Do You Remember Your First Deer?

This sucks.  The words rattled around in my head in sympathy with my kidneys which were tossed unmercifully by the mil-spec seat in the old Willys Jeep.  My second year as a hunter showed every sign it would end as the first had; a week spent frozen, sleep deprived, and hungry in Colorado's high country without seeing, let alone shooting, a deer or elk.

Breaking Tradition

So far, despite my host's generous hospitality--they had included me in their family's annual hunt--I could see little point to this masochistic exercise in boredom.  I questioned my decision to begin hunting as an adult.  After all, most hunters learn the trade at their father's knee--a tradition passed from one generation to the next.  I grew up in a non-hunting family and had no such positive developmental experiences.  Perhaps they were right after all?

Contact Right

"Deer!"  My host's eldest, twenty-year old son J.J. whispered, urgent, almost gobsmacked.  I glanced around, nothing but sage and sensuous mountain vistas revealed themselves.  The Willys jerked to a stop, and J.J. bailed out the notional canvas driver's door, rifle in hand.   J.R., J.J.'s younger brother by two years, jumped from the rear cargo pit while I sat in the passenger seat, clueless.

"Larry, get out here," J.J. demanded, half-pleaded.  I struggled over the olive drab and rust gunwale.  G.I.s must have been much smaller when the old war horse had been built so long ago in Toledo, Ohio.  All the "pointers" my hosts had poured into me over the previous year swirled in my head.  Stick close to the Jeep.  Watch out for everyone else.  Know where your muzzle is at all times.  If you see something, don't shout.  The list had been endless.

Up and at them, Maitland...

My boots hit frozen dirt under a thin snow skiff, frozen toes glad for any movement.  Still unsure what my companions saw, or what they had in mind, I racked my Winchester Model 70's bolt with authority and shoved a sleek, .375 H&H Magnum shell into its firing chamber.  I could afford just one hunting rifle then and I had chosen one which could take anything in the world.  With a double check on the safety, I walked in a crouch around to the driver's side and joined the others.

"What?" I stammered.

A quick finger stab at the hillside which rose from the old mining wagon trail laughingly referred to as an "unimproved road" by the U.S. Forest Service constituted J.J.'s reply.

"Where?"  Still clueless.  I used his outstretched arm as a theodolite.  A rough two-hundred yards up the forty-five degree sage covered slope stood several lonesome ponderosa pines, and to their left, stood a mule deer doe--stone still, ears and eyes locked on the Jeep.

Rocky Mountain Two Step

J.J. bid me to follow with a gesture.  We slinked around the Willys and made a slow, low stalk through the two-foot high sage for fifty yards to close the distance.  Although legal to shoot from the jeep trail, J.J. wanted to make sure our actions were beyond just the law's letter.

The sage and the hill's slope prevented a prone shot, so I knelt and leveled the safari rifle, nicknamed the "Death Ray."  J.J. breathed steam inches from me as his young but experienced eyes assessed the situation.

"You want her?"  I asked.

"This one's yours," came the generous reply.  "What're you zeroed at?"

"Two hundred."

"Okay, she's about one-fifty, maybe one seventy-five, just hold dead center."  J.J.'s head swiveled around to his little brother still at the Jeep.  He motioned for J.R. to monitor the situation.  The younger brother nodded and focused worn binoculars.

"There's two more to the right in the timber," J.J. breathed.

Take Your Time in a Hurry

I tuned the man out.  My world collapsed into just me, the doe, and the four-power rifle scope's reticle.  I didn't know much about hunting yet, but I did know how to shoot.  I fought to calm a thumping heart.  The reticle rose and fell in irregular swells across the deer's chest in time with my adrenaline charged breaths.  I flicked the safety off.

How many paper targets had I punched lead through since my first shooting lesson at the YMCA as an eager ten-year old?  Hundreds, perhaps.  This time the "target" fixed me with black, apprehensive eyes.  Steam tendrils wafted up from nervous nostrils in a forlorn attempt to warm the ten degree, November air.  Her chest flexed with each breath, one ear rotated a few few degrees to maintain contact with her herd mates.  This target, this living creature, had just moments ago stepped through the cold snow along a trail traversed by her kind since the last ice age; intent on nibbling sage buds, dry winter grass, and eventually drink from the creek which burbled in the gully four-hundred feet below.  Now, she waited for her next move--and mine.

