The Last Ride
I am not Aesop. This is not a fable. I am bone cold deadly serious in what I am about to write. There is no artistic license taken here. I will tell you what happened. You can decide what you think it means.
When Hunter Liebold was five years old he told me in the most serious of tones that he had decided to marry my daughter Amanda, who was about six years his senior. (His prediction was wrong on that point). I had known his father since we were both children. Hunter was raised three miles from the horse lot. His family had been around the area about as long as had mine so I was related to Hunter in many different ways through the families of both of my parents.
With all of that said, up until two years ago I did not really know him. I stopped hunting when he was about 10 years old so we never hunted together. However, we shared a mutual friend. Wayne Farmer, our Commonwealth Attorney, is a youth leader at the church in which Hunter grew up. Hunter idolized Wayne. He wanted to be a prosecutor just like Wayne, though I suspect that had Wayne been a house painter that would have been Hunter's dream job. For the past two summers Hunter was an intern in our office.
Ten days ago the phone rang and Wayne told me that he was at Hunter's home and that Hunter had unexpectedly died in his sleep several hours earlier. He was twenty years old.
As a high school athlete Hunter had received some debilitating injuries that required extensive surgery and treatment for his spine. One weekend lst year we were riding through the woods and we ran up with Hunter, who was taking a walk with his father through the cut over. I had not seen him in a while and he hustled over to catch up on what had been going on at the office. At the conclusion of our conversation he put his hand on Holland and made the off hand comment that he wishes that he could ride with us but that that would never be possible.
Visitation at the funeral home was packed. I was a pall bearer and I was crushed to be around so many people that were in so much pain. I had been to very few funerals since Lido died. I was not looking forward to the funeral the next day. I could only imagine that it would be much more painful than the visitation.
The next morning I set out for a ride. I rode Tradewind and Terry joined me on the ride. I am in the habit of timing rides and constantly refer to my watch. We set out on the ride with little said between us. Terry is my paralegal and she also knew Hunter. She was at the visitation and would be out for the funeral in the afternoon.
As we made the turn around the first corner of the field three does stood in front of us. One got on her hind legs to reach for a leaf. Terry was not raised in the woods. She does not understand how terrifying the sound of a human voice is to wild animals. As soon as she saw the deer she began asking me questions.
We were about forty yards from them and I expected them to bolt at the sound of her voice. Instead they allowed us to ride to within fifteen yards of them. Terry kept talking about how unusual it was to be so close to them. I looked to my watch and wondered how much longer the deer would put up with our intrusion. These were not city park deer. They were not suburban deer. They were wild deer that had been hunted all of their lives.
They turned and walked along ahead of us. When they stopped we did also. At one point they jumped into a thick hedge row. I turned to ride away. They immediately jumped back out and began to follow us. I turned and once again they took the lead.
They went along in front of us, sometimes in the edge of the cotton, sometimes in the path around the field, never more than 15 or 20 steps from me. They went around the corner by some rusted old farm equipment down the path to the swamp. When they reached the stream bed they turned and walked into a small piece of timber that had not been cut in over 100 years. I had never walked into it before. I turned Tradewind in behind them and we all proceeded up the dry swamp bed. Tradewind stumbled and made a great deal of noise as we crossed a particularly soft section of muck. I looked up expecting the deer to run as if they were on fire at the sound of such commotion. Instead they stood and waited for us to ride closer before they continued their slow, deliberate pace.
I knew that this was not normal behavior. The time had long since passed since I could attribute a natural cause for this behavior. I have never known deer to stand still for more than 10 seconds when approached by riders. My breathing had slowed to the degree that it was not noticeable. I do not recall ever feeling so peaceful. I looked at my watch. For 33 minutes the deer had joined us on this ride--33 minutes of never being further from me than a pitcher is from home plate--33 minutes of deer demonstrating perfectly calm behavior, licking, chewing, putting their heads down, lifting them up, over and over, looking directly into my eyes---33 minutes of peace.
They followed the stream bed up to the edge of the cut over. The paused and looked back before hopping into the thicket. I knew that they were going into a place that I could not go. Our ride together ended, in perfect peace.
Terry and I did not speak on the way back. I simply rode on knowing that I had experienced something that I would never experience again. When we got back I told Daddy what had happened. Like me, he has always been around horses and deer and he immediately realized that what had just happened--for 33 minutes-- was something that does not happen--at all.
Terry went over to her car. She asked me if I had picked up a bulletin from the visitation. She handed me the one that she had on her car seat. The outside cover was a print of two deer at the edge of a field with a piece of rusted farm equipment in the background.
Nothing else was said. Nothing of meaning could be said. I felt a feeling of peace that replaced all of the pain at the visitation. That peace remained through the funeral and falls back on me when I think of Hunter.
I am old enough to realize that I cannot even understand that which is natural, much less that which is most certainly not natural.
But I am very glad that Hunter was able to ride with me. For 33 minutes I went along with him for his last ride.