The Salt Lick

Wild deer came every day to the salt lick. Some had fawns, their little cinnamon-colored backs sprinkled with white spots. Occasionally, there were twin fawns.

The salt lick was next to a stream on the edge of a clearing in the woods.  Its purpose was practical and that didn’t include deer.  The salt lick wasn’t theirs.  One deer would die because of it.

The clearing was big . . . the size of a grocery store parking lot . . . and carpeted with a rich growth of tall succulent green grass.  Surrounding the clearing was a dense forest of aspen and a few spruce trees.

It was even deeper into the wilderness than our remote family farm.

The salt lick was put there for our milk cows . . . it encouraged them to drink more water and thus produce more milk.  That summer, my parents asked me to take the cows up a narrow path in the forest north of our farm, to that remote grassy clearing.  It was several miles away, on government land.  No one else knew . . . or minded, I guess.  Summers could be hot and dry. Moving the cows there during the day helped keep from overgrazing our pasture.  I herded them to the clearing after their morning milking and brought them home in time for the evening milking.

At first, it was boring . . . having to sit there all day, my back to a big shady tree . . . watching cows chomp the grass . . . and shit.  ‘In and out . . . in and out’, I thought, chuckling, as I watched them.  I was trying to amuse myself.  Even Tippy, our aged border collie, was restless, at first.  We couldn’t find much for either of us to see or do in the clearing.   The bush outside the clearing discouraged exploring.  The leafy aspen and heavy underbrush were almost impenetrable in most places.

Then it struck me.  All around, the air and trees and bush were filled with creatures of all sorts, large and small, four legged, crawling and winged. And the deer came every day, unperturbed by our presence.  Once, I saw a coyote wander by, through the clearing.  A few of our cows raised their heads, and then went right back to grazing, apparently unconcerned.  I was surprised.  A few days later, I spotted a coyote crouching down in bushes just outside the clearing.  This time it was different.  The cows gathered in alarm, tucking their calves under their bellies.  They bobbed their heads up and down, and side-to-side, snorting and bellowing toward the wild canine.

Later, I learned that carnivores, such as coyotes and wolves, hunt not with malice or anger, but only when hungry or needing to feed their young.  Somehow, their prey knows the difference.  Bottom line, I was mesmerized by the flow of Nature that I was experiencing . . . that I was being privileged to witness and experience.

When I told Dad about the coyotes, he decided I should have more protection than Tippy and my handmade walking stick, just in case.  Although only 11, he’d already shown me how to use his .22 caliber Winchester.  It never occurred to me it was only a single shot rifle . . . sufficient protection from a raging field mouse, perhaps, but not much else.

So, armed and guarded by a loving but aging dog – who hid from thunder and was terrified of gunfire – we’d settle in for our long daily vigils.  By then, we’d learned to position ourselves upwind from the odor of bovine  ‘exhaust’.

The sun was bright and warm on the day it occurred.

Tippy and I habitually sat under a particularly large and bushy aspen tree.  Tippy was now sleeping most of the day.  At first, he would sniff and pee on just about every bush in sight.  But now, evidently, he’d decided his ardent placing of territorial markings had done their job . . . no other dogs had dared to venture into his staked out domain.   Evidently, he didn’t ‘get’ the term ‘remote wilderness’.

He was dozing again that day.  I was struggling to stay alert, lest a hungry coyote or wolf on the prowl take an interest in one of the spring calves among our herd.

All was calm.  Squirrels were scampering around in the trees.  They’d given up on scolding Tippy and me . . . must have decided we were harmless permanent fixtures.   Birds of all types were chirping or squawking away, flitting about in search of insects and other tiny creatures to feed their young or themselves.  Bees and horseflies and mosquitoes, and the dreaded black flies, droned above in search of nectar, or blood . . . human, canine or bovine mattered not.  And the deer had visited again.

Suddenly, my young mind was aware that I’d become immersed in the flow of nature.  There was an irresistible draw. I sensed an aura, a captivating serenity.  It was overwhelming. I was surprised at first, partly by the newness of this emotion, partly by my absence of fear, and partly by surprise itself. Then came a feeling of awe and an enormous sense of contentment.  It was all strange and uncanny.

