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Friday, August 05, 2005

Phil -- First Afternoon

I had a look at the map when I got back, and figured out a way to go directly from camp to my stand, the one that Walt had shown me. It wasn’t too far of a walk, maybe a half mile at the most. A gully came in to the main creek, and left a standing pool of water. The tracks indicated that at least several deer preferred the water from this pool over the main creek.

I had a lightweight strap-on stand up in an oak tree overlooking the pool. It was on a small bluff, maybe 15 feet up from the bank, that just added to the height of my stand, so I ended up close to thirty feet from the level of the creek. I roped up my bow up and settled in and tried my best not to sweat.

This hunt seemed somewhat jumbled. It was a mix of seasons. It had been so warm that some of the leaves still had not left the trees. It had been dry too. On the other hand, the woods looked generally open. It was hard to categorize, and I was not sure what to expect.

I had not been up in my tree long when a doe came from down the creek trotting my way. I nocked up an arrow and stood up, but she stayed about sixty yards out and kept going. About a half hour later, I got horribly fooled by a pair of squirrels rooting around under the leaves. It took forever for them to show themselves, and I kept waiting for something large to appear. The wind rose steadily all afternoon, and the stand moved about quite a bit. It took a while to settle in for the long wait.

I had no idea I was dozing off until I woke up suddenly. I was still in my seat. My bow was hanging from its holder. It was getting dark. I looked at my watch and saw that I had been on my stand for less than an hour. Sunset was quite a ways away. The afternoon had grown still. There was a bit of dark cloud that I could see out to the north, but I was too far down to see much else. It all just added to the jumble.

Another half hour went by and then I saw a nice fat doe come out of the cedars behind me and start making her way down to the pool. I think she had some idea I was around, but she did not worry about it much. She kept her nose up, as if she had been given a wiff of something. It took her a while to get into range, and then even longer for her to turn broadside. By the time she was at the pool, she was nearly beneath me, with some of the under story blocking a shot. I got in a good position while she took her drink. When she was done, she turned and walked directly away from me, quartering slightly towards me on her left side. I drew and shot. She ran off upstream about twenty yards, stopped, walked back and peeked out from behind a bush. She stared at my arrow, sticking out of the ground, and then took off. She didn’t snort.

I was of a mind to get down immediately, but chose to stay for a half an hour. I was fairly sure I had missed, but I didn’t want to disturb things any further. When I did climb down, I was met with a puzzle. The broad head was buried in the dirt, and there was no sign of blood on the arrow. I was left to conclude, after considerable searching, that I must have just barely passed the arrow under her chest. When I found no blood near the bush, I wrote it off.

There I was, down on all fours, not paying much attention to anything except the vague possibility of a drop of blood on the leaves. When I gave up, I slapped the ground and sat back on my heels.

Ooops. The sky had grown very dark and there was a yellowish cast to everything. I suddenly realized this was not a dry front coming through and something deep within me resented Walt Cooper, but I could not figure out why. I stuck the arrow back in my quiver and went back to gather up my gear. As I reached the tree, a tremendous whoosh of wind hit, and I knew the walk home was going to be a close-run thing.

It was not until I had left the woods close to the creek and headed out into an open field that I really got a view of the approaching storm. It was an awesome darkness coming. If I had not had that far to walk, I would have just stayed there and watched. It seemed a shame to put my head down and keep going. There was a foot trail across the pasture that I found and it took me into a large oak flat. Instead of going back the way I came, I tried angling for an ATV track I had seen on the map. I figured it would be easier to follow in the rain and the darkness. It did not take me long to realize I needed more light, and I broke out my headlamp.

The oaks were fairly close together, so the ground cover was sparse. They ranged in size from young to incredibly old. In some cases, old white oaks with trunks as wide as a car sent their branches sweeping towards the ground. Some had names I had seen on the map, but could not remember. It was an eerie world, especially when lightning began flashing, and distant rumbles of thunder started.

On the edge of the oaks, the track cut across, and I had nearly walked past it when I caught a glimpse of bare dirt. I turned around and began to follow it. Much to my surprise, I saw a flash of a headlight, and a soon a red Polaris was pulling up beside me. It was Walt Cooper.

“Damn fool.” I said. “Out riding in the storm.”

“Damn fool” he replied, “Out walking in the storm! Come on!” I hopped on back and off we rode. “I figured you’d be out this way, but you’re lucky. I was going to go a different way. ”

“We may make it back before it rains.” I replied. “This went just right.” I was wrong, but not too wrong. We started to hear the rain in the leaves just before we broke out into another field. We would get a second or two of rain, and the occasional large monster droplet, and then a wind gust would blow dry for a bit. Walt gunned it when we hit the gravel road and roared into camp a bit hotter than I would expect for an old guy. He had me get off at the house, and he went on to the tractor shed. I turned around just in time to see a solid wall of water coming over the top of the ridge. Walt passed me up on the way to the porch, running.

“Durn, fool!” he said, slapping me on the back. “You’re gonna drown like a turkey if you keep your mouth open like that.”

The cloudburst hit about a second or two before we got under the porch. We got wet, but we weren’t soaked. I stood there, looking out.

