The Edge of a Season

My St. Joe River Longbow "Phoenix" and my brand new Lucas Forge Packer knife.

My St. Joe River Longbow “Phoenix” and my brand new Lucas Forge Packer knife.

“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”
― Terry Pratchett

Steve collapsed by the fire with a sigh and a stretch of the leg that butted his heels to the rim of the cast iron pit. “Well, you see anything, Chief?” He asked, watching water evaporate from his boot soles.

“Yeah, seeing is one thing, shooting is a different story altogether.” I said, staring at the flames. “I had a spike come in around 9:30. Nice high points. I liked him. Missed just beneath the boiler maker.”

Steve removed his Fedora and shook the water into the fire. The droplets hissed as they turned to mist. He gave it a look, stuffed it back on his head, and let out a long, tired sigh to wick away the frustrations of the day. “Well that sucks. At least you saw something. Thom and I – not so much. How far away was he?”

“Too far.” I laughed. “That was the problem. I figured him at 20 yards and paced him at 30. That’s pushing it for me. I felt confident at the time but never would’ve dropped the string had I known.”

Steve raised his eyebrows and nodded. “I gotcha. Hard to tell in the woods sometimes.”
“Yeah. I suppose. Arrow fell right off the table.” I said, making a diving motion with my hands. “Never did find it.”

“You lost the arrow too?” He laughed. “Lots of leaves around here though. And all this rain softening the ground sure ain’t helping us any.”

I nodded in agreement and slipped an old, plastic-handled Buck knife from its kydex sheath to change the subject. It was your garden variety Walmart special – five inches of blade with a gut-hook out the back. Steve noticed it immediately and a smile formed at the corners of his mouth.

“Who gave you that ol’ thing?” He chuckled.

“Oh, some ornery old curmudgeon with a bushy white stache.” I replied, thumbing the blade for sharpness. Finding none, I handed it back to its former owner and prepared for the ribbing I was about to receive for its lack of care.

He slid his glasses down his nose, examined the blade, and then glanced at me above the rims. “You know what the secret to a good knife is?” He asked. “Keeping it sharp. You need to take a stone and strop to this thing.”

“I know. I suck something awful at sharpening a knife. I can sharpen broadheads but can’t seem to apply it to a blade for some reason. At least not without one of those little black Smith sharpeners or something to that effect.”

Steve chuckled. “Well you do ’em both the same way. Just run the edge along the stone lightly until you get a burr, then a bit lighter to remove the burr, then hit it with the strop.”

I nodded, taking it back. “Yeah, I need to work on that.”

“That knife sucks anyway.” He grinned. “That’s why I gave it to you.”

“Hey! You told me it was a good one!” I sputtered.

“Well, the other one you had was worse. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
“I know. You’ve been telling me to invest in a good knife since I’ve known you. It’s just one of those things I never get around to buying. Something more important always seems to come up.”

“I hear you, Partner. You should get one someday though. Every man ought to have a good knife. Something he can take into the woods with him and depend on the rest of his life. And a good one will last if you take care of it.”

That was the last evening of camp and Steve went back to Georgia the next morning, leaving the rest of us to deal with the end of archery season and the inevitable blaze orange vests and caps. I tend to stay out of the woods during this time. Most trade their longbows for the firearm of their choice but I never had much interest in those things. Being in the woods without my longbow always felt odd. I’d heard too many bowmen utter the phrase: “…it was a nice deer, but I really wish I’d have got it with the longbow…” early on to consider anything but a stick and string. A proper piece of private land to hunt would’ve probably changed my mind, but sitting in natural cover, on public land, during gun season raised the hairs on the back of my neck a bit too high. I decided to leave the woods to the guns and prepare for the holidays instead.

Staying out of the woods without a deer in the freezer wasn’t easy for me. It left me with too much time to think about mistakes I’d made and the deer I’d missed. I must have replayed the encounter dozens of times in my head – each time thinking about what I should’ve done differently. When that had run its course, I started thinking about how little I’d prepared for the season and continued down a spiral of moping that ended with my questioning why I even bothered with a license in the first place.

