Winter Has Come

This morning is a winter wonderland in my part of Georgia. The frost is a blanket of white covering everything in sight. The thermometer at the farm reads 22° and I am layered up like an Eskimo. The guys are wrapped up with only their eyes visible. Steam blowing through their face wraps like smoke from a chimney.

It reminds me of feeding hay to the cows. Dad is driving the truck, creeping through the pasture behind the barn. I’m in the back with 20 bales of hay or so. The old square bales. A pocketknife to cut the twine. Chunking off sections of hay to hungry beasts.

The cows bellow and steam rises into the morning air. They are so close they rub the side of truck, pushing and shoving to be the first in line for chow. It makes me think of the chow line at Camp Thunder. Boy Scouts pushing at each other for bacon and eggs. In some ways we are not so different than cows. Food in. Food out. Heavy breathing on a cold morning. At least it seems so to a 14 year old boy.

There was a time when I would eagerly sit in a deer stand on a morning like this. The full moon making the walk through the woods easy. Wool socks. Insulated boots. Thermal underwear. An apple in my pocket to rub on the bottom of my boots. Another apple to rub around the base of the tree. Thinking I would somehow fool the olfactory senses of the White Tail. An extra apple to eat when I got hungry.

The first hour in the stand was not bad, even at this temperature. But sitting still generates no body heat, and soon the warmth of your clothes and the climb into the stand gives way to the chill of the air. A slight shiver starts to make you wonder how long you’ll have to wait. The squirrels move around seemingly oblivious to the cold. Just another day of gathering acorns and hickory nuts for them.

I remember one morning like this as clear as if it was yesterday. It’s funny how some memories are foggy and vague, but some are like a movie played over and over in your head. I walked through the fields up to Uncle Clem’s house. He had been gone for a while. As I walked past the house, a light was on inside, and I knew Aunt Mary Eliza was stirring around. No one but herself to cook for, but still sticking to a routine she had known her whole life. I passed quietly with only the sound of my steps crunching the acorns from the huge Water Oaks that surrounded the house.

I slipped through the gate and past the old barn. To me, the barn was like a sleeping giant. No cows or hogs or mules had stirred inside its musty cavern for years. A piece of an old wagon with spoke wheels slumped to the ground just inside the shelter. Chains and pitch forks and leather straps and single trees hung from nails on the wall. The stories it could tell lost to another generation.

About 50 yards behind the barn stood a large triple fork Sweetgum in the middle of the narrow neck of the pasture. A thicket of briars and privet and small saplings had grown up around it like an island. My stand was built between the forks above the thicket. I push through the briars dipping and pushing to the base of the tree. Big spike nails driven into the tree provided the way to make the climb.

I leaned my gun against the trunk and pulled out a small ball of twine. Back then we bought all of our hunting and camping gear at the Army Surplus store. My twine was army green, about 20 ft. long with an aglet at both ends. I still have it in my hunting coat. One end tied to the barrel so it wouldn’t slip over the sites and the other end looped over my wrist. The chamber empty, I pulled my rifle up and quietly as possible, levered the bolt and put one in the chamber. Now I wait.

Everything looks different from up here. As daylight begins to break, I start to notice the sun hitting the upper most tips of the tree above me. The shivers have set in and I’m watching the sunlight move down the tree like a sun dial, anticipating how long it will take for it to get to me. To start to warm up a little.

I notice a Redtail Hawk perched up high in the Oak across from me. As good as he is, he seems not to notice me. The finches are twitting around in the thicket below me and in the dry leaves on the ground. To a boy, every sound is the sound of a buck coming up behind you, just out of sight.

When the hawk leaves his perch, he flies right past me at eye level, not more than 10 feet from me. I can see the color of his right eye and the details of his feathers. To this day, it’s the closest I’ve ever been to a hawk. He works the field off to my right, gliding just above the broom sedge that is nearly waist high. He dives in and soars off with a mouse in his talons. Breakfast is served.

I’m watching the hawk disappear into the trees on the opposite side of the pasture, and when I look back an eight-point buck is standing about 30 yards in front of me. I never heard a sound. I have no idea where he came from. He’s looking straight up toward the barn, steam rising from his nostrils. Perfectly still.

I’m no longer conscious of the cold. I’m slowly making adjustments with my feet, knees and butt. I flip the safety off and bring the gun stock to my shoulder. He dips his head and right back up. He looks my direction. My heart is pounding and my hand trembles slightly. He turns his head back the other direction without ever taking even one step. He is cautious.

I draw the perfect bead on him in my cross hairs and squeeze off my shot.

I never knew a deer could jump so high from a dead standstill. I thought he was going to turn a back flip and flop to the ground right there. Instead, he hit the ground on all fours and bolted out across the field and disappeared into the edge of the woods on the far side of the pasture. It was all so quick I never ejected my shell. I thought I had missed.

I put another bullet in the chamber and waited for about ten minutes. Nothing moved except the finches below me. When I got down to the spot where I thought he was standing I couldn’t find any blood. There was no way I could have missed that shot. I had carefully noted the broken Pine limb in the edge of the woods where I saw him go over the terrace and into the woods. So, I walked straight for it.

When I got to the top of the terrace, there he laid 3 feet below me. I was ecstatic. When I backtracked through the field, I could see about every 20 feet there was blood spatter in the broom sedge, like it had been thrown from a cup. He had run about 100 yards from where I first saw him before he collapsed. It was impressive and unbelievable and beautiful all at the same time. The frost. The cobalt blue sky. The stillness. The hunt. The walk home. It was only 7:05 AM.

That’s what I think about on a morning like this.