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The Second Hunt

A long winter’s day of loss, discovery and renewal

By Rick Bass

Ordinarily I am able to participate in only one deer hunt per year back in the Hill Country: the traditional week-long November hunt, with my grandfather, back when he was still living, and my father, uncle, brothers and cousins. One year, however, having returned to Texas for the Christmas season, I went back up to the deer pasture for what had once been a more common event, if not quite a tradition in our family, which we called “the second hunt.”

It was the same year that I had brought my amazing bird dog down to Texas with me: Colter, a liver-colored German shorthair pointer, a great ground-covering, big-headed, sweet long-legged bomber of a hound with nitroglycerine running through his veins. I would hunt deer in the late afternoons and foggy, icy early mornings, then come back to camp midday for a warming meal and a fire, and then would take Colter out into the russet tall grass to look for quail. It was dove season, too, and if I was lucky, I might have a chance to gather a few doves for dinner that evening. Then I would return Colter to his kennel, put my shotgun up and head back into the hills with my rifle, to sit on a rock ledge in the waning of the day to watch for deer.

It was the year that my mother had died young after a long illness, and I have no doubt that in addition to my youthfulness, it was my relationship to the natural world — which was to say at that time chiefly as a hunter — that I turned to for grounding and support in this newer, lonelier, turned-upside-down world. It was painful, hiking those beautiful red granite canyons, and sitting on those whale-gray ancient ledges of Cambrian sandstone, looking out at the same sights she had known and loved, though it was tonic, too, knowing that in the witnessing and the experiencing, these things were still shared between us, and always would be.

That night (no fireworks, only a contented fire-gazing), an ice shield fell over the world, so that when I awakened on the first of January, the curve of the hills and the fields and woods were all encased in starlit ice, the land’s dark reflection burning as if from some interior fire.

I dressed and fixed a cup of coffee, acutely conscious of the almost mechanical advancement of time — or rather, my perception of it as thus, on this one day — and certainly, if I could have hesitated, or even gone back in time, if I could have done anything to keep from going into the new year without my mother, I would have turned back, would have lingered, would have sought whatever quiet eddy there might have been where things could continue being as they had.

During the November hunt, in a shady tangle of oak and juniper growing on a sandy flat at the juncture of a steep tributary, a narrow slot canyon down which immense granite boulders had tumbled, I had spied a torn-up sapling, so freshly scraped that the sap was still oozing from it, and the slivers and tendrils of bark that had fallen to the ground were still so bright and unoxidized as to seem still living; as if, were one to place them back upon the abraded bark of the sapling, they might yet graft and grow. My plan was to nestle into the boulders of that slot canyon and to watch the sandy trail that wound through those trees along the creek, and to see if the buck that had rubbed that tree with his antlers in November, marking his territory, might wander by. I had brought a set of antlers with which to rattle, to simulate the sound of two other bucks sparring in his territory — in the heart of his territory! — and a grunt tube, with which to make the deep low calls of another deer.

I had never navigated my way across this landscape, or any other that I could remember, with the world so perfectly encased in ice. Every branch, every limb, every blade of winter-dead grass was encased in a thick chrysalis of ice, which slid heavy and slippery away from me as I passed through the brush, and which bobbed, clacking, in my wake. The world underfoot was likewise coated with a shell of illuminated ice, and even if I had believed that this was the newer and more frightening world-to-come — that from here on out, all would be ice — I think that I still would have found it beautiful.

In the pre-dawn darkness I found a hiding place beneath a juniper that was growing between the symmetrical halves of a frost-split granite boulder, and I settled in to wait for daylight, and to watch the canyon, and the little grove of oak and juniper below. I thought about nothing, merely waited.

An hour, two hours, melted as if but a second, though not the ice. I didn’t move. It felt good to remain so still, so motionless, lulled by the cold blue wind from the north, and by the sound of the water, the quick flood.

