The sun rose on a clear late November morning. In this part of the world, the November sun is weak, but not as weak as it will be in a few weeks’ time, when the land will be deep within the throes of winter. This is period of transition. The last hurrah of fall’s harvest runs up against the first snow. This is the time when the final acorns fall and the deer become crazed with the rut. It is also the time when the woods fill men dressed in bright orange vests and jackets and the guns crack away and the deer fall.
On this particular November morning, the sun rose over a heavy frost. Sun shone over a gray woods covered in tiny ice crystals. The naked trees and the leaves on the ground looked as if they had been made from kind of delicate glass that could break at the slightest jarring.
But as the sun rose, the frost dissipated. The blue jays began to flit from tree to tree, screeching out their harsh winter calls as they searched for food in the undergrowth. Gray squirrels emerged from their dreys and from their little retreats in hollow trees. No lovers of the cold, they welcomed the warming rays and the retreat of frost.
Two squirrels squabbled in an ancient red oak. One had been poaching acorns on another’s land, and the rightful owner of the red oak began to attack the intruder. The intruder would have fought back, but his mouth was holding a big red oak acorn. And he was left with the dilemma of either fighting back or dropping that purloined nut.
But as the two raced around the top of the red oak, the poacher wasn’t playing close attention to the branches on which he was proceeding, and it wasn’t long before he found himself on a narrow branch that hung over a dense thicket of beech saplings. He could not just leap to another tree. He would fall to the thicket, and from there he would have to work his way out. He would likely lose his acorn in the fall, so to cut his losses, he dropped the acorn and charged his opponent on the branch before him. The owner was so taken aback by the poacher’s courage that he nearly fell out the tee escaping him, so the two continued to fight on and on.
The red oak acorn fell down among the beeches, which lay naked in the November morning sun. It rolled down among the little skeleton trees, coming to a stop up against what appeared to a gray boulder.
But as the acorn rolled up against the boulder, the boulder moved, revealing that this boulder had head and a black nose and rotating ears.
The head was also adorned with antlers. Twelve points in all.
The boulder in the beech thicket was actually a massive white-tail buck. Next spring, he would be six years old, and for the third rut in a row, he was the dominant buck in this densely-forested ridge country. He’d first dodged bullets as a button buck, and after narrowly avoiding an arrow flung from a tree stand in the October of his second year, he became wise to the ways of man.
Whenever their scent floated on the air, he knew to find a thicket and lay low as if he were a fawn that had been left behind by his mother on a warm summer day. Somehow, he knew that men could not see him if he laid low in a thicket. He had seen men walk by him many times, often passing within feet of where he lay.
He also knew that when the guns were fired on that Sunday before the opening day of rifle that the next day, he’d have to stick to the thickets as much as possible. There would be many men wandering the woods the next day and every day into the next week or so, and even though the intoxicating scent of doe estrus was all around him, he would stick to running the does at night only.
All during the previously day, the rifles blared from every old farmstead and hunting cabin in the district, and the great buck knew to run the does hard that night. He mounted one that night and guzzled a few red oak acorns before the dawn began to break. His appetites were not quite sated, but he was comfortable and relaxed in his little hideaway.
It was not long before he heard the roaring of ATVs running up logging road 50 yards to the east. The hunters were arriving. He knew that one hunter would wander down to the old meadow beyond the oak trees. In August, the hunters would come and plant clover in that meadow, and the clover would soon grow. And deer love the taste of clover. They will come from all around to eat it, and the great buck was no exception.
But he knew better than to go there now. After all, he had first been shot at as a button buck when he wandered from his mother side to eat clover in that same meadow, and he knew that nothing good could come from wandering down there when the men were hunting. There would surely be a man there now with his gun trained over the clover should any stupid buck step out into range.
The great buck soon settled down and began to sleep. His sleep was not sound. His nose was pointed into the wind, and his ears continued to rotate at the slighted twig snap. He ignored the squirrels fighting above him. He had learned long ago to pay attention only to the warning calls of squirrels, for they very often announced the arrival of man. But all their other sounds were malarkey and moonshine and the nattering of foolish people.
