He slowly slid the truck door back in place, performed the ritual gear check adopted as habit and started down a rut in the meandering ranch road.
The afternoon glow was a welcome departure from the previous two days when frigid north winds and light mist made the last week of December a bit more uncomfortable than usual. Amazing how quickly things can change, he mused to himself, reflecting on the old saying about Texas weather and the accompanying five-minute wait.
Spindly mesquites fluttered in a slight breeze while thicker oaks stood barer, their foliage dressed down for the winter. The ongoing drought that had taken hold of so much of the state and dimmed prospects back in the summer hadn’t appeared to be quite as bad here, he thought, gladly welcoming the aftereffects of the light rain. At least it choked back the dust that always seemed to get on everything.
As he crested a small rise in the rolling pasture, a trio of spooked whitetail does scampered away at half-trot on the horizon, their distress flags waving goodbye to the alien being on approach. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as tough this winter, and most of the bucks and does looked slick, free from negative visible effects of diminished range conditions.
Every pace closer to the weathered tripod stand seemed to bring back a new memory from the past couple of months. Maybe it was the finality of this last hunt of the season or perhaps it was just deja vu, but all the memorable sights, sounds and smells came rushing back.
Over by that cluster of mesquites he had spied a big-bodied, mature buck with tiny horns, the deer not reaching its potential for any number of reasons but nonetheless an impressive specimen.
Down the road, there had been a close encounter with a rustling skunk looking for whatever it could eat around a cocoon of prickly pear pads. Luckily, and with great care, he had avoided a closer meeting by taking a wide arc. Man, that could have been nasty.
And just past that, there had been the covey of quail he’d jumped seemingly every time he hunted this spot, which made sense, what with the manna-spewing feeder in the vicinity and their preferred grassy food sources scarce.
Climbing into the tripod had been tricky the first few times, but after hunting from the raised platform for much of the past decade, the routine became safe and well-versed.
Rifle, with sling removed, a round carefully chambered and safety clicked on nestled in the corner.
Backpack contents taken out and donned, including binoculars, grunt tube and face mask.
Taking a deep breath in anticipation and preparation for the three-hour wait, his mind slowly wandered back to November. Opening weekend had been somewhat of a bust on the hunting only because the temperatures mirrored those of August and activity was diminished to either early or late. However, there was the camaraderie of his father and a family friend to count on, and a couple of dinner trips into the small West Texas outpost of a town for the best Mexican food he’d have all year.
Thanksgiving week was the highlight of the hunting year for a number of reasons, mostly because it was a chance to enjoy more time with the whole family and other longtime friends for more than a quick weekend. It’s never easy to see those we care about when they’re spread across various states much less just across Texas, but they all made time again this year to catch up, share stories and even gaze up a time or two in hopes of catching a glimpse of a shooting star. The hunting also had picked up that week and a couple of fine bucks had been taken as the rut kicked into gear.
There still was at least one whopper of a deer that almost everyone had seen on the low-fence ranch that always seemed to give them the slip. Thoughts of that deer quickly brought him back to the present since he still had a buck tag to use, but as the afternoon wore on, nothing materialized. A few weeks earlier, he would have dived into a paperback to fill down time but today was about taking in this special place – the sights, the smells and the sounds – since next season seemed a lifetime away.
The orange orb slowly descended on the horizon, marking the last sunset he’d see this season, and just as thoughts of packing in early crept into his mind, a gray streak of deerskin caught his sight in the motte of oaks from where so many deer previously had emerged. Out of instinct, he cautiously lifted the rifle and rested it on the side of the stand after noticing a tall, wide rack cutting through the brush. Through the scope, he knew it was a fine buck – big eight-pointer outside his ears – but upon closer inspection the deer’s long face and thin build gave it away as a youngster as it worked closer.
The buck sneaked past a fox that also had come looking for a meal before nightfall, the grizzled red and gray creature appearing almost blue in the fading light. Watching the pair interact was a special sight, the bigger but younger animal timidly sizing up a creature it may have never seen before.
He lowered the rifle too quickly and the slight movement caught the buck’s attention, forcing an instant halt and raising of the head and ears. After a few seconds, the eight-pointer decided he’d had his share of strange encounters, offered a half-lifted tail and jaunted through the brush.
And with that, he unloaded his trusty rifle, stowed the gear and climbed down the tripod ladder. A low-slung crescent moon guided him back to the waiting vehicle and the trip back to camp.
It had been a pretty good year, he chuckled, thinking to himself it’s not just about pulling the trigger.