By Dean Penland
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“We lost? But we’re Americans!”
“…And that his brothers hadn’t made it home.”
“I thought they died after they got home.”
“I ‘spect your mama told you that because you wouldn’t understand what had really happened; you’d just barely turned three, you know. No, Your Uncle Ed has been missing for the last six years, and the gumment tells us he’s dead. Your Uncle Don… well, Donny was captured as well, but he didn’t make it to a camp. They… they cut on him for about three days, slicing pieces off of him. He was awake the whole time. He died screaming. They never did find all of him.”
I felt like I was going to throw up. I had thought that hell was being ignored and feeling unloved. Hell was turning out to be much, much worse. I looked at Hambone. “But why won’t he let anyone love him? Why wouldn’t he let Mama love him?”
“He had to drink to keep from killing people, especially himself. A lot of us were like that, coming back. He never stopped loving her; he just didn’t know how to show it anymore. After five years of that, she had to leave or she would have killed herself. She knew if she took you with her, he would’ve done himself in, so she visits you and she still loves you and him and he still loves the both of you, but none of you’uns has figured out yet how to say it. He loves you, but he’s forgotten how to show love, and I reckon he still hates himself a fair amount. Remember when I said that I cry when the people I love hurt?”
“I cry for your daddy every day, son. Right after I ask God to heal him.”
We soon arrived at the base of the mountain, near the flat place called, unsurprisingly, “the flats.” The Old Man was waiting there, and he hadn’t noticed us yet.
He was leaning against a tree, kind of hunched over. Hambone coughed really loud just then, startling me. I didn’t know he was feeling poorly. At his cough, the Old Man stood straight and turned around, walking towards us. I looked up at him as he approached. “I’m sorry I didn’t latch the gate all the way, sir. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” That was probably the most words I had spoken to him at one go in at least a year.
He looked at me, searchingly. Then he slightly nodded and his lips curled up for just a moment. “Fair enough,” he said.
He then looked at Hambone. “What are you grinning at? You look like a mule eating briers. Now who wants the .270, and who wants the 30.06?”
Hambone said, “I think I’m just going to come along for the walk. Let Young Squire choose what he wants.”
I quickly spoke up. “I’ll take the 30.06.”
The Old Man said, “You ain’t never shot it before.”
The Old Man said, “More kick.”
I replied, “Kills bigger deer.”
Hambone chuckled. “Point for Young Squire.”
The Old Man became serious, as did Hambone. Amongst our people, deer hunting was about as sacred as our faith, and was approached with a deadly intensity. “I’ll scout ahead. Y’all stay about twenty yards behind. The leaves are wet, so don’t slip. When I get to the first ridge, low crawl up to me and I’ll sight you to your target. If there’s not a deer, I’ll start toward Tsali Pass, between the two peaks.
Come up on my left, as the bucks usually move from left to right on the other side. Hambone will check behind you for any stragglers. Clear?”
“Clear,” I replied.
He looked at Hambone. “You’re getting fat. You reckon you can still make it to the top?”
Hambone grinned. “I am a stealthy ghost. Try to keep up.”
The Old Man started off. I had never seen him hunt before. He moved like mist, and was silent as shadow. As the years passed, I remembered that day and realized that the United States Army had turned him, and the other Green Berets, into perfect, silent killing machines that almost, almost, had no feelings.
We moved about a quarter of the way up the first ridge when suddenly there was a huge commotion behind me. Startled, I turned and watched Hambone, whose attention had wandered, tumble ass over teapot after tripping over a root, taking a good part of the mountain with him. I couldn’t help myself; I laughed until my belly ached. As he limped back up the ridge, Hambone wouldn’t look the Old Man in the eyes, but rather said, “I think any deer are now on the back face of the mountain.”
“Really,” the Old Man laconically replied. “Even with you being a stealthy ghost and all.”
“I’m going to go back down and read my bible,” Hambone said.
I piped up. “Any verses in there on how to keep quiet?” The Old Man snorted.
“Don’t mock me, young squire.”
After he stumbled off down the path, the Old Man jerked his head towards Hambone’s retreating figure and said, “After that fireworks show, there won’t be a deer on this side of the mountain for the next month. We can move quicker now until about 50 feet before the top of the pass. When you see me start crawling, you get down and wait until I see what’s moving on the other side. Same thing- I’ll motion you up on my left once I’ve located any target.”
He moved off without waiting for an acknowledgment, which was just as well. I don’t know if I could have replied. He had said more to me that day than he had in five years.
