photo of mourning doves

He was born October 6, three days after the rising of the full moon that American Indians call the Hunter’s Moon. Inspired by the season, we christened him Thomas Hart, his middle name meaning stag. It’s also the word Europeans use for elk. In fact, I had been bowhunting elk under the waxing of that moon not one week before his birth. Lying on a bed of spruce boughs, I’d been thinking about impending fatherhood when an impulse caused me to sit up in my sleeping bag and reach for my bow. I made a wish and sent a cedar arrow arcing over the basin. It was a silly thing to do, pinning my hopes for the child’s future on the midnight flight of an arrow. I’ll admit they were as much about me as my child, a dream that one day we would hunt these mountains together.

HE WOULD NEED WHAT HELP I COULD GIVE HIM. I had come to hunting when it was accepted as a natural part of a boy’s upbringing, when it took little more effort than setting down the books after school and changing from one jacket into another before slamming the back door. My own son or daughter would be brought up in a world of suburban sprawl and organized play, where just getting to the woods took time and planning. Then, too, he would have to contend with a nation that secured its protein under plastic wrap while casting disapproving eyes at a marginalized tradition. A part of me wondered if it was worth the effort to indoctrinate someone into a culture so archaic that its followers took note of the lunar cycle, when the majority of people systematically insulated themselves from nature, scarcely noting even the stars.

But this was just one dark thought in a night of little sleep, and when I hiked out of the basin to help bring a child into the world a few days later it was with a lighter heart.

Sensitive Start

From the beginning, Tom seemed bent to his own path. Despite baby photos my wife, Gail, took of me holding him in the crook of one arm and a Hawken rifle in the other (there also was a Godfather-inspired photo I snapped involving a severed elk head–that one Gail promptly burned), my son’s nature seemed to lead in a direction opposite of hunting. Although athletic, he was a small boy, lost in the clod-hopping melee of the soccer field, where he could be found contemplating the clouds more often than kicking at the ball. Naturally introspective, he formed an identity very early as an artist. His favorite medium became watercolors, his favorite subjects the moose, elk, bear, and bison we saw on trips to Yellowstone Park. The animals were beautifully rendered, presented in anthropomorphized portraits like pet dogs or horses, with simple color washes for backgrounds. Missing was the habitat, the context of the animal in its natural environ that the hunter looks for, and the predator-prey dynamic that drives nature’s engine.

Once when he was 4 or 5 years old, my wife and I found him standing quietly in the garage, awkwardly patting the thick coat of a cow elk I had shot, which was hanging from a gambrel roped to a rafter.

“Good ulk,” he said. “Good ulk.”

Gail motioned to me to back away. “Tom’s so softhearted,” she said when we were alone. “Will it disappoint you if he doesn’t hunt?”

I told her it wouldn’t and almost meant it. I understood that the wishes I sent with that arrow were selfish, and like most new parents, I had quickly discovered that all that really mattered to me was his health and happiness. My only regrets if he didn’t hunt would be that he might not know me better, nor share with me the bonds that hunting engenders. My own father’s life had been shaped by family tragedy, the Great Depression, and war, and at times it made him distant. But his voice was more relaxed on the days we were afield, and there was less stress in the hand that guided the swing when I hefted a shotgun or that led me across the deep part of the river. We were closest then, and a part of me couldn’t release the hope that something of the same thread would someday connect Tom with me.

Philosophy Lessons

My quest to raise a hunter was helped by living in Montana. Antler tines poking above pickup rails were everyday sights in autumn, unremarked and unfrowned upon, and in our home venison was not only a sacrament of the hunt but the only red meat we ate. I like to think that when Gail said a blessing at holiday dinners, giving thanks to the antelope or elk that had given its life for our sustenance, Tom listened.

Once, when Tom was approaching hunting age and it was just the two of us on a long drive to visit family near the Canadian border, I surprised myself by talking to him about the sport as if he were my contemporary. This took courage, because if he rejected my feelings on the subject, in a way he would be rejecting me. I started by explaining the cycles in nature, the notion of an animal’s demise and decomposition enriching the soil. I told him that in death there is life, and that to me hunting was a way of keeping an ear to the earth and submersing myself into the bloodstream of the wilder-ness. I tried to make him understand that every corner of the dinner plate was the same, and that even the strictest vegetarian participated, if unknowingly, in clearing the land and eliminating deer and other animals that would otherwise live there. To be human was to kill. That was unavoidable. What mattered were the ethical underpinnings of hunting–killing with respect to the unwritten as well as the written rules. A hunter, a man who lived up to my definition anyway, adhered to the ethics of fair chase, killed cleanly, never took more than he needed, and honored the animal by not letting its meat go to waste. I went on for quite a while. He nodded, giving me his shy smile. Afterward, I thought I had just been talking to myself. Later, however, I would hear Tom repeat my arguments to doubters almost word for word. But whether he would ever feel a surge of blood upon seeing tracks in the snow, the pounding heart that binds us so purposely to the past–that was something only time could tell.

