By JOHN L. SLOAN
November is dead. The river is almost frozen. There is skim ice out three feet in some places. Brown brittle leaves scud across the hard ground. Just to make it more miserable, the wind is from the north and gusting. A flock of mallards whistles by. I blow my nose and use my left sleeve as intended. I check the scope one more time. Four power is enough.
I have come to this bleak part of Nebraska on a whim. When I was here, shooting a video during the October bow season, a much more hospitable time, I saw evidence of one, possibly two large deer. One rub on a tree larger than my cameramans leg got me excited. The rub got me excited, not his leg. When one of the local hunters killed a Pope and Young class buck near here. I did some scouting and determined where the river crossing was.
The deer feed over in the Iowa during the night and cross back into Nebraska at dawn. Since gun season is not open in Iowa, I was waiting for them to make their nightly pilgrimage. I intend to catch them on the Nebraska side before they cross into Iowa. My only chance was on the river bank. The brush was too thick leading to the bank and I had no way of knowing where in the hills and thickets they bedded. I had to take my stand just as they reached the clear river bank.
They must come soon or both November and my hunt will be over. The does, three of them, come with head bobs and ear flicking. Earlier, I had seen one pause in the scrub before entering the bottom. The last rays of weak sun seemed to warm her. She was young, an early fawn.
That was an hour ago. Now this trio moves down the bank. They look stuffed in their winter coats. They tiptoe across the ice and enter the water. Somewhere a fire is going in a house. I can smell the smoke. Across the river, a light begins to wink in a house over a mile away. The grain train at the elevator blows its whistle, preparing to pull out for somewhere. I sniff the smoke again.
A fox trips through the bottom, walking large fallen logs and investigating mice burrows. He provides color in drab afternoon. I stretch my legs and wiggle my cold toes. I have been semi-hidden behind the log, a big piece of driftwood, for an hour. The river bottom is full of blow-down trees and driftwood. It is a maze, treacherous to walk. One more hour until dark. He I remember an afternoon when I was young. I cant recall the exact age but it was a cold afternoon for Louisiana and I am walking down Colony Road, heading home. It is twilight and I can smell wood smoke from a stove. Perhaps it was Audrey Edwards house. How or why do I remember her name? I doubt it was her eyes.
Again I scan the river bank. I think of the old camp on Back Camp Slough. The smoke would come through the walls and make your eyes water.
We called it the Smoke House. We used it mostly to duck hunt and sometimes to run the big swamp rabbits with beagles. We would pack in like sardines, Lloyd, Lester, Alphus, Flytrap Wakefield and old Frank Chatelein.
It was always my job to start the morning fire to knock off the chill. That reminds me of the chill-X2, I am currently fighting. I check the riverbank again. Cold and still, just wisp of smoke, barrenalmost.
He is dim in the gathering dusk. Even through the scope I cant clearly see his antlers, just that he has some. He is not the buck I am hunting. In scant minutes it will be too dark to shoot, hunt over. I know the big, bent cottonwood tree he is approaching. It is just about 200 yards away. I let the .308 rest on my big, left-hand glove on top the log. The crosshairs hold rock steady. I take a deep breath and let half of it out. One inch low at 200-yards so I hold one inch high and gently squeeze the trigger.
The rifle jumps and the sound echoes up and down the river, bouncing off the big trees. I do not know if I hit or missed. He just vanished.
I am assuming a hit. Unless you know for sure otherwise, you always assume so. A raft of small ducks signal the end of daylight and the clouds curtain out what little is left. It is dark.
Walking the drift detritus is too hazardous in the dark. The river, when at flood, dumps everything on the banks. To walk it in the dark is to ask for a broken leg. It is below freezing. A dead deer will keep well until daylight. November and my hunt are over. Tomorrow I will know how it went.
Tomorrow I will bundle again in my warmest and perhaps the sun will shine. We will find out the truth, not a memory on the wind yet, but one day soon. Then I will head home, 713 miles south and east of the log, I lean against.
Again, I smell the smoke. As I gather up my equipment, I have no choice but to think of other smokes I have smelled through the years. Campfires and fireplaces and stoves. November is gone, the happiness of Thanksgiving just another memory on the wind.
Many memories on the wind tonight.