“Any luck?” Walt asked, handing me another cup of solvent like the night before.

“I got a shot at a doe.” I replied, “But I muffed it.” I stuck my nose in the cup.

“It’s scotch.” He said.

“Oh.” I replied. “I’ve never had scotch before.”

“That’s okay.” Walt said. “I’ll tell the jokes slower.”

We found a seat on the porch and watched for a while. The rain was coming down as hard as I had ever seen it. The lightning was close and bright. The thunder shook the decking. I downed my drink and about that time the wind changed and started blowing the rain under the porch. Everyone made a scramble for the door, and we filed inside.

“Thanks for the drink,” I said to Walt. “And thanks again for the ride.”

“No problem.” He said.

“When this rain lets up, I’ll buy you a steak.” I said.

“Why wait?” he said. “You can buy me one now.” He took me out on the porch and showed me a stone grill built under the roof of the screen porch. Someone had rolled down a couple of awnings to keep out the rain, and someone else had built a good fire. Walt poured me another scotch, and I went to the fridge and pulled out the two steaks I had. Someone had a load of corn roasting. Someone brought out a bag of spuds and threw them in the oven. Occasionally the wind would swirl, and the smoke would fill the porch, but for the most part it was a perfect scene. We sat on the whitewashed picnic tables and watched the storm.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Walt -- At the Woodward Farm

The Woodward place has always been one of my favorite places to hunt. There is a ridge south of camp, and a fairly steep climb up to the top. When you get to the top there is not much there. A clump of trees conceals the foundation and chimney of the house. Another clump of trees hides what is left of the barn. All of this sits in the corner of a small L-shaped pasture. A bit south, along one arm of the L is a narrowing of the pasture, where the forest has grown out into a peninsula and the woods on the other side has grown out a bit to join it. The center of the peninsula contains the Woodward Family cemetery. Across from the peninsula and a bit of a ways in is where I keep a ladder stand.

Today, however, I was thinking of taking a stand in one of the apple trees adjoining the island at the farmhouse. My goal was to give myself ample time to see any sort of storm coming up. The apple trees would be dropping their apples. I could get a good shot at anything coming up to feed. I could also keep an eye on the sky.

I borrowed an ATV from one of McKays, who weren’t going out. It was a nice little red Polaris. I was out on the porch when Phil came back from a trip into town. He said he was going back out in a while, and I told him to keep an eye on the weather. He said something about it being dry front that was coming through.

The road up to the farm had been cut ages ago—remarkably steep. It had also required quite a bit of work to cut into the hillside. This was a bit of a puzzle until you realized that this was also the way to the limestone quarry. In an earlier time, the Woodwards would have driven their team through the woods and out onto the Port Simmons road that ran along the southern boundary of the Association’s land. When I’d been younger, this had just been a just a good stiff hike. Nowadays, I was glad to have wheels under me on the way up. There were a few brief views of the camp through the trees, and a couple more great views of the Beaver Creek before I busted out on top and out into the open pasture. I pulled the quad over to the side and walked the rest of the way.

The stand in the apple tree was a three-sided affair. The platform floated on 2X4’s nailed between three large limbs. Only one screw-in step had been necessary to get from the ground to the blind. The rest was all just knowing which foot to put where. I hoisted my bow up and sat down. Before me was a grand view of the Beaver Creek, the woods that held the camp, and the knobs and hills that rose up from our little plateau and started into the mountains beyond.

In the other direction, the clouds were gathering rapidly. Since mid-morning I had been smelling the Gulf, as moist air came up from the South. Since lunchtime it had been uncommonly warm and muggy. Now I was watching that moisture start to rise, and the wind built at my back, sucking into the clouds that were forming. Dry front indeed. Maybe he meant “dryline” instead. Oh well. It felt good to see one last August thunderstorm, even if this was mid-October.

I really was not expecting any deer. I figured the wind would keep them down. I wasn’t too worried about that. I might get somebody trying to sneak a quick bite before the rain hit. We would see.

Afternoon melted into late afternoon. It felt good being up in this old stand. I had hunted in its predecessors since my first trip to camp. A part of me was still clutching that old Marlin through red woolen mittens. I could still feel the red plaid wool coat weighing on my shoulders and the cold wind on my face that drove the occasional stinging wet snowflake into my ear. The cedars that had hid him were now grown full and beyond, but I could still make out the two conjoined pillars in front of me. He had just appeared. I had been looking right at that spot, and one moment there had only been two small cedars, and in the next there had been a buck standing in front of them. He had stopped to look over his shoulder, before moving out into the pasture. I went to take off my right mitten and it had fallen between my legs and off onto the ground. The buck saw it and at that moment, I had died. Maybe he thought it was a leaf. I don’t know, but when he turned towards me and began to walk towards the tree, I knew what the Grace of God felt like and I knew there was a Resurrection. When he began to angle away from me, I had been graced with a perfect broadside shot. I brought the gun up, pulled the hammer back The click of the hammer made him stop. In my life, I had never been so sure of myself as when the front post of that Marlin settled on that buck’s ribcage. The expanse of hide had seemed enormous.

