A cold fall rain turned to blowing snow. The lingering fall slipped away in two days’ time. Soft ground froze firm. A thin layer of white carpeted the glade. Except for the crows and a blue jay or two, silence reigned over the forest and fen. 1795 ebbed.
With an hour remaining in the day, my moccasins stalked a hidden knoll, a place I hadn’t visited in several years. It is here the main ridge veers west. The little knoll rises up as if God had no place to pile the dirt when he bent the ridge so sharp. The red cedar trees grow tight. In summer, the upper boughs block the sun, offering cooling shadows, but when the sun takes its shortest path, this spot becomes dark and subdued, even with a snowy coat. When I came upon a doe’s abandoned bed, I pulled the scarlet trade blanket snug and weaseled between four cedars. I sat with a dainty breath of wind to my face.
Before me, the hill fell steep into a bowl where a woodsman’s scent swirls, even on a calm night; the bowl is an almost impenetrable fortress filled with snorts and stomps and waving flags. Here and there a glimpse of snow peaked through the tangled limbs, but only enough to warn of movement, not enough to know what moved. To my left, faint trails crisscrossed the hillside, weaving over the ridge, curving north and angling south. One path passed beside me, not ten paces distant, holding three sets of whitetail tracks.
Right at dark a single deer wandered in from the west, slow and lazy, but still cautious. This deer was but a shape; without the white background, it was all but invisible. It sniffed the ground and lingered at an intersection of two trails. The young deer found my moccasin prints and nuzzled the snow as if wiping them away. I dumped the firelock’s pan and eased the hammer down. The evening’s hunt was over, but a wilderness challenge was just beginning.
It has never been my habit to intentionally educate a deer, especially a young one. It is my belief that when a deer ventures close the true test of a woodsman’s skill is to allow that deer to pass without detecting the hunter’s presence. This is easier said than done, knowing the wind often is the betrayer, but nonetheless, a key part of becoming a wilderness tenant is to traverse the glade with the same sagacity as the deer, the wild turkeys or the chipmunks.
Minutes passed like idle hours, then this deer walked a few steps east until all I could see was a rump and tail. It came back, pawed the ground and took several steps north, in my direction. Ten paces distant it stopped and stared, jockeying its head from side to side, up and down. I felt wind on my cheeks. I squinted and breathed through my mouth, directing a chilly fog down against my black silk neck scarf with my upper lip. Satisfied, the deer took two more hesitant steps before turning back to the trails’ intersection.
I glanced down, and to my eyes, the scarlet blanket looked to be a deep charcoal gray. It was getting harder and harder to see the deer; movement was its betrayer. From its head shape and actions, I suspected this was a button buck, and I did not want to risk spooking it by standing up and walking out, so I just sat quiet and waited.
After several minutes, the young whitetail’s manner changed. It kept its head up and I think it looked from side to side several times. It glared my way, then began to descend the hill into the bowl and out of sight. I sat for a while, before getting to my feet and stalking straight away. Unseen branches slapped my face and clawed at the blanket. I chuckled. I had not stalked out this late at night in a long time. It was like an early morning still hunt before dawn, but in reverse.
My moccasins found the wagon path and followed the two ruts south. My course paused at the last tree, a three trunked oddity, at the bottom of the hill where the road curves around the big swamp. My eyes surveyed the swamp and white oak island. The sky was clear, the air crisp. A first quarter moon hung low over the far tree line. A bright star glowed close by. I could not move. My lips uttered a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of the fall as I watched that star. Christmas was but two days away, and the familiar words came easy…
“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (New Testament, Luke 2: 8 – 11)
May the peace of the Christmas season be always with you, be safe and may God bless you.