I was probably in my late teens the first time I saw “the boys,” camped in the deer spot I had been told to check out.  They all seemed ancient to me even that first year.  The oldest one of the four was truthfully at least 80 years old then, I later came to find out.  His hair was white, and always perfectly oiled back, even when he was wearing his hunting hat.  He stood about 5’6”, and was somewhat slight of frame, but solid as a rock.  When he was hunting, he always wore a one-piece jump suit with the old duck-hunter style camouflage on it, and carried a very nice compound bow with orange aluminum arrows. Camped with him were two brothers who were “only” in their 70’s.   Bringing up the rear of their group was a stray cousin who they treated like “the kid,” presumably because he was only in his 60’s.  “The kid” carried a battered recurve, and rather than wearing camo, usually wore a blue plaid shirt and jeans to hunt in.

My hunting partner Steve and myself dismissed them without much notice the first few years we hunted that area.  We’d slow down and wave politely as we drove past their camp, but always ended up chuckling at the idea of them out hunting.  Never bothering to find out their names those first years, we simply referred to them as “the boys,” and the visibly elder octogenarian as the “extra-old boy.”  Jokes were made about beating deer to death with canes, or walkers with wheels on them that could serve double-duty as deer carts if need be.  We were teenagers in small-town southern Idaho, and being ignorant came pretty easily to us.

 After we had gained a year or two, and I suppose some degree of maturity, we did start to be sincerely concerned about the welfare of the gentlemen — though we still chuckled at the thought of these white-haired men out roaming the woods.  We never really talked to them, but we would make a point of driving past their camp after our day of hunting, even if it was a little out of our way, just to make sure the lights were on in their big wall tent, and that they were home.  Every year they had their camp set up by Labor Day, and they stayed put there for at least two weeks.  We came to respect them for their persistence, and truthfully, I think I took it for granted that they would always be there — like they were part of the mountain — despite the obviously inevitable. 

Steve and I really weren’t so great of hunters in those days.  We were young and tough though, and we thought nothing of hiking up canyons and down cliffs for ten or more miles a day. We would always see plenty of deer bounding out of their beds and we’d send arrows after them, so we thought we were great hunters — even though our arrows never came close to connecting.  We had heard archery hunting was supposed to be tough, and we figured that if we just put in enough time, one of us would get lucky sooner or later.  Wasn’t that the way everybody did it?   I can remember one particularly “tough” day when we had forgotten to bother bringing any food with us.  We’d gotten into a small herd of does and ended up chasing them hither and yon through juniper-covered coulees for several hours.  Eventually, I just up and fainted.  When I came to, Steve was standing over me laughing and calling me a pansy.  It never even occurred to us that someday our bodies might not be invincible.

One evening well after dark, the lights weren’t on in the boys’ tent when we drove by, so we took the turn-off to their camp to see if things were all right.  We were a little worried, but when we got closer we were relieved by the sound of voices and laughter.   When we got to where we could see behind the tent, there was a good campfire burning and the four men were standing around it with beer in their hands. One was tending a griddle propped over the flames in the dark night.  We stepped out of the truck, and the smell of frying liver and onions was delicious and thick in the air.

“You fellas musta’ smelt that from the road, eh?” greeted  “extra-old boy” as we walked over.  “Ya like fresh deer liver?”

I’m glad it was pretty dark, because I wouldn’t have wanted him to have seen the mixed look of shock and jealousy on my face.  We were pretty hungry after our fruitless day of hiking and wasting arrows, and we gladly accepted their offer of a hot meal.  They were happy to celebrate their kill with us, and I was happy to try my first venison liver. 

“Yep, Dale got her with his recurve behind camp this evenin’.”

