The DOORWAY Buck
Author: CM Sackett

Chapter 1
At The DOORWAY...

“Was you… aiming for his butt?”

     Now, even in the best of times that wouldn’t have been very funny. But coming from a voice I’d never heard before, only inches from my ear, in the middle of a thicket where I just 'knew' I was the only living thing for miles… it was down right cruel.  And how in the world had he gotten so close to me without so much as the whisper of a sound in all these leaves and branches and brambles and briars?  I spun around, powered a bit by reflex and a good bit more by embarrassed anger.  And I was ready for anything. 


     Anything, that is, except him.

     As my eyes began to lay hold of the body behind the breath on my neck, I saw a man looking intently past me (literally 4” from my shoulder) at my buck laying there on the ground, with my arrow still sticking out of his ham like an antenna on the quarter panel of an old Dodge. 

     His nose was sharp and short, kind of like you’d see on a pixie, or an elf in some Santa Claus print.  His hair was as white as the first snow that would come the next mornin’, and was standing up like shocked bundles in front of the short-billed “woolie” he had tilted back on his head.  His eyebrows, just under a wrinkled forehead were every bit as hoary and thick and unruly as the tangle we were standing in.

     As I took in the rest of his frame at that moment, I noted that his head was stretched to the end of his time-chaffed neck as he studied the scene (hmm, I can't help but chuckle now, thinkin’ back on it… he looked like a turtle reaching for a treat).  His shoulders didn’t even seem to fill out the faded CPO jacket he wore, but they were soldier-straight. And his arms were back, with his hands past his hip pockets like a skier getting ready for a jump.  The man was honestly intent on what he was lookin’ at. 

     And then, with that same intensity, he turned and looked me over. 

     Under those wild white bushies were the greyest eyes I’d ever looked into ~ pale and cool, almost like wet granite.  In them, I saw a combination of curiosity (as crisp and genuine as that of any child), humor (not malicious, mind you, but mischievous nonetheless) and something else that made me instantly glad I hadn’t challenged him, sight unseen.  Yessir, these were the eyes of a MAN.  I hadn’t had much practice at being one yet, but instinctively I recognized one when I saw him. 

     “You still ain’t told me; son, is that where you were aiming?”

     Now why did he have to go and say that again?

 

“Of course not!  What do you think I am, an idiot?”

     He cocked his head a bit and said, “I’m still making up my mind on that point”.  As he said it, the right corner of his mouth drew back, ever so slightly, into a dimpled grin.  Nothing else in his posture and demeanor changed at all… ah, except his eyes.  I did notice a flash of fire in them, just for an instant.  Then he turned and looked back at the buck. 

     “How’d you find me, anyway?”  I said. 

     “Oh, I’ve been following your trails for almost a mile, son.  You stuck with him longer and through thicker stuff than some men, who know how to track.  That says somethin’ in your favor.”


     “What do you mean…  ‘who KNOW how to track’?!”  I was getting mad again. 

     He just smiled. 

     “I don’t think I mean anything boy, except what I just said.  Take his tracks, now… they made sense right off; yours took a minute or two to figure.  But when I did, it was pure pleasure seeing you stick with him.  Like I said, a lot of fellas who know how to track wouldn’t have gone through half the crap you just did… to find this deer.  That says somethin’ for you, for sure.”

     I was just beginning to enjoy his company.  Then he had to go and say “this” deer… the way he said it.

     “Mister” says I, “for an uninvited ‘guest’, you sure are full of opinions (for a moment, in my youthful arrogance and ignorance, I had forgotten that “something else” in his eyes).

     He straightened then~~ turned full to me, and with the same soft, unassuming lilt in his voice, but with the fire-flash dancing in those greys, he said, “And for an inexperienced, unschooled tenderfoot who can’t even hear an old man with nylon swivels for knees coming up on him… you’re awful full of piss-n-vinegar.”

