Three Men and a Buck

The whole thing happened because Doc had a friend who owned a farm in upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks. Here he had retired to the placid life of reading and checker-playing. That is, most of his time was spent that way. The rest of the day was spent chasing deer out of his young orchard.That’s the way the story came to us.

Now the mere mention of venison seems to rouse the sporting instinct. The pulse quickens; the fountain of youth starts bubbling. Even the most serene individual will prick up his ears. It’s like a bugle call to an old war horse. Must be a throwback to our pioneer forbears.

Anyway, it was the origin of the most incongruous foursome that ever responded to the call of the wild. There was Jim, a surgeon of great repute in the greatest city; Joe, a dentist who asked and received better than ten dollars an hour for his labors; Sam, an undertaker, who, contrary to tradition, was fat and jolly and as full of jokes as a hound dog is of ticks. And a magazine publisher. I was the publisher. How we ever got together for a deer hunt remains a mystery to this day. We had nothing in common. We were, indeed, members of the same club—but all for different reasons. However, just the suggestion of venison seems to make strange bedfellows.

Jim started it all at the round-table lunch at the club when he passed around a letter from his retired friend in the Adirondacks. It wasn’t much of a letter, as I recall. Merely the suggestion that Jim come up and help dispose of some of the deer that were chewing up the young fruit trees. So the four of us looked at one another and asked: “Why not?” Sam, the undertaker, was more candid. He still maintains that he went along solely for business reasons.

The outfits that were lugged aboard the Adirondacks Special at Grand Central Terminal a couple of weeks later were just as much mismated as we were. That is, all but Sam’s. All he brought was an overnight bag, which held a gallon jug and a change of underwear. Sam said the jug contained embalming fluid. It did. It was four-year-old applejack—also known as Jersey lightning. It has other names too, that are just as apt as the drink is effective.

The treasure in Jim’s outfit was a sheep-lined trench coat that reached below his knees—just the right length to entangle the leg action. Joe simply brought his oldest clothes and a borrowed Winchester. My rig was fairly complete, with duffel bag, hunting togs, shoepacs with no heels. The shoepacs were a mistake. My gun was an 8 mm Sauer-Mauser that immediately got a lot of examining and required a lot of explaining.

When we tumbled out of the sleeper on a cold November morning, the temperature was well below freezing. There was nothing in sight but the platform and a horsedrawn stagecoach. Funny how some Adirondack villages are located so many miles away from the railroad, and use train stops in the wilds. The ten-mile ride before breakfast over slippery mountain roads took a couple of hours, and during the ride Sam’s supply of embalming fluid was appreciably lowered. State troopers stopped us en route to check our licenses, which luckily were in order, though one of the troopers took plenty of time to examine the Sauer-Mauser.

It was still early in the morning, according to city standards, when we arrived at the farm. Just seven o’clock. Breakfast was waiting, for we were expected. Now, if you’ve never sat down to an Adirondack farm breakfast on a cold November morning after a two-hour ride—man, you’ve missed something. That meal alone was worth the price of the whole trip. Fried cakes (flapjacks to you), real maple sirup, country sausage homemade from home-grown pigs, fried eggs by the dozen, sizzling bacon, fried ham, and country-fried potatoes—and coffee in what looked like a lumber-camp coffeepot.

That was the assortment. The quantity was even larger. But it wasn’t too much. Four healthy appetites can do wonders to such a meal. But what a far cry it was from our usual orange juice, toast, and coffee, with which we started the
day’s work back in the city!

Even the irrepressible Sam finally called quits, though he did try to kiss Sally, the dusky cook, from sheer gratitude. He stopped only when she said: “Ah declares, Mistuh Sam, ef yuh don’t quit dat monkeyin’, Ise gonna souse yuh with dis yere dishwater.” But she was pleased by his enthusiasm just the same. From then on, he was her favored “chile.”

The two natives who were to do the “guidin” arrived shortly after breakfast. They were an odd pair. Lou was about six feet four, looking a lot as Lincoln must have in his rail-splitting days, and with just as dour a countenance. Jules, his partner, a French-Canadian, was at least a foot shorter, and as round and chubby as Lou was tall and lean.

We were late in getting started. Much too late, as we found out afterward. But then we found out lots of other things too. Same decided that he would stay at the farm, and no amount of persuasion would make him change his mind. “Nope,” he said, “I’m tired already, and it’s too soon after eating. I’ll just wait here until you fellows get back—one way or another. You may need me. Besides, Sally’s going to bake me an apple pie.”

That was that. The three of us got off finally, sometime after nine o’clock, with two guides leading the way. There was a bit of misgiving, however, for Sam’s remarks, jokingly made as they were, stuck in our minds. The pace set by Lou and Jules should have been warning enough. But we were all mature men in fair physical trim. We had knocked around plenty—and had taken plenty of knocks. So the pace was a challenge which we accepted. It never occurred to any of us then that we were getting the works. But we were. The snow was just a couple of inches deep—just a fine tracking snow, according to Lou. The first mile or so across the pasture that led to the edge of the woods, passed without any particular discomfort, though it wasn’t exactly a Sunday stroll.

