The wind shifted and had begun to blow steadily from the east, carrying with it scatterings of snow. I laced up my boots and shrugged into my wool jacket and walked out the backdoor of the cabin for an armload of wood. The days had been steadily growing shorter and now at six-thirty in the evening the sky was already ink-black with no stars visible. I felt for the woodpile in the dark and stacked four big chunks of well dried split cherry in my arms.
Back in the cabin I unloaded the cherry-wood by the old cast iron stove and wadded up newspapers to line its scrubbed cast iron bottom. I peeled curled shavings from one of the cherry logs until I had a big handful of kindling. I put the heap of kindling on the newspaper and put one log behind and another in front of the dry shavings. The other two logs I put cross-wise on top of the others directly over the kindling.
I scratched a blue-tip match on the side of the stove and touched it to the base of the newspaper and kindling. Within a few minutes the fire-licked top logs began to crackle and I shut the stove door and opened the damper.
I cleared the table of my supper dishes, washed and wiped them, and put them in the cupboard. I spread the remaining newspaper on the round kitchen table. From the cabinet beside the rough brick chimney I took my cleaning kit and my Winchester carbine and positioned my chair so I could watch the fire dance on the logs through the fire-blackened glass panel in the door of the stove.
With my smallest screwdriver I carefully removed the tiny brass screws on each side of the lever action on the Winchester and removed the trigger assembly. I screwed the copper brush onto the end of my cleaning rod and dripped a few drops of pungent solvent into the barrel. A good dozen strokes of the brush through the barrel scrubbed away all the tiny lead deposits and filled the kitchen with the acrid sharpness of the solvent.
I pushed a clean cotton rag through the barrel to clean the excess solvent and then dripped gun oil on another rag and ran it through until the smell of solvent was gone. I replaced the trigger assembly, carefully snugging the little screws tight without scratching the brass receiver. I wiped the rifle down with the oily rag and worked the lever, snicking the hammer back a few times making sure the cocking mechanism was oiled. I put the Winchester and the cleaning kit back in the cabinet and took out a box of shells. I wiped each one of the heavy .45 caliber slugs and held them up to the light to make sure the soft lead hadn’t been deformed. I put the shells one by one back into the box and tossed the oily rag into the stove to watch it whoof into a little fireball.
I cranked the damper knobs of the stove closed and spread my big goose-down comforter on my bunk. Stripped down to my red flannel union suit and snuggled under the warm blankets I closed my eyes and relaxed. I blew out the candle and its smoke smell mixed with the solvent still faint in the cabin.
My stomach growling hungrily, interrupting my warm sleep and I padded to the kitchen. The mantel clock showed five a.m. and I fixed breakfast hurriedly. I scrubbed two potatoes under the kitchen sink and sliced them into the frying pan. I carved cylindrical pieces of a big sausage and smashed a clove of garlic with the flat of my knife and put it all in the pan with some olive oil and salt. I covered the pan and checked the fire in the stove. It was down to a bed of glowing coals so I climbed into my worn down duck overalls and wool jacket and went out to the woodshed. I planned to be away from the cabin most of the day and I wanted the fire to last. Dry cherry burns hot but it also burns fast. Finding two pieces of still-wet locust wood in the corner of the shed, I carried them into the cabin and chucked them on the coals. Sparks flew up the chimney and the wood began to hiss juice out of the log ends.
I ate breakfast right out of the frying pan with a fork and washed it down with cider. The cider wasn’t fresh and had grown hard and I relished the alcoholic heat as it slid down my throat. I filled the blue enameled coffee pot with water and sat it on the stove. While the water heated I ground black coffee beans and the grinding of the beans and the burning wet locust and the snow falling softly covering the bushy green branches of the pine tree outside the kitchen window made me happy.
The water began to hiss and I sifted the finely ground beans into the water and put the lid on the pot. While the coffee percolated I crumpled a rolling paper and thumbed dark shag tobacco down the center and licked the paper edges and twisted a smoke.
