We topped a little saddle, and we paused for a moment to catch our breath. I turned a 45 degree angle from him and chambered a round into my Browning 25.06. I watched the brass with a copper point slide into the blackness and closed the bolt action down. My thumb pushed the safety into on position. The red dot covered up by the switch reminded me the rifle would not fire yet.
Jeffy took a step and looked backward at me sardonically. “You know. You’d be doing me a favor if you blew my head off.” Jeffy moved with an intensity and aggression that flowed into other areas of his life. His gallows humor took bladder cancer and turned it into something darkly funny.
Thick clouds congealed in the Eastern part of the range. Above us blue sky promised hot sunshine for the afternoon. I gazed up at the side of the sun and felt its heat on my cheek. “Storm’s coming.” Jeffy whispered when he satisfied his curiosity of the meadow’s status. I nodded my head and looked into the meadow one more time. We slipped from the bottom of the oats to the side framed by more oak trees. We rose to the top of the mountains on the backbone of the forest. I liked to look into the shadows the large limbs made anytime of the day. I figured a big buck could sleep right below the food source. A sneaky cervid could wait until I passed him by to move. I penetrated each cranny with both my naked eye and binoculars.
Jeffy guided us down about thirty yards to the North side of the crest and sat down again to glass. Before us opened up another beautiful meadow of oats. The water happy weed took over California when the Spanish brought in the seeds hiding between European horse hooves. The missionaries intentionally spread yellow mustard to mark the path on the return route. Both plants found the landscape fertile and out competed the bunch grass that lived in symbiosis with the oak trees.
I felt a small distress when both the live oaks and valley oaks refused to drop the bounty of nuts. The presence of the acorns almost guaranteed I’d get an opportunity on a wily black tailed buck.
The sky boomed above us. We reached the brush on the other side and looked over the crevices for a hidden buck. The storm sailed closer to us in the afternoon’s darkened sky. The clouds swirled overhead and the current drove them even farther out to the ocean side of the landscape. I thought moisture moved in from the Pacific Ocean forty miles away. Today the rain cloud swam from the mountains to the ocean. All the turbid motion built up an electric current that discharged between the clouds. Thunder exploded out beyond my skull, a seven Mississippi count from when I gawked at the lightning.
“Get under this tree. Let’s wait out the rain.” I walked to a bunch of trees with boughs that wove together to catch raindrops. They seemed placed there as a rain shelter for us. We stood up and watched the raindrops come down all around us. The tree soaked up most of the water. We still got damp. In the West the sun managed to poke a hole through the clouds. Light played off the drops like tiny LED bulbs on a parachute jump to the ground below. Wetness, leaves, and dry ground mixed by the drops fumed up in a smoky perfumed haze. The clear sharp smell told me the creatures welcomed the first rain with dry membranes and hopeful roots. Raindrops soothed around us and made everything a darker shade of color. Jeffy and I remained a drier lighter shade underneath the canopy.
“This place will be good to hunt for years. Remember that.” Jeffy reminded me. “We walk into a place like this and the country is so big. You never know when you’ll run into a monster.” I nodded.
“Do you think I’ll forget these canyons?”
Jeffy considered a moment then responded, “People need to be reminded of what’s important.”
The air heavy with water and the low pressure from the storm enveloped the whole canyon side. I could move through the softer brush all afternoon and not get as tired in the thick cool clouds. Water continued West toward the beach. Slowly the shower turned off and the thunder stopped. We moseyed toward the beginning of the hunt without a drench. I scanned each break and shadow of brush. Although we’d already hunted this area the time indicated movement of bucks. They ate right before dusk. I always thought big bucks only came out at night. We landed on a side hill and glassed the most productive minutes of the day.
Before long I elbowed him. “Jeffy there’s a buck. He’s legal.” I left my rifle cradled in my lap with the barrel pointed the other way. In the binoculars the buck sprouted a spike on one side and a fork on the other. A small buck like this Jeffy counted all the antlers the way whitetail hunters do. He called this type of buck a tre. He wanted to take the shot. Plenty of time for an opportunity, he unsnapped his backpack and removed shooting sticks from inside. The tripod created a sturdy shooting platform even on the slope. Always a Marine, he nestled into the Earth on his behind with his legs in front of the rest and boots sunk into the yellow wild grasses. The buck remained stationary with his nose pointed away from our side of the mountain. I waited for the crack of his Remington 270, and it remained silent. I’d never seen Jeffy wait so long to set up a shot, nor ever use shooting sticks.
