Venison Reprieve

Things went from good to bad and from bad to worse so fast it made
my head swim and my heart ache. Graduation from college meant
nothing once my family came apart. I soon found myself by myself,
working a mindless pulp mill job in Ketchikan fucking Alaska.

It’s not that I didn’t have friends, but they all seemed to be in some
stage of the same dismal state I was in. My best friend, Ray Wyatt,
was no exception. Ray hadn’t lost his family, he’d brought them up to
Ketchikan with him when the mill he’d worked at in Hoquiam went on
strike and he ran out of money. So now they were all together, wife,
two young sons, and a tiny daughter, living in a dark, damp basement
apartment, barely getting by.

Ray was a lean, sinewy sort, rawboned, laid back, and a lot stronger
than you might guess. He had a chiseled cowboy face, bit the filters
off the Marlboros he smoked, and owned every record Johnny Cash ever
made up to then. When he played them on his Webcor portable
phonograph, everyone had to be quiet and listen. Even the kids.
Afterward, Ray and I would head for the Sourdough or the Frontier for
an ice-cold Lucky Lager or three.

Ray eventually came up with a plan for getting us both out of
Ketchikan, “hat, ass, spats, and cats”. We’d keep getting by at the
pulp mill until the woods opened up in the spring, then sign up to be
loggers. “You done any loggin?” he asked.

“Not serious logging, but a little. Chasing Cat. Pulling cable.”

“Me too,” Ray said. “We’ll partner up, watch out for each other.”

I hadn’t done any real logging, as in lumber-baron logging camps in
old-growth forests far away from anything resembling civilization.
Real logging scared me. Real loggers scared me. Real life scared me.
Wasn’t there some other option? I stayed quiet and sipped my Lucky.

“Could snow a bit tonight and tomorrow,” Ray said. “Good deer hunting
up by the pulp mill lake. Let’s go Saturday. You got a gun? I’ll get you

The gun he got was a Savage bolt-action 30.06. I knew the guy he
borrowed it from. Nice guy. “You might want to check out the aim,” he
said. “Ain’t been shot in a while.” I thanked him, took it home, and
looked it over. It would do. Guns sort of aimed themselves, didn’t
they? Especially at short range?

A couple mornings later, snow still patchy on the ground, we headed
his truck up the gravel road to what everybody called Pulp Mill Lake.
Man-made to run generators of industrial electricity, it also provided
an easy barrier and watery access to the deeper woods, where the deer
were. Crossing the calm lake in Ray’s small aluminum flatboat, you
could look down through glassy water to the skeleton tops of
full-grown spruce trees, drowned and preserved like bones on a
desert. On the far shore, we tied the boat to a dead limb and started

We were headed for another lake, a natural lake where thirsty Bambis
hung out. The heavy spruce canopy meant no underbrush and easy
walking. I’d go left around the lake, he’d go right, and we’d meet in
the middle on the other side. If either of us got a shot, we’d take
it. The other guy would hear the shot and head in that direction. Good
plan, especially for me.

Of course I didn’t say anything, but my real reason for being out
there was not to shoot deer, it was to put myself out of misery. In
other words, to shoot myself in some pretty little wooded grove. Things
had not gone well for me in recent years, but at least I’d end up in a
nice place. So long and good bye. Only later did I think about what a
rotten thing that would be for Ray. Someone might even think he did
it. Shitty deal all around, but what did I care? The whole thing was a
shitty deal as far as I could make out.

There were vee-shaped tracks and morning scat here and there in the
half-inch overnight powder. Lots of spruce trees on this part of the
lake, and I picked an old one with big, comfortable roots and sat
between them, my back against the trunk. I wedged the butt of the gun
against the ground, the business end of the barrel against my upturned
chin, and my thumb against the trigger. Lying there at supine
half-cock, I took a few moments for a bit of deep thinking. Somehow
deep thoughts would not come. And no real melancholy. Only the promise
of relief. Good enough. Let’s see how this thumb thing works.

But wait. Was someone watching? It was like somebody was peeking down
over my right shoulder, spying from behind the trunk. I even thought I
heard something. It wouldn’t be Ray yet, not unless he doubled back.
Who then? I had to know.

So I put the gun down next to my right side and straddled it as I
jumped up and tried to get a quick look behind the tree. A light
thumping sound came, not from the tree, but from a bare knoll about
fifty yards ahead. There were two of them, a doe and her lightly
spotted fawn. It was the fawn’s nervous dancing behind his mother’s flank
that I’d heard.

Suddenly everything got clear. Was I batshit crazy? What the hell had
I been thinking? This was the reason grown men dress warm and lug
heavy iron into the woods. What was wrong with me?

Sighting down the barrel toward the doe standing in left profile, I
wondered if I could trust the rifle’s aim. What choice did I have? Aim
for the head and pull the trigger. Trust.

The results were not pretty, and I will not elaborate except to say
that she stood and waited until I killed her cleanly and reasonably
quickly as her fawn bounded out of harm’s way. No gut shots, but,
still, not pretty.

Her left eye glazed pensively as I sawed away at her neck arteries, and
soon Ray loped into the picture. “Whoa, man,” he gasped, half out of
breath, “you were sure throwing lead.”

“Yeah, well the sights were off and I sort of had to guess.”

I also was sort of starting to guess that this doe had willingly
sacrificed herself in order that I might not die. Yet. At least I was
willing to entertain it as a thought, an idea, a possibility. It was a
possibility I’ve returned to at odd moments many times since.
Why hadn’t she just run away?

Ray, an expert game dresser, had a particular liking for the
backstrap, his reward for doing all the hard work. I also let him have
pretty much whatever else he wanted. Ribs. Steaks. He had a family to
feed. I didn’t.

Not long after that, I jumped into my 1951 Silver 8 Streak Pontiac
and headed back south through Canada, the seat next to me well
supplied with deer meat sandwiches. (That’s what they call venison
in rural British Columbia: “deer meat”.)

Ray and I never became Alaska loggers, and we soon lost touch. A few
years later I heard that he had fallen off a log raft in a mill pond near
Hoquiam. His corked boots filled with water, the logs closed over him, and
down he went. One way to go, but not a nice way.

Over the years I’ve had quite a few close calls of my own and always
felt grateful to escape. Maybe it means I’ve shown the potential for someday
doing something worthy of the special protection I’ve gotten. Or maybe I’ve
just been lucky.

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