It was not until we were in the woods, headed up the mountain, that the first sign of trouble appeared. Jim’s knee-length sheep-lined coat began to get in its fine work. If there was any trail, it to had been carefully avoided. Climbing through down timber is a tough job at the best. In such a rig, Jim had trouble aplenty. He was sweating profusely and cussing more profusely—when he had breath enough to cuss. I offered to take his gun, but he wouldn’t hear of it. It was just as well. My heel-less shoepacs worked satisfactorily crossing the flat pasture land. Upgrade in the woods was another story, and I found myself slipping back two steps for every one I advanced. They were of no help climbing in and out of ravines, of which there seemed to be plenty.

Somewhere up ahead, Lou and Jules had disappeared. It was an easy matter to follow their trail, but we were falling far behind the pace. I lost count of the number of times we stopped for a breather, but there were many of them. Joe, the dentist, wasn’t doing so badly in his outfit of old clothes. His footgear was most unorthodox, for a wellrigged Nimrod—just a pair of overshoes or arctics over his city shoes—but they were mighty effective and I would gladly have swapped my shoepacs for them.

It was nearly noon when we reached the ridge from which we were to hunt. It wasn’t much of a mountain, according to Western standards—just a mere three or four thousand feet. For us it was too much, particularly as we had found every ravine and had climbed over or under every piece of fallen timber on the way up. Lou and Jules were waiting for us, calmly smoking their pipes, their backs resting comfortably against a tree trunk. Apparently it had been just a nice morning jaunt to them. They eyed us speculatively but said nothing. We gave it right back to them with suspicion added, but we too, said nothing. We couldn’t. There wasn’t breath enough.

Maybe fifteen minutes passed in silence. Darn taciturn, these natives. Then Lou outlined the plan of campaign. It was simple enough, and sounded logical. The three of us were to be placed on separate stations or posts about a quarter of a mile apart, where each of us could get a good view down each side of the ridge. Lou and Jules were to separate, each taking a side of the mountain and working up again from the bottom. The idea was, any deer lurking in the thickets would be jumped by one or the other of them and would head up the mountain, crossing our line of posts, so that one of us might get a shot. Yes, it seemed logical enough then. None of us figured that the noise we’d made coming up the ridge had probably scared every deer—if there ever were any—clear into the next county. All we had to worry about was not to take a shot at each other.

So off we went with Lou to take our respective posts. Joe was dropped first, by a nice round stump, and with a clear view in all directions. Jim was next. He drew an outcrop of rock that also gave him an unbroken view. On we went up the ridge to the very end. Below was an almost sheer drop of several hundred feet. This was my station—also with a nice rock outcrop. South of me were my two companions, perhaps a quarter and half a mile away respectively. They were in plain sight when they stood up. If they sat down there was nothing but the mountain ridge with its sparse covering. Off in the distance were more ridges, more ravines, and more mountains.

Lou left me without a word and departed down the mountain. No final word of instruction. No warning of any kind. No suggestion of when he’d be back. He just went. And then silence. Nothing moved or made a noise except as a vagrant breeze occasionally rustled a dead leaf. I slipped the cartridge clip into the Mauser and waited. Fifteen minutes passed—then a half hour. Nothing happened. Nothing stirred.

To the south, I could see Jim and Joe, equally alert, like two sturdy outposts ready to go into action at the first opportunity. And so we passed the first hour. That was about as long as the alertness lasted. I found a sheltered nook against the rock outcrop and settled down with my back against it. I wanted to smoke, but didn’t dare, for fear the tobacco aroma would reach the keen nostrils of some soft-footed deer. That was all I remembered for some time. The utter stillness covered me like a blanket—and I slept.

When I awoke the sun was well down in the southwest. My wristwatch said threethirty, so I got up and stretched. Not a sign of Jim or Joe. I tried a cautious yell to attract Jim’s attention. No response. That was too much. Picking up my rifle, I made my way to Jim’s post. He was there right enough, but sound asleep. The snow was littered with cigarette butts. If he had thought the tobacco odor might reach the deer, he didn’t care about it. I stirred him with my foot. He roused with a sleepy “Hello—what’s up?”

Joe popped up on his stump and we waved for him to join us. He hadn’t been asleep, he said, and produced a nicely carved cane whittled from a handy bush as proof. So we held a council of war. The sky was thickening fast. Clouds had come up from nowhere, and the sun had disappeared. It was colder. There was a distinct smell of snow in the air.

Whatever decision we might have reached eventually was postponed by a bedlam of noise from down the mountain—loud yells and much baying of hounds. Lou and Jules had jumped a deer. Jim lost his lethargy immediately, as Joe and I sprinted for our opposite posts. At last we were to get some action. Back at the rock outcrop I waited. If I examined the action of my Mauser once, I did a dozen times. I wondered if I would get buck fever.