The coffee was almost boiling over the blue enamel lip of the pot and I lifted it off the stove holding the handle with my flannel shirttail. I poured a cup of cold water in the pot to settle the coffee grounds and filled my mug. I sat and looked at the fire and sipped the hot coffee while inhaling my first smoke of the day and waited for Andrew to arrive.
He had never hunted before and he had a lot to learn about the woods and I hoped he wouldn’t be a pain by making noise and ruining my chances for a good kill. The guy was always late.
I whetted the edge of my skinning knife while I waited and made sure to spend extra time honing the gutting hook on the top of the blade. Gutting a deer isn’t the prettiest job in the world but a razor edge makes it a lot easier. I heard boots stomping up the sidewalk outside the kitchen door and I slid my knife into its sheath and put it in the pliers pocket of my overalls.
Daylight was only forty minutes away at most and I wanted to reach the swampy marshland before the deer started moving. The kitchen door slammed and Andrew came in bundled up like a damn Eskimo and stomped snow on my clean kitchen floor.
He pulled an almost empty pint of schnapps from his hip pocket and asked if I wanted a drink. I told him I didn’t and he took the last pull off the pint and wiped his lips with the back of his hand and slid a new pint out of the chest pocket of his worn cotton bib overalls. He said he’d been over at the VFW playing cards and winning all night which really meant that he’d lost twenty bucks and spent the evening drinking schnapps.
I laced my boots and put on my fur cap pulling the ear flaps down and tying the chin strings. I grabbed the Winchester, a box of shells, and my shooting gloves from the cabinet and slung my field glasses around my neck. Andrew and I left the cabin and I shut the cabin door behind us and felt a skiff of light snow falling on my cheeks.
We walked softly without talking and hopped in my old 1967 Chevy pickup. I backed it up to my utility trailer and got out and hooked it up. I drove slowly and quietly down the rutted lane with the lights off. It was still pitch-dark but I knew the way. Andrew rode beside me surprisingly and abnormally quiet. I suspected he still had a considerable headache from the night before.
As long as the wind came from the east our scent would remain downwind from the deer nestled bedded in the tall grass and cattails of the swampy land bordering the steep ravines of the woods bordering the swamp. I parked the truck and utility trailer where the rutted lane ended. We got out quietly and I thumbed shells into the tubular magazine of the Winchester and worked the lever action to chamber a round. Anything which required noise needed to be done before we reached the swamp. Pulling the hammer back with my thumb I carefully pulled the trigger and let the hammer down slowly on a live round. All I had to was snick the hammer back to take a shot.
Andrew’s rifle was a prehistoric looking 30-40 Krag with a wooden fore stock that extended almost to the end of the barrel and must have weighed most of twenty pounds. It was the first U.S. army rifle to use smokeless powder and it had replaced the legendary .45-70 just in time to charge up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. The rifle was about as near sighted as Teddy Roosevelt too. I’d bet a paycheck that Andrew wouldn’t be able to hit the broad side of a barn door with it. The Krag fired a heavy round and at a hundred meters the bullet dropped almost nine inches. To compensate for the drop the Krag had a popup Vernier rear sight and if you could estimate range and decipher the meter markings you could be extremely deadly with it.
Andrew was a horrible shot but I knew how badly he wanted to hunt with me so I was charitable and didn’t mention it. He was an earnest guy who always wanted to be good at something but never was any good at anything and I think that’s why he’d started drinking. He was very good at drinking.
After a long walk we neared the edge of the swamp and I placed each footstep carefully to avoid cracking a stick or rustling leaves. Andrew followed right behind me like a little boy holding onto to his dad’s pant leg, afraid of getting lost in a crowd. I motioned him with my hand to take the high corner near the wooded ravines and he understood and obediently trudged toward the tree line.
I walked toward the tall sycamore overlooking the marshy grass and cattails and sat down quietly against the tree indian style. I sat with the Winchester across my lap and waited for the sun to rise. Long before light the woods began to waken.
There is no such thing as silence in a forest and after your ears adjust you begin to notice how sounds that normally wouldn’t register in your brain become noisy. The sycamore creaked every time the eastern wind gusted against its bare branches and my breathing sounded loud and out of place in my own ears. Furry tailed squirrels scampered from branch to branch above me and crows cawed noisily from beyond the swamp. I hoped Andrew had the patience to stay quiet. It began to get colder and I knew daylight was not far off.
