It’s a big buck, full grown, antlers in velvet, and it turns to face the cop straight on. They always do that. Crippled deer know about eye contact. You can’t shoot me now.
Until now this has been a rather pleasant day for the cop. When he comes out of the woods, the driver is waiting on the roadside. He’s remarkably calm for a man who just bounced a 250-pound white-tailed deer off his windshield. His brand-new bright red Taurus is pretty well used up. Every square inch of windshield is shattered, the hood is stove in, the roof bent. It’s a wonder the deer didn’t land in the front seat. Ford builds ’em tough. So there, Toyota.
“He tried to jump right over my car!” the man says.
“Too bad he didn’t make it.”
“What do I do now?”
“I don’t think you better drive that car.” The cop likes this man, so calm, so good-humored after such a frightening experience. He would like to handle this accident, but that’s not how the police business works. “Here’s the deal,” he explains. “I have to call Chicago. Your accident took place out there, in the middle of the road. That’s theirs. Me, I get the woods.”
“You going to shoot that deer?” the driver asks.
“Can’t,” the cop says. How to explain? Police departments are, shall we say, bureaucracies, and like all bureaucracies they have policies and regulations made up by men who are wiser than those who carry them out. The cop’s department discourages the shooting of road-injured deer.
The cop lifts his radio and calls the dispatcher. Could she advise Chicago they have a 10-50 at this location, driver standing by? He holds his breath. Chicago is choosy about which accidents it will respond to. Chicago wants drivers to come into the station and make out the reports–so long as no one is injured, so long as their cars are drivable.
This car, the cop has decided, no matter what the driver says, is not going to be drivable. Another cop on the scene, that’s what he wants. Another cop could put a bullet into that deer, end its suffering. Different departments, different policies. That’s the way the police business works.
A reply from the dispatcher. Chicago will respond. One problem solved.
Now for another. This one can’t be blown off. The woods are one square mile of scrub forest crisscrossed with trails and swamped with recent floodwater. Right in the middle of the woods, sunk deep in the mud in a spot you can’t reach except through mud, rests a ’74 Ford Bronco in otherwise pretty good shape. It’s been there three days now. The cop knows, since he got the original call. Took him 20 minutes to reach the spot, almost ruined a perfectly good pair of shoes, didn’t even get a ticket to show for it.
The Bronco belongs to a fellow who drove it there in full disrespect of the law. Call him David O’Mara. David and the cop met ankle deep in the mud–David with two of his dopey friends and an old coal shovel, the cop without his ticket book, which was still in the squad a mile away. Now the cop and David are friends. Ha, ha.
Another message from the dispatcher. TX your office. TX is cop talk for telephone. This is going to be about David. David’s been calling and calling for the last two days. Will somebody please get his Bronco out?
The cop turns to the driver of the shattered Taurus. “I have to go. Chicago is on the way. Just stand tight.” As if the poor guy could do anything else.
“What about the deer?” the guy asks.
The cop shudders. “Do me a favor. When Chicago gets here, ask if they’ll cap off that deer. If they don’t want to–fine, I understand. I’ll be back, and I’ll do what has to be done. But I’d really really appreciate it if they’d cap off that deer.”
“Got you,” the driver says. It’s amazing how cool he can be. He’s not talking about suing the city. He’s not threatening to have the cop fired. He’s not even angry at the deer. Well, maybe a little.
The cop feels a twinge of guilt leaving him alone on the side of the road. It will only take a minute to call David and tell him no, the Bronco can’t be towed out today either–the water is still a foot and a half deep on either end of the trail. As soon as that is done, the cop means to come back and see this deer business to the end.
From the nearest phone the cop talks to his office, gets his message. It’s David. Already he’s called twice and left his number. The cop drops another coin in the phone–his own money–and dials. Busy. He waits, dials again. Busy again. And again. And again. David O’Mara wants him to call a perpetually busy number.
