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The Element of Surprise

Jesse Sawyer didn’t die. He just got crispy and crumbled away. One day he was there, the next he wasn’t. Mom suggested that maybe he waited so long to take a bath that when he did, he all washed away. But Jesse himself told me he was suffering from a rare disease, caused by some hard work he had accidentally done as a younger man.

Either way, I was heartbroken to lose him. He had taught me so much about life, such as how to fish, how to track a deer, and how to avoid work. He was a genius, and perhaps the last of his kind. Some people thought it was a good thing that he was the last of his kind, but they obviously had not taken advantage of a mountain man’s vast knowledge of all things outdoors.

After the small, intimate funeral, I had to get away. I decided to go on a hunting trip, and a teenage kid who had always looked up to me and Jesse convinced me to take him along.

The drive into the hills was quiet. Both the kid and I were thinking about Jesse, and since Jesse wasn’t there…well, things were just plain quiet.

Then the kid spoke up. “With Jesse gone,” he said, “who’s going to be the next mountain man?”

I thought about that for a bit. “I don’t know,” I sighed. “Maybe I’ll have to fill that position.”

Suddenly the truck was filled with an overpowering presence. It seemed as if Jesse was back with us, if not in body then at least in essence. But then the feeling faded and I realized we had just driven past a dairy farm. The kid and I both fell silent again, and remained so until we reached our destination.

The mood as we shouldered our packs and locked up the truck was not one normally found at the beginning of hunting trips. At the end, maybe, but never the beginning.

During the hike into the wilderness, I remembered various experiences I had with Jesse over the years.

“Hey, kid,” I said. “I remember the first time I went hunting with Jesse.”

“Oh yeah? What happened?”

“He took me up to Spooky Ridge. Back then neither of us believed in the Ghostly Deer.” I chuckled at the memory of Jesse’s face when the Ghostly Deer had galloped away down the mountain with a tree entangled in its antlers.

“Do you mean to tell me that you actually believe in the Ghostly Deer now?” the kid asked.

“Yes, I do, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. If I saw a Sasquatch with my own eyes, I’d believe in it too.”

“I suppose. Well, what happened?”

“We saw the Ghostly Deer. Isn’t that what I just said?”


I smiled and paused on the trail to catch my breath, and my eyeballs, which were threatening to evacuate my face. “Jesse had this phrase he’d use every time I did something stupid,” I wheezed. “He’d say, ‘AH’VE GOT A MORON ON MAH TEAM!’ Usually it meant I had to extinguish the tent that I had started to incinerate with the campfire. So, when the Ghostly Deer came charging into our camp, we tossed everything into the truck, including the campfire, which I discovered while we were hurtling down the mountain. I had to climb into the back and put the fire out while Jesse drove.”

The kid raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like a wild trip.”

I sighed. “Everything was wild back then. It was great, and I miss it. Nowadays everything is freeze-dried, canned, miniaturized, air-conditioned, disposable, propane-heated, bug-proofed, foam-padded, and civilized.”

“Sounds better to me.”

“Well you’re wrong. Part of the enjoyment of camping, hunting, and fishing back then was the expectation of misery. If camping is just as easy as living at home, you might as well stay home and cook individually frozen burger patties over your propane stove on the back porch. If you want to imitate real camping, you could sprinkle some assorted freeze-dried insects on the burgers, but it still wouldn’t be quite the same. Freeze-dried insects don’t pack quite as much flavor as their fresh counterparts.”

The kid rolled his eyes and we moved on. For a while the only sounds to be heard were the crunching of leaves and twigs under our feet, the rapid beating of my heart, and the creaking of my joints.

Then the kid spoke up. “What is the most important thing you learned from Jesse?” he asked.

I didn’t even have to think about that one. “Surprise,” I said. “The element of surprise. It is essential to the successful attainment of deer, turkey, bass, trout, moose, or any other game animal, and also girls. You must always keep the element of surprise on your side, because there is nothing more frustrating than an opponent who is one step ahead of you, especially when that opponent is some brainless turkey or an eighth-grade bully.”

“Is that really how Jesse explained it?” the kid asked.

“Not really. I don’t recall his exact words, but they were something to that effect.”

He chuckled. “I don’t think you could be a mountain man. You are way too philosophical and profound.”

I sighed. “It’s something contagious I caught years ago from a teenager like you.”

At that moment a grouse exploded beneath the kid’s feet. The boy performed some spectacular leaps over various kinds of trees and came to rest on my shoulders, all the while screeching like an overgrown chickadee.

“There,” I said. “That was an excellent example of how your opponent had the element of surprise. Now get off my shoulders so I can climb out of this tree without hurting myself.”

We made camp that evening under an overhanging cliff. It was just the sort of spot Jesse would have picked. We were sheltered, but we still had a clear view of the surrounding country.

I told the kid to pitch the tent while I started an inferno to cook our dinner.


The kid grimaced and extinguished the burning tent, just like I used to do. I shook my head and opened a can of sardines, which I placed over the inferno.

When the tent was up, the kid took a seat next to me. “Why is the fire so big?” he asked.

The can of sardines slipped off my very long forked stick and I started scraping the flaming fish out of the fire. “The fire is big because I built it for cooking over,” I replied. “If we were freezing cold and soaked with ice water, it would have turned out as a smudge, also known as the smoke-signal fire. The colder you are, the smaller the fire becomes.”

The sardines turned out all right. The kid said my method of making instant deep-fried fish was a stroke of genius. As I told him, it was just another of the many things Jesse had taught me.

Night fell and the temperature dropped, and the inferno dwindled away to a smudge. We huddled by the smudge for a while, and then went to bed.

In the morning we headed east, carrying our rifles and small packs with just the essentials.

“We’re going east because that’s the way the wind is blowing from,” I explained. “That way, if we come across a deer, we’ll be downwind of it. Not to mention there are some pretty good deer signs this way…”

The deer signs got more and more fresh throughout the day. By lunchtime I figured we were just a couple hours behind a sizable group of deer. An hour later, with a small ridge ahead of us, we were hot on the trail of a good-sized buck.

“Ah ‘spect thar’ll be a grand ol’ deer jist over the next rise, eatin’ thangs ‘n’ waitin’ fer us. An’ bein’ downwind, we got the elimunt o’ suprahz.”

For a moment I thought Jesse had returned, but then I realized my own mouth was speaking. It was as if the spirit of the great mountain man had come upon me suddenly and endowed me with wisdom beyond my years, not to mention a funny accent.

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