. "Anything?" I asked, posing the age old question of the day among deer hunters everywhere. "Not a thing, you?", came his sullen reply, it had been a long week for Paul, who had seen deer everyday but had yet to connect.
The crosshairs wavered on the doe's chest and then began to settle down as I waited for Paul'185s Marlin to speak. I glanced over to see him peering into his scope, I scanned back to the herd, "Geez Paul,...", I stopped not wanting to upset his aim. My eyes were now riveted on the back of the heard, where, still oblivious to us, where three bucks, each bigger than the one before, their antlers shining like burning phosphorous in the noon sun. I drew again on the largest buck still waiting for Paul to let fly. Just when I was about to play the rude host and ventilate the buck, a howitzer went off in my left ear, this was followed by, I believe, a blast from the USS New Jersey. The deer thought Paul was shooting at them and bolted, single file, except for the bucks who quickly over took half of the heard. Two of them proved beyond a doubt that chivalry is quite dead amongst the antlered crowd by dodging to the off side of the does, blocking any shot at them. The middle sized buck had, in three leaps, outstripped his buddies, but on our side of the herd. He had just stretched out into a greyhound sprint when I caught him in the scope. The crosshairs skidded past his long tines "Take your time, the shot will come!!" my ³little voice² groped for control . This was a lesson learned the hard way growing up hunting deer in the hills of northern Pennsylvania where, with apologies to the "I only shoot standing deer from a rest" crowd, one either learns to kill running deer or accumulates a nice collection of mint condition deer tags. The sight picture began to roll with the deer's stride and the crosshairs found their way out in front of his chest. At the shot the scope framed a sunlit plume of blood and hair erupting over the deer's back. The magnificent deer did not even stumble, if anything he then went into overdrive and disappeared with the rest of the herd over the fence and into the woods we had just emerged from. That was the bad news, the good news was they were headed right toward Art and Mike. Right on cue another fusillade opened up from over the rise that separated us. If I really had hit him and he was still going ,I was hoping one of those shots was putting him down.
"Well," I turned to Paul "hit anything?" "Don't think so, you?", he replied. "Did you see all of the deer, Steph?", I asked my daughter, standing dumbstruck for the first time since she learned to talk. "Yea, they were beautiful!", she beamed back. I motioned toward the field, "Let's check for sign, I don't see how we could've missed all of them." We headed for the spot where the deer entered the field and trailed the herd on their flight across the snow covered rows. Nothing. Not a hair. I kept looking back to our shooting position for reference and it seemed that we should've easily found signs of a hit. But there was nothing. Heeding another lesson learned the hard way, I called Steph to me and yelled to Paul, "I'm going to follow the tracks into the woods, maybe one of those guys got lucky and I can at least help them drag." It seemed my imagination had concocted the bullet impact I had see in my scope. "Must've been snow flying", I mused as one only can after missing what may be the biggest deer he will ever shoot at. A weak voice floated across the field, "I'll come too, that's at least in the direction of the road out". Paul's long season had just gotten alot longer. Steph wandered a few steps ahead and I was about to call her back lest her tracks cover small indication of a hit when she pointed at the ground and screeched "OOOh!! gross!!". "Steph, SShhhh!, please!". My eyes locked on the line of he outstretched arm.
Steph was pointing a mittened hand at several cut off stalks of corn that were positively dripping with with bright red blood. It was puddling at their bases and giving them a candy apple red paint job ala Lee Iacocca. "Paul, look!!, somebody hit something and it is not going very far!!". Within two steps of the initial splash it appeared that someone had taken a Halloween funhouse garden hose to the next 30 feet of corn rows. Crimson blotches covered the snow three and 4 rows wide in spots . "Try to stay out of it, hon' ", I cautioned, ever the father." My heart leapt, I dared not tell Paul what I thought we were trailing for fear of jinxing our turn of luck. "C'mon, it's got to be right over the fence here!!² He stuttered through his mask. We climbed the rusted old fence and hoisted Steph over. "Stay right behind us and if you see it, don't yell, Ok?", I whispered to Steph, barely able to contain my self. The blood trail had slowed but it only seemed small due to the initial torrent we had seen out in the open. The saplings here at the edge were splashed crimson thigh high at the deers passing. We side stepped in as if flushing a pheasant, 5 yards on either side of the trail. I was looking ahead to the downhill side figuring that's where the wounded deer would go. Our pace was quickening as we knew that our partners were over the next rise. "Watch your shooting, those guys are right up here." I cautioned both of us out loud. I was just starting to descend into the small draw ahead of me to climb the other side for a look when Paul's voice boomed out. "There! There it is, Steve, he's down!" A thick stand of slash blocked my view. "He?" my heart seemed to vapor lock. "C'mon steph!!" I yelled, ignoring my own 'inside voices only' rule. Steph was already dodging through the saplings ahead of me and may I say now in my defense that she being much smaller, had less tangles and sticky places to contend with.
Paul was covering the deer which lay on it's back, with his .444 Marlin, part of one antler showing. Nothing could have prepared me for what treasure lay under the deer's head in the sugary snow. I stumbled the last steps and commanded Steph, "Stay back!". I kicked the dear in the hindquarter and touched his eye with the end of my barrel. No one home. "Who hit it?" Paul wanted to know. "I shot at this deer, Paul, it got away so fast that I was beginning to think I'd missed, did you shoot at him too?" I was trying to let him down easy. "I never even saw the bucks, even after you called out.", came his sheepish answer. I grabbed an antler and rolled him over, revealing a .30 cal hole in his side. I fingered the wound and smiled at Paul "See?... if that was your cannon you could put two fingers in there!" His face dropped. My gaze quickly went to his rack in my hand. "Holy buckets Paul!! Look at this, what a deer!" I brushed the snow from a couple of pencil length tines and turned his head toward me. The sight sent me into orbit. All I remember of the next few minutes is scooping my daughter up in my arms and dancing, twirling through the trees laughing and shouting at the top of our voices. There are few perfect moments in life. "Steph, your unicorns did it, you're my good luck charm!!", I exclaimed to Steph as we embraced, so happy for each other to have shared this one.
I set her back into the snow her face lit with joy. We waltzed back over to the buck, to get a full dose of his splendor and savor beating all of the odds this one time. The bat boy had pinch- hit and won the series for the Cubs. "This is the biggest buck I have ever seen in the woods, Steph," I stammered, "great-grandpa hunted for 60 years and never got a shot a anything even close to this big!!". "Is he old?", she asked running her hands over his thick bases. "Yes, at least 4 or 5 I'd say", forgetting the kindergartener's concept of "old". "That's still little!", she shot back accusingly. "Are they like dogs, then? They get old fast?² her inquisitive nature had spared me on this one. "Faster, much faster." was all I could add. And he was a great old deer, starting to go thin along his hips and spine, he was not plump like the dry doe I had gotten on opening morning the previous season. For all of the wild perfection he embodied, you had to run your hands over his hide to feel and understand the price of being king of the river bottom. The great deer had probably been dead within 20 seconds of being struck by the 180 grain Core-Lokt bullet. A search of the cornfield turned up a clipped patch of hair that we'd missed, wind blown tight against a cornstalk some 5 yards before the spot where Steph, again having the advantage of being lower to the ground, was the first to spot the blood trail. From where we found the hair to where the deer lay was 75 yards at most.