Editor’s Note – We have some exciting news: F&S editor-at-large T. Edward Nickens has a new book out! The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life is a collection of his best and most beloved adventures, essays, and columns from Field & Stream. You can purchase the book online, or wherever books are sold. To celebrate, all week we’ll be sharing some of our favorite classic tales from Nickens. Today’s entry, “My Boy Jack,” was first published in the October 2008 issue.
As we turn our backs to the glow of the truck’s headlights, the still deer lies half darkened underneath our shadows. Blood flecks its muzzle like beads of rain. Mud coats the hindquarters—it was no easy drag up the hill. The air is steeped with the earth-and-sweat musk of a buck in rut.
My 7-year-old son, Jack, holds one hind leg as I open the belly with a knife turned blade up. The skin tears open with the sound of a zipper. Jack’s eyes are like moons. He talked nonstop during the long sit in the stand and during the hour after the gunshot and the dragging to the old barn. But he has not said a word since I handed him the hoof to hold. He has seen deer before in the wild, hanging under the deck, on the butcher table in our basement, and on his dinner plate. He has not seen deer like this.
I point out the liver, the bladder, the windpipe, and the rope of intestines.
“Where’s the heart?” Jack asks.
With one hand I part the red lungs, clasped together like a mussel shell. The bullet tunneled through the upper lobes, pulverizing the tissues that stain my hands and wrists. I remove the heart and wipe it clean of blood. It is dark and hard, unlike the other organs that seem to quiver of their own accord.
“That’s a heart?” he asks.
I nod. He looks at it for a moment.
“Cut it open.”
This is a startling request, and I hesitate for it seems almost sacrilegious. But when a little boy is struck with wonder, there’s no time to trifle, and I want this moment to go wherever my son wishes to take it. I cleave the heart with the knife, top to bottom, so the two halves sag open in my palm. The hollows of the interior chambers are dark. I squeeze the heart to show Jack how it works—how it pumps blood from the lungs through the heart and then out the arteries that branch, again and again, into the dendritic vessels that feed each cell of the body.
He’s quiet at first, and I fear I’ve lost him. “Just like ours?” he asks, low and husky like he speaks sometimes. I hear in his voice the man he will become.
“Just like ours,” I say.
Ready or Not?
An hour earlier Jack and I had decided, independently and simultaneously, that this hunt was a disaster.
After only 15 minutes in the stand, Jack is miserable. The joy and adventure of driving to the farm and walking to the stand wear off quickly, like bad paint. The unexpected glee of watching the woods with a bird’s-eye view lasts 10 minutes, the challenge of staying still becomes a tiring game after another five. Then the fidgeting begins in earnest.
Jack is a world-class fidgeter. Tell him to hold his hands still, and he will twitch his legs. Admonish him for that, and he will move his lips, tongue, or eyelids. Next he begins tapping the curtain of camouflage netting at the front of the blind with the toe of his boot. The perforated sheet ripples in waves.
“Be still, Jack.” I whisper. “You have to be still.”
“I’m trying, Daddy.”
This buys a half minute of stealth. Suddenly he pivots to the left, arms flying.
“Didja hear that?” he asks. “Is that a deer?”
On the forest floor I see the shadow of a squirrel scurrying up the shadow of an oak. I close my eyes and exhale. “Jack.” My stern tone surprises even me. “Still.”
“I am. I am, Daddy.”
He wants so much to enter the late-light, live-action, loaded-rifle world of my hunting life. It’s the only aspect from which he’s absent. Together, we scout before the season, check the ladders on the tree stands, and visit the places where I tell him, One day, I bet this is where you’ll get your first deer. He rushes to the truck when I return from evening hunts. “Whaddup, Dad? Get one?” Headed for bed, he spies my gear piled by the front door. “High-five, Dad,” he says. “Good luck tomorrow.” But it’s not the same as being there.
Still, I’ve fretted that this is all happening too soon. He is only 7 years old. Most of the time, I can’t imagine that he could stay still long enough for a deer to wander into range. I wonder if he is ready for the visceral reality of a deer on a gambrel. I finally relent. The reason is simple: He is my son, and I want him with me as badly as he wants to go.
