12-year-old hunter gets shot at Big Snotty to salvage annual hunting trip for the family
We’ve abandoned the tree stand and are tromping through the woods, tracking best we can, finding good spots to stop. We hear a different form of rustling, and spot three deer, bounding up a steep ridge beyond the rise and fall of the nearest hill: a doe being chased by two bucks. We become tree trunks but the chase leads them elsewhere.
After a long still while, the persistent wind makes us doubtful and careless. We crack a beer, and given the emotional release of the burial, I’m allowed Tom questions I might not normally ask. I’d known Tom and his dad for 25 years, through our turbulent teens when the Parent, as a symbol of oppressive authority, was railed against. There’s understanding now, of course, in our mid thirties, of the many ways love is expressed.
“I couldn’t wait to tell my dad that I got my first deer,” Tom says. It wasn’t until he was a freshman in high school. In the days before cell phones and out of range for most walkie-talkies, he had been instructed to shoot three times, a ritual that still stands today to signify a kill. It was a doe, just before dusk. Then Bob came over to help gut it and dress it. “He was more excited than I was because now I knew what he loved. It was nonverbal. He gave me The Nod. Then he handed me the bottle of Blackberry Brandy. I was 14. I was part of the group. My dad was saying now you can tell the story of your first deer, you were successful as a hunter. But this was never said. It was that nod.”
Bob wouldn’t mind being called a tough son of a bitch, if you were going to open your trap about such things anyway. A veteran of the Navy, volunteer fireman, and self-made businessman who built his tile flooring business literally from his knees on up, he wasn’t the type to express himself with words. You could say he was of that generation, or of that constitution, but words had a way of muddling things. Yet you knew when you were wanted. Better yet, especially as teenagers who took over Bob’s basement as the default hang-out place, you knew when you weren’t wanted. If you were accepted at bonfires and pig roasts, tolerated at basement sleepovers, you were part of his family. No ceremony need announce it, only your presence. His loyalty and generosity were unmistakable: whatever he had was yours, and whatever your past, or your
current troubles, meant nothing compared to how you acted now. It was a code that extended most strikingly to hunting, a code that did not belong to Bob the patriarch, nor was it some prehistoric code of man, nor nothing as lofty as a code of honor. It was simple: treat people how you want to be treated, with love, respect, and a bit of shit. Be good.
It didn’t need to be spoken. It’s why every hunter in his party harvested their deer, simultaneously helping thin down a deer population from 1.6 million deer to about 1.4, and helping infuse millions of dollars to the local economy, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. And especially to the Menonites, the expert butchers that package and ship the party’s kill. To have venison in your freezer for a year keeps the hunt fresh in your mind, running through your heart, connected wordlessly to the other guys’ freezers, crock pots, and tables. Connected year round to your tribe.
It’s a couple beers later when we hear the distant cracks of the rifle. We perk up. Tom tries identifying who it is: so far away, it’s gotta be Paul and his son, or Painter. Three consecutive shots ring out. Tom’s smile is ear to ear. Finally, someone got something.
At dusk, we all meet up at the slab, take out the coolers, put out the chairs, bitch about not making a fire because of the wind. No one sits: we gather around Paul. He stands in a ring of guys on the slab, the last light gasping on the treeline, the forest a dark mass encircling us. He’s got a weeklong beard, white-collar cropped hair, and a big old chew that his wife can’t give him shit about. The kids are back at the house with Ray. This is the story we’ve been waiting for, the story he might’ve already told a half-dozen times, but not before his whole audience.
That morning, with the wind rocking the stand, and his 12-year old son nodding off left and right, Paul tied a rope around his waist to the stand. Then he hears it.
“Here she comes, off the ridge, right down to us. Then comes Big Snotty, charging right after her, ready to fuck. Josh’s sleeping, so I hit him,” he elbows the imaginary kid next to him, points in a full range of the circle so everyone has to step back. Josh is waking up with his rifle in his arms, not knowing where to point.
“She must’ve heard us, cause she goes bounding up the ridge, Big Snotty right after her. Then he stops, perks up, turns right at us. Joshie’s up now, his arms are shaking,” the imaginary gun is pointed shakily, making its sight line, no exaggeration now because that’s what it felt like then. We’re waiting for the open shot. Paul holds us on the edge of that tree stand. But then.
“Then from across the ridge to the left of our stand, here comes a second buck, charging full on towards the first buck.”
We’re incredulous, awe struck, silent, gaping.
“Big Snotty takes off charging at the fucker, and boom, the three of them take off into the woods.” He spits, and gives us a chance to exhale and exclaim. “But we hear ‘em coming back, and Joshie’s ready this time, he’s not sleeping anymore.” Paul becomes his son in the tree stand, sighting the rifle at the sound rushing up behind us. The night crystallizes his breathe; he huffs and puffs. “Big Snotty chasing the other one, he lines it up, Bang! Got the first one, missed the second.”
Parts of it are retold. Tom wonders—no, he knows—it was the same threesome we had seen. I want to hear the story again and again. I want a chance to record it exactly as it was told, and to reprint it verbatim. But that is impossible. That story could only be told that way once. End of a shitty day for everyone, and the story of a son getting his first deer during a mating ritual, all under the context of burying the silent leader of the tribe: three generations of hunters, and the youngest man got one, and Ray, the oldest, who always gets at least a doe.
It so totally unbelievable, not in the unreal sense, but in all the harmony of its components. The only thing missing was the Blackberry Brandy, but at 12 years old it’s understood. And sure, amidst the awe is envy, but there is—more than anything else—hope. No matter how shitty the hunt was for you today, this could be yours tomorrow. It is the story that makes me understand hunting, that what is good for one is good for the tribe, that out in the woods together we are always more successful—always better—than when we are alone.