As the morning wore, the sun began to warm the eastern side of the ridge, and out of that eastern side came a small band of does and fawns. They marched down the forest trail toward the red oak trees. Perhaps there were still some acorns on the ground.
The does and fawns moseyed their way through the oak grove. The dominant doe would stand alert every thirty seconds or so to smell the wind or rotate her ears. The scent of man was heavy in the forest. She was nervous.
One of the doe fawns was in heavy estrus and whenever she stepped, her estrus scent wafted out toward the thicket where the great buck lay hidden. He was upwind of the does, so they couldn’t smell him, but he could smell them. And it was driving him crazy to smell the little estrus doe, but he knew that must only run does at night. It was just too dangerous for him to pursue her now, even though she was only 50 yards away.
The acorn pickings were slim, and the does wandered off. They knew there was sweet clover just beyond the oak forest. And so they meandered off in that direction and were out of the great buck’s view.
He would hunt that little sweet doe down tonight but now was the time to lay low as if he were fawn himself. Lie low and live. Libido can wait.
The sun moved across the bright November sky. A murder of three crows flitted among the trees, cawing and cackling as they searched for food. Every once in a while, a gun would be fired in the distance. Another deer shot or shot at. Gut piles for crows and ravens. The crows and ravens lived for this time of year, as did the coyotes. The crows and ravens ate the gut piles during the day, while the coyotes ate them at night. The coyotes also dispatched any wounded deer, and the mere scent of deer blood in the air tended to drive them into a frenzy of salivating fury.
The great buck knew these things, yet he held to his post. And he tried to sleep. He eventually started dreaming, and a buck this time of year can only dream of does and sweet estrus scent and mounting. He dreamed of the little doe who just passed him. He dreamed of the big doe he mounted the night before. He dreamed of the doe he mounted when was just a spikehorn, a big old bitch of a doe that slapped him with her hooves when they were finished.
His slumber was interrupted when he heard the sound of deer hooves on beech leaves. He raised his massive head to look behind him, but being upwind of the hoofbeats meant that he couldn’t smell the coming deer. He could tell it wasn’t a doe. It was a buck, and from the sound of the hooves on the leaves, it sounded like this buck wasn’t being as cautious as he needed to be. He was stepping high through the taller beeches behind the great buck’s thicket.
The approaching buck kept on coming, but he soon caught scent of the great buck and adjusted his approach. He came across the great buck’s scrapes, and he knew that he’d better adjust course.
The great buck knew the intruder was coming, but he knew the intruder had to be one of the weakling bucks he’d driven off earlier that month. He’d chased off a four-point, a spikehorn, several spindly three-pointers, and a stupid little six-point. He didn’t know which of the rogues would be coming, but he knew that if he had to fight tonight while running the does, he could take any of them.
The approaching buck adjusted his entire route. He moved fifty yards out from the beech thicket and then began his approach to the oak grove. He was hungry. He had been chasing does all night, and he was famished. Acorns would surely do the trick. The approaching buck had five points on his antlers. He had started with six points in October, but in all the warring he had done since then, he’d broken a point off his right antler.
It was his third winter, and he thought he knew it all. He’d beaten all these lesser bucks, and he was second only to the great buck in his status here. He knew enough to avoid the great buck, and he thought he knew enough to avoid hunters. He’d spent his first two winters in the heavily gunned country along the river, and he’d moved up into the ridges where there were fewer hunters and more acorns.
And sweet clover.
Every night, he came to the meadow to eat clover and spar with the lesser bucks. He’d come to regard clover as the finest thing a deer could eat. He craved it, and though he knew the scent of man would occasionally waft through on the breeze, he wasn’t particularly cautious.
He came to the oak grove and ate a few acorns, but then he caught the scent of the little estrus doe. It was wafting in from the meadow. Clover and mating in the same morning were a prospect that the six-pointer just could pass up, so he began his approach to the meadow.
The great buck watched all of this from his position in the beech thicket. He knew that this six-pointer was about to make a big mistake. The great buck settled down in the thicket again, rotating his ears toward the meadow.He knew the sound of gunfire would be piercing the air at any second.
Five minutes passed, then ten. Then fifteen. At nineteen minutes, the shot rang out.
