A muddy two track led from the highway through pot-holed sods to narrow tree lined woods. The rain and darkness limited the visibility to just a few yards. After more than a mile, the road emerged into a flat, open area.
Ahead stood a large, two-story cabin known as Camp Broken Antler. A spotlight on top of the cabin pushed the fog back and lit up the swamp where several apples had been strewn about and deer occasionally stopped by to check them out. The inside of the cabin was also well lit as the steady thump of a 6,000 watt gas generator out back provided plenty of power.
The cabin had originally started as a shed to house the four charter members of the group but had gradually expanded over the years to accommodate new members and provide more space and comfort. Each new addition was usually inspired by the type and amount of salvaged lumber and building supplies that could be procured over the course of that summer. A larger kitchen? No problem. More sleeping space? Let’s raise the roof and put in a second story. More storage? Lets scab on a new addition to the old part.
Need roofing? Somebody knew a guy. Need windows? I saw one down at the green boxes. 2X4s? Somebody needed to tear down that old shed. Building materials had made their way to camp for years via salvage and barter and very little cash was ever involved.
So camp was a dynamic situation set to house eight or nine campers this year for the first week of Buck Season which was to start “tomorrow.” It was my first visit.
The guys welcomed me into camp and Ern pointed toward an empty bunk. I knew most of the hunters, having met them at various school sporting events or community functions. I also figured that there was a check out process for me, the new guy. Does he hunt safely? Will he get lost? Can he survive on camp food?
Little did I realize that I was being vetted for a much bigger purpose.
Finally, Ern decided to push the issue.
“You know,” he said in his normal slow drawl, “we need you to be the judge. Since you are the least invested and probably care the least what happens.”
“OK,” I said, thinking maybe a best biscuit contest or possibly loudest belch. “Judge what?”
“The trial” he replied.
“Trial for what? Did somebody do something wrong?”
“Well, Buck here missed a shot on opening day last year and now he wants a trial to defend himself,” Ern responded.
Ah, now I understand. This is universal Deer Hunter law, definitely a punishable offense in most camps. In fact, it may date back to the beginning of Law, back to the days of Hammurabi and the Rule of Law. When Muhandi first threw a spear at a niknik and missed, his buddies probably laughed and promptly cut off the hem of his tunic. This is not just a well-know tradition, it must be the law.
But I did have one question.
“So, I don’t know how you guys do things, but isn’t that a shirttail offense?”
Ern took on a bit of apology in his voice and said, “Yes, of course it is. But this is America, home of the free and the brave. Justice and liberty for all. One is innocent until proven guilty and everyone deserves a fair trial. And, by gosh, we are going to give him a fair trial before we find him guilty.”
The first beer was beginning to kick in now and all this was starting to make sense. “So when do you want to do this?” I asked.
“Well, dinner’s not quite ready and the Statute of Limitations runs out tomorrow, so, let’s do it right now.”
“OK. Sounds good to me.” I could have said one, two, three go because the room suddenly turned into a hubbub of commotion as lines were drawn and teams chosen for the trial.
I was directed to a large overstuffed chair that had once graced somebody’s formal living room – its beige or taupe surface well-worn with just a little cotton batting showing from a small hole on the arm rest.
To my left on the yard sale couch sat the defendant, Buck, looking guilty and expecting the worst. He was joined by Elvis, enlisted to help with the defense, and his history teacher background should prove beneficial.
To their left, a fully cranked Fisher woodstove pumped out heat allowing most of the guys to lounge around in T-shirts.
Directly in front of the judge sat the members of the jury. Kitchen and folding chairs had been quickly placed in two rows blocking passage of anyone headed to the kitchen. A fine jury was assembled, ready for their civil duty by passing around another round of beers. Ern, Arch, Coach, Doc, Soupy and Slick put on their serious citizen faces to prepare for the grave responsibilities needed here.
To my right and completing the circle of justice, sat Cookie who had volunteered to prosecute the case. His credentials were somewhat sketchy, having been called to jury duty once and having seen Judge Wapner on TV a time or two. He did however have the ability to summons up great quantities of righteous indignation at civil injustices or political shenanigans and that more than qualified him for the job.
Cookie finished off his beer, stubbed out his cigarette and took several deep breaths to show that he was ready to right this terrible wrong that had been perpetrated on the camp.
The room seemed to settle in and quiet down, so I decided to get things started. “Everybody ready? Does the defense have a plea?” I asked.
