THE GREAT NORTH MOUNTAIN that autumn was filled with memories, many of them triggered by low curls of smoke along the ridge, from the chimneys of the cabins. It was during a few autumns, in these hills, on the limestone plateau called Cloverfields, up the power line to the state line, following a logging road much of the time, where I learned to hunt animals as large as myself, or larger, and where I taught my son responses to those primordial demands of autumn, as clearly compelling as the urges that would render rutting bucks blind to danger this fall season.
The summer drought had been broken, and my nasal passages cleared with the aroma of wet dirt, the acrid, feral scent of wet leaves, and the soil, and rock and wood and unseen animal droppings not quite wet enough but damp, and I followed the old logging road, considered intrusive then, but which since has been ripped out itself by clearcutting equipment, the grand demolisher.
I'd killed a deer several seasons earlier. A spike buck, antlers just five inches long. He'd been eating an apple near the ninth hole of a golf course in the Catskills, and I dropped him with a single bullet from a Winchester 88 chambered in .308, a cartridge designed for NATO troops to use on Russians or Albanians or, more likely, each other. It did well on this young buck's lungs, leaving pink foam bubbling just below his rib cage. The shot was well-placed, and he died in less than two minutes, and after I crossed the hundred yards of snow at a dead run I paid somebody ten dollars to field-dress him and then fifty dollars took care of skinning and butchering his meat, which dressed out to about 85 pounds, less than an Albanian, maybe. I just hated the look in his eyes as they softened and glazed into death, and I hated and of course feared the does who danced around him before I was able to get across the golf course. And I drank more than I intended to that evening in the rathskeller of that old hotel, one of the wooden ones that hadn't yet burned down. And I quit hunting then, I thought.
Well then, what was I doing out here in this George Washington National Forest, another Winchester in the crook of my arm, this time the old Model 94, in an unsophisticated 30-30, as the rain fell, straight down the way it does when it is going to rain all day, with the smoke lying flat along the ridges? I had cooked the best squirrel stew in the mountains, and hardhunters had brought their pocketsful of cleaned and skinned animals around to the cabin to stake a claim in the supper and drink the whiskey we always had standing on the table, and then we would play cards all night and hide the empty bottles in a closet; and one night I almost killed a friend who got crazy drunk in the middle of the night and swayed, cursing, alone, in a blackout, in the living room, brandishing a loaded and cocked .357 magnum, with a dozen hunters asleep in the bedrooms of the cabin. I would have shot him down, trying not to kill him. I held a pistol on him from hiding behind the slightly open door of a darkened bedroom until he passed out under the sheer weight of Old Fitzgerald.
What I was doing here was coming back, after a hard year of hurting, of nonromantic romance, unrequited love in more than one direction, hurting from health and hurting from law and hurting from money and hurting from death, not the least of this being the fact that I had been called on to bury my yellow cat, Falstaff, just as the year was new and the air crisp and chill. I had buried him in one of my hunting shirts, and now I had a new one, and I looked down into Yellow Creek and saw a doe with two fawns.
There was a story about somebody once having put a block of salt in Yellow Creek right about where the doe stood, and it had of course long since vanished, but it was said the deer would come to where the salt had been. I had never seen any sort of an animal, except a woodpecker and a moth, in this part of the creek bed, until this rainy day, and I was lying there with my leather hat soggy and the brim filling up with rain, and as I raised my head the water ran out of the brim and down my back. The carbine was in my hand, wet and cold in the leaves. There would be a buck next, a spikehorn, or maybe a six- or eight-pointer, moving down the creek, on the way into the flats, to forage after the sun set. I would have 15 minutes to kill him and dress him out and get him down the mountain before the darkness, never optional under the Great North Mountain, closed in.
It was just a gray sky, glowering and dark. And it came to me as my belly pressed against the wet earth that all these things I had mentioned were only things, and that they would pass, and that the mountains would stand there and allow themselves to be clearcut and eventually they would wash to the sea themselves until the earth found a way of cleaning itself again; and I pulled the rifle closer to my chest and closed my gloved hand around its barrel and knew that everything would be all right. I could buy some meat, and some hide, or I could do without. Potatoes.
With the rain deadening the leaves I had heard nothing, but now they came, the parade, out of the overgrown banks of Yellow Creek, off the hills and down the slopes of the Great North Mountain, and there were yearling fawns with the does pushing ahead and walking, seven, eight, maybe 12 does, all with fawns, Christ, it was like some Walt Disney movie, and then came the spikes, two, three, four of them, and then the big old bucks, where they had been I never knew, half a dozen with points on their racks numbering up in the teens, and it seemed like it took forever for them to pass, fearless and strong, and one or two of the does looked right into my eyes and snorted and kept walking, slowly, and I just watched as they moved past me, delicate hooves pointing toward the wet earth as they made their way into the flats and vanished into the night, which came quickly and silently. I lay there for an hour, sweating inside my coveralls, and then rose and made my way off the mountain and back to the cabin and then, finally, home.
Robert H. Williams is an assistant news editor of The Washington Post.