Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Second Week of Deer Camp By KM Rockwood

As we pulled out of the cemetery, I peered at the lowering sky. “It’s going to snow,” I said to my mother, who sat in the passenger seat.

“Probably. It snows a lot up here.”

“Maybe we should just head back to DC. Skip going back to the home place.” I had just settled into a decent job with a good law firm, and was in no position to take a few unexpected days off because I got caught in a blizzard up in the West Virginia hills.

Mother turned her thin face toward me and frowned. “That would be rude, son. The aunts have been cooking for hours. We can just grab a quick bite and then leave. But we have to put in an appearance.”

With a sigh, I pulled my shiny Lincoln Navigator in behind a cousin’s battered pickup and joined the ragged line snaking forward on the gravel road. On that road, the “shiny” part didn’t last for long.

“I know it doesn’t make sense, but I didn’t think my grandfather would ever die.” Mother lifted a tissue to her carefully made-up eyes and dabbed. “He was such a strong old cuss.”

“What did he die of?” I asked. Since he was in his nineties, his death hadn’t come as a big surprise to me.

“They said a heart attack, but I find that hard to believe. He always had such a strong heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody didn’t give him some help with dying.”

We rode along in silence. My mother had left the hills years ago, just after I was born, and moved to Washington. She got a job, but money was always tight, and I’d be sent back to stay at the home place every summer until I was old enough to get a job.

When I went to college, then law school, I stopped going up there at all. Maybe it was just that I was an insecure kid, or that I didn’t have a father, but I never did feel like I fit in. It had been years since either one of us had been up here.

But the funeral of her grandfather—Great Pawpaw, everybody called him—was something my mother didn’t feel we could miss.

When we got to the home place, a huge rambling structure with innumerable entrances and porches, I left the Navigator down the driveway a bit so it wouldn’t get parked in. As we walked up the front steps, the enticing aromas of roasting meat and baking pies reached us.

In the kitchen, sturdy women had donned flowered aprons over their black funeral dresses and were bustling around, putting the finishing touches on an elaborate feast. Next to them, my slender mother, wearing a sleek blue suit and modest jewelry, gave the appearance of a bright song bird among crows.

The food was laid out on a huge table in the front room. An aunt shoved plates in our hands.

“Enjoy,” she said.

“Watch what you eat,” Mother hissed under her breath. “It’s all fried in lard. Even the vegetables.”

As I stood near the window, holding the overflowing plate and looking anxiously out at the dark sky, my cousin Seth sidled up next to me. He carried a jelly glass half-filled with a dark amber liquid.

He gestured toward my plate. “That all you gonna eat?” he said. “Or are you waiting for the desserts to be set out?”

Seth was a year older than me. In those long summer months when I used to come up, he’d been delegated with the task of keeping an eye on me. He’d been a lenient overseer, and we’d gotten into our share of difficulties. To this day, the scar on my right thigh twinged whenever I heard his voice.

“Good to see you, Seth,” I said, not entirely sincerely.

“Been a while.” He raised the glass toward me and said, “You want some? It’s good stuff. There’s plenty in the jugs on the back porch.”

Moonshine. “No thanks,” I said. “It’s a long drive back. I don’t want to be drinking.”

He nodded and took a swig.

“Were you there when Great PawPaw died?” I asked.

“There?” Seth grinned, showing stained crooked teeth through his scraggly beard. “Nah. Nobody was there. He was up at his still, back yonder in the mountains. They found him face down in the creek.”

Seth picked at his teeth with his thumb nail and tried to explain. Everybody figured that Great PawPaw’d been sampling the wares from his still a bit too much and fallen. The body had to be hauled down the mountain on a mule, no easy task since by that time rigor mortis had set in and, even though the flesh was soft and skin kind of sloughing off, the joints were stiff. Maybe because he’d been dead for a while and smelled a bit ripe, the mule, latest in a long succession of various-colored creatures named Blue, wasn’t happy about having the body loaded on his back. It had been a rough trip.

