The snow was crunchy, crisp toe snagging crust over three inches of powder, freeze dried into substancelessness by weeks of sunny days, cold nights and wind. But I saw the buck before I heard him. Antlers moving through gaps, left to right, the faint, neat snap of hooves echoing behind. It was the penultimate evening of deer season, deep towards the winter solstice, and while it was neither as frigid nor as snowy as distant dreams tend to suggest, this buck was full in thrall of the rut, just as hoped. His nose was on a string, and he followed it, ears and legs and round sleek body barely keeping pace, in a wide circle around me, averaging a bit over 100 yards away for the few minutes until it ended. Just down the hill a steeper slope of living trees swallowed wholesale the fading light, the dankness of that north-facing slope having kept last decades fire away. The gentler upper slope, which ended off a limestone crag a few hundred yards above, and into which I had just sidehilled, had been blitzed by the same fire, and it’s place high up in the consistent winds had, still, kept new vegetation to knee height.
I could always see either the antlers or the white rump, and often the line the buck carried atop his back, those three deviances whose exaggerated coherence stand out from branches, rocks, and grass, and have given up so many secrets to so many hunters. I could not get a clear look at his side, and thus had no shot. My own crunching feet and readjusting of rifle against first one snag and then another had pulled his attention from nose to eyes several times. Choice and planning struggled to stay fast enough that when a half second window opened to his lungs, the rest of me would be ready for my finger. That was what I could control. Whether the buck circled such that a window would open, that was not up to me.
This is the essence, the essential moment, of hunting. When practice allows confidence then allows instinct full reign, thought falls away, a millenia-old line pulls you firmly towards and animal, and you can finally kill, with equal parts automaticness and certainty.
The buck vibrated, his life batted out of him, tense for a second, then quickly ran 12 feet and fell over. He vanished from my sight as easily as a bullet through both his lungs took him out of life.
I can see the ridgetop from many places in town. From the hill behind our house, the summit of the roll in at the bike park, the big window at the end of the hall by by my office; in the right light morning or evening the line stands against the hills behind, dark in rockiness and burned timber. I wonder if many in town have the context to look out and see it. In my old office I could see it seated at my desk, and one of teachers though my compliment there enamored of the parking lot, so well do the distant mountains become routine.
From the ridgetop, during daylight, town fades into the middle distance, and the immediacy of ridges blending stays most easily in the mind. At night, the lights of civilization flood across the flats and well up into the hills, and my camp that night felt on the edge of a dark precipice that all but positioned me such that I could, if I wanted, piss off the edge down into someones back yard. I had realized, 20 minutes from home, that I had not packed a headlamp. Two flashlights and all the annoying traffic lights kept me from turning around, and I felt acutely that one lack of tool and technology as I cut the buck apart with a light grasped in my teeth. Having to dedicate a hand to shining the beam where I wanted it seemed worthy of only a short experiment, so I let the abundant snow and slackening wind put a camp for me in a big closets worth of flat between the rocks. I built a fire, and used that light to melt snow for water and stare, at the distant light strings of familiar roads, and at the somehow less familiar stars as they emerged to compete with the moon.
It was cold up there that night, something my abundant winter sleeping bag let me ignore. The meat, hung from a branch all night, was frozen solid, and held it’s shape in my pack all the way back.