Thanksgiving came and went and I’d all but given up on bowhunting for the year. December was looming and my 36th birthday with it. Christmas would follow soon after. My mind was stuck between getting closer to 40 and the stress of holiday preparation at work and home. My desire to hunt (or do anything for that matter) was minimal at best by the time my birthday arrived. A single message from Steve would change all that. We had chatted little since camp, which wasn’t like either of us. He too was preoccupied with work and the holidays and irritated he couldn’t spend as much time in the woods as he’d hoped to.

I was just getting out of work to meet Jessica and the kids for a special birthday dinner when I got the message. It contained five words: “Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas.”
I stopped walking and stared at the screen – face scrunched in confusion. I appreciated the birthday wishes but it was only the 5th. Christmas was a ways away. I assumed he was being sarcastic about our lack of communication and responded in kind.
“Christmas? I’m assuming you’ve finally had enough of people and are planning to spend the next several weeks in seclusion?”

“You’ll figure it out.” He messaged.

Dinner with the girls was wonderful but I couldn’t stop thinking about Steve and his cryptic message. I tried to goad him into a response but it didn’t do any good. Steve was really good at keeping a surprise, a surprise. We were different in that regard. I couldn’t wait to spill the beans and didn’t have enough fingers and toes to count how many gifts I’d ruined by either sharing too much information or just giving it to them prematurely. Steve was fully aware of this little quirk. He could see me squirming all the way from Georgia and was loving every minute of it. I was sure of that.

It was dark when I arrived home and checked the mail. The plastic door flopped open to reveal a single package. I pulled it out, assuming Jess had ordered a Christmas gift, but the dome light revealed something else entirely.

“Lucas Forge.” I read aloud, revealing the sender. “Why would Lucas Forge be sending me a package?”

The answer was obvious. It hit me squarely in the chest. I sat in the driveway for several minutes, staring at the package until a lump formed in my throat. My phone lit up on the console. I swiped the screen and found a chat bubble waiting for me.

“Well?” Steve typed. “Did you get it yet?”

“What on Earth did you do, Steve? This is too much. I can’t accept something like this.”

“So you like it?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t opened it yet!”

“Well quit whining and OPEN the thing!”

I pulled into the garage, unlocked the door, and flew into the house – package tucked like a running back. I couldn’t get through the tape and into the box fast enough. What I found beneath the cardboard flaps rekindled the fire that had all but gone out. There, beneath a navy cloth, was a well-oiled, cross-draw sheath with a handle poking out the end. I could feel my eyes start to water as I removed the knife from the cloth and carefully slipped the blade from the leather.

It was a Lucas Forge “Packer” model, approximately 8″ overall with an Osage handle and 3 3/8″ blade that featured an aged patina finish. I fell in love with it the moment I held it in my hands and was shocked at how comfortable it was – as if it were made just for me.
It had also occurred to me that I had seen this knife before, on Steve’s Simply Traditional page a few days prior but hadn’t thought much of it at the time. He had always been a fan of Lucas Bullington’s work and owned one of his knives. I assumed he’d just purchased another for himself. I couldn’t have imagined he’d purchased it for me.
I put down the knife and immediately picked up the phone. “You know I don’t like gifts like this.” I said. “You did this just to make me feel uneasy didn’t you?”

Steve laughed. “So you like it?”

“Like it? I love it! It’s unbelievable. It’s also way too much. Again, how do you expect me to accept something like this?”

“Just don’t cut your damn self. You know what they say about giving someone a knife and them cutting themselves with it, right?”

“No. Never heard that one.”

“Well…don’t cut yourself. He puts quite an edge on those. You’ll cut your eyeball if you look at it hard enough. And please, for the love of God, keep it that way!”

“It would be disrespectful to do anything but, my friend. Thank you. This is unreal. Honestly…I can’t thank you enough.”

“It was my pleasure. Just so you know, I tried to match the handle to the limbs of your St. Joe, but Tracey didn’t have any more of that flamed hickory they used to make it. That’s kind of a rare wood I guess. I went with the Osage to match your riser instead.”

“It’s perfect. I love Osage and it looks great with the rustic blade. By the way, is this the same knife you posted the other day?”

