February 17, 2017 • Sarah Jean Gosney
I was sitting up in a tree stand in the forty-degree weather. The sun had finally come up and was starting to thaw my frozen hands and feet. It was a beautiful West Virginia morning. The forest was clear thanks to all the damp dropped leaves covering the forest floor. Because of that, the area was particularly quiet, and the only sounds I heard were the rustlings of squirrels.
It was my first deer hunt, and I had been sitting, harnessed into the tree stand for about an hour and a half without seeing a deer. It was a twenty-first century hunt though, as I was listening to a podcast and playing the occasional game of solitaire on my phone. Because of that I may have betrayed the true spirit of hunting, requiring steadfast patience for hours and hours on end, but I like to think that the stories distracted me from my freezing limbs and helped me stay out longer. My crossbow rested on my lap, bolt drawn and ready to fire.
Through my open ear, I heard a footfall to the north—my left. I freed my other ear quickly and sat as still as possible, breathing shallowly the whole while. Slowly a buck came into my view. He was a teenager, four points, and seemed to be oblivious to my presence. He meandered, head tucked and ready to react to any sudden noise or movement, casually
browsing for a bite of food. I contemplated my decision.
Should I shoot? He seemed young, and I’d heard of more seasoned hunters leaving deer to mature so they could come back to harvest them another year. To me he looked fairly large. I could imagine many roasts and stews coming from his haunches. But I let him go. He picked his way behind me and across the prominent deer trail that started from my left, continued in front of my stand, and continued down the hill to my right.
I felt a small pang of regret, worrying that I may have missed my only chance for the day to get a deer. But I knew he’d be back again next year, if not for me, for someone else. I continued to wait and the sun mounted in the sky. I had warmed up without realizing it and was pretty comfortable sitting in the stand.
Not half an hour later I saw the second buck. Coming from my left again stalked another young buck, this time a three point. I had never seen irregular antlers like his before—a spike, I was later told is what he’s called. He too continued slowly along the deer trail, no doubt tired from a night of chasing women and simply hoping to find a mouthful before finding a safe place to sleep. None the wiser that I was there, he walked toward me with even less caution than the previous deer. He kept approaching, and I tensed. I would have sworn he’d notice me and bolt off.
He didn’t though. He continued directly under my tree stand where he browsed for food not ten feet below me. I gazed down at him in amazement, waiting for him to look up at any moment and start. The poor stupid teen was in his own world however, and didn’t suspect a thing.
Just like the last deer, I figured he was too young. We weren’t exactly wanting for food, even though I would have loved to fill the freezer with venison. I let him walk along the trail, thinking that he should be grateful for not meeting his demise through his lack of awareness.
At this point I knew I wouldn’t see another deer. The hunt was over. There were a few more days in the season, so it wasn’t my last chance, but I still felt disappointed. But I was only a few hours into the hunt, and I decided to stay out for a while longer.
I gazed down at the brown leaves on the forest floor, shining with yesterday’s rain. It was such a beautiful clear day. I hadn’t put my headphones back on. The rush of seeing the deer had jolted me awake, and I had begun to understand the purity of the silent hunt.
Suddenly I heard a crash and rattling. My eyes darted to the left, and off no more than fifteen yards, I saw two bucks tangled in a battle. One was the very first I saw that morning, and the other one was an older buck, a six point. I looked on, rapt. The clashing continued for ten minutes. This was truly amazing! I had seen footage of engagements like this on nature channels on TV, but I never imagined I’d see one in person. Neither seemed particularly bent on violence, and no blood was drawn. A lot of noise and bravado that seemed to end with the older buck victorious.
They walked off back in the direction from where they came. I sat, thinking about what I’d seen in amazement.
It was after noon at that point, and I decided to go inside for a while and grab something to eat. I was no longer bone chilled like I’d been in the morning, so I wasn’t desperate to get inside like I thought I’d be. Still, I was excited to share my experience with Ben, an experienced hunter, interested to hear what he thought of my decision to leave the deer to the forest.
