A Just Reward
For whatever the reason, getting old and after suffering his first of some five heart attacks, old Joe at 54 lived a rather inactive, drab life. To be honest as he always was, he was very fearful of having another bout with his ticker. And even more fearful of dying, the virtual unknown….
He was an addicted outdoors man, and dedicated hunter, especially when it came to his most most-beloved whitetails of northern forests. But the fears he harbored got the best of his aging predatory heart. He gave up the ritualistic autumn hunts. His hunting heart was devoid of the joys he had held there when he walked silently through whitetail country. Nothing in his ‘new life’ could possibly fill this saddening void.
But one afternoon, his daughter Erika, a college student, brought home a friend from the university they attended together. Jeff desperately wanted to meet to meet her father whom he’d read in numerous outdoor magazines and newspaper columns. Jeff, with his kindnesses, brought a lot of joy and pride back to the old man’s solemn mood and heart.
Joe always said the reader’s recognition of his pedestrian works meant far more to him than the money the works brought. All the money in the world never came close to equaling the heartwarming comments and letters from his readership. Thus, he wrote for some 27 years for various magazines and newspapers, so enjoying the kindness of readers.
Less than a year after befriending Jeffrey, this heartwarming question spilled from the lad: “Joe, would I be too forward to ask a favor of you?”
No, Joe didn’t mind. He loved people, almost everyone he met. So, too, did he love helping them in any way he could. He encouraged Jeff to ask.
“Would you take me to your favorite whitetail woods and teach me just some of what you know about deer hunting?”
Joe looked into Jeff’s questioning blue, innocent eyes. Jeff continued, “I’ve been hard at it for seven seasons and I’ve never even seen a buck in the woods!”
Joe leaned back in his writing chair, put flame to his old pipe, then smiled and answered, “Jeffrey Howe, I’d be honored and happy to do just that. Let’s talk, buddy.”
After reminding Jeff how his old legs weren’t what they had been, Joe continued, “If you’ll phone me a few days ahead of when you can go to Ol’ Yonder Wood, I’ll give you a strong, several-week crash course you won’t ever forget. But you’ll have to carry me!” They shared a laugh.
Joe explained to Jeff that, even after decades of hunting whitetails, he didn’t know close to it all. But what Jeff would learn would be quite enough to give him the deserved edge and needed knowledge he should have to hang his first buck.
That first relaxed conversation lasted over an hour. Jeff listened as a priest might when hearing a confession. He took notes in a little spiral-bound notebook. Writing so fast Joe thought the notepaper might start smoking. He mentioned this to Jeff, and Jeff laughed. Joe loved hearing this fine young man laugh. “Joe, “Jeff said, “I wanna memorize this by buck season. I just have to at least see a buck in the woods!”
“Jeff, you shall my friend, you shall…” Jeff was a good student and a joy to be teaching. Joe felt he was the ‘lucky’ one in this twosome.
For the most part, the mentor’s legs and heart held up pretty well. But the two walked slowly. Stopped often to check things Joe spotted for Jeff. Joe loved what he was doing with his ‘second son.’ And Jeff learned quickly and well…
When Jeff’s debut as a more knowledgeable deer hunter was riding a fast wind out of the north, Jeff’s excitement was notably visible. And the old teacher certainly understood that!
Their plan was for Joe to accompany him first day. But as luck would have it, a few days before the opener, Joe’s strength took a hard turn for the worst. He was weakened by too much activity. His heart was heavy with grief… Joe had to make a dreaded call.
It was just two days from the season opener: “Hello, Jeff, Joe. Hey buddy I’m not feeling up to snuff. Been in a battle with this bug I have and I seem to be losing. Jeff, I doubt I’ll be able to keep my promise and accompany you Monday morning. I feel terrible letting you down. Jeff, but I’m pretty weak and beaten. I’m very, very sorry, Jeff. Hate breaking a promise, ‘specially to you buddy, but listen. You’ll do just fine out there. Just remember my words. Enjoy the quiet of the morning woods, move as little as possible and think only of your dream coming true. It’ll keep you busy, keep you from moving and anxiousness.”
Jeff, “…don’t worry Joe. I fully understand. Just get well tough guy. Maybe you’ll be better for the second day?”
“Ain’t gonna be no second day for you, son. You’re gonna fill your own dream in the morning come Monday!”
Jeff mentioned he’d bring his cell phone for the hunt. Then agreed to phone him from the mountainside if he got his buck. “Jeff I won’t even sleep Sunday night and I’ll caffeine dizzy by the time you call me from the mountain!”
Joe told Jeff he’d come to him when he got his buck and show him how to take care of the field-dressing. “We’ll talk again Sunday. Just be cool, be calm, walk softly, become the forest and get to the old hemlock stand well before dawn. Settle in. Observe everything around you before full daylight. Every twig, branch, everything Jeff. Then you’ll be better able to discern any little thing out of place. Such as the muted outline of a deer’s tail. Don’t leave that stand before ten, ten-thirty, Jeff. Deer almost always use the area after nine.”
