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Call of the Crow

      He sat perched on a flat, sloping, moss-covered boulder at the edge of a cliff, overwatching the hardwood forest below him. The hunter scanned predawn silence through late October’s mid-fall morning mist.

     The year was 1981, more than a decade before cell phones. A time when hunters entered the woods with wristwatch, map, compass, rifle, matches, rain poncho, flashlight, their wits about them and a well-stocked first aid kit. The hunter’s companions were a thermos of hot coffee, a hearty packed lunch, a pair of binoculars and a small coil of good rope.

     He checked his wristwatch. 6:50am. Half an hour to sunrise. He’d hiked in along the old state truck trail from South Meadows at 5, veering off the trail and following a steep rocky creek’s flow up to the ridgeline rising towards Phelps Mountain’s peak. He was clad in a heavy wool buffalo plaid jacket, cap, and dark woolen pants over a warm pair of grey long johns.  The hunter’s belt and boots were both well-oiled leather, as was the sheath to his buck knife that he carried on his right hip.

     He was hunting alone, carrying his scoped.308. Suddenly, he heard the sound he’d been listening for, that unmistakable frosted cornflake leaf shuffle of an approaching form.

     His sharp eyes pierced misted shadow. He sat quietly, patiently, pinpointing the noise source, hunting at that point more with senses than sight.

     There!  About eighty yards below him, he spotted his quarry, a trophy Adirondack buck. Nose to the ground, the deer had not spotted him. He was keen on the scent of his own quarry, a doe.

     The hunter slowly and quietly raised his rifle. He exhaled slowly, scope tracking the buck’s movement, zeroing in crosshairs for the kill.

     He clicked off his safety. The buck raised his head, turned, stared uphill and froze. The hunter squeezed the trigger just as the buck sensed his peril and bolted. The buck lurched sideways once and then bounded off. The hunter’s gunshot staccato echoed the woods.

     The hunter quickly ejected his bolt action rifle’s spent round and chambered another. He hoped for a second shot as the buck crossed the streambed. He had no such luck. His target zigzagged and quickly disappeared uphill through hardwood tree trunks and rocks.

     Heart racing, the hunter clicked his safety back on and slid down off his rock. He went downhill to where he’d scoped the buck, soon finding what he was looking for; tufts of deer hair, snow and leaves stained with fresh blood.

     The buck was clearly wounded. The hunter’s question was, how badly?  The buck had turned uphill and run. The hunter knew that was a bad sign. Fatal wounds generally turn dying deer downhill.

     The hunter then turned and studied the terrain above him. It quickly got rocky and steep. Hardwoods gave way to the thick balsams.  He sighed. That buck was running for cover. He was going up high to hide, using the balsams to mask his escape.

     The hunter took a few moments to catch his breath, slow his heartrate. He returned to his rock perch, added another shell to his magazine, checked his map and compass, pouring a steaming cup of coffee from his thermos as he collected his thoughts and scanned the long steep ridgeline above him with binos.

      That buck had been hit hard. The hunter knew he had made a good shot. But those big bucks were tough.  They were built for survival. He was in for a long day’s slog uphill if he wanted that buck.

     The hunter finished his coffee, donned his backpack and picked up his rifle. “Looks like it’s off to the races,” he thought. He picked up the buck’s blood splattered trail and began working his way uphill through trees, creek bed and slippery wet rocks.

     He quickly found himself fighting his way through thick balsams. Footing became slippery and treacherous; visibility was next to nothing.  He was hunting on the buck’s terms now. He was exactly where that wounded buck wanted him.

     He came upon a new deer bed impression, stained with fresh blood. The buck had laid there watching his approach, resting momentarily, gathering the strength to climb on.

     The hunter’s breathing and woolen hunting clothes got heavy as he worked up a sweat.  His pace slowed. The buck’s bloody trail continued uphill. The hunter’s boots felt like they were weighted with lead.

     The buck weaved his way up the ridgeline. His wound was oozing. Red dots stained fresh snow.  The buck’s pace seemed to slow. He clearly kept losing blood.

     Finally, near the ridgeline crest, the hunter spotted his quarry.  Buck and hunter locked gazes. The hunter raised his rifle to shoot. He stepped forward.