I discharged my crossbow into the ground nearby and lowered it down on a rope. I unhooked myself from the tree, and climbed slowly down the tree stand.
When I got back inside he was amazed. He’d never seen a buck fight in his more than ten years of hunting and was intensely jealous. The fact that I I’d seen three deer in just one morning shocked him.
“You didn’t take one?” he asked me.
“I wasn’t sure if they were old enough! I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do.”
He grudgingly accepted my decision, especially since I was a novice, but I could tell he thought I should have taken a shot. I ate a sandwich and drank some coffee in my oversized camouflage overalls (they were borrowed from Ben. I hadn’t gone out to buy any of my own hunting gear). Without wasting too much time, I grabbed my crossbow and went back out into the forest.
I knew it was probably foolish to go back out to the stand at this point. I’d need an amazing stroke of luck to see another deer, and I figured that I’d long used my luck for the day. I waited in the stand for two hours or more, becoming steadily more convinced I’d have to accept failure for the day.
And then I heard it! Coming once again from my left, I heard the telltale rustle and footsteps of a deer. It was the four point from the morning! I couldn’t believe my luck.
I readied my crossbow, practically holding my breath. He walked toward me, slowly moving behind the tree stand. My heart started racing, and I worried if I’d be able to take a steady shot. I rotated in the stand to face the deer, steadying the crossbow on my shoulder. I peered at the deer through the sight, waiting for him to pause.
He stopped in his tracks diagonally behind the stand. He was facing me, looking in my direction but not up. I wasn’t sure if he’d noticed me or if he was just being cautious. I set the three red dots of the sight right behind his shoulder, then, remembering my training in photography exhaled slowly. I took the shot.
His back legs sprang up, and he sprinted off back in the direction from which he came. My heart was still pounding, but now I allowed myself an inhalation. I was elated that I had made a hit, but I knew it wasn’t over yet. Time to wait.
Ben had told me to always wait half an hour before trailing any animal. Even a deer could be aggressive and attack you as its dying move. So, I sat in the stand, watching the light begin to fade, checking the clock every few minutes. It felt longer than waiting had felt in the morning in the chilly air.
Finally, thirty minutes had passed, and I climbed out of the stand just as I’d done earlier. I left my bow at the base of the tree where my stand stood. I started looking around for the bolt in the ground around where I’d hit. I couldn’t find it, but I did spot a few flecks of blood on the leaves near my feet. I decided to come back to this spot for the bolt and follow the blood trail first.
I stumbled over the uneven terrain, noticing small splatters of blood on the ground here, on a leaf there. I felt around in my pocket to make sure I had my knife with me, in case I still had to finish the job.
It started to rain. I cursed the weather, but I was picking up a distinct trail and wasn’t worried. I followed the trail around the side of the hill. The brush and trees got much denser where Ben hadn’t cleared the path for the deer trail, but I managed to keep following the blood trail.
I got to what looked like a doe bed flattened in a thick tangle of brush. I’d expected to see the deer bedded down here, but no luck. I lost the trail for a minute and felt a pang of nervousness. The light was growing more dim with each step, and I still hadn’t found the deer. I walked westward up the hill and found a small amount of clotted blood on some low leaves. So, I am still on the right track.
I pushed on a little further, but lost the trail again. I glanced furtively at where I knew the sun was sinking behind the hill, wishing I had more time. I started to think my luck had turned into bad judgement and misfortune.
I began to head back toward the tree stand, unsure what to do. The rain steadily pattered on the fallen leaves. Once I got near the stand, I looked for the quarrel again. This time I found it. It was right where I’d been looking before but wedged further into the ground than I expected. There was a small clump of hair around the shaft. I pulled it out of the ground.
Dirt clung to it. I wiped it off as best I could and stashed it with the others.
