The Miracle of the Deer
(Part I of a Divided True Narrative)*

          The impulse to hunt deer is not what it was when, as a young man, I used to toss in sleepless apprehension pre-enacting in my mind’s eye all of the brilliant gambits I would try on opening day. Oh, I still apply for a license every year, not so much because I love the chase, but because the thought of good venison and the yellow grasses of the autumn fields still wield upon my soul their ancient charm.

          One of the great prizes for certain N. Dak. hunters is to be drawn for a refuge permit. One of these allows its holder access to any of the great game refuges scattered about the state– a real boon especially for hunters like myself who usually hunt alone. The refuges are wild and natural much like they originally once were, and there are no “Posted” signs or swarms of other hunters.

          Well, the season I’m writing of, (1993) I had the good fortune to be one the forty lucky guys who drew permits to hunt on the great sprawling Tewakon refuge near Rutland in south east North Dakota. It was an “antlerless” permit. I’d long since lost interest in antlers. All I was after was some fresh meat and a time alone in the wild.

          November finally came, and with it opening day of a two-week season. I understood from my proclamation that I could spend only the first three days on the refuge. After that I would be consigned to the rest of Unit II G 2 just like everyone else. That didn’t worry me. I knew I’d have my dear the first day. After all, drawing a permit had been an answered prayer. Could there be any doubt about the outcome–even for a late-fifty-ish lone hunter?

          The eve of my hunt offered its rituals. The knife was sharpened, gun and ammo rechecked, and as was my wont, I said this little prayer to the great Provider: “Lord, let no accident befall me or any other hunter, and let me not wound and lose an animal to suffer and die wasted; let me not by accident shoot an antlered deer, neither let me hit my doe in such a place as to destroy much meat or taint it. Finally, Father, let the animal fall close to the road to save me from a man-killing long drag, and let the gutting out of the animal go well so I don’t get afflicted by deer-hair allergens that could ruin my hunt with an asthma attack.

          And so the season opened. My three days, (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), in the promised land slipped by, and I pulled into my garage that Sunday evening without my deer.

          I had been given several chances, but I met them with every known bungle in the annals of the hunt. Easy shots were missed; safeties were left on, guns were left unloaded, and how could I forget the lovely doe that appeared for a moment at the edge of a frozen slough, only to vanish into an adjoining shelter-belt in the instant that I hesitated, uncertain weather to take the rear-end shot the moment offered.

          The following week-end proved lovely, but much of the land in my unit was either posted, or unsuitable for a lone hunter to hunt well. I was beginning to lose faith.

          But on the Thursday evening before the final weekend, it happened. For no special reason, I had decided to resort my magazine rack. There, buried, was my proclamation. I was curious. Could they have possibly changed the refuge dates? I had assumed the rules would be the same as last season. I had to check. Sure enough there had been a change! Refuge permit holders were allowed to hunt anywhere in the unit after the first three days, INCLUDING THE REFUGE! My not checking the proclamation had cost me a whole week-end’s time on the refuge, but the last week-end of the season was only a day away.

          Suddenly my faith began to return. I had heard sermons on the importance of positive, faith-filled confessions, the business of “speaking of things that be not as though they were.” This had never been easy for me, but my finding the change in the proclamation made me sense that something good was still in the works. “Audrey,” said I to my wife, “I think I’m going to get my deer.”

           Saturday morning I awoke like a kid on his first hunt—eager. On the drive to the refuge, I sang snatches of praise choruses as I drank my coffee. My confidence was unshakeable the entire sixty-mile drive, and the blackness of the pre-dawn sky in my rear view mirror seemed spangled with bright rays of hope. “Bright mornin’ stars are shinin’” I sang. “Day is a breakin’ in my soul.”(That’s right, Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass!)

          I opted to spend the first shooting hour simply standing watch on a high ridge overlooking a meadow where I had seen deer two weeks prior. It was 7:00 a.m., and at my back, the dawn was transfusing the east with rose, brinded with saffron streaks. As I stood there in silence, the dried sweet clover, meadow hay and prairie grass transformed itself in the gathering brightness before me. Here and there the darker forms of Indian tobacco and isolated leafless shrubs imitated standing deer tempting me to check them with my scope. It was a gorgeous, almost sacred November morning, but nothing out there moved. By 9:oo a.m., I decided it was time to shoulder my Browning lever-action 308 and go get my venison.

