The sun glows orange as it dips behind the ridge, back-lighting a silken spider web, laying long hardwood shadows across the valley. The father sits on a mound of damp earth, back against a stump. Leaves chatter in the breeze, his stomach gurgles the moose sausage he had for lunch. He is perfectly still, cold as the blue-steel barrel of the Ruger 7mm magnum he cradles in his lap.
He hears a rustle deep in the thicket, the sound a child makes kicking leaves in a gutter. He sees no movement, yet he can feel the motion in his chest and fingertips, hear its progress toward him. An artery pumps in his neck. Buzzards circle the cloud-swept sky, a squirrel stands on the limb of a hickory tree.
"Deer," he whispers.
Up the hill and out of sight, 200 yards away, the son sits on a platform high in a tree. Behind him is a golden meadow of wild wheat, before him a red-clay road and dozens of fresh deer tracks. He, too, hears a rustle and turns his head to the meadow. His is the face of the father: rounder, softer, yet unmistakable; green eyes so clearly the same. He blows a Leon's Turkey Call, and his gobble, that of a young tom, crosses the woods.
"He's spotted one, too," the father whispers. He gobbles back. It is a low, rasping gobble, the call of the lead tom.
It has been this way for years: the father, Jim Norine, and the son, Troy James Norine, together in the woods. Troy was 4 when Jim started him fishing. Jim would put on his rubber waders, pack Troy inside with him and walk, the two stepping as one, into cold, fast-running Minnesota streams in search of trout.
Troy bagged his first Canada goose at 10, his first buck two years ago at 15. The trophies, a glass-eyed bird and two eight-inch horns, sit now at home in the laundry room, unobtrusive symbols of a bond between father and son, a link fashioned of time and love, blood and beauty.
The Norines live today in the tract-house suburbs of Springfield, and Jim works in downtown Washington, a world away from the tiny, midwestern farming town where he was raised, where people smiled and waved on the street, called each other by name.
Hunting is Jim's chance to get away from the darting eyes -- "the lack of common decency" --he encounters every day in Washington, to be independent and self-reliant, to see that his boy learns the lessons of the farmhouse as well as those of McDonald's. In the woods, what's important to the father becomes important to the son.
The hunt is ritual: the guns and the gear, the primitive milestone of the first kill, the lore of manhood passed from generation to generation. For Jim and Troy Norine, the hunt is not about killing. It's about love and kinship.
Today, they hunt for deer in a forest southeast of Charlottesville, near Palmyra. It has been a long day: up at 2 a.m., gone at 4, in the woods by 6:30. It is not the time, but the wait that is wearing. For the hunt is not really a hunt at all.
Troy and Jim pick spots and lie in ambush. They hold statue-still, fighting sleep and cold and the itch that starts on the instep and, left unscratched, spreads across the body like a rash. Deer, though colorblind, can pick up a movement at 500 yards; their hearing is so acute they can be spooked by an eddy of the wind.
Jim is wearing a hot orange golf cap so he will not be mistaken for a deer by other hunters. The cap is pierced with a National Rifle Association moose lapel pin he got for taking a 1,000-pound bull moose in Alberta, Canada. His pants -- supported by red galluses -- and coat are red wool. He is a strong, healthy man of 42 who tempers his coffee with cocoa.
The man Jim Norine admires most is former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Jim used Wooden's running offense and his zone presses when he coached at Blaine High School in Anoka, Minn. Today, as director of the Hunter Services Division for the NRA, he still adheres to Wooden's "Pyramid of Success." A copy of it hangs on a wall in his dark-paneled den, next to a coyote hide and a certificate for being the WCCO radio and Fairway/Super Fair Stores coach of the week.
A handsome man, Jim wears glasses, as do his wife, Barb, Troy and daughter, Tanya, 12. But in the two family portraits in their living room, Jim is the only one who removed his glasses.
Jim searches the brush, waiting for a sign -- for a twig to snap or a tail to flash, for a deer's eye to glow, as it will in the slanting light of autumn, not much brighter than fox fire.