The general family consensus was that Great Pawpaw’d already dodged a few appointments with his maker and had died happy, doing what he loved best. Distilling moonshine. They’d miss him, but it was more in the natural order of God’s world than a tragedy.

I asked, “Was it a heart attack? Or did he drown?”

“Old Doc Richards, he put heart attack on the papers. Said it was about time for the old coot to go anyhow, and putting down heart attack wouldn’t cause no problems whatever the reason. What’d it matter? Dead is dead.”

Remembering my mother’s suspicions, I asked, “Do you think it was a heart attack?”

“Nah.” Seth scratched his chin through his beard and cocked a bushy eyebrow. “Everybody says he prob’ly drank hisself to death. Or just got drunk and maybe fell and drownded. Or froze. The nights were pretty cold.”

“Do you think somebody could have killed him?”

“Nah. What would anybody want to do that for?”

“Well, he owned a lot of property. Who inherited it?”

Seth looked at me strangely. “You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

Looking into the depths of his glass as if expecting to find an answer there, Seth said, “They’re gonna read the will out after we all have supper. You gonna stay for that?”

Great PawPaw had a will? And somebody was going to read it? I stifled my amazement. “Not unless Mom wants to stay. I don’t think she’s expecting to inherit anything.”

“Don’t know much about what’s left to the womenfolk. Can’t imagine he’d had much any of ‘em would want, and they usually work that out among theyselves. Uncle Sebastian gets title to the home place and all. But…” He took a chug of the dark liquid and glanced around. Leaning close to me, he said, “Unless I’m sorely mistaken, he did leave you the family deer camp.”

That was a surprise.

I remembered the deer camp—it was a rambling log structure they called “the cabin” on about 120 wooded acres.

With all the other men in the family, why would he leave it to me? I didn’t hunt.

“You’re the new owner,” Seth said, “but I hope you don’t mind. The boys already done made this year’s plans.” If cleaning guns and trading tall tales about past misadventures could be considered planning. “First two weeks in December. We was figuring we’d go ahead, if’n you don’t object. Great Pawpaw would’ve wanted that. Maybe you can come this year.”         

“Certainly.” I was pleased that they were inviting me, although maybe since I would be the new owner, they felt they had no choice. I cast my mind over the workload waiting back at the office. Even with careful planning, I couldn’t take two weeks off. “I won’t be able to make it until the second week, though.”

Seth shrugged. “I s’pose that’s what happens when you work for wages.” He peered into his now-empty glass. “Might be hard to find a decent buck by then. They all blend in pretty well anyhow, and by then they’ll be wary critters.”

I didn’t really want to kill a deer. “Mostly I want to take pictures. And I’m looking forward to a good male bonding experience.”

“Well, now.” Seth paused. “I’m not sure about anybody else, and maybe it’s none of my business, but you prob’ly ought to consider bringing your own male to bond with. We’d welcome any friend of yours.”

I felt myself blush. “Not like that.”

“OK.” He sounded doubtful. “I’ll let the boys know, just in case. Somebody might be interested.”

The weather held off, so Mother and I stayed for the reading of the will. Seth had been right. I was the new owner of the deer camp.

On the way home, I said to Mother, “Maybe this is Great PawPaw’s way of including me in the family traditions.”

She snorted. “They’re a bunch of crooks. I don’t know what they’re up to, but they wouldn’t just let Great Pawpaw give you the deer camp.”

As the sun went down, an icy snow began falling, making the unlit roads treacherous. I was glad I had four-wheel drive.


The second Friday of December, I left my office at noon. I’d stocked up on warm clothing and a new sleeping bag. The back of the Navigator was packed with cases of beer—I figured a fresh supply would go a long way toward endearing me to my cousins—and groceries.

