The Old Man - Deer Hunt
It was the morning of the third day. After two full days of remaining in one spot, the Old Man figured he had the entire landscape memorized. From the entangled patches of dense thicket off to his right, to the stillness of the pines on his left, from the rotted roots of an ancient stump at his left knee, to the nipped ends of honeysuckle vines under his right leg, the Old Man knew it all. Each muscle in his back was also accustomed to its own particular section of tree bark, and the ground beneath him had become packed hard from the hours upon hours of sustained weight.
The hardwood forest behind him he had become familiar with in yet another way. There were three squirrels that fed on the forest floor behind his stand. He need not chance the motion of looking around the tree, for their sounds were as familiar as the visual surroundings in front of him. The Old Man felt a definite kinship with this section of ground, and now in the third day, he could sense any changes that would indicate a deerís presence.
He had always believed that the single most important factor in being a proper deer hunter was to first establish this intimacy with the land, then the deer. There was an orderly succession of events in all of life, he thought, for its true meaning to be revealed. A step or two may be left out or rearranged and lead to the same end; however, the meaning could be lost, or worse yet, never found. The Old Man felt very strongly about the orderly events in life. The hunting of deer, he had discovered, was no different.
The solitude that the deer hunting provided was important to the Old Man. It enabled him to concentrate on simple things... like the cold. It was a peculiar thing, the cold. If you fought the cold, it could make you quite miserable in a matter of seconds. A man just couldnít fight the cold and come out a winner. He had found that worrying about being cold was much worse than actually experiencing the cold. If a man accepted the cold as a friend, then he was rarely made uncomfortable by it. That line of reasoning made plum good sense to the Old Man, and better than that, it worked.
The most important value that the Old Man understood about the cold was the resulting appreciation of warmth. He took it for granted so often but the cold made him remember. He remembered the complete contentment that a fireplace provided after the cold. The warmth was wonderful, and as equally pleasing were the sounds. Even the simple sight of the fire brought pleasure.
He remembered the warmth of his bed and the homemade quilts piled high on top. He missed the presence of Sarah and her warmth. She had been the single most important reason for him to look forward to returning home after a hunt. The Old Man missed her terribly since her death, and the pain of her absence had not eased.
A blue jay screamed from within the thicket and the Old Manís eyes cut sharply in that direction. Another jay answered from the pines as the sunís first color showed above a ridge to the Old manís left. He slowly moved his hands from within the oversized sleeves of his blanket coat to the Tennessee rifle in his lap. The chill of the cold wood spread quickly to his elbows. He watched carefully for a full five minutes until the jays became quiet and then eased his hands back to the warmth of the woolen sleeves.
The solitude of the hunt also made him appreciate the presence of others, something he actually tired of rather quickly. He reckoned that he was basically a loner, although he fully realized that total isolation brought on a loneliness which was difficult to deal with. He had thought long and hard about the first pioneers of this wilderness whose strength, in his opinion, had not been equaled. He wondered how their loneliness might have changed them, but he felt that he completely understood their excitement in seeing new country. He envied them and silently applauded their spirit.
He remembered the excitement of his own children when he returned home from a hunt in his younger days. Stories of the land and the hunt would go on for hours. He remembered making sandwiches out of the fried back strip and the children marveling at the sweetness of the meat. More than anything, he remembered them asleep in his arms and the happiness he felt about his home. Home. What a wonderful word, he thought.... Home.
A squirrel suddenly began barking in the thicket and the Old Man strained to see through the entangled understory. He moved his right leg two inches to ease a cramped muscle and brought his right hand to the rifle.
The Old Man thought of his days growing up. He thought of his parents and the home they had given him. He remembered their strength, in good times and bad. It was unfaltering strength that never was budged, and when tested became stronger until his very character was built from their simplistic faith in the strength of their principles.
The sun began to warm the left side of the Old Manís face, and as he turned ever so slowly to gain the full effect of this simplest of pleasures, the deer was suddenly there. The Old Man heard no sound, saw no movement and felt nothing different, but directly in front of him were antlers glistening in the sun. The buck was forty yards away, standing perfectly motionless behind a fallen tree. Then the deer moved, fluidly without sound, until his entire body was framed by a patch of early morning light. The vapor of the deerís breath hung momentarily in the cold air, and the muscles in the deerís shoulder tightened with the weight of each step. The weight on the long rifle tested the arms of the Old Man, but the stock fell comfortably into place at his shoulder. The deer looked nervously in his direction at the ďclickĒ of the set trigger, and the air was suddenly filled with white smoke from the shot. The Old Man heard the deer run into the pines and fall.
The smoke still lingered as he stood from his seat at the tree. His legs were wobbly from their non use, and he walked slowly toward the pines. The deer was laying twenty yards inside the evergreens, resting peacefully in a soft bed of honeysuckle. The Old Man sat beside the deer and rested his rifle in a fork of the massive beams. He thought of the wonderful gifts that he had been presented in his life, for that is exactly how he felt about the beautiful animal before him. He thought of the fine supper he would share at camp tonight with three of the best friends a man could have. He could smell the coffee, biscuits, and butter. He could feel the warmth of the fire.
Suddenly, the Old Man was very sleepy. The sun shone warm on the honeysuckle through a hole in the pines, and as he smoothed the hair on the deer, he thought that there was no reason to hurry. He had finished the field dressing and was in no rush to be anywhere. Time was not important to the Old Man. Not anymore. The Old Man stretched out in the honeysuckle beside the deer. The muscles that had remained cramped for so long were now relaxed, and he thought that this was as comfortable as any bed he had ever known. And, as the Old Man found sleep, he thought that where a man can find peaceful sleep and a good supply of warmth, heís home. Home.