Published in The Caravel Journal in October 2016
Eddie saw the deer first, as they brushed teeth at the pump in the frosty first light. Peter was studying the barren talus slope behind the cabin, memorizing phrases for his journal: fractured gneiss, craggy as ice cubes, climbing to a staccato of stunted junipers at the crest, etched against a pale sky. He planned to be a writer.
“Hey, kid!” Eddie whispered.
Peter wished Eddie wouldn’t call him that. Okay, he looked the naive Easterner, new-blue Levis, blond hair thick enough to need an extra-large Stetson. Still. The doctor told him to postpone his junior year and go to the high desert to heal his lungs. Dad, although skeptical he would be the next Teddy Roosevelt, phoned a college roommate who found him this ranch job.
He and Eddie were trying to get the last of the Lazy T’s cattle off the mountain before deer season opened in two days, lest frustrated city slickers take some meat home the easy way. And here, at the start of their third uneasy day together, was a six-point buck, on the far side of the meadow.
Eddie had barely concealed his impatience with a greenhorn. His jet-black hair, knotted into a ponytail, framed a craggy face darker than suntan, with piercing black eyes. Hard-muscle big, he wore a deerskin shirt with leather fringes at the yokes, and sat his horse as though he’d grown there. “My real name,” he’d said, “is Numaga Half Moon.”
“Aya. A hero of my people a century ago. Resisted the white invasion.”
Peter hadn’t thought of the settling of the West as an invasion. An ancient grudge, worth noting in his journal. “Sounds like a proud name,” he managed. “You don’t use it?”
“Kid, it isn’t smart to remind the white man that the land wasn’t always his.”
The main herd was already in the valley, driven down by Frank, the cowboy, and ranchhands. But a dozen bulls had wandered to remote spring-fed patches of grass. Glenn, the ranch manager, said finding them was a job for an Indian. “That Paiute can see a track and tell you that it’s ours and has a game left foreleg. Get him to teach you.”
Eddie tried, on their first morning, pointing out the bent grasses he was following. “You can’t see them?” After a time, he seemed to give up on Peter’s learning.
It took no tracking skill to find the first three bulls, on a Jeep track that wound through the sagebrush, headed in the right direction. He followed Eddie in a wide loop to get behind and poke them along. Once side-by-side, Peter tried to repair the damage done by his failure at tracking. “You only cowboy part-time?”
“Have a tungsten claim up here. An Army surplus truck to haul the ore out.” Tungsten was in demand for the war in Korea. “When a ranch wants me, though, I come. Don’t keep the white man waiting.” An Indian who wanted to get ahead was cooperative. “The white man makes the rules. I play by them.”
“Rules? Like what?”
“I only drink at home, or someplace I can ride to, not drive.”
“My Dad says one or two martinis don’t impair his driving.”
“Fine for him. The sheriffs out here think no Indian can hold his liquor.”
On the other hand, Eddie said, it was okay for Indians to beat white men bronc-riding in the fall rodeo, and he usually won. Up here, he rode with his riata tied to his saddle and wore gloves fitted tight to throw with.
“What kind of leather are those?”
“Deerskin. My wife makes ‘em.”
“They look soft.”
“You bet. She conditions the hide in squaw piss.”
Eddie must be putting him on. “Could I pay her to make me a pair?”
“You couldn’t afford ‘em.”
“She makes them to order for a fancy Texas department store. She’s the one who’ll put the boys through college.”
“On riding gloves?”
“I guess you haven’t seen that store’s catalog. I’ll find someone else to make you a pair. My wife can condition the hide when you get your deer.” His grin looked like a smirk.
With those first three bulls in the pasture, they set out again and in an hour found another. Eddie and his mare Ginger would harass it into moving. “Go around, kid, in case he tries to get away.”
“Like setting up a pick in basketball?”
“How’s that? What’s a pick?”
“Blocking a player to give a teammate a clean shot.” Peter looped his reins around the horn and showed with his hands. “Basketball players fake and shift their weight and move almost like ballet dancers, so the pick man has to be quick.”
“These bulls aren’t exactly ballet dancers.”
“Well, no, I guess not.” Peter wished he’d stopped the comparison at basketball.
Ginger was quick; Eddie soon had the bull shambling toward cowcamp. “Maybe someday you can tell my son about basketball,” Eddie said.
It was an opening. “Be glad to. He plays?”
