First Time Out

Yeah, I got one. Well, maybe it wasn’t a buck. Maybe it was a doe. Well then, maybe not much of a doe either. But I got one.

You see, I’d never been hunting big game before. I’d always wanted to go, but you know, there just wasn’t much of a chance, there was school , and girls, then work, and girls, then lots more work and wife and then kids. The girl thing got sort of out of hand, permanent like. Likewise the kids. Everything just always got in the way.

Then a redneck cousin of mine moved to Utah. First thing you know he’s wanting me to come visit during vacation time. Come visit right in the middle of deer season, understand, ‘cause that’s the only vacation he ever takes, right in the middle of deer season.. The wife and kids head for Disney Whazsit or somewhere and he goes hunting. If I want to visit, I’m going to have to go hunting too.

Well, now, that’s for sure OK with me. I finally get to go hunting. The problem is I haven’t even got a gun. The fact is, I’ve never even shot one either. Well, I take that back. I shot a friends BB Gun once. You could see the BB fly through the air.

It turns out that’s no problem. He says I can borrow one of his. He’s got lots. He says that if you keep the guns comin’ and goin’ then the wife will never know how many you’ve really got. Same with horses. And he’s got the powder and caps. That’s funny. I thought those things all came in a package. Why should he mention them separately? Stick in a shell, shoot the gun Right?

I found out when I got to his house. He lived in Mapleton, a teeny little farm town at the foot of a huge big mountain overlooking Utah Lake. It was early November and the mountain was capped with snow. It was cold too, crisp and shivery for this mid-west flatlander.

When I asked about the gun, he handed me an antique. I thought he was putting me on, he’s like that, and I busted out laughing. He all of a sudden got red faced and pouty. Kind of like a Tom turkey that got his feeling hurt. He reared back, I thought he was going to peck at me, and asked, “Didn’t I realize that we wuz goin’ muzzleloader huntin’? For mule deer! And right before the rut? Best time in the world!”

Well, the old gun still looked like an antique. It turned out that it was. It has probably been at the Battle of Gettysburg, on one side or the other. He proudly said it was an Enfield Rifled Musket, marked ‘Tower’ on the lock, and that both sides had used them in the ‘War”. He was talking about the Civil War, I knew. He liked to call it the War of the Southern Rebellion, and he pronounced ‘War’, ‘Wah’, like all good Southerners do. He still thought the South won and Bobby Lee’s surrender at Appooma-whazzit was just a trick to fool the Yankees.

He said that he’d picked this muzzleloader just for me because it was so easy to load and manage for a beginner. The bullets and powder came in paper cartridges and the copper caps were carried a little belt box that said ‘CSA’ on it.

He showed me how to bite the cartridge open, licking his blackened lips as if the powder tasted good. It made me want to get a taste for myself. He showed me the bullet and said it was called a Minie ball. Well, it sure didn’t look like a ball to me and it sure wasn’t ‘Mini”. If that big lump of lead was the ‘mini’ version, I wondered what the Maxi looked like.

Anyway, you bite off the paper end, then dump the powder down the barrel, then put the ‘ball’, that looked for all the world like a bullet down after it. The ‘ball’ fit tight enough that you had to take the ramrod out and upend it then ram the bullet down, then whirl the ramrod around and put it back. Then you fish out a cap, put it one the nipple, then cock the hammer and you were ready to shoot. After going through all that, I felt it was a wonder that anybody won the Civil War. Bobby Lee probably lost the toss of the coin at Appoma-whazzit, so Grant won.

Anyway, here I was standing in the pines on top of a cold mountain up Spanish Fork Canyon, in the Buck Whole, with Great Grandpa’s musket waiting for the deer to charge. I wondered if there were any deer named Pickett

I wondered what I was supposed to do if I missed. Fix bayonet and charge? Only I didn’t have a bayonet. Cuzzin had said that a good soldier could get off 4 shots a minute. Wow. One every 15 seconds is a whole bunch faster than I could do it. I figured an escaping deer could maybe make about a half mile in 15 seconds, let alone how long it would take me to load it.

