It was 48°, pitch black and not a star in the sky, as the overnight shower finally slowed. Every raindrop dripping from the trees, sounded like a far off gunshot as it hit the wet leaf-covered forest floor.
I shivered slightly because I was damp from walking in the light drizzle the mile and a quarter from camp, to this perch on the slope of a steep side hill.
I had headed out from camp about 4:30, muzzleloader in hand, after loading up the old railroad caboose stove with several hunks of well dried, split, white oak.
Everyone was still snoozing and nursing their big heads from a night of telling old stories, playing knock poker, scratching, passing gas, and consuming mass quantities of alcohol.
As it was unusually warm on this first morning of the ’73 buck season in these central PA woods, I had only donned my lightweight, green and black checkered, Woolrich overshirt; It could be soaked and still keep you comfortably warm, as long as it wasn’t freezing cold.
Knowing I had at least an hour until first light, I had time to reflect on the things that had led up to my being here.
The guys in camp, as well as a few close friends scoffed at me early last summer when I announced I intended to get a Muzzleloader and buck hunt with it.
Not having a lot of cash, I headed to J.C. Penny’s in the Altoona Mall. Back then, they had a real nice sporting goods department, as well as a nice selection of firearms and they accepted credit cards!
I strolled out with a .45 cal. Thompson Center Hawken percussion rifle.
It was beautiful; an exceptional piece of well figured Walnut, a superior job of bluing, lots of polished brass, and a case-hardened lock and frizzen.
It was after the purchase, I realized I need a crap load of other stuff to make this beauty ready to fire.
There weren’t very many places that carried muzzleloader supplies back then. Luckily my job; traveling around repairing mobile homes, was just the ticket to visit many sporting goods shops in several different counties.
I had to read many articles and reference books, just to learn what the heck I needed and how to apply that knowledge. It would have been a snit these days, gleaning information on the internet and ordering overnight shipping from Amazon, but the web wasn’t to be realized until sometime around the early 90’s.
I had to acquire lead, a melting pot, bullet mold, pouring ladle, sprue cutter, brass drift, small wooden mallet, 3F powder, powder measure, #11 ignition caps, short starter, cotton ticking, and even a set of front and rear Vernier tang target sights.
All these items didn’t cost much back then, and in a few weeks of scouring all the gun shops from Saxton, to Clearfield, I had obtained everything, and was finally ready to take ‘er to the local shooting range (Frog Hollow Gun Club on Polecat road, right outside of Claysburg).
Shortly after daybreak on an Oct. Sunday morning, found me there, after I waved goodby to the wife and kids as they headed off to church.
As I was stoking the charge down the front end of this beautiful weapon, I could only imagine how it must have felt for the early pioneers doing the same.
Hunting of course would be one thing, but the pressure of a herd of angry redskins riding down on you and your family, whooping and hollering, would make this many stepped process a tad more perplexing, plus the very thought you only had one shot.
As these thoughts were going through my head, I had grabbed one of my homemade targets (a regular page of typewriter paper that I traced around a dime and colored in with red crayon) and headed out to the 25-yard Celotex backboard to affix it with 4 old-time metal flat headed thumbtacks.
You know, the ones you had to wedge your fingernail under to dislodge it, and usually would hurt the quick underneath the nail for the next two days.
With all this jumble in my head, I never heard the scrunch of tires on the gravel parking lot, 30′ or so behind the shooting benches.
I quickly attached the target and headed back down. A tall man of some stature, wearing a faded brown cowboy hat, nice shirt with pearl buttons, a leather vest and well-worn, but nicely shined cowboy boots, was leaning against his truck watching intently my every move.
As I got closer, he asked if I belonged to the club. Yep, said I, just joined last evening at Forest Oldem’s house after he got home from work.
“Well then, that’s just dandy “, he said, I’m Sam Diehel, the president of the club”. ” Let me show you around the property”. A big smile and handshake and I felt right at home.
After showing me all the amenities, we ambled back out to the benches. ” I see you have a front stuffer”, he said, “just what the hell are you going to do with that?” After I told him, he gave me a good “scoffing”.
“I’ve gotta watch this”, he said.
I told him this was my first outing and wasn’t quite sure of what to expect or how things would go. I prepared the charge as per all the studying I had done, and gently put the gun on my sand filled shot bags, sat down, took careful aim, set the back trigger, and slowly squeezed the front trigger.
Sam and I both jumped at the loud roar and great plume of light grey smoke.
After the cloud of smoke cleared somewhat, I could see the .45 cal. hole at the bottom right corner of the target. “Much better than I expected”, I said out loud.
Sam said, “me too!”
Now excited to fine tune and hone the weapon to sniper type accuracy, I took out the ramrod, attached a cleaning jag, and a patch cleaner, and ran it up and down the barrel a few times, to clean most of the residue before loading it again.