In the meanwhile we fished, a blood sport untarnished by the sight of blood, or much of it, anyway. But fishing is the same persistent probing under the surface that hunting is, and Tom took to it as naturally as I had. He became adept with a fillet knife, which encouraged me, for when I was growing up it had not been much of a step from cleaning bluegills for the skillet to peeling the skins off the squirrels Dad shot for my grandmother’s gravy. But I knew better than to press, recalling an autumn day with my father when I had retrieved a rabbit that with its last gasp had blown a bubble of blood from its lips. The sight had affected me at a time when I had been keen to hunt, and for a month afterward I was content to listen to the beagle circle closer without feeling any urge to cock the hammers of the .410 shotgun I had found under the Christmas tree.

New Adventures

At 7 or 8, Tom started to accompany me on day hunts, usually when I carried a bow. In retrospect I see this as the best preparation for hunting I could have exposed him to. For a boy, streaking paint across his face and donning camouflage clothing was like taking part in a secret adventure. The weather was better in September than during the rifle season, and Tom could participate rather than just blindly follow. He could scream into a grunt tube to produce realistic bugles and every once in a while have the thrill of hearing an elk answer. There were many opportunities to experience the excitement of the hunt without the confusion that can follow a kill.

Two hunts stand out in my memory as formative, the first during a rare, early-autumn snow. Coming upon tracks, I told Tom they had been made by a cow and a calf elk and that if we followed for a quarter mile and then circled up and into the wind, we would find those elk bedded in a thicket on the shoulder of the hill. He was skeptical; to the uninitiated, tracks carry a surreal quality unassociated with the probability that animals might actually be standing at the end of them. When the tan bodies flickered silently away through the tree trunks a half hour later, my stature as a hunter, as far as Tom was concerned, rose considerably. Furthermore, he now saw that hunting could be a form of chess, a game that appealed to his intellect, but one that made the heart beat so much harder than any game played on a table.

Another time, we were hunting down the spine of a ridge when Tom spotted a buck in the apron of woods under the crest. It was nosing our way between mouthfuls of sedges, and I could hear excited intakes of breath beside me as the gap closed. At 20 yards I drew the bow, but a voice inside my head stopped me from loosing the arrow.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” he asked after the buck had bounded away.

“I just didn’t feel like it,” I told him. “You don’t have to shoot just because you can.” Throwing the words over my shoulder as we hiked down the ridge, I made the point as nonchalantly as I could. Later, on the drive back, I told him about the Indian notion of counting coup, touching a sleeping enemy to claim bloodless victory. “Sort of like that,” I said. “You don’t shoot the deer, you can keep on hunting. We come up here next month, we don’t shoot unless it feels right. We can just hunt and maybe get one next year.”

Was he ready to actually hunt himself? I thought he was, though when we had taken hunter education together the previous spring, the field dressing video had set back the clock a bit. “How did it go?” my wife asked afterward. And while I rolled my eyes, Tom demonstrated the gutting technique, the “gobs of gray goo spilling out,” as he put it. “Hun-ugh,” he said, screwing up his face the same way he had when my brother and I had put one over on him during a bowhunt, acting as if we were chewing elk pellets to judge their freshness. “There’s no way, no way I’m doing that.” But he was laughing when he said it.

By this time his painting had evolved. There were backgrounds now of plain and forest. The animals were alert, the ears of the antelope cocked forward, the African lion holding a paw poised to strike. Still, as the Hunter’s Moon waned on his 12th birthday, an important part of his education remained missing. I had been so sensitive to his nature that except for birds and small game, he had never witnessed the natural conclusion of the chase.

First Blood

On opening day of the rifle season, Tom and I were hidden in a haystack blind, the grainfield flaring in the sunset, when whitetails danced out to feed. At my shot one of the does collapsed, stirring a forefoot as the flags went up from the others. Tom was surprised that she wore nothing but a dime of blood on her shoulder. Then, as he held her legs and I opened her with the knife, he saw the lungs turned to pulp inside the chest cavity and the death became very real to him. He was silent for most of the drive home.

Finally he spoke. “It’s okay. We’ll eat the meat. It’s not like they’re an endangered species.”

“Do you still want to shoot a deer this year?”

