Four o’clock ante meridian, that is when the knock rasps on the door. Stuart is out there moving from cabin to cabin like a phantom fox squirrel that does not sleep. It is hard to get out of bed for me, difficult because I have so much trouble sleeping- at home. At the camp the room is cold, it is the variety of dark that is only dimly lit by a low moon and stars that populate the sky like a cloud of smoke. At the camp it is silent- silent except for the ambient noise of a cold night in the deep of the quail woods. Even the distant coyote screams amalgamate with owls and other unidentifiable bandersnatches into a pleasant and comforting grey noise.
I am slow to rise but know there is no snooze button, no second chances to get on the truck, and being late is not appreciated- even a few midnight nips of whisky do not leave a reasonable excuse with accomplices. Forrest can sleep until lunch, an odd behavior for a ten year old child. This morning he is alert and lacing his boots before I pull the lamp on.
The Walker Hunt has become steeped in traditions and routines. Those traditions that date back before us. The centuries of lore and tradition that come with the old plantation. The routines of the long established Hunt Master System that is there. The subtle variations on these traditions that come with our group and our hunt master, Walker. We caravan with lascivious anticipation from our homes in Piedmont North Carolina to the deep pines along the Savannah River. Trucks loaded, coolers full of things that will become empty so that the cooler can home full again with trophy meat, we drive and ride erect with shoulders off of the seats and chins forward. We drive through counties that have only logging trucks at speeds unseen- only punctuated with small towns. Slowing down there is not a nuisance to our progress and quite a welcome sight to see time frozen and characters walking through their days. When you leave the pavement at the old church, the roads are sand- soil we do not have at home. It is customary to take a piss in the sand there, a long line of men hanging a line, as soon as the old church is out of sight. Bags unpacked in the old cabins- the air within them has the slightest odor of sulfur from the well water. The huntgroup from the beginning of the week has just showered and left abruptly as we will on Sunday. We eat a quick lunch, usually some variety of deer meat burger or a BLT and hustle to get on the porch. Stuart manages the property (the size of my home town) like a mother fosters a child. Stuart gives tales of the season like a history and a forecast. We line the rockers on the old porch like airborne soldiers on a flight deck ready for a mission. Stuart gives the rules of engagement, which we know now with deep respect. The truck is there with its steps backed to the weathered steps of the old plantation house. We are dropped to a series of stands like those soldiers falling from the planes door. The hunt goes deep into the night, at least you are at the stand deep into the dark. Personally, the first night is a hunt for the possibility of encountering King-Kong. If I take a buck, I will only take one and possibilities that lie ahead are to narrow to waste on an inferior animal. I will have plenty of opportunities at does. I will shoot a coyote or a feral hog if the darkness narrows beyond the possibility of discerning the quality of a mature rack. Waiting by the road in the darkness is both serene and lonely under the moonlight and the howling and echoing yodels of wild creatures. It the cold you yearn to enjoy that serenity longer, but also to be in the company of the guns- on the truck with a cocktail in hand– to be back by that roaring bighouse fire with a meal being set at the table and stories to be told.
I have never stood in that darkness with a companion. The wait is neither as dark or as late in the company of an inquisitive and excited ten year old. Forrest is with me now and I know with certainty that this is my shining moment as a parent. I am not anxious in the bleachers of a basketball court or playing the jester at an ice cream parlor. My child is with me and as content as me- and we feel like we belong there.
That night becomes a new day by way of the early morning back again. Forrest learns that there are really four meals a day at the camp- this first one is the “midnight breakfast”. We will return to the table at ten thirty for the eggs and bacon, biscuits and rice-liver pudding, and jellies and sausage and Tabasco on everything. There was not a nap this year- that would be normal, but Forrest likes to shoot. He shot up the tin of pellets in the first hour, then all the .22 ammo. We shoot clay pigeons. He talks me into taking the last of .22s in my pocket to walk the nearby woods for squirrels. Then we eat lunch. It is a lunch much like the first one, another ground venison dish three hours after the real breakfast. At that lunch the cycle of the four days we will spend at the hunt camp has taken a full loop. It will be repeated until that last lunch on Sunday. There will be stories that change from day to day. There may be one later night when the big house cocktails go a little later and the fire dying is witnessed.
