The Little Hunter by James L. Bruner
Though many days had passed spent fishing, I often wondered just how much of the outdoors I had instilled in my daughter. At 6 years of age she was as good with a rod and reel as many twice her size and enjoyed watching the fish swim away after we released them as much as catching them. Proud to show off her tackle box to anyone who happened by, she would pry open the tiny lid and spread the trays out revealing her meager fortune of assorted tackle. In a gesture that reminded me of a grown up, she would clench a can of soda in her tiny hands, lean back, and swallow a large drink as the fellow fisherman gazed at the tackle she so proudly displayed. Always courteous the fisherman would compliment her on the arsenal of lures she possessed. One can only suggest that the lures must have looked like precious jewels of many shapes and colors to such a young girl.
Through the course of the afternoon the interest in fishing would fade as the sun would begin its descent for another nights rest. We would spend the last minutes of light trying to catch crayfish as they back peddled to the safety of the nearest rock. The ducks that were lazing the afternoon away would begin to fly down the river to the open waters of the lake. I noticed a glimmer in her eyes as each duck passed and her body turned to follow the ducks out of sight. I placed a hand on her shoulder and explained the naturally poetic flight of the ducks in great detail. Was she merely showing an interest in the wildlife or had the stories I told of hunting waterfowl come to life as the ducks raced past us.
Fall grew near quickly and the changing of the leaves were as spectacular as ever in the Michigan forest. Our newly developed one-acre pond provided many hours of watching the local wildlife make use of this new resource. Ducks, geese, whitetails, and an occasional bear, all brought endless questions from my little comrade’s inquisitive growing mind. As we sat watching a lone doe sip from the ponds cool waters the little hunter leaned back to me and explained what she was seeing. “Daddy, do you see the trees reflecting in the water?” “I wonder what the deer thinks when she sees her reflection.” “I wonder where she’ll sleep tonight.” With that the sun faded behind the horizon and the doe disappeared into the brush. We sat for several minutes in silence before walking back to the cabin, hand in hand, taking in the beauty of the outdoors. As we rounded the corner near the old basswood tree she stopped and looked up at me. She asked, “Daddy, why do you hunt?” I explained that I enjoy the outdoors and the meals that are provided by hunting. It’s something that makes my heart pound like it’s going to jump out of my chest. It’s like being excited and nervous at the same time. My Dad taught me to hunt and fish when I was your age. Of all the things my dad taught me, this is what I still cherish most. It’s why I enjoy teaching you.” She replied, “Daddy, can you take me hunting with you?” It was hard to hold back my emotions. I realized that the tradition had come full circle and I was ready to pass onto my child a gift that had been given to me by my father. I cleared my throat and answered, “Of course honey. I’ll take you hunting.”
We spent the next day brushing in an old forgotten deer blind that we would use for the upcoming rifle season. We adorned boots and gloves to minimize our impact in the area. As quickly as I snipped twigs from a nearby balsam she wove them carefully into place. As we stood back and looked at our finished product she instructed me to stay there while she fumbled a few more loose twigs and branches into the cluster. I gave the “thumbs up” and hoisted her to my shoulders. We made our way back home ducking the lower branches and playing the occasional “cover daddy’s eyes” with her sap covered gloves. It was a productive afternoon with plenty of learning and a little bit of fun thrown in for good measure. I’ll never forget her laughter as she slid off my shoulders and her sticky gloves securely held tight as I began to walk away.
Time seemed to slide by slowly for the next week. My new hunting partner had reverted back to her video games and cartoons. She wrapped herself in any chance she had to play with the new kittens, laughing as she made them dance for a string she dangled overhead just out of their reach. Their antics of tackling one another and jumping sideways brought plenty of entertainment on those late October evenings. Her days were filled with gathering rocks and leaves as I worked on splitting the firewood and rescuing the occasional kitten that climbed too high in the tree to come down on it’s own. One law of physics that I quickly learned is: “While rescuing a kitten from a tree, you’re sure to have more scratches than if you had actually fell from the tree yourself!” Let’s not forget that there will be a kid of some sort, with tears in her eyes from laughing so hard, waiting at the base of the tree to comfort the kitten. Not you! And that same wildcat of a kitten that nearly shredded you to bits will now be as gentle as…well, as gentle as a kitten.
