By Mike Zusman
The kids’ rooms had been silent for five minutes and it was go-time. I put my phone down on the nightstand and moved closer to my wife.
It was 8:40 p.m. on the night of our 15th wedding anniversary.
“Hey babe” I said gently with a hint of nervous frustration and fear of rejection. She turned to me, and I made my move.
“I need to go help Edwin track a deer.”
“You need to do what?!”
I let a few seconds of awkward silence pass, forcing her to respond again. The fewer words I say, the better.
“Who shot the deer?” she asked, still stunned, and well aware that Edwin does not hunt.
“His friend,” I replied. This was not a lie. Edwin and I are friends.
“Well, Edwin helps us so much. You definitely need to go help him.” My wife is a saint.
The day had started innocently enough. We got the kids off to school, and my wife left to run errands. Around 1 p.m., however, my work-from-home productivity fell off a cliff.
Like an alcoholic finding an excuse for a drink, I decided that a little deer hunting would help me refocus for the week. Secrecy was of the utmost importance as the optics of such a mid-week/anniversary-day mission would not be good.
I dressed quickly, grabbed my bow, and drove down the street to Edwin’s house. I have a stand in his backyard and permission to hunt the adjacent 60 acres. The goal was to smoke a doe for his freezer and unlock my early season buck tag.
I was confident I could get it done in time to pick up dinner for the family.
After getting busted by a doe immediately upon getting in the stand, my phone buzzed with a text from my wife. Seeing that my truck was gone, she let me have it. “Oh I see. You offer dinner so you can spend the day hunting.”
I responded with a simple “no” and the intention to clarify that I was only hunting for two hours, not the entire day.
“Haha, JK. Because you took your truck,” she wrote back.
Instead of responding with my own joke, my attention was stolen by a new doe walking down the stone fence line. I watched her freeze as something else began crashing uphill from us.
A black bear was also making his afternoon lunch-run down the fence line, twenty days too early for bear season. He stopped briefly, broadside at 25 yards, before continuing on. The doe kept her eyes locked on him until he disappeared, and then cautiously followed in his footsteps.
With the bear out of sight, and the doe now quartering-to at 25 yards, I sent a broadhead crashing through her rib cage. She button-hooked to the right, showing the gut exit wound. Still confident the shot was lethal, I climbed down quickly, figuring I’d have her tagged and hanging in Edwin’s garage by 3 p.m.
An hour and a half later I finally found the arrow and came to terms with the non-existent blood trail. Out of time, Edwin picked up the track as I fetched dinner and played it cool with the family.
Back in our bedroom at 8:45 p.m., I promised my wife I’d be quiet on my return, gave her a kiss, and once again made my way to Edwin’s house.
He was waiting in his driveway when I arrived. “You have a gun, right?” were the first words out of his mouth. “My father in-law says we should bring a gun because of that bear.”
I informed Edwin that bringing a pistol, while prudent, smart, and responsible, would also be a felony in New Jersey. And that if we die that evening by the jaws and claws of a bear, we’d be martyrs for all New Jersey gun owners.
Edwin didn’t laugh at my dark humor.
We spent the next 90 minutes bushwacking and belly crawling through thorny raspberry bushes and other sharp and painful plants looking for any drop of blood or sign beyond a few spots Edwin found earlier.
We found none.
Our Hail-Mary was to blindly search a semi-adjacent field where there was a chance the deer headed to bed and die. It was a maze of game trails weaving through tall grass, around giant thickets of honeysuckle and privets.
Our headlamps were dim and dying when we heard it.
Heavy paws charging through the grass towards us from behind, stopping suddenly to drop a dead body to the ground. And then the panting and woofing. All 225 pounds of Edwin was suddenly next to me, closer than I was to my wife in bed a few hours earlier. It was either a year or 30 seconds before the bear walked off, disappearing into the darkness, dragging our deer … by the face.
“We should come back in the morning,” Edwin suggested.
“I think we just got really lucky.”