We moved up, but even at a much greater speed, I couldn’t help but marvel at the skill the Old Man possessed. About fifty feet shy of the pass, he went to all fours and, after checking to see that I was ready, low-crawled to the top of the ridge. It was an immediate drop on the other side, so he carefully eased his head up and began to scan the slope with his eyes, with sniper’s eyes. I watched him for about 15 seconds and then he slightly tensed. He slowly extended his left hand beside him and began to wave me up. As I painstakingly crawled, as quietly as an 8-year-old boy carrying a heavy rifle possibly could, toward the top, the Old Man cautiously eased himself about five yards below the ridge top and waited for me.
After what seemed like years, but was only minutes, I was level with him.
“A nice 8-point about 60 yards down,” he whispered. “In a minute, he should be pretty close to directly below you. Take your time, slowly move to the top, bring your rifle up with your right hand, sight him in and toggle your safety off. Aim slightly low, or you’ll overshoot. Remember to exhale slowly and squ-e-e-e-e-ze the trigger.”
We crawled that five yards beside each other, and I was as silent as he was. My eyes widened when I saw the buck. To my young mind, he was a half-ton of Bull Elk, a colossus of a Plains Bison. He was beautiful, and he was going to be my first deer.
I did as the Old Man had instructed. As I slowly exhaled, my hands shook with a minute tremor. No, I commanded. I am in charge. I will not fail.
The shot surprised me, and the recoil made my shoulder scream; I hadn’t expected it to kick that hard. I shook my head to clear my vision and looked to the right, where my quarry should have been stumbling to his last steps before laying down and letting go of his spirit.
There was nothing there.
I had missed.
Or worse, I had wounded him, but not badly enough for him to die anytime soon. He would limp along for days in agony, unable to eat, drink or rest because of this horrible, strange shrieking pain that filled him and would not leave him. A year or two later, the Old Man would find his bones where he had finally starved. I would not be there, for I would never be allowed back on the mountain.
As I turned, in terror, to face the Old Man, I shuddered. He was looking at me with his eyes half-slitted. I had never seen this look before. I feared it more than all the demons of hell. He opened his mouth to speak.
“That shot… was perfect. He didn’t move an inch; he dropped straight down. I have never killed a deer so well.”
I looked at him, not understanding the words he spoke. They came to me as echoes in a cave, and it took a few seconds for them to register. I realized I was holding my breath, and I let it out forcefully.
“R- Really? I hit him?”
“Let’s go look.”
If I live to be a hundred fifty years old, and every other memory has abandoned me in the vast wasteland of spent time, I will remember that 60-yard walk in my grave and beyond. The winter-beaten grass had magically turned a resplendent emerald green; the soft chirping of the birds had swelled into an angelic symphony; and the beams of sunlight could be plucked from the air and transformed into golden eagles to be relaunched into the azure sky.
I watched as he got bigger the closer I approached, and I saw the wind riffling the hair of his tail. His antlers, to me, were eight mighty columns of granite and oak. I knelt beside him, and I saw the blood on his shoulder. I began to weep uncontrollably.
The Old Man didn’t move, didn’t say a word. He knew.
In that moment, he remembered his first buck, and all the first bucks of every boy who had hunted on my people’s mountain for the last thousand years. He remembered his tears, and theirs. The electrifying surge of emotion, of joy and despair and pride and shame all rolled into a ball of raw feeling that only great, heaving bellows of sorrow could begin to loosen.
I looked up at him, sobbing. “I want to give it back. I want him to live. Please help me to give it back to him.” It was the first time I had ever asked the Old Man for anything.
He knelt beside me, and put his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t flinch; somehow I knew no blows were coming.
“Every boy who kills his first buck wants to give it back its life. Remember, the deer gave his life so that you can live, and protect his progeny through the years by protecting this, their home. Our people have had this relationship with these deer since the beginning. Now your duty begins.”
He placed his rough hands on my cheeks, and leaned forward until his forehead touched mine. I saw his eyes close. “ Remember him. Honor him by protecting his as long as you live. You owe that to him, and to his, and to yours. And you owe it to the mountain. The mountain sustains and protects all of us, man and beast.”
He then reached down with both hands and wet his fingers in the buck’s blood. He raised his hands and ran them down my cheeks, leaving red trails that mingled with my earlier tears.
“You took your first step toward being a man today,” he said. “’There will be many more, but the first one is always the hardest, because that’s when you’re most a boy and least a man. It’s behind you now, though, and you took it well.”
He stood, reached into his pocket and pulled out a whistle. He blasted on it loudly, and a few seconds later we heard an answering blast from where we had come.
“Ham will be here in a bit to help us move him. We’ll go ahead and gut him so the meat ain’t got no chance to spoil. In the morning, we’ll help you skin him and get the head and cape ready to go to the taxidermist. Ham’ll take him and get him ready for the Kelvinator after that.”
He stretched, and just before he bent down to begin he looked at me.
“Damn fine deer, son. We’ll call your mama and tell her. She’ll be proud.”
Then he smiled at me.
After a second, I smiled back.