I saw this exemplified upon one occasion. When camped in a beautiful little spot we were disturbed by the arrival of a party of some four men, five horses, and three dogs--all heavily accoutred for the chase. With our quiet Indian methods, we caused little excitement in the land, but they burst in upon us with a fury that warned all game for miles around.
The day after their arrival, alone on a trail, I heard one of this band approaching; half a mile above me his noise preceded him. Down he came over brush and stones. I stepped quietly beside a bush and waited as I would for an oncoming elephant. With gun at right shoulder arms, knapsack and canteen rattling, spiked shoes crunching, he marched past me, eyes straight ahead; walking within ten yards and never saw me. Twenty deer must have seen him where he saw one. That night this same man came straggling wearily into our midst and asked the way to his camp. He explained that he had put a piece of paper on a tree to guide him, but that he could not find the tree. We asked him what luck. He said that there were only does in the country. Perhaps he was right, because that is all they shot. We found two down in the gullies after they had gone. For a week they hunted all over the place with horses, guns, and dogs, and got no legitimate game. During this same time, beneath their very noses, we got two fine bucks. So much for the men of iron.
The first buck I ever landed with the bow thrilled me to such an extent that every detail is memorable. After a long, hard morning hunt, I was returning to camp alone. It was nearly noon; the sun beat down on the pungent dust of the trail, and all nature seemed sleepy. The air, heavy with the fragrance of the pines, hardly stirred.
I was walking wearily along thinking of food, when suddenly my outer visual fields picked up the image of a deer. I stopped. There, eighty yards away, stood a three-year-old buck, grazing under an oak. His back was toward me. I crouched and sneaked nearer. My arrow was nocked on the string. The distance I measured carefully with my eye; it was now sixty-five yards. Just then the deer raised its head. I let fly an arrow at its neck. It flew between its horns. The deer gave a started toss to its head, listened a second, then dipped its crest again to feed. I nocked another shaft. As it raised its head again I shot. This arrow flew wide of the neck, but at the right elevation. The buck now was more startled and jumped so that it stood profile to me, looking and listening. I dropped upon one knee. A little rising ground and intervening brush partially concealed me. As I drew a third arrow from my quiver its barb caught in the rawhide, and I swore a soft vicious oath to steady my nerves. Then drawing my bow carefully, lowering my aim and holding like grim death, I shot a beautifully released arrow. It sped over the tops of the dried grass seeming to skim the ground like a bird, and struck the deer full and hard in the chest. It was a welcome thud. The beast leaped, bounded off some thirty yards, staggered, drew back its head and wilted in the hind legs. I had stayed immovable as wood. Seeing him failing, I ran swiftly forward, and almost on the run at forty yards I drove a second arrow through his heart. The deer died instantly.
Conflicting emotions of compassion and exultation surged through me, and I felt weak, but I ran to my quarry, lifted his head on my knee and claimed him in the name of Robin Hood.
Looking him over, it was apparent that my second shaft had hit him in the base of the heart, emerged through the breast and only stopped in its flight by striking the foreleg. The first arrow had gone completely through the back part of the chest, severed the aorta, and flown past him. There it lay, sticking deep into the ground twenty yards beyond the spot where he stood when shot.
After the body had been cleaned and cooled in the shade of an oak, we packed it home in the twilight, an easy burden for a light heart. This is the fulfilment of the hunter's quest. It was the sweetest venison we ever tasted.
We have had little experience in trailing deer on the snow and none in the use of dogs to run them. Doubtless, the latter method under some conditions is admirable, particularly in very brushy countries.
But we have preferred the still hunt. Lying in wait at licks we have done so to study animal life and in conjunction with the Indian to learn his methods, but neither the lick nor the ambush appealed to us as sport. In fact, we have hunted deer more for meat than for trophies, and quite a number of our kills have been in a way incidental to hunting mountain lions or other predatory animals.
Once, when on a lion trail, the dogs ran down a steep trail ahead of me, and there in the creek bottom they started a fine large buck. On each side of the path the brush was very high, and up this corridor dashed the buck. There was no room for him to pass, and he came upon me with a rush. When less than twenty yards away, I hastily drew my bow and drove an arrow deep into his breast. With a lateral bound he cleared the brushy hedge and was lost to view. The dogs had been trained not to follow deer; but since they saw me shoot it, they ran in hot pursuit. I sounded my horn and brought them back, and scolded them. But fearing to lose the deer, I decided to go down to the ranch house, a couple of miles away, and borrow Jasper and his dog, Splinters. Now Splinters was some sort of a mongrel fise, an insignificant-looking little beast that had come originally from the city and presumably was hopelessly civilized. Jasper, however, had recognized in him certain latent talents and had trained him to follow wounded deer. He paid no attention to any scent except that of deer blood. In an accidental encounter with the hind foot of a horse, Splinters had lost the sight of one eye and the use of one ear; but in spite of the lopsided progression occasioned by this disability, he was infallible with wounded bucks.
So Jasper came, and Splinters trotted along at his heels. At the spot where the deer leaped off the trail, we let the dog smell a drop of blood. After a deliberate, unexcited investigation, he began to wander through the brush. Occasionally he stopped to stand on his hind legs and nose the chaparral above him, then wandered on. Just about this time I stepped on a rattlesnake, and, after a hasty change of location, directed my efforts toward dispatching the snake. By the time I had finished this worthy deed, Jasper and Splinters were lost to view; so I sat down and waited. After a quarter of an hour I heard a distant whistle.
