By ALAN NASLUND
My father and I do not agree about the origin of those outstanding mule deer antlers mounted up on the prairie stone fireplace of the lake house. To Hob, those beautifully curved points came from a hunting trip with Deeter, one where the two, father and firstborn son, trekked up into the high country of the big mountains one fall while I frittered away my time in college. Well, it may be so, memory can deceive us I have read somewhere, and the fact is I have my own set of antlers the old man gave to me and which he said he found in the lake-house garage when he retired from farming and bought that more elegant place.
As it turned out, the lake-house pair of buck antlers, bigger and more perfect, even than the contested pair, I hired someone to mount on a more professional plaque when I lived in Louisville, Kentucky. I still have them. I don’t show them off to my academic friends, some of whom are avid animal rights partisans.
Now as to how the contested pair was acquired. When I lived with my father, each and every fall and as a matter of the just economy of the country, he bought a landowner’s deer tag for each of the boys who qualified under the game laws by age. As far as we boys going out and hunting, Hob usually killed the deer represented himself, or “filled the tags” as it was called, or else he had one of his friends do the actual shooting when he went out with them, and I only took my tag out with him one time. That was in my sophomore year in high school.
While the rest of the USA ate hamburgers, roasts and beefsteaks, you see, our family in Montana survived our winters well enough on deer burgers and other forms of venison. This diet certainly cost Hob less than slaughtering his own beef, which in the words of Quintius Curtius, the Roman farmer, he could otherwise “turn into money,” but my mom cooked the deer too done I thought, and only years later did I taste a real, tender, hunter’s stew cooked for me by the son of a lumber man from Mississippi, but that’s another story. This is about Hob and meat hunting, or rather, my version of that common activity.
By the way and before the story proper, this is how Hob got his reputation as meat hunter. One fall not 20 miles from our own flat barley fields and in the more dramatic up and down fields of ranchers in the Track Mountains, fields fragrant with the pitch smell of conifers, Hob, my dad, was hunting mule deer. He was out there with friends, each hunter in the party scouring a separate gulch, hoping to find whatever deer were laying up there during sunshine hours. Hob surprised a small herd of these grey deer, fat on the tender leaves of mountain shrubbery, resting in tall grass by a trout pool in a woodsy bend of Clear Creek. No one around but Hob and the deer. So the story goes.
Hob shot one deer and it fell, and the rest milled around nervously, spooked a little, looking over the tall grass, but unable to see Hob in his hiding place of scrub pine. Since there were four other hunters in the party, all with deer tags, all needing deer, all far away in other gulches or draws, Hob shot another deer, and it, too, fell down in the tall grass. The deer were practically on display for him, circling around the dead deer, confused, but, on the basis of some mood known only to deer, unwilling to run. Or maybe the deer couldn’t see the fallen deer either, just like Hob. Of course, in the end he shot the whole herd of five deer, one after the other—two spike bucks and three fat doe, one for each hunter in the party. Thereafter, Hob the meat hunter!
So it was in my sophomore year again that Hob asked me that strange question, would I, Cleve, like to skip school Friday, go out with him to hunt deer in the Breaks of the Missouri River and come back late on Saturday?
Strange business to me because Hob had no time for me usually except to put me to work on one of his machines, a hay baler, a beet cultivator—I don’t know what—half the time asking me to skip school for that sort of thing. I really don’t think I wanted to miss school to go hunting, although I had the usual high school boy’s unexamined prejudice against school. I’d missed school enough for Hob and his hearty recruiting tactics: “We got fence to fix before those cows … We got hay to put up before that rain … ,” and besides I had a hard time imagining myself actually shooting a deer, not to mention Faye in town, whom I usually saw on Friday nights, at least to sit with her on her mother’s couch, maybe to go to a movie if there was money.
However, I had a fascination with Hob’s firearms, and it must have been on that basis that I told him I wanted to go. I did, indeed, want to tote that thirty-thirty around in the Badlands, as the Breaks were locally named. I was drawn to go. I was led to go. It would be wrong to say I wanted to go. So the hunting trip began to happen.
“See this, Cleve?” Hob said. “This is your own deer tag. You want to carry it along with you, so fold it up and put it in your pocket.” Hob could be winning and kind. He smiled. For a second he actually beamed at his boy. I’ve never said he couldn’t be winning and kind.
