Deer hunting

I was so excited to hunt for the first time. Somehow I had become good friends with our small startup's head of sales. Jordan was a country guy with a traditional Midwestern upbringing, and one day at the office, he was talking about waking up at 3am on a Saturday morning to venture out to the woods somewhere north of the city to help the state keep the local deer population in check.

So I invited myself along.

I expected to engage in some odd rituals - rubbing blood or urine on our clothes, wearing all camouflage, or buying fancy equipment. Thankfully, he was just happy to share his hobby with a new friend.

"Wear something comfortable, warm, and preferably dark,” he instructed.

I was surprised hunters didn't have night vision goggles. I listened intently. He continued.

"I'll bring all our equipment - guns, ammo, and food. You can meet us at my dad's house. We'll be taking his truck. I have an extra coat. Do you need a coat?"

"I have a white winter coat."

"It should be dark. I'll lend you my coat. Wear layers. You don't need camo, but try to be as dark as possible."

"Do you have coffee?"

"You won't want to drink anything with caffeine in it. You'll want a steady arm so you can shoot accurately. Just sleep early and wake up early. We'll be home by noon."

"What can I bring?"

"Just yourself. You can pay me back for lunch later. We'll be taking our game home and harvesting what we kill. You want some venison or jerky?"

"Yeah, that sounds good.” I imagined eating lean, woods-to-table deer meat for dinner the following week. “Will we have to wear grease paint?"

"No. But you will need to get a bright orange hunter's vest to wear so other hunters don't shoot you in the ass before the sun rises. I don't have an extra vest."

He grinned. I grinned. It was 3pm on a Friday and in 12 hours, I would be shuttling myself to Jordan's dad’s house down the street to venture 1.5 hours north to Smithville, where the Missouri Department of Conservation managed and patrolled lands inhabited by wolves, bears, deer, otters, and all sorts of wildlife that began waking up with the sun.

I was reminded of that saying - "the early bird catches the worm." Our hunting excursion was a quaint analogy for this productivity quote. We would be catching something and bringing it home, for sure.

The next morning, I met Jordan's dad Greg and his brother Jim. The trio looked like clones of the same man, albeit 25 and 5 years apart respectively. They carried a similar disposition - quiet, jovial, and warm. Greg was standing in the kitchen drinking a coffee, and I saw a Folgers instant coffee tub sitting on the counter in the dimly lit kitchen. He shook my hand, introduced himself, and said, "The boys are downstairs getting shells and equipment.”

"Have you been hunting before?" he asked, with no hint of skepticism. I don't know what he saw when he looked at me.

"I was on the rifle team in high school. I shot a 22 bolt-action prone and kneeling. And I shot an air pellet gun standing. I think I have pretty good aim."

"Sounds like you have some experience with bullet drop."

"How far will we be shooting?"

"That depends on what we find and where we find it."

He grinned the same grin that Jordan had given me the previous afternoon, and the basement door creaked open loudly on the other side of the kitchen wall. Greg poured what was left of his coffee in the sink, put the cup down, and motioned for me to follow him. Jim, Jordan's brother, was carrying a large metal gun case with one hand, and extended his right hand to shake mine.


"Hi. Jim?"

"Nice to meet you."

"Same. Need any help?"

"Jordan's downstairs. Let's load up and get out of here. You excited?"

"Oh yeah."

I went down the basement stairs, ducked low in the six foot tall unfinished concrete basement, and Jordan quietly mumbled, "Good morning," as he handed me a gun case and a duffel bag. We quickly loaded up the pickup truck in the driveway and took off down the road. The ride on the highway was mostly quiet, and Greg fiddled with the radio for maybe ten minutes before finding a morning radio show that came into reception as we exited the larger Kansas City metro area.

After about an hour and a half of quiet acoustic guitar in an otherwise silent cab, we pulled off onto another road. The pavement turned into gravel, and the gravel turned into dry dirt. It was about a month before Daylight Savings Time, and sunrise was in about two hours. Eventually the truck came to a stop, and we were surrounded by woods.

"This is it," Greg said. “This looks good.”

We got out of the truck, and Jordan handed me a duffel bag and a gun case.

"These are yours for the day. Let me know if you need help setting up."