The Decisive Moment
Jack’s body and mind continue to revolt against the strictures of stealth. He cannot be still. He cannot be quiet. Nobody’s having fun, and nobody’s going to kill a deer. But I decide to ride it out, because the last thing I want is to make Jack feel as if he’s ruined our first deer hunt together. I figure we’ll suffer through an hour of falling light and possibility, and head home.
What also keeps me in the stand is the perfect scene below us. It’s the last week of October—a time when nights are cold and dew blankets the grass at dawn. So many acorns are on the ground that we turned our ankles during the walk in. The woods floor is pocked with patches of pawed earth. Rubs glint yellow-white along the creeks. It is prime time to catch a buck off guard and paying little mind to fidgets. It’s also a good time to hunt hard and long and make few movements and fewer mistakes.
Jack taps the shooting rail with the button of his sleeve. Clink. Clink-clink. I clench my teeth. It’s not about me. I remind myself. This is all for him. But my desire to show him a deer from this stand is much greater than his own to see one, if only for the fact that Jack doesn’t yet know the thrill of watching a whitetail buck wind through the woods at 100 yards, nose to the leaves, prodded by urges this young boy cannot appreciate.
“Be still.” I hiss. “Please, Jack. Please.”
“I’m trying, Daddy. I promise.”
He looks up at the sky, lips quivering. I didn’t want this to be hard. I wanted Jack to want every aspect of the hunt. But I had moved too quickly in one other aspect of mentoring a hunter. Not long after giving Jack a BB gun at Christmas, I let him shoot my aptly named Remington Speedmaster. After our carefully paced sessions with the lever-action BB gun—and constant safety lectures—Jack stood on a creek bank, my arms cradling his own, hip-firing the .22 semiauto into a mudbank with monumental glee. The appeal of a single-shot BB vanished. I had shown him too much, too soon.
Now I’m worried I’ve made the same mistake with deer hunting. Long minutes creep by. There is little to keep Jack interested. A woodpecker stops for a moment on a nearby snag. A chickadee visits. But that’s all. It is the season of shortening days, falling leaves, and fattening up for the coming winter, but there is not so much as a squirrel in view. Eventually, I decide that this is ridiculous. We are both miserable, and relief is as close as a five-minute drive to the White Swan for some sweet tea. I start to rise and glance down at Jack. His head is drooped to his chest. His fingers, finally stilled, are interlaced in the overly long netting of camouflage gloves. I elbow him in the shoulder.
“Jack,” I whisper. “Hey, don’t fade out on me.”
He throws up a quick hand in a quieting gesture. Another few seconds pass before he looks up through the gap in his face net. “I wasn’t sleeping, Dad,” he says. “I was praying to God to send us a big buck.”
I throw an arm around his shoulders and hug him. For the moment, the trees could turn to 10-pointers and flee at the offending movements for all I care.
An Unexpected Moment
Jack is eventually dragged down by boredom and slumps across my left thigh, resting his head in my lap. I rub his back in small circles, feeling the swell of his breaths in my palm, and for a moment I think, A busted hunt and a wasted afternoon, but let’s make the best of what’s left.
One of the most rewarding skills a father can develop is an ability to recognize, as he receives them, the unexpected and often inscrutable gifts from his children. I am only nudging my way into an understanding of this. The headline payoffs of parenting are hard to miss: the bedtime stories, the impromptu hugs, the finger-painted Father’s Day frames constructed of Popsicle sticks. Not so obvious are the more cryptic gestures of love: the unquestioning faith that you can fix the toy, the searching glance toward the bleachers to make sure that you made it to the game. As I rub Jack’s back, 16 feet high in a tree, with his body against mine, and an autumn sunset seeping into the woods, it suddenly seems a richness of experience that I can hardly bear. It shames me for my earlier impatience. Who but a hunter could rate such a gift? Who but a hunter’s child could give it?