Despite my better judgment, I could feel a father and son or a manhood ritual forming around us, engulfing Hob and me, a ritual that, perhaps from long, lone times in the farm fields, we both completely disbelieved. However, it was a ritual or rite that Hob had no control over and to which he, too, was subject, a kind of order of the thing that Hob never committed to words and probably understood mostly by that Montana feeling that there never were any words for some things and, in fact, there weren’t supposed to be. Words.
I thought about my shooting problem instead of trying to expand my new smile. What the hell use was a smile if we were about to enter into the essential thing that men did, what fathers did with their sons to put them in touch with male customs and values which usually didn’t include smiles?
As for the deer, I knew and could feel in my arms that I could just put the large animal in my sights and blow it away. I had done that, conscienceless, with pheasants, but here was different. I had always heard you had to run up to the still living deer with your own sharpened hunting knife and cut its throat until the blood washed big and maroon like a river on your hands and wrists.
And then, you see, a deer, unlike a pheasant, would be as big as I, and that seemed to have a meaning. I had, after all, seen the all-too-conscious, fattened ewe or wether selected out of the band and hanging upside down by its hocks, uttering short and stifled bleats both questioning and terrified, yellow eyes rolling to each of us involved in the butcher in turn—I holding the rope in a half-hitch—as the neighbor who knew the old custom deftly applied a sharpened blade to the pink skin of the farm animal’s throat and the blood flowed to answer those forbidden but logical questions of the sheep once and for all.
So Hob, the meat hunter, and I, his son, got in the family Mercury and headed out of the farmyard with our hunting paraphernalia thrown in the backseat any which way like junk, Hob’s way. Hob kept one loaded rifle in its case in the front seat, because, as he said, “It’s hunting season, and we’re hunters, Clevey. We don’t know where the deer are yet and neither does anybody else.”
The deer could come out of the brush through the barrow pit on the way to the Badlands. My favorite of guns here was an old 30.06, a Remington bolt action, I don’t know what model. Hob, unsatisfied with the action some years back, had welded a split half of a one-half inch ball bearing onto the lever. It looked crude, the electric weld and his inexpert grinding of the bead, but he was satisfied, and, besides, as everyone knew, he was a dead shot.
We were going to pass through the Track Mountains in a couple of hours, and there were plenty of deer there. Plenty if you could see them. That’s where Hob had shot the herd. The overall plan was, though, to go where deer could be flushed from coulees, and where deer were big—the Breaks of the Missouri, as I said.
For a while Hob quizzed me about school as we rode along, and I got expansive and idealistic way beyond my real interest in school. Sure, I was a good student, but I laid it on so thick he quit asking me anything, and I was sorry I had tried to sound important.
I asked a few successful questions about finding deer, what we were going to do when we got there but soon fell into silence too because I knew next to nothing about the actual ways of deer hunting, over the years having ignored what Hob and my brothers did with such enthusiasm in view of my other interests. For me these other interests were school and the exploration of the body of my girlfriend, Faye, and I could not talk about the latter. I realized much later that Hob really didn’t have anything to talk to my brothers about in a congenial way except about what he and I were doing now, so wary were we all about his work demands in those days. To talk about work would just bring up a longstanding bitterness between father and sons.
As long as I could remember, however, in the fall there were several deer hanging in a cottonwood tree in the backyard, venison aging in the cool weather. So maybe here was something I was missing. Had I even wanted to go out with them? Never. And so my heretofore ignorance of hunting and its channel of acceptable family talk was logical, even natural.
As we reached the Track Mountains, where even relatively close distances were now blue, and the rolling ground revealed a stimulating series of colors quite different from the monotone, tan prairie, Hob pulled the car off the road onto the dirt approach to a hayfield, and I couldn’t help noticing, as I always did when we came up here, that exposed earth in this place looked black and volcanic, dramatically alive, possibly rich with minerals or something like that.
We ate our lunch up in that cooler environment. When I released my milky sandwich papers, which flew away from the car window into the tossing invisible wind, the papers marked the pristine distance like flags. I had a sense of the air’s cleanness, and I promptly felt embarrassed. Should we be letting that debris float away in the wind? Hob did not tell me that I shouldn’t throw the wrappers out. In fact, everybody did that sort of thing back then in the country no matter how goddamn beautiful it was.
