The Other National Holiday (Part 4 of 5)

November 17, 2014

As Luke listened for the sounds of deer in the dark, he was suddenly startled nearly out of his skin by a loud noise and the rush of wind followed by a large crash of leaves on the forest floor below.  Pat, trying to be quiet, couldn’t help but chuckle out loud at the look on Luke’s face as the Tom, now on the forest floor below, started gobbling and strutting.  The turkey, upon hearing his laugh, danced off into the brush.  The sounds the turkey made in the leaves were a stark contrast to the previous quiet of the forest.  Luke laughed too once he realized that the sound and wind was a large gobbler flying down from his roost from the tree right next to him.  “How did I not notice that our tree stand was surrounded by turkeys roosting in the trees?  What an incredible wingspan!  I had no idea how big a 26 pound bird looked up this close,” Luke mused. “I’m going to learn to hunt turkey too so I can bring Mom a bird for Thanksgiving.”

The excitement died down and they settled quietly back into their seats on the tree stand.  Luke had been warm when he climbed into the stand from the walk, but now the breeze picked up a little and he felt cold sinking into his body.  His rear end was also starting to hurt from sitting on the 2 x 10 board.  He heard a tapping and looked over to see a red headed woodpecker bouncing his beak off a tree about 4 trees away.  How persistent the little bird was.  At this pace, it would take the woodpecker all day to drill the desired hole in the tree.

In the distance, cattle from a neighboring farm started bawling.  They were conditioned to being fed at this time each morning.  Apparently the farmer was late with breakfast.  A farm dog started barking to remind the rancher that it was time to get up and put breakfast on the table, or in the troughs, as the case may be.

From far away a loud crack echoed through the woods.  It was followed by 4 more loud cracks.  “They must have missed,” Pat said in a low, quiet voice.  “A good hunter gets his deer on the first shot and aims carefully.  It is a shame to wound an animal.”

The herd, which has since moved from the cornfield to the edge of the woods where it met the field on the other side of the hill, suddenly lifted their heads, ears and white tails erect at the sounds of the distance rifle.  “These are not normal forest sounds,” thought the old doe.  Her white tail signaled the warning, “These are not farmer sounds.  Danger lurks out there.”  The herd then knew it was Opening Day.  They trotted along the edge about 100 yards closer to the stand, then forgot and lowered their head to the frosty clover.  But the old doe’s head rose to check more often.

Pat and Luke continued to scan the woods for any hint of deer.  It was 7:00. The sun had peaked just up on the horizon so that it was half visible.  The moon was fading as the sun rose. The orange, yellow and pink rays gradually worked through the branches, brush and leaves as dawn crept to the stand.  Luke watched the familiar hues of brown, rust, yellow and green as the shadows were pushed down the ravine. How great it is to be outside to watch the woods awaken from their perch high up in the tree!  Luke was anxious for the sunlight to move to their place, hoping that it would warm him up some.  But they were on the dark side of the tree.  As Dad said, they didn’t want the sun to shine on their faces.  If they put their stand on the sunny side, the deer would certainly see them before they could even see the deer. The breeze came from their backs and blew their scents down the hill.  It was a perfect set up if the deer came from behind.

300 yards away over the hill, the old doe, suddenly alert again, jumped and bounded forward about 30 yards.  A buck came slowly out of the woods nose to the ground.  His neck was swollen by the rut.  A few minutes later a very large buck entered the edge, looked at the smaller buck and grunted.  The young buck wisely decided to move on.  Better seek other territory for does than take on this old monster.  Maybe next year, he would assert himself.  But not now.  The old buck was too strong with its large rack of antlers.  The young buck hurried away at a fast clip as the doe trotted another 25 yards along the edge.  The large buck followed slowly with his proud antlers, nose to the ground.

Luke had been afraid that he would be bored sitting in a cold tree stand all day, especially if they didn’t see any deer.  There were no televisions, no cell phones, no computers, no Ipods, just the quiet of the woods.  He now understood what his father had said.  He learned the woods weren’t so quiet.  There were lots of interesting things to see and hear.  He was camouflaged so well, the birds and animals had no idea he was there, as long as he was still.  He stared in fascination as a Nuthatch slowly worked its way up a branch in his tree.

