- Pat O'Regan
The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter
Mother Nature does not care whether we live or die. She is unforgiving, but I am not afraid.
It was the last day of the annual deer hunting trip with the guys from town in the big woods of the north. The day before, bored and cold from sitting still for hours, I had wandered into the woods, soon becoming lost, going this way and that, without a care, all day long, finally coming out to the lake on which the cabin was located with just an hour of daylight to spare. Now I realize how lucky I was. It was very cold. Being caught in the woods when darkness sets in is deadly. Making headway in the darkness is not possible. Stop moving and one starts to freeze—hypothermia sets in. Tramping back and forth between two trees is all one can do. But you get to the point of complete exhaustion; you can’t take another step. Finally, tired out, you sit down; then in a short time you die.
But I am not afraid. So, this day I got lost again—I must have a Guardian Angel—wandering back to near the lake and the road when the sun was low in the sky, but the woods were still bright.
Just when I got my bearings, I heard a shout, “Hey, there, where are the deer!” It was my father, smiling at me from where he sat leaning against a tree.
I came on, stopping at some distance. “See anything?” he asked, still smiling, and getting unsteadily to his feet.
“I saw a buck,” I said. “Ten points at least.”
“That way,” I said, pointing off, deeper into the woods. “Toward the swamp. I didn’t get a shot at him. He might still be in the area. We have time before dark if you want to try. I’ll give you the shot.”
“Okay,” he said. “Not too far, though. I’m freezing and starved.”
“Walking a little will warm you up,” I said, “before we head out for the day. It’s our last chance to get a deer. And what a buck it was.”
What you need is a drink, I thought.
With me leading the way, we started deeper into the woods.
The guys in the cabin were concerned about me yesterday, I thought. Our leader, Emmitt, told me firmly to be careful about getting lost in the dead of winter.
“Slow down,” my father said. “I’m not a kid, anymore. This may be my last year of hunting. I get tired so quickly.”
When you heard I had been lost all day, I thought, all you did was laugh. Of course, then you had a beer.
“Nope,” he said, tiring already, “the whole thing is getting too hard for my old bones. I don’t like it, anymore, like when I was younger.”
I know what you like, I thought. When Suzanne—your daughter!—got married. I watched you at the wedding reception nursing a bottle of booze, smiling, like a baby at the breast.
We passed into a stand of pine trees. I changed direction, then, after a short distance, stopping to study the way, turned again and moved on.
“How far we going’?” he asked, breathing hard.
“Just a little farther. I saw that buck at the edge of the swamp. We might catch sight of him there.”
“Okay, but not much further… As long as you…know the way.”
“I know the way.”
The brush got thick, but I pushed on through. He followed behind, staying close. I changed direction again and hurried along.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m bushed. Let’s go back…” He was wheezing.
“It’s only a little farther…”
You didn’t care, I thought, when my finger was hit by a power mower, or when I froze my toes ice skating, or when I was bullied… You never cared… Driving drunk with kids in the car… Hitting us…
“Hey, wait up,” he said, sounding angry. “Stop here… First thing, I have to take a dump… Then let’s get outa here. I’m beat and getting fed up with being in the woods.”
He went off a short distance behind a tree. I moved away the other direction.
Now he has alcoholic ulcers, I thought. His liver must be almost gone. He has only a few years left to live, a few years of misery to Mom, to his kids, to others in his shrinking social circle. Then to die the death of a drunkard. No hope. Suzanne, ever the psychologist, tried an intervention. He threw her and the counselor she brought along out of the house. For him, there is no second place to booze—not Mom, not me, not his religion—though he puts on a show there—nothing!
I moved farther on, just within sight of the tree he squatted behind. What good is another four or five years, at most, of misery? Getting past the hard hump of dying—that’s the issue.
“Hey, where are you…? Oh… Wait there for me…”
He came stumbling toward me. I moved away.
“Hey! What are you doing! Wait for me!”
I kept the same distance between us. You, you, you, I thought, what about me?
“Stop there!” he shouted. “God dammit, stop!”
He came on, crashing through the brush. I hurried to keep him away. When I looked back, I saw that he was trying to run, stumbling along miserably, like a baby learning to walk. He fell and struggled back to his feet, coming on, flailing at the brush, which seemed to be fighting back at him.
I came to a snow-covered glade. Hurrying on, twice I broke through the crusted snow up to my thighs. I got across just as he came out on the glade. He was breaking through the snow at every step, swearing fiercely, making painfully slow progress. I could hear his great rasping breaths. I moved into the woods, just out of his sight. When I looked back, I saw that he had dropped his shotgun, but kept going without it, with an unmistakable air of desperation. Thereafter, I kept out of his sight.
“Why are you doing this!” I heard him yell, thigh-deep in snow. “You don’t want to do this! … I don’t know the way! … Just show me the way!”
The Lord will show you the way, I thought.
I circled around toward the sound of his voice. He was moving, busting out of the snow, but clearly spent. He fell and stumbled back to his feet, only to fall again after a short distance, as if his legs couldn’t support his bulk. Several more times, he got up and came on, only to fall again. His voice was inaudible, until he took several raspy breaths and shouted loudly, “I did the best I could! Please don’t leave me here! Please, please…” Then he collapsed and stayed sitting where he was, blubbering and hanging his head.
I moved closer, careful not to be seen. Go to sleep, I thought. It’ll be only an hour or two of pain to blot out several more years of misery—to yourself and others. No more desperate chasing after a drink… No more burden on us…to die after a handful of years as a drunkard. Sleep now, and die as a deer hunter…
He was looking up to Heaven… He would throw his faith in the gutter and spit on it for a beer, I thought. Now your religion matters to you. Now you’ve found the Lord. Go with God… Sleep… Slip the miserable bonds of your life… Sleep, sleep…
I couldn’t stay with him any longer. Down in the woods, darkness was descending. I had to hurry to get to the road before it became too dark to see. I jogged off. When I got to the road, I could see the stars in the moonless night sky.
I reassured the other guys in the cabin that my father had doubtless walked to the road, found a new drinking buddy there and went with him into town for a drink and a meal. The guy might even put him up for the night, all warm and well fed. He’d show up, happy and content, in the morning, just in time for the ride home. They accepted my assurances, and everyone enjoyed the supper and slept well that night. !
Pat O'Regan is a retired college instructor and business writer. He grew up in a small town, got a Masters in Zoology and was, once upon a time, married.