The Best Hunt Ever
The time of year was the late fall. The air was beginning to whisper the first vestiges of the impending cold. Winter was coming. The nights were clean and crisp and the warmth of an extra thick favorite quilt was anticipated. The leaves again rested on the ground. Gray bushy tailed squirrels busied themselves with the current crop of acorns. This was the time of year when the seasons and nature exhibited their inevitableness to man and also his insignificance. Man would come and go; the seasons, however, remained. With the onset of winter also came the yearly ritual expression of manhood cognizant to man in general but extremely relevant to the rural inhabitants of North Alabama: hunting season.
This season would have been my fifty-seventh year at deer camp. It was as constant to me as my birthday or wedding anniversary. When hunting season arrived I would go just as surely as the geese flew south or the bears hibernated. This was as immutable a fact as the sunrise in the east or the direction in which the river flowed. It was just the way things are. However, this year I would not go. Age and the related infirmities would prevent my partaking in the two magical weeks of the hunt I enjoyed so very much. At my wife’s insistence, I had a check up by the young Dr. Henson. I had suffered a bronchial infection earlier in the summer. The old Dr. Henson had retired several years ago and his son had taken over the practice. He pronounced me fit for a man my age. He recommended that I not go to the camp. He would be hunting, as his father and I had for so many, many years before he also was forced to desist. He told me it was the cold that could set in causing rheumatism and pneumonia. The risk was excessive. To go would be a severe detriment to my health
In a way saddened yet in another relieved, I acquiesced to the inevitable. I would not go. As the time approached I listened to the talk, wondered who would get the “Big Buck” several had seen yet never fired a shot, thought of the cold clear nights around the campfire, the songs sung by men who sang for the pure pleasure of expression and not caring how they sounded, the wild pungent taste of freshly killed venison broiled over an open hardwood fire, and the mellow sweetness of the ever present jugs of Boss Henry’s moonshine. And there was the hunt: the timeless encapsulation of survival; the moment at the pinnacle of life and death between man and beast when man knows he has won and the animal will die and be eaten. It is as basic an instinct to man as his desire for the company of other men and safety or for women. It is what has allowed him to continue to exist. The kill is final. It is the ultimate experience. The animal dies, is butchered, cooked and eaten. Man survives. It is one of the basic essences of humanity.
I sat in my rocker and enjoyed the warmth from my wood-burning stove. Like the open campfire, it provided a special type of bone warming deep heat. My wife was in the kitchen preparing something for an upcoming church function. I began to doze and my thoughts began to wander. Then, as clearly as if it was yesterday, I remembered my first hunting trip.
I was twelve years old. The rule was one didn’t go to deer camp until after his twelfth birthday. Many were the sad children who turned twelve a week or so after the season began. A whole year is a long time to wait. And, when finally allowed to go, to think he would be able to join the men in the hunt was a huge misunderstanding. The function of camp boy was to keep the fire going, to bring water up from the frozen creek, boil, and keep it thawed near the fire, air out bedrolls and quilts, to remove and bury all trash from the camp site, to split kindling, and to wash pots and pans for the camp cook. The camp boy was usually allowed to accompany an older relative or close older friend to a hunting stand maybe two or at most three times. There he was to watch, learn, stand absolutely still, and most of all to listen and keep his mouth shut. Then maybe, just maybe he might be allowed to handle a shotgun for a possible shot. Meat was too important to lose due to inexperience or buck fever. The families or several men depended on venison for a major part of their food for the winter.
This would be my first deer camp. I had turned twelve in August. It was time for me to go. The week of preparation before departure was a blur of anticipation, packing, studying the weather, talk of prior hunts and the one upcoming, and then unbearable anticipation. The day arrived when we loaded everything for the last time into the wagon and left for the hunt. We would travel all day, camp overnight, and then reach deep woods camp at about ten the next morning. I was so excited the last night I could barely sleep. Finally we began the trip. I had known the accompanying men my entire life but now they were different. There was a relaxed freedom they now exhibited I had never seen before. Their mannerisms and language was a little looser, they wore rougher clothing suited for the woods, and just were different when not in the civilized world and in the presence of women.
Five men attended. There was Henry Johnson, Harold Sims, his brother Seth, my cousin Hap, and Red. Red was the oldest. Being a bachelor and having been hunting more times than anyone could remember, he was the accepted leader of the group. Henry was next in age followed by my cousin and the others. Red was a small wiry man. His face had been burned by the sun so many times it was the color of tanned leather. His eyes were a light blue and if the reason he was called Red was because of his hair color he should be named Baldy now. Since he wore an old slouch hat all the time it really didn’t matter. Red had not been feeling too well lately. He just had been out of sorts, nothing specific but a little quieter than usual, moving a little slower, and seemed to be slowing down altogether. He just said he had a touch of rheumatism and would be fine as soon as he got to deer camp.
