By Dick Draper
I wrote this story a very long time ago and discovered it recently when I was looking through some old files. It’s so old it was written on a typewriter. (You may remember those things.) It’s not much changed from the original.
Like a lot of stories, this one has some basis in fact. Many years ago when our son, Mike, turned one year old, he received a Buck knife in the mail from a SEAL teammate as a belated baby gift. The letter with it said pretty much what the one in the story says. Over the years I have continued the practice, sending Buck knives to the young sons of friends. The last one went out about one year ago.
Let me hear your comments–good and bad–about this tale.
Nick shifted his weight carefully on the narrow board that served as his seat. He was already restless and a little cold but he had trouble sitting still anytime, let alone on the opening day of his first deer season.
The woods were perceptibly brighter now. He could almost make out the nearest clump of birches directly in front of him. An hour earlier, he had left the dirt fire lane following his Uncle Joe into the total blackness of the Minnesota pre-dawn. Uncle Joe had led him unerringly to his tree stand on a small knoll overlooking Hanlon’s Slough, a 100-yard wide depression of swamp grass and brush that appeared to have little, if any, water. The 50-yard strip between his stand and the edge of the slough was a maze of head high buck brush and young birches.
Nick wiggled his toes in his felt-lined Sorrels and flexed his fingers on the 30-30 Marlin cradled in his lap. It seemed an eternity since Joe had wished him good luck and with flashlight bobbing disappeared into the darkness. Nick hadn’t been too keen on locating his stand here. Hanlon’s Slough was named for Jack Hanlon, a crazy Irishman, so he was told, whose stand had stood not ten yards from where Nick now sat. Jack had died, Joe said, 4 years ago and no one had hunted in this location since. Ha, I’m a Polish/Scotsman and Hanlon’s a ghost; quite a pair of hunting buddies, he thought. But his Dad and uncle Joe had persisted and he did not want to think of him less than brave, even if he was only twelve years old.
A flicker of movement to his left snapped him out of his thoughts and started his heart to thumping. Trying to hold his head stationary, he rolled his eyes to the left and held his breath. He caught the movement again and recognized the object of his excitement; a tiny, fluffy “snow bird” that was flitting from branch to branch. He silently watched the bird as it continued the solitary task of examining buds. Since he seemed not to eat any, Nick concluded he must have been looking for the perfect bud.
Nick swung his gaze back to the front and realized he could now make out the nearest side of Hanlon’s Slough, and therefore the 1998 Minnesota deer season was now officially underway. In the distance, a single rifle shot echoed over the forested hills, and from further away, a series of four rapidly spaced shots. “He missed,” Nick mumbled.
After a few moments, Nick returned to his thoughts. He knew that this was a significant day, not only for him as his first deer hunt, but also for his Dad and uncles. Today he was crossing the threshold of Manhood in the eyes of the men in his family and he realized that they would never treat him in quite the same way. Nick had awaited this day, seemingly forever. The Knife symbolized it all. He leaned back against one of the two stout birches that supported his seat and pressed the Buck knife against his hip, comforted by its presence. The Knife had been his for nearly 12 years but this was the first time he had been allowed to carry it.
It had been given to him by his Uncle Joe as a baby gift and the letter to him said that the knife was to serve as a reminder to his Dad of his responsibilities as a father to, “….teach him the ways of the woods and to take care of his gear.” The letter also talked about how the knife, as it got moved from drawer to drawer, would remind his Dad that despite business and time pressures, he should “remember the simple and important things.” Nick could not say with certainty if the knife had caused his Dad to spend more time with him, but his father had taken him along on fishing and hunting trips since he was about four or five. Except for deer hunting.
He was lucky, he knew, for many of his friends at school did not get to do many of the things he enjoyed. His uncles had also taught him much. Uncle Dan, his Dad’s brother and the official trout-fishing champion of the family, had taught him all his tricks. Uncle Joe had showed him all his grouse coverlets and how to sit quietly in the hardwoods for squirrels. Joe Dolan wasn’t really family; he and his Dad had been friends for years despite their age difference. He had always been “Uncle Joe” to Nick and he knew that Joe loved him like a son.
It was fully light now, and from the bright glow in the east, Nick knew the sun would be up soon. It promised to be a glorious November day. With no wind, the woods were silent. An occasional shot could be heard but they were distant and certainly not by anyone in Nick’s group.
Nick’s eyes kept returning to a shape on the far side of Hanlon’s Slough. It sure looked like a deer standing in the tall grass! The more he stared at it, the more certain he became. Once again, his heart started to thump. Slowly, he raised the carbine and pressed his cheek against the polished walnut stock. Scanning the area with his scope he could not locate the deer, so using the open sights beneath the scope, he lined up the deer and then peered through the scope. His “deer” turned out to be a patch of brush and the trunk of a blown down willow. He reminded himself of Uncle Joe’s advice, “Don’t focus on objects. Just scan with your eyes and look for movement,” and “Listen: your ears are your best allies.”