I looked uneasily at the darkening sky, but if the weather forecasts could be believed, I should only meet rain by the time I arrived. In the early morning hours, the temperature would fall. Freezing rain and snow were likely.

Uncle Sebastian’s directions turned out to be almost useless, filled with references to a left turn at the pasture with the white mule and right at Granny Duncan’s pumpkin patch. GPS devices don’t work where roads are nameless and houses have no numbers. Fortunately Mother remembered the way. She told me that I just needed to make a right at the water tower in town, turn left at the old coal breaker and take that road straight up to the camp.

Dusk was falling when I came around the final turn and saw the sprawling cabin. The rain had stopped for now. Several pickups and farm trucks in varying stages of disrepair were parked haphazardly in front. I pulled in behind a gray flatbed truck, making sure to stay well away from an alarmingly deep ditch next to the road. The scent of wood smoke hung in the air. I gathered my new sleeping bag—rated for minus twenty degrees—and the duffel bag and headed up to the cabin.

Rapidly approaching headlights rounded the bend, heading straight for me. I dropped what I was carrying and leapt back against a huge tree, expecting to be crushed into it. At the last second, the headlights swerved toward the side of the road. With a resounding crash, the vehicle attached to the headlights smashed into the rear quarterpanel of my dark green Navigator, which skidded away from the impact. Right toward that deep ditch. I watched as it teetered on the edge for a few seconds before gently sliding over and out of sight.

My second cousin Rueben climbed out of the now-stopped truck and peered down into the ditch. “Damn,” he said. “Least ways, it’s still upright.”

The crash brought a tangle of bearded men in flannel shirts stumbling out onto the porch and down into the road.

Uncle Sebastian stood stroking his beard, peering at Rueben. “What’s the hurry, boy?”

“I got me a buck,” Rueben said. “First one this trip.”

Uncle Sebastian shook his head. “Didn’t shoot from the road, did you, boy?” he asked. “That ain’t right. Game warden might get you.”

“No, sir. Didn’t shoot ‘em at all. Hit’m with the truck.”

Uncle Sebastian nodded. “Messed up bad?”

I wasn’t sure whether he meant the deer or the truck.

 Rueben answered, “Nah. Neck broke. I throwed’m in the back of the truck. Figured we could dress’m out here.”

“You and Billy take’m out back and see what meat you can save. Trophy buck?”

 “Used to be. Damn antlers all busted up. Hit ‘em head-on.”

As Rueben and Billy went to unload the deer carcass, Uncle Sebastian and I joined the crowd looking down at my Navigator.

“Need a tractor. With a winch,” someone said.

Uncle Sebastian spit tobacco juice into the ditch. “Don’t got a tractor up here. Might have to wait ‘til the end of the week, when we get back home. Come back up and haul it out then.”

I stared dismally down the steep slope. I’d planned to stay the whole week, but I wasn’t thrilled with not having a way out myself if I changed my mind. Assuming the Navigator was drivable when it got back upon the road. “Maybe I should just call for Triple A or someone to come get it out now.”

“Ain’t no phone here,” one of the young cousins noted.

I reached into my pocket. “I’ve got my cell phone.”

Several of them looked on with interest. “He got one of them there smart cell phones,” one said. “No wires or nothing. Call anywhere.”

“Do it work up here?”

I tried it. Sure enough, the screen flashed “No signal.” I folded the phone and put it back into my pocket and glanced down at the Navigator. “Too bad. I got some groceries in the back there,” I said.

Uncle Sebastian looked interested. “Groceries?”

“Yeah. And a few cases of beer.”

Uncle Sebastian raised a bushy grey eyebrow. “Beer?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

He looked around. “Why don’t you go on in get settled? Seth here’ll show you where Great PawPaw’s room is. We figured it was yours now anyhow.”

I gathered my things from the muddy road where I’d dropped them. One of my cousins had tied a rope to a tree and was uncoiling it as he prepared to climb down the embankment toward my Navigator.

