By Bob McCrillis
“George, he’s just too young,” my mother snapped. “It’s bad enough that you allow him to hang around with the men, but twelve is too young to hunt with a big rifle.”
“He’s plenty old enough…”
She cut him off, “You just want to show him off. What happens if he gets hurt? He’s just too young.”
“Get dressed, Patrick,” he said to me. “We’re going hunting.”
The Old Man’s spare red-plaid coat and pants were scratchy and hard to walk in and the his red hat kept falling in front of my eyes but I was beaming when I got back to the kitchen. My mother stood at the sink with her back to us. She was scrubbing a pot as if she wanted to take the enamel off. She didn’t say a word when we left.
The snow-covered roads were a bit of a challenge but we slid into camp about two in the afternoon. Judging from the cars, Danny, Charlie and my uncles Connor and John were already there along with others whose trucks I didn’t recognize. At least there’d be a fire built already and we wouldn’t have to wait a half hour before we took our coats off.
We clumped through the door, stomping the snow off our boots to a chorus of “where the hell have you been, George?” Everyone in the room knew that the Old Man worked Saturday mornings, but they teased him anyway.
Someone yelled, “And I see you brought the marksman with you.” The praise didn’t fool me – I was just a kid with a little rifle – but I lapped it up anyway. It gave me an identity in the group. If the weather wasn’t too bad, the men might even challenge each other to shooting competitions with my .22. Of course, the beer consumption assured that I was the only one who could hit anything.
The Old Man sent me back up to the car to get the stuff out of the back and the rifles. The stuff consisted of half a dozen huge cans of beef stew, three dozen eggs, bacon and Wonder Bread. Oh, and two cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
The poker game had already begun. From what I could see through the haze of cigarette smoke, my Uncle John was the early winner. I set the food and the beer on the floor in the corner away from the woodstove – didn’t want beer to get warm – and looked over to the Old Man.
“You ready to go, Patrick?” he asked. When I nodded that I was, he heaved his coat back on and steered me toward the door by my shoulder. He grabbed his deer rifle from the rack as we got to the door.
“Now we know why you bothered to bring the rifle, George,” Danny laughed, “you’re going to let the marksman get you a deer.”
Uncle John chimed in, “Better watch out, Patrick, that rifle hasn’t been fired in ten years – probably still got the cartridges your father got when he bought the damn gun.” It was a running joke that most of the men came on these hunting and fishing trips to get away from the wives, drink beer and play cards.
“You know, Paddy,” Uncle Connor said, “one year your father left that .30-30 in the back of my truck for the whole season – never even missed it.”
“Yeah, Connor, but I took plenty of money off you, now, didn’t I?” Then he turned to me, “Never mind those jokers, boy. Let’s get you set up to get a deer.” And he shoved me out the door.
We walked down an old logging track that turned off the camp road. I watched for deer sign in the thin snow and reveled in my adventure. After a mile or so, he handed me the rifle. Then he dug into his pocket and brought out what I thought of as the sacred cartridges. The very ones Uncle John claimed were older than I was. Whether they had actually reached the mythical age my uncles claimed, the shells were certainly old. They were decorated with green streaks of corrosion on the brass and black goop on the copper jackets. They looked like talismans of some ancient ritual. Since he never left the camp, he never loaded or fired his rifle so the cartridges lived on year after year. I hoped they would still fire.
“Load the rifle, but don’t put one in the chamber yet.” He led me off the track and through the trees and heavy brush to a muddy little trickle that ran roughly parallel with the trail. He pointed to an opening in the dense brush on the other side of the stream.
“That’s where they’ll come out, if they’re around. See the hoof prints?” He turned back to me. “Got your whistle?” I nodded. “Good, use it if you need to move around. You don’t want some jerk to think you’re a deer. I’ll pick you up before it gets dark.” He started back toward the logging trail. He turned and yelled, “I’ll signal with my whistle when I get close so don’t shoot me.”
Well, here I was, just me and my rifle – Daniel Boone junior.
