The Old Man - Game Wardens
The Old Man moved the sapling ever so slowly with the back side of his hand. The deer were in plain view now, moving steadily away along the edge of the clearing. The two fawns followed closely behind the larger deer, and although they were no more than forty yards, the Old Man could detect no sound. There was no wind and the dying sun’s shadow line had risen to the top of the ridge behind the feeding deer. The Old Man could feel the coolness of the shaded valley and thought how quickly the temperature could change in the fall.
The deer disappeared into the cover of a tangle of vines and blowdowns. The Old Man rolled over and looked skyward through the hardened leaves of autumn’s colors. After a while, he stood, collecting his flintlock rifle in one hand and a mess of squirrels in the other. It had been a fine day, he thought, as he coaxed his stiffened legs to move in the direction of camp.
A good camp is a wonderful luxury after a long day in the woods. A good camp is a simple camp, and this is a good camp the Old Man thought, as he stared into the growing fire. The coffee was prepared and ready. Its aroma blended nicely with the burning hickory. He could occasionally smell the creek, too, however, it was a mystery to him how water could be smelled. But it was true. He could smell rain in a cloudless sky or a river from a ridge two miles away. And with that thought, he headed for the creek.
The effect of a cold creek on a tired, dirty body is a true gift from the Almighty. The Old Man likened it to a good night’s sleep for cleansing the spirit of its problems. He remembered his first trip to the Smokies and how for days, it seemed, he did nothing but lay in those cold mountain streams looking skyward at the mountains. He lathered and completely submerged.
“I sure hope I’m not interfering with anything religious.”
The Old Man peered through wet eyes and could see Jake sitting crosslegged in the grass. He was smiling.
“That’s just like a sneaky game warden to all of a sudden appear from nowhere.”
Jake snapped a piece of grass and carefully placed it between his teeth.
“Safer that way... I’ve learned.”
“So be it,” said the Old Man as he picked gravel from the bar of soap. “You care to bathe now or do you enjoy being dirty?”
“I got squirrels to clean first.”
“How many’d ya get?” The Old Man continued squinting, his eyes still wet.
“Four. And you?”
“Four. Make a fine supper after I prepare some proper biscuits.”
“Yessir, I will agree to that.”
Jake got up and walked toward the camp. The Old Man could see clearly now and he studied the young man as he moved toward the fire. Jake’s gait was smooth and deliberate. He made no unnecessary noise, and in the woods always accompanied his quick whisper with hand signals. Jake turned, as if suddenly remembering.
“Your eyesight failing or something? How come you shot seven times and only got four...?”
“Beat your thirteen shots,” the old man stated defensively.
“Ain’t quite fair comparing my .22 pistol to that... that thing you’re carrying.” Jake’s hand gestures accented his words.
“Mine only shoots once and then I gotta spend a full minute reloading.” The Old Man returned the hand motions. The bar of soap squirted free and skipped across the water.
“Yea, and who made that rifle?”
“Henry Jacobs. A man I’m proud to call my friend.” The Old Man probed the creek bottom for the soap, whispering, “should’a brought that floatin’ kind.”
“And isn’t Mr Jacobs the finest rifle builder in the entire state?”
“That he is, my friend. Maybe the entire world.” The Old Man retrieved the soap only to have it escape again like a live fish. He reached back after it with a long brown arm.
“I rest my case,” Jake concluded as he continued toward the camp.
“Go clean your squirrels!” the Old Man yelled after him, and disappeared completely beneath the surface of the water in pursuit of the elusive soap bar.
The meal was a genuine feast. The young fried squirrels were tender and sweet. Beans, onions, tomatoes and fried potatoes were all devoured with the enthusiasm of the men’s extended appetites. The Old Man’s fist-sized biscuits were continued into dessert with real butter and homemade peach preserves. The after-supper coffee was steaming hot and strong.