          I parked my car at the end of a refuge service road about fifty yards away from the seven-row shelter belt that formed the south border of an ice-covered slough creating an escape route that terminated in another slough of about the same size a half mile to the east. I had learned from experience, that any deer flushed in either of these little round two acre cattail sloughs always made strait for the shelter belt where spruce trees, poplars and Russian olives would hide its flight.

          My plan was to circle slowly around the west edge of the first slough with the quartering northwest breeze at my back, hoping it would aid me in flushing any tight-lying animal. I would be hunting into the sun, but I felt strongly that I might get a shot. It was here I had missed a chance at a nice doe the first morning when I had forgotten to put a round into the chamber and performed goof no. 1.

          I decided to still hunt, a technique I had learned long ago from one of my boyhood hunting idols, Ted Trueblood of “Field and Stream.” The idea was to move along very slowly, pausing every ten yards or so to scrutinize all cover with the penetrating gaze of a hawk.

          That long “still,” pause had the effect of unnerving hiding animals to the point that they would often break cover and run; Or, if you were really a good looker, you might spot deer standing in cover and put them down even before they flushed. It was a great way to hunt, and not to be confused with stand hunting, where you perch in a tree or even a tree house and wait.

          So I “still” hunted; still, I hunted, and I hunted still. Nothing. Not even a bed or a track in the inch or two of powdered snow that cloaked the ground. My hopes had almost begun to fade when a notion hit me. The phrase “Joshua commanded the children to shout,” imprinted itself into my mind. Then I noticed a particularly dense stand of cattails just ahead. Why not, I thought. Why not pull a Joshua.

          I readied myself, slipped off the safety, and shouted as loudly as I could. Instantly the cattails rattled and I saw my doe with its ears laid back and heading for a gap in the shelter belt just ahead. I mounted the rifle and found its cross hairs perfectly framing the gap in the trees. Then the deer was there, its hind quarters dead center in the cross hairs. But, thinking of the possibility of a gut shot, I hesitated. In a trice, the deer was gone. The occasional white flash of its tail told me it was headed east into the sun. She’s heading toward the other slough, I thought. She won’t expose herself to the road on the other side of the shelter belt and the possibility of being shot by some road hunter in a pick-up truck. Maybe there’s still hope.

          I decided to make a big circle around to the other slough and approach it from the other side. This would give the doe a chance to bed down and perhaps give me one more chance to have a go at her. Then another thought etched itself into my mind, “If you get a shot, don’t hesitate, shoot.”

          Soon I found myself approaching the other slough directly from the north and it was deja vu all over again. Ahead was another thicker stand of cattails and just beyond it that same shelter belt, gap and all but a good half mile from where I’d flushed the deer the first time.

.Another scrap of scripture entered my mind, “Having done all to stand, stand.” So I stood and waited, eyeing the gap in the shelter belt some seventy yards ahead of me. Still I stood. If she’s in there, she’s got to be getting nervous,” I thought.

          Suddenly the rushes snapped again an the deer materialized, heading for the very gap in the trees I had been eyeing. The gun came up, and again I saw hind quarters centered in the cross hairs. I fired.. Nothing. No pop of a striking bullet, no stagger, no visible sign of the deer’s having been hit, and again the white tail flashed as the deer raced down the center of the shelter belt, back in the direction of the car and the other slough.

*This is as much of this narrative as got published in “Headwaters,” the NDSCS student magazine when I wrote it up back in 2002. The secretary thought the whole story was on the disc. But I hadn’t finished the “rest of the story.” So everyone thought I had one of those arty endings that just sort of stop, unaccountably.

          The rest of the story can now be found here on this very website under the title, “The Miracle of the Deer, part II” Let me here re-emphasize that this whole narrative is absolutely true. What happened was so astonishing to me that I have never since had the slightest doubt that God is not only there, but that He can answer your prayer to the letter if it suits His purposes. (G.P.)