RAINMAKER, as they call him because he always seems to bring a downpour into deer camp, has never been a trophy hunter, but last weekend he found the deer he had been looking for.
She was a crippled old doe. She had lived a very long time in the Virginia mountains, so long that her teeth had worn down nearly to the gums and her luck had run out. Sometime in late summer or early fall she was hit by a car, which shattered her left hind leg so badly there was never a chance that the bones would knit.
The disaster struck her in her prime, at least six and perhaps as many as 10 years old, a good deal older than most deer ever get. She was sleek and fat and leading two fine fawns. Not until next year, or perhaps the year after, would her worn teeth have betrayed her so that she hungered and faltered and failed, unable to forage enough browse to get her through the winter. Then starvation, disease or dogs would have taken her.
The massive bruises healed, but the tendons of her leg drew up until the limb so curled that the top of the hoof dragged on the ground as she hobbled along. The pain was so great that she wore the skin off the inside of her good leg in her contortions to favor the injury. Sometime between October, when she was seen by a bowhunter, and Thanksgiving, one of the fawns was lost or left her.
When Rainmaker saw the doe as he drove into camp late on Thanksgiving night, he knew that the right thing to do would be to get out his gun and shoot her as she stood transfixed by the headlights. But all the law would allow him to do, until doe season opened at dawn, was call a game warden.
It would take four kinds of fool to try to tell a warden, who would have been working all through this holiday, that he should turn out at midnight to look for a crippled deer somewhere on a mountain in Rockbridge County.
So Rainmaker crawled into his sleeping bag and tossed and turned and dreamed about the doe, who got all mixed up with the first deer he'd ever shot, a buck that he'd crippled just as fatally and had tracked for three days before the trail and his time ran out.
Like that buck, this doe would die because it would not be able to run from dogs -- or coyotes and coydogs, which have moved into the eastern mountains where wolves and cougars once held sway -- or could not reach the branches for the high browse that keeps life going in late winter. Or because she could no longer stand the pain of the grating bones.
In the predawn darkness Rainmaker felt little of the usual anticipation of the hunt, just a sadness that was deepened by the incursion of a truckload of poachers. Their jacklights raked the woods and meadows that by law and by right belong to wild creatures at night. After stealing what little promise the day had held, the yahoos went away.
Rainmaker hunted badly. A freezing rain came on. After a while he gave it up and went back to the sleeping bag.
But when you go hunting you are supposed to hunt, and so he turned out again, and looked and looked into the rain.
And then there she was, away down the mountain in the mist and blowing rain, catching even the unobservant eye by her sordidly painful motions as she hobbled and hitched and dragged herself along.
Rainmaker was slow and stupid with cold and fatigue, and the doe's head came up as she detected his clumsy shuffle toward a shooting position.
Her fawn, primed to flee, flickered its tail and pranced away a few steps, but turned back when the doe stood unmoving. The fawn, long since weaned and now grown almost to independence, waited in a spraddlelegged agony of fear, pawing the ground with a forefoot, wondering why its mother didn't do something. Rainmaker raised the rifle, fumbled with the scope caps, squinted at her blurred image, fooled with the magnification, raised the rifle again.
Through it all the doe stood watching him, and although Rainmaker says he does not believe in such things, it did very much seem that she was waiting for him.
The range was something over a hundred and fifty yards, twice as far as he will willingly try. The shot was not as good as it should have been, because he didn't allow for the wind, but it was good enough.