Deer-hunting is patient work. As I followed my brother through the pitch-black woods, tippy-toeing through the leaves and sticks, scrambling over dead logs, carefully watching the beam from his flashlight ahead of me, it occurred to me that this could all be a big joke that Mark was playing on me. For example, was it really so crucially important that we tip-toe through the brush, as slowly as possible, the entire mile or so to his deer-blind? Were the deer really “bedded down all around us,” as he had assured me solemnly moments before we started? Was it truly that important that we get settled in the deer blind before dawn—yes, in the pre-dawn inky blackness—so as not to scare the deer? Or, as I was beginning to suspect, did he merely just want to see how seriously I’d take his deer-hunting tutelage?
There are many of my friends and family who still can’t believe that I went deer-hunting at all. I have a pretty soft heart where lovely animals are concerned, that much is well known. And, deer are lovely animals, with their soft fur and enormous limpid eyes and their white flashing tails. Furthermore, when I see a deer when I’m out and about, I’m not one of those people who automatically make a gun shape out of their fingers and pretend to shoot the deer (with sound effects). “KaBLAM!” You know the type. In contrast, I’m one of those people who say “Oh, look! How charming—a deer!” and then wish I had my camera with me. I’d rather draw a deer in my sketch book than shoot one.
That said, my brother Mark had been pestering me, ever since the day I mentioned my resentment of the hungry herds of deer that regularly ravaged my little orchard, to join him in a pre-dawn deer hunt. He had promised me some deer meat when (not if) we got “our” deer, so I couldn’t resist. I do like venison, and if by losing a few hours of sleep I could get some, then so be it.
The reason I hadn’t immediately leaped at the hunting opportunity was because of the “pre-dawn” part. The only place I really want to be in the inky black, cold and lonesome pre-dawn hour is snuggled down in my warm bed, unconscious to the cares of the world. However! There are adventures to be had in the pre-dawn hour (I hear), and I’m all for partaking in adventure, from time to time.
Mark is a very persistent and knowledgeable hunter, and if we didn’t get a deer this morning, (though he assured me that we would) at least he’s an entertaining companion, and I knew we’d have a good time. It would give me a chance to catch up with his life, and this in itself was worth some trouble on my part. So. We agreed upon a date for our hunt, I had driven up to Fremont to stay over the night before, and I was up at 5:00 a.m., dressed in sixteen layers, and ready to go.
So there we were, tip-toeing through the woods trying very hard not to wake the heaps of charming deer that were apparently sleeping behind every tree, bush, and shrub. Mark was patiently reminding me, often, to be very, very, very, very quiet. You would have thought that I was a hapless rhinoceros crashing through the brush, by the way he kept turning and shushing me, but I was just little ole’ me, up on my toes as much as I possibly could be, given that I did have my big Prairie Woman winter boots on, searching the ground anxiously with my eyes, for dry twigs and branches and what-not to avoid.
We finally arrived at the deer-blind, set up our chairs (quietly) and zipped windows down and up and every which-way, so as to allow us to see out, but not to allow any deer to see in, theoretically. We were so quiet. I tried to blink as little as possible, so as not to cause any blinking-noises. We sat gingerly on the very edges of our seats. Quietly. Mark had his gun on his lap.
I had no gun. But that was okay. It was cold, and if I had had a gun in my hands, it would have been clattering against my chair, because I would have been shaking, scared to death to be holding something so potentially lethal to something, and it would have been noisy, which would have been bad. So, no gun for me.
After a few very quiet contemplative moments, Mark allowed as how we’d probably have time for a cup of coffee before the deer started to appear, but just a quick cup—in just a few minutes, the deer should be moving about us and we’d be busy watching, picking out just the right one.
It was 6:00 a.m.
The coffee sounded good to me. I was cold and a bit sleepy and the strong coffee ran (quietly) down my throat and warmed me up from my toes upward. We sat up on the edges of our seats again, peering through the windows. The sky was beginning to lighten just the tiniest bit, and Mark said it wouldn’t be long before we’d see movement. Of course we wouldn’t shoot at the first one we saw, he assured me. For one thing, he only had a doe tag, so we’d have to let all the bucks go. Then he patiently explained how you could tell the does from the young bucks (longer noses, basically) and I tingled with anticipation.