I sat entranced, almost as if not daring, or as if forgetting, to breathe, until finally I felt a faint stirring of warmth on my face; the winter sun was finally beginning to catch, and the dazzle began to loosen from the hills, the prismatic colors sliding and slipping away from all that was cloaked with the once-shining ice. The sparkle vanished, yet in its place, the vibrant colors of the native landscape, and native vegetation, were revealed as if born again, fresh-scrubbed and bright.

Still I waited, almost perfectly motionless, and was content to do so: listening, watching, waiting. Every half-hour I blew quietly on the grunt tube, or clicked the dry bone antlers together lightly, rattling their tines against one another. Those sounds would be lost beneath the blue sky, falling away into nothingness, but I did not despair, I had all day, and I rested between the cleaved rocks and watched the canyon before me and continued to reside in that space where hours were confused with moments.

When the buck came into his grove, he was moving quickly, almost at a trot. His body, light brown, was pale and clean, as if washed by the rain and ice. He was a large deer with large antlers that were surprisingly pale — almost sun-bleached, it seemed — and as he hurried down the canyon, passing me on my right side, only 20 yards away, I saw that his black hooves were shiny, as if newly polished, and the late morning sun caught his wet eyes so that they gleamed. I lifted the rifle quickly but carefully — he paused, detecting that movement between him and the sun — and finding the seam behind his shoulder at the top of the heart, I fired.

He leapt hump-backed, stumbled, and then galloped down the trail he’d been on, as if merely in more of a hurry now to reach that grove of trees, and though I felt confident he was mortally wounded, that he would run but a few more bounds and then collapse, heart-shot, I knew better than to jump up and follow, which might cause him to draft one final surge of adrenaline, giving him the strength to carry him far beyond my ken or reach.

I continued waiting, and only now to think about the conscious world, the real world of the present: of the fact that it was New Year’s Day, and that I had just hunted and shot, and was about to gather, a fine deer. I listened to the rush of the briefly-wide creek below, admired the sun-painted cliffs and rocks on the other side of the canyon a little longer, and then rose, stretching my stiff legs, and walked over to where the deer had been standing when I’d shot, where I found, as I’d known I would, a scatter of hair and some drops of bright red blood, still shining wet upon the granite, and in the pinkened gravel of the game trail.

For how many tens of thousands of years have hunters known such a mix of feelings — the satisfaction of success mixed with the fuller evidence of the responsibility inherent in the taking of any food from the earth, whether planted crop or harvested wild?

I followed the drops of blood straight down the trail, walking carefully, and I remained confident that the body of the deer would be just a little farther on, around the next bend — in the cool of that little grove, perhaps, pitched down into the sand.

In the grove, there was less blood, but the trail was still evident. The deer was taking longer leaps, the leaves were stirred up from each track, and now and again I found another loosened hair, another Rorschach of bright red blood cradled in the brown grasp of an upturned leaf.

I bent and studied the blood sign. The drops led straight to the creek. I looked across the creek to the other side — too far for me to leap, but not for a deer — and saw the stippling of tracks from where deer regularly leapt this crossing. I did not see the brown body of the deer lying down, pitched over onto its side. I did not see the great nest of antlers cradled in the grass just a short distance ahead, visible above even the winter-dead remains of grass and brush.

Walking carefully, and starting to feel the first inklings of concern and doubt, I went upstream to the crossing-place and made my way carefully across the flat rock ledge, the broad roiling sheet of water shuddering against my ankles, the water so silt-clouded from the flood that I could not see the stone beneath me.

I reached the other side and hurried over to the spot where the deer’s leap would have carried him — the spot where all those other tracks were stippled, and, being careful not to disturb any, I set my rifle against a tree and got down on my hands and knees in the storm-wet grass and began parsing among them, hoping for the surest indicator, the brilliance of blood, and, failing that, another piece of hair — possibly this deer’s, possibly not — and, failing that, a divot of earth so freshly torn that the individual sand grains were still glistening: a line, then, a cast of direction to set off into, in my blindness.