So we reached the hunting ground. Grey and tan Montana earth stood carved up as though from immense violence. Deep gullies and coulees draped themselves like folds in land that all led down to the Missouri River. Every part of the Badlands seemed alike. I could see no particular reason that Hob had stopped us at this spot rather than another.
“Here we are, my boy,” Hob said, and pulled off the road onto the approach to fenced pasture land owned by operators far larger than Hob.
Wind seemed very insistent here, toneless as it worried the parched soil and grass. That wind was a part I hadn’t expected. Deer must have a hard time in such a wind, wherever they were, I thought, if the deer were at all like me with ears like mine, easily bored. But then I corrected myself. Naturally, my father was not thinking about the private lives of these deer.
“How soon will it be dark?” I asked.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Hob said. “We got four or five hours. We can find something. Remember Uncle Charlie and me? We came out here last year, and I got a deer in three hours.”
“Where are we going to look for them?” I asked
“I’ll tell you what,” Hob said, “I don’t know just yet. We’ll look around and see where each of us should go.” We were out of the car by this time, and Hob was looking left and right at the landscape that receded down toward the obscure and powerful river we never intended to see.
“Aren’t we going to hunt together?” I remember asking.
“Lots more efficient if we split up,” Hob said. “Cover more ground, see more deer.
“It’s a big country,” I said involuntarily.
“You won’t get lost,” Hob said. “After you go down coulee, all you have to do is come up coulee and you’ll end up on the flat. From there you can see the road or at least a fence that will take you to the road.”
“I’ve never done this before, actually,” I said in hopeless and mild explanation. I was always mild toward Hob, even when I was inwardly enraged in those days. At this point I was genuinely alarmed. I didn’t want to be alone in such a big country.
“I think you need to put that bright jacket on,” Hob said. “It’s hunting season for everybody else, too.”
I put on my American Legion boxing jacket. Lightweight cotton, bright blue with yellow arms, it was cut out in the raglan style and had the outline of a boxing glove in soft deer skin sewn on the back. The night before Hob had insisted that I bring the jacket. He was more proud of the club jacket than I. Benny, my sparring partner, always managed to hit my ears, and even on this hunting trip, the small cracks in the skin of my ears next to my head stung slightly. Hob said when I got too big, the punches might hurt my brain, but in the meantime I would learn not to fear kids from town this way.
Hob laid out the hunting strategy. Each hunter was to follow the ridge of a separate, deep coulee in the direction of the river for about an hour, watching for game. The coulee would widen, and it would be intersected by smaller gullies and might be obscured by these scrub pine trees, but I was to try to stay on the main run, as Hob would stay on his. Then each was to come back up coulee to high ground again, picking a path in the bottom of the next-over coulee until he was out. If we didn’t find deer or flush them out that way, Hob would be surprised.
I followed the high ground along the edge of my coulee, carrying the lever-action rifle, exactly the kind you saw in Western movies. It was a heady feeling moving down toward the hidden river, carrying lethal protection. I liked the drama of it, but I knew it was unreal, that I really needed Hob to show me the correct feeling, but by the time I had gone 50 yards, I looked around to find that I had completely lost contact with Hob. Maybe he had unexpectedly gone down toward the bottom of the grassy top to take a leak.
You had to stand or work next to him a long time to know what the correct feeling was with Hob anyway. Nothing happened on my passage down coulee, no deer, except that there was increasing cover toward the river that lay far below, and if there were deer they would have been obscured by the trees and brush. I was in thick timber where tree trunks were obstacles when I got as far as I thought I should be going. I would have liked to walk back out on my own coulee that I already knew, but I picked the next one over as I was told and began to scramble down the steep bank of the gully for my turnaround.
Here I saw my first real sign of deer. Animals had pressed a foot trail into the bottom around rocks and trees. The wind didn’t blow at all, and it looked like there was forage, since the grass along the edge of the trail showed green here and there. A deer could have a nice time here. I followed the game trail delightedly, as though a deer.
Not far along the trail my eyes were drawn to a brown bundle high in thick pine overlooking the trail.