Inside the cabin was darker than outside. A fire burned in a huge stone fireplace, but all the heat seemed to be going up the chimney. Seth stopped to light a lantern. “No electric.” He adjusted the flame. “You prob’ly want to keep a lantern with you.”

I hadn’t expected electricity. Or indoor plumbing. “Thanks, I brought a flashlight.” I had several. And toilet paper.

Seth led me down a long hallway to the last door. He raised a hand and shoved. It didn’t budge. “Stuck.” He put his shoulder to it and gave a heave. The entire door fell back, collapsing flat on the floor beyond.

“There we go.” Seth stepped inside and lifted the door, leaning it up against the wall.

A raw wind sliced through the room. Seth held up the lantern. “Looks like Great Pawpaw left the window open. Air it out, I guess.” He went over to the casement window and reached for the latch. It came off in his hand. He grabbed for the free-swinging window and tugged. The window slammed into the frame and smashed, scattering bits of glass and wood on the floor.

Seth stood back and scratched under his beard. He kicked most of the debris out of the way with his scuffed boot and reached out the opening once more. “Shutter,” he said, pulling a solid wood panel toward the opening and securing it. “Won’t let much light in, but ought to keep the wind out, at least. It’s gonna get real cold tonight.”

I dumped my duffel and sleeping bag on the unsteady bed shoved up against a wall. Even in the dim light of the lantern, I could see dust and feathers rise as a musty smell filled the air.

“Feather bed,” Seth observed. “Don’t care for the chicken stink myself, but Great Pawpaw always said ain’t nothing warmer on a cold night than sinking into a good feather bed.”

I dug out my largest flashlight and followed Seth back down the hallway. We went past the first room we’d entered, with its big fireplace, and into the kitchen. A wood stove stood in the middle of one wall. The air was much warmer and smelled of wet wool clothes. And men who hadn’t washed up in a while.

“Fetch yourself a drink,” Uncle Sebastian said, nodding toward a row of jugs on a bench against the wall. “We got your truck, or whatever that thing is, back up on the road. Boys’re bringing in the beer and groceries.”

I was thoroughly chilled and figured a drink of the family specialty might do me good. I looked around. “Where are the glasses?” I asked.

Uncle Sebastian chuckled. “Men don’t need no glasses. Just grab a jug.”

He stuck a thumb through the handle on the neck of one of the jugs and swung it up to rest on his shoulder. Wrapping his lips around the opening, and raising his elbow, he tilted it forward and took a swig.

He smacked his lips and handed me the jug. “Good stuff. Some of Great Pawpaw’s last batch.”

I started to say something about germs, but decided I would sound like a wuss. Besides, no germ alive would survive contact with the contents of those jugs.

Swinging it up and resting it on my shoulder, like I’d seen Uncle Sebastian do, I tilted it up to take a drink. A huge glug poured into my mouth and down my throat. I couldn’t breathe, but I managed to cough and choke back the vomit that rose in my throat.

I’ve never drunk any kerosene so I couldn’t be entirely sure, but it tasted like kerosene smells. I felt a burn all the way down my esophagus to my stomach. My ears flamed. Tears came to my eyes.

“A man’s drink, huh?” Uncle Sebastian thumped me on the back.

I glanced behind him and saw half a dozen bearded smirking faces. I didn’t trust my voice, so I just nodded and raised the jug again. This time I managed to take only a little sip. It still burned.

From that point on, the rest of the evening was a bit of a blur. I do remember suspicious questions about the groceries. “That white stuff, sliced real thin. What was it?”

“Turkey loaf. For sandwiches.”

“Didn’t have no taste atall. Nothing like the turkey we have.”

“Domesticated turkey, not wild. Did you try a sandwich?”

“Didn’t make no sandwich, no. Put it in the stew. We’re short on meat til that buck Rueben got’s ready.”

“How was it?”

