The Winchester slipped from its case, bringing with it the sweet smell of oil. As I prepared for the following dawn, my 10-year-old son, Eric, caught me by surprise. "Can I go deer hunting with you, Dad?"
I looked at his blond head and liquid brown eyes. He was an excellent shot with both his BB gun and the little bolt action .22 I had recently given him. He had even fired the .257 Roberts I held in my hands.
Eric had seen dozens of deer and would not likely mistake them for anything else. I told him no because I suspected he didn't yet know the difference between shooting and hunting.
In the months that followed, the beagle, the boy and I hunted rabbits. Eric learned about hunting, giving his first bunny to his grandmother, who loved the critters in a "skillet" sort of way. So, in his 11th year, I took my child deer hunting. Although he did not take a deer that season, Eric's enthusiasm never dimmed.
The following May, a half-wild, starving, six-week old kitten with impossibly long, blond fur crept down our driveway and made himself a home. Eric named him Oscar, who we discovered had a hypnotizing effect on the local deer.
Whitetails followed Oscar, as he padded about, matching him step for step, ears cupped forward. Oscar seldom gave them a second glance, even though their noses were inches from the little furball's tail. Little did I realize how important a part of my life this little kitten would become.
Opening day of Eric's second firearms deer season dawned dreary and cold. We sat side-by-side on a platform, 15 feet off the ground, as 16 deer walked past, including a buck that walked by just out of Eric's effective rifle range. The highlight of our opening morning was when Eric's whispered, "Dad, a fox!" and the beautiful predator ran under our tree, twirled about, then disappeared.
Eric and I sat in drizzle that mid-afternoon but retreated as it escalated into rain. We returned to the woods, with an hour of legal time left and sat in a large cedar tree. Soon, a huge grey doe fed beneath us, staying past 5 p.m., before finally going away. Eric, on his way to bed, explained to his mother that he had wanted above all else to have a deer walk beneath him unaware of his presence. He then hugged me because "that had already happened." At 12 years of age, Eric understood the essence of the hunt.
On Sunday morning, rain chased us from the woods after an hour and a half. Eric stripped off his damp coveralls, quickly falling asleep beneath a blanket cocoon on our living room carpet. I paced about, knowing nasty weather to be prime hunting time, but waited until Eric was again ready.
After Eric awoke, we sat in our favorite tree stand, watching six does feed in our small clover field. Two hours later we slipped away, flipped on a football game, popped popcorn and essentially became couch potatoes.
At 3:45 p.m. Eric asked, "Are we going hunting again, Dad?" It was tempting to stay put. But Eric had school for the next five days, so we gathered gear and headed out, setting the stage for the most memorable event in my 23 years of deer hunting.
Puddles of grey water sloshed noisily from beneath rubber-soled boots as we walked the sod road to our homemade ladder stand. Slinging the rifle buttstock up over my shoulder, I followed Eric as he climbed the pine board steps.
Settled in, Eric watched me slip a brass cartridge into the rifle barrel and flip the safety catch on. We looked up to see a sleek doe stepping into the open, soon followed by four others. We grinned; it became infectious, and made us giddy. We nudged each other in the ribs, even going so far as to tweak one another on the nose. After the deer left Eric whispered, "What time is it , Dad?"
It was ten minutes to five. "Shouldn't we be going now?" he asked. But I knew what he did not. Opportunity can come and go in a matter of seconds.
"A lot can happen in 10 minutes, Eric," I said, "We'll stay a little longer."
The ebony eyes of a tufted titmouse a foot from my face were holding my attention when Eric hissed, "Dad, a buck!" I slowly turned to follow his gaze. There was no buck, but Oscar was out for an evening stroll, coming down the same two-track we had taken earlier; fuzzy, blond, but alone. Eric's impish grin told me he was proud of his little joke. As we watched, a deer stepped from cover and fell in behind the cat, matching him step for step.
Eyes locked and ears cupped forward, the deer's nose was less than two feet from Oscar's tail. If Oscar knew the whitetail was there he gave no indication, not even so much as quickening his pace. I saw the antlers and hissed "A buck."
It was five minutes to five. I eased the .257 Roberts into Eric's hands, guiding his thumb to the safety.
The buck by now walked directly away from us, following the blond cat. Eric shifted the rifle but did not shoot. Oscar continued striding purposely along. I grunted like a rutting buck. The fork-horn stopped, jerking his head up as Oscar walked on. I grunted once again and the deer swung broadside, clearing the cat from the line of fire.
I whispered, "Now, Eric," and the shot instantly followed.
Both buck and cat exploded into flight, each running in the direction they had been facing. I grabbed a handful of Eric's coveralls with my left hand and the gun with my right, in case Eric forgot where he was and stepped into thin air.
The boy's face was flushed, slick with sweat.
Eric flew down the ladder, then waited for me to unload the rifle and follow him to the ground. We found hair where the buck had been standing. We followed the deep splayed hoofprints of the running animal and then discovered large, red splashes that ended at the fallen buck, only 50 yards away. We both began to talk at once, reliving what had just happened.
In time, the story was told and retold to mother and wife, daughter and sister, pictures were taken, the buck was loaded into my pickup, and we headed to the check station for registering. Savvy hunters admired the young buck and shook Eric's hand. In the inky black of the truck cab as we were returning home, Eric said "Dad, when I was getting ready to shoot, you could have touched any part of me and felt my heart."
It is midnight in a silent house. Snowflakes fall from the December sky, blurring the sod road and an oak tree visible from my office window.
Oscar dozes in a magnificent buff ball a few feet away.
I think of a boy who faced a challenge within himself and took a long stride into manhood.
I think of how quickly two more years in Eric's life (and two more bucks) have come and gone. I think of how a gift given was far outweighed by a gift received.
And I cannot sleep. Tonight you could touch any part of me and feel my heart.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Patrick Kipp
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
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Circulation - Laura Scheuler