“Junior high now. When college time comes, a basketball scholarship would help.”
“I’m not much of a player.” Peter had covered sports for the high school newspaper. “But I know the moves. Maybe I can help.”
“That would be good.”
Cowcamp had no electricity. Cowboy Frank had hung a side of beef in a shed in June, retaining the nights’ chill by zipping it into an ancient sleeping bag each morning. Each day, Eddie cut a few remnant ribs off the carcass. Dad would have smoked them in his barbecue, raving how well-cured they were. Eddie fried them, augmented with canned baked beans and canned peas.
It was dark before they finished eating. Eddie went to bed. The pot-bellied stove still offered warmth, and by lantern light Peter wrote the day’s adventures into his journal, panache for a short story some day. Then he doused the lantern and groped into his bunk.
The next three bulls took most of the next day. Eddie seemed to warm up a little. “New?” he asked, nodding at Peter’s .30-30, whose polished stock poked out of a tooled-leather scabbard.
“From Dad. He’ll be amazed if I bag a deer.”
“You’ve sighted it in?”
“At 250 yards. Glenn helped, down in the valley.”
“That’s about right.” Eddie patted his own well-worn rifle. He made money and friends, he said, by hunting mountain lions, the cattlemen’s bane. They paid $200 for killing one and turning in the ears.
“From 250 yards away?”
“Mostly. But I nailed one from fifty feet.”
“Fifty feet! Did it come at you?”
“It was as surprised as Ginger and me. We came around a big boulder, and there it was, dozing.”
“And you shot him?”
“Didn’t have the gun. Roped him.
Peter had learned to ride at a dude ranch. Here, he’d learned to rope calves at maybe five yards. “Fifty feet?”
“Maybe sixty. That’s why I use the riata. Braided leather throws better.”
“You can put the loop where you want at sixty feet?”
‘With practice. And luck.”
“It didn’t come at you?”
“Never had a chance. I cinched the riata to the horn and Ginger bolted.”
“She was scared?”
“To be honest, kid, I was too. She ran so hard the cat never got to its feet. Stove its head on a boulder.”
“And you cut off the ears?”
“You bet. Here’s cowcamp. You open the pasture gate; I’ll push these bulls in.”
“Then unsaddle the horses, give ‘em a rubdown and oats, and pasture them. I’ll get dinner.”
It was their third morning when the deer appeared. “Get your gun,” Eddie whispered.
His first buck! He slipped the rifle from its scabbard, and found his camera. Eddie? he thought as he tiptoed out. Helping him poach a deer?
It was still there, nibbling on tufts of grass. “Eddie, where’s your rifle?”
“He’s yours.” Scowling, Eddie reached for the camera. “I’ll take that.” He looped the strap on a peg. “He’s close. Compensate.”
The gun to his shoulder, Peter tried to clamp his right arm against his chest.
“You’re nervous, kid. You can shoot, right?”
“Not bad with a .22.” Dad took him to the police range when he was 14. Once he could hit a target, they drove to a farm Dad knew. “I practiced on woodchucks.”
“I don’t guess they move much. And this gun’s heavier. Try sitting down.”
With the rifle propped on one knee, Peter took a breath and squeezed off a shot. Bam!
The buck looked up, ears cocked, trembling, but amazingly didn’t bolt.
“You’re high. Aim for his knees.”
Peter pumped another shell into the chamber. Bam! Antler fragments blossomed.
“Damn! Lower still, kid. Quick. And lead him. He’s moving.” Eddie’s own rifle had materialized, dangling from his hand.
Peter pumped and fired. Bam! Bam! Divots of meadow popped up. Bam! He must have hit a foreleg; the deer, almost into the alders, stumbled. Bam! His ears rang, and his last shot seemed to have an echo. The buck crumpled.
“Not too bad for a beginner,” Eddie said. The rifle still hung down from his hand. “Let’s go butcher your deer.”
“And take the camera?”
“For evidence?” Eddie’s face was a mask. “Forget it. Bring some of that rock salt we put out for the cattle, the axe, and a shovel.”
“Kid, there must be wardens up here. You made a racket.”
Peter had a license. When you bagged your deer, you found a warden to sign the tag, then could take it home legally. You were in trouble if you got caught on the highway with an untagged deer. Or on the mountain with one out of season.