Elvis rose to his feet beside Buck and said, “Yes, Your Honor, we plead Not Guilty.”
Immediately to my right the prosecution jumped to his feet and hollered “I object. This alleged deer hunter knows he is guilty and we are going to prove it.”
Wow, off to a good start it would seem. I weakly replied “Objection denied but you can start your case. Got any witnesses?”
“Yes, we do,” Cookie replied. “The prosecution calls Ern as the first witness.”
Ern wore a number of hats here including camp owner and social chair as well as jury foreman but now it appeared that he was to be the first witness. That much involvement may be grounds for an appeal by a higher court but I think I’ll give the prosecution a little latitude. Ern moved his chair sideways about six inches to simulate taking the stand and separate himself from the other members of the jury.
Mr. Prosecutor began, “Last year on opening day of Buck Season did you or did you not hear a shot around 10 a.m.?”
“I did,” Ern replied.
“And where did the sound seem to come from?”
“It seemed to come from Cherry Point.”
“And who was hunting up there?”
“Buck said he was going up there. And I saw him leave that direction at daylight.”
“And who do you think made that shot?”
“I think it was Buck.”
Cookie turned to the Defense and said “Your witness,” then sat down with a satisfied harrumph.
Elvis slowly came to his feet and looked at the witness.
“Did you see him take the shot?” he asked.
“Well, no,” Ern muttered, “but I know it was him. Besides that, the neighbors out around the hill killed a nice buck about an hour later. Probably the one he missed.”
As Elvis sat down, I asked Cookie if he had anymore witnesses.
“Yep, we sure do. The prosecution now calls Doc to the stand.”
Doc began looking for a place to move his chair a little to separate himself from the jury when Elvis spoke up. “This is not going to be another witness who just heard a shot, is it?”
“Yep, and I’m going to call all of them until this case is over,” replied Cookie.
Elvis began to bluster for a minute, then said, “We don’t deny that everybody heard that shot. Heck, we don’t deny that Buck even took the shot.”
Cookie jumped in quickly and stated “The prosecution rests. They just admitted his guilt,” and once again sat down with a triumphant harrumph.
Now it was my turn as judge to jump back in.
“Not quite,” I said. “Elvis, if you have a defense, the floor is yours.”
Elvis, pulled himself to his feet and stated, “Our defense, Your Honor, is” and here he paused for effect – “Sport.”
The cabin grew quiet for a second or two while we all soaked that in. Then the prosecution once again exploded out of his chair, veins bulging on his neck as he screamed, “Sport? What the heck kind of answer is that?”
There was a soft glow coming off the top of his bald head much like that point one half second after turning off the light bulb and one half second before total darkness takes over.
“Care to explain in a little more detail?” I asked.
“Certainly,” Elvis began. “It should be noted that the defendant could hunt anywhere he wants, areas with much higher deer populations, areas much less steep and rugged. But, no. Harvesting a deer is not the most important thing. He comes here because of friends and colleagues, catching up on families, bonding and socializing with co-workers, networking with old chums, that is the true meaning of ‘sport.’ Breaking bread or having a drink with friends is much more important…”
As Elvis droned on about humanity, love and comrades, Cookie’s eyes glazed over and appeared to be going around in circles inside his head. Two members of the jury were snoring.
But there was a movement afoot as an eight inch hunting knife now appeared in the hands of the jury foreman.
“Pronounce sentence,” Ern said.
“But I don’t think Elvis is quite done ye…”
“Pronounce sentence,” Ern said, a little louder as he and Coach yanked Buck to his feet and began sawing on his shirttail.
“But the defense…Well, oh heck. He’s guilty.”
Now the celebration could begin. Cookie headed to the cooler for another round of beers. Ern had wacked off a long narrow strip of cloth from Buck’s shirt, who now looked like he was naked and probably more than a little violated.
Coach suddenly showed with a 16 ounce carpenter’s hammer and a single 10 penny nail. He positioned a chair in the archway between rooms under an orphan wall that bordered on the upstairs sleep area. Climbing on the chair, he proceeded to nail the shirttail in place where it could be easily viewed.
It was only then that I noticed the other nine shirttails already hanging there. Just narrow pieces of cloth, mostly plaid, some marked with sharpies for dates and names, but nine none the less. Now plus one.
Whether this speaks to our sense of justice or to our inabilities as marksman, one can never say. Most of those other nine shirttails probably did not get as fair a trial as the one at my first camp.
And for the record, no shots were missed the next day.