It was, as my dad would say, “colder than a well digger’s ass.” There was even a little snow covering the Texas Hill Country grass.
I was probably 8 years old, and scrawny for my age. Shivering underneath an ashe juniper, my outfit consisted of the only jeans I owned, a bright green 4H jacket, and the patchwork quilt my great aunt Lotti made for me. I tucked tight into the base of the tree, hiding under the quilt for warmth, and dozed.
I was deer hunting.
My weapon of choice was no choice at all. It was the gun I had and if there was a better choice for the task at hand, I didn’t know it. In fact, I knew little about the gun. If you had asked me who made it, I would have told you “Savage” because it said so on the barrel. If you had asked me the caliber, I would have said .22 and .410, for the same reason. At the time, I wouldn’t have known that there were such a thing as “models” or that my constant companion was a Savage Model 24.
That said, I knew what was important.
First, I was rightly terrified of the whipping I would receive if I misused it. Safety was a priority.
I also knew how to clean and maintain the gun. I got it well-used, and I can with surety say that it was better off in my hands. My pride of ownership kept it in ideal condition. It got wiped down and cleaned every time I handled it. My lubricant of choice: Crisco.
I also knew how to load it, aim, and fire it. Back when .22LR cartridges were pennies a round, a kid could actually afford a brick here and there if, for instance, he worked picking up trash at his dad’s construction site. One round at a time, that hard-won brick of ammunition could last a while.
The .410 shells were harder to come by. I don’t ever remember having more than a 20-round box, and never more than a single box of 5 slugs.
I walked the fields every single day with my dog and that Savage. Many a Bobwhite would fall to the smoothbore. I had no idea it was only considered “sporting” to shoot them in flight. Hunting wasn’t then, and isn’t now, a sport. For a poor kid, it was more often than not the meat I’d shoot, clean, cook, and eat for myself. The dog would get some too. He was good dog.
That cold morning the dog would stay in the house, but the Savage came along.
I had some advantages on that first solo hunt, both known and unknown. My caliber “choice” wasn’t one of them.
I don’t remember how I came up with the idea that I could take a deer with a .410 slug. I had seen many deer taken before that day, but all with bolt action or lever action rifles. I knew how it was done. I’d tagged along on previous hunts with my dad and uncles, and had helped clean and butcher many deer.
My gun was not the Winchester Model 70 like my dad’s, but I didn’t know any better. I guess the only real comparison I had to the .410 slug was the .22 shorts and LRs I was used to firing from the same gun. Of course, by that metric, I must have assumed the shotgun slug was capable of anything.
The biggest advantage I had was that I knew exactly where the deer would be, and when they’d be there. My entire life revolved around the land we lived on. I roamed thousands of acres freely, and my days would be filled following the game trails through the fields and the brush.
I knew where the does bedded down, inside a small clearing ringed tightly by brush on the south side of a limestone hill nearby. I had followed their trails many times, over the rocky hill and down to the long field and under the big oak trees where they fed. I often sat and watched them eat. I don’t know how far away they were, but I remember listening to the acorns crunch in their mouths, and the sounds their hooves made when they scraped the ground.
The other advantage I had was that I was small. I could tuck under a tree or bush and be so little and so still that nothing or nobody would find me. Well, except for Max. My dog always eventually sniffed me out.
And finally, although I didn’t know it at the time, my choice of “gear” would also help me out. That patchwork quilt aunt Lotti made? It’s primary color was pink, which deer see as another shade of grey. Wrapped around my skinny frame, it was likely ideal camouflage underneath the brush.
It was the sound of her hooves on the rock that woke me up.
The bush I snuggled under was in a spot that overlooked the field where I had watched them feed. In hindsight, my choice of hide-site was ridiculous. It was 90 yards down to the field from my perch, and although I had shot many cans at that distance with the .22 barrel, it was an impossible distance for an ethical shot with a 2 1/2″ .410 slug.
It wouldn’t matter, the doe hadn’t made it down to the field yet. She was pawing hard at the ground on a ridge below my position.
As I slept, she must have walked right by me, within just a few feet of where I was laying. She had walked by me, actually around the very bush I was under, to a spot just below. I had never been that close to a deer before. I could see her eye lashes.
I remember two things. First, I had to pee really badly. Second, I’d need to shoot that deer first.
Moving as little as possible, I slid the Savage from underneath the quilt, and aimed at the top of her shoulder. It took forever. I remember my heart pounding, waiting for an ear to turn, her head to pick up, a nostril to flair, find me, and bolt. She didn’t.
I remember holding my breath. I remember what her hair looked like under my front sight. I remember the gun going off. I assume I pulled the trigger.
Her head was still down when the slug hit her, knocking her from the ledge she was standing on. I had been watching her all that time, and now she disappeared from sight.
I laid there, shaking from the excitement rather than shivering from the cold. Like I was taught, I waited for what seemed like an eternity. It was probably all of three minutes.
Crawling out from underneath the bush, I finally relieved myself and was reminded of how cold it was. I wrapped the quilt back around me and walked to ridgeline to find the doe.
I didn’t have to look far. She had fallen just below the ridge and never took another step. I would return to the spot as an adult and see that she was no more than 15 yards from the muzzle when I shot her. Likely much less.
At the downward angle I shot her from, the round passed through her entirely. As I struggled to drag her down the hill to a small dirt road between it and the field below, one of her shoulders felt squishy and weird.
With the excitement of the shot wearing off, and the struggle of dragging her in the cold already wearing on me, I got to the next task at hand. I had helped field dress deer before, but had never tried it all by myself. I got it done with my Uncle Henry pocket knife.
As small as our does are and field dressed, she still probably weighed 70 pounds. I hadn’t yet hit 50lbs. That math didn’t quite make it into my figuring, and dragging the deer down the mile long dirt road to my house wasn’t working out at all.
I was still struggling at it when I heard the truck.
We lived way out on a small piece of property surrounded by a large goat ranch. The two old men driving up the road were the fourth generation Texans who owned the ranch and the hand that had worked it his entire life. They were in fact old men, and not just old in a child’s eyes. They lived long lives blessed with the honors of family and the respect of a community. I was a grown man by the time Mr. Bennet died, and I still cried when I heard the news.
They stopped the truck and no doubt marveled at what they saw. I was grateful when they offered to put the deer in the truck and bring it to my house, and beamed with pride when they remarked on the shot. I know I did an acceptable job field dressing the deer, because they told me so. I still remember how big that made me feel.
They hung the deer in a Live Oak near our house and then helped me butcher it up and put the meat in our freezer. The crafty old men kept the backstraps. Heck, they’d earned ’em.
That afternoon I cooked a steak with peppers and onions wrapped in foil stuck in the red coals of our fire pit. The next morning, my mom made buttered biscuits with slices of tenderloin between them. She wasn’t one bit surprised, but she was proud. That’s still my favorite breakfast.
As an epilogue, fast forward about 30 years, to my young son watching the deer have a time with his grandmother’s garden. I sat next to him on Christmas eve, and pulled the screen off one of the open windows of her sun room as he slid that very same old Model 24 out the window and aimed it at the nearest doe.
Fifteen yards at most, and we butchered her together.