Our dawn walk on Family Day became bittersweet, suddenly.
My canine companion and I had crept up to the tall fence behind the cover of trees, hoping for a picture of the eight deer we usually see there. Gray morning light reflecting from rows of brilliant white snow made the lines of apple trees stand starkly against the horizon. Nothing moved, except for a Canada Jay flitting about.
The scene was strangely silent. No crows cawed, or hawks whistled. I led Bruno some hundred yards to the far corner of the orchard, our feet and paws crunching through the frozen snow.
A burst of red on brown on white told the story. Rib bones cleaned of meat thrust upwards, as if defiant still. The ground about was littered with tracks, and fur, and blood.
The kill was recent, only hours old. I was too far away to tell if it was the work of coyotes or wolves. Much of the carcass still remained where the white-tail had died.
Coyotes would usually dismember and drag pieces of the animal to their den for the day. I wondered if the large tracks I had taken to be a dog’s on our previous walks were in fact a lone wolf, down from the hills to hunt easier prey. We had seen many kills this winter, usually on or beside the deer runways leading to the high ground where they spent their days.
Predators had easy access to this orchard, through occasional breaks in the base of the high fence surrounding it. The deer were trapped inside, yet happy with their lot. Food filled the lanes between the fruit trees with last year’s droppings. Life had been easy for them until now.
I returned the camera to its carrying case after clicking a couple of pictures. The white light from the snow would make the autofocus unworkable, to my later chagrin.
We headed home for our breakfast and spotted the dominant buck of the herd guarding what was left of his harem and offspring as they huddled under trees. I had never seen this before. Normally, the buck would see, or hear, or smell us long before we got near and lead the herd away, trotting quickly to the limit of his defensive perimeter. I wondered if they were in mourning.
The sky would soon be filled with scavengers—eagles and hawks, crows and ravens, even vultures. Tomorrow there would be little but fur and bones to mark the deer’s passing.
I can only hope it enjoyed its short life in fields of plenty, surrounded by family. It had paid the price Mother Nature exacts for the future of the herd, paid by the young, the old or the injured. There are very few second chances in their wild lives.
I re-learned an old lesson that day. Be aware, and guard your treasures well, or they will be taken from you by others who want them more.
I saluted the buck, knowing he would have been no match for the killers of the night. He would have only delayed the inevitable, or died himself.
Who would have stood watch for the herd then? Soon the does he guards will have their fawns, to replace the fallen. They will prance, and jump, and play and eat until their time comes, in the ages-old struggle to survive and prosper.
For now, fare well and godspeed to all of you.