The gun went off by itself. I had not consciously begun to pull the trigger. The buck put his head down and ran out into the pasture and piled up, his antlers catching on the brush. He rose once, and I realized that I had not reloaded. I took my eyes off him for a second to work the action, and then tried to thumb the hammer again; I had forgotten that the Marlin re-cocked itself. By the time I looked back up he was gone, and I cried because I had failed.

A few minutes later, Dad and Grandpa had shown up on the road. Dad said they had heard my shot, and come to check on me. By this time, I had been weeping uncontrollably and hiding it was not an option. However, Dad and Gramps paid no attention to my grief and started congratulating me. They took me out in the field and the buck was there, dead as sin. He had not taken another step, but rather fallen down in the tall grass and been hidden. They said they had seen it when they came up. At the sight of the buck I fell to my knees. Gramps had my rifle by then, and was in the process of unloading it. Dad helped me up, and I fell against him and hugged him deeper than I ever had before. For once, his massive frame yielded, and I seemed to fall into him, and I felt swallowed and held at the same time. It was the only time in my life I knew us to hug each other like that. We hugged often, before and after, but buried in his field coat that morning was a singular moment. It was a good solid eight-pointer.

It was all gone. Dad and Grandpa were both gone. The treestand had rotted away and been replaced twice over. Dad had gotten the buck mounted, and it hung in my bedroom at home until the house was sold. It was now in my den, but the luster was gone from the hide, and it looked sickly next to my other trophies. All that was left was smell of Dad’s coat in my nose and the feeling of his chest giving way and my head sinking in all the way to his very core.

It had occurred to me the year after Dad died, that he and Grandpa had probably driven the buck towards me. They had been the ones who had put me in the stand that morning, and then taken off up the east leg of the pasture in the dark. I had been sitting in this very stand when I all the air had suddenly left the pasture, and I had realized that the whole thing had been planned, and I had been set up. For a brief moment I was suffocated by that thought, and then the grip on my lungs had released. It had been a good hunt; the buck had died fairly. Where was the fault? It had gripped me a second time, when I realized that I had not had realized this twist until too late and both men were dead. Now, even that pain had started to lift from me. I scratched my bristling chin, and realized I was just growing old.

“Wruuunh!”

Busted. I had not been paying attention. The light had begun to fade. Two doe were out in the pasture, and had caught my scent. There was not a whole lot I could have done about it, even if I had been aware, but the movement of my hand to my face had tipped one of them off. One doe was looking my way, giving me the evil eye. She stamped once. The other doe, a younger daughter, came up and tried to see what she saw. Both stood still and judged me ruthlessly. I kept still and tried to empty my mind. I looked away focused on the clouds behind them. After a minute or so, they gave up and went back to feeding.

Twice in a day—I mentally patted myself on the back. It was a good day for an old fart like me when I could make contact with deer twice over. This one was going to be hard, however. I was going have to turn myself considerably if I was going to get to draw down on them. I carefully eased one foot around the bucket I was using for a seat and the other slid out looking for a grip on the plywood to turn. The deer fed quickly and moved on, long before I could get all the way around.

Pulled back to reality, I checked my watch. The sun was already set, and I had about fifteen minutes of usable light before my old eyes stopped being able to see deer and pins at the same time. When the two does disappeared into a fold in the pasture, I finished my turn and looked up at the sky. The clouds were now piling up, and all that was left was a thin margin of lit sky off in the East, just as it had been when Dad and Gramps had left me that morning.

“You stay up here and keep an eye out.” Dad had said. “We’ll come get you for lunch.”

“Don’t go scootin’ off anywhere.” added Gramps. “I don’t want you getting shot.” They had then shouldered their rifles and marched off into the pasture. They too had been lost in a fold of the Earth and disappeared. I wished them all a good evening. There was now utter darkness flowing in the northwest. Black folded into leaden and back into a grey as it all boiled. I realized that what was left of the light had gone yellow, and in that instant, the first flash of lightning hit, and the first rush of real wind turned the late silver maple leaves inside out and bowed the cedars. I knew it was time to leave.

I lit the flashlight as soon as I was at the base of the tree. I wanted off the ridge top, and back to bottoms as quick as I could. The wind was rising now. I stowed my bow on the quad and mounted it. I turned the ignition and another bright flash lit up the sky. I jerked back as if I’d been shocked, as the ATV went from grey to blazing red. It was just a coincidence, however. The flash had happened at just the right time. I heard the engine running, and I was shifting it into gear as the thunder started to roll.

It was a wild ride. I rode down this heaving tunnel of darkness as the lightning flashed and the wind corkscrewed the trees and their overhanging limbs. The headlight fell into nothingness, and it seemed like an eternity before I hit the bottom of the hill. I turned off the road, cleared the creek and twisted its tail through the bottom pasture that led back to the camp. Out in the open I got one brief spattering of rain, but it was like someone had thrown a single bucket of water somewhere on high. I rode up onto the parking apron and got the quad parked in the tractor shed.

I was up on the porch with my bow and my bag before I really took stock of things.

“How’d it go?” asked someone. It was dark, and I did not see who it was.

“Oh, just fine.” I said. “I had a couple of doe come in, but that was about it.” I hung my bow up on a peg in the roof.