Within an hour or two, Mark would shoot a deer, we’d exclaim over the beauty and size, and then I’d get to watch my big brother, hunter-extraordinaire, gut the deer. That made my stomach a little queasy, but I’d be able to handle it, hopefully. Then we’d work together to get the beast back to the truck (no tippy-toeing necessary on the way out!). I was a little nervous, but I was excited, too. What an adventure!
It would be any time now, Mark assured me, in a whisper, as the sun came up. I narrowed my eyes and studied the brush around us. It was quiet and beautiful, the woods bathed in a misty glow. I was wishing I had brought my sketch book, or at least my camera. The bare skeletons of the trees around us were stunning.
7:00 a.m. Mark explained that it was probably prime time now for the deer to be up and around, but the fact that we hadn’t seen any yet led him to believe that we were a little noisy coming in (yikes–my boots!) or that something else might be making them a little cautious, like, for instance, a new smell or something (my new hair conditioner?). But they’d show up. They would.
8:00 a.m. We decided to relax for a few minutes and have another cup of coffee. Mark checked his Blackberry and showed me a few amusing photos. I thought I heard something, and we were back up on the edges of our seats.
9:00 a.m. Mark decided that we were, perhaps, facing the wrong direction, and so we zipped up the windows we’d been using, and zipped down windows on the other side of the blind. Right away, we did see a couple of small deer. What a thrill–even though the deer were too far away for Mark to take a shot. How exciting! Now we’d see some action. Imagine that, we were just facing the wrong way the whole time!
10:00 a.m. I was getting hungry. Mark had forgotten our breakfast—deer jerky, ironically—in the truck, so I tried to ignore my rumbling stomach. Mark had decided that the deer were probably moving about in the still-not-harvested corn fields close by. I assured him that I was still having fun, (and I was) deer or no deer.
Who needed a deer when you had such an engaging hunting companion? We settled into our chairs and pretty much ignored our little net windows, and talked.
11:00 a.m. We decided to call it quits. Mark apologized for the lack of deer action, but I really didn’t mind. Sitting in the woods for a few hours with him was fun enough. Now if I could just get my stiff legs to straighten out so I could walk . . . and then as we walked out of the woods, a big doe run right in front of us, but Mark didn’t shoot it. I don’t think he had a good enough shot.
We climbed into his pickup truck and fell on the deer jerky like it was a four-course French dinner. Delicious! I was on my way home before noon, and it amuses me now that I had no idea at the time that I was going to get my deer a week and a day later, only not in the traditional way.
We were driving home late one evening when we got our deer, and the cracked bumper on the Suburban tells the tale of how we got it.
We left the deer in the road and drove home, about a half mile further. Bryan wasn’t feeling well and headed straight to bed. I was feeling a little sick myself, but it was because I was afraid the deer wasn’t dead . . . at least not completely dead. I couldn’t stand the thought of that poor doe lying out in the road, suffering for hours in the cold, so I called a friend who is a deer hunter and asked him what I should do. I don’t know what I expected him to say, but his response startled me. He told me that I needed to report it. Yes, Gentle Readers, I had to call the sheriff’s office to report the incident. Was he sure, I asked? It was after 10:00 p.m.! Yes, I had to do it. It was . . . the law.
I am a law-abiding citizen, so, feeling a bit sheepish, I made the call.
“Um, yes, I—that is—my husband–hit a deer, ah, with our car, I don’t know if it’s dead or not—it’s out on the road . . . we didn’t mean to, you understand . . .”
The dispatcher, business-like, asked me for the location of the animal, and said that there was a deputy on the way, and then asked me the question that was going to complicate my life for the next hour or two:
“Do you want the meat?”
Now here was an interesting position to be in! A scant week before, I had spent five hours straight looking for a deer to shoot and eat, on a hunting expedition with my brother. We’d only seen a couple of deer, from a distance. We hadn’t gotten one. And here was a perfectly good deer, just plopped into our laps, nearly, anyway, and all I had to do was to say yes.
“Um . . . yes, I guess so.”
“Okay, then, meet the deputy on the road as soon as you can get out there,” she said in clipped tones, dismissively, even. As if she had a few other things to deal with than my wounded or possibly dead deer.
Not so fast, my mind screamed. I don’t know what to do with a dead deer! My big strong husband is in bed already! Do I have to gut it? Can I just haul it to the meat processor in the morning? I can’t exactly just stuff it in my freezer as-is, can I?