On our third hunt, I had learned a few things about occupying a four by four stand with a fidgety ten year old. We had witnessed good deer come and go- still holding out through this hunt in the middle of the trip for a more perfect quarry. The coming came with excitement and anticipation. Going, with the fidgety boy, came with excitement. The schedule had enough toil on the boy that I enticed him to fall asleep before the sun rose. I wanted him to rest, selfishly I wanted to hunt the daybreak in still and stealth. We were deep dense quail woods. This part of the property had not been burned and cleaned for a while. The brush was high and irregular, uncharacteristic for so much of this well managed land. All relatively untamed rows of ghost timber except for a long narrow clear cut. In the breaking light, twenty minutes before the sun would break the horizon, I could make out a large body. Perhaps two hundred years away, it quartered and strafed in and out of the piney edge. I could not discern its rack, not in that light- not even through the glass. Shapes morphed and patches of grey ground took on the mustard color of quail land grasses. I lost him for awhile, as so often occurs, but at one hundred and fifty yards he appeared again from the edge. In the light I could count his tines, eight of them. I could see their height and mass, yet could only sense the width from the bow of the main beams. The deer, from best judgment at that distance had an appreciable mass, but he would not present his head straight-on. But I made he choice. First I made the choice to bring the gun to the rail without waking Forrest. It was a hard decision to sneak it up quietly- but the effort of doing it to not wake him proved to be the same effort not to spook the quarry. Then I inhaled, exhaled, relaxed, aim-fire. The deer returned to the edge beyond sight plowing with its hind legs. And Forrest woke.
I have many pictures of deer with their heads held up where they took their last breath. The one of Forrest is more special. I do not want him to be a man now, but for that moment he looked like one. He is still innocent- yet I am assured that his confidence as a young man grew and developed in that moment.
We had a proud story as we loaded the truck. It was ours- our moment, our deer- together. With three hunts remaining, Forrest could take a doe. (I let him prove himself with a first buck earlier in the season). Taking a doe made the balance of the trip his and his alone. It proved that sleeping through the hunt meant something. He was still and silent and alert as I dosed and relaxed.
Those of you that listen to me and read me will hear me say the bumper sticker adage again and again: “Take your boy hunting, instead of hunting your boy”- words that read more simply than all those magnificent stories Robert Ruark was telling us. I am living it- this is parenting in a world that hardly knows how to keep a grasp on the reality nurturing a man.
We returned home and the boy did not gloat to his brothers. He told his stories with a mature pride. But most importantly he wanted to make chili with the backstraps. Old Mr. Joe had some mean home grown peppers and Forrest had a baggy full of them to dare with- to man up his brothers just like the men did back at the old bighouse.
(The way we made it when we got home.)
Yes, this is sort of a food blog too. We didn’t go to the store- just scoured the larder and used those peppers that Mr. Joe gave Forrest with the two day old meat.
In a dutch oven (my #30 Le Creuset) simmer:
- One Big Can of Pomadoro Crushed Tomatoes
- A can of Goya Little Red Beans
- A can of Goya Black Beans
- A can of Goya White Kidney Beans
- Three Bay Leaves
In a large cast iron skillet on high:
- Coat bottom with olive oil
- Sauté one cup of chopped celery, transfer to pot.
- Sauté one cup of chopped onion, transfer to pot.
- Sauté one cup of chopped bell pepper, transfer to pot.
- Brown diced Backstrap meat (like rare steak), add to pot.
- Brown Venison ground meat.
- Add garlic and minced shallot to the juices.
- Deglaze skillet with 1/4 cup of red wine, reduce by half, add to pot.
Over the flame of the range:
Roast hot peppers until the skin blisters and browns (we left out the Carolina Reapers and used Red Hots, Serranos, and Thai. Chop and add to pot.
Add cumin, paprika, and salt to taste (we use Pink Himlayian).
Move Dutch Oven to 225 degree oven for four hours, stirring occasionally.