I watched it gasp until the last; legs scissoring against the air, gaining a foothold on nothing except the remains of life that ebbed from its body.
As I watched the little deer die, I felt the bittersweet tinge of remorse I always feel as a hunter. Killing is a hard thing. I’ve killed thirteen deer now and in all those times, the feelings of seeing something once alive, dead or dying at my hands are complex. Sure, I was out here with the intent to kill. Not to harvest mind you—but to kill. Wild things shouldn’t be insulted by the sanitized, mechanized idea of planting and picking. Hunters kill, they do not harvest. And so in that hunting I look for sign—the cloven trace of tracks in the mud, the worn trails through the woods; the lamp-like blaze of a tree trunk rubbed bare or the sign posts of musky soil pawed underneath a branch chewed to frazzle. All of these are things I seek to lead to me the most likely place to sit and wait—and kill. It is hunting and I relish the opportunity to do so. It is fully premeditated –purposefully planned with the intent to ultimately watch what was unfolding before me. And so why did the lump lingering in my throat not dissolve confidently to the resolve of a thing done right? Why was I regretting the fatal calculus of the accurately placed cross hairs; the .308- 150 grain copper bullet and the easy pull of the little Savage Model 10’s firm trigger?
I didn’t feel the recoil. I never seem to. The rifles report still rang in my ears though and the flock of chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets that had noisily invaded my tree just moment before had flown away. There was the firecracker-Fourth of July smell of gunpowder that lingered beyond the sound of the shot and birdsong. And there was the sound of leaves falling and a deer dying.
I sat there, watching it kick. Watching it gasp for breaths that were becoming shallower and shallower. The tarsal gland on the little deer’s hocks was erect and white as a boll of cotton. Its white tail flipped weakly but would warn nothing anymore. And the blood pumped out from the mortal neck wound, redder than blood I thought. It was fresh with oxygen spent from the little deer’s body. The bullet found the mark I set it on and had done its work to efficient end. The lump in my throat lingered. Life was over for the little deer. Did I need to end it still?
I’d hurried out here, to the local property to hunt because the weather was turning and it felt to me like the deer might appreciate the fall to cooler weather. The hunting has been limited this year with travel to places far away from the deer woods at the times when the deer folk are romancing. Just last week, I was celebrating life in spades—bird spades- “deep in the heart of Texas”. Everywhere I looked there were new feathered things to see-flitting, flying, swooping, swimming and soaring. The part of me that stalks with binoculars with only the listing intent was sated in the watching. Although I saw raptors hunting to kill there was no lump in my throat for the slow sparrows or careless field mice that would die to make more Aplomado falcon or northern harrier. And so why was I feeling this now?
The hurry to get out there; my decision to set up on a place where the tracks littered the muddy track and my lack of “luck” on the few forays I’d made into the deer woods had lead to this. I eschewed the convenience of my ladder stand to climb up a spindly loblolly a short ten minute walk from the truck to put me on top of a trail where a couple of deer had sneaked in behind me a couple of weeks before. I wouldn’t be fooled again with deer slipping out the backdoor. I’d rationalized that walking all the way down to the river bottom where I believe a mature buck skulks and hides in the cane and privet tangles was not worth the effort today. Last I checked the freezer the supply of sausage and burger was almost gone. Today needed to be something more than hopeful for horns (I know, antlers correctly). Today was a set up for “success” if such a thing can be defined by killing. But there I was, up there watching my “success” flail at the last tethers of life; eyes fixed staring to nowhere; blood pooling on the clay.
Maybe it was because it had been so easy. I’d been in the stand less than an hour and there was a dead deer on the ground. Maybe it was because I’d made such a science of the thing. The wind had been in my face. I’d gone in mid-afternoon-scurrying away from work and responsibility to get into the woods at an odd early afternoon hour. I climbed in a different place on top of a trail that I more than suspected the deer would use. And then I’d hung a little wick of scent—doe urine—on the branch in front of me to cover and entice. And then I sat back, watched the squirrels scamper the day away, and wondered almost aloud if the deer would be too close to shoot. Truthfully, this was a perfect setup for someone with the archer’s skill. But I had a gun.