If you don’t do this, the accumulation will eventually make the bore more constricted, thus making more pressure and causing subsequent balls to fly higher.
No worries of that, I had successfully gotten the ramrod stuck in the bottom of the barrel somehow!
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t dislodge the rod.
Of course, Sam was “scoffing” at me again along with laughing. He came over and tried to help, but it wouldn’t budge.
It was then I got the bright idea of removing the breech nipple and pouring a small amount of powder down the hole, replace the nipple– put a cap on it and fire the gun.
This sounded like a grand idea to me, but Sam just kept coming up with more “scoffing” terms.
As I laid the rifle down on the bags, Sam started making tracks for the back of his truck.
I didn’t sit down, but rather crouched with my back to the gun, and closed my eyes real tight as I pulled the trigger. I was really surprised at the loudness of the report, considering all the more powder I used– the rod must have been really stuck hard and caused a great deal of pressure.
I looked and the rod was gone from the front of the barrel, as I scanned the immediate vicinity for my ramrod, Sam gave me another “scoffing” and told me to look at the 50 yard target backboard.
There was my ramrod, sticking halfway through and still in one piece! Sam and I spent several hours there that day, laughing, learning, and getting that gun to shoot as well as most modern-day rifles.
We continued being good friends and sometimes hunting partners for many years until his death.
I was fortunate enough to be friends with a swell group of misfits, one of whose Dad, Rex, owned a small chunk of mountain ground adjoining his homestead adjacent the base of the Bellwood reservoir.
A small one room home, weathered tar paper exterior, and a crooked length of stovepipe protruding from the side of the house. A blanket affixed to a wire, sectioned off the sleeping quarters for he and his wife.
The only light was provided by one 60 watt bulb hanging from a frayed cloth covered cord. A small sink nailed crudely to the wall was supplied with a gravity fed, black plastic water line from a spring above the house, and the drain went straight through the floor to the ground beneath it.
This great guy was a true mountain man type of fellow, and could make due with almost nothing and be perfectly content that way.
Rex, his wife, and their son Jerry lived this way their whole life, and appreciated just being above ground and some food in their stomachs, even if it may be some game animal that was out of season.
When we friends spoke of getting a camp together, Jerry jumped right up and said he’d ask his dad if we could build on his property.
Rex had no problems with the suggestion and in fact, took us to a great spot to cut some of the trees we would use to build it. We loaded these logs and took them to the end of the lane, where a fellow had a really old sawmill.
With his instruction, we got the logs all cut into boards of varying lengths and widths. With youthful exuberance and a, we can do anything attitude, it was only a few weekends until we had it completed.
A compact two-story A-frame, 12’x24’ with tar-paper roofing. the second story sleeping loft, was able to sleep six, but don’t sit up, or you’ll knock your head on the roof. We even had enough lumber left over to build a small front porch.
One evening, as we all sat around the table playing cards and drinking from a big jug of cheap bourbon, we decided to name the camp.
Someone suggested we call it Rex’s Roost, as that was exactly what it had become. A great place for ‘ole Rex to slip off from the Mrs. and enjoy a pipe of tobacco and a sniveler or two of whiskey.
We all thought it to be just perfect, and all raised our glass to toast the decision, many, many times that evening.
Over the next few years, I’d visit Rex whenever I was in that area. He’d always greet me with that same wry smile, friendly wave, and genuinely make you feel he was happy you stopped by.
Rex’s wardrobe didn’t change much from early fall, until late spring, always a plaid shirt, covered with a tattered, black tweed Woolrich vest. A worn thin in the knees and pockets, pair of faded overalls, and a well worn, and oiled pair of leather high-tops.
Weathered, sun darkened skin and bright, smiling eyes, accentuated his grizzled white stubble of a beard, which seemed always the same length.
Just the type you feared as a kid, when one of the old men in the family , smelling of Ben Gay, whiskey, Hoppe’s #9 gun-oil, and damp wool, would gather you up, and grind that sandpaper stubble into your neck, while making some funny “Zerburt” noise to make you howl with laughter, and you’d remember the burn, long after he left you down to the floor.
Yep, just the kind of man, you’d always hoped you’d grow into someday, when you were 70 or so, and old enough to smoke a pipe.
We were all excited, as buck season was getting closer every day, and could hardly wait to use the cabin for more than a work party or occasional weenie roast.
I had asked about how we were to heat the place, and Jerry said, as a kid he could remember seeing some sort of stove lying beside a trail a long ways up the hollow. Off the four of us went, in search of said stove.
Years ago, there was a train that went up over Blandburg mountain using the very trail we use to access the top of the mountain, and none of us realized this was an abandoned railroad bed. After what seemed like miles, sure enough, there was an old pot-bellied stove. It was used to heat the caboose of the long-gone train. It was pretty rough, but we were sure we could clean it up to suit our needs. We all bent down and snatched it up, and took off back down the trail.