Dale (the kid) told us his story:

“Well, I’s just walkin’ the little canyon like I usually do back here when I saw her.  She just stood up real slow to have a look at me, so I pulled back and let ‘er fly.  She took off down the crick an I thought I’d missed her.  Looked fer the arrow and blood and the like and didn’t find nothin’ so I went on my way abit, but when I come back, I found this here piece a’ cedar arrow a’ mine I’d shot at her.  It was just layin’ where I would a went if I were a shot deer.  I looked around a little bit and there she were- four hooves straight up in the air –hee hee!”

Steve and I were pretty excited to see that someone had been successful, but we still chuckled about how lucky Dale had been to get that deer.  How could somebody who moved as slowly through the woods as those guys did ever be lucky enough to get close to a deer?  Steve and I always spent days cruising the ridges and valleys, covering as much ground as we could. We always saw plenty of deer, but we never found the ones that were foolish enough to stay put and let us to shoot them. Besides that, how lucky did the guy have to be to just happen to find the spot where a mortally wounded deer would end up?  “Million-to-one odds,” we decided.   We laughed about it all the way back to our camp.

A year later on opening day of archery season, two deer were hanging by their hams in the boys’ camp. We had stopped by just to say hello on our way into the area.  It was late afternoon then, and Ollie (the extra-old boy) and Chris (one of the brothers) came out of the tent to greet us.  By the size of their grins, I could tell that they didn’t care that we’d disturbed their naps.

 “The doe,” Chris explained, “took a spine shot.”  “I was right up on this hill this mornin’, first thing.  I could see her butt stickin’ out of the trees, and I could tell by the way she was flickin’ her tail around that she knew somethin’ fishy was goin’ on.  I went around and waited by the fence on the other side a’ the trees and sure enough, here she come.  But instead of jumpin’ over the fence like you’d expect a big ‘ole deer to do, she tried getting’ under it all sneaky-like.  Didn’t work!   We backed the pickup right up to her.” 

Ollie’s spike was another good story.

 “Yep, I was back here behind camp aways when I saw him a eatin’.  Trouble was, all I could see of him was his head. I figured I better shoot, so I put my pin on him when he was lookin’ at somethin’ else and let loose.  He dropped right there and never made another move.  Game warden accused me a’ shootin’ with a gun when he saw there weren’t no holes in the meat, till I showed him the poor critter’s noggin and he tried yankin’ the arrow out to look at it. Wouldn’t budge!  I ain’t much fer puttin’ deer heads up on the wall and such, but I think this’n just might end up on the barn door!”

I don’t think you could find any hunters happier with or prouder of their animals than these men were, regardless of antler size or Pope and Young score.

Setting up our camp that afternoon, I think it finally dawned on Steve and I that the old boys knew what they were doing, and that he and I were complete idiots.  Thinking back now, I wonder what kind of jokes they must have made about us, watching us stampeding over the ridges, killing ourselves day in and day out, and doing nothing but herding animals into their honey-holes. 

The next day, after some hard thinking, I decided that maybe I would hunt a little more thoroughly than usual, near camp, –kind of near where our elder neighbors hunted, just by coincidence, of course.  In my head I kept trying to picture how the boys would move through the woods and tried to see if could duplicate it.  Funny as that must sound, it worked, at least to an extent.  I remember that dark, cool day well.  The fine mist of a rain that can’t decide if it really wants to fall or not was beading up on my face, finally dripping, and carrying with it the wild- amazing scent of wet sagebrush.  I remember how quiet the dampness made the soft earth of the worn deer trails under the pines, and marveling at how quiet I could be walking in it if I just tried.  I looked up the hill next to me and saw him- a nice fork horn – looking down at me unalarmed.  The first arrow hit the dirt between his hooves, and surprisingly, he didn’t budge.  The second arrow cracked into a quakie right in front of his face, and he trotted off.  I felt both ecstatic and disappointed at the same time.

After digging my arrows out of the dirt and wood, I had enough sense not to try to shoot the now dull blades at an animal again.  I quivered them and took out a nice arrow with a good, heavy broadhead on it, heavier than what I had been shooting.  I slowly stillhunted deeper into the pine filled draw. Just when I felt a real “deery” kind of spider-sense tingling come over me, I was startled by a whisper right next to me in the pines.

