It was a cold December day and the men at Francis Reilly's log cabin in the mountains were not hunting. They talked instead and stared at the fireplace, which threw waves of heat to the big main room. A haunch of deer meat hung from a cord anchored in the rafters.
The haunch turned in front of the fire, soaking heat from the massive hearth. "Seventeen revolutions a minute," said the gray-bearded Reilly with a leprechaun grin. "We used to just hang it there; every time anyone walked by they'd give it a swing to cook the other side. Then one day we got the bright idea to install an electric motor in the roof. Now it turns itself."
The deer had been killed the morning before by Tom Wilson, one of Reilly's crew for the two-week tradition of West Virginia deer season. It was the third buck of the year dropped on Reilly's 140 acres, with four days of hunting still to go.
But overnight the weather turned mean; a howling northwest wind whumped against the sturdy sides of the cabin Reilly's people built by hand. The wind came roaring down through Dog Hollow and over Short Mountain, ripping the last of the oak leaves clear, stripping the woods bare.
The morning was too cold and blustery to hunt so the crew of five dragged Wilson's spike buck into the cabin and hung it from the ceiling beams. They laid out plastic on the floor and set to work skinning and butchering.
Two hours before dusk the job was done. The haunch was cooking and the wind was abating. "If we're going to hunt we better get going," said Cary Whitefield. They spilled out in ragged hunting clothes, marching to spots in the woods where bucks had mistakenly ventured before. But this night was quiet in the woods.
"I know there's one buck still out there," said Dave Callanan, a retired Army NCO. "I let him get away last week.
"I was in my tree stand. He was a great big deer; six or eight points on his rack. He came through the trees about 30 yards away from me and stopped. I was about 20 feet up in the tree. I was so nervous my hands were shaking. I took two quick shots.
"Then when I put the cork back on the flask he took off."
Deer hunting is a sport that deserves to be practiced in solitude. It rarely is. It never is around Reilly's cabin, where the tradition of the hunt really is the tradition of old friends, well-known woods and the warm, familiar confines of the old log dwelling itself.
The deer aren't outfoxed by Reilly's crowd; they're overwhelmed. Put seven or eight armed men in 140 acres of good deer territory for two weeks straight and something is pretty much sure to die.
With that assurance in hand, the fellows at Reilly's can settle down for some serious eating, drinking, gabbing and sitting around the fire.
The brick hearth is immense -- 8 1/2 feet wide and 6 feet tall to the damper. Above it hangs a brass plaque: "This fireplace built by Harry J. Pinkler III gang." On one of the log house walls this message is carved: "Finished chimney 8:30 p.m., 11/14/59, Harry Pinkler III."
Reilly bought the land in 1955 with his brother Joe and two partners. They paid $2,500 for 115 acres "more or less," and it surveyed out to be 25 more. last week Reilly paid the 1980 taxes on land and cabin: $37.42.
They closed the deal in the winter and the following spring set to building the cabin. The work was finished five years later, the four originial partners having spent a grand total of no more than $1,200 for materials, according to Reilly.
"Everything in here is scrounged," said Reilly, a retired civilian employe of the Navy. "The refrigerator, the water heater, the freezer, both stoves (wood and electric), both sinks, the windows, the furniture, wires, pipes, electrical conduit -- everything."
It's a scrounged house for the ages, made of whole trees felled in the woods and dragged home behind Reilly's 1946 Jeep, which still runs. "We didn't have any plans," said Reilly. "We just figured what it ought to look like and started building."
They decided on an L-shape, 50 feet long because that's the longest trees they could find; 30 feet wide on the L-side and 20 feet across the short end, where the fireplace sits.
There are 19 beds and room to feed 30. For years the cabin was jammed in deer season but now the partners are down to the two Reillys and even in the warm glow of the fire there's a chill about the place -- the empty chairs; the empty beds at night.
"It's a small brunch now," said Callanan. "Some are gone, some died, some moved away."
But the traditions remain, among them the deer haunch cooked in front of the fire. Reilly pulled the meat down when it was ready and set it on the table beside a long, sharp knife. It was perfectly done; delicious. Two days later most of it was still there.