“Looks like we’re having some weather.” He said.

“Yep.” I answered. “Everyone in?” I did not pay attention to what he was saying. Down from the top of the ridge, I was no longer able to see the approaching weather. The camp was down in the hollow, up against a hillside. Storms from the North and West would decend on us quickly. I moved off the porch and out into the yard to strip off my coveralls.

“ I said you and Phil Williams were the only ones out! You listening, Walt?”

“Huh? Oh.” I replied. “Phil back?”

“No.”

“So much for a dry front.”

“What?”

“Nevermind.” I replied. “Where did he go?”

“He said he’d put up a stand somewhere south of the beaver pond.”

“Okay.” I replied. “I know where that is.”

Monday, August 01, 2005

Phil -- What's going on here?

I guess I was pressing Walt for too much detail. I didn’t know if it was just a sore subject or what. Anyhow, he stopped answering, and started talking about the weather. I got the idea I shouldn’t get in his face any more than I had. Walt finally asked if I was going hunting. I said I had to go into town. He left. I left. That was it. I went back inside and asked around if there was anything that needed to be picked up. Most everyone was set. Since folks were still showing up, the camp was still on what they called YOYO mode ( You’re On Your Own). That meant that the big feasts that were in store were still on the horizon.

The closest store I knew was the Sand Hill Market a little further up the highway. I'd been using it on and off for a few years. It was weird that I'd been hunting so close to the camp and had never seen the unmarked driveway. It had gas and a grocery and a fairly good meat counter. It was a bit beyond the usual places you find near a big campground, and the prices were better. The old lady at the check-out recognized me.

“Did you find everything, Sweet Pea?” she said.

“Pretty much.” I replied. “Have you got any steaks? I didn’t see any in the case.”

“Fred!” she cried out. “We need some steaks!”

A distant TV had its sound squelched and a bit later, I felt the floor boards shift as Fred, the butcher, shuffled out and ripped open the cooler. He was a mountainous man with an ill-fitting head. It just did not seem to match the rest of him.

“Does he want sirloins, porterhouses, or what?” Fred yelled.

“I’ll take a couple nice sirloins.” I said.

“Sirloins.” I replied, and then I repeated it louder for Fred. I walked back to the meat case.

“How thick does he want them?” Fred yelled.

“I’ll take them an inch thick.” I said, finally making contact with Fred on my own.

“So,” said Fred. “You’re not all in yet?”

“What?” I asked.

“You’re all still just arriving.” Fred said. “ At camp I mean.”

“Uh, yes.” I said. “At camp? You mean Beaver Dam?”

“Of course.” said Fred. “ You’re Buck William’s kid. Aren’t you? I seen ya’ before.”

“Grandson.”

“Oh, yeah.” Fred said dismissively. “You all having any luck down there?”

“I didn’t hear of anyone getting one.” I said.

“Probably won’t.” said Fred. “It’s still hot. You need to get a cold snap in here, before those bucks start moving. That’s what they used to tell me.”

“You hunted at Beaver Dam?” I asked.

“Nah.” Fred said. “I just been getting the reports from you guys for years. Everyone that comes in here wants to know how Beaver Dam’s doing. You bring me your deer, and I’ll get them done for you. Big ones will run you fifty and I do a small doe for forty-five. I charge an extra ten if you’re in a hurry, and want in the front ‘o the line.”

“That’s great.” I said.

“Taxidermy too.” said Fred. “My brother-in-law does a good job.”

The steaks I got were probably more like inch-and-a-quarter—two monstrous pieces of meat. I had him individually wrap them. Fred seemed like a good man. The lady rang me up and hardly took her eyes off me.

“I’m sorry.” I said. “Is there something wrong?”

“It’s nothing, Sweat Pea.” She said. “It’s just a good thing seeing you.”

“I have to ask this.” I said. “How did you know I was connected with the Camp?”

“Oh, darling” she laughed. “ We’ve been waiting a long time. We all have.”

“But I’ve been coming in here for years.” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “And we’ve all been waiting. It’s just good to see you.”

After the third iteration, I realized I was not going to get any more out of this interaction. I thanked the couple. Fred waved a big ham at me and beamed. I felt like a son going off to the prom.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “One other thing. Have you heard a weather report?”

“Dry front,” said Fred. “We’ll get some wind tonight and then the temperatures are going to drop a couple of degrees. Shame. We need some rain.”

Friday, July 29, 2005

Walt --- A History Lesson

“You sure press hard,” I said.

“I’m sorry. This has been bugging me.” Phil replied.

“Okay, “ I replied, “Let me show you a few things.” I got up off the porch and motioned him to come. My first stop was what was left of Strickland’s Folly. It was a pile of old building material that we’d hauled out into the woods just out of sight of the house. It was a few stud walls, with shreds of this and that.