His morning should be grand. His pounding, young heart and the hope that burns there should keep him warm. Joe was almost in tears wishing so he could be with his young friend. “Just wish old Mr. Magoo here could be at your side, Jeffrey. You’ll never know…”
Jeff laughed, as Joe always made fun of his own round, zucchini-like nose. And Jeff enjoyed that. They fully enjoyed each other, especially when Joe’s son, Justin would join in with his humor.
Joe was wide awake on Monday’s early morning. Joe stood weary-eyed at the coffee maker watching its progress like that of a soaring osprey tuning in on a disabled bluegill. Nervous, anxious for Jeff’s dream to come to pass, he nursed his first cup of coffee. Talking to himself in the quiet of the kitchen, “He’ll be just fine. He’ll do everything to the letter. I know Jeff. Probably be calmer than I ever was at his young age. Even a small prayer was said: “Please do your magical stuff, God. Out there on that cold, blustery mountain is a fine youngster who surely deserves your blessings…”
The early morning was a miserable one as far as weather. Blustery winds from the north and snow which was falling to earth in a horizontal descent. Joe knew Jeff would get cold early on, but hoped he’d cut it at least until 10 A.M.?
Joe was getting dressed when his phone rang and startled him out of his old man’s daze. He felt better as far as his bug enemy was concerned, and answered with a heart, “Hello!”
On the other end, Jeff’s excited voice” “Morning’ buddy! How are you feelin’ this fine norther of a morning?”
“Well howdy, Jeffrey. I’m warm at least and I’d bet you’re colder than heck? It’s not even nine o’clock Jeff? What’s up, little buddy?”
“I can honestly tell ya now, Joe, I’m not cold anymore! I got the nice eight-point we spotted in the corn stubble last week!”
Old Joe’s belly turned into a flock of nervous butterflies. His tired knees all but buckled with the joyous news. ‘His’ Jeff was in the very midst of a dream come true! His eyes teared profusely and holding hisphone away from his mouth so as not to rupture Jeff’s ears, he screamed, “ALRIGHT!!!”
“Where are you buddy? I’ll be there in about forty-five minutes! You O.K.?”
“Fine now, Joe. I’m just above the lonely hemlock near the edge of the stubble corn. I was freezing and about to head for the truck for a while when I spotted him coming toward the woods. I went slowly to one knee, I waited until he came in a little closer. To about sixty, sixty-five yards, then touched off my old three-o-eight. He dropped like a rock from heaven. No pain. Dead before the shot stopped bouncing off the hillside!”
Now Joe was wiping away large beads of perspiration on his forehead. The ‘happy’ he was feeling was almost too much to bear. He loved Jeff as his own flesh and blood. Close to as much as he did his own son, Justin, who’d given up deer hunting the same year he did. Jeff and Justin were now best friends and Justin was very pleased that his father took Jeff under his proverbial ‘wing.’
“Stay there Jeff. May take my old legs and heart a while to tough out the climb to you! I’ll be there, hang out and enjoy the sight of your first buck.”
After considerable huffing and puffing, Joe cleared the first bench of the mountain. Tehn spotted Jeff at the edge on top. Joe wanted to run but his love and excitement for Jeffrey didn’t give him quite what was needed to run to Jeff.
When Joe reached Jeff’s side, they hugged, Joe all but weeping with deep happiness… Jeff’s grateful, happy smile and sparkling blue eyes were a gift Joe cherished at the moment to the marrow of his old bones…
Field-dressing complete, several cups of coffee from Joe’s old pot welcomed by Jeff, they began the drag off the hillside. Joe thought as he walked, then mentioned to Jeff, “…pride he felt was close to emotional pain…” But Joe handled it well. Afterall it was Joe’s dream come true as well.
After some happy conversation, hot veggie soup and sourdough bread for dipping, Jeff had to leave for Hanover, his hometown. He and his son, Justin, wished Jeff a safe trip and rather sadly said, “See ya, buddy. Take care.”
Jeff had a full cape mount made of his beautiful buck. It hangs in his bedroom, right alongside a sizable portion of old Joe’s heart.
Proud, Joe knew his many lessons did well for Jeff. He knew that even after he was gone to the whitetail woods in the sky, Jeff would forever carry Joe’s memory and lessons every time he hunted deer or rabbits. Jeff was that kind of young man. Grateful, sincere and so very deserving of his just rewards. The buck, Joe and Justin’s friendship. And they for Jeff’s…
And most certainly, as long as there are fine young men like Justin and Jeffrey, taking care of this crazy world, there’s little to worry about.
Joe, even today wishes he could walk the autumnal woods with his two sons. He knows, however, he won’t quite make it. But, that buck, and his natural son’s first gave him new life. Memories enough to fill the old man’s cup to overflowing. He needed it…
Melancholy, as Joe’s eyes looked through the window toward ‘his’ whitetail woods, he whispered to himself: “Those two young men did certainly fill this old heart. But never could they ‘fill’ my bulbous, zucchini-like Magoo nose.” The nose poor old Joe has to lug around everywhere he goes. He’d much rather tote his old thirty-ott six. But it too, rests…