“Don’t know. Them slices just kind of dissolved.”

I did switch over to drinking the beer eventually, but I was too drunk to have enough sense to skip the stew. Who knew what was in it besides dissolved turkey loaf? My digestive system rebelled. I struggled to my feet. “Where’s the outhouse?”

Seth, ever my guide, grabbed a lantern. I got my flashlight, but didn’t have time to go for my toilet paper. I hoped they still had a Sears catalog hung on a nail out there. Hadn’t Sears stopped sending out catalogs years ago? And actually gone out of business?

We headed out the door and into a full-blown mountain blizzard.

Seth waited outside the outhouse as I struggled with lowering my pants in the limited space. The seat was shockingly frigid against my bare behind.

“Best be careful,” Seth hollered through the door. “Seat’s metal. Your butt can freeze right to it.”

I knew I was going to leave pieces of skin on that seat.

When I finally ripped myself up and got my pants almost fastened, I said to Seth, “I think I’ll just turn in now.” He guided me through a side door and to my room.

My head was spinning. When I tried to unzip the duffel bag to look for PJs, I dropped it upside down on the floor and the contents scattered. I just unrolled the sleeping bag, kicked off my boots and crawled in. During the night, I dreamed that I was the centerpiece at an ice carving display and that a sculptor kept trying to whittle away at my nose and ears.

The next morning, a weak sunlight shone around the cracks of the shutter. The sleeping bag felt very heavy. Cautiously, I lifted my aching head. Almost three inches of snow had accumulated on top of me. I looked across the room. My clothes were strewn on the floor, covered with snow. I could see daylight around the shingles in the roof.

I struggled out of the sleeping bag. My clean underwear was frozen to the floor. I would have to wear the same clothes I had worn yesterday. And slept in. I supposed I wouldn’t stink worse than anyone else. I had to empty snow out of my boots before I could put them on.

Coffee was boiling on the stove. It smelled burnt and tasted dreadful, but caffeine and warmth were welcome.

“Sleep all right?” Uncle Sebastian asked.

“A bit chilly, but I survived.”

He nodded knowingly. “That’s why, when it gets real cold like this, most of us just bunk here in the kitchen near the stove.” He gestured toward a few prone forms lined up against the wall. “What with that male bonding thing, though, we figured you’d be better off in Great Pawpaw’s room. Sometimes a man needs his privacy.”

I needed to use the outhouse. I opened the door and stepped onto the back porch.

My eyes were dazzled by sunlight glinting off brilliant white. Everything was covered with glittering ice, and that was dusted with snow.

I could never have imagined anything so stunningly beautiful. Ignoring my aching head, I went back for my camera before the sun began melting some of the ice.

Once I’d plowed my way to the outhouse, I walked around the house, filling the camera’s memory card with one incredible winter wonderland scene after another.

I heard a growling motor sound. Curious, I stepped around a corner of the house, just as a speeding snowmobile rounded the same corner from the other direction.

The snowmobile flung me back against a tree.

The last thing I remember was Rueben’s startled face as he sat open-mouthed on the snowmobile. And Uncle Sebastian pulling a satellite phone from his pocket, extending its antenna.


I woke up in a hospital bed with a bearded man hovering over me. My eyes took their own sweet time to focus.

“Broke your shoulder good, you did,” Uncle Sebastian offered. “And so soon after you got up here. Shame, really. Didn’t get a chance to hunt atall.”

I tried to sit up, but pain overwhelmed me and I lay back down. Broke my shoulder? “Didn’t I get hit by a snowmobile?” I asked.

Uncle Sebastian scratched the beard under his chin and nodded. “Good thing Rueben had a snowmobile, too. Needed it to get you to the highway to meet the amb’lance. You was out cold. We called ahead. Couldn’t have got through with a truck. Not til we put a plow on something and cleared the driveway a bit. And we didn’t have a mule. Left old Blue back at the home place.”