I didn’t see how the shot could be anything other than precise, at that distance, but if it had somehow floated a few inches high, penetrating the lungs but not touching the heart, then the deer — particularly a big muscular deer like this one — could in theory run for hours, on-again and off-again, before bedding down somewhere miles away beneath a tree, or in a nest of brush, remaining vigilant, even if incapacitated, for days.

I did not think this deer was hit in the lungs, though, nor in any other lesser place. I felt certain this deer had been struck in the heart, and even as I continued searching on my hands and knees for the most microscopic of clues, I kept glancing up into the meadow, believing that I was simply overlooking the body, as often happens: the 150 pounds of deer somehow suddenly innocuous, lying down instead of standing, and lifeless rather than alive.

I spent the rest of the day tracking, often on my hands and knees, or in a bent stoop, moving slowly: following one unraveling radius of tracks after another, as far into the forest as I could, before that skein vanished, or became entangled with another. I panicked that I would lose this deer — that I had lost it — and then I despaired. To lose any deer, or any animal, but especially a great one, is one of the most sour feelings a hunter can know, rearranging and nearly invalidating what is already a complex and highly evolved moral negotiation in the short realm between life and death. Often the hunter feels like weeping, or is paralyzed with grief when such a misfortune occurs, and may quit hunting for a year, or other times altogether.

I had no way of knowing if the tracks and trails I followed were those that my deer had taken, or those of hundreds of others. Over on the back side of the deer pasture, up and over the top of Buck Hill, nearly a mile from where I had shot, I found a drop of fresh blood on a rock, and, believing it to be from my deer — for no one else had fired a shot — I worked that area hard, hoping to find the deer bedded down under a tree, waiting to die, or dead; but there were no other clues that I could find, out on the rocks like that, to indicate in which direction the animal had been traveling, nor the nature of the wound, nor even if the blood was that of a deer.

I searched until almost dark, casting in wider and wider circles around that one mysterious drop of blood, with each deerless hour that passed reducing proportionately the already faint hope that I would find this deer.

I had examined and re-examined every square inch of the Back Side: I was convinced there was no dead deer back there. It occurred to me, with the slimmest of hopes, that this blood-drop had nothing to do with my deer, and that perhaps I had simply overlooked my deer, there at the creek. I hiked back to where I had shot and played it all over again: followed the initial heavy blood sign right down to the creek, then crossed on that ledge, and examined the other side, where still I could find nothing.

There was still a little bit of light left in the day. I decided to go back to camp and bring Colter along on a leash, to see if he, with his incredible bird-finding nose, might be inspired to investigate the area in such a way as to possibly give me a hint whether the deer had turned and run along the creek bank upstream or downstream. Indeed, it was my hope that if the deer was piled up somewhere nearby, dead under a juniper bush, Colter might point this out to me; that he might pull me over in that direction, tugging on his leash, urging me to investigate an area I might have bypassed.

I took Colter directly to the canyon, where the blood had dried from red to brown. Already it looked like something ancient, even geologic, rather than the legacy of anything that had happened mere hours ago.

Colter dropped his nose to the spot anyway, suddenly electric with interest, and holding his leash, I puzzled over how sage he seemed, in that moment: as if, in that single scent, he was able to delve into and discern that which had happened in the past, as well as casting ahead to the future, and the knowledge not only of where that deer had been, but of where it might yet be.

Stub tail twitching, he followed the trail quickly down to the creek, then snuffled hurriedly left and right; and whether he was nosing out my earlier scent from where I had tracked up and down the creek, or was still parsing out the deer’s scent, I had no real way of knowing, although I was grateful for his enthusiasm. As I had done, he hurried across the creek on the rock ledge — the water had already dropped several inches, so that the stone was dimly visible, though the water was still fast and turbulent and crawfish-colored — and hot on the trail now, with me hurrying along behind, still gripping the leash, he ran a few more steps, heading toward the tracked-up sandpit, where I had anticipated the deer to land, but then he stopped, slamming on the brakes so hard that I nearly tripped over him.