The stiff late-November wind was making my ears and nose sting and my eyes water. I needed to be downwind but sheltered if I wasn’t going to freeze solid before any deer showed up. A little ways downstream the ripped up roots of a downed maple made an eight-foot-high mound and a crater I could hide in. I’d be protected from the wind and still have a clear shot at any deer crossing the stream. The crater wasn’t even very muddy.
Before settling in, I worked the lever of the old .30-30 to load a round into the rifle’s chamber and lowered the hammer to half cock safe position. Nothing to do now but to wait.
An hour went by, then another. The watery sunlight faded into twilight, and near darkness under the trees. The moan of the wind in the trees and the gurgle of the stream combined with the warm envelope created by my oversize wool jacket put me in a kind of trance. I sat with unfocused eyes, snug and dreamy becoming just another lump in the landscape. The cold and change of the light didn’t matter to me any more than it did to the rocks at my feet or the stump I leaned against. My consciousness was just idling.
Something changed. A doe had materialized on the other side of the stream. In the half-light, she was almost invisible. I didn’t move. She sniffed the air, seeming to sense danger nearby. I didn’t move.
She stood at the edge of the stream – almost like a paper target. Awestruck, I watched her. Questing for the scent or sound of danger, she moved her head slightly from side to side. I just watched. As she lowered her head toward the muddy water, I remembered that I was supposed to be hunting.
In slow motion I raised the rifle. She tensed. I froze. Her muscles quivered. She was ready to bolt for sure. I steadied the front sight on her chest just behind the shoulder at the same time drawing back the hammer to full cock. I don’t remember squeezing the trigger or feeling the heavy kick of the rifle against my shoulder.
When I opened my eyes – I must have closed them before I fired – my ears rang and the doe was down. She struggled for a moment trying to get up, but couldn’t get her legs under her. I worked the action of the rifle to be ready for a second shot – allowing a wounded animal to run off and die in the brush somewhere was a cardinal sin in the code that even the drunken men back at camp observed.
I didn’t need to shoot her again. Her legs twitched a few more times, then she lay still. Her buck and the rest of the tribe abandoned her. I could hear them crashing off through the brush.
A dozen hesitant steps brought me to the edge of the stream where I could see her clearly. Her huge brown eyes were open but no breath stirred her chest. She lay still. Her tongue stuck out the corner of her mouth like she was concentrating on a really difficult problem. But she would never solve it. She would never again do anything, run or eat or give birth. Time paused for me as we regarded each other in this rude chapel. Did I apologize? I don’t know. Did I cry? I think so.
Heart pounding, I crossed the stream and stood over her. What was I to do now?
As if in answer to my silent cry for help, from upstream came the sound of heavy bodies thrashing through the brush and a voice yelling, “Paddy! Paddy, where are you?” then the screech of a police whistle. It had to be the Old Man.
I dug out my whistle and blew it in answer, but stayed with my doe. Eventually the Old Man burst out of the brush on the other side of the stream, followed shortly by my Uncle Connor with a whistle in his mouth. Why had they been so far upstream? Did he start drinking and forget where left his kid?
As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened. He and my uncle had been searching farther upstream for nearly an hour. Before they went back to camp to raise a larger search party, they’d decided to work downstream a little to see if they’d come across me. The gunshot brought them to investigate.
My old man walked over to the deer, pushed the body with his foot, then looked at me. “Damn, Boy,” and shook his head.
“What were you planning to do, Paddy? She needs to be dressed out or some of the meat will spoil,” said Uncle Connor.
“I don’t…I wasn’t sure…”
“Come on over here and I’ll guide you.” He looked at the Old Man and asked, “unless you want to teach him, George.” The Old Man was clearly not interested. He shook his head and lit a cigarette.