Cuzzin had driven us up that huge canyon in his old rattle-trap truck that morning. Really, it was in the middle of the night. I had no idea you had to get up in the middle of the night just so you could go hunting. We had driven way up that steep canyon, Cuzzin said it was where the Spaniard Escalante had come down in 1776, so the Spanish Fork name. Then we went up an even sleeper side road, then a really steep trail and finally topped out at the Buck Whole.

I didn’t catch on to the ‘Whole’ thing. Didn’t bucks come ‘whole’ anyway? Surely they don’t come in pieces? Hah!. I laughed to myself. Anyway, Cuzzin said he was going to put me in the very best place where all the deer would cross. He and the rest of the gang would ‘drive’ the ‘Whole”. I didn’t catch onto the ‘drive’, either. There was no road down in that black canyon, Cuzzin didn’t even take the truck. How were they going to ‘drive’ the canyon without the truck?

Cuzzin and the others disappeared in the dark and left me by myself. It was cold and dark, boy was it dark. Cuzzin had said it would be ‘dark as the inside of a cow’. He reminded me of the song about the Colo-Rectal surgeon, who worked ‘where the Sun don’t shine’.

About a year later, the sun finally peeked over the ridge. Of course, I can remember when it was about a year between recess and noon. It was pretty quiet except for a few birds chirping and some idiot squirrel trying to alert the world to what a chatterbox he was.

Now that it was getting light , I could see that the canyon they called ‘the buck whole’ narrowed down right to where I was . Any deer that climbed out would have to come pretty close, maybe even close enough that I could get a hit with grandpa’s musket.

I had been surprised by that antique Enfield when we finally shot it. I could hit a 5 gallon bucket at 50 yards with it pretty easy. And that ‘mini-ball’ that wasn’t a ball or mini made a nice, big hole. I figured the any deer that came by would be meat. Especially if I could get the deer to stand as still as the bucket. The old gun kicked pretty hard and the smoke was stinky, like rotten eggs. I bet when those Civil War boys fired a volley, you couldn’t even see the enemy for the smoke. Once again, I wondered how anybody won.

It was pretty quiet for about an hour except for that idiot squirrel. I don’t think he liked me. Then the fun started, I couldn’t hear any sounds at first but I saw something moving down the dark of the canyon. It was coming towards me, moving fast.. In fact, it was a whole bunch of somthings moving fast. At first they were so far away they looked like mice, flashing and out of the trees and brush. But then they quickly got larger and I could see that they were deer. DEER! DEER!

I about had a heart attack right then and there, Hah! Hart attack! Hah!. A Hart is what the English call a young red deer. It’s funny now but it wasn’t then. My heart was banging around in my chest like Cuzzin’s old rattletrap truck did coming up that last rutty road. I got all raspy breathed, I guess ‘cause the air was so thin at that uppity altitude. By the time the deer got to me, I was shaking like a leaf in a windstorm. It got really hot all of a sudden, too and sweat was stinging in my eyes and making my palms slick.

A big deer bounded up to me and stopped to stare. I threw the musket to my shoulder and jerked the trigger but nothing happened. I forgot to cock the hammer. Three or four more ambled by while I tried to cock it. The cold must have made the hammer stiff and slippery. I finally got it cocked but it took both hands.

Another big deer stopped to stare. I was standing right out in the open. I figured that if I tried to hide they would detect me anyway , think I was suspicious and run off. The sight of a flatlander standing in the open ready for battle was such a strange sight that they had to stop and stare.

But it didn’t matter. Thee was so much sweat stinging my eyes that I couldn’t hardly see the deer let alone the sights on the gun. About a dozen went by in a flash, a few loitering behind. I wondered what was scaring them. It sure couldn’t have been me. I was right out in the open where they could see me easy.

Another one stopped for a stare. I was ready this time, sweat wiped out of my eyes and off my hands. The old musket came up OK but the deer wouldn’t stay still in the sights. It was jumping all over the place, bouncing up and down and sideways. And the trigger pull was awful. I was trying to aim careful and pull careful and shoot careful.. The trigger must have caught on something. Finally the deer gave up in disgust and ran off.