“This is sort of what started it all.” I said. “We had a guy come in here back in the early Sixties. I’m not really sure how he got in. It was a guy named Paul Strickland. Anyhow, he and your Dad and your Grandfather never saw eye to eye. Paul fancied himself an entrepreneur, and was always on the Williams and the Coopers to take this place public. When that didn’t work, he sort of co-opted the whole thing and started building out here. I guess he figured if he made enough improvements he could get the rest of the Association to go along with his plans. He built a shed. He built a bunkhouse. Finally he started building this big addition to the main building. The problem was that first off it was sort of a screwy back handed way of taking over, second it was all done in the off season when no one was here, and third, it was really shoddy, and it started falling apart as soon as it was put up.”

I saw Phil nodding, but I hadn’t really gotten into the meat yet.

“To make matters worse,” I continued, “You had Ernie Schnurman, the guy who was watching the place for us-- Paul roped him into helping. Ernie was never the brightest bulb in the pack. Paul also was running out of money, trying to finance this all himself, and he got himself a bunch of fiberboard siding. We all show up for Opening Week, and here’s this huge ugly addition on the building with the Strickland Family moved in. Mona Strickland’s re-decorated in all sorts of gawd-awful ways, and gone and painted some of the interior walls bright yellow.

“Oh, we had bodies everywhere that weekend. Those were exciting times. You’ve never seen such a mess. Your Grandpa had a heart attack right in the middle of it all and they carted him off in a meat wagon.”

“He didn’t die.” Phil said. “I know that.”

“No,” I replied. “He eventually got back on his feet. But, I’ll tell you that this place wasn’t the same after that. “

“I can imagine.” Phil said.

“No,” I said. “I don’t think you can, but it was enough to make your Dad want to never come back. Anyhow, after Paul Strickland died, the big addition he put on started to fall apart immediately. That fiberboard was just like cardboard. Within two years, all we could do was tear off what was left and patch up the big hole in the wall. The Stricklands never came back, and we sent Mona back the membership bond. At first, we painted over the yellow, and then later we paid someone to come in and sandblast it all off the logs and we revarnished them. I remember my Dad calling up yours to invite him to the grand re-opening party. He didn’t come. He paid his dues every year, but he never came back. Your Grandpa and Grandma came. They dropped in and blessed it, and then went back home, and we never saw your Grandpa again.”

“Grandpa died back in 1980.” Phil said.

“He was a grand old man, your Grandpa.” I said. “I still see him at the campfire now and again. “For a little while, I just sat there thinking about that. “It’s funny,” I said, “It’s been thirty years, but this is just like that weekend. The weather was kind of muggy and weird like this. I suspect we’re going to get the same kind of weather too.”

“What kind of weather is that?”

“Thunderstorms.” I replied. “Sort of fitting too—you coming back and all.”

Phil -- Walt, what's up?

“ . . . so then Walt leans rolls down the car window and says to the deer ‘ Honey, if you come by my place next week, I’ll have you in for dinner.’”

Several of the guys laughed at this, and then everyone turned and noticed me. The storyteller turned around and motioned to me.

“So Phil, “he said. “I hear you and your hunting buddy ran into a deer that wouldn’t back down.”

“I wasn’t around.” I replied. “He said it happened before I got there.”

“I was telling the guys.” He went on.” Walt has been talking to the deer all his life. This was when I was still in High School, and Walt chaperoned us going into town. We all thought he was nuts. This guy can really talk to them.”

“It’s not what you say,” said Walt, coming into the room suddenly. “It’s just how you say it. You could be reading them baseball scores, and they’d do the same. It’s just that if you’re friendly and conversational with them, they tend not to spook. “. He just passed through, grabbed a soda in the kitchen and went outside to sit on the porch.

“Yep,” said one guy. “That’s Walt for you.”

I wandered out onto the porch and sat down.

“Walt, “ I started. “You’ve got a beautiful place here.”

“No,” said Walt “You’ve got a beautiful place here. This is as much yours as anyone else's. Don’t think of yourself as a guest.“

“I guess I understand.” I replied. “I still don’t get how come my family pulled out. I found out Dad kept paying his dues.”

“It was a long time ago.” Walt said. “Maybe you should talk to your Dad.”

“Do you know?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied Walt. “I was around for what happened. I was in my twenties.”

“And?” I pressed. Walt turned away and looked out into the woods.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Phil -- First Hunt

I really did not know where I was going, but Walt Cooper had said that if I stayed on one face of the ridge it would take me around to the top of the hollow and then I could walk down and meet him at the pond. That sounded easy enough. After Walt left me, I just turned off my light and sat on a stump, and waited for the light to come up. A little after I sat down, something came towards me in the dark. It was incredibly noisy in the leaves. Finally I switched on my light. It was a family of raccoons. The big old sow looked into the light, and then made a big circle around me and kept going.

There was an old logging road cut about halfway up the hillside. It was all overgrown, but to either side the trees had matured and blocked the ground cover. I tried stalking for a little while, and realized I was not going to get very far. I put the arrow back in the quiver and headed on. This logging road looked like it was a good spot for bedding, and eating as well. Amongst the young maples were paw-paw and a host of other tasty trees and bushes. Hunting it would be hard, because it was so long and narrow. I would have to find an intersection with something else.

As I worked my way up the hollow, the sides became steeper, and the road became less and less choked. Eventually, I was on a bare gravel path with many breaks in it from eroding gullies. The overall effect was that I was gaining altitude over the creek bottom. The creek was now well below me, and I had a terrific view of the bottom.