And then came the rush of hoofbeats. The does came running first through the oak grove as they charged through beeches onto the game trail that would take them to the opposite ridge.
They were panicked, but they would soon be safe.
Then came the six-point. Red blood was trickling down his leg as he bounded in the same direction. He was hit at the tip of the shoulder blade. The blade had reflected the bullet away from his vital organs, and so the only injury he had was a bullet wound on the shoulder. It was bleeding now, but it was likely that he’d recover
The six point ran and ran beyond the thickets of beech and cross three ridgetops before he dropped down in a thicket of greenbrier and tried to lick his wound.He had survived a hunter’s bullet. He was a lucky buck.
The great buck continue his long wait. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the hunter came to track the blood trail, and he knew the best thing to do was to stay put.
But he also knew that blood drew in coyotes, and the last thing he wanted was to be caught lying down when a pack of those blood-crazed fiends arrived on the scene.
He waited for an hour. Then two. Then three. The sun was beginning course way off the west now. He wondered why the man who shot the gun hadn’t come traveling down the blood trail by now.
As he waited, the wind began to kick up. A cold front was moving in. He could smell snow coming. Snow would make scenting harder. He hoped he could catch up to that little doe before the snow made her trail to hard to track down in the wind.
And then he caught the fainted scent of a coyote prowling.
It was a half mile away, but he knew it would be long before it caught scent of the blood and came this way.
He now knew he had to move. He knew of another thicket along the creek. It was a thick stand of red cedar trees, and when the snows got heavy, it was his winter bedding ground.
But to get there he had to cross a logging road, and for a few seconds he would be exposed to any hunters traveling along it.
But he had not heard any ATVs or human steps in that direction all day.
He knew he would have to risk it, and it seemed to a safer bet than hoping that coyote didn’t catch the scent of deer blood.
He stood up and rotated his ears in each direction. He smelled the air, and then began his bounding leaps toward the creek and the logging road.
He knew he couldn’t stop and smell as he made his descent. He had to make this journey in one good rush. If he stopped to scent the air, he could be asking to be shot.
So he kept on going.
He decided that he would stop and smell when he got to the logging road. That way, he’d know if a human was stalking along the creek, and if one were, he’d take game trail off the side of the logging road that would lead him into the cedar thicket from the opposite side of the creek. The trail’s creek crossing was surrounded by fallen cedars that were lying from bank to bank, so it would be impossible for a hunter stalking the creek to see him cross there.
He made it to the logging road. He stepped out into the middle of it, rotated his ears in both directions and tried to catch any scent in the air. It appeared to be all clear.
Until he caught movement out of the corner of his left eye. He turned his head to look at he movement.
It was a boy, not even as tall as a man, standing on the logging road not thirty feet in front of him. The boy was wearing an orange jacket.
And carrying a .243 rifle.
The great buck did not know what to do at this moment. For the first time in his life, he was paralyzed with fear. He could not make himself move.
But he knew he had just made an awful mistake.
The boy had shot two deer before. He’d taken an old, toothless doe the previous November, and then he’d dropped a button buck later that winter in a neighboring county.
He had shot numerous rabbits, squirrels, and grouse in his years as a boy hunter. He knew how to use the weaponry. He knew how to kill.
Every bit of his training had brought him to this moment, a moment that all hunters hope for:
The moment when one of those big boys messes up.
He could not believe his eyes for a few seconds. How could such a buck come running down to him and then stand before him broadsided on a logging road?
But the boy didn’t have time to let his mind register. He raised the rife and followed the creases on the great buck’s shoulder until he knew he was aiming at the heart.
He squeezed the trigger.
The bullet pierced the great buck’s hide. It blasted a hole in his heart, and he fell to the ground as the bullet came out the other side.
The great buck was dead.
Killed by a boy.
The boy could not believe what had just happened.
He walked slowly toward the mountain of deer flesh that lay before him. He touched the body with the tip of his rifle. He looked up to the sky as if to give thanks to some deity or to the forces of nature.
Then he ran his hands down the neck of the great buck. He felt the coarse hair down his neck, which made a kind of mane, and then he gently touched and counted the buck’s tips.
