The Christmas deer

Bill Burkett
6 min readSep 24


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The best I could say for Navy civil service was it paid the bills. The work was boring unless pilots in training made fatal mistakes. Then the base commander would ask me to handle media. His uniformed underlings didn’t know how to do anything but stonewall. Annapolis-trained, he knew better than that. And knew the closest big daily was my alma mater.

The city editor who hired me out of high school rewarded his wisdom with unsensational coverage, rare in the anti-war days. The captain’s stock rose in Norfolk and my stock rose with the captain. Not with his subordinates; most Navy officers viewed civilian employees like plantation owners viewed house niggers — useful but not quite human. Irritation joined boredom.

My old Sunday magazine editor offered me an outlet by buying freelance stories. One example: a sailor destined for Olympic fencing competition, to the bewilderment of his officers: an enlisted man with a real life beyond bell-bottoms. A published raspberry for uniformed jerks I dealt with. Then there was “The Christmas Deer.”

I wrote: “Sea winds swaggered dark streets like merchant seaman seeking frolic, elbowing low landlubber clouds among lighted insurance-company towers…”

My old boss loved the lead. I described how we left city lights behind, racing west on the interstate to a two-lane state road through pine flatwoods. The breeze there was docile, clouds like soft chilled cotton. I turned down a logging road in rain that melted instead of splashed down the windshield. Immediately stopped, seeing the wavery outline of a deer in the road.

Despite hounds belling in the pines and pickups patrolling sodden roads the deer was just moseying along. Grabbed binoculars: saber curve of rain-shiny antler above the big left ear. Opened the door and brought the big rifle with me. The buck moved into the timber in no hurry, gone when the crosshairs swept the road…

Then I saw why: a pair of pickup trucks came out of the deep woods, breasting mud puddles like tugboats on a misbehaving river. Tried to wave them down. They came on faster. When they got to me the lead driver leaned out:Big, florid, wearing a Stetson like a successful contractor or maybe big landowner.”What’d yuh see?”

“A buck. Back there. I tried to flag you, but you came on.”

“Where’d he go?”

“He was walking. Wasn’t spooked.”

“Wasn’t ahead of our dogs then. No need to try to look for him back in there.” He let in the clutch, rolled onto the highway. The second truck mounted a couple of grizzled Hungarian freedom- fighter replicas, one with a bandolier of shotshells across his broad chest. It followed as if hitched to the first…”

I walked down the road holding the big rifle horizontal to keep water off the scope glass. Looked carefully under every branch, behind every trunk. Could the deer have recrossed behind the trucks? No. He was there.

Step, step. Pause. Step — a dismayed snort, staccato thud of hooves — behind me. Reflex took over. I was around, feet planted, rifle snug to my shoulder, crosshairs centered on a driving, rippling shoulder. Peripheral vision of a white tail hoisted as he soared over brush. Momentary doubt: the buck, or a doe? Moved the sights up.

Good God, a big rack. Reaquired the shoulder, heavy recoil nothing, not there. Expended shell plopping in the mud, snick of the bolt sliding a new one home, scope tracking, recrossing — nothing. I yelled for my wife. She got over in the driver’s seat and brought the car up. ”Did you get it?” From the story:

“I don’t know. That’s a refuge it ran to. I ‘m afraid to take the rifle. Maybe they won’t say anything if I just scout in to see. I’ll put the rifle in the trunk so they can’t accuse you of hunting. Wait here…” My editor liked the detail about tracking in the trees, feeling out moves the deer would have made. Used binoculars a lot, not for distance but to penetrate the gloom. Wiped lenses until my bandanna was so sodden it just smeared water around. Pants felt fifteen pounds heavier. Cold, clammy pounds.

Steady rattle of rain in dead leaves and bare branches of oaks edging into the pine plantation. Patch of pink moss shading toward ruby: Pink moss? Ruby? My leather gloves were sopping wet anyway so I dug fingers in. Pink came off on the leather…I crouched along another few feet to a fresh deep hoofprint beneath a ground-sweeping pine. Dime-size pink spot on moss. Blade of grass daubed capillary red like when you nick yourself shaving…

The trail ended against cypress swamp, the kind of hammock deer used to throw hounds off their scent. Rain filtered through sodden Spanish moss, dimpling the water. Last hoofprints pointed that way. No roiled mud beneath the surface. I squatted a long time by the silent bog, accepting I was done:

The only telling wound that left so little blood was a gutshot. But blood would be dark red and his flagged tail would drop like a shattered kite. It hadn’t. Shifting the sights to confirm antlers and swinging back, I had grazed his withers. “Just uh graze,” like they used to say in cowboy movies…Coming back to the car and worried wife was like awakening from a dream…

I shucked the soaked field jacket with loose threads where Army rank used to go. Hugged the heater while she drove cautiously out to the highway.The Barracuda was better for interstates than muddy timber roads. Back at our city apartment I hurried to clean my rifle, spread clothes to dry by the heat ducts. My story:

There were Christmas presents to be purchased and hurried across the country to newly acquired in-laws…I changed to city attire. Winds still buffeted downtown when we got there, plastic cups and newsprint in a Christmas jig. We found a fine cuddly black-and-white bear for her niece in a specialty store. A department store’s toy section had a clever plastic replica of Vietnam’s M-16 that sparkled gaily and went rat-tat-tat when the trigger was pulled. “This for your nephew,” I said.”How old is he this year?

“He’s four. Too young to understand how to work it.She looked uneasy. “I thought this store wasn’t going to sell toy guns this year.

I had never seen a boy who didn’t learn to work a toy gun soon enough. Toy guns were a joy of my childhood. I named my uncle’s small son and said he liked the one I got him last Christmas in Georgia. She looked pained.”It’s not really that…I don’t know whether my brother — well, he never buys the boys guns. Doesn’t believe in them.You know?”

I had bumped up against alien beliefs similar to those driving anti-gun, anti-hunting sentiment that culminated in the 1968 Gun Control Act. We didn’t buy the toy M-16. But no, I didn’t know.

My Gene Autry cap pistol was my pride-and-joy. Then my twin Longhorn Specials with imitation ivory grips that fired fifty caps apiece. The old man had a shoemaker craft a real leather gunbelt for them. I remembered my sadness realizing I was too old for a new toy gun the Christmas they came out with the Nicholls Six Shooter that loaded little round caps into imitation cartridges; an honest-to-God six-shooter.

Somehow, my story said, my magical world of cowboys and Indians and solid reality of cold weather and hunting had been invaded by alien beings who saw John Dillinger where I saw a small boy nailing imaginary bad guys; saw dark minds plotting assassination when I saw boys-grown-older chasing deer with a better-than-even chance of getting missed….”

We were quiet walking back to the car. I marvelled how half-apologetic words at a bedazzling toy counter could slice right through holiday cheer and hurt way down deep. She went hunting with me thinking things like that?

Bitterly I recalled her reported subservience to her Kikuyu lover in her Murphy bed that had once been dear to my memory as childhood and hunting. Submissive because he expected it. Now going hunting with me because I expected it, despite her liberal leanings about guns? More evidence I had no understanding of women. Didn’t put that in my story of course.

“Christmas again,” my story concluded, “burdened with gifts and the wind shoving at me, but with the joy gone. If you are a hunter once a boy who spent Christmas playing happily with shiny toy guns, never once dreaming you were a monster, you are my brother and we are orphans in this bold new, cold new world.”



Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.