There was sign here and there—nothing to really pinpoint the deer’s movements through the woods – until I came to a break. Stretching out before me was now a wide open bottom, partially shrouded in fog. The sun was just about to peak up over the opposing ridgeline, so I found a log and sat. The show was awesome. Mercury was just barely visible. Next, there was one of the oldest moons I had ever seen, a bare sliver on the sky. There was Orion. In all to short a time, all of this became washed out as the sunlight gathered, and the sun rose over the ridge. The maples had not yet fully shed their leaves, and when the sun hit them, it turned into a golden carpet as far as the eye could see, and from what Walt had told me, it was all the property of the Association.

For some there is an instant, a bare realization, when all of one’s life seems to focus and a man realizes that this is the day. From that point on, a man never feels cheated. He has had that one moment and it makes all of life’s trials past and future worthwhile. This was my morning. I watched the sun march down the ridge and then it struck my face.

I could not believe my father had forsaken this. I could not fathom why he had turned his back on this land and the camp. If I could come to this spot every day for the rest of my life it would not be wasted.

. . . and then I realized that I’d been sitting there thinking and looking down at my feet and I had not been paying attention. The sun went behind a cloud and it was all gone. It was still beautiful, but the epiphany was over.

I started glassing the bottoms and immediately saw a small mixed herd, making their way through the open grass below and to my right. It looked like mostly does. After nothing else showed up, I found my way down the bank and started tracing my way back to the pond. On the way back I spent a lot of time combing the stream bank for crossings and then following them back and forth, looking for a good ambush site. By the time the stream started holding water, I had at least a couple good sites in mind. I found Walt at the far end of the pond walking about and obviously not hunting.

He described an incident with a crazy buck that hadn’t spooked. He had me pick up my stand and we went downstream a ways. In short order I had a stand up over an intersecting stream that held a pool of water. There were trails coming from all directions converging on this pool. There were a lot of tracks in the sand and on the banks to either side. Some of the tracks were big.

When we went in for lunch, I grabbed my other stand and went back looking for the other place I had seen upstream of the beaver pond. By Two , I was done. I ate a snack back at the log where I’d seen the sunrise. It was starting to really cloud up. On the way back to camp, I found a shortcut from the camp to the logging road that had been cut by an ATV, and I followed it back. Along the way, I passed one active treestand and several old wrecks. One looked almost good enough to use, but the 2X4 that was the bottom rung of the ladder was rotten and came off. That was enough for me. I thought about just calling it quits for the day and settling in. I still had to go into town and get a few things.

Walt-- Showdown at the pond

I woke up way too early and found myself sitting alone in the dining hall, killing time before I headed out for the beaver pond. Phil Williams showed up and grabbed a quick bite before suiting up to leave.

“I thought I’d get out and do some scouting this morning.” He said.

I put him on to a few places by showing him on the big map. I also showed him the stand locations that were probably going to be used by the guys already here.

“Duff usually heads over this way.” I said. “I was floating around before you guys showed up, but I may hit the beaver pond this morning and then scout this face of the ridge before coming back for lunch. If you drop by the pond around eleven, I can show you a few spots.”

“I’d like that,” said Phil.”I brought a couple of stands.”

“The beaver pond is a good spot to leave one.” I said. “Walk out with me, leave the stand, and then it will be there when you come back from scouting.

That was how we left it. Phil grabbed a metal hang-on stand and a bag of screw-in steps and his bow and we headed off towards the pond. Fifty yards before the pond, I stopped and showed him a good spot to break off and start scouting. He left the stand propped against a tree and I continued on. Phil sat on a stump and waited for the light.

I settled in at the pond and watched the morning slowly appear. This was not a real good stand for watching sunrises or sunset. It was nestled in a bottom between two ridges. Instead, the light was slow to come and quick to leave. I liked that it meant the deer could linger longer in the morning and come earlier in the evening. It did not take long for the pond to start coming alive after the sky started to brighten. I heard Phil take off, but never saw him.

It had been dry for several weeks, so there were not many places to water. At the far end of the pond, a fox came out and wiggled through the cattails. In the gloom, I could not tell if it was a red or a grey. A momma coon followed shortly thereafter, with two noisy young in tow. The wood ducks left, a couple of mallards came in. The beavers came out of their den, and the squirrels started making a serious ruckus.

At exactly eight thirty, I spied a doe that came from out of the cedars across the pond and carelessly stood in the water and drank her fill before wandering off. It was probably a forty or fifty yard shot—maybe thirty-five at her closest approach. However, the intervening cover of cattails made it impossible. She had nearly left when she looked over her shoulder and stamped. At first I could not figure out how she had winded me. Then a funny feeling hit me on the back of the neck, and I knew why she had been looking my way.

The bunker was good cover on three sides and open to the rear. I had put up a stool in one corner, and my attention had been kept along the length of the bunker and over the pond. That had left my left side open to the woods. Something was looking at that vast open expanse of camo. It honestly hurts to try and send your eyes that far into their corners. I took shallow breaths and slowly moved my head. There, beyond the corner of my glasses, stood a buck. He was not very big, and he had a spindly rack of seven points that was quite uneven. He was about 20 feet away, and totally unaware of my presence. He was focused on the doe.

