My wife was snug at the house, baking cookies—we had no shortage of flour and sugar, but you can't live on carbohydrates. Meat was terribly expensive considering our budget and the food bank in town—which was just as financially strapped as the rest of us—could only provide so much. Mostly, we got boxes of mac and cheese, margerine, milk, and flour and sugar...and were grateful for it. The mac and cheese was virtually inedible and we were flat sick of it, so most of the pasta we crunched up and fed to the hens, which kept us in eggs. From a neighbor, we'd gotten half a hog as payment for a rewiring job I did on his pole barn last October.
There was a thick snow falling, the big fat flaky kind that muffles sound. We'd gotten nearly five inches so far and it showed no sign of slowing down. For all of that, it was pretty cold out—probably not warmer than 20°, and possibly colder—and after most of a day spent afield I was beginning to feel it. My toes were almost numb, despite boots and heavy socks; my fingers ached with cold even when I wasn't holding my rifle. I wanted nothing more than to get on the quad, go home, and sit by the wood stove in the kitchen...but if I did that, Christmas dinner was likely to be pork-n-beans with a few strips of bacon, and more of that damned macaroni crap.
I'd spent half my day in the tree stand, waiting, but had seen nothing. Around two, after having some soup from the thermos in my rucksack, I'd kind of nodded off; and a peculiar grunt had awakened me from my stupor to see a handful of white-tail deer ambling past: a buck--five points--a yearling, and two does.
I'd raised the rifle, took careful aim at a doe—right at the shoulder—but in my haste I'd forgotten to take the safety off, and my reflexive grunt of annoyance was enough to alert the deer to my presence. They hurried off into the woods at a slow trot, and by the time I'd flipped the safety off I'd lost my chance.
But then I'd hurried off the stand and began following their trail, moving as quietly as I could—which was damned quietly with the snow—and for the last two hours I'd been stalking them, cautiously following their rapidly-filling footprints. I was getting close; a few times I'd had not-very-good glimpses of them through the trees. With the snow and the setting sun, I was not going to have much more time.
Placing my feet carefully, I crept into a clearing. The snow was coming down a bit harder now, and I could hear it hitting the oak leaves, but otherwise it was completely silent. Across the clearing, a deer stepped into the open, in almost perfect profile. I raised the rifle, safety off, ready to fire...until I saw the antlers.
White-tails are basically big rats. People don't hunt them as much as they used to, and without natural predators their populations have burgeoned. It's to the point now that the natural resources folks want hunters to take does, rather than bucks, just because each doe out of the population removes a fawn factory, which keeps the numbers from exploding.
And since I'm generally a pretty responsible hunter, I follow the DNR guidelines. Every deer I'd taken this year, in season and out, had been a doe. And the impulse to follow the rules was so strong in me that—even now, when I needed the meat—I hesitated to pull the trigger on a buck.
Then I noticed that the deer wasn't a white-tail.
First off, it was way too damned big. This thing was the size of a horse, almost, and it had shaggy fur on it that even coated the bottoms of its antlers. And the antlers—the rack on the thing was huge, and was composed of broad, sweeping curves rather than the angular branching of a white-tail rack.
I didn't know what the hell I was looking at. It wasn't a moose—not in the Midwest!—but it sure wasn't any species of deer I'd ever seen around here.
I cudgeled my brain, trying to remember what kind of deer had their range in the area. It was almost entirely white-tails; sometimes you saw a pronghorn or three, but that was rare, and you had to get into the deep countryside to see them. They were more common than they'd been a couple decades ago but not like the white-tails were. It wasn't an elk; I had never seen one in the flesh but I was pretty confident of that.
The deer made a noise, and because of the heavy snow it took me a few minutes to identify it...and as it took a step I realized I was hearing jingle bells.
I lowered my rifle. The deer had just calmly gazed at me the entire time; I realized that he'd known I was there and wasn't frightened of me. Well, if he had bells on, it meant he belonged to someone and wouldn't identify a man as a threat, so of course he wouldn't bolt.
I approached the animal with caution, even so, because even a kept deer that's used to being around people is still essentially a wild animal. But shortly I was standing next to him, patting the side of his neck and looking him over. I didn't know anyone around here who kept deer, so how had he gotten here?
My hand fell on the strap next, and in the fading light it was hard to see, but I rapidly puzzled out that it was some kind of harness...and embossed in the leather was the name DONNER.
<* * *>
“Well?” My wife asked me as I stumbled into the kitchen, still taking off snow-caked clothing.
I shook my head.
She sighed with disappointment. “Well...we do still have some of the pork tenderloin left. I could defrost that.”
“Yeah, that'll be okay. I can go out for a few hours tomorrow and see if I can find anything.”
“No, stay home on Christmas.”
“You've convinced me.”
Well? How would I ever explain to anyone that I shot one of Santa's reindeer? How could I even look myself in the mirror?
...but there is an epilogue to this story. The next morning we got up for breakfast, and—to our surprise—in the living room downstairs, under the Christmas tree, there was a quartet of large styrofoam boxes, each containing an epic amount of frozen meat—neatly vacuum-packed and kept cold with dry ice—and each box was graced with an ornate script “SC” in gold ink.
Yeah, I'm not going to think too much about this one.