The DOORWAY Buck
Author: CM Sackett

Chapter 3
An Old Man's Company...

If there ever was a king or emperor, who even once experienced a finer feast or richer time than we did that day on a mountain past Cave Creek… I don’t believe they survived it.

    The fire had been pitched high, twice. Every morsel of tenderloin (and a smidgen of one back strap), a good bit of molasses and all but 2 biscuits had passed the pallet and pleased the soul. A camp pot of hot-black and a couple of Heath bars later, I thought we were done. And then he pulled out the cigars… this old man was going to ruin my figure AND my upbringin’!

     As he handed me my first wrapper’d delight he said, “Some men don’t cotton to a good smoke after a meal anymore… damned savages!”

     He winked as he reached for an oak stick at the fire’s edge. Being a closet novice, I watched closely and followed his lead in getting my own started. Well, at least I thought I did. That second tug to get her lit and I felt like someone had glued my lips to the tailpipe of a Rambler! The more I choked and hacked and gagged, the more of that smoke I dragged down to my virgin lungs.

     “Turn it loose, boy! TURN IT LOOSE!!”

     It took me a minute or so to get my airway clear and some semblance of my composure back. When I did, I just sat there, staring first at this smokestack in my hand… then at the wicked old pixie who’d given it to me. He was sitting there blowing smoke rings across the fire and smacking his lips like it was chocolate cake. Then he had the audacity to turn his gaze on me with the most pleasant look on his face.

     “Good, ain’t it?”

     I almost joined the ranks of “damned savages” that day.

 

“Mr. Tuck”

     “Yes, son?” (That became a habit he just didn’t seem to be able to break… I found myself more and more thankful he couldn’t.)

     “I want to tell you how that arrow wound up where it did. You see, I….”

     “You don’t owe any man an explanation. Life happens to everyone, son… except legends and liars. I’ve seen you shoot. And I’ve watched how careful you are to work out a critter’s patterns before you set up on them.”

     I gave him a look, at that one.

     “Well, you DO leave sign young’n. And, I’ve come across you a time or three as you roamed about. You’ll do, boy… you’ll do.”

     The fire was still warm, but had settled down under a flickering blanket of coals. The cardinals and jays had moved on to other fussin’ spots. A lone mockingbird, along with a gang of finches had taken their place in the tangle of briars. The clouds that would bring the first snow (and the real beginning of our adventure) in the morning were crowding in overhead like kids at a Christmas store window during the Depression. And I had just taken a dizzying step towards growing into myself a little more, as a hunter… and a man.

     In just 4 short hours, Mr. Daniel ‘Tuck’ Arnold had scared the bejeebies out of me, angered the fire out of me, embarrassed the hell out of me…, and brought out a desire to be the best in me. I had come into these Ozark Mountains to get a deer, hopefully a buck. It seems that I had also found a friend and a mentor… hopefully for life.

 

We whittled the rest of those afternoon hours away as easy as a couple of young’ns with brand new Barlows and a lifetime supply of balsa wood. We joked and laughed and talked about everything… and nothing. We cleared the seep basin of leaves and debris and stacked up more wood and kindling against the coming snows. I noticed that we were gathering a good bit more than I could ever use in a couple of outings, mentioned as much to Mr. Tuck.

     “You ain’t the only soul that finds value in this spot, son. Besides, in places like this, leaving a camp ready to come back to while you got the time and inclination and strength, might just save your life sometime… or someone else’s.”

     And so we kept warm gathering, cutting, and stacking. And the clouds rolled in darker and bluer against the mountain. At one point I noticed the old man was just standing there, staring toward Lost Lodge flat, his head slightly tilted, and the beginnings of a smile on his weathered face.

     “What’cha looking at?” I said.

     “The ever-changing wonder of it, boy. Only God could darken the canvas and brighten the colors on this grand a scale.”

     I followed his gaze up to the flat, with that dark muslin backdrop of snow clouds ~~ hedged to the west by the shoulder of the mountain my buck had called Home, and spilling out to the east over the flame-crested tips of the timber that formed the next ridge line. This wasn’t a particularly ‘rich’ fall for colors. But with those clouds a-broodin’ behind them and the sun still finding ways to light their trembling cheeks, the trees were indeed a pageant of beauties. And we were getting to see it all for free.

     I looked back at Mr. Tuck. His eyes were still glowing as he turned and said, “If you can stand an old man’s company, I’d be obliged to share the fire tonight. I’ve got a bedroll and outfit cached behind the seep.”

     And then he leaned forward a bit, “And tomorrow, we’ll see if we can’t get you within shaft-sending range of ol’ LogHorn”.

     Now what’s a man supposed to say to that?

     “YOU BETCHA!!!”

 

With a slight flutter my eyes opened to the pre-dawn blackness of 4:00 AM, and I rolled over, eager to get this day started. Took me a second before I realized it was awful bright… for 4 in the mornin’… “WAKE UP OLD MAN! WE OVERSLEPT!!!”

     I turned to see if he had heard me. There, on his side of the tent were his ground cover and bedroll, neatly rolled and tied. And lying across them was a bow and quiver! Now where in the world were THOSE last night?!

     In the brisk, bright air it didn’t take me long to fetch my layers to me. And as I made my own bedroll secure I heard the sound of a lid settling back down on the Dutch oven. I smiled at the memory of yesterday’s feast. Had to give the old man his due there… he certainly weren’t no slouch around camp, which wasn’t saying much for me at the moment.