Then, a movement, unexpected yet instantly recognized, occurs. I tense as adrenaline floods my veins. A small doe enters my field of view at a slow run. She’s just to the right of dead ahead—80 yards out and moving to the left, out of the thick ridge of brush and into the open cypress bottom. I watch her for a few seconds as she lopes through the open woods before I trace her route backward to the edge of the tangled brush. I let my eyes wait there. I have a good idea about what’s coming.
“Get up, Jack,” I whisper. “Ease up, man. Deer.”
Jack rises with a startle, and we see the buck at the same time. He bursts into the open woods without a moment’s hesitation: nose to the ground, hot on the track. He is purposeful and, thankfully, keenly concentrated on the young doe ahead.
“A buck, Dad! I see it!”
I already have the rifle up and the deer in the scope. He’s moving steadily, visible only in the lanes between the big trees. I spot a sweeping curve of caramel-colored antler beam, which is long enough to quell any thought of passing on the animal. A nice buck with Jack to see it all—this could be an amazing moment.
Jack starts to giggle. “When are you gonna shoot it, Dad?” he whispers.
“Shhhh! Quiet, Jack. He needs to stop.”
The buck is too far to even think about a moving shot. This needs to be a clean, quick kill and all the more so with Jack by my side. I whistle. The deer keeps moving. I whistle again. The buck skids to a stop. I search through the glass. A broad, dark pillar of bark is where the deer should be. I pick apart the jumble of branch and leaf in the scope. There. A mound of rump sticks out from the right side of the tree. I track the crosshairs left. A few inches of tine extend from behind the trunk. I hold on the far edge of bark and wait.
“Are you gonna shoot, Dad? What are you waiting for?”
“Quiet, Jack, he’s looking for us.”
“He’s going to get away, Daddy! Shoot!”
“Jack, shut up!”
“Dad! You know we’re not supposed to say that!”
The deer takes a step from behind the tree, and I fire. The buck runs again, keeping its same course, nose to the ground. A miss. What’d I hit? The tree? Some sliver of branch unseen through the scope? I jack the bolt and track the deer again. He moves right to left and angles slightly away. Suddenly, inexplicably, the buck stops in the open, and I sweep the scope across his flanks. I pull the trigger the moment the crosshairs settle on the ribs.
Fortune turns swiftly for the patient hunter. One moment there is only immobility, frigid toes, strained eyes, and second-guessing the long hours that could have been spent a hundred other ways. The next moment there he is, antlers gleaming, the animal that suddenly changes it all. So often it changes this way, and you can only wonder. How?
The deer lies on the ground, head and shoulders obscured by a tree. I watch through the scope. He is still. When I turn to Jack, his mouth is open wide. For a few moments he is silent. He looks at the deer, looks at me, and looks at the deer. His reverie doesn’t last.
“We got him, Dad! We got him! Look! Ohmygosh! I can’t believe we got him! We got him!” He throws his arm around my neck.
“Easy, Jack,” I say, laughing. “Watch the gun.”
“I can’t believe it. Can we go see him? Right now?”
I glance at the still form on the forest floor. Of course we can.
The Long Haul
We kneel next to each other beside the deer and pray as the wet woods seep into our knees like bloodstains. We offer thanks for the life we took and the life it gives, for the woods, for the yearning inside that leads us to places like this. If ever there were a time for ritual, this is it. It is as unselfconscious a moment as I can recall.
From here on out, the rest is work: the dragging, the lurching, the snagging of briers across arms and face. Jack insists on pulling his own weight, so I tie a small loop in the drag rope. He slips it over a shoulder. I grab a tine. We grunt all the way to the road.
Then we turn our backs to the truck’s headlights, the still deer half darkened underneath our shadows. I pull out the knife and hand Jack a hoof. “Hold this,” I say.
Later, as we climb back into the truck, Jack is still under the influence of utter amazement. “Dad, this is the most awesome thing to happen to me in my whole entire life.”
I laugh. “It’s pretty high up on the list for me, too, son.” Then we turn off Rose Dairy Road and onto the hardtop, headed toward home with a gift that we will never again receive—our first deer.