I thought about trying a snap shot on the buck, but decided it was not worth risking. As things developed I might try to take him, but my guess was they would not. The buck was smitten with the doe. The doe seemed quite perturbed by his presence. The buck lowered his head and stepped towards the doe, for a moment passing behind a cedar tree and letting me turn a bit on my seat. I brought myself to half draw and began angling for a opening. In another step, the buck was now past me and in the open. I came to full draw and held, while I tried to figure out how to get an extra six inches of height to shoot over the side of the bunker. By shifting my weight and moving one leg, I figured I could become semi-erect. It would not be a classic posture, but I could probably get a shot.

I looked over at the doe, who was still unaware of me. I made my move and at the same time came to full draw. I held on a spot between two saplings where I expected the buck’s foreleg to appear next. It did.

I now was in the unlikely position of having two deer, one buck and one doe, in shooting range. Both were now presenting me shots, and both seemed absorbed in each other as if I really did not matter. To make matters worse, I really did not need or want either deer.

“You know, “ I began, as I let down my bow and sat back down. “You guys really need to get your priorities straight. I’ve been counting coup on both you, and you seem utterly oblivious.”

The doe was smart and made a beeline out of there. The buck, on the other hand, turned toward me and eyed me.

“Is there a problem here?” I asked. “I just gave you a pass, brother. I suggest you take it.”

Now you have to understand that I have been talking to deer most of my life. Some deer run, some deer just stand and let you ramble on for a while. This one gave me a look I did not like. To make matters worse, I realized I was in the corner of the bunker and I had no way to get out.

“Shoo! You four-legged bastard!” I yelled. I drew myself up to my full height and made myself as big as possible. The buck bolted and withdrew about ten yards and then stopped again.

“You heard me.” I said. “Vamos!” That convinced him and he trotted off after the doe.

Another small doe came by a couple of hours later. She did not drink at the pond, but rather moved through hurriedly. Five minutes later Phil showed up. I was still trying to make sense of my morning.

“Interrupt anything?” Phil asked.

“I’m hunting from a treestand from here on out.” I said.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Phil -- Settling In.

Originally Posted - 03/22/2005 : 14:21:28

Things around the campfire went well. I was still surprised at the welcome I was getting. One guy named Jack-something told me it was like having the return of the lost dolphin-- whatever that meant. Another guy, one of the first that met me darn near fell of his stump. I couldn't tell if he was just really lit, or if he'd just seen a ghost. I had a bunch of questions for everyone. Finally somebody offered to show me to a bed and gave me a quick rundown on the facilities.

I got to see the bathrooms, the kitchen, the shed with the freezers and the fridge. I had plenty of ice in the cooler, so I stowed it in the floor of the shed and decided I'd unload it in the morning. Nobody had yet claimed any beds in the loft, and I liked the thought of an upstairs bed. I had a duffle bag and a rifle case. The guy that was helping me, asked if I wanted to leave the rifle down on the rack.

"Sure," I said. "Point the way." I was not expecting the response. I opened the case on my rifles. I'd brought my Marlin in 35 Remington, and I'd also brought along a rifle my Dad gave me when I first started hunting. I reached to put the Marlin up on the rack and looked back. The guy had his jaw hanging open, and he looked dazed.

"Is that?" He stammered. "Is that what I think that is?"

"I dunno." I said. "What do you think that is?"

"That's a Savage, right?"

"Yes."

"What's it shoot?"

"Three-oh-Three." I said. "It's kind of an oddball gun, isn't it? It looks like an Enfield had sex with a Savage and they didn't know how to finish the job." That was a line I'd gotten from a gun shop owner a few years ago, and it was funny. It really did look that way. From the action back to the buttstock it looked like a standard Savage 99. However, it had an inletted full stock, and a muzzle that looked like an Enfield Mk I. The guy had offered me a couple of hundred for it at the time, but I turned him down. Dad had said it had been in the family.

"Three-oh-three Savage," he said. "Right?"

"Guess so." I said. "I had a heck of a time finding ammo. Everyone wanted to sell me three-oh-three British. Shoots good though."

"Wait right there." said the guy. He was gone for a minute or two. I had a silicone rag and I polished off both rifles and put them on this huge gun rack. I put the case on the table, and figured I'd return it to the truck in the morning. Pretty soon, the guy was back with three other guys I'd met at the fire.

"Can we see it?"

"Sure." I pulled the rifle off the rack, opened the action and handed it to him. He gingerly laid it on the table.
Everyone circled the rifle and the room went very quiet. It was as if a holy relic had been brought into the room.

"What's the big deal?" I asked.

"This is your deer rifle?" somone asked.

"My backup gun." I replied. "It's hard to find ammo anymore, so mostly I shoot the Marlin."

"I'll be danged!" said someone.

"What's going on?" I said again.

"I'll show you what's going on." said a fellow I remembered from the funeral. "Come here. I'll show you what's going on." He walked over to the opposing wall and lifted his glasses and peered close at a picture on the wall. "There, this is it. Come here, and I'll show you what's going on."