 

We stood there for a moment just staring at one another. Me with my best imitation of “You’ve gone too far, now BACK UP!” look (well, you remember what it was like to be a kid just comin’ into a man’s world ~~ when you had no clue how you were supposed to look or act in this type of situation, yet doing your best to act like you did… yeah, THAT look).  For his part, the fire was still dancin’ in his eyes, but then they began roaming the whole of my face, as though they were searching for something they’d lost, or forgotten. 

     And suddenly, they softened.  He shook his head, and said, almost to himself, “I’m sorry son.  Let’s get this one back to camp.”

     And without another word he stepped lightly past me and grabbed one side of the rack.  I turned and watched him in dumbfounded silence, then found myself moving toward the same task, void of any conscious thought...  overflowing with a myriad of feelings. 

     I knew something unique and strange had just taken place... stranger still, because I found myself glad that he was there, this funny little man with the nylon knees and the fire in his eyes. Little did I know that at that moment, because of this little buck, I was standing at the door of one of my wildest adventures... and the richest of friendships.

 

As we came up out of the thicket and stepped onto the field edge I asked him, “Hey, aren’t we going to gut this thing or something? I mean, wouldn’t that make dragging him easier?”

     He never even broke stride, “If’n he had any size to him that might be a consideration”.

     He turned his head and gave me a wink.

     I had to chuckle at that one, my own self. For now that I’d laid hands on him, he wasn’t near as BIG a buck as he’d seemed when he was working the trail that doe had come down. But with steam lifting off the mornin' frost… his nose on the ground like a bloodhound and his bleached rack a bobbin’ with every step, he had seemed to be every bit the monster trophy my frantic nerves had made him. I suppose him being the first buck I had ever been close enough to pull back on had something to do with it. But I wasn’t about to let the old man know that!

     “Besides” he went on, “if you’re willin’ to learn, I’ll show you how to take care of a critter in the field without making a mess, losing any meat, or taking much time. And there’s times, son, when keeping those three to a minimum can save your life.” And then he turned and looked me full in the face, “Learn to keep such things in mind, boy… even when you think it won’t matter”.

     I found myself listening intently to his every word as he spoke of things “…to know” and pointed out features and facets of the fields and thickets that I’d never noticed. Funny, he didn’t ‘act’ like a “teacher”, but I gleaned more on that walk back to my camp than I’d learned from all the books and experts I had sought out to help me feed knowledge to this passion I had growing inside me. And in spite of myself, I found myself hoping he’d stay on for coffee and rations once we made camp.

     I needn’t have worried…

 

As we approached my camp he turned us South into a small draw that led away from it and the seep I’d set up next to.
“Hey, where you going? My camp’s that way!”

     He didn’t speak until we stopped, on the lee side of a huge blown-down sycamore near the feeder creek at the bottom.

     “Yessir, it is. Now stop a minute, and think. Which direction is your camp?”

     “North… and a bit East, I think.”

     “Yep. What else?”

     I could see he was trying to teach me something. And while, for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what, I went along with it. “UPHILL!”

     With a slight sigh he said, “Yes… what else?”

     “A LONG WAY UPHILL”.

     He was looking straight at me now, everything in his visage coaxing me on to recognize and grasp the rest of the pieces to this puzzle he’d put before me. But the only things I could see at the moment were that I was tired, I was cold, I was at the bottom of a draw that didn’t have to be gone down into and that I was going to have to drag my deer right back up out of. And I was standing in it with this odd little man whom I had never met until a few minutes ago, never seen, had no clue who he was… and quite frankly, was beginning to think I wouldn’t give a damn if I never did.

     “Mr.” I says, “I don’t know. I don’t know what else it is you want me to ‘see’. I don’t know you… and I don’t know what the hell we’re doing down here!”