The night on the road was an exercise in frustration for me. It seemed like I just couldn’t do anything right. No one complained, but they let me know in a multitude of ways I had failed to do a task correctly. I was determined to learn. I had to anticipate the job needing done, not just wait to be told. I was exhausted when it became dark, tiredly ate my beans and biscuits, and barely made it into my quilt rolls. I’ll never forget the sounds that night. The mules stomped, snorted, and shifted their large powerful bodies. The fire popped and snapped and sparks flew into the satin sky. The men sat around the fire and the conversation went from specific sentences and words to a low distant rumble as I faded into sleep. Occasionally one man would stand and walk a proper distance from the fire to relieve him self. This was a world of men and I was among them. Diamonds would have paled in comparison to the brilliance of the stars.
The morning came hard and cold. Breakfast was left over biscuits and cups of hot steaming coffee boiled with the grounds in the enamel coffee pot. I did better with my chores and actually received an occasional nod of approval. We arrived at camp mid morning. The rest of the day was spent in setting up tarp shelters, dragging deadfall, cutting firewood with a cross cut saw, splitting kindling with an axe, unpacking and securing pots, frying pans, flour, bacon, and everything we had carefully packed. Plans were made for an evening hunt. We needed meat for the pot. First kill always went for the camp.
Early in the afternoon the men began to prepare for the hunt. Shotguns and rifles were removed from padded gun cases. The guns somehow matched the personalities of their owners like old married couples seem to resemble each other after so many years. They just naturally fit. The gray steel barrels and mechanisms were well oiled; the stocks rubbed with linseed oil, and favorite vials of scent and deer musk glands were attached to hats and rubbed on clothes. It was a ritual, a rite of preparation that hopefully would lead to fresh meat for the next day. The men spoke in reserved voices. Each wanted to be the first to draw blood. It was the first hunt.
They departed about an hour before sundown. I was left in the campsite alone. I felt as if I was the king of the world. A loaded shotgun was left on the wagon seat. I was to use it only in case of a wild animal attempting to attack the mules or to keep varmints out of our food supply and then only as an absolute last resource. If I touched that gun something dangerous had best be dead when the men returned. I knew it was a test. The gun remained on the seat. I busied my self with hauling water, cutting firewood, and doing the dozens of small yet necessary chores required for the camp to function.
Then, right at sundown, in the distance I heard a shot. It was from a rifle so it was my cousin or Henry. There wasn’t a second shot. That meant it was either a complete miss or an immediate kill. A few minutes passed then two shots were fired in the air. There was a kill. It was now definite. The other men would gather to assist with bringing in the dead animal. I lit several lanterns, hung them appropriately, and added hardwood to the fire. Hot coals would be needed for cooking. Next I filled the large iron kettle halfway with water and set it near the fire. I began peeling potatoes and cutting onions. There would be stew tonight.
Within an hour the men had returned with a large doe. She was gutted, skinned, quartered, dressed, hung on the meat pole, and the heart, kidneys, and liver were simmering in the large iron cook pot. Biscuits were baking in a Dutch oven in the glimmering coals. Dinner was wild and wonderful. Tonight Henry had succeeded – he had the first kill. Even if he didn’t kill another deer or if another hunter killed several, Henry had the first of this hunt. The men sat around the fire and first magical jug of moonshine appeared. The talk was low yet animated. This would be the best hunt ever.
The men left in the cold morning before dawn. By midmorning there were four kills, that evening was two more. Every hunter had killed one; my cousin and Henry had killed two. The next two days were without success, but on the fifth three more were killed. No one could remember a better hunting season. Late on the evening of the sixth day rang out another shot, then the signal for assistance. When the men arrived at the camp their looks and carriage showed something was very wrong. They were dragging a large buck and carrying a bundle wrapped in a blanket. It was Red, and he was dead. It appeared he had started dragging the large deer alone and had collapsed.
Red was dead. The men were in shock. Red was wrapped in a quilt and placed in the back of the wagon. Discussions were made to depart the next morning. As the men sat around the fire after dinner they began to talk about Red and what a great friend and hunter he had been. The jug appeared again and was passed with frequency. The talk centered on what a great hunt this had been and what a pity it would be to have to end it early. The plan was to remain for another week. Never had the hunting been so good. Hap asked what Red would have wanted them to do if it had been him who had died. Not the same, all agreed, because they all had family. They had a right to know. Red had none. Try as hard as they might, nobody could recall Red ever mentioning kin. The talk then eased into that the men around the fire were the only family Red had, or a close to it as anybody else and since there wasn’t anyone else they must be it. And, since family was what counted, and since they were all here together, and since Red would never have wanted the best hunt ever to end on his account, the only solution was to finish the hunt.
It was not as if Red would be any less dead in a week. The weather was cold so he would keep, so no problem there. In fact, what more proper wake would Red would have wanted? None of them were upset about having a corpse in camp. After all, it was Red. He was just the same as he had been the day before, almost anyway. About this time I went to bed. Being only twelve years old and the only one in the camp who was both alive and sober I felt my opinion was not solicited nor would have been appreciated.