Loathe as I was to reveal myself to be the idiot in these matters that I am, I pushed on before the dispatcher hung up.
“I’m sorry to bother you with this,” said I, miserably, “but I’m totally clueless about this type of thing . . . for instance, does the deer have to be (gulp!) gutted immediately . . . or . . . can it wait until tomorrow?” A man lives around the corner from us who has a meat processing plant on his farm. I knew he’d process the deer for me.
“Hmm, let me ask,” she said, before putting me on hold. A few minutes later she came back on.
She sounded so happy. “You do have to gut it immediately, but then it can hang for up to a week. Good news for you, huh?”
“Oh,” said I, weakly. “That is good news. . . I guess. . .but . . . here’s the thing. I have no idea how to gut a deer!” I had watched my dad gut a chicken before, but I didn’t figure it was a direct parallel. I was already wording my Google search in my mind.
“Ahh, just a minute,” she said, and when she came back on again, she was laughing. She was enjoying this whole thing a little to much.
“Alright–the deputy who’s on his way out there is a hunter, and he said that he could walk you through the gutting process, but he can’t do it for you ‘cause he doesn’t want to get his uniform messy.”
“Um, okay, so–“ I stuttered, the image of myself, elbow-deep in deer guts just refusing to materialize in my tired, tidy brain.
“So just meet him on the road—bring a couple of your kitchen knives, I guess—and he’ll walk you through it, and you’ll have your deer!” I could hear people in the background offering advice and laughing. It sounded as if they were having a party in the background, in fact. I had a feeling all that laughter was an my expense.
For just a split second I contemplated telling her to forget it, to just shove the poor creature into the ditch, and then take myself to bed, but I didn’t. I’m not sure why. It was pretty alluring, the thought of all that deer meat in my freezer, if I could just make it through the gutting—how long could it take, anyway? It might be a rather distasteful half-hour, but the rewards! Venison steaks, deer jerky, deer breakfast sausage–I couldn’t turn it all down.
So I took a deep breath and said I’d be there in ten minutes. My daughter Bethany was still up and ready for an adventure, so we both bundled up in work clothes, hooked the trailer up to the ‘Burb and drove out to where a deputy was sitting in his squad car, right next to the deer that we had hit. Yep, it was dead all right. Completely dead.
I jumped out with my kitchen knives in hand, and forced a smile at the deputy, who climbed slowly out of his car, discarding a cigarette butt and grinding it out with his heel.
He was pleasant and to the point. “Ma’am, I appreciate your determination, but there ain’t no way you’re going to gut a deer with them kitchen knives,” said he.
“Ah, I, um, but, your dispatcher—“ I said, lucidly, a little over-awed by the flashing of his gun and badge. There were bullets on his belt, I noticed. Lots of them.
“C’mon, let’s load ‘er up, and go back to your place,” he said. “We’ll gut her there.”
This is exactly what “we” did. He pulled his squad car up into our back yard, and pointed the headlights on the spot where we unloaded our deer. To my immense and undying gratitude and monstrous relief, the deputy, not I, gutted the deer with a couple of lethal-looking knives he happened to have in his pocket, as Bethie and I held the deer in the correct position. It didn’t take him long. In just fifteen minutes or so, we were standing over a gut-less deer, and the gleaming pile of guts and blood was all ready for my dogs to roll in the next morning.
The entire event still seemed a little unreal at the time, like it really couldn’t be happening, except that we’ve got a nice little corner of our freezer stacked neatly with deer sausage and steaks today. The feeling of surrealism kept washing over me: when the deputy walked into my kitchen, his hands covered in blood, and spent several minutes washing his hands at my sink. When he held up one of the knives during the gutting, gleaming with blood, and chuckled “This one came from a drug dealer. Don’t want to lose it! It’s a dandy!”
Also, later when Bethie and I looped a rope around the deer’s legs and tried to pull it up into the rafters of our shed, only to realize that between us we didn’t have enough muscles to get the poor dead creature off the ground at all, much less up high enough to keep it away from the dogs, and ended up just propping it upside-down against the wood pile and hoping that that would do. It was pretty weird, too, when the deputy handed me my “road-kill permit” (you’re only allowed one every ninety days, by the way) and told me to stick it in the deer’s ear.
So, deer-hunting is patient work. Or, in our case, an unlucky break for the fella who lives on a gravel road and drives home at night during deer season!
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