Following Jasper's signal, I descended to the creek below me, went a short distance up a side branch, and there were all three--Jasper, Splinters, and the deer. The latter had made almost a complete circle, half a mile in extent, and dropped in the creek, not a hundred yards from his starting point.
My arrow had caused a most destructive wound in the lungs and great vessels of the chest, and it was remarkable that the animal could have gone so far. We were of the opinion that if my own dogs had not started to run him, the deer would have gone but a short distance and lain down where in a few minutes we could have found him dead.
While, after all, the object of deer hunting is to get your deer, it does seem that some of our keenest delight has been when we have missed it. So far, we have never shot one of those massive old bucks with innumerable points to his antlers; they have all been adolescent or prospective patriarchs. But several times we have almost landed the big fellow.
Out of the quiet purple shadow of the forest one evening there stepped the most stately buck I ever saw. His noble crest and carriage were superb. On a grassy hillside, some hundred and fifty yards away, he stood broadside on. With a rifle the merest tyro might have bowled him over. In fact, he looked just like the royal stag in the picture.
Two of us were together--a little underbrush shielded us. We drew our bows, loosed the arrows and off they flew. The flight of an arrow is a beautiful thing; it is grace, harmony, and perfect geometry all in one. They flew, and fell short. The deer only looked at them. We nocked again and shot. This time we dropped them just beneath his belly. He jumped forward a few paces and stopped to look at us. Slowly we reached for a third arrow, slowly nocked and drew it, and away it went, whispering in the air. One grazed his withers, the other pierced him through the loose skin of the brisket and flew past.
With an upward leap he soared away in the woods and we sent our blessing with him. His wound would heal readily, a mere scratch. We picked up our arrows and returned to camp to have bacon for supper, perfectly happy.
An arrow wound may be trivial, as was this one, or it may be surprisingly deadly, as brought out by an experience of Arthur Young. Once when stalking deer, the animal became alarmed and started to run away behind a screen of scrub oak. Young, perceiving that he was about to lose his quarry, shot at the indistinct moving body. Thinking that he had missed his shot, he searched for his arrow and found that it had plowed up the ground and buried its head deep in the earth. When he picked it up, he noted that it was strangely damp, but since he could not explain it, he dismissed the matter from his mind.
Next day, hunting over the same ground, he and Compton found the deer less than a hundred and fifty yards from this spot. It had run, fallen, bled, risen and fallen down hill, where it died of hemorrhage. Their inspection showed that the arrow had struck back of the shoulder, gone through the lungs and emerged beneath the jaw. With all this it had flown yards beyond, struck deeply in the earth, and was only a trifle damp.
Upon another occasion, while hunting cougars with a hound, I came abruptly upon a doe and a buck in a deep ravine. It was open season and we needed camp meat. Gauging my distance carefully, I shot at the buck, striking him in the flank. For the first time in my life, I heard an adult deer bleat. He gave an involuntary exclamation, whirled, but since he knew not the location or the nature of his danger, he did not run.
My hound was working higher up in the canyon, but he heard the bleat, when like a wild beast he came charging through the undergrowth and hurled himself with terrific force upon the startled deer, bearing him to the ground. There was a fierce struggle for a brief moment in which the buck wrenched himself free from the dog's hold upon his throat and with an effort lunged down the slope and eluded us. Because of the many deer trails and because the hound was unused to following deer, night fell before we could locate him.
Next day we found the dead buck, but the lions had left little meat on his bones--in fact, it seemed that a veritable den of these animals had feasted on him.
The striking picture in my mind today is the fierceness and the savage onslaught of my dog. Never did I suspect that the amiable, gentle pet of our fireside could turn into such an overpowering, indomitable killer. His assault was absolutely bloodthirsty. I've often thought how grateful I should be that such an animal was my friend and companion in the hunt and not my pursuer. How quickly the dog adjusts himself to the bow! At first he is afraid of the long stick. But he soon gets the idea and not waiting for the detonation of the gun, he accepts the hum of the bowstring and the whirr of the arrow as signals for action. Some dogs have even shown a tendency to retrieve our arrows for us, and nothing suits them better than that we go on foot, and by their sides can run with them and with our silent shafts can lay low what they bring to bay. In fact, it is a perfect balance of power--the hound with his wondrous nose, lean flanks and tireless legs; the man with his human reason, the horn, and his bow and arrow.
We who have hunted thus, trod the forest trails, climbed the lofty peaks, breathed the magic air, and viewed the endless roll of mountain ridges, blue in the distance, have been blessed by the gods.
In all, we have shot about thirty deer with the bow. The majority of these fell before the shafts of Will Compton, while Young and I have contributed in a smaller measure to the count. Despite the vague regrets we always feel at slaying so beautiful an animal, there is an exultation about bringing into camp a haunch of venison, or hanging the deer on the limb of a sheltering tree, there to cool near the icy spring. By the glow of the campfire we broil savory loin steaks, and when done eating, we sit in the gloaming and watch the stars come out. Great Orion shines in all his glory, and the Hunters' Moon rises golden and full through the skies.
Drowsy with happiness, we nestle down in our sleeping bags, resting on a bed of fragrant boughs, and dream of the eternal chase.