Heart of a Hunter
By Chuck Oxley
When the time comes to make the kill, the hunter must momentarily stop his heart, turn it to granite.
Before last fall, I had never hunted big game. A good friend who owns land near Lewiston, in northern Idaho, invited me for an October weekend deer hunt. He said his rural neighborhood had been thick with does all summer.
Driving the 250 miles to Bobís homestead that mild autumn night, I had mixed feelings about putting down big game. It did not seem wrong to me. Yet, it also did not seem quite right. I could make some ecological justification for the huntómany animals that are not taken during the harvest season die of starvation, exposure or predation during the winter. Then there was the special overabundance of females in the area I intended to hunt. On and off, I wrestled with this question. As I drove north, I could not say whether I would pull the trigger when the moment of truth arrived.
Bobís land sits just below timberline on a high bluff. From his house at the bottom of the property, the land slopes sharply up several hundred yards to form a bucolic series of hayfield meadows, lined on either side by Indian hawthorne bushes and apple trees.
After an afternoon of target shooting in unsettled weather that included a brief period of sleet, we were back nesting in the house. A pot of chili was starting on the stove when Bob saw deer crossing his neighborís pasture. It was time. With our boots on again, we returned to the hill.
The higher we climbed, the more we could hear and see deer all around us, but we were not welcome. Across the meadow and up on a ridgeline, a half-dozen white-tail were spooked by our presence and hurried out of the overgrown and wild orchards. Above us, a rafter of wild turkeys was gobbling noisily, raising a ruckus.
We sat on the hillside, quiet again, as the sun dropped behind the mountains to the west. My heart raced for a moment when two fawns sped wildly down the field in front of us, hooves pounding in the field as they turned wide into the sunset and galloped over the far ridge. If nothing else, seeing those young animals leaning playfully into their turns was worth the entire trip.
But with the sun waning, I suggested we move up the hill. We resumed our climb, our chase and our wait.
The choice to hunt is not a light one; this is not the suburban American quandary of choosing a restaurant for dinner. That is a question of "where." Hunters must first come to terms with "if." It is assumed that, as Americans, we can and will get our dinner as a matter of course, either by cooking at home or by trading some of our hard-earned currency for a hamburger delivered on roller skates.
For hunters, the question is esoteric. What if there was no ready TV dinner? How much heart, how much pain and how much suffering would you sacrifice, and for what purpose? By what desire do we kill? Some might call this desire an extension of the soul, a profound longing to be so close to nature that you actually become it, or it becomes you through the timeless dance of the hunt.
When I sit down to a meal of game meatóthe flesh of either fowl or fur-bearing animalóI take a sacrament. This fork-full of protein and sinew was born in the wild, had something akin to a childhood and grew into an adult. At the same time, I was working my job, raising my family, mowing my lawn. We each lived our lives until the moment of intersection, me as the hunter, the creature as the hunted.
When the time comes to make the kill, the hunter must momentarily stop his heart, turn it to granite. Because to take the life of a big beautiful buck with antlers out to the limit of my outstretched arms, or to blast a 12-gauge shotgun at an incoming sandhill crane like so much anti-aircraft fire requires a clear moment, free from sentiment. Put the crosshairs of the riflescope on the breast of a statue-still white-tail as the early-winter evening brings darkness to the deerís last sunset. Pull the trigger only with a deep understanding of your place in nature and in time.
It was higher up the hill just after sundown and in a light drizzle when I saw the big white-tail doe. I was crouched behind a bunch of cheatgrass when she walked down out of the high mountain timber and into the grassy center of the meadow slope. She was a deep gray in the dusk and magnificent, like a bride walking her aisle of hawthorne bushes.
She spotted Bob first, about 100 yards from her, and everyone froze. I was a bit closer, but out of view. I rose to my knees, shouldering the .30-30 Marlin lever-action rifle. I crept forward like this and knelt before a thick stand of thigh-high cheatgrass.
I still did not know if I was going to shoot. She was facing me straight on, leaving a poor shot. Holding the position for several minutes, my arm grew weary and the barrel began to shake. Slowly, I lowered the gun and watched.
After five minutes, she grew aggressive, stamping her front hooves at Bob. She let out a series of snorts, a sound like a catís hiss, only lower, louder and deeper. I was close enough that I could see her mouth open wide and her tongue stick out to deliver her message.
Until this moment, I could not have predicted the outcome. I think it was that snortingóthat defiant blast of air coming hot out of her lungs combined with her harsh, almost obstinate expressionóthat set our course. Itís a vision that still plays in my mind. I realized that this was our moment, hers and mine, and that both of us had a job to do. It was my job to take her and her job to die, or to live, as nature and luck would have it.
She stood on that hill, her chest puffed out, snorting and hissing. I raised the rifle again. With all of her stamping, her body had rotated so that more of her right side was showing, nearly a full profile against the slate gray sky. I placed the scope on her heart and waited until my barrel stopped dancing. And then my finger, with slow pressure, settled onto the trigger.
A brilliant white-yellow flash erupted as the muzzle lit the darkening night. Instantly, the doe reared up and spun, kicking hard and high in mid-air with her hind feet. When all four legs landed, they were already moving as she dashed toward a gap in the brush.
And then, nothing. Complete quiet. Bob and I looked at each other wide-eyed and shrugged. It was possible that she could have dropped and neither of us would have seen her. We walked to the top of the hill where she had been standing, but there was nothing, not even a blood sign. Still, it was hard to tell with the fresh rain glistening the brush.
"I donít think you got her," Bob said. I felt a kind of silly relief.
Bob continued to search for blood, and I walked toward the gap where I saw her disappear, a wide swath leading to a smaller clearing. Then, something white in the darkness. After a couple of steps, I saw her head facing me. As I came closer, her eyes were open but vacant. She had made it about 30 yards before piling up. She had been dead several minutes.
We found the bullet entrance just behind her right front shoulder with the exit wound on her left side, behind her centerline. As I opened her belly, I felt warm, loose blood sloshing around her body cavity. I had hit the heart, just where I aimed. She did not suffer.
I was surprised and maybe a little ashamed at the lack of hunterís remorse I felt as we hauled the carcass down the hill to be cleaned and dressed in Bobís garage. It felt more like a completeness of something perhaps a little sad, yet not tragic. Still, I avoided her eyes.
Sunday broke bright.
I reached down and closed her eyelids. As I did, I felt a release, like a part of some deep grief letting go. I lingered for a few moments, long enough to relive the previous evening, the minutes of silence between first awareness and the kill. Before leaving, I wanted to say something, something profound, but everything I thought of sounded corny. All I had was a sense of thanks to this animal and to the earth that gave her to me.
I thought of the meat that my family and I would enjoy: venison jerky for future bird hunts and venison steaks for my extended family at Easter. It was one of those moments when words are neither good enough nor necessary.