Tears on Opening Day
by Jan Cary

12/07 Buffalo, NY

“You’re like a little kid the night before Christmas!” my husband declared, annoyed that I wasn’t letting him get to sleep. But I couldn’t help it; my mind was all a-jumble as I wondered what opening day of shotgun season 2006 would hold in store for us.

“I can’t remember how to load my gun,” I whispered, worried. For my birthday in March, Steve had gotten me a 20 gauge Remington 870 Express Magnum with a Bushnell Banner scope. Though I had practiced with it numerous times since then, my mind was drawing a blank, having focused the last five weeks on bowhunting.

“You’ll remember,” he assured me, pulling the blankets up tighter.
Moments later I asked, “Where will you be?”

“In the remote treestand,” came the mumbled reply. He was referring to the hang-on treestand positioned at the rear of the property where we hunt, which is largely a Christmas tree farm in Bennington, New York.

“Where will Ron be?” Our friend would be joining us on opening day.
Heaving a big sigh, Steve reminded me, “In the McKinnon tree stand.” That stand is named after the friend who gave it to us after giving up hunting. “Now GO TO SLEEP!”

At 4:18AM my eyes popped open; I was finished sleeping, but the alarm had not yet gone off. I lay there for a few more minutes, then decided I might as well get the show on the road. I padded downstairs, got my Chunky Soup heating to put in my Thermos, filled our water bottles, then returned upstairs. The alarm still had not gone off; nevertheless, I began dressing as our floor squeaked horribly beneath my feet. Surely that would wake Sleepy Head.

Still there was no movement from my husband, so I announced, “I’m going hunting today. Are you?” He muttered something unintelligible, I finished dressing, then went back downstairs to stir my soup. By the time he came down, I was ready to go, twenty minutes earlier than planned.

This wasn’t my first Opening Day. I’ve been hunting for three years now, both bow and gun, but with no success in either. It’s been four years for Steve, and he has managed to get a deer every year – and even two this bow season. But since I myself had had such rotten luck during bow season, not even sighting a deer from my doghouse blind, I was ready for a little long distance reach-out-and-touch-someone action. Perhaps this was the year I would finally bag my first deer, and maybe today was the day!

When we arrived at the Christmas tree farm in pitch blackness, our friend Ron was already there, still gathering up his gear. Steve left for the remote treestand, Ron and I trudged out together a little way, then parted company. I made my way alone to our double tree stand – the stand from which Steve had bagged a small buck with his bow the previous week. Sometimes walking out alone into inky blackness unnerves me, but today it did not. Today just felt different.

About fifty yards from my stand I paused to deploy Wildlife Research Center’s Special Golden Estrus scent lure, which we had poured into a little orange hang-bottle. It was toward the tail-end of the rut; I hoped I could lure in a buck still on the prowl, but I’d be just as happy with a doe. Any deer would be great after three years with nothing so far! And we sure needed more meat in the freezer to feed our family.

After scrambling into the stand and getting myself settled, I loaded my gun (yes, I remembered how after all) and settled in for a long day, praying I might see a deer and put a good shot on it. As daylight broke (and even before then), shots rang out like popcorn all around me for miles, but none were Steve’s, none were Ron’s.

Surveying the Christmas trees, scrub, and weeds arrayed before me, I scanned for signs of movement. The wind was virtually calm, so motion would be easy to detect. Wait – what was that way over to the right? Yes! “Deer!” I announced quietly into my walkie-talkie’s mike. “Toward the middle of the tree farm.” I wasn’t too worried that it would hear me; it was about 80 yards away and I had absolutely no shot through the maze of maple branches and Christmas trees. “I think it’s a buck,” I added, but I couldn’t be certain. “It’s going straight back.” And obviously not heading my direction.

“Maybe it’ll come by you, Ron,” my husband came back on the radio.

I lost sight of it for a moment or two, then – YES! It had suddenly changed its heading and was coming my way! It was indeed a buck, though I couldn’t make out the details of his rack through the tangle of branches I was peering through. Most likely he had caught wind of my scent bottle and decided to investigate.

My heart hammering now, I got my gun into position as I gently blew twice into my ear-mounted microphone – my signal to Steve that I couldn’t speak.

