Waiting quietly alone in the dark woods, the approach of dawn can seem like an eternity. It can feel like time is standing still—holding its breath as night silently withdraws into the shadows, giving way to the break and light of day. In that moment, the old hunter heard a dog howl in ecstasy, signaling to the men and deer that the hunt had begun again.
He followed the voice of the hounds in his mind’s eye as they pursued the deer around willow swamps, over sandstone ridges, and into the tall pines near the beaver dam he had been watching.
It seemed like only a few minutes had passed, though it could have been an hour or more. He existed now only in the moment. He knew a deer was near, and soon he heard the unmistakable faint snap of a twig—and then another.
When the autumn woods went quiet again, he looked over his right shoulder and saw the deer, its white chest rising and falling, drawing breath to recover from the chase that was about to end and to prepare for the drama that was about to begin.
The old man thought that the buck seemed immersed in the green-grey gloom of the tangled woods. At first glance, it didn’t look like a deer but the faded apparition of one. As he raised his gun, the buck suddenly charged the old man, gathering speed and power with each leap and bound.
At camp that night, the old man told everyone how its rack tilted and swayed like the outstretched wings of some giant bird in flight. He said, “I could see his powerful heart and great spirit.”
He remembered his own heart pounding, too, and his blood racing and the hair on his neck standing and his sweat from his brow running down his cheek. But he could not recall his finger squeezing the trigger or the sound of the gun being fired or the recoil and jolt of the butt against his shoulder.
"They must have heard me shoot," he thought to himself as he told his story at camp. But no one said they did. Instead someone said, “We all miss. It’s part of hunting.”
Then the others told their stories about how they, too, had missed the unkillable buck called The Legend that crossed the beaver dam that he had been watching that morning. He had heard the stories many times but listened anyway, because somehow it always seemed like he was hearing them for the first time. He liked to watch the men telling their stories and see their faces become brighter and younger as their voices sounded more excited.
He spent that night in a deep sleep without dreams or nightmares. Breakfast was prepared and eaten quickly with little talk so the hunters could get back to the quiet woods before daylight in the swamp.
He stood at that same watch again, trance-like in the dark, marveling how it seemed he had never left. It was his favorite place in those sacred woods. He wanted his ashes to remain there. He called this place the “Last Watch.” He could not remember that last time he had seen another hunter so deep in the woods.
And then he heard the dog howl—or was it the wolf inside it somewhere far away in the timeless woods of West Virginia that have not changed since time began? He thought about day and night and the time between and how it comes and goes in shadows and light and how it reminded him of life and death.
Later that morning, the old man heard the unforgettable sound of a twig snapping, and then another, as he turned his head toward eternity.
Larry Oakley considers the end of the hunt from the viewpoint of an aging buck: "Each winter seemed harder, because he had already survived seven. Winter meant that he would go hungry, for there would be little and, often, nothing to eat. The coyotes would come, because they would be hungry and cold, too. They would test him again. If he was weak, they would know." Read the full story here.
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