Sadly, in just a few months, the joy of that experience would be repressed for years to come by another, more disturbing event.

Back then, wilderness farmers lived mostly on what they raised, or could hunt. It was just a few years after the Second World War.  Farmers paid no attention to hunting regulations, and no one bothered to enforce them.  Wild game helped supplement the diets of farm families.  It meant more farm-raised animals could be sent to market for hard-to-come-by income . . . “cash money” was the common phrase.

Generally, farmers hunted in the late fall after harvest.  They’d hunt in groups.  It improved their chances.  The proceeds were shared equally.  They hunted for deer, elk and moose, and sometimes bear.  I learned deer had the best meat and were prized; elk was next favored.  Moose and bear meat was coarse and stringy.  But moose were much larger animals.  Hunters got more for their efforts with a moose.  With bear, came the much-coveted hides.  Hunters put up with the less desirable meat, if that was all they could get.

One evening, a group met at our place.  Three farmers and my Dad sat at our kitchen table, along with one farmer’s son and me.  He was a ‘big kid’ . . . had to be 14 or 15, anyway.  He knew a lot more about hunting than I did.  In fact, he hinted he knew a lot more about a lot of things, or seemed to.  He was feeling superior and proud of it.  I was intimidated.

The hunters began discussing places they’d heard big game had been spotted.  The locations were far away and would mean staying overnight.  There were no RVs then and no motels in the wilderness.  It meant sleeping in tents at below freezing temperatures, or in their vehicles.

I wanted desperately to be part of the hunter team.

“I know a place where deer come to drink,” I piped up.   “It’s not very far from here.”

The conversation stopped.

“North of our place,” I added, turning to my Dad.  “You know, where I took the cows last summer.  There’s a little creek.  The deer come there to use our salt lick and get water.” I pronounced it “crik” . . . it was the grown-up jargon.

Now I had their attention.   I was proud.  I could see that big kid from down the road was impressed, too.  That made me even prouder.   Hey, I was one with them, now.  Good for me, I thought.

Dad turned to me and calmly asked for more details about the location.  I described the route that Tippy and I had taken with the cows to the clearing and back home each day.

Then my heart soared!  Dad asked me if I would actually show them – the hunters! – to the location.  I would get to guide all these grownups!  I eagerly agreed.  Now, I really, REALLY was one of them . . . a real hunter!

The men decided on a date to go.  It was a few days away.  Dad made a point of showing me how to use his .303, his own special hunting rifle.  It had been his personal weapon as a soldier during the war.  Like others, after being discharged, he’d been given the gun and had modified the stock to look more like a commercial hunting rifle.

The recoil was fierce.  Although Dad showed me how to hold the rifle to minimize kickback, I still ended up with a huge bruise on my right shoulder.  I was proud of it.  I showed it off to my sisters, and displayed it proudly while sitting in the galvanized bathtub my parents set up on the kitchen floor every Saturday night just before bedtime.  Mom took note of the bruise when she came into the kitchen to add hot water from the kettle, boiling quietly on the big cast iron wood stove.  I was proud!

The day of the hunt arrived, finally.  The hunters came to our farm very early in the morning.  Everyone was there just after 4 a.m.  It was fall, so dawn would be much later than in summer.  We would make our way north to the clearing while it was still dark.  They wanted to set up a hunting blind and get settled well before dawn.

As we were waiting in the blind, Dad leaned over to me and whispered:

“Son, this is your find.  It’s only right that you get the first shot.  Here, take my rifle.”

Now, I was even more proud.  He was going to trust me with his rifle!  I thought he’d given me the training just to make me feel more like the other hunters.  I liked the sound of it: ‘the other hunters’.  I felt closer to my Dad that morning than I ever had before.

Watching us, the others were amused, and tolerant.  Perhaps they were remembering their own first hunts.  Some had sons they’d trained, like the older kid who’d come along.  I was very proud . . . I was going to show him a thing or two!

