I heard him just as the first color of daylight sun broke across the crooked ridges and cutover timber along the eastern horizon. If this didn’t play out just right, it would not be a good day.
I remained perfectly still, ears straining for the telltale sounds that would give away his position. My eyes strained to pierce the dark shadows yet unreached by the thin fingers of dawn’s early light. Every sound, even my own measured breathing was amplified a thousand times by the fever, and I was sure that my heartbeat would give me away, would reveal my hiding place that I had worked so hard to secure.
For days I had struggled, trying desperately to get-and stay- ahead of my adversary. And even though the outdoor temperature was well below freezing, salty beads of sweat dripped slowly down the bridge of my nose, around the side of my flared nostril, and down over the top of my dry lips. My hands, now clammy with sweat, gripped the Turkish walnut of my rifle, my only friend in this harsh environ. Others before me had tried to hide from the old man, but each, in turn, had been discovered, and turn in turn, been defeated. I willed my muscles to remain absolutely still, fighting with everything in me the urge to turn my head and look behind me. I had discovered a long time ago that careful hiding is a learned skill, and if I were to triumph here, I would have to remain deathly still for a long time.
Another noise, long and deliberate- he was looking for something, for someone- for me! He knew I was there, somewhere, a danger in hiding. I felt the fear rise in my throat as I realized just how close he was; close, but unsure of my exact location. The straining muscles in my shoulders and back ached; cramps racked my legs from lack of motion. I needed to cough, or to clear my throat, or to take in a deep calming breath to slow my racing heart, but I dared no such thing. For me to be so close, and then be discovered… I didn’t want to think about what would happen if I were discovered.
I was not prepared for the inevitable confrontation- though I had yet to get into position, I dared not move. Though I had chosen my hiding place well, I still felt exposed to the entirety of God’s creation under the pressure of the hunt. Calm my breathing! Slowly, in, out, in, hold, out…
Eons of time and generations of man and beast have passed, following this same ritual of survival: the hunter, the hunted, and the struggle for survival. For one, the opportunity to eat another meal, to hunt another day. For the other, the possibility of a premature crossing of the bonds of eternity. Today I will have the opportunity to face this test; soon I would be required to measure my skill not only against my adversary, but against this age-old ritual.
It had been quiet for some time, and I decided to risk a quick look around- I had to know what was going on- even at the risk of exposing my location. I squinted my eyes against the early light, daring to look first to my periphery to the right- I saw nothing. Everything was as it was when I glided silently to my hiding place hours ago. No threats, nothing to reveal my hiding place.
Then I slowly turned, eyes first and head slowly following, to the left. I took a full minute to turn my sweating brow just a few degrees. STOP! From the outer edges of my field of vision I saw movement- he was here! His enormous head was down, studying something on the ground. He was so close I could see the bumps and ridges of unnatural growth at the base of his enormous horns. I could see the fog of his breath as he snorted around- I could not tell if he was looking for me, or just looking for something in general. Once again the fever caused my heart to race, the pounding in my temples flashing like neon and threatening to announce my presence.
He was looking away now, moving slowly, resignedly away from me and my hiding place. This would be my best opportunity to gently and silently move my gun to the ready position. Fighting against the urge to move frantically, I willed my head up ever so slightly, just enough to get a solid look. I held my raspy breath as I raised the old rifle to my shoulder. It took a full half-minute to get it there- I was not willing to risk discovery while I moved. In this time, the grey monster slowly ambled away, as if awaiting my arrival, my violent greeting.
The whole time, my eyes never left the back of the monster’s head. “Relax and breathe!” I told myself. H-o-l-d… o-u-t… i-n… o-u-t. As I slowed my rate of respiration, I squinted my eyes to get a better look, as well as to keep the beading sweat from obscuring my vision altogether. Against my instincts, I willed my body:
Now hold it….
Now gently squeeze the trigger, easy, let it surprise me….
The Timney trigger breaks crisply at 3 and a half pounds. The energy stored in the main sear spring, released from its holding place, is transferred to the firing pin. The firing pin makes a small but firm indention in the primer of the .30-06 cartridge, causing a small explosion that ignites the modern smokeless powder and propels the 168 grain bullet from the end of the barrel at over 1800 feet per second. The 1 in 10 rifling spins the bullet tightly, ensuring supreme accuracy, even over the short distance from my hiding place to the back of his shoulder. The bullet enters the shoulder, breaking the shoulder blade and mushrooming as designed. The expanded jacket rips through muscle, sinew, lungs, tearing a vicious wound channel and exits the front of the chest, a perfect quartering away shot. While in my mind all of time and eternity stood still, this careful ballet of science and art takes place in the span of a split second.
I quickly cycled the bolt, ejecting the spent casing and chambering another round. I made myself wait, heart racing even more, breathing now coming in short, desperate gasps, the effects of the fever now in full frenzy. The sweat stung my eyes- where did he go? The echo of the report of the rifle caused a shrill ringing in my ears, so much so that I had to strain to hear the sounds of running feet, of groans, of anything.
Could this be it, after all these years? Many good men had tried and failed to take this guy, old and wise with cunning. I closed my eyes and waited.
Two minutes became ten. The natural sounds of the world returned; the whistles and chirping of the birds, the squirrels rummaging for tender shoots or nuts. Ten minutes became thirty. I need a drink! Or a smoke, though I neither drink nor smoke. Following the passing of the better part of an hour, with my patience run completely dry, I had to know. Looking around and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I slowly climbed from the stand in which I had been hiding. Sixteen feet down the ladder to the edge of the bean field, quiet in the early stillness of morning.
Shy of 20 yards away, lying in his last footsteps, was the most magnificent 14 point atypical whitetail, grey with age, neck swollen from the amazing chemical and physical changes brought on by the rut.
This old man will make a beautiful mount, and will provide food for my family for another few months. As I ran my hand over his beautiful hollow hair, I said a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father for providing once again for my family, and marveled at the intricacy and beauty of His creation.
It would be a good day after all.