The momentary excitement and the morning chill were causing Nick two kinds of discomfort. He desperately wanted to stretch his legs, and the pressure in his bladder could no longer be denied. He took one careful look around and rose slowly to his feet, feeling the carpeted platform under his feet and the gentle swaying of the birches that supported his stand. After relieving himself, stretching and treating himself to a cup of steaming cocoa, he resumed his vigil, happy that a buck had not appeared during his break. He had heard many stories of huge bucks that chose awkward moments to appear.
The sun’s rays slanted through the trees now, turning the branches and dead leaves on which the frost had gathered during the night into dazzling patterns of reflected light. The kiss of the sun quickly melted the frost and droplets of moisture gathered on the brush. Nick watched intently as a drop of moisture grew on a twig near his head, distended and fell silently. “Like a tear,” he thought.
There had been a few tears last night, and Nick was still a bit mystified at the emotional outpouring. He wondered if it might have something to do with the ancient bottle of brandy that Uncle Joe had produced to toast the hunt and celebrate the little ceremony when his Dad had given him The Knife. Uncle Joe had quickly left the cabin during the ceremony and it was a long time before he returned with the armload of wood he had gone to fetch. Joe’s eyes had been rimmed with red. That had reminded him of something Uncle Joe had once said to his father, “An Irishman cries when he’s happy or sad. A Scotsman only cries when he has to pick up the check.”
The rustling in the leaves off to his right brought him back to the present and his eyes followed his ears to the source of the sound. A lean, gray squirrel was digging around among the leaves either looking for something or burying it. What ever he was doing, he made a lot of noise. It sounded like a whole herd of deer!
Nick leaned back and glanced again in the direction of the two small white pines about 40 yards away on his left. His Dad and Uncle Dan had located a scrape there when they were constructing his stand yesterday morning. They told him to keep an eye on it, as the buck might be back to see if a doe had left him a calling card in his absence. He was keeping a close watch on that area. He hadn’t heard any shots for some time now and the woods were again silent as the squirrel had moved on.
He started to think again about the events of last night and Uncle Joe’s reaction. He remembered that Joe had a son…Pat wasn’t it? Yes, Pat. And he had died when he was about Nick’s age… hit by a car… riding his bike. Yes, that must be it. Uncle Joe must have been thinking about his son, although Nick had never heard Joe mention his name. Nick had overheard his Mom and Dad talking about it once, and even at his young age, figured that the loss of his son had something to do with Uncle Joe’s affection for him. He had never dared question Joe about it, and since no one else mentioned it, guessed it was one of those taboo subjects. He made a mental note to ask his Dad about it the next time they had one of their “talks”. It was about time for another one. He had heard some incredible things about sex at school that he wanted to get clarified.
Nick’s senses suddenly went on alert. He had heard something he was sure, but couldn’t locate the sound, as if it were on the fringes of his consciousness. There, he’d heard it again! The sound seemed to be coming from the other side of Hanlon’s Slough in the direction of Uncle’s Joe’s stand, was about a quarter mile away. While watching intently in that direction, he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his left eye and swung his head quickly to the side. “Damn!” he cursed silently for he knew he’d moved too fast. He froze and his eyes picked up the dark shape of a deer moving silently toward the two small pines. The deer had its head down and glided slowly through the brush. Nick could not get a clear view to determine if it was a buck. At about 50 yards distant, the deer stepped into an opening, stopped, raised his head and looked directly at Nick. It was a buck! And, Nick was certain; at that range the buck would clearly hear the wild thumping of his heart. Nick was almost overpowered by the urge to snap his rifle to his shoulder and shoot but he knew he would never make it. The buck would be gone before he could get off a shot. He also had been told many times that a deer can look right at you and not see you–if you don’t move. Suddenly the buck looked back over his shoulder in the direction of Uncle Joe’s stand, dropped his head and continued walking toward the two pines. When the buck’s head was momentarily hidden behind some thick brush, Nick slowly raised the 30-30 and thumbed back the hammer. His heart thumped like a drum, his eyes were misting with excitement and the end of the rifle weaved alarmingly. Nick wondered if he could hit the buck if he ever did step from behind the pines. And then the buck came into the open, stood looking at him and was perfectly broadside.
The roar of the carbine as it slammed against his shoulder surprised him, not only because the sound crashed through the silent forest like a sudden clap of thunder, but also because he could not consciously remember aiming or pulling the trigger.
Photographed in his mind forever would be the image of the deer crouching and leaping over the small knoll after his shot. He knew in his heart that he had missed, confident that his sights had not been on the buck when he shot. “Shot, hell!” he muttered. “It went off.”