I went over to the wall, and there was a picture of an old guy sitting on the porch of a large Victorian house. There was a set of antlers hanging from the front of the porch. Two younger men were sitting beside him. The younger men had pump shotguns in their lap. The older guy had a rifle that looked identical to the one I had brought. Someone had typed a caption on a slivver of now-yellowed paper. "J.Cooper, W.Williams, A.Cooper-- Port Simmons Hotel, 1915 "

"That's your rifle." said the guy. "That's Bill William's gun."

"That's a Savage Military Musket that Bill Williams brought back from the Yukon. They say he pried it out of the frozen hands of a dead Mountie. That was Bill WIlliams deer rifle. In those days, the only ones that had those were Royal Canadian Mounties, and they woulda hung any Mountie that sold his rifle."

"Who'd you here that from?" asked another.

"My Dad."

"Your Dad was pulling your leg."

"Bill Williams never killed any Mountie."

"Didn't. He was already dead. Bill got it off a dead body as he was heading back to Skagway."

"You're full of it."

And on it went. I looked at the picture and then went back and retrieved the rifle from the table. Either Bill William's, my Great-Grandfather, had allowed his Savage 1899 rifle to engage in unnatural congress with a British infantry rifle in a case of parallel evolution, or I had his rifle. I suspected the latter. It would have explained the "R.C.M.P." stamped on it along with a bunch of other odd markings that looked like it had spent time in a military armory. I put the rifle on the rack and told everyone that I was going to bed. I picked up my duffle and went upstairs.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Walt -- Shaken at the Fire

I had just settled in with Craig at the fire when an unfamiliar car pulled up into the apron. Craig and I were reminiscing about the good old days and I was really starting to feel the scotch.

"It's funny, man." I said. "I'm looking at this fire and all I see are faces. It's like they never really leave."

"Yeah, I know." replied Craig. "It's been ten years since Dad left, and there are days it still makes sense to me to pick up the phone and call him to ask what he remembers about such-and-such a case."

"I can look out past the fire, to the other side of the ring," I went on, "And I see them."

"Yep."

"Do you see them?" I asked.

"Yep." said Craig, "I've got another crazy piece to add to all this. I'm now certain that human beings only have just so many faces they can remember. I think I hit my limit around thirty-five."

"Yeah." I said. "I'm following you."

"So now I everyone I meet looks like somebody else." he said. "Like I see this little high-schooler at McDonalds the other day, and I swear it's a girlfriend from high school, except she's thirty years too young. Dead ringer. My brain just keeps recycling faces."

"Spooky," I said. "Just plain spooky." It was getting a little spooky. The sounds from inside were voices I'd known all my life. Little murmurs of this and that just added to the effect. In the flicker of the fire it was easy to get lost and see and hear men that had been mouldering in the ground for sometimes thirty years. In a way that made me feel good-- good that they were still roaming around, if only in my mind. It felt stronger than that though, especially tonight. I took another draw from the cup and stared into the fire, and felt warm.

I heard a familiar voice as someone came up to the fire. He greeted us. I think Craig said something. The guy sat down on a log next to me. I finally turned and looked at him. There was Buck WIlliams, one of the old guard. I hadn't seen him since. . .

"Howdy, Mister Williams." I said. "Good to see you." I realized that I was slurring my words a bit, and it dawned on me I had best shut up until the scotch had had time to wear off. Buck had always been good friends with my Dad, even though there was a good twenty years between them. Buck had sons of his own, but they hadn't taken an interest in the camp like Dad. Buck had been dead since Seventy . . .

Sometimes, if you're not careful with your scotch, you can have two lines of thought that get put on the same piece of track only going in opposite directions. Neither one really thinks much about the other until they both round the same curve and there you have it. In my case, the jolt was so sudden that I screetched, turned violently, thinking that I'd just seen a ghost, and darn near fell off the log when I looked and saw nothing, where a moment ago there'd been a man. In the next instant I realized I was falling off the log, and where I'd been looking was skyward and as I completed the roll, my head finally did turn and there really was Buck Williams, plain as day, and he was reaching for me as if to pull me into oblivion with him. I heard myself shriek a bit, and then something caught me by the jacket and I turned and it was Old Man Steinholtz who'd grabbed me and helping me regain my balance.

I jumped up and in an instant I was cold stone sober, and scared out of my wits. I looked to confront my ghostly attackers, and there was Craig Steinholtz, grandson of Carl. There was also Phil Williams, Buck Williams grandkid.

"Buck? . . . er. . .Phil?" I said. "Phil Williams?"

"Hi."

I reached over and shook his hand mightily. I was still terrified, but it had already sunk in what had happened. I felt rather sheepish, but I took it nobody much knew or cared what had just happened. In the dark, Phil was the living breathing reincarnation of Buck WIlliams, only younger than any time I had direct recollection of him.

"Walt Cooper." I said. "Boy, am I glad you're here. You know Craig? This is Craig Steinholtz. Have a seat."

Craig pulled out another coffee cup and handed it to Phil. I waived off-- I'd had enough. We sat back down and started talking. Soon others poured in and sat down and the first good campfire of the season was off and running.