But there were more coming by. I had made such a mess so far that I decided to sit down. Maybe that would help steady the rifle. I checked the ground to make sure I wasn’t going to sit on a snake or cactus or a sharp rock.

Now I could hear dogs barking and coyotes howling back down in the buck whole. So that was what was spooking the deer. I watched back that way, and sure enough, here came some more. The were HUGE, by far the biggest deer I’d seen. They were every bit twice as big as any of the others. Their horns were so big that they had to hold their heads back just to get through the trees.

Here was meat! They hit the top of the trail, just in front of me, and stopped, ganged all together in a bunch. They made a huge target all together like that. I figured a shot in the middle would be sure to fetch one down. BLAM! The gun went off. Smoke beclouded my view but through it I saw an animal blown over. The others ran off while this one jumped up and ran off uphill through the trees. I jumped to my feet and ran to where the critter had been. There was a good big splotch of red on the ground. I knew I had a hit.

I looked up in the direction the animal had gone. I couldn’t see it. I’m going to have to trail it. With all that blood it should be easy. I’ve heard about skillful Indian trackers and those African bushmen who can follow the tiniest spoor. I squint my eyes and wrinkle my nose. Maybe I can smell the critter out.

Good heavens, there’s tracks all over the place, going every which way. And stare squinty eyed at the ground as hard as I can, I can’t see any red. No tracks, either. Thee are trees and brush and tracks everywhere. But no red!. Where is my deer? The thought of the deer getting away makes my gut ache.

Here comes Cuzzin, trotting up the trail, carrying his flintlock, a sure-nuff Daniel Boone. He says, “I heard you shoot D’ja get ’im’?” “I’ve lost my deer.” I cried. “It’s gone. It went thataway” I pointed in the direction up hill where the animal had disappeared.

“Yu’all sure you hit it?” he asked, not the least bit excited. He looked doubtful. “Look at all the blood”, I blurted, pointing to the red splotch on the ground.

“Can’t be far”, he murmured. He looked at the red, then glanced up the hill. He turned to me with a funny look on his face and a glint in his eye. I wondered what he knew that I didn’t.

“Your deer is dead, ‘bout fifty yards up that hill, the blood trail is in plain sight, but it ain’t a deer ” he said, a grim and expectant grimace on his face. “Let’s if y’all can find it” He pointed up the sidehill with his chin, then leaned on the muzzle of his longrifle, taking a step back. I could see that I was on my own.

I gulped, not on purpose. The sensation of sour spit came up in my throat, like when you’re getting ready to throw up. I glanced at the ground, now messy with footprints. I knew I would never find the deer.

“Yu’all reload yer rifle?” he asked. His voice was calm. He knew damn well I hadn’t. He could see the spent cap on the nipple. “Load ‘er up” he said, “First the powder, then the ball, that critter might still be kickin’”

I went through the motions automatically, but the movement seemed to calm me down some. I felt better when the loading was done.

“Look for blood” he said, again pointing at the nearby trees with his chin. “It’s in plain sight.”

I re-examined the ground. There were zillians of pine needles, about a million tracks and thousands of bushes and trees. I didn’t see anything red. I had heard that it helped to circle for sign but that didn’t find any blood either.

Cuzzin was standing near the clotted red, the only sign of my deer. He crooked a finger at me, seeing how frustrated I was, and pointed at the nearest tree. “Look at that tree.” he commanded, and went back to leaning on his longrifle. The others had come up in the meantime. The whole bunch was smirking like the cat that ate the canary.

So I looked at the tree, then walked over to it and looked again. It had branches, needles, and bark like any other t- oops, the bark was red, at least some of it was red, right about half-hip high, with drops and rivulets running down.

I yelled, “Blood!” and pointed with the rifle, one handed, as if I was going to stab the tree with a bayonet. One of the others said, “He’s on point”, and they all laughed.

I didn’t care. I hardly heard them. My eyes were bouncing from tree to tree, each splotched red. I bounced after the blood trail. My shot must have hit the animal square in the heart or a big blood vessel and the red had sprayed out on the trees as the animal went past.