The thirty-thirty was heavy compared to a twenty-two, and I knew how powerful it was. I raised my gun. There was a sound of wild, enraged screaming, high-pitched tearing, in my head. A wounded mountain lion was presenting all its fangs and claws, blood running from its mouth in my mind’s eye, attacking its attacker. I lowered the gun with weakened, trembling arms that felt barely hooked to my shoulders in their sockets. I could not trust the accuracy of my shooting with an unaccustomed gun. With a twenty-two I would know where I was going to hit. I circled up the bank and around the trail.
Tired by then, played out, I felt I was behind schedule with Hob. It was time to hurry up the coulee to the car, or next I would be inventing and shooting deer. It was getting late, too. I needed to be with Hob, but taking a shortcut over the trail had got me lost. Was lone coulee over, or was it three or four?
Whistling seemed a good idea, and I whistled loudly, afraid to shout for help or to show overt fear. I whistled and whistled, expecting Hob, somewhere in his coulee would hear me and signal back. What was the hunter’s lost signal? I thought I could do no better than whistling, so I kept on. This for an hour, but no sound and no word in return. Maybe I thought Hob would whistle back, discreetly revealing his position without human words of care or comfort that would scare the game away from our guns. No whistle came to my ears, though.
Still whistling, I decided to move up to the top again. I whistled and climbed through scrub pine and brush. Out of the pleasant bottom, the growing stuff of the Breaks country was of a cranky sort—the brush resistant and springy as steel. This was a hell of a place to go for recreation, and a worse place to spend the night lost. Watery light came from the sky now at a low angle, and I was up to my armpits in brush, feeling more panicky as I climbed. Now I knew I was probably going away from the car!
Then something deafening bloomed in my ears, jolted me backwards into spiny branches. And then again, the same powerful, machine-like noise. A high-powered rifle was exploding something like right on top of me, and my reflex was that I had been shot or at least shot at, dodging, tumbling part way down the slope in escape. I re-focused quickly, found myself looking up through branches and whips of greasewood toward a sky where high clouds were collecting a faint rosy color. I knew I wasn’t shot. I did what I knew Hob expected: pulled myself together and stood up slowly and carefully in my bright jacket. Three yards above me on the slope, Hob, chest and head rising above thorny green cover, gazed at me with a mild and thoughtful look on his hunting-cap-sheltered face, rifle with telescopic sight held firmly, barrel up.
We didn’t talk much, father and son, as we hiked to the bottom of the coulee again and up to nearly the top of the other side and a terrace where the bunch grass was very high. Slogging up the incline, I could see the arch of a russet antler, streaked with ivory, curving above the tawny grass. I had seen enough deer to know that this was a huge one. In fact I cried, “It’s an elk. For God’s sakes, it’s an elk,” as we came up on Hob’s grand, dead mule deer. I was glad it was dead, and Hob didn’t have to rush up and slit its throat to remove all the living blood from its body.
Hob thought this was a pretty significant buck, a strange thing for him to think, since a doe would have been better meat. Hob never shot worthy bucks. We gutted and dressed the exotic body of the deer, still warm, its hair gray as an army blanket, our sharp knives laying the bristly fur open to gleaming white fat along the belly, on the inner thighs, everywhere, exposing bright rivers of quiet, scarlet veins, frozen, petrified red in the tallow, Hob’s hatchet splitting the pearly sternum with soft, expert blows. Then he and I arduously brought it up to the flat and tied the carcass to the front fender of the Mercury and draped its huge-antlered head up over the hood, so we could drive through the town of Sandy-Up on our way home, showing our trophy off to the local hunters and housewives.
I meanwhile brooded on the words my father had used to explain why he didn’t whistle in his turn out there in the field and the puzzle of me coming out of cover almost exactly at his stand. The word “decoy” particularly rankled me, although I could see the logic.
“Every time you moved, that big guy moved a few feet,” Hob had said and explained quite unnecessarily how he didn’t want to reveal his own position, so miraculously close to the car, while the trophy buck moved slowly but surely out of his own cover in effect at my fearful prompting.
Alan J. Naslund has enjoyed a career as a university English professor, teaching in the United States, Japan and South Korea. His book of poems, Silk Weather, was published by Fleur de-lis Press, Spalding University.