“You got a deer by you?” he asked.

Again I blew twice to confirm it. By now I could see that this was no junior buck; definitely not the six-pointer who had previously alluded our 14 year old daughter’s arrow earlier in the month.

Slowly, still lured by the siren of my scent bomb, the would-be Romeo stepped out from behind the pesky maple branches, offering me a slightly quartering-to shot. I had him in my crosshairs at about forty yards, but he wasn’t stopping. And I wasn’t about to attempt a moving shot, not that confident in my shooting skills.

“Brrt!” I grunted softly. But he ignored me. “BRRT!” I repeated, a little louder. That stopped him, and he glanced my way just in time to hear the roar of my Remington. My heart still racing, I watched as he rocketed into the woods on my left, but I quickly lost sight of him. With great satisfaction I heard him crash.

“Was that you?” cried my husband over the airwaves.

“Yes,” I choked, barely breathing. “Eight-point!”

“Do you want me to come to you?”

“Yes, please!” I needed Steve’s calming steadiness to help me settle down.

He was clear on the other side of the tree farm, though. The longer I waited for him, the more my heart settled back into its normal rhythm and the more anxious I got to see my deer. Wits collected, I descended from the treestand and strode to where I’d shot. Yes! “There are bits of hair on the ground.”

“What color is it?” Ron wanted to know.

Examining it, I answered, “White.” Hm...could be just belly fur. Perhaps I’d only grazed him, and the crashing sound I’d heard was only him breaking sticks as he ran on. Apprehensively I glanced around for more sign. To my delight, I discovered scarlet blood with bits of...something...in it. “Praise God! There’s blood!” I cried with glee. “Steve! Where are you? You’re so slow!”

“Some of us are still hunting,” he replied significantly, in a low but stern reminder. “While I walk, I might move something toward Ron.”

So I apologized to them both, then began looking for the beginning of the blood trail. Soon enough, Steve joined me and I gave him the complete play-by-play right up to where we stood. I really needn’t have bothered with a blood trail, because the sodden turf was well-dented with the big buck’s scrambling footprints, but it was educational and satisfying to follow it anyhow. We tracked him for about forty yards through an open area on the tree farm, even though I had clearly seen where he’d run into the woods. But before we entered the tall pines, Steve raised his binoculars to peer in. “There he is, about another forty yards in.”

I looked without the binos; sure enough, there he lay, very still. Nevertheless, I reloaded and quietly crept in. But where were the antlers? Surely this was my buck, right? Oops – I had been looking at the wrong end. I don’t wear eyeglasses for nothing.
There was still no detectable movement, so I crept up and poked the bruiser in the rump with the muzzle of my gun. Satisfied that he was undeniably dead, I removed my shell again.

Meanwhile, my husband moved forward and kept exclaiming, “Look at those antlers! Wow, look at the mass! This is awesome! You did good, sweetie!” Of course we see much bigger deer on TV all the time, but this was the very first time either of us had seen a buck of any significant size up close and personal, and it truly was an impressive sight.
“Check out this tree,” I commented. Now I knew what the crash I’d heard was all about; as the buck had fallen, he had completely broken the trunk of a dead tree measuring about three inches in diameter. The fallen timber lay across one of his antlers.

After removing the tree, I posed for the obligatory photos, already picturing the wonderful scrapbook layout this was going to make, using the cool Realtree Hardwoods background paper I’d purchased over the summer for just such an occasion. That done, I waited for us to begin field-dressing the brute, but Steve just stood there. “What are you doing?” I asked.
A proud grin upon his handsome face, he shrugged and answered, “Just admiring him!” For several moments he stood thus while I stroked the animal’s thick, tawny fur, silently thanking him for giving us his meat.

Eventually we moved the deer a few feet into a tiny clearing, then Steve turned to retrieve his backpack so we could commence field-dressing. Left alone with my buck as I played with his ears and ran my hands over his antlers, I was surprised when my eyes puddled. I shed three tears – one for the amazing God who blessed me with this awesome first deer, a second one for the fallen majesty that would rule these woods no more, and a third for the unspeakable joy of the moment.

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