It was almost dark now, and I didn’t know what to do. I decided to go back to the house and seek Ben’s advice. I told him what had happened and said that I hadn’t been able to locate the deer yet. At that point I’d begun to panic. The only consolation was that it was supposed to be cold that night, so if I needed to leave it and come back, I could.
We grabbed a couple of flashlights, and Ben came outside with me. There was still small amount of light left, so I led him along the trail I had traced. We arrived at the same spot where I’d lost the trail, but this time we pushed on past the access road cut into the hill by the water company that had a tank on top of the hill. We didn’t pick up the trail again. He began walking up the hill, and I pushed straight forward.
I shined the light into the woods, and I saw two eyes gleaming back at me. My heart seized, and like the city girl I was, my first thought was “cougar.” (For the record, there are in fact cougars in the state.) I panicked, and ran up the hill toward Ben and told him what I saw. He laughed at my panic, and told me it was probably the deer. I realized that meant the creature was still alive after an hour and a half, and my stomach began to sink.
We walked back down the hill to where I saw it, but it had long walked off. Dejected, we both gave up for the night. I noticed that it felt unseasonably warm and felt my stomach sink a little further. I couldn’t stop thinking about it all night.
The next morning in the full light of day, I went back out onto the hill to locate my kill. I retraced my steps on the hill, going past the access road. I ended up pressing on to the north side of the hill, continuing almost to the border of the property, when I spotted it. It was two ridges below me.
I climbed down toward it, half scooting on my rear to get down the steeper ledges. When I got there, the animal was dead. It looked like it had been gnawed on by some animal or another—a possum, Ben later said he thought it was. Its lips were half chewed off and its belly had been torn open, even further than by the shot I had taken.
A bad shot. I’d taken a bad shot. I started to kick myself. When I described the wound to him, Ben told me that the deer had been at the wrong angle for the shot and lamented the fact that he hadn’t been out with me. I sat there and stared at the animal’s glassy eyes.
I said a little prayer, thanking the animal for its life and begging its forgiveness for the slow death I’d brought it. I was thankful for the other creatures in the forest who would feast on its body when I couldn’t.
I went back to the house and thought about what I’d seen. After all the caution I’d had earlier in the day, I’d panicked and bungled the whole thing. Then it occurred to me—should I take its head?
No—it seemed wrong. I wasn’t going to eat the animal. The hunt had gone badly. It seemed cruel. But part of me wanted to remember this. I never wanted to forget the feeling of my miscalculation and inexperience causing another creature’s suffering.
Ben seemed wary of the idea, so he gave me a Native American offering bag full of tobacco, corn meal, and some nice trinkets to bury to appease the spirits. I was brought up in a Jewish household, but anything that could ward off bad juju seemed more than a good idea.
So, I went back. Clambered across and down the hill, falling a couple of times in my haste, covering myself in dirt. I got back to the deer, and I began to cut off its head with my knife.
It was sharp, but I had trouble getting through the hide at first. Eventually I broke through, and started sawing through the neck muscle. I started again behind the neck, making sure to saw between the vertebrae. The animal smelled like death, already beginning to rot in the warm sun.
It was a difficult job that gave me plenty of time to contemplate mortality and the value of life. As soon as I’d begun to cut, I started to regret my decision, wishing I’d decided to leave it intact for nature to consume. The stench and the resistance of the neck muscles and the sheer tragedy of the situation made me want to cry, but I choked back the tears. I was in no position to wipe them from my cheeks.
But I couldn’t leave the job halfway done. So, I hacked and sawed at the neck for at least twenty minutes until it was free from the body. I had done the job, but the whole thing was so sloppy I just knew this deer was going to come back and haunt me.
When it was all done, I wiped my knife on the leaves as best I could and grabbed the head by the antlers. I picked my way carefully across the hill and back to the house. When I returned, I put the head in the outdoor cabinet where Ben leaves his deer skulls to be cleaned by bugs and time. I sat down on a stump and breathed, wondering at what I had done.
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