"I know that critter's out there," he thinks. Jim hopes the deer won't smell him and be spooked; he is sitting upwind from the brush, but just to be sure, he has set out Skunk Skreen. Designed to help the hunter against an animal that can smell him a third of a mile away, the pungent artificial scent comes in two bottles. Separate, the clear liquids are odorless. But mixed like epoxy on wood or rock, they send out the powerful rotten-egg stench of an angry skunk.
Jim hears the rustle again, this time only a few steps away through the heavy brush. Five minutes pass. Ten more. A gnawing sound, like a saw cutting wood, pierces the gentle symphony of the creek, the leaves, the chipmunks, the crows. A buck is rubbing his horns against a tree.
November is breeding, or rutting season. The rack a buck grows each fall emerges covered with felt. And as autumn proceeds, the buck polishes and hones his antlers, which will become his weapon for locked-horn matches with other bucks that would contend for his rights to a doe.
Jim's eyes dart and his hand grips the rich, walnut stock of his rifle, just behind the trigger. His is a high powered, bolt-action hunting rifle, eight pounds. The sight is a Leupold Vari-X, a four-lens, barrel-mounted telescope with a cross-hair sight that will make a deer standing at 200 yards appear to be only 20 yards away. When the trigger is squeezed, Jim's 150-grain, steel-coated, hollow lead bullets rocket from the grooved barrel, like a well-thrown football pass, at 3,800 feet per second. Deadly accurate to 400 yards.
But Jim will not touch the trigger, even click off the safety, unless he can see the deer's horns clearly. Jim hopes that if he can't get a clear shot, the deer will wander toward his son, who will.
Troy's first deer was a spike buck, a young deer with only two spike-shaped horns. He and Jim were hunting in the Appalachian Mountains in Bath County, and Jim posted Troy in the bottom of a draw and then circled behind a thicket to flush a buck Jim had seen earlier. Spooked, the buck ran toward Troy, stopped and looked over its shoulder. Troy killed him with one shot in the lungs.
"My dad knew just what he was going to do," Troy says. "Boy, it was great . . . . Dad said 'Good shot, buddy.' I think he was more excited than I was."
Troy hasn't dropped a buck since, and Jim thinks it's time he got another, even though Jim didn't get his first buck until he was 18. It wasn't Jim's father, but his Uncle Mike who decided it was his time on a hunting trip in northern Minnesota.
Jim, the oldest of three boys by five years, hunted with Mike a lot in those days. His father owned a poultry business and worked 12 to 14 hours a day. "It took a lot out of him," Jim says. "We didn't hunt deer together until I was out of college."
It was just after dawn when Mike flushed the big white-tail down a trail about 150 yards from Jim. It had a 12-point rack -- antlers with 12 limbs -- and weighed 265 pounds. Jim shot it once through the heart.
Troy, still in the tree stand, looks across the meadow. He raises a pair of binoculars toward the spot where he heard the rustling. He is also wearing a hot orange golf cap -- his says "NRA Freedom" on the crown -- and a leather NRA belt-and-buckle from which hangs a six-inch razor-sharp Browning hunting knife. His 30.06 also is a Browning.
Hunting deer, he says, is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle: You have to see one of the parts and then put it together with others. "If I were deer where would I go?" Troy wonders. "There might be a whole herd out there I can't see."
Troy, a senior at Robert E. Lee High in Fairfax, has a lot of friends who hunt, but two of his closest, Froy Saldana and Kevin Riordan, don't. Troy and Kevin like to argue and give each other a hard time. They argue about whose mom makes the best pecan pie and about who is smarter in algebra. Kevin insists he is, Troy insists he is. They both got Ds last quarter. They agree, however, that if it weren't for Lisa LaChance, neither would have gotten through algebra last year.
When they're not doing schoolwork or putting in hours at the Franconia Amoco, where Troy is the night manager, they hang out at McDonald's or go to a midnight movie. Sometimes they drive into Washington and cruise along 14th Street, yelling at the hookers. Kevin says his parties are "known to get a little wild." Last summer he gave a "four kegger" and in September he had a "bring your owner."