The Old Man placed some new wood on the coals, pushed his wooden camp chair back a bit and very deliberately prepared his pipe. Through the firelight he studied the younger man now staring into the glowing coals. Jake’s face and arms were a reddish brown from the constant exposure to the sun and the hair on his arms was sun-bleached blonde. His eyes were clear and blue, but they looked older than his years. The Old Man remembered how it had been to work mostly alone day after day, night after night. He remembered how, after awhile, everyone became suspect because of the constant lying. A close friend became even closer because there were so few that could be totally trusted. Times that were spent with those close friends actually became celebrations because then, and only then could you totally relax and let your guard down. Game wardens had close friends or generally they had none. There was no in-between. That didn’t necessarily mean that game wardens didn’t have friendly acquaintances, for one of the most meaningful rewards of the job were the hundreds of really decent people that you met; however, your time off was valuable and for the most part private. You shared camps with only those who were trusted. At least, that’s the way it had been with the Old Man.
They had not spoken for twenty minutes. The fire popped.
“You still like it?”
“Sometimes I hate it.” He paused... “but when I think of not doing it, I get sick inside.” He looked across the fire.
The Old Man smiled. “I can’t say as I ever hated it, but I questioned it and that’s almost as bad. I used to feel guilty because I loved the work so much and I wanted everyone in the whole world to love their work as much as I did. I guess what bothered me the most was that very few people understood any wildlife work, much less what I wanted them to learn about some very simple principles that were important to me.”
Jake smiled. “Like what for instance.”
“Like caring enough about whatever they were hunting to learn so they could respect. When there was respect, there were never any problems.”
“That’s true. What about your family?”
The Old Man laughed. “Sarah gave me a rough time. For ten years she never let me forget that it had to be sinful to get paid for something you loved so much. But then when the check would come, she’d raise the roof ‘cause they didn’t appreciate me enough to pay a decent salary. There was never any money.”
Jake laughed. “Nothin’s changed. The only reason the money bothers me is because it bothers her and the real reason it bothers her is because there are things she’d like to buy the kids, but....
“But you learn to survive and I ain’t so sure that’s not the most important part, ‘cause when you’re in a surviving situation, your priorities become real clear.”
They laughed together. Jake reached toward the coffee pot.
“Pour me another cup of that stuff there, please sir. We might just solve the whole world’s problems right here by this fire tonight.”
The Old Man used a wet sock to hold the hot handle as he poured two more cups.
“I can’t think of a better time than now.”
Jake resumed his relaxed position in the camp chair and propped his feet on a large rock at the edge of the fire. He hesitated before he spoke.
“I’ve always wanted to ask, but figured it was none of my business. It’s still none of my business.”
A cool breeze moved the leaves on the limb above the fire. It was gone as quickly as it had come.
“Why’d you quit?”
The Old Man returned the blackened pot to the fire. He smiled that familiar smile.
The shot raped the stillness of the night. Jake took a a sip of coffee.
“Now that bothers me. I mean really. That bothers me a lot. I cannot take two days off and get lost out in the middle of nowhere with a good friend without that happening.”
He threw the coffee out in disgust. “They could’ve gone anywhere in the whole country, but no, they had to pick right here.” He paused. “Where you reckon?”
The Old Man relit his pipe. “Old Spring Road.”
Jake was pacing. “Did the shot sound good to you?”
“Me, too. We could be wrong though. So you think we could be wrong?”
Jake disappeared into the tent and immediately came out sliding a holstered pistol onto his belt.
CONTINUED from Friday, March 10 edition:
“You want to go?”
“I’d love to.” The Old Man rose from his chair and within seconds, Jake’s truck was moving steadily toward Old Spring Road.
The Old Man cut a plug of tobacco and carefully inserted it in his jaw.
“Want a chaw?”
Jake was trying to drive as fast as possible without his lights, but the new moon was little help.
“No thanks. Always had a fear of getting’ hit and swallowing it. I’ll wait til after, if you’ll save it.”
“Sure thing.” The Old Man rolled the window down. “What do ya think?”
“I think they’re caught, if they’re where I think they are. That road dead-ends at the creek.”
The Old Man spit out the window. “Let me out here.”
