feature By: Gary Lewis | March, 18
Nancy Mallory held a Winchester lever-action in one hand. Night had fallen, but she had had a buck in the iron sights just an hour before. She took the shot when the animal turned broadside. “I want to make this one into buttons, but I don’t think Levi will let me,” she said.
Levi Mallory, Nancy’s 40-year-old son, fired up the side-by-side and we piled in, his 4-year-old daughter Elizabeth sandwiched between dad and granny in the front seat. “I think mom got old Turkeyfoot,” Levi said. “You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
Out into the dark beneath a moonless sky, we bumped through a ditch, up a hill and down into a valley. When the headlights shone on the buck where it had come to rest beneath a tree, there was one hole right behind the shoulder. We couldn’t take our eyes off the head where a weird, three-pointed claw on the left antler jutted toward the sky, defiant like a giant turkey’s three-toed lower extremity.
When I called my friend Levi to take him up on an offer of a hunt on the family farm in Missouri, he said I could tag along with his mother, Nancy, on the old home place. When Sam Pyke and I showed up in the Mallory’s driveway on the second evening of the season, we helped her and Levi retrieve the deer. It took the three of us to load it in the vehicle while Nancy sized up the rack for buttons.
“I don’t keep deer racks. I like to cut them up into buttons. I think of it as recycling,” she said.
While we loaded the deer for her, Nancy was the one to take a knife and field-dress the animal back at the farmhouse, in the light of a headlamp.
This was her fourteenth buck, she said, and all of them had been taken with the same rifle without the benefit of an optical device. “I don’t like to sit in a blind,” she said. “I like to hunt the deer on their level, where I can get close enough to touch them. And I don’t like scopes.”
She started hunting when, as a young, married woman, she moved to the farm and was expected to entertain the extended family for more than a week each November. “They expected me to feed them and clean up after them. I’d make a big kettle of chili and a big kettle of stew, and they’d eat that up and ask for more. It was fun the first year, but it got kind of old. I decided I’d go hunting, too. They could take care of themselves.”
For my first hunt, Levi had drawn a map on a piece of paper and showed me how to find my stand in the dark. It was in a three-acre food plot of soy beans, the only standing crop around. Levi suspected does would be visiting the field. We hoped there would be bucks behind them.
Front to Back, Back to Front
It was a feeling. No flicker of movement arrested my gaze. Look there, something said. I lifted the binocular and peered into a tangle of tree branches and vines and saw half a nose and a corner of an ear. Sixty yards. It was a revelation. Now a slight movement – the shine of an eye, an antler. The deer was bedded in swamp, in damp leaves, in a tangle of vines, tree trunks and branches warped and weft by wind.
This might not be easy, I thought. If a one-antlered adolescent buck could hide so close, how easy would it be to miss another deer? Though it was November, though every puff of breeze knocked down another handful of leaves, this cover was high enough to conceal a full-grown buck with its head held high.
We climbed down from the stand and made our way back to the vehicle and drove the five miles back into town, to Nancy’s house, to make sandwiches and get ready for the second half of the day.
Antlers are not the only thing Nancy Mallory recycles in the 112-year-old brick house she is restoring one room at a time. Nancy purchased her dream house after the divorce, a place to lean the old Winchester in between deer seasons.
“I wanted a home that would be big enough to hold my loom,” she said. The loom was in the last room she showed us. Here she kept the wool she had sheared and dyed. Here she kept the scraps of denim and linens and silks taken from products that had outlived their usefulness. She gives them new life on the loom. For a few moments I sat down at the machine, my left foot on a treadle, then changing the shed, lifting it and stepping down with my right foot. I remembered my own grandmother, raised in this part of the country, how she also loved the motion of the shuttles and the fabrics and textures that tied her to the land she missed after moving to the West.
Back in the blind we watched the shadows lengthen and a doe walk out of the trees. The deer stayed on the edge of the brush then moved back into cover, its flanks dappled by afternoon sun filtered through the branches.
In the morning we would hunt from a different blind, this one offering views to 300 and 400 yards looking over tall grasses and browse. It would be deceptively easy to miss seeing even a big deer. When I chanced to look out the back window and saw a buck stride out of CRP cover toward a shelter belt of oaks and osage orange, I threw the rifle up and bracketed the crosshair a moment before it was swallowed by the trees. Long hours passed between that sighting and the next. In the late afternoon, three bucks ran out of the trees from the east. They flowed in and out of sight on every bound. As soon as they appeared they were concealed again, but not more than 70 yards away.