"That one got real wild," Kevin says. "Three tables got busted, some kid threw up all over my room and another kid threw up all over himself. My parents let me have the party, but that's the last one I'm having."
Troy says he drinks a bit himself. Once, he came home from a party after having had two beers. When Jim smelled them on his breath, Troy confessed and was grounded for two weeks. "I'm working with him on not being a member of the herd, to be an individual," Jim says. Nevertheless, Jim says Troy's mom believes Jim is a little easy on the boy. "Troy respects his mother a lot," Jim says, "but he loses some of his independence around her. She's always telling him to clean his room and pick up his socks."
Jim was as straight as a kid can be when he was young. No drinking, chasing girls, hot cars or late nights. But that was in rural Cokato, Minn., population 2,056. "Times are different," he says, "and Springfield isn't Cokato."
Troy has a blue, 1967 Firebird with a black top, chrome wheels and Mohawk Super Mac 60 wide tires on the back. It has no heater, but it does have a set of $60 Pioneer triaxial speakers that can blast AC/DC's new album, "For Those About to Rock," at 60 watts. "Everybody at school takes their music pretty seriously," Troy says.
Last summer, Troy and Froy took the Firebird to Rehoboth Beach. It was four days of cruising the boardwalk and the pinball arcades, buying surfer shirts. "We were typical guys at the beach, just looking for girls," Froy says.
Troy met one, too, a pretty brunet from Greencastle, Pa., named Angie. Froy says Troy believed she liked him because he wasn't wearing his glasses. For Christmas, he's asked Jim to buy him contacts.
Troy hears a rustle again and trains his binoculars. A hunter walks out of the woods. A boy, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, walks at his side. The man takes a few steps, stops and stares at Troy for minutes before resuming his stride toward him.
The sun has disappeared below the ridge and bright orange stripes alternate with clouds under a cold, blue sky. Sitting on the dirt, Jim is a conflicting mix of tension and calm. His hand still grips the rifle tightly, his eyes still dart, though he hasn't heard anything from the woods in 20 minutes. He leans back as if he is at home in his favorite floral-patterned chair in the rec room, eating peanuts and watching Kansas City play Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.
"These days," Jim says, "you see so little of that trust factor among people. You pass them on the street and they are too hurried to say hello, even nod their heads. By golly, I wasn't raised that way. I was raised to have a kind of common decency. The gap seems to be widening between people instead of getting closer.
"But then you come out and go hunting and you can get away. You can daydream or fall asleep, let random thoughts rampage through your mind. You get good memories out of it. Maybe I just remember the nice things, times I've frozen my tail off and got soaking wet.
"It doesn't sound like something positive, I know, but it's a matter of being out there and doing something because you want to. Just being out there is enough. You don't remember the bad things, either. I remember when my team lost in double overtime and didn't get into the state finals, but I really don't care if I shoot a deer or not. That's not the whole reason for being here."
Neither Jim nor Troy has seen a deer all day, and darkness is now approaching. Jim stands, decides to circle around the thicket and see if the buck's still there.
Over at the stand, the man and the boy reach Troy.
"How you doing today?" Troy asks.
"Just fine," the man says.
"Doing any good?"
"No." The man scrapes the dirt with his boot. "I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ask you to leave. This is private property." Troy climbs down and the boy scoots up.
"I'll bet you shot a lot of deer off that stand," Troy says.
"Yep, sure have. Sorry you can't have one of them."
Troy walks through the woods a couple of hundred yards to the road, where he meets his father. Jim tells him about the buck, about the rustling of the leaves and the rubbing sound like a saw cutting wood. "Don't know where he got to," Jim says. Troy tells him about the hunter and the boy.
"You know, I put a whole puddle of Skunk Skreen up on that platform," Troy says. "I hope that little boy puts his fingers in it and rubs it on his nose."
"Come on, Troy," Jim says sternly.
"I'm just kidding, you knucklehead," Troy says, and the talk dies. Troy looks up at his dad, into the face and green eyes so clearly his own, and touches the shoulder of Jim's wool jacket.
"Let's go home, dad."
"We'll get one next time, son."