     He just grinned, looked from me, back up the draw, and said, as softly and gently as if he were paying me a compliment, “Ignorant. Ignorant as Hell… but honest. A man’s gotta like that.” And then, without waiting for me to decide whether I was angry or not, he went on with the ‘lesson’…

 

 

“Your camp is on a sweet little knoll, just off the flat we used to call Lost Lodge, over that way.” As he pointed, he turned back to me and said, “You chose well, by the way. Most folks head on up to the flat and use one of those old cabins... never understood that, myself. Their scent and sound spread all over the gaming grounds, up there. They can’t hear the night sounds around ‘em, and can’t see the stars when they’re out. Why would a man do that to himself?”

     As he came to that last question, his voice trailed off in almost a half whisper. And then he seemed to catch himself, and went on… “That seep you’re watering at travels through nearly 800 yards of shale before it pools up there. It’s the sweetest water in 400 miles, son… that’s a fact. It’s an underground capillary of the aquifer that forms Ben’s Branch, a little east of here, and the Buffalo that cuts its way through the mountains back to the west. That aquifer also feeds this creek down here. And with you parked at the seep, this is the nearest water for 2 miles for all the critters. Do you understand now, boy?”

     I didn’t. And he knew it. So, he went on…

 

“The weather’s changed, son. This is the second mornin’ in the 20’s… and snow’s coming. Lots of stuff ain’t holed up for the winter just yet. And there’s things in these mountains that’ll need what we leave of him to keep their own fires a-burnin’."

     "And some of them won’t be bashful about getting their share."

     "You leave it anywhere near your camp, where a cross-wind n-such like can ring the dinner bell far and wide… they’ll come for the leavins and leave you with a ‘thank you’ you just don't need in this country... 'specially this time of year.”

     “Taking care of him down here makes a friend of the wind, the trails, and the nature of things. They’ve got cover. They’ve got water. They’ve got no added reason to come up and investigate your camp.”

     It did make sense, but I wondered why we hadn’t done all this at the thicket. That was almost a mile as the crow flies from camp. I mentioned as much.

     “Well, you do as you decide, boy. If that’s what you think best, then drag him back out there and have at it. I just figured you might want to hunt that ground again over the next 2-3 days. After all, there’s some benches, just past that thicket, that this young’n’s granddaddy calls Home.”

     “And while Death is a part of the livin’ up here, the added traffic of coyotes, cats and ol’ Blaze nosing around all this might bump that log-racked monster off his pattern just enough to spoil your getting him.”

     “But, like I said… you do as you decide.”

     As he finished, he reached for something I’d noticed before hanging from the front of his belt. In one fluid motion, and almost as if by magic, there appeared in his hand a thing of wonder, the likes of which I had never seen before. As he knelt by my buck I stepped closer to look over his shoulder.

 

I could tell it was a cutting piece of some sort; that much I made out fairly quick. But its shape, design… and what it was made from were a complete mystery to me. And I had a strong affinity for blades.

     “What in the world is that?” I asked in naked amazement.

     He held it up for me to get a better look.

     “One of the finest cutting instruments in the world, son. It’s an ulu, made from Russian Jadeite and scrimshawed ivory from a walrus bull that nearly made my first trip to the Sakhalin area of the Bering Sea… my last trip anywhere.”

     “Here, hold it. Just be real careful of the edge.”

     As he handed it to me, I was as surprised by its heft as I was by its exquisite craftsmanship. The blade, a good 5 inches wide, was shaped like an opened fan. The jadeite was a vivid, rich translucent green… I could actually see through its pearlescent beauty. It reminded me of a South Sea wave, caught and frozen in mid-curl.

     The handle fit almost seamlessly with the stone where the fan narrowed. It was ribbed, polished, heavy, and etched with a scene that clearly showed a man drawing a bow… on a HUGE walrus.

     I looked up to ask him about it as I handed this piece of heaven back. He was kneeling on one knee and looking off down that dark draw, like he was peering into another world, or another time.

