Blood on my Hands

Column by Hal Walter

Wildlife – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT HAD BEEN SEVERAL YEARS since I’d killed a deer. Now the little buck lay dead at my feet, his eyes glassing over and blood running from his neck.

It was a golden autumn evening and I’d been hunting deer and elk in the muzzleloading rifle season. Earlier I’d found a wallow in an aspen glade. The small pond, a depression in the earth where a spring oozed to the surface, was stirred and muddy water was mixing with the clear. A few feet away I found milky droplets from the waterhole splattered on plants.

Something had just been in the water and had walked this way.

Three steps later, three mule-deer bucks sprang from the low rise just above the wallow. I was expecting elk, so the deer seemed out of context. The first two bounced away and crashed off through the timber, but the third buck bounded only a little ways and then stopped.

I considered a shot from there, but there were branches in the way and I thought I’d like to be closer with the caplock gun. I have the utmost respect for all animals and will not chance a haphazard or long shot. The buck bounded again, and though he was out of sight my ears told me that he didn’t go far. I began stalking him. Over the next 20 minutes, I played this deadly game with the buck, trailing him through thick woods along a small stream. The stream banks became steeper and closer. The deer was never far away, but there was always a tree trunk or branch in the way of a solid shot.

The buck once again bounded out of sight. I thought he had finally given me the slip, and that I would once again go home with my hands clean.

But then I looked up to my left where the oak-brush slope came down to the stream, and there he stood, facing me out in the open about 40 yards away.

I sat down, took aim and eased back the hammer.

Some native people who subsist by hunting, fishing and gathering believe that animals actually seek out and offer themselves to hunters who are respectful of them. I believe this too. I decided long ago that if I was going to eat meat that I would hunt the proverbial “sacramental portion” of it in order to gain a closer association with the earth.

Hunting some of my own meat also allows me to partially skirt the ecological and ethical questions associated with the commercial beef, pork and poultry industries. Even vegetarians must share responsibility for environmental impact of their eating, as industrial farming of grains, fruits and vegetables — through habitat loss, fertilization, pesticides and mechanized equipment — has a far-greater impact on a much larger number of wildlife species than does hunting. I forgot to depress the trigger while setting the hammer. So when the hammer clicked into place, the buck’s ears perked forward and he ran a short distance to my left, passing behind the skeleton of a fallen ponderosa pine, and then back out into the open. There he stopped, standing broadside, quartered slightly toward me. It seemed like some sort of offering. I aimed and squeezed the trigger.

Though I’ve killed numerous big-game animals with high-powered rifles, this was the first with a muzzleloading weapon, and I was unprepared for how hard the buck went down. Since I was also hunting elk, I had loaded the Hawken with a big mini-ball backed by a stout powder charge. I sat there stunned as the smoke drifted away.

At last I rose to my feet. Suddenly the deer jumped up and ran. I remembered then one of the basic rules of hunting with a muzzleloader — reload. I watched the deer run about 15 yards to a scrub-oak thicket and noted that there was no sound beyond that as I fumbled for powder and lead, pouring the former down the barrel and ramrodding the latter down after it.

I found the buck stretched out and still just beyond where I had last seen him, and realized he had been dead on his feet during his last flight. Nobody who loves animals ever feels good about killing them, but now I had entered this bloody pact with nature, and it was time to deal with it. I said a prayer of thanks and started to work.

The first matter at hand was to develop a course of action.

Sometimes after killing a big animal I get discombobulated. Some years ago, after killing an elk just before dark, I became disoriented and ended up wandering around lost in an area that I know well while the young cow’s survivors circled and barked at me in the moonless night.

Now another moonless night was approaching and I was several miles back in the wilderness in the northern Sangre de Cristo range, an area which hardly resembles the back of my hand. I had followed an old forgotten trail to the aspen glade where I had found the wallow and started stalking the buck. I decided to gut the deer first, then locate the trail. Then I would cache the meat overnight, and return with one of my burros the next morning to pack it out.

I knew I’d be walking out in the dark.

The slope was steep, and the deer kept sliding as I tried to work on it. Finally I took a length of poly rope out of my pack and tied one rear leg up to one of these scrubby bushes to keep it from sliding downhill. Slowly I remembered how to go about gutting a big animal. I located the scent glands on the inside of each rear leg and removed them.

Then I carefully sliced open the belly and separated the diaphragm from the rib cage. With a small bone saw I cut through the sternum. Following the trachea and esophagus to the upper neck, I cut these free and pulled most of the steaming mass of guts out onto the ground. The deer’s belly was bulging and, though I didn’t check, I suspect it was full of acorns from the scrubby oaks that grow so thickly on the south-facing slopes in this area.

The gut pile was now attached by the intestines. In order to remove these organs, one must free them from the pelvic cavity, taking particular care to not puncture the bladder. This is the most delicate part of the surgery, and I usually saw through the pelvis in order to get inside the cavity. Once the bladder is free, it’s simply a matter of disengaging the penis and anus, and the field-dressing is complete.

With a stick, I propped the rib cage open to cool while I went to look for the trail, which turned out to be only a stone’s throw uphill from the kill. However, in these few yards I took note of three piles of really fresh bear dung. Apparently the deer weren’t the only critters feeding on this year’s bumper crop of acorns.

IT WAS NEARLY DARK now and I needed to put my deer somewhere safe for the night. There was a small blue spruce down in the shade of the creekbottom. I decided to drag the buck down to it, and stash it under the tree. While doing this I discovered two more piles of fresh bear crap. I slid the deer under the spruce and covered it with branches.

When I stood back to survey the scene, I knew without a doubt that any bear without acute sinusitis would find my deer. This would not do.

It was then that I spied a downed tree that had broken off several feet up its trunk and fallen directly across the steep-walled stream. An idea came to mind. I dragged the deer to the stump and tied my rope off as far out on the log as I could reach. Then I lifted the deer’s rear end as high off the ground as I could. While bracing the carcass against the stump with my whole body, I tied the rope to a hind hock.

Then I pushed the deer over the bank.

I cringed for a moment as the log creaked, but the deer swung to its rest, upside down, right next to the stream. Now the carcass would be more difficult for bears to reach, and it would cool nicely hanging in the chilly creekbottom.

I located my gear, and with bloody hands, I stuffed a plastic bag containing the deer’s heart and liver into my pack and hefted the Hawken.

Then I headed down the trail into the darkness.

* * *

Next morning. The young burro known as Spike flared his nostrils and snorted as I approached with the freshly quartered, cheesecloth-wrapped meat. He shifted nervously where he stood tied to a sapling just upstream from where I left the deer. I spoke to him and held out a bloody hand, and he snorted again and stepped sideways. I placed the meat in equal amounts to either side of the burro. He reared and I thought he might yank the sapling from the ground. Then, quite abruptly, he calmed down and stood still. Quickly I loaded the meat into the panniers, trying my best to maintain balance by holding up one loaded pannier while loading the other.

When the meat was loaded into the panniers, I hitched the buck’s head over the sawbuck and we were ready to leave.

I paused to look over the little hillside where it seemed so much had happened since the previous evening — life and death on the edge of the wild. The sky was brilliant blue and the aspens were just starting to turn.

Spike and I headed for home with our deer.

Subsistence hunter and writer Hal Walter highly recommends author Richard Nelson’s Heart and Blood — Living with Deer in America to both hunters and non-hunters who are interested in these animals.