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Deer Life: Anecdotes & Legends from the Deep Woods

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PART ONE.

Deer hunting season in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

"Where are all the deer?" asked Red Plaid Flannel.

"Must be they're on the ridges," said Green Wool with Neon Orange Hat.

Red Plaid sighed and climbed up to the ridge... Another hunter entirely in Day-glo Orange with a little gray beard was sitting atop it peering out.

"Where are all the deer?" asked Red Plaid.

"Must be they're in the swamps, Oy guess. Here, try some of this," said Orange man.

“What is it?”

“Old Stinky Skunk Scent,” Orange man said, handing him the little bottle. “It’s fool- proof-- drip some on your shirt. It covers the smell of human beings. When deer smell humans it makes them stay away. Deer can smell a lot better than humans can, ya know.”

“I already got some Red Fox Urine Scent drizzled on my pants-- the deer don’t run away from it, the ads say.”

“Suit yourself,” Orange man said. “Try grunting like a deer does-- like this... Or get a couple of antler racks and crash them together, rattle ‘em like two bucks fightin’.

Ever try ‘Doe in Heat’ scent? They say you smear that in your hair it’ll bring the big bucks right to you.”

“Maybe right on top of you and into you.”

“Man, we sure got a bag o’ tricks, don’t we?”

“Well sure—outsmartin’ the deer’s half the fun, you know that.”

“But where are they?”

“Figurin’ that out’s the other half.”

“Maybe I oughta go huntin’ for beaver, instead.”

“Well there’s plenty of beaver around. Need to be patient in any case. And alert, too. The deer and the beaver and the bear never went to school, but you can’t outsmart them unless they’re havin’ a really bad day.”

“Can’t argue with that.”

“Hell, every damn hedgehog snout has a better sense of smell than any person can. Or so I’m told.”

“Well, Oy guess...”

Red Plaid drank coffee from his thermos, and ate a granola bar, and a ham sandwich with mustard. Orange man had a cozy meal of spicy beef jerky. They both thought fondly of drinking Wild Turkey in the cabin after nightfall.

[Chinese ink, Resting Deer, William J. Jackson.]

That fall, apples had been plentiful at first. Then freezing rain one sunset and an early deep snow at night kept deers' pointy muzzles and sharp hooves from reaching the apples in the orchards. Twigs of logged hardwood in clearings were all the munchables they could find.

From the Southern part of the state, hunters crept up into the North woods of the Green Mountains and haunted old well-worn trails, still discernable logging roads, and unpaved roads no longer maintained by towns. Hunters came to the North Country seeking signs: quivering branches, tracks in snow—hoof prints and leg marks—and deer eyes watching from afar.

And the deer retreated ever deeper into the virgin forest.

Many hunters will never leave the path, or go too far from the road. If they shoot a deer far from the road the carcass is hard to carry back. They also fear that they might get lost. Vermont brother-in-law in old clothes said to out-of-state-brother-in-law in new L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer apparel: “My ol’ pal Jack, he saw a buck all a sudden right there in front of him. He was far away from the road and he got Buck Fever-- his heart was beating twice as fast as normal, and he thought he’d have a heart attack. That adrenaline raced through him, like a crazy buck running through the woods, and it just about scared him to death. So let’s take it easy, OK? We’re not spring chickens anymore, ya know!” Meanwhile silent flakes were wafting down.

Snow had gathered on boughs of spruce, and breezes made clumps of it fall, startling deers' "third ears" sonar sensitivity between the two toes of their front hooves, which they keep tuned to the ground. Any strange sound or earth vibration sends them bounding. The snow would fall with a thud and the deer would dash in flight, beyond the range of snow machines which can run them to death in the vast open fields.

Two female deer, one big and one little, nimbly skittered down a slope of thick-trunked firs, leaping across a rippling brook, through cedars. Cedar fronds are good to eat any time of year, and some trees here had low branches. Sun was shining through the light green lacy cedar fronds. The deer, smelling the sweet resinous cedar branch odor, wanted to taste the green.

The fawn raised her head up to break a small branch off -- on the ground it would be easier to nibble. It was just out of reach so she reared up on her hind legs to get a mouthful, and to pull with a twist of her neck. The older deer turned. She was surprised, angry to catch the little one stopping.

The fawn dropped her front legs back to the snowy ground and unexpectedly one of them kept right on going -- down through the snow, beyond the supporting earth -- into a hole.

Try as hard as she might the fawn could not withdraw it. Cedar grows in wet land and here and there the wet land is honeycombed with holes where earth is washed away from between root and rock. The fawn's hoof, like the barb of an arrow, was wedged in one of these holes and she could not free it.

As the fawn pulled with all her strength, trying to unloose the fast-stuck hoof, the loggers' chainsaws hummed like insects in the distance. The saw's drone and whine mixed and melted in the rush of the brook nearby. As she strained to pull her leg out, the fawn felt the two bones beginning to separate at the joint and stopped.

In the distance a pack of dogs barked. The foamy gurgle and splash sounds of the brook flooded over the dogs’ yelps, then their voices emerged again; and again were submerged.

The older deer sniffed the wind and the smells of dogs and hunters vibrated in her nose, and she cocked her ears again and looked toward the noise with her large and dark eyes lustrous with concern. She stamped her shiny black hooves, then looked up at the cedar bough which the fawn had been trying to reach. The fawn strained some more to get free but again failed.