Then, we all settled down and waited quietly.

Just as dawn was breaking, Dad nudged my arm and pointed cautiously through a slot in the piles of bushes that formed  the blind.  There it was . . . a huge buck deer with a massive set of antlers.   It probably looked much larger than it really was.

The buck stood beside the block of salt, eying it.

A pang of guilt came over me – I was supposed to retrieve the salt lick on my last trip home with the cows.  It would have disintegrated by spring.  Then I realized – hey, that’s what brought this deer to us.  I felt relieved.  For sure, Dad wasn’t going to reprimand me now . . . with a deer right in front of us, not 30 yards away.

Dad nudged me again, smiling and nodding at his rifle.  I was holding it.  I’d been so taken by the majestic deer I’d forgotten about the rifle.

Dad nodded and nudged again, a tiny bit impatiently this time.

The large buck lowered its head and licked the salt.  Then, suddenly it raised its head and began sniffing the air and snorting.  It turned sideways to us.  Maybe it heard or smelled us, I thought, worried.  The buck turned its head, acting nervous, moving its body slightly further away from us.

I could feel everyone in the blind tense up.

‘Oh, oh!’ I thought.  ‘It’s going to run away.”

I steadied the weapon as Dad had taught me.  I peered down the barrel, being careful to center the front sight just behind the deer’s front shoulder, now clearly visible.  I pulled the trigger.  The deer fell.  It was obviously dead.  The bullet must have pierced its heart.

A cheer when up from all of my fellow hunters.  My shoulder hurt terribly.  Dad hugged me and congratulated me.  I felt firm slaps on my back and shoulders.  Even the older boy thumped my back with his hand . . . harder than he needed to, I thought.

“That was a nice clean shot,” Dad told me  “Just like an experienced hunter” the others added.

I accepted their compliments but didn’t cheer.  I wondered why, at first.  Then I realized . . . I was feeling like a traitor.  In my heart, from that day on I would know that I’d betrayed the privilege of what I had learned . . . of what had been bestowed upon me . . . that day in the clearing . . . and had brought that deer to me.   And I knew, above all, that I had betrayed that majestic buck deer.

I never went big game hunting again.


Copyright 2012  By James Osborne  All Rights Reserved

4 thoughts on “The Salt Lick

  1. James,

    Well I would never forget that story either – you learned a lot that day. Younger kids always want to be included in the group with the bigger ones. I’m sure being proud to go with the men was not all it was cracked up to be. As as kid you didn’t know exactly what that would entail until faced with it. My family never hunted, but my uncle and his boys did.

    When my husband and I lived in Oregon, we would put a salt lick out for the deer in winter and just enjoy their presence and the wonder of nature when they ventured out of the woods by the house.

    When I lived in Alaska, a lot of the people would hunt up there. I never went with them but all of the women were expected to gather when the meat was ready to butcher and help with all that. Makeshift tables would be set up all over the house. I never saw so much blood in all my life. that was an eye-opening experience for me and made me almost nauseous. It would take us all night to butcher a moose and then we all split the meat. I can say that it is far better than beef, very lean and tender, but the one guy knew how to age meat and had a special shed at his house where he would hang up big hunks to age for 3 weeks at about 34 degrees before the “butchering party.”

    I thought it was terrible to kill these animals, but once someone did, at least it didn’t go to waste and die for nothing, I kept telling myself. If I had to hunt, I’d probably be a vegetarian.



  2. You are a wonderful writer, James. I cried reading this – It’s reminiscent of Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.” Such a loss of innocence in this piece, and it made me ache, and feel for the boy you used to be.


  3. Jim,

    What can I say? A fantastic opening which hooked me big time and just when I thought it couldn’t get any better you closed with a bang!!! (and a lesson)
    Perhaps I enjoyed it so much because I have hunted (upland game) with my Dad but it really was your “story” and how it was written that made it so enjoyable to read.
    PS: Ypu had me reaching for my shoulder as I remembered my first 12 ga. recoil.


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