Leaning back against the pillow, I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to picture how they’d managed to transport me on a snowmobile. At least it wasn’t on the mule. “Now what?”

“I called your mother. She’s gonna come up and get you. Take you back to DC. Says you’ll mend better there.”

“How about my stuff?”

“We got some of it here. Your camera and your phone and some clothes and your flashlight. Rest of it we’ll bring down to the home place when we come.”

“How about my Navigator?” I looked at him.

Uncle Sebastian stared into a corner of the room. “That your truck thing? Bit of a problem there.”

“It’s snowed in?”

“Well, there’s that, too.”

“What do you mean, ‘that, too’?”

“Afraid we didn’t move it far enough away from that hole when we got it out.”

“It slipped back into the ditch? Rueben hit it again?” Rueben was good at hitting things.

He stroked his beard. “Not exactly.”

“What exactly?”

“Well, maybe nobody ever told you, but all through that area, we got old mine tunnels running underground. Sometimes they collapse. Specially if they get some weight on top, like a heavy snowstorm. Or a truck parked there. Or something.”

I closed my eyes again and took a deep breath. “So my Navigator is in an old mine tunnel?”

“Oh, no. Not in the tunnel. The top just caves in. Then the ground sinks about five or ten feet.”

“And my Navigator is in a hole five or ten feet deep? Or deeper than it was at the bottom of the ditch?”

Uncle Sebastian beamed. “You’re one smart boy. No wonder you make out so good in the city.”

“Can you haul it out again for me?”

“Course we can. After it warms up, we’ll do just that.”

“Why wait until after it warms up? Can’t anybody shovel the snow out of the way?”

“Froze in mud almost all the way up the axles, I’m afraid. Have to wait for that to thaw.”

I looked suspiciously at Uncle Sebastian. “Tell me the truth. You all knew about the mine tunnels. And that they can collapse. Is that why Great Pawpaw left the hunting camp to me?”

Uncle Sebastian turned away to peer out the window at the sun glinting off the piles of snow in the parking lot. “Well, yeah. Prob’ly. He figured you was the only one with the money to fix what’s got to be fixed. Tunnels run under the cabin, too. And pay them back taxes.”

“Back taxes?”

“Yeah. Great Pawpaw, he ain’t had the money to pay them the last few years. Didn’t want the land to move out of the family.”

I took an even deeper breath. It hurt my sides. “And he figured I’d pay them?”

“He was hoping. Our men folk set real store by that deer camp. Only way he saw to keep it in the family.”

I sighed. “I didn’t even see any deer while I was there.”

He chuckled. “Oh, they’re there. Can be hard to see, though.”

 “Was the one that Rueben hit with the truck the only one anyone got?”

“Yeah. But we really don’t worry too much about what we get up at camp. Seth’s family, they farm about 500 acres in the lowland. And they got crop damage permits. We just hunt whenever we need the meat and tell the game warden it’s on the crop damage permit. Get enough venison for all winter.”


Mother drove up to get me. I’ve been staying with her these past few weeks. I need help with almost everything. My whole side is strapped up to let my broken shoulder blade heal. I can’t drive now anyhow, so I haven’t decided whether to rent a more practical car or just wait until I can retrieve the Navigator.

To my great relief, the law firm put me on disability leave instead of firing me.

The only good thing I could think of that came out of this were the pictures I’d taken. I wondered if they were as stunning as I remembered. If the camera wasn’t broken.

My laptop doesn’t have a drive for the memory card. Last night, Mother took it somewhere and got the pictures printed up. The scenes were just as amazing as I’d remembered them.

And there, right in the middle of the first one, was a ten-point buck staring back at me.





  1. Fun story--excellent! Thanks for the read.

  2. Great story, Kathleen. Another fun one to read with a surprise twist.

  3. Such a good story. Love the twists! Great scene setting.

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  5. What a fun story! Perfect for getting into the spirit of the season!