We had gone about 20 feet, and all agreed, we’d need more help to drag this beast out of the woods.
We never actually weighed it, but if I had to guess, I’d say close to 6000 pounds.
We eventually got it to, and installed in the camp, and it worked just dandy. The only problem, with all the cracks and air leaks, it ate wood like a starving Vulture on a festered gut pile.
We all got together and laid in a goodly supply of bone dry, Red, and White Oak, split firewood for the upcoming hunting season. Sure is true, that many hands make for a light load.
Finally, the big day was upon us, we were all going to meet Saturday morning at camp, and be there for the entire week, not returning until the following Sunday.
With true Eckley luck, as I was packing up the vehicle, my boss called and told me a customer had called and his furnace wasn’t working.
This mobile home was clean over on the other side of Pavia, and by the time I fixed their problem and got back, it was the middle of the afternoon and starting to get dark, especially with the storms they were predicting for the night and rest of the weekend.
I finally got to camp, and was chastised for being so late. Someone had brought a big pot of chili, so no time was wasted on making supper, just warm it up and chow down.
For tomorrow, we planned on doing last minute scouting, and making sure our stands and blinds were in good order. I’ve never been a big fan of heights, and the stand I had built was 7 foot high on the down slope, and 8 inches off the ground on the upper side.
I think I had mentioned it was quite a steep slope. Be that as it may, all the guys called me a Lilly liver, because I didn’t make my stand 40’ high like one of the guys did.
Everything seemed in order, and some of the black threads I had placed across three well-worn deer trails were all snapped; indicating deer had recently used these pathways.
Sunday evening, and everyone was just loaded with excitement and enthusiasm, as we did up the supper dishes and made ready the large picnic table we used for eating, card playing, and piling junk on.
Off came all the junk, and a red and white, checked, oilcloth thrown down to make the cards slide smoothly, and spilled drinks easier to mop up when our card game would start in an hour or so; and a night of telling old stories, playing knock, scratching, passing gas, and consuming mass quantities of alcohol would be in store for us all.
I’m smiling at these fond memories, as I realize dawn is starting to break, and hurriedly slip a percussion cap on my trusty muzzleloader.
Within no more than 10 minutes , as I was scanning the laurel thicket above me, I see what looked like a whispy grey shadow, slipping down off the ridge.
In the soft morning’s glow, and patchy fog, I can’t be sure what it is I’m seeing, but that old familiar pounding heart, raspy breathing and almost feeling like I could throw up, came racing over my body.
But then it was clear, a grey muzzled, nice racked, buck, wise in the ways of these late November fools that come to his territory. I would catch glimpses of those white horns as he glided in and out of sight in those high rhododendron.
I shouldered my rifle, setting the back trigger, so that just a whisper would touch off the 100 grains of powder. He entered a small opening, and I gave a short, quick, soft whistle, he stopped and looked intently in my direction.
As there were no rules about color requirements on clothing, the early fog and low light coupled with my dark garb, made me near invisible to him, and even though he was higher on the hill than me, the rain had dampened everything, and made odors stay close to the ground and not spread out too far.
I’m certain he didn’t notice, as I closed one eye, and started to slowly squeeze the trigger.
I can’t say I remember the roar or recoil, but do remember seeing nothing but smoke. No running deer, no nothing.
I quickly reloaded with my shaking hands and heart still trying to leap out of my throat.
Down off the 8 inch step and fighting my way up the hill through the thick brush to where I assumed he would be lying dead.
Nope, nothing. No deer, no blood, no nothing.
I felt just terrible at missing, and headed back to my stand; crawled back up, and of course went over the scenario several dozen times before it hit me.
I remembered clearly, the hold I had made on him with those double peep sights; I knew how accurate the gun was, and at that time I had good eyesight and a fair shot.
I couldn’t have missed!!!
Down I went, and back to the spot I figured he was when I shot. I started turning over the leaves on bushes, down on my hands and knees looking for tracks in the wet matted leaves, and that’s when I spotted a few hairs, they were cut off, not pulled out with the roots still attached, and the only thing that could have cut them off, was that round ball entering his body!
I crawled all over that hill for what seemed an hour or so, and was sweating from the exertion, excitement, and extreme frustration.
I stood up, leaned against a soaking wet black oak tree, took out my matches and lit up a smoke.
As I took a long drag, and looked at the curl of smoke from the match I had just blown out, that’s when I saw it, the gentle sweep of a white antler, jutting up behind a fallen log.
Taking no chances, I cocked my hammer, and eased on over; there he was, nose plowed into the wet leaf litter, and eyes already turning that shade of blue/green that death brings.
The rest of this story doesn’t mean anything, it was all about what leads up to this moment, that leaves a person with many mixed emotions.
If you’ve never hunted, you’ll never know this feeling, and that’s too bad.