The sky streaked and in the new light I could see the cattails glitter with a light coating of frost and snowflakes. A field mouse less than a foot away and unaware of my presence nibbled his breakfast and groomed himself with his paws. My toes were getting cold so I wiggled them back and forth in my boots and waited.
Time ceases to exist in a normal way when you’re in the woods and you no longer think about hours and minutes and seconds. You only notice the sun’s progress in the sky and try to position yourself so the sun won’t get in your eyes and keep you from noticing movements.
I slid the field glasses from my neck and glassed the swamp and the tree line. I could see Andrew clearly through the glasses and he was scratching his underarm noisily and his rifle was leaning, barrel up, against a tree. What an idiot. I hoped he wouldn’t end up scaring off our deer.
I felt a flicker of something moving in the brush behind me and slowly turned my head and looked through the field glasses. A fat doe was quietly moving through the brush and warily looking in my direction. I held my breath and waited. The doe moved out of the brush toward the edge of the swamp and began to graze on the grass covered by a thin layer of snow.
I stayed frozen in place and I knew that the doe was scouting danger for the buck and if she smelled me she’d warn the buck with a flash of white tail. She reached the swamp and continued grazing. She couldn’t smell me. But bucks have a much sharper sense of smell and I knew he was close and I wanted him badly.
I waited and waited and hoped Andrew could stay quiet and not ruin my morning by scaring off the buck that surely must be close by. I leaned back against the sycamore slowly and the butt of my Winchester bumped the bark and a blur erupted from the swamp so fast I couldn’t follow it. I swung the Winchester up and sighted three inches ahead of where the thick neck of the buck joined his shoulders and squeezed off a round. The rifle cracked sharply in the thin cold air and I waited for the buck to drop. But he kept running.
My stomach contracted and for a split second I thought of how embarrassing it would be to not bag this buck and then I fired again and the buck continued to run. From the high corner near the wooded ravines a massive roar blasted and the buck reared up like a rodeo pony and dropped heavily.
I looked through the field glasses and the buck was mashed down into the swamp grass and I could see steam coming from a hole behind his thick dust colored shoulder. I slung the glasses around my neck and walked toward the swamp with my rifle hanging limply from my hand.
My boots broke through the thin skim of ice covering the swamp and water came up over the matted grass where the buck had been bedding only fifty yards from the sycamore. I approached the buck carefully with my rifle cocked and resting against my shoulder. A wounded deer is dangerous and men have been gutted by their sharp hooves stabbing straight out like a push dagger.
But this deer was dead. His tongue was hanging out of his mouth over his funny shoveled out front teeth and his mouth was full of swamp grass. I uncocked the Winchester and laid it on a clump of dry grass. Andrew walked toward me in a wobble with his Krag slung over his shoulder like a caricature of an infantryman and asking over and over “Did I get’m, Did I get’m?” What a doofus.
I leaned down and took my sheathed skinning knife out of the plier’s pocket of my overalls and asked Andrew if he wanted the honor. He shook his head from side to side and looked like he might vomit. I pulled the neck of the buck taut with my hand holding the underside of his jaw and ran the sharp edge of the skinning knife across his throat and severed the jugular vein. Blood poured bright from the gash smelling of hot copper and soaked into the faded brown swamp grass.
I cut off the scent glands and then opened the belly carefully with the gut hook on the back of my blade. I sliced lightly in a straight line and the escaping breeze of open gut smell almost turned my stomach. Andrew looked away while I scooped out the gut sac and gently removed the intestines.
I left the guts for the coyotes and Andrew and I slung the buck over our shoulders and burdened with fresh meat we walked away from the swamp westward to where the truck and utility trailer were parked. We loaded the buck onto the utility trailer and got into the pickup. In the distance the cabin sat snow covered with a thin stream of wet locust wood smoke wafting from the rough brick chimney and drifting toward us pushed by a steady eastern wind.