I felt it essential to renew the lost interest in our hunting expedition, which was coming up shortly. I keep a small pine box, with a colorful image of a nice buck on its cover, filled with calls of all sorts. As I opened the container her little eyes peered meticulously at each item. She looked to me for approval and I instructed her to choose one. Call after call I explained what each one was and how to use it. Before long the cabin was filled with the sounds of a forest alive of turkeys, deer, ducks, and geese. We experimented in the flickering dim light of the pine and hazelnut candles for hours before she made her choice of which call she would use for our hunting trip. I rigged a makeshift lanyard and she proudly walked around with her own call hanging loosely from her neck. We added a small pair of camo binoculars and over sized orange coat to complete her new ensemble. The thought of her walking through the cabin in her usually bouncing manner, tooting on that call, in that oversize coat, could make anyone smile.
On the eve of our hunt it became increasingly apparent that she was as excited as I for the dawn of our first days hunt. We watched numerous hunting shows while eating quadruple buttered popcorn. Every shot that rang out from the television produced an unscripted response as we marveled at the bucks folding into a heap. In each scene a larger buck was taken and we began to claim each as our own. “That’s my buck!” “There’s the one I’ll get!” “That one’s mine!” In any event it was shaping up to be a great day regardless if we took a deer or not and the morning couldn’t come soon enough.
I think we may have gotten 3, possibly 4, hours of sleep. I was tired but pumped up. She was tired and just realized that it would be pitch black as we walked to the blind. Her concern about the local bear population was only heightened when she realized that the woods were as black as the bears were and we probably wouldn’t see one until he opened his mouth and exposed those pearly white teeth. Although I never asked, I would assume that would be right before she imagined big Mr. Bear having us for breakfast. After a quick pep talk and about 100 “You’re safe with Daddy” speeches we were out the door. Her little hand nearly squeezed my fingertips to the bone all the way to the blind and it was a relief to finally get the feeling back in my trigger finger.
During the first hour we were treated to a number of does walking by and a few small bucks. We held tight to the promise of only taking a decent 6-point or better. My little hunter seemed in total awe that the animals walked by, sometimes so closely, without realizing we were there. I offered the comment that it must be due in part to the great job she had done hiding the blind on our initial visit. My comment was returned with a smile that quickly turned into a look of amazement as she peered through the opening if the front of the blind. I turned slowly and saw a wide 8-point with his nose to the ground making his way towards the natural shooting lane which stretched roughly 150 yards in length and 30 yards in width. I shouldered the gun and in one slow motion the little hunter covered her ears and watched. At 70 yards the buck stepped into the opening and I clicked the safety off after finding the deer in my scope. In the instant I was about to squeeze the trigger I noticed a glimpse of orange in the background just beyond our shooting lane. As the words “Oh my god” began to fall from my lips a shot rang out. Shards of wood and splinters filled the blind as another shot followed. I yelled to grab the hunter’s attention while clearing debris from my face and eyes in a desperate measure to check my daughter’s condition. She was visibly shaking, curled into the corner crying, but she was safe. I knelt to pick her up and her arms squeezed tight around my neck as I fell in pain with a tightness in my chest. The last thing I remember is a hunter in obvious shock standing outside the blind stammering through sentences and directions on a cell phone claiming that he had shot someone. The little hunter sitting in the corner with her face in her hands crying was my last vision before everything turned black….
…. Many years later a scene unfolds of a beautiful sunny day along a familiar riverbank. A mother and her son are ending a day of fishing by trying to catch crayfish. As the whistle of the ducks wings catch the young boys attention he stands and watches them fly out of sight towards the lake. His mother places a gentle hand on his shoulder, and with a tear in her eye, begins to explain.