A cool, wet sensation graced the back of the boy’d neck. Snow was starting fall.
He thanked the buck for giving him his flesh, and he remembered an old German tradition that his grandfather had told him. When a man kills a deer, he should put a green twig in his mouth as the “last bite.” That last bite will nourish the deer’s spirit as it ascends to the next realm.
He thought it silly, but then it seemed oddly appropriate. He walked down to the cedar thicket and cut a twig off with his pocket knife. He placed the twig in the buck’s mouth.
He stood there in awe. He had an odd feeling of both pride and sorrow. Pride that he’d managed to take such an awesome beast but sorrow in that he’d taken the life of such an animal.
Suddenly, he heard the roar of an ATV coming up behind him. It was his father.
As the father approached the scene on the logging road, he knew what had just happened.
“Did ya get a deer?” The father asked as he shut down the engine.
“I guess so.”
The father looked over the deer and counted the points of his antlers.
“He’ll dress out over 200 pounds. We’ll be eatin’ good this winter!”
He looked into his son’s eyes. He knew exactly how the boy was feeling.
The father spoke to him now:
“There is pride in taking a buck like this, but it’s also a sad thing. I bet that ol’ boy has been running this woods here for five or six years. You don’t get that big by bein’ stupid.”
“I see ya did the old German thing with the last bite. Good idea. Always respect what you kill. You took a life, and that is a great responsibility. And I couldn’t be prouder of ya, even if you don’t always brush your teeth!”
“Just remember what I said about how huntin’ is mostly luck. You have to have the skills, but you’d better hope for luck. You got lucky this evenin’.”
“Did I ever! I can’t believe he just stood there and let me shoot him.”
“Deer are funny things. Maybe he was too embarrassed to have you walk up on him like that. And he just didn’t want to run.”
The father and the boy began to dress the deer, and the boy asked the father if he’d been able to find the deer he shot that morning. He said that he had only found the traces of blood and that he was sure he’d shot too high.
“Need to work on sighting in that rifle more. I’ll get him next time. Boy, them deer guts sure do stink. Them coyotes will be eatin’ good tonight!”
“They sure will!”
And the great buck was dressed and then hauled out the forest.
The boy pan-fried the buck’s heart in butter and ate it that night. His body would become steaks and burgers and venison jerky and sausage. A taxidermist would mount his head and neck hide into a trophy, which would be displayed in the living room. This deer would be honored.
The coyotes did come in on the gut pile that night and they fought and growled and whined over it all night long. There were six of them. And when the morning sun came over the snow-covered land the next morning, nothing was left for the crows and ravens.
And when deer season ended that year, the biggest buck killed by anyone in the county was the twelve-pointer dropped by a fourteen-year-old boy on a logging road. The only other buck that came close was an eleven-pointer that was dropped out in a hayfield along the river.
When the spring came, the doe that had bred with the great buck on the night before his death dropped two fawns. One was a buck, and one was a doe. The little doe fawn had a bad habit of leaving the thickets where her mother left her when she went to graze, and when she was only two weeks old, a coyote caught her standing up in the middle of a game trail. He made short work of her.
Her brother grew strong on his mother’s milk, and by the time October rolled around, he was a strapping little button buck. He romped and played with all the other fawns, and by now he was taking longer and longer journeys from his mother.
One late October evening, he wandered out into the clover meadow. He stopped to graze the sweet clover, and then he felt the oddest sensation. Something was watching him.
He looked up at a tree across the meadow. He saw nothing. But he kept looking.
He then saw the slightest movement and realized he wasn’t alone.
He just didn’t know what he was looking at.
He stomped his feet and let out a little wheezing bark and paced back and forth in hopes that he would make the tree creature move. But it never did.
And this frustrated him so. He wander back towards the oak forest. His nose caught the oddest scent. It was man, but was it man in the tree?
The man in the tree was the boy who had taken the great buck the previous November. This was his first time out with a bow. He wasn’t about to shoot a little button buck.
They don’t get big by being stupid, but they don’t get big if you don’t let them live.
He marveled at the beauty of a little deer in the autumn forest and wondered if that little buck was any relation to the one he’d taken last year.
He breathed in the autumn air and waited for the deer to arrive.