The morning came hard and cold. So was Red. Believe me; I’ll never forget the sight of Red standing propped up against the wagon. Story later came out that since Red was dead and all that the least they could do was let him stand close as to still be part of the hunters. He was too stiff to bend so he could sit next to the fire so they leaned him against the wagon. Due to the liberal application of moonshine they sort of forgot to put him back to bed. Well, being sleepy and all and it was almost dark, I walked around the cook tent to get some firewood and ran right into him. Red bounced back against the wagon and then fell on me. My yell would have done credit to an Apache brave’s scalping an enemy chief. Everyone woke up. But it wasn’t my fault and I told them so. They should have warned a kid that he was going to meet a corpse face to face next to the cook tent.
I told them I was not staying at camp with a dead man. I knew my place and would do as supposed to, but no way was I staying alone all day with Red. No, I wasn’t afraid or anything, but it wasn’t right. Everyone knew two men had to remain with the deceased all the time. I wasn’t but twelve and there was only one of me. I wasn’t going to do it and they couldn’t make me. This caused a problem they hadn’t thought about. They knew I was right. Again, the opinion was what Red would have wanted them to do. Since this was the best hunt ever the situation demanded adaptations, so one man would stay with Red while the others hunted. Then it was decided that it wouldn’t matter if one man stayed with Red at the camp or at the hunting stand. Red would have wanted to go along anyway. There were four days left and four hunters; not counting Red, so each would bring Red along one day.
I’ll never forget the sight of the men leaving shortly thereafter. Three slipped quietly into the woods, the fourth, my cousin Hap, had Red tied in a wheelbarrow with his rifle across his chest and was pushing him along as quietly as he could. The hunt went well. Two more deer were killed. Thankfully Red was kept out of sight that night but I was sure careful in the morning. Henry took Red the next day and killed a large buck. That night the jug came out again and somehow Henry got it into his head that Red told him the buck was coming and to get ready. This started an argument about who would bring Red the next day. Hap had already had his turn, and Henry had a big buck, so Harold and Seth tossed a fifty-cent piece and Harold won.
The evening again passed as before, but now Harold seemed to stay a little closer to Red so as if to hear anything he might advise about how to hunt the next morning. I was caught off guard and offered Red some biscuits at dinner and Harold said something to me but the look I gave him caused him to keep quiet. The moonshine was passed and again the morning was cold. Red sort of slipped my mind as I was excited to be going with my cousin Hap for my first hunt and I killed my first deer that morning. He wasn’t real big but he was by God a buck and I killed him. I’ll never forget the smell of the warm blood as Hap dipped his finger into the bright satin and then wiped it liberally on my face. I had been blooded. I was a hunter. Harold also got a buck. He swore Red told him it was coming.
That night was the coldest yet. Firewood was heaped on the fire and since we were leaving the day after we weren’t worried about using it all up. I guess the same applied to the moonshine. I went to bed and wrapped up against the biting cold, the others sat around the fire with Red and the jug went around and around. When the singing started I knew they had reached a pinnacle not yet approached. They were drunk. I went to sleep. The cold woke me up before daylight. The embers of the fire glowed and I knew how cold it would be at daylight so I stood, wrapped a quilt over my head and shoulders, and went for more firewood. Being half asleep and almost frozen I didn’t see anything unusual, but when the firewood flamed up and lit the darkness I nearly died.
Somebody had left Red next to the fire and he was cooked. In fact he was still smoking. I again let out an Indian scream that woke everyone up and when they saw what had happened all stood in disbelief next to the fire. They tried to blame Seth because it was his turn to watch Red but he blamed Harold because he said his turn didn’t start until the morning. Anyway, Red sort of stood leaning against a barrel and was cooked all the way through. One of Red’s blankets was found and he was wrapped up and placed in the wagon. It was decided that it was time to go home. Red was dead, they had more venison then ever and it was bitter cold. I didn’t add that they were out of moonshine too and since we were leaving anyway it didn’t matter. So we packed up and left a day early. On the way home it was suggested strongly that I wouldn’t talk about what happened to Red. I agreed.
I was dropped off first and sort of put it all out of my head except that I had my first kill. I’ll never forget the taste of the tenderloin mother cooked the night after we returned. It was my deer. I had killed it. The men handled the situation with Red. Father asked me about it and I didn’t say much, I do know that he, mother and cousin Hap had a long discussion about it behind closed doors. Nothing more was ever said but I later heard that Dr. Henson and the preacher were really mad and when they were through with them the Doctor was going to have them arrested but the preacher talked him into making them put a new roof on the church.
My wife just called me; its time to go. I’ve been on my last hunt. But I’ll never forget my first.
Here's to you, Red!
uuuuuh dude thats really weird. I love hunting and all, but carrying around a dead guy at camp and what not is kind of disturbing
a toast to Red... and I hope my last hunt is like his, and not the authors.
AMEN!! And don't stop hunt'n on my account either!