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for people who care about the West

Legend of the gray-headed hunter

 

Red sky at morning, hunter take warning," I told Jimmy Jack Mormon, as we stumbled along a frozen rutted road in the Montana dawn.

"Ssshhh," Jimmy ordered. "You're warning the deer."

"Oh, they've already heard about me," I whispered back.

I'd missed two the evening before. Beautiful does, both, stepping carefully out of a willow thicket and pausing in high grass, luminous with late sun. Two clean misses at pointblank range. "What we've learned here," said Jimmy, "is that for some hunters, buck fever applies also in the case of does."

This was our last chance.

It had seemed a great idea, to hunt deer for the first time at age 60. Because I have a taste for flesh, I ask myself to kill it at least once in a while. So I have decapitated chickens, helped in hog butcherings, and taken the lives of fish and small game.

In the blind, the size of a small Dumpster, we opened our thermos, releasing an uncomplicated bouquet of coffee and Irish whiskey. Jimmy lit a Marlboro. "Great," I said. "They're geniuses of smell, you know."

"They like tobacco. The Indians trained 'em."

Besides being my old friend and publisher, Jimmy Jack Mormon was also my hunting guide, lending his expertise in exchange for half the venison, if we got any. His Bozeman-area friends had welcomed us to their ranch, a sumptuous grassland with stands of small trees and plentiful water. They preferred that we take a doe, which according to Jimmy was the better meat anyway.

"There," he said. "Too dark to shoot, but track her in your scope. Get the look of her."

"Good thing we're talking about deer," I murmured. I couldn't find her, let alone track her; couldn't get my eye positioned right.

But the dawn light was growing, opening the lush meadow. The rut was still on. Two young bucks and several does materialized, doing a skittish, hormonal ritual you might see on Friday night at a rural A&W. The does were saying Get lost, guys, and one of them emphasized her point by heading our way, maybe 50 yards from the blind.

"You'll never get a better shot," whispered Jimmy. "You see her?"

I did, then didn't. In the scope, the whole round world kept going dark.

"It's now or next year, chief. Sight her up and squeeeeeze the trigger."

I squinted and crammed my eye up close and there she was. I set the crosshairs high on her left shoulder and squeezed. Felt the recoil on my shoulder and face. She bounded -- once, twice -- and was gone. I groaned, but Jimmy was already scrabbling out of the blind. "You got her," he said.

I knew he was wrong, but I ran after him, vaguely aware of warm fluid dribbling from my right eye. We circled in the tall grass, but she was nowhere. "I'm oh-for-three," I said.

Jimmy Jack addressed me with vast tolerance. "I think I found her blood here," he said, "but I'm not a good enough tracker to tell it from your blood. Kindly clamp your bandanna to that eye and back out of the investigation."

He found her, lying on her side. A dead deer had bounded twice. I wasn't sorry and I wasn't happy. I was awed by her beauty. The liquid eyes, the clean borders of white and beige hair, the perfect ebony hooves. I went down on a knee and thanked her. Then I hauled her by her back feet -- for a goddess, she was amazingly heavy -- out to the road.

Later, as Jimmy and I helped the ranch foreman field dress her, I was almost nauseated by the hot smell of innards as they tumbled out, steaming, on the frozen ground. We all carry that inside us, that too-rich odor of warm guts. Anyone who eats meat should smell it at least once.

Stiff after hanging two hours at the ranch, she rode unceremoniously on her back in the truck bed, legs splayed, as we sped west on I-90. Now I was giddy, wanted to drink shots and beers in Missoula, but we were due in Lewiston that night. Jimmy said I looked like I'd been wearing a rough-edged monocle for a month.

"This'll work out just right," he said. We climbed the Bitterroots over Lolo Pass and pulled in to Lochsa Lodge at 9 p.m. Jimmy clambered into the back of the truck to cut out the tenderloins, nestled along the spine.

"Can we do this?" I said.

The place was lively with hunters and nocturnal tourists. It was teriyaki night, and the cook was delighted to substitute our tenderloins for their beef and reduce our tab. As we waited, a guy at another table called over, "Hey! I see you got your scope-scar!"

It wasn't ridicule, it was a welcoming. I grinned and ordered him a beer. The tenderloin medallions tasted like no meat ever. They tasted like grass, like leaves. They tasted like wind on a cold, clear, late-fall morning.

John Daniel, author of Rogue River Journal and eight other books, lives and writes in the Coast Range foothills west of Eugene, Oregon. His latest book, Of Earth: New and Selected Poems, was published in September by Lost Horse Press.