Eddie ran across the meadow harder than seemed possible for a big man. Maybe a Paiute with an illegal deer, even someone else’s, Peter thought, would be in real trouble. By the time he caught up, Eddie had gutted the deer with his sheath knife, and was working the skin off, his hands crimson. “Start digging.”
“Any place you can get your shovel down. It’s rocky.” The knife flashed, flaying hairy skin from the flesh as one might peel a banana. “Get deep.”
Peter achieved a shallow trench.
“Sweet Jesus. Deeper!” Eddie was sawing the head off. “Deep enough for this.”
By the time Peter had shoveled down a few feet, Eddie had the deer skinned and halved.
“Give me a hand, kid.” He dropped the head into the hole. The antlers, one tip broken already, rose above ground level. “Smash ‘em,” he ordered. “Use the axe.”
“Never mind.” Eddie grabbed the axe. In a few strokes the stately antlers were bone fragments. He stomped the deer’s nose deeper.
Peter was glad the head was face-down. He had never felt sorry for woodchucks.
“Spread that skin. Inside out.” Eddie rubbed handfuls of salt into the wet redness and folded the hide to the size of a sofa cushion. “Widen the hole.”
“I thought . . . the leather . . . .”
“We’ll dig it up later. The salt will keep it. Hurry, now. Shovel back in.”
“What about the rest of it?”
“Into the beef shed.”
By the time Peter finished closing the makeshift grave, Eddie had carried both sides of venison up and hung them on a hook. He had Peter tug the sleeping bag up. “Wait now.” He added the last of the beef ribs. “Anybody unzips it, first thing they’ll see is beef. I’ll mash, you zip.”
Peter managed to close the blood-matted bag over the bulge. He wanted to wash his hands. “Breakfast now?”
“Not yet. Saddle up.” Ginger came to his whistle, and he waited with obvious impatience while Peter caught and saddled his pinto. “Cinch it tight.”
They rode back into the meadow. “Rope yourself a sagebrush,” Eddie ordered. “Watch.” He took down his riata, deftly lassoing a clump twenty yards away. Peter began to believe about the mountain lion. Dallying a few loops on the saddle horn, Eddie made Ginger back up. “Be sure you do it this way. Sideways, you’ll pull the saddle off.” The brush broke free in a cloud of dust. Eddie dragged it to the far side of the meadow.
In three tries, Peter finally got a sagebrush roped. He nearly pulled the saddle off Scout before finding the right angle. Yanking it free, he followed Eddie, who was towing back and forth. It was already hard to tell where the hole had been. After a few more passes together, Eddie stopped with the battered sagebrush on top of the deer-grave.
“That’ll do. Jump down, kid. Loose your rope and my riata off that brush.” Peter did, and remounted to coil his lariat. “Tie the horses up, then clean your rifle real good and put it in the scabbard. I’ll start breakfast.”
Both rifles were still propped upright against the log wall. Eddie took his with him into the cabin, headed toward the kitchen area and the only window. When Peter finished cleaning his and came to breakfast, Eddie’s was hanging in its worn scabbard on a peg near the door.
“No visitors,” Eddie said. “Good. Maybe the wardens aren’t up yet.” He had breakfast of fried powdered eggs and ribs on the table. “They usually come a day or two early. Camp somewhere.” His voice didn’t seem as confident as usual. “Maybe your shots echoed so they couldn’t place ‘em.”
They rinsed the dishes under the pump, checked saddle cinches, remounted and set out. “Sorry we had to ruin your trophy before you got a picture for your pa.” For the first time, Eddie sounded sympathetic. “You understand, right? We’ll get the skin before we start down.”
“I hope I didn’t get us in trouble. Where are we headed today?”
“Tucker Canyon. Maybe two hours north. I saw sign of two of our bulls.”
Smoke rose from cowcamp as they herded the two back in late afternoon; two pickups were in front. “I’d forgot,” Eddie said. “Glenn said he’d be up for opening day.” His brows knit. “Hope he brought meat, and didn’t go poking around in that shed.”
There were Glenn, Frank, two ranchhands and Cookie, who had a huge rump of beef spitted over the smoking coals of an outdoor fire. “Sage and mesquite.” He admired his handiwork. “Perfect seasoning.” He had potatoes baking in the pit, and was tossing a salad by the time Peter got the horses pastured.
“Thought you’d enjoy a change from Eddie’s destruction of good beef,” Glenn said. “Ought to be ready soon. Come have something to warm your insides.”
