In the northern hills the first day of deer season is greeted with either expectation or dread, depending on who you are or who you know. In West Burville over at the Double Axle Diner, Hooter Gibson and the regulars have been drafting a few plans…
It was the first day of deer season in the great north woods and Hooter and the Counter Dwellers were feeling anxious. It’s a fact that the casual visitor to West Burville may not realize, or understand, that hunting is a fulltime occupation in Piney Woods County every November. But when the first snow falls in the forest, West Burvillians pack up the beer and baked beans and head to deep camp.
The command center for these expeditions, where chest thumping stories of the Big Buck are traded, is the counter space at the Double Axle Diner smack in the center of downtown West Burville, population 683 give or take. As is customary at local diners in small towns throughout Vermont, there is a contingent of retirees and local tradesmen who occupy the prime space in front of the pie case and coffee pot. These regulars are traditionally referred to as the Counter Dwellers and no one has much heart for sitting in their spots. The Double Axle is no exception. The ring leader of this pack is the owner of West Burville Texaco and Wilson Auto Repair, Hooter Gibson, mechanic and budding local private eye. Occupying the other stools in no particular order are Hooter’s co-conspirators: old Mel Winchel, Lambert Thistle, Bunchy Meacham, Lumpy Jarvis, Dayrel Giroux and Flock Edwards, with the occasional visit from Ludovico Haynes when he can get off the log truck. As it turned out this particular deer season was to be for the books…
It was Friday morning, mid-November, with the first day of deer season approaching and the Double Axle was hopping. Under the watchful eye of Linda Mae, who the Counter Dwellers agreed was every bit as luscious as her signature pie, Pecan Festival Fantasy, the place was abuzz with the latest strategy for taking down the largest buck ever sighted in Piney Woods County. In the past fifteen years no one had even come close to capturing the mythical eighteen pointer and Linda Mae, presiding over the coffee pot and pie rack, was betting the boisterous crowd seated at her counter would break their own record of most beer consumed and least deer shot.
Well before sun up on the first day, the Big Day, the Counter Dwellers and a gaggle of hearties gathered at the Double Axle for another annual ritual, the Hunter’s Breakfast. This usually gets underway before sun up. Bleary eyed, unshaven, dressed in an eye melting assortment of hallucinogenic orange and red plaid, deer season doesn’t begin without the sacramental stoking of a bellyful of All-American breakfast. Knuckling into a plate of ham, eggs, French toast, bacon, apple fritters and baked beans, topped off by coffee and early morning hunting repartee, it’s no wonder that not a few hunters decide to sleep off the morning in the snug cabin of their pick up trucks, a rifle poked out the side window. But the Counter Dwellers were having none of it. Setting the belt notch over one they heaved off their stools.
Folks who have never been hunting, or who have never observed first hand the various superstitious rituals that seasoned hunters practice, might not know that the second most important thing to do on the first day is to plan ahead to lunch. With two grill cooks and little Vonda Sue in for the rush, Linda Mae presided over the filling of thermoses and the cutting of ham sandwiches. She also parceled out a wink and a smile and an encouraging wave as the last pick up careened up the highway with the Counter Dwellers and their dreams of early morning glory.
As the sluggish grey dawn light crept across the northern sky it became clear to Hooter and Bunchy, who were sharing the over-heated cab of Hooter’s 1994 Jeep Invector, that this was going to be a doozy of a morning. “Maybe we should have had a plan rather than fighting over who was going to bring the cooler,” Hooter speculated. So far just as dawn was becoming a sure thing that damned old fool Mel Winchel, who had forgotten his trifocals, had mistaken Bert Moran’s Jersey heifer, Millie, for a fork horn and now Hooter and Bunchy were stuck with the mortal remains. Lacking a shovel and confronted with 600 pounds of dead, even the resourceful Hooter was at a loss.
While Hooter was speculating on how to hide the carcass Bunchy was waxing philosophical about “how didn’t it beat all how something seemed even heavier when it was dead and why was that?” while Hooter crawled through the underbrush in search of a discarded auto part or rusted farm implement that might facilitate a decent burial for poor Millie. Given Hooter’s relationship with Sheriff Les Good, or the chance of running into one of the jolly-jump-up game wardens that lurked around every tree on the first day of deer season, Hooter was beginning to sweat.
Hooter thought it might be fitting to give Millie a sort of Indian burial with a mound and a few words but all the shriveled leaves in the forest couldn’t cover up 600 pounds of dead bovine accessorized with an ear tag. While Hooter and Bunchy were contemplating the consequences of adding Mel to the pile, things went from bad to worse for the funeral party.
Hearing a rustling on the other side of the tumbled down stone wall they were standing beside, no one moved, breathed or bothered to think. What was worse in an already bad situation was the muttering. And the muttering was low to the ground. Without another thought for Millie, Hooter and Bunchy, dragging old Mel behind them, lit off through the pine trees as fast as their legs and Linda Mae’s apple fritters would carry them. Fetching up in the middle of a dense growth of trees that looked a whole lot like all the other dense growth of trees in Piney Woods County, the three men stopped. With a look around and the same practiced motion, they reached for their compasses, which regrettably weren’t there.
