MY ONLY JOB is to remember how many times we turn left. That’s what my dad told me before the hunt. I have his smoothbore 870 Wingmaster slung over my shoulder as I try to keep up. My pack feels heavy—filled with extra clothes, food, and water for the day. It’s 4 a.m. and pitch-black outside. I can’t see 5 feet in front of me, but Dad walks up the trail as if it were daylight because he knows every rock and root. Finally, we reach the field where I shot my first pheasant and turn left. That’s one, I tell myself.
It’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving—the second week of the gun deer season in New York. Dad had to work on opening day, so this was only our second time getting out. Our spot is on a small piece of public land just north of New York City. It’s one of the few counties where you can hunt deer only with a shotgun, which deters many hunters. It makes no difference to me, though. I’m just excited to be deer hunting with my dad.
We don’t have a cabin with big bucks hanging on the wall. On the hour-and-a-half drive to the public parking lot, the Chevy Astro van is our deer camp. About an hour in, Dad told me the story about the 8-pointer he missed, which came in from behind him. I sat in the passenger seat and listened like it wasn’t the hundredth time I’d heard him tell that one.
We continue on the trail until we hit the big pond. The water is motionless, and the reflection of the moonlight is so bright it makes me squint. Then we walk a little farther and turn left. “That’s two,” I say aloud.
Next we come to a fork in the trail and turn left again. “That’s three,” I whisper, and Dad gives me a nod as he points to the narrow trail leading up the ridge. The dark woods are terrifying to me. Everything looks like a bear, and every noise is something waiting to jump out and grab me. I block it out and keep trudging.
The ridge is steeper than I imagined it would be from Dad’s description. Halfway up, I’m already sweating and tired, but I can’t let Dad know. He’s out ahead of me now with his headlamp turned off, so I hustle to catch up and find him standing on the trail, pointing to a big rock.
“A hundred paces in,” he whispers.
My footsteps are louder now that we are off the trail, and Dad reminds me to be as quiet as possible. It’s still pitch dark, but I turn off my light to be more like Dad. Then he stops and shines his headlamp on a triangle of logs, sticks, and brush. In the middle is a milk crate.
“Just where I left it,” Dad says.
He lets me sit on the crate, and he leans up against the tree next to me. As the sun begins to rise, a pileated woodpecker swoops through the trees and starts drilling into an oak tree. With daylight, my head is on a swivel as I keep checking behind us for a buck sneaking in.
The wind makes it cold and uncomfortable, but I don’t say anything. Every time Dad asks me how I am doing, I just nod. By the afternoon, he’s also cold, or maybe he just knows I’m lying because he decides to pick up our things and move us to the other side of the ridge, out of the breeze.
We hike along a trail that runs over the top of the slope to the leeward side and set up at the base of two trees. Within 5 minutes, I am spread out on the ground like a starfish, sound asleep. Dad wakes me up and says, “Let’s move down 100 yards and give it another half hour.”
Down the ridge, we sit on a giant rock, facing back to back—the worst concealment imaginable. As I am nodding off again, the tree branches in the distance seem to move. I rub my eyes and realize that the branches are antlers.
“Dad, big buck!”I whisper.
The deer is 60 yards away when he fully appears. He takes one step before stopping to look left and right, but never directly at us. When he gets to 50 yards, he looks left again, and I raise Dad’s 870 to my shoulder. Through the scope, I see the deer standing broadside—and bouncing all over as I try to steady myself. I can feel Dad leaning in, and I’m sure he can see that my gun barrel is shaking uncontrollably.
I don’t hear or feel the gun go off. I just see the buck drop in his tracks.
ANOTHER HUNTER does hear my shot, though, and eventually makes his way over to find my dad and me just beginning to gut the deer. In place of his left hand is a hook, and there’s a revolver strapped to his chest.
“How far was the shot?” he says.
“Which way did he come in?
“Did you hit him good?”
We answer all of his questions and shake his good hand before he hikes out of the woods for the day. What I don’t know as Dad and I finish field dressing the buck is that at the bottom of the ridge, at the end of the trail, the man with a hook for a hand will run into another group of hunters in the parking lot and share the news that a kid just shot a nice 8-pointer. And that will spark a game of telephone that will result in a convoy of trucks waiting for my dad and me when we finally reach the lot in the dark. Five trucks crammed into the small gravel square will illuminate my buck like stadium lights on a baseball field, and a group of perfect strangers will all congratulate me. Some will give me hugs. “Might as well retire from hunting now, kid!” Every hunter will take a photo, several asking me to pose with the deer. It will be a little overwhelming for a 14-year-old—but also exciting to finally have a deer story of my own to share with family and friends when we get back to the suburbs.
But before all of that, though, I turn around to see my dad’s eyes still popping out of his head like he’s an oversized bass. He hugs me, and we lean down over the buck together to grab an antler and admire the animal. The sun is getting low as we finish gutting the deer before the long drag out in the dark. We have three right turns to go before we hit the pheasant fields, then it’s straight to the parking lot, where everyone is waiting.
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