“You’re going to start by making a vee cut just below her breast bone, right about here,” Uncle Connor said, jabbing me in the chest. His eyes landed on my rifle where I’d left it propped against a tree. “Damn it, Paddy! What in the hell were you thinking?” He grabbed me by the shoulder and shoved me over to the tree. “Is there a round in the chamber?” When I nodded yes, he snatched up the rifle, “And it’s at full cock ready to fire. That’s how people get killed, Boy!” He fired it in the air. “Just that easy.” He tossed it to me. “Unload it, and make sure there’s no chance of anyone getting shot accidentally.”
“Give him a break, Connor, he was excited and wasn’t thinking”
“Would that have brought either of us back from the dead if we’d stumbled over that rifle?”
Uncle Connor paced back and forth for a minute then waved me back to the doe. “Now cut along her belly pretty much where the brown fur changes to white – yeah, right there. Not too deep. You don’t want to punch a hole in her guts – it’ll stink to high heaven and crap up the meat. Now across the legs and up under the tail.”
He looked over at the Old Man and laughed. “He’s a little squeamish, George. Haven’t you told him about the birds and bees?”
“I know about that. It just smells bad, that’s all,” I said defending my twelve-year-old dignity.
“Yeah, sure. Now you’ve cut the skin all the way around, just roll her over on her side and yank it and everything should come out.”
I did what he told me. “Shit!” I had to jump back to avoid a wave of deer guts. Both men were laughing.
“Give me that knife, Boy,” Uncle Connor said, “I’ll finish up while you get some of the slime off your pants.”
He took the knife from me, reached up into her chest, made a couple of cuts and pulled out her heart and lungs. “You need a bigger knife, Paddy. You keep this one nice and sharp, but the blade isn’t long enough.” He held a bloody, dark red chunk of meat out to me. “This is her heart. You see what your bullet did to it?”
“Yeah,” I said, pretending I knew what an intact deer heart should look like.
“And look here. You got three with one shot!” He pulled me over and lifted a pink bulb about the size of a softball with a tracery of deep red threads running through it.
“You don’t know what you’re looking at do you?” He motioned me closer with his chin and carefully slit it open. Inside were two greyish translucent bags, each containing a little grub-like creature maybe as long as my finger. When he opened the little sacks, it was clear that each embryo had a big head, huge eyes and four leg buds pointed with tiny hooves.
Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! I won’t throw up. I won’t throw up. I won’t…
“She was pregnant with two fauns, Paddy!”
He laughed and placed the babies back on the pile. He squatted down beside her, silent for ten or fifteen seconds then he stood up. With his bloody finger he made two stripes on my left cheek. “You’ve taken your first step to manhood, Paddy.”
“Jesus, Connor!” the Old Man whined, “We don’t do that shit. We’re not living in the jungle for crissakes!” But, he didn’t tell me to wipe my face.
The three of us carried my doe back to the camp. “Your sister is going to pitch a fit if he shows up with blood on his face, you know.” Uncle Connor didn’t bother to say anything. He just smiled.
Back at camp, we tied a rope around her neck and hauled her carcass into a tree to cool. We propped the legs apart to let air circulate through the purplish-red bloody body cavity. She swung from the limb awkward and graceless, turning slowly one way and then the other. The Old Man stood for a moment with his hand on her side.
“Make sure you clean that damn rifle before you do anything else. Then see what you can do the rinse the blood and shit off your clothes.” He lit a cigarette and walked away from the camp toward the lake.
Uncle John came out as we were finishing. Through the open door I could hear the Old Man bragging about my hunting skills and turning my twenty-five yard lucky shot into a two hundred and fifty yard proof of superior marksmanship. My uncle closed the door behind him and walked around the carcass. “Connor help you clean her?” I nodded.
“A clean one-shot kill,” he looked at me and the marks on my cheek. “Good.” He followed Uncle Connor down to the lake.
I’ve never killed for sport again.
Bob McCrillis was born and raised in a small town in Maine. He and his wife Linda have four grown daughters and four grandsons. The couple now resides in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where they are both deeply involved in an organization that uses therapy dogs to help children cope with learning difficulties and emotional stress.