Turning first this ways and then that ways, it was quickly apparent that the old saying about all trees looking alike when you’re lost was true. They were, in fact, hopelessly lost. After allowing themselves a moment of uncontrolled panic and some pretty focused thoughts about hunters finding their skeletal remains in years to come (a moment they would later deny), Hooter and Bunchy became a bit testy with each other.
Both men had a strong opinion about which way was out. Unfortunately it wasn’t the same opinion and neither was prepared to concede to the other. It was old Mel who decided that drawing straws, or twigs, was the only fair way to settle the matter and get to someplace warm. Winning with the shortest twig provided Hooter an opportunity to show off his woodsman skills. The result was parading around in circles for an hour or so. Conceding to the runner-up, Hooter insisted that if Bunchy could do any better he might as well have a go at it and the parade began anew.
After the second round of tree passing and aimless parading was well underway, Bunchy stumbled out of the woods into a small field. Hooter would always insist that it was just luck. At exactly the same moment Bunchy came crashing out of the trees, his boot got tangled under a hidden root. Flailing his arms and trying to save himself he grabbed Hooter by the vest front. Hooter grabbed Bunchy and Bunchy grabbed old Mel and the whole mess of arms and legs came crashing out of the trees onto the ground scaring several small rabbits who were enjoying the spectacle.
Abandoning any pretense of stealth Hooter and Bunchy punched and swore until the ran out of steam for the idea and there wasn’t much left to swear about. At just about the same time they noticed where they were standing. The field they had found was the smoothest haying job either man had ever seen: low, level and clean to the dirt. And way down at the end of this curious field was the biggest buck Hooter and Bunchy and old Mel had ever seen. It was the Big Buck.
Nobody moved. Nobody breathed. This was, after all, the great grand daddy of them all, the legendary reason every man and woman in West Burville got up on the first day of deer season. After years of lying about how close they had come, here was the chance of a lifetime. It stood there like a statue. It wasn’t looking at them. It didn’t care. It was staring off in the opposite direction, unperturbed by the presence of the three men.
Hooter, Bunchy and old Mel were frozen. The firearms they were still carrying, and which hadn’t discharged despite a couple of near misses in the woods, were forgotten in their hands. Was this Buck Fever? Was this what happened when you went out to kill something and you just couldn’t? Was this what made you a camera toter?
Whatever the feeling it only lasted a minute. It occurred to Hooter that maybe the deer was just deaf. As he slowly bent down to retrieve his rifle, it occurred to him that his feet had gone to sleep from standing in one place on the cold ground too long. It must have been contagious because Bunchy and old Mel couldn’t move either. Faced with the dilemma of shooting from where they stood, which guaranteed failure, and the possibility that attempting to balance and walk on pins and needles might arouse the deer’s suspicions, they silently agreed to get off a couple of rounds from their spot. For some reason, no one thought twice about how the deer never moved, staring off into the same direction as it had when the commotion started. In fact, the deer seemed oblivious to their squeals and lead footed attempts to get the circulation going.
Raising their rifles in the general direction of the massive deer Hooter and Bunchy and old Mel shared a common vision of winning the buck pool over at Wallace’s Feed and Seed and having the catbird seat on the front page of the West Burville Gazette. Together they fired first one round and then another with enough racket to cause temporary hearing loss. Together they watched the bullets impact the magnificent beast. Together they watched the animal explode into a million pieces. All that was left was a dissipating smoke cloud of plaster dust. Lowering their rifles they stared. But not for long. Action was far better than inaction.
Around the tree line came a crazy person wearing high top mud boots and a red bandana shouting and waving a shotgun. Hooter, Bunchy and old Mel turned and pumped their prickly feet across the field while profanity and shotgun blasts chased them across the uneven ground. No one could remember how far they ran but run they did across field and dirt road and through stands of young trees. As they tore across the second open field and made for the underbrush they caromed around a sharp bend and nearly collided with Flock, Lumpy, Lambert, Dayrel and a perplexed Ludovico. The group was in a lively discussion with a couple of game wardens and Millie, although for her part Millie wasn’t too conversant.
Long forgotten was the warmth of Linda Mae’s smile and the kindness of her waving them off to the hunt. Gone was the memory of her excellent Arabica Millennium brew. Long forgotten were the ham sandwiches lovingly packed. And any thought of a believable explanation.
As Hooter and Bunchy turned their frozen smiles on the game wardens, all the while ignoring old Mel yanking on Hooter’s sleeve, they thought they could detect the sounds of angry swearing and shouting closing the distance.
Shrugging his orange shoulders and arranging his face in what he hoped looked like a fair imitation of an innocent grin, Hooter allowed as how this had been a doozy of a morning and it didn’t appear to be over just yet. The two green jacketed game wardens did not return the pleasantries. There appeared to be some explaining that needed to be done. And the sooner the better.
Our story continues…