The Last Day

A soft cool breeze tickled my right eardrum, caressed the tip of my nose and carried my scent in a northeasterly direction, toward the small stream exiting a massive beaver pond a hundred or more yards north. The clock was the sunset shadow creeping up the eastern ridge before me. I knew that once the sunlight left the highest peak to my right, there would be a half hour remaining in the deer-hunting season. But a lot can happen at dusk while concealed on the edge of an orchard posting a well-traveled deer run, and after 12 days of shotgun and 15 days of blackpowder season, this was precisely where I wanted to kiss the season farewell.

What few apples had fallen to the ground in the barren orchard were long gone, foraged by the wild creatures they attract. But deer were still feeding through the orchard nightly, picking their way through the oaks before popping into a secluded corner. Experience told me they’d soon appear on the eastern perimeter. It was just a matter of where and when.

It’s spooky how you anticipate where they’re going to come from, strain your eyes to detect subtle movement in the woods before they pop out into the orchard and — bingo! — there they are, ghost-like, appearing out of nowhere, right in your lap, big doe leading the way. She serves as the eyes, ears and nostrils of those trailing her, stopping often in search of imminent danger, never a sound or sighting until she’s right there in your kitchen.

Some days only the does show up, breaking into the opening one by one, single file. But you’re always waiting for the buck to appear last, satisfied that the coast is clear. With the light rapidly disappearing, you just pray he pops out in time for you to get a crack at him. The trick is remaining painfully still and silent to prevent the does from detecting you and alerting the buck, which isn’t easy as it sounds. Because even when you’re still and silent as a ledge, a variable wind shifting directions is all it takes to blow your cover, as it had in that identical spot on a previous evening.

The Weather Channel had predicted it that evening: afternoon winds from the west, changing to northwest in the evening. And, sure enough, the wind-shift occurred on my watch, with two mature does in the orchard below me, feeding cautiously in my direction. As I sat there observing the animals — Black Diamond 50 caliber shouldered, fiber-optics illuminated in their direction — I could sense uneasiness in the leader, and she was clearly transferring her caution to the doe trailing five or 10 yards behind her. The wind was in my favor and I was frozen, moving only my eyes while sitting comfortably on the ground, back resting against a blow-down, small white pine tree screening me from the deer. But wild animals have an uncanny way of sensing your presence, and this doe definitely was uneasy.

Even as she picked at the orchard grass, she appeared to be looking right at me, pausing time and again to lift her head slightly, flex her ears forward and peer at me like a schoolmarm looking over her reading glasses. Then I felt the wind shift from the naked back of my neck to my left ear and the lead doe lifted her head shoulder-high. She flicked her flag nervously, stomped her right front foot twice into the turf, extended her head high, snorted, wheeled around and bound off.

The other deer stood motionless and erect until she passed, then followed her companion into the woods, where two others joined fled with them. It was over in a matter of seconds. Vanished into thin air, four of them, snorting aggressively a couple more times as they fled.

That wasn’t going to happen this time. The wind was right, blowing into my right ear. But, first, the deer had to select the right path into the orchard, which, of course, is never a given.

With time running out and the gray light turning black, I thought I spotted something at the woods’ edge below me, through the white pine bows between me and the run. It looked like a deer facing me, barely discernable among saplings on bare ground. Was it a deer or a low-light mirage? That was he question. I raised my gun slowly, pointed it in the right direction and watched motionless, rapidly losing my depth perception. Then, when it became too dark to pick out detail, I slowly rose, sort of expecting to watch a brilliant white flag bounce away. But there were no flags. False alarm.

I reached for my ramrod, leaning against a small black cherry, and slid it into place below my barrel. I picked up my leather sling, draped over the blow-down backrest, and secured it to my weapon, then reached for my fanny pack, picked it off the ground and fastened it around my waist. When I reached for my weapon, leaning securely against the cherry, I spotted a deer, standing broadside in the orchard between the first two rows of trees, maybe 60 yards in front of me. A big deer, standing still, head and ears erect.

If I could see horns in the vanishing light, I could take it, but horns were not visible. At least not yet. With nothing to lose and time running out fast, I sat on the blow-down hoping the deer would walk toward me. But it just stood there motionless for perhaps 30 seconds, probably less, snorted twice and bound off through the orchard. Two others followed.

Knowing it was over, I stood, walked 20 feet into the orchard and headed back to my car, which happened to be in the same direction the deer had run. When I reached the pond at the base of the road leading from the farmhouse to the orchard, I pointed my weapon low toward the eastern perimeter of the orchard and squeezed the trigger, abruptly breaking the idyllic silence and momentarily polluting the refreshing black mountain air with blue-gray Pyrodex smoke, which quickly dissipated in the soft southwest breeze.

I turned to ascend the final hundred yards of another invigorating season to my vehicle. My feet were light, my soul fulfilled.

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