The dogs yelped nearer than before, then there was a metallic noise, the click of a rifle trigger. Snow clumps fell with thuds and plops from the fir boughs every so often. As the noises came closer and rang in the fawn's ears with the rush of the brook and the harsh silence of cold air, a snowy whirlwind with umber antlers sprang into sight, coming right up to the two.

Now the three deer stood with ears leaning back, communicating in silence. He was a stag in his prime --a rare kind-- a one in a million albino. He sized up the situation instantly, gave the mother deer the idea to set her neck and shoulders under the fawn's brisket and nudge upward. Then the white stag snorted, and, confident and smooth, leaped out of sight in two bounds, heading straight for the dog pack. The mother deer had bent her neck down to position it underneath the throat and now she pushed, pushed upward. Something budged where the hoof was stuck. She let up, stopped pushing, and the fawn lost balance -- her hoof sank a little lower in, hurting the dewclaw. She pulled up, and her hoof came back to the tight spot where it had been before, still stuck.

[Drawing and collage, including wild berry colors, William J.Jackson]

Excitement flashed and showered up over a hill upstream, leaping high over fallen trees, antlers blending with the tree trunks’ grey tan, coat blending with snow. White stag was leading the pack of dogs away from the mother and her fawn, but they were so close at that moment that the breeze which followed the brook brought the dogs' acidic saliva scent to the fawn and deer.

They stood motionless until the dogs were out of sight, then began their pulling and nudging motions anew.

The metallic click heard before came again to the two. Now their ears pricked up in total alertness as another noise came—men talking.

The buck knew the men were there and he kept leading the dogs that way. The white buck ran toward the men until they wondered what the approaching noise was; then he bounded back toward the dogs on a zigzag path.

He circumvented the dogs and left the hunters far behind, and keeping them distracted from the deer and the fawn for a little extra time.

Suddenly the white buck appeared before the two again. He had circled round and now without hesitating, he tenderly set his strong neck under the fawn's brisket, careful of his sharp horns, and where mother had failed he soon succeeded. Limping a little, the fawn's legs were moving along through the snow again.

The dogs began barking nearer. The white buck stamped and snorted, like a storm getting ready. The mother deer and the fawn sprang downstream along the brook, then hopped lightly, up, up a hill and away.

The hungry dogs, determined in their pursuit, incited by the insult of having been tricked, raced on and reached the white stag now, but his sharp hooves were ready to respond as the dogs’ teeth tried to hamstring him. At first he feigned fear and turned as if to run from them; and then he abruptly reared up and whirled in attack, hurling a sharp hoof into the skull of one snarling dog who yipped a cry and fell, splattering the snow with blood.

The other bloodthirsty dogs barked menacingly around the buck and advanced on him slyly with their vengeful sharp teeth bared. He stood his ground, held them at bay and fought them hoof and horn.

The buck stunned one mutt with his hoof and jolted another with an up-jut of his rack, and then he was off, bounding diagonally up a slope, and gone.

The deer and the fawn sniffed the wind and knew men were nearby. They quickly bounced away.

The hunters came running, panting, muttering to each other. Finding the bloody dogs they angrily cursed.

As the two deer raced farther toward their winter browsing ground they came upon some cerise berries glowing against the snow, and the mother deer stopped. Looking around and listening often, they chewed the berries and munched on the square twigs of the wahoo and swallowed this partly-chewed food into their paunches, their "first stomachs," where it would soak and soften. Later, at ease, out of danger, they would bring it back up to chew some more.

And as it began to snow, the white buck re-joined the two. The tip of his highest tine was broken where it had been hit by a bullet or an arrow. Dog blood was on another tine tip. Aside from this and a natural weariness in his dark eyes the white stag seemed fit as he could be, and it was all they could do to keep up with him.

Before they reached the deeryard they stopped to chomp on some brambles and red partridge berries. As the fawn chewed the red seeds a raven cried "Kahhkk!" overhead and the fawn jumped in surprise. The white stag thought that was funny.

But soon he sniffed, and then he twitched his ears and snorted and stamped. The deer went on up toward the direction of the deer yard, where, in the snowy winter, deer congregate after a summer of more or less solitary meandering and undisturbed feasting.

The buck did not move, but waited, sniffing more, listening with the "ears" in his front hooves. When they had reached the last pitch of the rise of hill, the fawn looked back to see another stag. This one was younger, with six-point antlers, and leaner than the white buck.

The young buck's eyes were crazed. He pawed the snow, head down, and then took off, to circle back and charge, ramming the older buck. Their thick necks were angled distinctively, braced for clashing.

The ground seemed to shake with the force of their head-on collisions. They stepped back and rushed hard, trying to gore and blind each other.

[Deer Collage, William J. Jackson.]

The older buck smashed into his opponent now with such fierce force that a tine broke off and the other one's scalp bled. Dizzily the attacker retreated, went dashing through a rattling thicket and swamp sending dry cattail fur flying in little puffs which dissolved into smaller puffs which floated and fell. During rutting season after mating with that young buck, a doe might squat down and let the unwanted seed drip out; no doe ever let the White Buck’s seed be lost.

The three moved on toward the browsing grounds of winter, and reached there before night fell. The mother deer and the big white stag went off together. The heavy gray sky began to snow and the flakes fell more and more thickly.

[End of Part One.]

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