A CHRISTMAS BUCK
I was only eleven years old when I first met Mr. Barnes. Mom and Dad had just bought the farm in Wheat Creek, and he owned the farm just west of us. He was the first person I met after we moved in, and although that was more than fifty-years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday.
The opportunity to buy the farm had happened so suddenly that we were packing and moving before we knew it. The entire week was a blur and as we unloaded the last boxes from Dad’s truck, Momma pointed out that it was Christmas Eve. “Christmas Eve?” Dad shouted! “With all of the hustle and bustle of moving, I completely lost track of the days,” he said. At about that same time, there was a knock at the door, and standing on our front porch holding a beautiful, freshly cut Christmas tree, was Mr. Barnes. “Merry Christmas! I’m your neighbor, Jacob Barnes,” he said. And added, “Welcome to Wheat Creek!”
What I didn’t know then is that Mr. Barnes’ wife had died earlier that year, and as they had never had children, this was going to be his first Christmas alone in forty-seven years. Of course, Momma invited him in, and after the tree got put up, Mr. Barnes and dad drank a cup of coffee and visited, while Mom and I decorated the tree. As he didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get home, Momma invited Mr. Barnes to stay for supper, and he did.
As we ate, he told us all about what was going on in Wheat Creek, about the loss of his wife and about the big buck that he had been hunting all season. He told us that he had seen the buck several times from the tractor and a couple of times while hunting him, but the smart old guy had never provided a shot opportunity. Mr. Barnes announced that he was going out early on Christmas morning to hunt, and I was surprised when he asked me if I wanted to join him. I asked my dad for permission, and he said it would be all right for me to go, as long as I went to bed early, and Mr. Barnes would agree to join us for Christmas dinner. When we both agreed to those terms, we set a time that he would pick me up, and Mr. Barnes went home.
The next morning, I was up before my dad had come in to wake me. I couldn’t believe that there were presents underneath the tree! Mom had eggs and bacon already on the table and was just buttering toast as I sat down. My dad came in shouting “Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas!” and kissed Mom on the cheek. I still remember her eyes twinkling like the Christmas tree lights shining in the living room. This Christmas was starting off to be the best one ever.
Mr. Barnes arrived shortly thereafter, and after he drank a cup of coffee, off we went. Mom was saying something about being safe and Dad was saying that he expected to see that buck in the back of the truck by dinner time. Although we had just met him the day before, there was something about Mr. Barnes that made me feel like I had known him forever.
As we turned out of our drive onto the gravel county road, Mr. Barnes asked me if I had ever shot a deer myself. As I had shot a doe the prior year, I proudly told him that I had. He seemed pleased, and genuinely interested in the hunt. He asked me what gun I had used, and I told him I had shot the doe at nearly eighty yards with my dad’s Remington 243. He told me that he would be hunting today with a Winchester 30-30 that had been in his family for a long time.
When we turned off the gravel onto a dirt lane that was on Mr. Barnes’ farm, he asked me to open the gate. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest when a covey of quail exploded from the brush in the ditch as I unlatched the gate. Mr. Barnes was still laughing about it when I climbed back into the truck. “We are going to park just past that rock wall and walk in from there,” he told me. “When we almost get to the bottom of the hill, there is a part of an old rock corral that we will sit in,” he added.
When we parked, Mr. Barnes asked me to grab the thermos while he slipped his 30-30 from its case and carefully loaded it. The sound of the lever action of a 30-30 has been a sound that I have always liked hearing. Maybe that’s because I am such a student of history or because I have always enjoyed shooting traditional firearms, but regardless, when I heard the round getting chambered on that long ago Christmas morning, I knew we were ready!
After a fairly short walk down the hill, we exited the lane to take cover behind a four-foot rock wall which had made up some sort of a pen, or corral, that had been used years before. There were two homemade wooden seats for us to sit on, and a small burlap sack full of beans, that Mr. Barnes sat on top of the wall in front of us. Between the seats was an olden wooden fruit box that was turned upside down that we used as a table. I sat the thermos there, and out of his coat pocket, Mr. Barnes sat down two metal cups and two wrapped up pieces of cake. As we quietly settled in, the sun just started to lighten the skyline.
With just the faintest light on that early Christmas morning, I could see that our vantage point overlooked the corner of a large open meadow. There were hardwoods on the south and west of the meadow, with a big cut corn field to the east. Our set up was just in the woods on the south side, about midway down in the two-hundred and fifty foot or so opening. We had an unobstructed view of the meadow and could see well into the corn field. It was a perfect set up.