The noise was getting closer, but the baying of the hounds had stopped except for an occasional yelp. It was beginning to get dark, and the snow started—big flakes, they were, that made for poor visibility. But I was all set for a quick snap shot if necessary.

Suddenly all noise stopped; then from out of the silence came the single sharp crack of a rifle. I looked toward Jim and Joe. They were alert but barely visible. Neither of them had shot—the report was more to the west of them. Lou or Jules. Maybe they had missed, and I might get a running shot. I knew that the deer would be getting away fast, if he could get away at all. So I waited, nerves tense. Nothing appeared. A crashing in the underbrush at my right focused my attention there. It was followed by a loud “Hello, thar” that brought my rifle down. Out from the brush came Lou, followed by Jules, who let out a loud bay as he appeared. So Jules was the baying hound. Jules carried a nice plump snowshoe rabbit. So that was the deer! “Well, too bad you boys didn’t get no shootin’. Guess they ain’t no deer amovin’ today.” It was Lou.

“Well, we might git one in the swamp on the way out,” he continued, “but we gotta git agoin’. It’s gittin’ dark, and acomin’ on to snow.” And with no further word he and Jules started off. If the pace had been fast for us coming up the mountain, it was as nothing at all to the rate going down. Lou’s long legs just reached out in four-foot strides. Jules, shorter geared, with legs fairly twinkling, looked like a small boy being led to the woodshed by an irate father. We picked up Jim and Joe with a curt “Come on, we gotta git.” We did—and how!

But lo—a miracle. Going up that darn mountain we had the toughest kind of going. In and out of ravines, over and under logs and down timber that had pulled our corks. Now Lou had found a perfectly good wood or tote road that was a boulevard by comparison, and down which he fairly flew.

If my shoepacs had given me trouble going up, that trouble was doubled on the way back. I had absolutely no traction. I lost count of the number of times that I sat down, sometimes gracefully like an adagio dancer, but more often suddenly, and with a jar that shook my back teeth. The fast pace set by the guides, the snow, and fastapproaching darkness made it worse. We had been jobbed. I was sure of it. Somehow we reached the bottom.

The ground flattened out and I greeted it with a welcome sigh. Too soon. A little farther along, just as I’d begun to hit my stride, one foot sank down about six inches, and I nearly pitched on my face. A swamp. The rest was nightmare. Every few steps, one foot or the other would sink into the half-frozen bog until it seemed there would be no ending. There was. I fetched up suddenly against the man ahead. Forward progress had ceased. What now? Just a beaver dam to be crossed!

If you’ve ever crossed a beaver dam in shoepacs, in snow and darkness, carrying a rifle like a balancing pole, it’s an experience you won’t ever want to repeat. On one side, a pond covered with slush ice and deeper than you cared to think about; on the other side, rocks, and darkness with somewhere a brook trickling. There was little choice. Just a thorough wetting one way, and a broken leg the other. If I had any leaning at all, it was definitely toward the wetting.

Somehow we all made it safely. Lou led the way. He can have that credit for what it’s worth. Jules brought up the rear—to fish us out from one side or the other, I suppose. Yes, we made it, but I wouldn’t tackle it again for all the deer in the woods.

“You boys did all right,” said Lou from somewhere out of the darkness ahead, as we trudged down the road toward the farmhouse, whose lights faintly shone in the distance. Nobody answered. What was there to say? What we thought was something else again. And so we got back to the farm—silently and in single file.

Our entrance into the farmhouse was made with no exuberation. Sam was playing checkers with our host. The half-emptied jug of applejack sat conveniently on the floor by his chair. “All back safe, eh? That’s good,” he said, as if he didn’t mean it. “Any luck?”

Our silence gave him the answer. “Too bad,” he continued. “Here, take a shot of apple and you’ll feel better.”

There was a smirk on his face that I didn’t fancy. He had a look like the cat that ate the canary. Was he responsible for our ragging? I wondered, as I reached for the extended glass. But no. That couldn’t be. Sam didn’t know either Lou or Jules. He’d never seen them before. What was it? Something was in the air.

Then Sally stuck her head in through the kitchen doorway and announced: “Supper’s gwine be ready in a shake, gemmun. Yo better git yosef cleaned up.” And back she went into the kitchen with a chuckle.

The wash bench was out back of the kitchen. Jim was the first to reach it . . . a wild yell from him brought us all running.

Out back of the woodshed, strung up by his horns, was a nice plump spikehorn buck. So that was the Ethiopian.

Then the story came out. Sally had spied the young buck in the orchard behind the barn. She had told Sam, who quit his checkers and applejack long enough to borrow a rifle from our host, then meandered out and shot the buck—not a hundred yards from the house.

That’s all there was to it. But it was too much for Lou and Jules. They disappeared into the darkness with a well-emphasized “GOOD NIGHT!” Some day, though, I’m going on another deer hunt. And when I do, there’ll be no climbing mountains, clambering through ravines, or crossing beaver dams. I’m just going to get a bag, and a jug—and follow Sam’s system.