The difference between Pat White and the man who was helping him hunt was that White doesn't have any legs. Just getting around the woods was a problem, but the real difficulty was that White's line of sight from his wheelchair is about four feet above the ground, so he had to try to look through the heavy underbrush rather than over it.
You can peer into underbrush for a long time before you see any deer, so White had hauled himself painfully up the steep steel steps of an observation tower on the Pony Pen Trail overlooking the marsh at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to see how many deer he could see from there.
He could see lots. Dozens of them passed, from just beyond to well out of gun range, as he shivered in the windy tower. Four dozen or more passed across the marsh during the morning, demonstrating the overpopulation problem that causes the refuge management to allow carefully qualified hunters to thin the herd of a hundred or so -- out of more than a thousand -- each year. They used to have a big annual drive and slaughter, but everybody got sick of that.
Individual hunting has worked out well, the refuge manager says, partly because casual or slob hunters are weeded out by the qualifying hurdles and partly because they must use single-shot weapons. Nothing so wonderfully concentrates a hunter's mind as knowing that the first shot will be the last.
This rule is not relaxed for the wheelchair hunt, but the helpers are allowed to carry weapons also. This helps keep them from getting bored and lets them follow up a wounded deer; there have been more that were not recovered in the three years of the special hunt. But mainly allowing the helpers to hunt, and share in the three-deer limit, makes the people in the wheelchairs feel better about asking a friend to take a week off to help them hunt.
While White was counting distant deer from the tower, his helper was kicking his way through greenbrier and myrtle thickets in hopes of spooking one within range of the man in the wheelchair. He kicked up four of them, all bucks that stopped and looked back at him briefly as though they knew that the refuge rules require a hunter to take a doe first. From time to time a shot rang out as one or another of the other half-dozen wheelchair hunters scored.
In the afternoon White and his "walker" tried a different strategy, he rolling slowly along the paved trail as the helper ranged out through the woods. The helper saw several does, one of them a very fair shot that he did not take because, well, the point of the exercise was to get White a shot.
Night was gathering when there came one of those magic hunting moments that are remembered longer than success. They came upon a splendid, heavy-bodied Sika buck that stood, dancing nervously, in open woods less than 50 yards away. Sika "deer," which were introudced onto the island by Boy Scouts in 1923 and have been breeding like rabbits ever since, are actually tiny Oriental elk that seldom grow to as much as a hundred pounds. This one must have been the granddaddy of the herd, because he was as big as a good-size whitetail deer and had the largest antlers anyone has ever claimed to have seen on the refuge.
He pranced now and then, springing stiff-legged beneath the pines, turning this way and that, posing for perhaps five minutes before he vanished into a brier patch. White counted 10 points on the antlers through his telescopic sight; a photographer counted 10 through a 500-mm lens, and mourned that there was not enough light for a picture. The helper, using binoculars, counted 11 points. The largest Sika "rack" ever seen at the refuge had been eight points.
White's helper had been feeling virtuous about passing up the doe; now he was feeling like a jerk, because not taking that shot had done White out of a perfect chance for a once-in-a-lifetime trophy. But it was beautiful to see the buck and it also was beautiful to see him escape, passing unharmed before a pair of guns because men hunt by rules.
On the morning of the second day White's helper blew it again. He had climbed a tree overlooking a busy deer trail and after a couple of hours had an unmoving doe in his sights. He let off the safety and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened; he worked the safety again, while the doe trotted nearer, and tried the shot again. The trigger would not move. A muttered curse spooked the doe, but she bolted toward him, and stopped 12 yards away while he went through his fruitless effort again. Only after she was gone did he discover that he possessed the only modern American hunting rifle (a Remington Model 788) whose bolt does not lock in the closed position. He had jiggled the bolt handle while climbing the tree and opened it a quarter-inch, rendering the weapon inoperative.
Through the morning White saw bucks.
In the afternoon the helper set off clockwise around the upwind side of the 1 1/2-mile loop trail, moving along noisily and hoping his scent would sent deer toward White, moving counterclockwise. The strategy worked backwards: as the helper clumped along a doe trotted across the trail 35 yards ahead of him. He shot and she died.
Before the helper went off to check in the doe at refuge headquarters he horsed White, now free to hunt deer of either sex, out to a stand deep in the salt marsh where he could cover as much ground as possible. "What the hell," White said, "the chair is stainless steel." Night was falling as the helper returned, and just as he approached the edge of the woods a shot rang out. "He went down," White called, "but I can't see him any more."
The helper found the spike buck on the spot where he was shot. Carrying it back, he paced off the distance: 167 yards.
On third day, with one deer left on the limit, they decided to go deep in the woods on the east side of the trail. But the chair wouldn't go far over the fallen branches and soft ground, so the helper left White on a low knoll while he tramped the woods and briers. He saw some rare and endangered Delmarva fox squirrels, one of which sat 10 feet away while it stripped a pine cone. He nearly stumbled over a snow goose that apparently was foraging for acorns, and almost fainted when it burst into the air from a yard away.
He followed a quail that led him half a mile and never flew. He heard brush rustle, saw antler rubs, fresh tracks, steaming scat, browse lines. He smelled several bucks, and heard others whistle.But he saw no deer all day, and neither did White.
Then there was just time to get back to the head of the trail before dark, but they decided to take the long way around, so as to pass the spot where they had seen the great buck on the first day. Their account of sighting him had drawn condescending smiles from refuge personnel and good-natured ribbing from the other wheelchair hunters. They'd never see him again, White and his helper knew, but deer are creatures of habit, and well, it had been dusk the first time they saw him.
The light was going fast when they reached the clearing, which seemed to be empty. Then what looked like another tree trunk moved slightly and showed a patch of white. "It's him, Pat!" the helper said.
"I can see him," White said, squinting through his scope, "but there's some brush in my sights." The helper looked for a better opening, but there was no time to get White into position, barely time for the standing man to shoot. The brush was light; perhaps nothing would have turned the bullet if White had tried the shot; many hunters would have taken the chance. But that is the way deer get crippled and go off to die slowly and not be found. White laid his rifle down and looked up at the helper.
"Take him," he said.
It was a near thing. The light was too dim to justify an offhand shot, so the helper ran to a tree and braced against it. The buck moved off a few steps but stopped, facing away at 35 yards. The crosshairs were barely visible against his dark pelt. The helper considered, aimed, reconsidered, aimed again, fired. The buck died where he had stood, while the helper stood shaking for fear of having wounded him.
It wasn't Big Ben, as the great buck had become known, but it was a fine 100-pound six-pointer whose 13-inch rack might have made a fine trophy for Pat White's wall, if Pat White, cheated of his legs, had cheated back just a little.