     He spoke just as I started to form the words of my question…

 

“At 22, it didn’t occur to me that a ‘blob’ without legs would get so het up over me stepping between himself and the object of his affection, or that a 3,000 pound animal could move like he did.”

     His shoulders shook as he chuckled over that.

     “But I’ll tell you, now… that twin-pillared behemoth covered 75-80 yards of pack ice like water popping and skipping across a red-hot skillet. And me, being as young and dumb and sure of myself as I was, I just kept sending arrows his way. Got 4 in him… before my 1st mate streaked across that red-eyed demon’s path and tackled me like a freshman tight end!”

     “The man saved my life, for sure.”

     “And lucky for all of us, one of my arrows did the job and ended the bull’s rage. Seems that in that frozen second of Eternity, one of my sendings happened to catch the beast in mid-lunge, dead center of the chest. The hit was good. And as his massive bulk came forward and down on what remained of the shaft outside his body, instead of breaking it… his own weight drove it the rest of the way home.”

     With a final long sigh he brought us both back to the present moment, and the task at hand, as he said, “So, you see boy, we ALL started where you are… full of the Desire ~~ and hungry for the Experience.”

     “And right now, I’m hankering to experience my fill of this little fella on the end of a hickory stick, over a warm fire and a cup of steamin’ hot jo. What say we get to it?”

 

He stretched out his arm to hand me his ulu, and said, “I'm sorry boy. I’ve gotten so caught up in this whole thing, I plum forgot my manners… this is your buck. You want to use this?”

     “Nossir. I wouldn’t know where to start with that thing.” says I. “Besides, you promised to show me how to butcher a deer without gutting it.”

     I could see that pleased him some.

     “Well now, so I did, son… SO I DID.”

     In the time it would take to tell it fair, the old man worked magic with that blade. It was like watching a dance, really. Like one of those expensive ballets that womenfolk make over so much.

     Not overly quick, and definitely with no waste of motion his hands and that flash of emerald green flicked and floated through their task. He made initial cuts down the inside center of each limb to the knee. It seemed the blade barely touched the hide at the groin as he moved along the belly side, and the skin opened like a well-oiled door, all the way to the brisket. Instantly, that sea of glass disappeared under the hair, and with sleek sweeping motions freed the entire body cape up to the back.

     After duplicating those results on both sides and around each limb, he grabbed and lifted the tail, and with one flick set it free. The entire skin was laid up over the neck out of the way as he made short work of cutting the quarters, straps, and loins loose from their hinges, leaving the spine and the vitals sack intact.

     Slick as a buttered salesman!

 

The morning was past full-grown and giving way to noon as we made our way out of the draw and up the trail that crossed the benches shouldering the mountain. As we climbed, we threaded through upshots of rock, standing like fierce, ragged sentinels among the oak and hickory. The old man was taking a trail I’d never noticed. And along the way, he continued to open my eyes to a world I’d walked through many a time, but never seen like this before. With a calm, matter-of-fact comment he would point out a plant or a track or an elevation change that wasn’t there until he slowed to show me. And yet, his voice was just as often full of wonder and excitement over some new thing to show me, as if he’d just re-discovered it for his own self and couldn’t wait to share. Later, I would reflect back on how easily he taught, and how easy he made it to learn. He was, I later realized, the first of very few people I ever met who were quite comfortable housing within their heart the wisdom of a sage AND the undying wonder of a child. He was indeed, a MAN.

     When we broke through the last canopy of old growth, we came past a massive tangle of wild blackberry and honeysuckle at the west edge of the knoll clearing. At our appearing, the cardinals and blue jays, fluttering among the branches chattered their disapproval at our ‘rude’ interruption of their colorful commerce.

     As we stepped on into the clearing the sun was standin’ proud and full on the top step of its angled climb across the early November sky. And the crystal wonderland formed by the mornin’ frost, while maintaining a foothold only in the deeper shadows now, still sparkled like the crown jewels on parade. My Lord! How I loved this land!

 

 

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