“Seen much?”

It was Chris, the brother who had taken the doe at the fence opening morning.  He wasn’t even wearing camo, and I hadn’t seen him.  He was just out for a walk, trying to see “a few good ones.”  I told him about my near misses, and he started grinning for me.  Then we heard a crash.

Not 30 yards away, stood a dozen deer.  They had walked right in on us.  My eyes immediately gravitated to the huge 5X5 standing in the middle.  I think it probably must have been harder to miss a deer than to hit one, with that many standing so closely together, but my mismatched heavy broadhead sure did do the trick for me.  It plowed into the pine needles underneath the big buck.  I’m sure that if anyone else had seen me blow that shot, they would have laughed or cussed or made fun of me for the next week.  Chris simply asked, “Where did it hit?”

We checked the arrow for blood, just in case, and Chris noticed my assorted broadheads.

“You might do better if these were all the same, ya’ know.”

I upgraded my equipment that next summer to arrows that all matched, and I practiced until I could hit things with them.   I guess after my harsh lesson, I had finally gotten around to thinking about how maybe Ollie’s pegging that spike in the back of the head was something more than chance. 

The following Labor Day is one of those memories that stay like a clear, beautiful, perfect photograph in the mind forever.  Steve and I had hunted together that morning, and then split up around noon.  I had sneaked around for a couple of hours by myself when on a sun-blasted hillside, there were deer just standing up from their beds.  I don’t know if they had seen or smelled me or were just getting up to stretch, but they stood there simply looking at me. The sun was shining hot on us, and black-and-red grasshoppers made their clack-click-clackity-click noise and flew away from my feet. The breeze blew some of my long hair over my face and I released the arrow.  The does ran off, the two-point fell over, and I stood there with my mouth hanging open.

When I came past their camp with my buck, I think all four of the boys were in danger of infarction.  They were honestly happier about my success than I was, and that is indeed saying something because I was beyond ecstatic.  There was a deer hanging in their camp, but I never did hear the story about it- they kept asking me about mine, and I couldn’t leave until I had gone over every detail several times.  Steve told me later that when he was coming back to camp himself a few hours afterwards, he had stopped in to see the boys, and they were still excitedly talking about my kill like it was the most remarkable thing they’d seen in ages.  I’m not sure if that was a compliment or not, but I took it as such.

That was well over 20 years ago.  The mule deer herds of southern Idaho aren’t what they used to be, and neither are Steve and I.  Between then and now, Steve suffered a spinal injury that has left him partially debilitated.  We still meet together to hunt somewhere every year, but now we hunt understandably close to camp or roads. We talk about “the boys,” and wonder what they would think of us now—now that we resemble them more closely than we do our old selves at times.  Like them, we now cover less ground and do so at a slower pace, but we end the season with more meat than those ambitious kids we once were ever did.

 I scouted the old area two summers ago and found the once deer track-pounded trails to be overgrown with cheat grass and sun burrs.   The campgrounds were all empty.   I did stop by the camp spot where their wall tent had once stood, and thought about “the boys.”  I looked at the meat pole still nailed to the trees where the spike with the terminal headache — and no telling how many other fine animals — had once hung.    I looked at the fire ring still black from countless fragrant cook-fires.   I soaked up the whole feeling of that place again, rich in memories of dawns and sunsets and laughter in between, and I prayed that when I’m 80, I could still be carrying a bow and finding animals like the beautiful deer that used to inhabit those South Hills.  I prayed that like the men that had hunted out of that camp once upon a time, I too might be able to somehow pass something on to someone who desperately needed it someday.

            I smiled.  I thought I saw a young buck trot behind the camp.  A ghost maybe?  I don’t know, and I don’t suppose it matters.  It did make me wonder though, what I might see were I to come back and spend some time again there some Labor Day…