So suddenly did he halt, and so confused did he seem, that I thought he might have gotten wind of a sluggish January water moccasin. And like a snake charmer himself, he lifted his broad head and stared back upwind, across to the other side of the creek, across the plunge-pool that sat relatively serene below the little waterfall.

With his muscles beginning to quiver and tense, he lifted one paw, cautious at first — as if he were receiving a contradiction of the senses; as if he could not quite believe that which the natural world was telling him — but then, increasingly confident, he tucked that left paw all the way tight against his chest and crouched, striking the sudden and sometimes ludicrous-seeming-yet-beautiful pose of a dog on point.

I stood there puzzled for several seconds, wondering if he was only just now picking up the blood-scent that I thought I had already shown him. This wasn’t what I wanted at all, and carefully, I tugged on his leash, hoping to entice him into walking farther downstream, hoping that he might stop and sniff at some tiny drop of blood that I had bypassed, some tiny clue that would be able to set me off tracking again in the right direction.

He was staunch, however, and would not release to my tug. His green eyes bulged and burned with an odd mix of confusion and certainty, and I knelt down to pat him on his chest, and to thank him for his intensity, if not his accuracy, and to urge him along. There was so little time left in the day now.

It was only then, down at eye level with him, that I saw the world from his perspective, and saw the deer’s antlers sticking up from the center of the mud-water pond below the falls, with only the very candelabra tips sticking up: five or six of the very tip-tops of the longer tines, with only an inch or two above water, so that at first glance, or no glance, they would have appeared like the tips of a big tree limb that had been washed downstream.

Colter eased his nose forward. The antler-branches were almost close enough to reach out and touch. And though I was looking right at them, and recognized them now as the top inch-tips of antlers, I could not yet reconcile the transition, in my mind, of how the entire body of a huge deer could be reduced now to but an inch, or two inches, of bone. The antlers themselves were almost the same color as the medium in which they now resided.

Still gripping Colter’s leash, I eased forward, squinting, and now — as much by faith or hope at first, as by true visual acuity — I could see dimly the outline of the submerged deer, with his underwater silhouette still almost as much a function of imagination as reality.

I thanked Colter and gave general thanks to the deer and to the world, too — I had definitely not found this deer; it had found me, had been delivered to me — and I reached out and gripped the underwater antlers and pulled the deer to shore, dragged it up onto the grass on the other side of the creek, not 30 yards from where I had shot.

It was a huge deer, as large a deer as I had ever killed on the deer pasture, and Colter released himself from his point and began sniffing at the deer, checking it out, running all around it and nosing it, as if surprised and agitated at this strange revelation which he, even with all his millennial innate wisdom, had never previously understood — that creatures like deer and — who knew now? — perhaps even quail and doves and pheasants might be found beneath us, in some other, lower world’s layer. I petted him, congratulated him, and sat there in the dusk with our discovery, our little miracle, there in the bluing of twilight, on that cold clear first day of January.

It was a marvel and an amazement to me that a thing I had so desired could be given to me, returned to me, in such dramatic and miraculous fashion, even as the heavier and colder knowledge returned to me all over again that there were other things, much more desired, that would never be forthcoming: that I would have to be forever-after content with memories, thoughts and recollections, and those strange quiet moments of communion when the two worlds, the departed and the still-here, yet occasionally intersect and transact.

I still felt alone, there above the surface, though it was a beautiful surface, the one my mother had brought me out into — and, grateful for that and despite my sorrow, I hauled the deer into the woods and cleaned it, as the men in our family had always done back when she had still been living, and then I started back to camp in darkness, with Colter trotting alongside me, and my rifle in one hand, and with the other, dragging the heavy deer behind.

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