Abruptly, the silence of the woods was broken by the distinct crack of rustling leaves behind him.  The sounds seemed to resonate throughout the valley!  His heart beat faster with excitement.  Was it a deer walking up from behind?  He knew from his Dad’s lessons that the worst thing he could do would be to turn around and look.  That would spook the deer.  Luke listened closely, still as a statue in the stand, and he heard another rustle of leaves;  then a couple seconds of silence, then another rustle.  He was failing to control the beating of his heart.  It seemed so loud that surely it could be heard.  Luke feared missing a shot from shaking.  It seemed like deer were right under the tree behind him.  After the noise increased in succession, he carefully and slowly grabbed his gun, lifted it, and turned around all the while trying to control the adrenaline coursing through his body.  He finger was on the safety.  It quivered a little.  As his head turned enough to see behind him, to his surprise, there were no deer.

“Squirrels!” Dad grunted, “No matter how many times I’ve been hunting, they fool me every time.”  Luke double checked his safety and placed the rifle back in a secure corner of the stand.  He watched as the squirrels chased each other up and down the tree, down and through the leaves, over and under a fallen branch.  It looked like they were having fun.  Finally, one scurried up the tree next to them, while the other grabbed an acorn in his little front paws and banged it repeatedly on a rock.  “Even a blind squirrel sometimes finds the nut. You were shaking,” Dad whispered with a smile, “Are you cold?”  “No, excited,” Luke admitted.  It was 8:30.

They settled back down and after a while things became very still again.  Luke stared at the woods.  Through the trees and brush he could see 50 yards at best.  Every horizontal branch looked like antlers.  Luke squinted his eyes and stared to see if any of the branches moved.  His Dad had good “deer eyes” but Luke was still learning.  When the branch he was staring at didn’t move, he would look at another area.  He thought he saw some white in the distance.  Perhaps it was a whitetail.  He borrowed his Dad’s binoculars and studied it carefully.  White is an unusual color to find in the woods except for Sycamore trees and deer.  He decided it was an old Styrofoam cup someone had left.  He made a mental note to take it to the trash when they were finished.

It was 9:30 when the leaves rustled in the distance behind him again.  “Squirrels, I’ll bet,” he thought to himself.  Then quiet… then the leaf sound again.  Something sounded a little different.  He couldn’t put his finger on it.  He gripped his rifle and raised it up upon the rail surrounding the stand. Again…the rustle of leaves… then quiet.  Maybe a deer was approaching slowly.  The noise started and stopped about each five minutes.  It seemed like he had been hearing these sounds for an hour.  He wasn’t going to turn around and scare it off if it was a deer.  He looked, frozen in place, down the ravine below and listened. He was no longer cold.  Again… the sound of leaves…then stillness.  After a long while, Luke looked down through the corner of his eye to see a doe crossing below their tree.  She was oblivious of the danger posed by the hunters up above.  Dad slowly shook his head.  He didn’t want Luke to shoot yet.  Luke couldn’t understand why.  Here was a deer right under them and Dad didn’t want him to shoot it!  The doe worked its way slowly down the ravine ever closer to the place where the wind was depositing their scents.  She disappeared behind a tree, and after a few minutes appeared again.  She took a couple steps, lowered her head to the acorns below, and then raised her head, freezing in place.  She repeated the procedure over and over. Each time her tail rose to the halfway point and her ears searched for danger.  Luke’s heart was beating fast and his hands were shaking.  He tried to fight it.  He knew he must be calm to shoot straight.  Dad had warned him about buck fever.  He had it bad.

She stomped the ground with her front hooves and then looked behind her.  This was the moment of truth.  It seemed she had caught their scent. She was going to get away.  Then behind them, Luke heard a distinct grunt.  Luke now understood why Dad didn’t want him to shoot.  The big buck was following this doe, nose to the ground.  Luke’s heart was beating faster.  He tried with all his will to control the shaking.

Copyright 2012, Tom Kretsinger, Jr.