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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.”

1 Comments:

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6:49 AM  

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