“Yessir!” He laughed. “Hid it in plain sight. I wondered if you were paying attention.”
“You’re too sneaky for your own good. I can’t wait to use this thing.”
“Well get back into the woods this weekend! Take it with you. You’ve still got time. I’d love to see you use it on something.”

“You know what? I think I’ll take Friday off and do just that.”

“Well good luck, happy birthday, and don’t cut yourself.”

I hung up the phone, brought the knife downstairs, and slipped it into the pocket of my hunting pants. I spent the rest of the evening touching up my broadheads, waxing my bow string, and washing my fleece hunting suit.

I couldn’t wait for Friday to arrive. When it did, winter had come with it. I woke up well before my alarm, drove to my favorite piece of public land, and stomped off into the darkness with an eagerness I hadn’t felt since opening day. The temperature was in the low 20s, there was a foot of snow on the ground, and the wind burned my face and neck with every gust but none of that mattered. I was in the woods with a longbow in my lap and a new knife on my hip. Life couldn’t have been any sweeter.

This story was published in the Winter edition of STICKTALK magazine. You can find other stories like it in the pages of STICKTALK, which can be delivered to your door four times per year (digital version also available) for a mere $20 joining fee. Not only will you get the magazine, but you will be a member of one of the finest archery organizations in the U.S.: the Michigan Longbow Association, which is the largest (and probably the only) longbow-specific organization in North America.

Three Arrows

oldstylearrow

I put three arrows through three deer and hung the results on the wall to honor the memory.

The first was aluminum – the culmination of beginner’s luck and a newly discovered talent. It reminds me of a young hunter nearing the end of his first season, overcoming shaking hands and pounding heart to cast it. Killing was new to me then and I haven’t forgotten the weight of the moment: the arch of the arrow; the crunch of red-speckled snow under foot; my breath rising in the chilly December air; Dad’s voice congratulating me on the phone.

Remorse. Joy. Pride. I never thought an object capable of retaining such things, but I relive the moment with every glance to the wall. That simple implement, that ridiculous tin can, is so much more than an arrow somehow. It represents an awakening – my baptism to the world of bowhunting.

The second – a cedar crafted by my own hand – weathered the challenges of public land, a two-year drought, and a shoulder blade to take a doe. It was nothing short of miraculous for an amateur like me. I believe it was my finest hour to this day. I scouted and stalked that deer, I intercepted her, and I made the shot. It wasn’t perfect, but the arrow was heavy and the broadhead sharp. What began as a simple cedar dowel – stained, lacquered, and tapered – turned vision to reality. I was continually evolving as a hunter in both skill and perspective and the proof now runs within its grain.

The third arrow is carbon fiber – a material of little meaning or attachment. It was circumstance, not fate nor opinion, that yanked me from my beloved cedars. Some would consider this a regression, but I’d found fatherhood twice between arrows one and three, and a lack of ambition from a surplus of diapers. Every second alone in my shop was now a cherished commodity and I reserved that time for writing or shooting. Carbons were easy and they always delivered.

When my very first buck fell to one, I had every intention of saving it. I cleaned it up the best I could and draped it across the little skull-cap mount I made. It stayed there, as the seasons changed and hunting season rolled around again. I looked at it daily, cherishing the details of that morning in November and all of the wonderful interactions and emotions that accompanied. That arrow had given me a lot; more than most people ever would or even could.

Last week, I took one final glance at the “soulless” bundle of fibers on the wall, and decided its fate was no longer fitting. Dormancy, after all, was a death sentence for any warrior.

I pulled it off the rack, running my fingers through the matted feathers. The blood flaked to the touch and collected in a dusty red pile on my workbench. The broadhead, dulled from the buck’s hide and rusted from the Michigan humidity, would require more. With a bit of light filing, it was ready for service once again. I was amazed at how quickly the transformation from “sacred momento” to “lethal projectile” occurred, but this was its purpose, after all. Swords are not made to stay in their sheaths.

I began to dab peroxide on the bits of blood I couldn’t remove by fingernail, but found it futile. It would never be clean again. I decided that was okay. The blood would pay tribute. The blood would bring luck. The blood would make memory. I would carry the warrior with me as long as it did so.

Do you retire your arrows after they’ve harvested game? Do you have an arrow story? Feel free to share it below or on my Facebook page.