Startled, a young buck off to our left stood up to see what the commotion was. The newcomers had bedded down. Frightened by something, perhaps a hunter on a neighboring property, they had sought shelter 70 yards from our blind. Soon, a 2½-year-old, 5-point buck stood up and scouted around.
With our optics, Pyke and I probed a screen of trees. Antler tips caught a beam of evening light and gave the buck away. Eight points total, four per side, counting brow tines. For the next two hours, we kept track of the big one by watching antlers. Once the line of its back appeared above the tops of the rye. One more step . . .
The buck turned a circle and bedded again, and that was how we left him at dark. Was it too much to hope it would be there again in the morning?
The Scent of a Doe
We climbed up the scaffold and into the stand well before the first rays of the sun began to light the eastern sky. Well after sun-up I spotted that young 5-pointer from the day before. Clouds shuttled across the sky from west to east, and the wind buffeted our stand even as blue sky began to show through the gray clouds.
Then Sam spotted movement. “A doe,” he whispered. It glided through the screen of brush. That bigger buck, the 8-point, had to be tied up with the doe. We probed the gray stand of brush. We glassed along the treeline until we saw the top of its head under a fir tree.
Keeping close to the doe but never exposing its body, the buck walked the treeline back and forth like it was on a shuttle race. She moved through the gray brush, back to front, then lay down. I heard the buck grunt and then all was quiet for half an hour.
Off to the west, I heard another buck, a series of grunts, a clash of antler against tree branches. When I turned to look at the 8-point, I saw its antlers on the treeline. The deer was up to investigate, to run off the rival. It would be back.
A flicker of antler caught my eye as another buck walked in. As soon as this one was out of sight, the big 8-pointer showed itself; its feet up on a rise of land, its head and neck elevated. I’d been watching for the throat patch and now I could see it. The buck swiveled its head one way then the other, affording a look at the antlers as wide as its body.
With a quick flick of thumb and forefinger, the scope dialed to 10x, the crosshair found a bit of brown hide left of the throat patch. With the three-position safety in business mode, the centerline of the index finger intersected with the centerline of the crescent trigger. Three pounds of pressure, and the rifle’s crack melded with the sound of the bullet’s impact. One hundred nineteen yards out, on a slight downhill, the buck dropped out of sight in the tall grass along the woven fabric of the treeline.
On the fourth day I sat in a blind again to watch for a buck I might shoot with the camera, while Levi Mallory and Pyke climbed into another blind that looked over a clearing that spanned a narrow valley. Four hundred fifty yards from treeline to treeline gave Levi an opportunity to spot deer if they came out of the trees. At midmorning a small buck showed and a few minutes later, a pair of does. When the young buck’s body language changed, Levi knew to be ready.
There – a glimpse of a large-bodied animal behind the pair of does. The two does moved in and out of the fringe of timber, visible then invisible again. Behind them the buck came on, putting its head down to scent-check their hoofprints. Suddenly, the pair of does turned and in single file crossed the prairie. The buck was a minute behind them. It strode out of the trees and stopped to put its head down to get another sniff of the intoxicating aroma that led it on.
I ranged it later at 349 yards on a steep downhill. It was the longest shot Levi had made on a deer on his home farm. The buck took one leap, all four of its feet off the ground, then turned hard to the left and pounded, head down, into a belt of trees. We found the 9-point buck 60 yards on, where its last run ended at a sheep fence.
As Nancy Mallory set the table for our last deer season supper with Levi and Amanda Mallory and the little girls, she cleared a wooden bowl of antler buttons and set another of the worsted fleeces and lanolin-greasy fibers in a corner. “I don’t know if little Elizabeth will want to hunt when she gets older, but I hope she will. I think it ties a person to the land.”
For little Elizabeth, at four years of age, this will be the first hunting season she remembers – propping up grandma’s buck for a picture, riding back to the farmhouse in the dark in the Kawasaki Mule, helping with the skinning chores, gathered around granny’s table for a bowl of soup and cornbread. Maybe someday Elizabeth or her little sister, Ava, will see a buck with a weird, turkey-foot antler show up on the trail cameras or out in one of daddy’s food plots. In a few years, Elizabeth will carry her own rifle as the cloth of her own hunting career is drawn into the tapestry of tradition on the family farm.
The James Gang
When we hunted Missouri I added an extra day. I wanted to see the James Farm.
When we pulled off Highway 92 onto the grounds of Jesse James’ birthplace in Clay County, it was easy to imagine a band of Northern militiamen riding into the fields where Dr. Samuels and his 15-year-old stepson plowed corn.