“I’ll meet you down at the spring. It ain’t over four hundred yards from here through the woods. Give me time to get close.”
Jake stopped the truck and the Old Man disappeared into the blackness of the woods. He could hear the truck’s tires on the gravel as it moved away. He hurried through the timber, going down the hill toward the spring. After a while he slowed down so he could listen, and immediately he heard the thrown beer can hit the gravel and roll. Next he heard low voices, and finally, after sneaking closer to the spring, he saw the truck and the three men inside. He eased to within fifty feet before stopping and sitting with his back against a giant oak. He could smell the dead deer. It was a strong, sweet smell that one never forgets.
“Let’s get out’a here.”
“No!” I said. “Ten more minutes and they’ll come back out in that field. We need two.”
The driver flipped a cigarette in the direction of the Old Man. The Old Man’s heart was slowing down after the hurried walk.
“I hear something.” The man in the middle was nervous.
“Somebody’s coming,” said the driver. “Get out and throw that deer in the bushes.”
The doors on the truck opened and two of the men quickly lifted the deer out and started toward the Old Man. They stopped only twenty feet away and dropped the deer. They ran back to the truck, but a fallen tree limb sent one man sprawling.
Suddenly the night exploded with blue and white lights. The two men getting back into the truck froze, unable to see with the bright lights in their faces. The Old Man heard Jake’s voice from somewhere behind the lights.
“State wildlife officer! Step out of the truck and put your hands on the hood.”
The two men assumed the position, but the driver remained inside.
Jake persisted. “Get outta the truck! Now!”
The door opened and the man slowly moved to the hood. Jake approached the men and the Old Man moved closer.
“What are you fellows doing’ down here?”
“Drinking a little beer. That’s all officer.”
“What’s that on your hands?”
“Uh... paint... yea, we painted a barn today.”
Jake moved to the back of the truck.
“What’s this back here? This paint, too?”
“Nossir, that there’s blood. We killed hogs this morning.”
“Kinda early to be killing hogs, isn’t it?”
The drive spoke. “I’ll kill hogs anytime I feel like it and it ain’t none of your business.”
Jake remained very calm. “Well, I’ll tell you friend, when hog blood’s got deer hair with it, then it’s my business. Where’s the deer?”
“What deer? Don’t you know nothin’ ‘bout no deer.”
Jake looked inside the truck. “You got any guns in here?”
The driver yelled. “Don’t you go snoopin’ in there lessin you got a warrant!”
“You got a gun in here?”
“What’s this then?” Jake pulled a lever action 30-30 from under the seat.
The driver started toward the door. “You ain’t got no...”
“I said keep your hands on the hood!”
The driver did just that. The nervous man broke from the truck and ran smack dab into the Old Man standing three feet behind him.
“Where ya going there, son?” The Old Man spit tobacco juice on a flat rock and eased the double barrel shotgun to the other arm.
“Nowhere,” mumbled the man from the ground as he arose and returned to the truck.
“The deer’s over here,” said the Old Man. Jake dragged it out to the road while the Old Man watched the men. Jake radioed the sheriff and within thirty minutes a car arrived to help with the transportation back to town. They talked before Jake left.
“I hate that this had to mess up our trip.”
“Mess up? What mess up? I’ll have breakfast cooked by the time you get back and we’ll have the world’s problems solved before dinner.” The Old Man shifted his tobacco. “Want your chaw now?”
Jake took the tobacco and smiled. “C’mon, I’ll take you back to camp.”
“No, think I’ll walk. It’s been awhile since I’ve walked at night.”
“Suit yourself. I appreciate the help.”
Jake drove off.
The Old Man started out through the woods and the memories returned.... memories that his greatest fear, back in the years when he did that sort of thing often, was that no one knew exactly where he was. Half the time, even he didn’t know exactly where he was in the woods at night without a light. He remembered fearing falling in a hole and starving to death before anyone could find him, but the chances of that happening were slim. And besides, you have to figure the odds when working at a job where you make so much money. Makin’ money is a risky business.