     I took another look at his hunting rig as I headed for the flap ~~ it was stunning! The bow was shaped like an old Howatt I’d seen in a magazine. But I never saw a bow like this one! The limbs were a fiery orange on the back and creamy yellow on the belly side. It was some kind of straight, tight-grained wood I wasn’t familiar with under crystal-clear glass. The limb tips were finished off with an amber-colored bone or horn over a pinstripe of jet-black glass. Each overlay narrowed along the limb until it disappeared in a thread-thin point about three and a half inches down the face. But the most remarkable thing about the limbs was the scene painted into the limb face, itself. Running from the thread-line of the bottom limb tip, broken only by the riser, and fading into its golden twin in the top limb was a scene of primal confrontation, like the one scrimshawed on the ulu.

     Only, in this brilliant, life-colored version, there stood a polar bear, glaring across broken and shattered pack ice, sapphire-blue water and a downed seal. The focus of his fury at the other end… a man, who was kneeling with bow drawn and arrow ready. As I looked closer, I could see the faint red dots on the bear’s shoulder.  His muscle and sinew had already been breached… twice.

     And as if the limbs weren’t enough to cause a man to bruise his jaw when it hit the ground, the riser was…

     “Travis, Son! You’re missing a heck of a mornin’ out here!”

 

As the filtered light of bleached canvas gave way to its source in the world outside I blinked, as much at what my eyes found as at what found my eyes ~ and the rest of my face. It was snow. Huge, heavy flakes… tons of massed white fluff floating and falling softly onto everything, embracing whatever it touched with cold, wet tenacity. I looked about me, searching for the familiar outlines of landmarks and camp pieces... too late. The storm had already filled in the gaps and drifted over the particulars of everything in sight, leaving muted contours of white and blue like the great sheets draped over the furniture of an off-season summer cabin.

     And it showed no signs of letting up. What had seemed to be such a bright-sky’d morning (for 4:00 AM) was actually a cobalt blue, filtered through this downward flowing ocean of white. This was a sure-nuff, three-dog, stack-wood snow STORM! And parked right in the middle of it, next to the welcomed halo of a fine looking fire was that old man ~~ grinning like a possum on a pile of muscadines!

 

“Well, good mornin’ princess! Is this a slice of Heaven, or what?!” He was practically beaming.  How disgusting this early, this cold and with the hunt this ruined.

     “Oh, ha-ha. Trust you to be loving this!”

     “You better believe I do, boy. Weather like this, up here in these mountains, it’s like a free trip to another world. Don’t hurt the hunting none, either.”

     I think it was my skeptical face that made him chuckle then as he added, with a wry smile “It can even make a fine breakfast taste better. ‘Course, about now, you look like you need to be downwind of a sure thing to believe it.”

     Oh, I didn’t need to be downwind of this layout to know I was just fork-shy of something special!

 

There, in the soft blue glow of an early morning Ozark Mountain snowstorm, we sat on notched stumps like royalty in an ivory hall. The steaming green enamel camp ware on our laps was as welcomed for the heat radiating from its bottom as for the bounty within its black-rimmed border. Each plate was piled man-high with almost a pound of heavy peppered, thick-slab bacon, resting on a mound of six scrambled browns. I looked around for the biscuits… I know I smelled biscuits! Besides, I had heard the distinct sound of the Dutch oven lid sliding into place earlier. Tuck noticed my wonderings.

     “You looking for something?”

     “Yessir. I know I smelled biscuits a while ago.”

     “OOHPH! Damn! I knew I was forgettin’ something!”

     He stood up so fast he almost turned over the camp pot sitting at the fire’s edge. Reaching behind his seat he picked up a piece of sycamore bark and began clearing the cool grey ashes from the oven’s lid. Then he took the hay hook I used in place of a potholder and gingerly lifted it.

     He didn’t say anything for a moment, and I was just about to start worrying that the blackberry jelly I’d spied sitting in that Griffin’s jar next to the butter box was going to have to be tasted ala’ nude. Then he looked over his shoulder at me with one of those open-mouthed, wide-eyed “OH MY!” looks, and said…

     “Wouldn’t you know it? PERFECT!”

     They were too.

 

As the last crumb of biscuit was being used to rescue the last bit of jelly-n-egg-n-bacon fragments from being ‘leftovers’ I mentioned to Mr. Tuck that maybe we needed to get a move on. “After all” I said, “we’ve already lost a good bit of time.”

     “Lost?” he said in mid sip. “Young’n, we haven’t lost anything.”

     His words hung in the brisk air for a moment like the large flake I was watching drift down to my own steaming cup.

     “Travis, you got to learn to read your surroundings, and move in rhythm with them. This snow started falling a little shy of 11:00 last night. In a little over eight hours it’s accumulated over a foot and a half. And right now, she’s comin’ down at the rate of over 3 inches per hour.”

     “Now, you take a look over there, to the West. This storm spun in here following the Buffalo River channel. You see back that way, over the river? She’s letting up. Another three or four hours and this will all taper off, the sun’ll come out on those Southeast meadows…, and so will the does.”

     I was right there with him, soaking up every bit of information. That is, until the word “does” slammed against my ear.

     “DOES! I thought we were going after ol’ ‘LogHorn’. What do we care what the does are doing?”

     He spewed coffee, and actually went to one knee… laughing!

     “Son, I swear! Here it is, coming on the second week of November. And you want to know why we’d care WHAT THE DOES ARE DOING?! You sure you’re past puberty?”

 

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