Problems. If you don’t solve them right away, they get complicated. Take David. If the cop could have got a tow truck in there right away, the whole thing would be settled. David would have his car, and the cop would have his ticket.
Why in hell would anyone bring a vehicle down this goddamn trail in the first place?
“My girlfriend. She run off, and I had to follow her.”
Always a woman. What would we do without them?
He heads back to the accident scene, back to the steady, sensible driver who may still be waiting for Chicago to show up. Out here on the outskirts of the city, it sometimes takes a while for the Real Police to arrive. The cop is feeling more pangs of guilt. Then he sees the flashing blue of a Chicago squad.
But the driver is still standing by his wrecked car, alone.
“Where is he?” the cop asks.
Chicago’s back in the woods with the deer. The cop crawls through the brambles, almost losing his hat. To his relief he sees that Chicago is young and eager, a perfect choice for the deed.
The deer has crawled another 30 feet into the woods before giving up. The cop is glad he wasn’t here to see that.
“Going to shoot him?” the cop asks.
Chicago draws his revolver. “Where’s the best spot?”
“In the head. I always do it in the head.”
“I’m not going to shoot him in the head. We always shoot dogs in the heart.”
The cop shrugs. Who is he to tell the Real Police how to do their job?
Chicago takes aim. The deer looks over its shoulder. Bam! So much for shooting them in the heart. The deer doesn’t even twitch.
Chicago tries another round. The deer blinks.
“In the head,” the cop repeats.
Chicago sends a round where the first two should have gone, and that is the round that does it.
When a large creature is killed, it’s not like in the movies. Nothing in life is. In the movies a deer, a horse, a man goes down as if struck by lightning. If the man is one of the good guys, he gets to say a few last words. If he’s a bad guy, he sometimes gets to stagger a few melodramatic steps. Everyone and everything else–Indians, Zulu warriors, gangsters, Nazis, even wild elephants–falls over and dies and hardly even bleeds.
It’s a direct hit, and the deer goes over on its side, waving its legs. For the first time the cop sees how the broken legs dangle, attached only by skin. The deer, with a tremendous effort, arches and snorts–a deep, violent sound.
Chicago jumps back as if expecting an attack. “Maybe I better give him another,” he says.
The cop, now wise and in his element, says no, save your bullets. That deer is dead.
It’s like the chickens you used to see at the poultry house. The man would cut their heads off, and sometimes they would get loose and go running around the store, headless and dead but still running. You can see this deer is dead and not merely thrashing around. The big giveaway is his tail, which now sticks out straight like a stick and vibrates in a way no living tail has ever vibrated, faster and faster. The cop is watching the deer’s swollen anus, wondering if the deer will evacuate at the final moment. It takes a full minute to reach that point, and for those who really care, the deer does not evacuate.
Nothing is left for the cop to do except write a short report telling how he assisted Chicago. “In the head” is how he assisted, but the cop leaves that part out. Only relevant information goes into a police report.
That evening, when the cop gets back to his office, David is on the phone, crying.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” the cop says. “And remember, you owe me a ticket.”
Then he feels sorry for David. Three nights with his car stuck in the mud. Maybe tonight will be the night some mope torches it. “Listen. Here’s what you do. Go to Ace Hardware, rent yourself a winch, chain it to a tree, and crank the sonofabitch out. That’s what the last guy did.”
Twenty-four hours later the cop gets yet another call.
“I got it out! I did like you said and got a winch. We were there half the night.”
The cop makes what he hopes will be an appropriate noise.
“What time do you want me to come in?”
“Ain’t I supposed to get a ticket or something?”
The cop thinks about this a bit. He thinks about that deer and the way its tail vibrated. He thinks about the driver of that Ford Taurus, how calm and sensible he was. He thinks about that Chicago cop, how decent and cooperative he was. We should all go out and have a drink together, he thinks. All but that goddamn deer.
“David,” he says. “Forget it.”
Sometimes even a cop has to do the humane thing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.