Smoke Check

The moment had an odd calm to it, much like the final minutes before a Front Range thunderstorm unloads torrential rain and hail: expectancy mingled with imminent chaos.

I re-centered the scope's reticle on the "vee" made by the does' clavicle where neck joined chest.  Not the ideal broadside shot recommended in all the hunting books, rather a near frontal presentation.  I'd have waited for her to turn or passed on the shot if I held a lesser rife, but the .375 H&H had been made to smash through beasts five times the doe's size, and I had full confidence it wouldn't fail if I put the bullet in the right spot.  As I'd learn many hunts later, you get the shot you get--do your best.

I drew a breath, let out half, and then eased finger pressure onto the trigger.  The shot broke with loud surprise and the mighty magnum spat a 270 grain Remington Core Lokt bullet from the rifle's muzzle.  Stiff recoil jarred my view through the scope, but I still glimpsed the doe stagger.  She put one rear hoof back for balance, then exploded into a run downhill into the timber's protection.

Dead Run

I missed!  How?  I did everything right...

"You hit her," J.J. reported with laconic certainty.  "Good job."

"Where'd she go?'  I asked, almost frantic the doe had escaped.

"Don't see her, must be in the timber." J.J. offered.  "Time to go get her," he said.  He turned a cowboy hat topped head and raised his voice.  "J.R., keep an eye out in case she bolts."  A nod between brothers.

Blood Trails

I chambered a fresh round, stood, and trudged uphill.  We split to flank the trees; J.J. right, myself left.  I walked the bullet's path until I found deer tracks.  Twenty yards further uphill, pink and red blood spattered the lily snow, sprayed from the doe's lungs as she had lunged for cover.  I began a slow, deliberate walk into the timber alongside crimson lined hoof prints.

Fifteen yards into the trees, the prints turned into a wide, blood stained furrow cut into the snow which arced downhill for another twenty.  At the furrow's end lay my deer where she had slid to a stop on her belly.  I called to J.J.  "She's here."

I approached with caution.  I had heard stories about wounded animals rising and with their last breath lashing out at their executioners.  The deer didn't move, the chest still.  When I reached her, I touched my rifle's muzzle to the dark, dilated eye--no reaction.  Dead.  I had killed, nothing could change that fact, not ever.  An odd wave washed over me; part relief she had not fled into the hinterland to die a painful, wounded death, part elation at my shooting prowess, and part regret over the life I had taken.

We're All Brothers on the Earth

I knelt, removed a glove, and stroked her still warm fur coat, the hairs soft yet bristly.  "Sorry," I whispered.  "Thank you."

The bullet had entered her chest exactly where I had aimed, traversed her torso and exited her left flank.  The impact had dislocated one shoulder and then shattered the left hip.  "Death Ray," indeed.

I had heard Native Americans always thanked the animals they killed for food to ease their spirit's passage into the next world, and had thought it a quaint, animistic thing, but now it made sense.  Whether she had a spirit or not, she had stood for me, almost offered herself, and to thank her now seemed the most logical and right thing one could do.  I validated the carcass tag with shaky hands and attached it to the deer just as J.J.'s father had recommended.

J.J. arrived minutes later with a soft, heartfelt congratulations.  No victory dance, no high fives.  We both understood what had just happened.  He helped me drag the deer down to the Jeep, and under the two brothers tutelage, I gutted her.  Sage laden steam; blood up to the elbows; loamy yet acrid deer scent all initiated me into the hunter's world.  I had stepped through the door.  I had changed--forever.

Never Forgotten

Over two decades have passed since.  The Winchester now has its blue worn here and there from long hours in the field, and I have come to trust, almost revere, the century old .375 H&H cartridge it still shoots with unerring accuracy.  The brothers have their own families now, and I have not seen Colorado in years.  I still reflect on the cold, sunny day each hunting season, and I still thank every animal, large or small, who gives their life to sustain mine.

-- L.J. Bonham