POW. The rifle exploded into the entire canyon. The buck hunched his front shoulder. “Shoot him again Jeffy.” I imagined the front shoulder ripped, and the buck plunged into a crazy death run back into the thick chaparral forever.
He worked the bolt action, ejected the brass cartridge, and watched. “Shoot him again.” I suggested. We both watched, and the deer dropped behind the sage as if someone pulled the dirt out from underneath his hooves. Jeffy didn’t want to disturb anymore meat unnecessarily.
Jeffy breathed out an exhale of relief. He smiled his big gap toothed look of happiness. I shook his hand. “Congratulations. I’ll stay right here and mark the spot. Go over to where the buck is and wave me over when you find him. What do you think?”
“Yeah.” He stowed his sticks. Big strides down hill moved him toward the thunder tre. The way over to the buck weaved in and out of buck brush and chamise. Jeffy hunted slower this year than other years. I knew he would beat cancer.
The methodical movements downhill gave me gratitude to share this hunt with him and the many hunts before this one. He arrived at the sage bush I marked as the position of the downed tre. I watched in the binoculars. He waved me over with large hand motions like doing the backstroke on land. I restrained myself from a sprint down the hill in exuberance.
When I met up with him he already cut open the belly above the genitals and sliced open a small hole halfway to the ribs to get to the guts. He liked to keep the hole small to prevent dust and dirt entering the cavity from outside.
“What are you doing?” Jeffy interrogated. “We are going to pack this one out on your back. You can still pack, right?”
I paused. The last buck we killed, Jeffy and my Dad drug it back to the truck for me. I worked out one more canyon to try and fill my second buck tag. I realized six years passed since I’d packed one out directly on my back without a pack.
My animated voice assured him, although he appeared dubious. “Of course I can pack. Its not that far anyway.”
“Good.” He responded. “I was hoping you’d say that because I don’t want to be fumbling around in the dark with this buck. It will be faster if we set it on your buck and get out of here. It will be dark in twenty minutes. Grab that hind leg.” I lifted up the hind legs and Jeffy flipped the deer over and let blood run out from the cavity.
Then we dropped the buck, and he knelt down and sliced a three inch hole in the hind leg between the tendon and the shin bone. Next he folded the front elbow and sliced through the cartilage. He skinned out a section behind the cut elbow. Careful not to disturb the integrity of the skin around the elbow he twisted the cartilage breaking both elbows clean to make a clasp for the hind legs. Finally he wrapped the foreleg of the buck around once to make a secure backpack of the animal’s body with the hind and front legs. He motioned me to hand over my pack on the ground. “Get in there.” He commanded with a grin.
I loaded the animal on my shoulders and held onto the tre to pull the deer’s neck close to my armpit to keep it steady on my back. Jeffy slung both rifles and empty packs on his shoulder. We made it back down the mountain easily with the load of meat. My glasses fogged up with the contrast of hot breath and cool night air. Jeffy used his head lamp to make way for us back to the trailhead. A lightness bounced around my joints from gratitude at a successful hunt
Jeffy looked back to make sure I didn’t trip. “How you doin?”
“Great.” I quipped and looked up at the stars twinkle in the night sky. Ceptus the sea monster circled the globe high enough in the South to pretend and bite a piece of the mountain off. The constellation whispered that the only seasonings for this deer should be salt and pepper.
We returned to the trailhead where the road met the trail. The rifles unloaded, we hunkered down in the darkness. My Dad moved the truck right next to the walkway of dirt and gravel. I lowered the tail gate and glanced into the truck bed. A nice forked horn with antlers way beyond the ears looked back out dull hazy eyes.
“What did you do? Hit it with your truck.” Jeffy kidded my Dad. Jeffy and I loaded the tre into the back end and piled into the cab. The drive home in the cab completed a hunt I’d dreamed of since I knew about hunting. Warm contact embers emitted heat from all over my shoulders.
The hints Jeffy threw into the dust during our adventure dispersed to show what I denied to myself for two years. Jeffy’s bladder cancer slowed him down. His gallows humor let him laugh at it. The shooting stick let him steady it. The careful steps down the hillside to his buck let him plod through it. Yet with all Jeffy’s power, the cancer finally sent him on a journey to the next place. Jeffy died five months after our last hunt together.
Two seasons later a skinny bald line of tan dirt bisected the fields of wild oats. I inhaled the spicy scent of sage. The pulverized bits of sedimentary rock crunched beneath my feet. Wind in the oaks scratched out a soothing tune. I looked up to find which way Jeffy would lead me at a curve in the path. A melancholy washed over me when I realized Jeffy died. For a moment I caught a glimpse of his hand motion up toward the draw with hidden bucks.
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