The whisky was good, and Cookie’s dinner lived up to its promise. The visitors put bedrolls into bunks while Peter washed everything at the pump and Eddie stoked the stove. They reassembled in lantern light, everyone with a coffee mug into which the bottle was tipped as it made the rounds.
“You’re hunting on foot tomorrow?” Peter asked.
“Makes it an even contest,” Glenn said.
“Those valley guys don’t know the territory,” Frank said. “We’ll work our way into that blind canyon near Crooked Creek. There’s grass grown there since we took the herd down.”
“You’ll dress them up here?” Peter asked. He was thinking of deerskin.
“Naw,” said Cookie. “Throw ’em in the pickup with a tarp to discourage blowflies. Coming up, we saw two wardens camped in Elman Canyon. We’ll have ‘em tagged and be at the ranch before dark. Pass the bottle.”
“That’s a dead soldier,” said Glenn. “Break out another.”
There was a pause as Cookie went to the kitchen. “Tell ‘em about your buck, kid,” said Eddie.
“His buck?” said Glenn. “You’ve been hunting already?”
“Not me,” said Eddie emphatically. “Peter. Damned deer wandered into the pasture, asking to be shot. Let him tell it.”
“Not much to tell,” Peter lied. “Like Eddie said, a buck meandered through.”
“Putting temptation before innocent children,” Cookie said.
“Enough,” Glenn stopped him. “We were all young once.”
“How many shots did you need?” Frank asked.
“A couple,” Peter said. “I wasn’t counting. It happened pretty fast.”
“How many shells in your clip?” Frank persisted.
“A half dozen.”
“Scared the damned deer to death,” Cookie snickered. Everyone laughed. Peter winced.
“Glad it was you and not Eddie,” Glenn said. “I’d keep it to myself for now. It’ll make a good story for your grandchildren.” He stood and yawned. “By then, you’ll have had your share of legal deer. Let’s turn in, men. Hunting starts early.”
It was still dark when Glenn’s alarm clamored. Cookie made a decent breakfast; the visitors piled into the pickups and were gone before sun-up. Eddie seemed relaxed. “Four bulls to go, kid. I saw sign of two yesterday. Saddle up. There’s weather coming.”
Eddie tracked the two down in less than an hour. He and Ginger didn’t need Peter’s help to get them started; they rode together again to push the bulls back to cowcamp.
“You won’t cowboy all your life,” Eddie said. It wasn’t a question.
“I guess not. Two more years of college.”
“Lawyer? Stock broker?”
“Novelist, I hope. Live in a mountain shack, like John Steinbeck. And you?”
“Couldn’t afford college.” He didn’t seem to say it resentfully. “But if the demand for tungsten and gloves holds up, we can send both boys.” He paused, sniffing. “I smell snow. Let’s get these pastured and maybe find the last two before some so-called deer hunter does. I saw sign down near Elman.”
But the snow began soon. “No point in pushing,” Eddie said. They put on slickers. “Can’t track ’em now, and tomorrow in fresh snow they’ll be easy to find. Let’s start back.”
Peter envied Eddie’s gloves; he tried warming his hands one at a time in his armpits. In a few minutes, Eddie stopped. “Some guys on foot here. Must be camped somewhere, and it’s not going to let up. Okay with you if we take ’em in?”
“Sure. Cookie left enough to feed an army.”
They followed the tracks. “Hello-o-o-o-o,” Eddie bellowed into the thickening whiteness. Two men materialized. “You guys in a tent?”
“We have a cabin up the way, and plenty of grub. You want to spend the night with us?”
“Thank you. We’d be grateful.”
“We’ll ride on ahead.”
Peter had the horses pastured, and Eddie had the stove roaring, before the two knocked. “C’mon in,” Eddie called. “Leave the snow outside.”
They stacked their rifles by the door and brushed two fluffy inches off hats and coats that Peter hung on wall pegs. “I’m Peter. This is Eddie.”
“Bill,” said the first. He stared at Eddie.
“Harry,” said the other. “Thanks for the invite. Would’ve been a cold night in the tent.”
Peter got out spare blankets while Eddie reheated Cookie’s sirloin in his frying pan and warmed fire-baked potatoes on the stove. Glenn had left a brand-new bottle of whisky. After dinner they pulled up near the stove, bragging about snowstorms they’d seen.
