A cold north wind took advantage of the opportunity when I opened the back door of the house, swirling into the warmth of the laundry room and giving me a taste of what my morning would offer.
As I stepped out into the pre-dawn darkness and pulled the door shut behind me, I stood on the porch for a moment, hoping my eyes would adjust enough to let me find my way without a flashlight. The cloud cover was heavy, and the Central Texas air offered a hint of moisture, but no rain—yet.
Not being a morning person, there was only one thing that could entice me to drag myself out of a toasty bed on a frosty late December morning, when the mercury shrank below the ice line. I loved my sleep (still do), but I loved hunting more. I also loved backing up to the crackling logs in the fireplace in my living room, and letting the comfort bathe me with contentment, but I was willing to endure the frigid wind for a little while—to hunt—only to hunt.
A friend once told me a joke about a couple of guys who liked to play golf, and happened to be on the links one cold, sleety, November morning, the first day of the general deer season. They were bundled up like mummies against the freezing rain, and while walking down the third fairway they heard a rifle shot. One turned to the other and said, “What kind of an idiot would be hunting on a terrible morning like this?”
As I carefully picked by way down the hill from the backyard of my house, I thought about those fellows, and what they would think if they saw me shivering in my dad’s old ducking coat, head turtled down into the collar to avoid the worst of the icy wind. We all have our weaknesses, I guess. Mine was white-tailed deer.
My first deer rifle was a Remington model 788 chambered in .222 Remington. Before you look for the link to send me an angry email, I know what you’re going to say. The diminutive .222 is no deer caliber. And I won’t argue with you. But it worked.
My dad, a guidance counselor at our local high school, had agreed to build a rock fireplace for a friend, and I had spent a couple of weeks during the summer of my 14th year mixing mortar in a wheelbarrow for him. He paid me a dollar an hour, and I had managed to save up eighty bucks, which is what the old man wanted for the Remington.
When he came by to finalize the deal he asked me if I wanted the scope that was mounted on it. I did. Of course I did. But he wanted another $10 for the scope. I looked at my father in desperation. He didn’t hand out money for no reason.
I was sure he would tell me I had to wait until I had saved up another sawbuck, but he must have seen the hope in my eyes. Dad loaned me the extra cash, and I was able to go home with my first real rifle. You never saw a happier 13-year-old boy.
That little rifle was responsible for putting many a deer on the table during the next several years. I learned to aim for the neck, an all-or-nothing shot that is even more controversial now than using a varmint caliber on deer.
So far I have never lost a deer with a neck shot, but I won’t argue that point, either. You aim where you want, and I’ll aim where I want.
By the morning in question, however, I had graduated to a Model 94 Winchester chambered for the .30-30 Winchester cartridge, with a buckhorn rear sight and a gold bead in front. The cold metal of the flat receiver felt like ice in my gloveless hand, but the lever-action blended my love of hunting with my fascination with the Old West. The combination almost made up for the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet.
I carefully avoided prickly pear and tasajillo as I made my way down the cold, dark trail to a natural bottleneck, where I expected to fill a tag. The sun seemed almost as reluctant to get out of bed as I was, but the clouds had just started to filter its wan rays when I heard a snort ahead. I crouched and waited for better light, and after a few minutes started again. Cold and impatience trumped better judgment.
The three does were bounding through the brush, almost at the top of the next hill, when I saw them. The last one had almost cleared the crest when I got the Winchester to my shoulder, and by the time I had eared back the hammer and lined up the sights, her legs were out of sight.
While the sound of my shot echoed away, I admitted to myself that a 100-yard shot with iron sights at a deer half seen in the half light was a poor exhibition of sportsmanship. I went to look, anyway, and found the old girl lying where I’d last seen her.
The next day my family sat down to a Christmas dinner of fried venison, telling me what a good hunter I was. This proves luck is often more valuable than skill, and tastes pretty much the same with gravy.
Email Kendal Hemphill at [email protected]