I nodded at him gratefully, smiled, and recalled setting up my rifle stand in high school. Twice a week after classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would go to the basement in our school. The building was 5 stories, fully made of marble, and three quarters of a century old. It had been built in 1933, and someone had decided - after World War I and leading up to the Great Depression - to fit a 30-lane rifle range in between the two 1000 student capacity cafeteria rooms in the basement. The rest of the basement level in that school had a fourth of the number of classrooms on the upper levels of the building. Twice a week I would go through a door that looked like a gun safe and was greeted by concrete, racks filled with rifles and headphones, and the smell of gunpowder. It was a strange meditation for a high school freshman to participate in, but apparently other schools in the area were not so lucky to have such an amenity in their buildings. I was definitely blessed, and developed an appreciation for firearms timeboxed to six hours a week every week for half the school year.

I heard Jim walking around behind the truck. He was gathering dry leaves and fallen logs for a fire. He came over to me, Greg, and Jordan and whispered, "You guys want some stewed peaches after our first kill?" We agreed to make fruit cocktail in celebration of whoever landed the first game-killing shot.

Another hour passed, and we saw a family of does and fawns crossing the area in front of us. As time went on, I started to recognize different paths of different depths carved by different creatures. I don't know if I have ever or will ever be so near a coyote again. One and a half hours into our hunting session, the sun began breaking over the horizon. Jim was still behind the truck, but he sat in its flatbed in silence, gun scope hanging over the trunk flap. I realized eventually that he was protecting us and watching for larger predators.

As the sun rose over the hills beyond where we had posted ourselves, it got brighter outside, and the woods got louder. Birds started to chirp, and I could hear the sounds of water somewhere nearby. Eventually, I heard thumping.

"There." Jordan whispered.

"Can you take this shot?" Greg asked.

"Yeah." He replied. "Neil?"

"What?" I asked.

"You boys pair up on this shot. We'll call it one and done. It's getting light out." Greg answered.

"Ok." I breathed a sigh of hesitation.

On the far right side of the lightly wooded clearing in front of us, a lone buck trotted along the path of leaves that so many smaller animals had traveled as the sun slowly dawned. It looked right at the truck, and I darted my head around. Jim was hiding behind the passenger's side of the truck, his feet the only clue of his presence.

"Hush now! Take aim." Greg whispered, his voice biting the crisp morning air.

I cocked my rifle and Jordan cocked his and fired. The buck took off running but appeared to flip over itself as it collapsed onto the forest floor after making it maybe twenty feet. It uttered a guttural cry, and I looked through my binoculars and saw that Jordan had hit it right in the ass. How ironic, I thought sourly, recalling his jocular warning about other hunters from the day before. I did not expect it to happen like this.

I saw Jim open the passenger's side door and grab a duffel bag.

"Pistols," he declared, as he handed the box to his dad. They had done this before. Greg got up, peered through his binoculars to survey the wooded area in front of us, and motioned to us. "Come on boys." He took the bag and meandered down the small hill to where this dying creature lay.

It uttered another guttural cry. I jogged up ahead of the group by about fifteen feet, and made eye contact with the buck. I wondered what he saw as I wandered down this hill, possibly a blur of part-person, part-bright orange, part-camouflage print down to my brown hiking boots. The buck cried again, this time more quietly as his eyes met mine.

"I am sorry." I stood in front of him, and he tried to rise on his hindlegs only to fall again, kicking up leaves.

"What a dirty shot, Jordan!" Greg exclaimed, as the two of them walked up behind me.

"Yeah, sorry dad. But I got him!" Jordan said.

"We'll have you do better next year. And we'll need to leave earlier too. But this should keep us fed until goose season. You ever pulled before, Neil?"

"No," I replied numbly. This was not how I had envisioned my morning going. I had expected a greater sense of triumph, but all I saw was pain. I didn't even want any jerky or venison anymore.

Greg could see my dismay. "Well let's finish this off quickly then." He pulled a pistol and a loaded magazine out of the bag. "Get out of the way,” he instructed as he flipped the safety on the pistol.

I complied, and retreated back about fifteen feet, not looking at the buck until I was all the way back. He gazed at me and it seemed like he realized what was about to happen, as he stopped making any noises at all and let out a heavy sigh.

Gently, Greg kneeled in front of this beast, with its eyes closed. He muttered something quietly to it - not an apology as I had done, but perhaps some sort of solemn words. Maybe gratitude. In that moment, I was so overwhelmed with an unexpected sense of grief that in that moment, our time in the woods felt like a blur. Greg made eye contact with me and Jordan, nodded, and put the pistol against the buck's temples.

I never went hunting again.

Published November 19, 2023