Editor’s Note: All this week, through Sunday, we are bringing you a series called A Week In Hunting Camp—seven stories in total, each one about a single day (or night) in camp, featuring both original works and a few modern classics from the archives. You can read the Day 1 story, The Mule Deer Highway, here, and the Day 2 story, The Legend of Cowhorn, here.

Day Three: Sleeping With the Dead

It was a picture-postcard hunting camp, a chinked-log one-story blackened by age, wearing a mantle of chimney smoke on a snow-covered roof.  Cheery rectangles of lamplight shone from within. An outhouse stood down the hill. There was a hanging pole, nothing hanging, two trucks in the drive. I could picture cards dealt on a folding table by liver-spotted hands that shook a little, a bottle of Jack Daniels within their reach, a few fingers from empty.

Or so I envisioned. I had parked a little ways down the road and coveted it from a distance.

That afternoon I had shot a whitetail buck and spent hours hauling him to the turnout where I had parked my rusted International Harvester Scout, the SUV before there were SUVs. Aside from the heater and windshield wipers not working, it was a good hunting rig, notwithstanding the bias tires that were like driving on cinder blocks and only became round after going a few miles. I knew from past seasons that the bed was long enough to accommodate a good-sized deer and just wide enough for me to unroll my sleeping bag beside him, should I get lucky.    

I had not planned on spending the night here, lucky or not. But dragging out the buck and wrenching him into the bed of the rig had exhausted me, and in any case it was beginning to snow and driving would be hazardous.

Oh well, I had slept beside dressed-out deer before, and I could again.

But first things first. I fired up the Coleman under the rear liftgate and cooked a skillet of Spam and baked beans with the snow falling all around, then read from a spy novel for a while. If it hadn’t been snowing, I would have built a fire for warmth, using the already read pages of the novel for tinder. I would have sat for a while and contemplated the stars, roasting one side of me while the other froze. This was my version of a deer camp, and it had scarcely changed in 20 years.

I hadn’t meant things to turn out this way. I had always assumed that I’d climb up the ladder, from SUV to truck camper, camper to trailer, maybe someday even a share in a hunting cabin, like the one down the road. But if anything, I’d regressed. On some hunts I was down to a tent.

Where had I gone wrong? Was I paying for some past sin I wasn’t aware of?

Or was it just a chronic lack of money? I mean, who was I kidding? I probably couldn’t even cough up enough change to cover the ante of whatever game they were playing in their cabin. Still, I was relatively young. I could dream—and, anyway, who was I to complain?  I was the one who’d filled his tag. I turned down the mantels of the lantern and wormed my way into the sleeping bag. 

Only then did I realize that I had turned the buck on his back so that his left eye was staring at me. I tried shifting him, but rigor had set in. He wasn’t going anywhere. For a while I passed an imaginary cigarette back and forth with the buck. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” I said aloud.  My breath made puffs against the ceiling of the Scout.

It was on toward midnight when I clambered outside to answer nature’s call. The sky had cleared and I looked down the road where the cabin stood. It was swallowed by darkness, the land all around caught in that vast Northern stillness that is so utterly profound. I wished the hunters no ill will.  After all, we are all blood brothers under these stars. There is room for everyone, I thought. For the fortunate and the industrious, who sleep among the living.

And for the souls who contemplate the heavens and sleep with the dead.