He shrugged, a movement I sensed more than saw, and I didn’t probe further.

By mid-November the snow swirled deep in the Bridger Mountains. The butt of the rifle slung over Tom’s shoulder dragged through the drifts. His oversize mesh vest swept the snow behind him like the train of some blaze-orange wedding dress. When we stopped at midday to sit on a log, he absently picked at ice clumped on the cuffs of his wool pants.

“What happened to your scope cover?” I asked.

“It fell off,” he said.

I dug into my jacket pocket for another band of inner tube, wiped the snow out of the ocular lens, and snapped the band over the scope.

Not that it was likely to matter. This was our fifth hunt here, and although Tom had been enthusiastic about the season–the first for which he was licensed to hunt Montana’s big game–he had twice now placed the crosshairs of his scope on a deer and hesitated too long. Twice I had put my fingers to my ears and watched the columns of white breath rise from under his hat, wondering, hoping, and then feeling curiously relieved when the deer ran away.

Each time he’d said there were tree branches in the way. Maybe there had been. But when those deer left, they took with them a little more of the hope I carried that my son might become a hunter.

“What do you think, Tom? Keep going? Or we could go home, rest up, come back early tomorrow. Or wait till later in the season…”

He was a little man now, in more ways than I thought he’d be. But he was a little boy, too. Maybe he just needed more time.

“Let’s go higher,” he said.

Later, farther up the mountain, a buck jumped from a thorn thicket and raced up the ridge. Tom, who was leading by a step, dropped to one knee in the snow. I reached forward to place my pack under the rifle’s fore-end in case the deer stopped, for Tom had been trained to hold his fire as long as an animal was moving. In the mountains, a mule deer is as apt to write the end of its own story as not, and this one paused to look back. The rifle’s crack surprised all of us.

The buck took the hill in quick, hard bounds as Tom turned to face me, his eyes welling with tears.

“I wounded him,” he said.

But he composed himself quickly, and when I asked if the crosshairs had been steady at the shot, he replied that they had.

“Then he’s dead,” I told him.

We followed the tracks, the earth kicked on top of the snow, to where the buck had flipped onto its back in a tangle of stunted aspens. Tom knelt over it. He stroked its flanks, his touch respectful, bringing to mind the image of him patting the elk in the garage when he was a little boy. He drew a finger to the tip of an antler.

“That’s a nice buck,” I told him.

I didn’t know what else to say. I thought to comfort him somehow, but he was fine, and suddenly I felt a release of pressure, as if I’d finally let out a breath I’d been holding for a long time. I scraped the snow from a log and sat down. Tom leaned his rifle against a tree and sat beside me. We had both anticipated this day. It seemed fitting now that we contemplate its significance separately, without words.

Twelve years and a little more than a month before, I had shot an arrow under the Hunter’s Moon. That arrow came to rest a few basins to the south. The shaft had long since returned to the earth, the broadhead rusted away. But the hopes I had pinned on its flight had come true. I had raised a young man who would hunt with me in these mountains many times in the succeeding years, who will someday, perhaps, take his own son or daughter here.

Is that something I can take credit for? A little, I think. I offered Tom a moral philosophy in which to frame the hunt. I had the patience to take things slowly. Most important, I introduced him to the wild in a way that made him understand that it was an important room in the house in which we lived. Times change. So do the mores of society. But when you get away from the lights, it’s still the same moon that Indian hunters looked forward to each autumn. Its magic is primeval and undiminished.

I got to my feet.

“Paint him someday, Tom, ” I said, touching a diamond hone to the blade of my knife. “Put him up here where he lived.”

He nodded.

Today that picture hangs on the wall of my office. The peaks are mantled white. Indian paintbrush bends with the breeze. As for the deer, it has grown up a little. The antlers stretch the truth, but not in a way that is surprising. After all, a hunter held the brush that painted them.








PARTNERS The author and 12-year-old Tom McCafferty near the East Gallatin River, Montana, on one of Tom’s first hunts. BABY STEPS Tom with a muzzleloader on a bobcat-skin rug; reading FIELD & STREAM with his grandfather; drawing a toy bow. YOUNG OUTDOORSMAN Top: Tom, 14, with his first elk and Joe Gutkowski near the Spanish Peaks Wilderness. Above: At 5, fishing in Wyoming’s Beartooth Mountains. GROWN UP An 18-year-old Tom with an antelope on the plains east of the Crazy Mountains. MOUNTAIN MAN Taking a break during a mule deer hunt, Tom, 17, sits on a downed tree in the wilderness of Montana’s Bridger Mountains. He’s now 23.