A Class in Ethics

Just as his head came up my arrow hit a limb and shattered in midair. The section with the point stuck in the ground beneath the deer. The largest piece with the fletching sailed over his back and landed about 10 feet past him.

The next part surprised me. Since the arrow mostly landed beyond him, the buck took a few steps toward me while looking away. My next shot found its way through the branches and hit just behind his shoulder. The deer bolted and I sat there shaking like a kid on a 25-cent amusement pony.

I gave the buck 30 minutes to lie down and found Mike. We went back to my blind, picked up the blood trail, and a couple hundred yards later found a pool of blood. In the dark, we kept losing the trail, circling back like hounds before striking out in another direction. Just before midnight, no closer despite hours of searching, we decided to come back at sunrise.

“My physics professor hemmed and hawed, debated with himself in Chinese, and finally decided I could take an exam but not the same one.”

That left me with two other problems: physics and calculus. Both midterms counted 40 percent of my grade, so zeros on them would flunk me out of each class. The knot in my stomach tightened on the drive home. I hardly slept, but by sunrise knew what I had to do.

I wrote notes to each professor, went to their offices, and slipped under each of their doors an explanation that I had to miss their exams for personal reasons, and I would like to make them up upon my return. Then I drove back to the woods with Mike. On the way, a steady rain began to fall. With each drop, our odds of finding the deer melted like sugar in the rain.

We went to the last place we had found blood the night before. The blood was dissolving and the leaves were flattening, so even tracks were hard to see. We followed each trail as it broke off, and about noon, we found one spoonful of blood mixed with rain in a curled leaf. We never saw another sign.

All afternoon, we just walked the woods looking for the buck. We’d heard deer head to water when hit, so we walked both sides of the creek. We searched all the rhododendron thickets and walked ever-widening circles from the last sign of blood.

As rain, darkness, and hope fell, we admitted finally we were going to lose this one. It’s the worst feeling, taking a life in a way that amounts only to loss. No excuses make up for it, not rain, darkness, or exams. We drove back to the school soaked, tired, and hungry. I felt like I was the one who was wounded.

The next morning I made the rounds to catch my professors. My calculus professor sat me down with the exam the minute I walked in. I did fine and went to the physics hall.

My physics professor hemmed and hawed, debated with himself in Chinese, and finally decided I could take an exam but not the same one. He told me to come back the next day.

I had a bad feeling that he was going to load for bear and make me pay. So I turned to the physics chapter and went to the back where all the hardest problems were. I worked furiously on them until I could do each one perfectly—each step, each midproblem calculation, and each formula. Throwing relaxation to the wind, I drank Thundering Buffalo tea until I could have marked a 20- acre territory.

Upon my return the next day, my professor met me with one sheet of paper and a smile. I was in an empty classroom, alone except for him watching. Four problems were on the paper. Four hard problems. Four hard problems from the back of my physics book. I still remembered every formula and answer. I made a perfect score and an enemy. He grimaced and wondered if I could have cheated. Had he not stayed to watch, that probably would have been his conclusion.

I’d like for the moral of this story to be that when you do the right thing, it all works out. But ethics are messy. We never found the buck I shot, and that lost deer still leaves me with a sour taste. My physics professor was so enraged by my perfect midterm that he gave an excruciating final exam and then docked me an additional letter grade for attitude. I passed but paid a price.

Still, as I think about it 40 years later, the lessons I learned from those decisions have been more useful than calculus or physics. Little did I know at the time, but we are always enrolled in ethics class.

Jim Mize has two award-winning collections for outdoorsmen. For more information on his books, go to www.acreektricklesthroughit.com.