As he did so, he suddenly slipped on the rocks. His shot rang wildly through the woods as he lost his footing and went tumbling downwards.

     The buck turned once more and disappeared over the crest of the ridge with his last ounce of strength. He appeared to win the battle. He laid down and died not long thereafter. The hunted’s harsh reality won the war.  The hunter knew nothing of that, however. He quite suddenly faced his own mortal peril.

     The hunter slid downhill through the rocks towards the creek bed, at some point his feet came completely out from under him. His shoulder slammed off a tree as he fell. His rifle went flying. His head smashed off a boulder. He rolled forward twice, then went over a small cliff, landing again, with his spine meeting rock.  His left shin bone snapped as it too met stone. The last thing he recalled was the splash of ice-cold water as his body came to rest in the creek bed as he slowly lost consciousness.

     Night descended. Darkness enveloped the hunter as he lay in the water. He had no idea how much time had passed before he finally came to.  He was soaked from head to toe, freezing cold, bleeding and in great pain. His left leg was broken. He could see what looked like protruding bone through ripped wool. His head was still bleeding into his right eye. His back was throbbing. His backpack had partially broken his fall, keeping him from breaking his back on the rocks. He’d dislocated his shoulder. His rifle was gone.

     The hunter slowly clawed his way across icy water and rocks with one arm. He lay on the bank of the streambed, weak from injury and blood loss, hands trembling with cold, soaking wet from head to toe, his left leg and right shoulder useless. He was in mortal danger. He knew it.

     He tried to gather his wits. He didn’t know how much blood he had lost, but he needed to stop the bleeding. He worked his backpack off his shoulders and rolled. He fumbled in the darkness. He tried to reach his first aide kit. To no avail.  The hunter once more lost consciousness.

     At 5 am the following morning a telephone rang. A NYSDEC Forest Ranger answered the call.  A woman’s quavering voice was on the other end of the line. She had clearly been crying. Her husband had not yet come home from the previous day’s hunt.  That was not like him. She was quite worried. she knew something was wrong.

     The Ranger quickly gathered his gear. The woman told him where her husband had gone. Terrain the Ranger knew well. He assembled his search crew. They set out. Hunters hunting the hunter. Weather, time and terrain were their nemesis.

     The Phelps Mountain basin is a big, remote region.  As the search team hit the trailhead, they found the hunter’s truck. He had signed in at the South Meadows register. Next to his name and the date, one simple entry: “Phelps Mountain, hunting.”

     The Ranger led the search, organizing his team. They hiked up the trail, following the hunter’s tracks to where he cut off the trail and entered the woods. They could see where he sat watch. Spotted blood in the snow, began following the hunter’s tracks and buck’s the blood trail. They lost the hunter’s trail in thick balsams. Two days passed. They went back and got dogs. The dogs got distracted by the blood trail and led them over the ridgeline to the dead buck.

     After four days, search party hopes waned. On day three the snow melted. Nighttime temps dropped well below freezing. On day four fresh snow fell. Tracking hopes had long since vanished.  They grid searched on in vain.

     After a week, the Ranger pulled back his search party to regroup and refit. He assured the hunter’s hysteric wife that he would not call off the search.  He decided he’d go back in on his own to see if he could pick up the hunter’s trail. He had reassured the hunter’s wife but knew from experience that at that point he was likely searching for a dead hunter’s body.

     The Forest Ranger returned to the woods. He followed the creek bed, walking quietly, putting himself in the mindset of a hunter tracking a wounded trophy Adirondack buck. Instead of looking to the ground for signs of the hunter, he turned eyes and ears skyward in search of a clue.  


     Forest Ranger Report: “Missing hunter’s body found on Phelps Mountain.”

      After an unsuccessful weeklong search, NYS DEC Forest Rangers report finding the body of a hunter in the Phelps Mountain area.  When asked how what led him to the body after the unsuccessful weeklong efforts of a search party with dogs, the Ranger responded,

“Based on my knowledge of the area and where we found the dead buck, I just went back into the woods, and started listening for crows.”


Until Our Trails Cross Again:


ADK Outlaw Author’s Endnote: “Call of the Crow” was selected by HarmoNNY Performing Arts Community for their fall 2023 “Selected Stories” dramatic live reading event, recently held at the Sackets Harbor Ballroom.