Nick’s hands shook alarmingly so he put the rifle down. He began to get dejected at the thought he’d blown his opportunity. Buck fever. He wondered what kind of ribbing he’d take from his Uncles for blowing his chance? His Dad wouldn’t say much but Uncle Dan would surely let him have it. He realized he wasn’t going to have much time to think about it when he spotted a splash of orange moving through the hardwoods and down the hill toward Hanlon’s Slough. Uncle Joe would be at Nick’s stand in a matter of minutes. Joe walked steadily in that rolling gait of his until he stood directly below Nick. He looked up and whispered, “Well?”
“A b-buck. I missed him,” replied Nick.
“How do you know?” asked Joe simply.
“Well, ah, he ran off.”
“So why don’t we go take a look?” asked Joe. “Hand me your rifle. Is it loaded?”
Nick looked sheepish as he realized he had forgotten to eject the spent cartridge. He was grateful that Joe remained silent as he unloaded the rifle and handed it down. Nick’s heart still thudded and his knees shook as he climbed unsteadily to the ground. “Deer frequently run, even if fatally shot. You know that, Nick,” said Joe. “Where was he standing when you shot?” Nick pointed toward the pines and they both slowly made their way in that direction.
Searching the ground for sign, Joe stopped and pointed. “Here’s his track. See the splayed tracks where he jumped?” exclaimed Joe. Nick was about to tell Joe the direction the deer had gone but Joe was already moving on the trail like a bloodhound. Nick remembered that his Dad had once said that Joe was one of those guys who could track a trout up a rapids. That certainly seemed true because Nick could not imagine what Joe was following over the leaf-covered ground. Every few feet or so Joe would stop and carefully search the area around the tracks. Nick knew he was looking for blood and the failure to find any filled him with dread that he had completely missed the buck. He knew the razzing he would take from his Uncles and the rest of their party would be unmerciful.
After an agonizing 30 yards, Joe stopped and said with a touch of excitement, “Here we go!” Nick hurried over and following Joe’s finger saw a single spot of bright crimson gleaming on an oak leaf. Nick’s hopes crashed. One tiny spot in all that distance? Maybe he had just wounded the buck. That would be worse than a clean miss. But Joe was encouraged. “Lung shot, I think.”
They pressed on. The tracks were slanting downhill now toward a small brushy slough. They found another blood spot, then another, then a large gleaming blotch and finally, at the edge of the slough in a small open area they found the buck. To Nick it looked huge with thick solid antlers shining in the morning sunlight.
“Congratulations, Nick! That’s a fine six point. Good job!”
Joe relieved Nick of his rifle and moved over to a log where he slipped off his pack and sat down. He pulled his thermos from his pack and fished his pipe from his pocket. It was clear that Joe would only be a consultant in the next phase of the operation. Nick struggled out of his orange coveralls and rolled up his sleeves. He knew he must field dress his own deer…he wanted to and still dreaded it. He hoped Uncle Joe would help him.
He reached for his Buck knife and slid it from the stiff leather sheath. The gleaming blade caught the light and momentarily blinded him, and the knife seemed warm and alive in his hands. Nick glanced up at Joe and was startled by the anguish on his face. Tears streamed from his deep blue eyes, coursed through the stubble on his ruddy cheeks and dripped off his chin. Nick stood poised, legs apart, with one hand holding the buck’s leg, the other gripping the knife. And then Nick knew, knew with the certainty that comes when finally seeing the obvious. “This is Pat’s knife, isn’t it?”
“No, Nick, it’s your knife,” Joe replied evenly. “True, it was Pat’s but as you know, he never lived to use it.”
Nick felt a little angry, a little disappointed and a little afraid. The knife seemed alien in his hand. He had to fight the impulse to toss it into the leaves. “Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Nick.
“Well, I’m not sure exactly. Never found the right time or the right words, I guess. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll tell you the whole story? Maybe then you’ll understand.” Nick plopped down on the leaves and laid the knife between them.
Joe wiped the tears from his stubble-covered cheeks, thumbed the crumbs of burley into his pipe and relit it before beginning. “When Pat was one year old, nearly 25 years ago, a close friend of mine who served with me in the Navy sent Pat the knife as a baby gift. The letter with it said pretty much the same as the letter I sent you. As you probably remember, it went something like this: ‘This baby gift arrives long after most of those that arrived on time are either outgrown or forgotten. This one will wait around for you to become a man. During those years as it gets shuffled from drawer to drawer, it will serve as a reminder for your father to teach you the ways of the woods and what it means to be a man. As the years pass, your father will be a busy man and this knife will remind him to remember the simple, important things. A young man’s first knife is a symbol of maturity and trust. May it serve you well.’
“As you might imagine when Pat was killed in the auto accident shortly before he was to receive it, I was crushed. My wife and I were so overcome with grief that our marriage went on the rocks. I got heavily into the bottle and was well on the way to losing everything. At that time you had your first birthday and I got the idea of passing the knife on to you. Getting involved in your life and watching you grow into a fine young man….well, it helped me. No, it saved me. Can you understand? I’m sorry I never got around to telling…”
“No,” said Nick. “It’s OK. It’s an honor and thank you for giving it to me.”