From time to time my actions (and especially my thoughts) have walked a crooked line between right and wrong. I don’t remember who taught me when it was acceptable to bend the rules, but I admit it has happened once or twice. My parents were not saints and there were times growing up when I questioned whether or not they were fit to be our guardians at all. But here I am., a fully functioning, tax paying member of society so they must have done something right.
That said, I lived my childhood not realizing that we were different. We didn’t have money, but I didn’t know it. At least one dead animal carcass was always in the yard. There were rattlesnakes in the freezer in various poses. I used to shoot rabbits and drag them around the yard until there was no hair left on the poor critters, totally normal.
Rural life in the 80’s was abundantly different than what I deal with now in a sprawling city. For one, when I pee outside, I look around to make sure I’m not exposing myself to a neighbor’s wife or kids. Second, the discharge of a weapon in a densely populated area is a huge no-no. That is not the case in the country. My dad once shot a deer out the kitchen window in the middle of dinner. That brings me to an evening when I lost part of my innocence.
Dad and I were feeding cattle in his old, beat up, red and white Dodge flatbed pickup during deer season. At that age I came down with buck fever every year around Halloween when the bucks started chasing does around in broad daylight. That morning we saw a few deer on the feed routes, so we drove around later with two loaded .243 Remingtons in the back window gun rack (another faux pas in a metropolis).
We bumped along county roads skirting the pastures which were part of the ranch but didn’t see anything but cows. I noted all the places I saw deer on the bus ride to school every morning and relayed them to Dad as we drove along part of my bus route. I don’t remember him talking much, but I’m sure as a little kid, I did the majority of it.
We banked a corner and drove a mile towards a tee in the road where none of the surrounding land was ours. Naturally that’s where we spotted a small group of whitetails in a winter wheat field, a nice buck among them. He hit the brakes and we glassed them which is all I thought we were doing. He asked if the buck was “nice”, and I said, “Yeah, he’s pretty nice.”
He caught me off guard when he asked if I thought I could make a shot from there. I knew I could, but I still thought it a strange question since we were a long way from our ranch. He reached behind my head and lifted a .243 off the rack and laid it out my window facing the deer. I got the message and took the rifle from him. Cautiously, I asked if he knew whose land this was. His reply, “Oh yeah, it’s so-and-so’s place.” I received that as, “This guy won’t care if we blast a nice buck on his place. We go way back.” He never looked at me when he spoke but kept an eagle eye on the deer at around 200 yards away.
Laying the rifle on my clenched fist on the window opening, I scooted back in the bench seat across mounds of junk and fencing tools until my back was up against his shoulder. We spoke in whispers as he cut the engine, which, looking back, is ridiculous. Rumbling up in a noisy diesel, pointing a gun out the window, and then killing the engine while whispering? The Navy Seals would not have been impressed. We were idiots, but hunters, I guess. I put the crosshairs above the buck’s shoulder to allow for a slight drop and squeezed the trigger.
Naturally, I had left the bolt open in my nervousness, so I closed it and squinted through the scope again, almost feeling Dad’s breath on the back of my neck. Once again, I pulled the trigger, this time with a deafening explosion and one of the reasons my ears are ringing twenty-five years later.
The whole herd took off running parallel to the road, including my intended target. I took three more shots and not one landed. He turned the ignition and we were soon flying down the dirt road while the deer all sprinted in the same direction. We got out in front of them and he slid to a stop throwing me into the dash. I gathered myself and took another shot out the window with the same result. That was the last round in that rifle, so I jammed the barrel into the floorboard as he was already handing me the other rifle. He said there was only one round left in that gun, so I took a careful aim and let fly as the buck leaped a fence line I didn’t even see.
I heard the distinct pop of bullet on body through ringing ears and he fell in a heap. If the deer hadn’t jumped the fence the bullet wouldn’t have found him, but to my luck and to his misfortune the two had met in the air.
Dad threw the truck into gear and flew down the road for several miles. I asked if we were going to go back and get him, and he said “Yes, but I want to make sure the coast is clear.” I figured we’d head back to the house, he’d call the landowner (whom he must know), and we’d go retrieve my buck. This was not the case. Instead, we made several wide circles on county roads for the better part of an hour until it was well past dark. Usually we would have done some spotlighting, but not tonight, and I had a hunch why.
In the pitch-black night, we arrived back where I made the brilliantly lucky shot. He pulled over in a big hurry and jumped out with wire pliers in hand. No words were spoken. There was no gate, therefore I watched in muted astonishment as he made his own by the glow of the headlights. He threw back the barbed wire, hopped back in the truck, and sprayed gravel as we bounced through the bar ditch and across the pasture.
Luckily, we drove right to the buck. Without a word, we both jumped out and loaded the deer into the bed of the truck. At this point I knew I had turned a corner in life and fully expected to find myself in jail or on the wrong end of a gun that night.
I could see my sad future ahead of me. I’d start smoking, or chewing, or both at the same time. I’d drink Natural Light by the gallon. My rusty trailer home would have two mean dogs tied to a tree out front. Their names would be Douche Bag and Shit For Brains. I’d have a waterbed that didn’t fit in my bedroom, and the Allsup’s chimichanga grease stains on my white wife beater would fit my road hunter persona. My future was bleak.
There is only one game warden for two counties in that part of the country, so running into him would have been more than bad luck, like finding out you “married your cousin” odds of bad luck. We made it back to the house in the dark with no headlights chasing us down. We skipped dinner and pulled the carcass into the skinning shed where all the coyotes, bobcats, and deer that we brought home were processed. It smelled like rotting flesh and blood. It was unbearable in the summer, but it was mountain man as hell. There was a winch along the wall with a pulley and hooks hanging from the roof beam. The wood floor was black with years of blood stains.
Dad did the bulk of the work while I fed wood to the potbelly stove in the corner, listening for tires on our gravel drive. By midnight, the evidence was in a gut pile in the pasture and the meat was in a coffin freezer. The rest stayed in the shed for a few days until he thought the coast was clear.
I’m not sure, but I’d like to believe he drove back to the scene of the crime and patched the fence while I slept that night. That’s something I have never asked him. With all the trouble we could have experienced that night, I sadly recall the buck not even being that impressive, just a middle-of-the-road eight-point. It was also one that could have put Dad in jail. And me behind the counter at a quick stop for the rest of my life.
I’m happy to say that I never went road hunting after that night. I wisely took up sitting in a tree stand like a sappy Cabela’s ad, but with much less anxiety. The Allsup’s chimichangas were harder to give up.