“Tell ’em about your deer, kid,” Eddie encouraged.
Peter had rehearsed the story in his journal; it went better this time. He added details he’d omitted last night, like splintering an antler and kicking up divots like a bad golfer. He made Cookie’s phrase his own: “Truth be told, I just scared that poor critter to death.”
Harry roared with laughter; after a moment, Bill joined in. Peter could see himself telling the story when he got home. Writing it.
The new bottle went dry, and they called it a night. Eddie fired up the stove, and Peter got a few lines into his journal before turning in. When he woke during the night, the snow had stopped. He stoked the stove again.
Up almost as early as the ranch crew had been, the visitors declined the remnants of the sirloin, opting for two cups of coffee and a few slices of bread. They left, Harry at least full of thanks.
Eddie seemed mellow. “Let’s go, kid. Those last two bulls won’t be hard to locate.”
They were soon found, docile and hungry. Cattle don’t paw the snow to find grass, Eddie explained, as horses or sheep do. “These can’t wait for us to give ‘em some hay at cowcamp.”
“They’re the last, right? So we drive them down tomorrow?”
“Not until we bag you a legal deer. Keep your eyes peeled.”
He did, and even he could read the hoofprints that soon appeared in the snow; two big bucks were up a little draw. At Eddie’s urging, Peter stood and leaned across his saddle to steady the rifle. He needed only one shot this time.
“Practice makes perfect.” Eddie hadn’t even taken out his gun.
“You’re not taking the other one?”
“I only hunt for food, kid, and deerskin for my wife. They have enough down at the ranch that they won’t need yours; maybe you’ll let me take the two you’ve bagged up here.”
“And she’ll . . . condition the hides for me?”
“Sure. First, let’s make this one legal.” They weren’t far from Elman Canyon, where Cookie had seen some wardens. They’d get the deer tagged, and take it to cowcamp. “You’ll want a photo for your pa.”
“And the bulls?”
“I told you; they can almost smell that hay. They’ll be at the gate waiting.”
In fifteen minutes’ ride, they found two men standing next to a government pickup near a tent, backs to them as they signed a tag for another hunter. They turned when they heard the horses.
Familiar faces, then: Bill and Harry.
Peter glanced at Eddie, whose jaw was frozen into a smile.
“Good day,” Harry said, as though he’d never seen them before. “We were busy with that other guy and didn’t hear you ride up.”
“Got yourself a deer,” Bill said. The buck was tied to Peter’s saddle, but he was looking at Eddie.
“Just a half-hour ago,” Peter said.
“I thought I heard it.” Bill said, still staring at Eddie.
“Got your tag?” Harry broke in. “I’ll sign it.”
Peter got down, hoisting his leg over the deer, and found his tag in the saddlebag.
“You’re a young man,” said Bill, barely looking at him. “Your first?”
“His very first,” Harry answered for Peter. “Congratulations.”
Bill wouldn’t let go. “How about you?” he asked Eddie. “You don’t need venison for the winter ahead? Or you got some already.” It didn’t sound like a question.
“I said he could take mine home,” Peter said. “Our pals at the ranch got some, too.”
“You probably tagged them yesterday,” Eddie said. “Two pickups traveling together.”
“Right,” said Harry. “I remember them.”
“Still,” Bill persisted, “hard to believe a good Paiute tracker would pass up a chance to take home venison, one way or another.”
“He hasn’t even had his rifle in his hand,” Peter said. “Been too busy coaching me.”
“Fair enough,” said Harry. “All signed up. Yours, and legal. Enjoy.”
Peter tied the tag to an antler and remounted.
“Have a good evening,” Bill relented. “Thanks for the hospitality.”
Eddie saluted, hand at the brim of his hat, and wheeled away. The horses knew the way back to cowcamp and fell into a comfortable half-trot. Peter supposed there should still be enough light to take a picture for Dad when they got back.
“Thank you,” Eddie broke into his thoughts.
“Not a problem. It’s mine.”
“That Bill guy gave us a hard time.”
“Gave me,” Eddie said. “Listen, I’ll have you come to the house when we get these bulls down. We’ll skin this buck tonight, and dig up your other hide in the morning. Bring them to my wife. Let her trace your hands out on a sheet of paper. She’s good.”
“My first buck. First legal one, at least. Thank you.”
“It’s been good to work with you,” said Eddie.