Mr. Barnes was telling me that the meadow was a natural funnel that deer walked when leaving the corn field as they headed to their bedding area, when he stopped in mid-sentence. Looking to the east, he said, “Look at that, boy!” He pointed to a brightly shining star that seemed to shine brighter than the sun that was just coming up in the eastern sky. “Isn’t that something!” he said. “Reminds me of the star that announced the birth of our Savior King, baby Jesus, that the wise men followed on that first Christmas,” he added. “Yes, it does,” I said. When I turned back toward Mr. Barnes, his head was bowed in prayer. We sat silently for a long time after that.
Other than a doe and two fawns that had passed just after first light, we hadn’t seen anything other than a handful of squirrels who were scurrying around trying to find their own Christmas dinner. Mr. Barnes asked me to take the cake out of the wrapper, and he opened up the thermos. I was somewhat surprised when he asked me if I wanted some hot cocoa, as I had just assumed he had brought coffee. As he poured the cocoa, he told me that he and his wife, Ruth, had always wanted to have kids, but never did. He said that this was quite a treat for him to be out hunting with a fine boy like me, and he sure hoped that it wouldn’t be the last time we hunted together. I told him that I would like that very much.
After we ate our cake and finished our cocoa, a handful of does came trotting out of the corn field and started to make their way toward us. Just behind them, out of the corn, walked a buck. Not just any buck, mind you. This was the biggest buck I had ever seen. He was a perfectly symmetrical ten-point buck, with long polished tines. Quietly, Mr. Barnes whispered, “That’s him!”
I watched Mr. Barnes slowly reach down and pick up the 30-30. But, what he did next not only surprised me, but it about took my breath away. He leaned over, and while handing me the rifle, he said, “This is your buck.” Although surprised, I accepted the gun and looked back at the magnificent buck. My heart was pounding and my mind was racing when Mr. Barnes told me to use the bag of beans as a rest. After I laid the 30-30 on the bag and got myself in a position to aim, he said, “Don’t forget, you have to pull the hammer back.”
I couldn’t believe that the buck was going to just walk right past us. Once I got my breathing slowed down and had the buck lined up in the iron sites of the 30-30, I slowly cocked the hammer. When the buck got almost perfectly broadside, just seventy yards in front of us, another smaller bucked entered the meadow behind him. The big buck stopped walking and looked over his opposite shoulder at the younger buck. I knew that this was my moment, so I slowly squeezed the trigger. The big buck fell without so much as a twitch.
What happened next is still a blur to me, but I do remember Mr. Barnes leaving me to admire my buck as he walked back up the hill to get the truck. As I knelt there beside the fallen monarch, I remember wondering why Mr. Barnes had let me shoot the buck he had been trying to get the entire season. At the same time, I guess I knew why he did it, and I felt more grown up at that moment than I ever had before.
As we drove into our yard, Mom and Dad were coming out of the front door. I guess my dad could see the buck’s antlers sticking up above the truck bed because he actually started running as Mr. Barnes put the truck in park. “Congratulations Jacob!” my dad said as he extended his hand toward Mr. Barnes. With no hesitation, Mr. Barnes told my parents that it was me that had taken the buck with one perfect shot. The look on my dad’s face went from happy, to surprise, to pride and joy, all in an instant when Mr. Barnes’ words sunk in. The next thing I knew, my mom and dad were both hugging me. With both of my parents’ arms around me, I looked at Mr. Barnes, and I swear, that even though he had the biggest smile on his face, I could see a tear running down his cheek.
After we got the deer skinned, cleaned and hanging in the barn, Mr. Barnes went home to clean up and I headed in the house to take a bath, myself. Behind me I could hear my mom saying that she just couldn’t believe it and my dad saying how proud of me he was. I don’t think the smile ever left my face that day.
Although I spent a lot of time with Mr. Barnes after that day, in fact, I eventually called him “Grandpa Jake,” none were more memorable that that long ago Christmas day. I can still remember the prayer he said over our Christmas dinner that afternoon:
“Dear Heavenly Father! As we celebrate the birth of Your Son, Jesus Christ, on that first Christmas, let us be ever mindful of Your extraordinary love and mercy. Let us never forget we are all Your children, and that we are all bound together with Your love. Let us not forget our deceased loved ones, who now live with You in Your heavenly kingdom. Let us always cherish our family and friends, and all of the many blessings You have bestowed on us. We also say a special prayer for land, the wind, the water and the woods, and those who live there, too!”
God Bless and Merry Christmas!