With a blink of my eyes, I was asleep after dinner and awake long before the rest of the house. I jumped into my hunting clothes and donned blaze orange for day two of the November chase. My host, free from the burdens of work, picked me up and we met the rest of our party at the local cafe for breakfast. Handshakes, smiles and small-talk about the big one were exchanged with hunters around us as we ordered up eggs, toast and coffee.
Satiated and fueled for the day's hunt, we wheeled our way south in the still-dark morning through the winding Sheyenne River valley; passing by the turn to Fingal, then dipping into the Clausen Springs draw near Kathryn. Reflective blue eyes stared at us warily from the ditches and the shoulders of the road along the trip, up until the instant we parked the truck. We unloaded the vehicles and hastened against the approaching dawn, well aware we were running late. Pushed by winds from the south, we made it back to our overlook as the first reports rang out over the valley.
My host and his friend, another veteran law enforcement officer, stalked the western edge of the ridge, while I teamed with my father-and-son companions from the day before.. Dawn turned to day, and there was little to report from either group.
At a hillside conference, we decided a walk through the trees would get the animals moving. We formed new teams of walkers and posters and the sentries stood guard where the river and the woods met the gravel road to the east. With my host and my young companion from the day before, I began walking along the ridge between the top of the valley and the woods. Not far into our trek, the bang-bang of the posters' rifle fire signaled the start of a successful drive.
A white-antlered buck sprung from a coulee connected to the river bottom and doubled back in front of me. I saw his rut-swollen neck and impressive four-by-four rack for a fraction of a second as he disappeared back into the forest. My heart-rate spiked, and I picked up the pace to see the results of our push. The posters had reports of several deer breaking over the valley edge, but only three empty brass cartridges to show for our efforts.
We headed to another draw, presuming that deer in the area would be seeking cover from the uncertainty of the gusting wind and the road-hunters circling on the gravel like crows over a freshly-hit raccoon. Not three minutes into the walk, two antlerless deer jumped from cover next to the spring creek which formed the small ravine, providing a shot to the youngest hunter in the group. His .270 rang out and the deer ran off, the back one lagging, stumbling, then falling. It was a clean shot. The animal expired quickly, and was tagged and retrieved.
We were then joined by friends and family of my host. Our reconnaissance group grew in number, and now had the manpower to take on more intense ravines where the deer were hiding. One member of the hunting party lamented he was too young to get a deer tag this year, and was excited for his coming-of-age as a hunter.
In an attempt to garner permission from the law, the gradeschooler asked my host if he could hunt this year, stating "afterall, you're the sheriff."
The party erupted in laughter, and my host replied, "You know, I would, but I'm out of my jurisdiction," as the roaring swelled.
Feeling the burn in my abdominal muscles from the comic relief, I set out on the edge of a large wooded creek bottom. A few does bounded up each ravine draw as the group advanced and the father I had teamed with for the walk filled his family's second tag within twenty yards of our starting point.
As we came to the end of our walk, I saw an orange-clad poster just beyond the last draw leading into the creek bottom. I debated whether I should walk through the draw, or around it. Deciding it was too overgrown and filled with deadfalls, I began to bypass it. Cows moved from east to west and my shooting lanes disappeared into a herd of Black Angus.
Startled by my approach and the mooing of the herd, a buck sprang from the very end of that last draw. I saw his headgear, with main beams at least three-inches thick when viewed from the side. The deer plowed toward the creek bottom as I sounded the alarm.
"HUGE BUCK COMING DOWN!" I yelled as the rest of the walkers turned and watched the tree branches fly as the deer busted cover, both literally and figuratively.
Slack-jawed and frustrated by my laziness, I watched the buck disappear from view, providing no safe shot for me to take, unless I wanted a side of beef as a consolation prize.
The party disbanded, and having filled both their tags, the father-and-son duo headed home. I returned with my host and his friend to our starting point to once again watch for movement on the hillside.
We set up in the same spot I had sat for the last two days, waiting for a deer to show. Impatiently, I paced the edge of the river bottom, walking a half-mile to the east and back as the sun neared the horizon. I sat down for a few minutes, and stared across the valley marveling at the hunting towers in the hills.
"Nick...there's a buck right there!" My host whispered as he leaned toward me, pointing toward the forest edge.
Finally locating the animal with my own eyes, I lifted my rifle. Through the scope I saw eight-inch tines above the deer's head. There was no shakiness, no nervousness and no wince readied as I thought about pulling the trigger. I clicked the safety into the firing position and breathed in as the deer emerged from behind a tree. Placing the crosshairs on his chest jutting out from behind the obstruction, I squeezed the trigger.
I watched through the smoke as the deer back-peddled and spun wildly over the knoll and disappeared back town into the woods.
"I hit him," I exclaimed.
"Yes you did," said the men beside me, almost in unison.
Overjoyed, I flew down the hill with my host and began my first search for a blood trail. It wasn't long before we found specks of crimson in the grass. I followed them, bit by bit, replaying the path of the deer in my head - watching him struggle up the hill and disappear. As I approached the apex, the droplets blossomed into the rhythmic sprays of a fatal shot.
We followed the trail down into the woods. It was then I caught a vision of white on the gray-brown oak leaf carpet and the shine of antler bone. My heart jumped into my throat and I thanked my host for holding his end of the promise he had made four months earlier.
I was in awe, riding high on the illuminated clouds of the early November sunset. It was the most memorable moment I had experienced in the field or on the water. I knelt beside the buck and examined my shot that had ended his life, and in all aspects began mine as a deer hunter. Gently stroking his rough gray coat, I bowed my head and whispered the words of Ecclesiastes.
"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which was planted," I softly stated, racked by the effects of adrenaline and emotion.
Nowhere had those words fit more perfectly than in that tiny space between myself and the fallen buck as we were surrounded by the silent autumn woods...in our outdoors.