After a half hour in the stand, the quarrelsome crows that kept flying back and forth and the lisps of the feeding flock of songbirds that loitered around the edges of the old logging deck where I’d set up this ambush no longer held my attention. Maybe it was the MSG from the sesame chicken or the simple peace that overcomes me when I get into a tree stand that caused me to drift off. But I closed my eyes, half-slept—half daydreamed and all the way relaxed. The squirrels stirring were obviously not deer—too sporadic too light afoot. I dozed. The chickadees called and the ruby-crowned kinglets chattered. I peeked through the slits of my sleepy eyes and the leaves fell in the slight breeze blowing across my face and the tiring sun, taking scent to the trail according to plan. I dozed. And then, there was something there that was different. I knew before I opened my eyes. There in the woods, winding its way through the wisps of pine saplings was a deer. I was fully awake now.
The deer was small and it stepped with caution like deer folk on alert do. Its tail was tucked nervously and it bobbed and weaved in the piney shadows trying to catch scent or sight or sound of something. I shifted when it looked elsewhere or stepped behind a tree. I reminded myself of the plan for venison and eased the safety off. It knew that something was different, that the opening it was used to crossing was heavy with another scent—another’s presence. Deer, contrary to myth, do look up and this one did-right at me. I looked away so that the predator’s stare didn’t give me away. The little deer—maybe a small doe—was growing more nervous by the second. It looked at me and tasted the wind. Another second or two, another molecule of the wrong tint, a glint off my glasses and there would be a snort and white flag waving in the woods. When it stepped behind the next tree, I placed the crosshairs at the base of its neck.
The deer didn’t drop as I’d expected it to. Instead, it plowed forward in an awkward and violent dash to escape but without its front legs that would have just moments before taken it in lightening quick leaps to safety in some darkening tanglewood. My aim had been true and now I watched the result. The little deer came to rest in front of me; kicking, flailing, pawing, gasping, bleeding—dying. I watched it all with the lump in my throat going nowhere.
For those who’ve not know this feeling, you don’t stand guiltless. The ribeye that was once a steer bled when the captive bolt dropped it to its knees in the kill pen. And the acres of soybeans that were once forest or prairie along with the highways, tractors, trucks and processing facilities it takes to make tofu shed blood too. For me, here, on this day—death was not some distant thing done by someone else or resolved by a piously “greener” lifestyle, it was my deed. That the life ending not fifty feet in front of me was that of a yearling buck, hair covered knobs clear now in the light of the fading day was a mistake of sorts. “Buttons” are supposed to be off limits by those in the know. They are the princes of the woods and if left to grow will maybe become the heavy antlered bucks that will create much angst and admiration. The stickers on my pickup window claim that I hunt “quality” deer. Was this such a deer? There were no heavy antlers, swollen neck or musky hocks to brag about. But it was a life, valuable by no less measure of blood pumping out than I now witnessed. There was flesh too. Not as much of it as from a mature deer but it is sacred in its origin and will sustain no less than another’s flesh and certainly way more than antlers ever could. My remorse was born I think of killing so easily and with such efficient calculation. Maybe it was that I had killed a youngling that maybe didn’t have a chance to learn better. Perhaps I should’ve guessed by the solitary and unsure behavior that this was a young male, silly with curiosity. But I do know that it’s the way of things in the woods. Young, old and infirmed find themselves in such dire straits—by tooth, claw, talon or time.
I hunt and will continue to proudly do so. The lump in my throat slowly found its way south and I resolved the guilt with what my expectations as a hunter and human being are. The death that I caused and the life I watched ebb away into the clay will likely be lapped at by coyotes tonight under a waning moon. The venison will be in the freezer in a few days. There will be joy and reflection in the feasting—and life regained too. My questioning will continue, as I believe it should with all killing that comes from the hunt. Life ending by any means we cause should require that. If and when that questioning ends, whether it be with a doe’s lithe form lying in a weedy fallow field or a buck’s burly one resting fatally in the fallen autumn leaves, the blood staining the scene ought always give us pause.