Suddenly the trail on the trees ended. Now there was red on the ground and signs of a struggle skidding off to the right around a tree trunk and back down hill. I saw a leg sticking out from behind the tree. I ran around the tree, gun up and ready . The gang gathered round.

“Biggest mule deer doe I ever did see.” said one of the bunch, a big redhead, “must weigh at least 400 lbs.” “Huge”, said another, tipping his hat back on his forehead, “big as a horse.” “Yuh just hafta be proud,” commented somebody. “We goin’ to have to eat it all right here?” asked another. “Get out the fryin’ pan,” demanded a last one.

It didn’t matter. I could understand the teasing, they were just jealous and were venting a bit. Me, I was proud as a peacock. Nobody else had a deer and mine was the biggest anybody had ever seen. It looked so delicious they wanted to eat it right here, right now. Maybe I would share a bit so their families wouldn’t go hungry.

Cuzzin had leaned his longrifle against a tree and was wiping his face with a bandanna. He blew his nose noisily and everybody shut up sudden like, the noise alerting them that something important was coming. Like, he was going to put them in their place ‘cause they were teasing his flatlander cousin.

“George’, he finally said, sticking his bandanna back in a pocket, “George.” He batted his flop hat against his leg and scuffed the ground with a boot. “George”, he said for the third time, as if I didn’t know who I was. His southern accent disappeared. “George, you just made the most wonderful shot on the prettiest, big, fat, year and a half old cow ELK that a man could imagine.” He paused. “George”, he said, “can you imagine what the game warden is going to say when you take that elk cow through the checking station?” “George”, he said again, “they’re goin’ to be telling stories about you for the next three decades” There were guffaws from the gang, then everyone got quiet again.

Cuzzin put on his hat and gazed off into the distance, hands thrust in pockets. He reminded me of Uncas, the last Mohican, with that thousand mile stare as he realizes he is truly the last of his breed. “George’, he said, that was at least five times now, turning to face me, head low, eyes looking up at me quizzically, “maybe we can talk my daughter into giving up her cow elk depredation tag. Maybe, but I’ll bet it’s going to cost you”

There was a guffaw from the gang. Maybe that big redhead again. “How ‘bout a new dress” he asked. “How ‘bout a pair of shoes?’ asked another. “How ‘bout the whole outfit?”, guffawed a third.

Well, I knew this daughter of his. Pretty little thing, teenager, boy crazy as they come. I pretty quick figured that she had a cow elk depre-whazzit tag only so her ol’ man could shoot it. Redneck families are like that.

Wrong again. It turns out that the tag really is hers and she fully intends to fill it with her home built muzzleloader, she being a dead shot, well taught by Cuzzin. And yes, indeed, it will cost me a new outfit, huntin’ outfit that is. Camo’s from head to foot, boots and cap, nice warm jacket that turns into a parka to boot. Maybe even some thermal wear. This woman is tough in a bargain.

So I did get something. It wasn’t a deer and it sure wasn’t cheap. It sure was good eating and cuzzin says the lesson was good for me. He also says daughter is real cute in her new outfit. Deadly, too, I thought, and fast. She sure beat me to my pocketbook ‘fore I could get a finger on it.

George Grey

TO TELL THE TRUTH- The cow elk kill really did happen, in the famous Buck Hole up Spanish Fork Canyon, killed by a fellow teenager in 1952. I was sixteen and this was my first mule deer hunt. The episode of the lost deer really happened, too, to my son James, who made a beautiful shot on a nice 2 point near the top of Lake Mountain about 30 miles north of Roosevelt, Utah in 1990 when he was 16. I played the part of ‘Cuzzin’ in that episode. “Cuzzin” is an invention, as is George Grey, but I know lots of hunters like him. The conversation around the dead cow elk is real, the gang of hunters really did say those things, and the payoff was real, too, except that the daughter chose a cowgirl vest, skirt and boots rather than a camo hunting outfit. It took my teenager buddy all summer to pay it off. Served him right, too. DOC WHITE.