Fall Fiction: Coon Dog Cemetery Hunting Club Part 4
“The Agony and Ecstasy”
Long ago they had named the club ‘Coon Dog Cemetery’ to honor the legendary dogs, hounds with names like Run-Around Sue, Ol’ Rip, Kentucky Mike and Wrong-Way Pete. Dogs that had found their final resting place in a small, sacred plot of ground at one end of the property. Over the years, as the deer herd grew and prospered, some of the hunters at Coon Dog became almost as renowned as the dogs their club paid homage to…
Marty Tripp took several steps, waited, and listened.
There was no sound.
The 16-year-old had run blindly to the spot where the buck had gone out of sight. Then, wisely, he stopped to gain control of himself. He paused to look and listen. He took several more steps. The buck was nowhere to be seen. He wondered if he should be following so soon after the shot. With all the commotion he had heard, he had expected to find the buck dead. Now, he began to have second thoughts. Some of the hunters in camp always insisted that a man should follow a buck immediately after making the shot. Dexter Smith was inclined to disagree.
“If ya don’t find ‘im layin’ on the ground within 75 yards or so, or if ya think he might be wounded bad, ya might oughta’ hold up a spell an’ give ‘im time to lay up b’fore ya continue on,” Dexter had stated one night the year before during a heated argument around the campfire.
“The longer, the better. Come back to camp and rest a spell. Then go after ‘im. Give ‘im time, and they’s a good chance he’ll be layin’ up within 200 yards of where ya shot ‘im, and he may be too sick to get up. But even if ya do jump ‘im, ya should be able to get off another shot. The secret is, ya got to be ready to shoot quick, and ya got to make that shot count. I always like usin’ a scatter gun loaded with buckshot in them kind a’ situations, ‘cause if ya don’t kill ‘im while he’s tryin’ to get up, ya may never see ‘im again.
“Once he knows he bein’ follered, it can be the devil to pay tryin’ to find ‘im after that. He’ll head for the thickest, meanest, nastiest piece a’ real estate he can find and he’ll run circles aroun’ ya while yer in there tryin’ to smoke ‘im out. That’s why it don’t ever pay to wound a buck, nohow. Shoot straight the first time, and I’ll guarandadburntee ya you’ll be savin’ yerself a lot a’ mis’ry and trouble!”
Marty took several more cautious steps forward. His rifle was up and ready, just in case. He noticed something white on the ground about 40 yards ahead. It looked strangely out of place in the woods. On first impulse, it appeared to be a white pillow.
‘Why would someone leave a pure white pillow in the woods?’
He took another step forward. Suddenly, he saw an antler sticking up in the air. Then he saw the entire body of a deer. It was his buck! The strange patch of white was nothing more than the buck’s pure white belly hair.
How stupid of me to think…
The nervous excitement returned at once. The buck certainly appeared to be dead. Marty picked up his pace, walking as fast as he could toward the fallen whitetail. His arms felt shaky and his legs felt rubbery again, just like they had earlier, but he had enough presence of mind to approach the buck from behind like he had been taught. He remembered one of Dexter’s famous stories about a man who had walked up on a buck that was supposedly dead.
“Never walk up in front of a deer that’s down, an’ never get close to them feet ‘til ya know for sure he’s dead,” Dexter had warned. “One swipe from one a’ them sharp hooves can slice you open like a watermelon. Once heard ‘bout a feller over in Alabama who got his throat cut open thataway… The buck was still alive when he walked up on ‘im, and it started kickin’. Back hoof caught ‘im in the jug’lar. They say he bled plumb out in less’n five minutes… To add insult to injury, the dead man’s buck got up and run off. Got clean away, too. So always make sure ya come up behind a deer that’s down, an’ always be ready to put another bullet in ‘im if need be. Ya can tell if he’s dead by touchin’ his eye with the barrel a’ yer gun. If he ain’t dead, you’ll know it. But if his eyes’re glazed over, he’s down for keeps.”
Marty remembered that gruesome story so well it was almost like Dexter was standing right there telling it to him again. The buck was lying on its side. Marty cautiously approached from behind. He reached over and touched the deer’s eyelash with the barrel of his carbine. The eye was completely glazed over. Marty breathed a sigh of relief. Then looking up, he yelled, “Oh, thank you, Lord! Thank you!”
After that, he let out a blood-curdling war whoop of victory. He carefully leaned his rifle against a tree, took off his gloves, and proudly kneeled over the dead buck. The antlers were magnificent—much larger than he had originally thought. The buck was carrying a perfect 8-point rack with a 16-inch spread and back tines that were at least 10 inches in length. Judging from his heavy frame, the big whitetail had obviously been in prime condition.
Marty fully expected Dexter to show up at any moment. Dexter had parked the truck out on Cemetery Road about a half-mile from where Marty was hunting. He had told Marty he would be hunting nearby, in case either of the boys needed him.
• • •
Chip Avery could plainly see the buck’s huge tracks in the soft, black earth along the creek bank. He could see the exact spot where the big whitetail had stopped and stared at him eye-to-eye after jumping the creek. He could also see the tell-tale slide marks to one side where the buck had turned around so quickly and re-crossed to the other side. The 15-year-old knelt down and examined the ground around the tracks as carefully as he could, knowing before he started that he was not going to find a single trace of blood or hair.
Chip crossed the creek and followed the buck’s tracks for more than 50 yards, carefully checking the ground as he went. The farther he went, the more upset he became, but it was something he had to do. Finally, when he knew it was no use to continue on, he leaned his rifle against a tree and sat down on a fallen log. With his elbows on his knees and his chin buried in his hands, he started going over the entire incident in his mind. The buck had caught him completely by surprise. Chip had heard the noise, wheeled around, and there he was, an enormous buck, standing eyeball to eyeball staring at him. He wondered if it would have made any difference if he had turned around much slower.
“He would have seen me no matter what,” Chip said out loud.
After wheeling around and seeing the buck, Chip felt that he had done the proper thing. He knew he had to shoot fast, and he did. Apparently, though, the big whitetail had been a fraction of a second faster. Had the buck stood there for a second or two longer, Chip felt certain that his shot would have connected.
Chip shook his head and looked up into the trees. A large tear rolled down his cheek.
“It’s not fair,” he said. “It’s just not fair!”
Chip was upset, but he knew nothing would be accomplished by getting angry. He remembered something Dexter had told him the year before when he had been so mad at himself after not seeing the buck that apparently had run right by him on the last day of the season.
“After ya been huntin’ big bucks for a lot a’ years like I have, ya realize one thing awful fast. They’re gonna beat you more times than you ever dreamed about beatin’ them. But ya can’t let it get to ya. The mark of a true deer hunter is bein’ able to take the bad with the good, learnin’ from yer mistakes, and not ever givin’ up. Sho’nough frog-chokin’ trophy whitetails have got to be the most unpredict’ble, uncooper’tive critters the Good Lord ever invented, and sometimes I think he musta’ put ‘em here on purpose jus’ to show us would-be deerslayers how pitiful we really are.
“But always remember this: They ain’t nothin’ in the world wrong with bein’ beat by such a worthy opponent, even tho’ they’ll be plenty a’ times you’ll swear that ain’t so…
“They’ll be times when they outwit ya and frustrate ya so much you’ll feel like wrappin’ yer rifle aroun’ the nearest tree. Usually, they can see ya, hear ya, or smell long b’fore ya ever get the foggiest notion they’re anywhere aroun’. They can walk right up on ya without bein’ seen like they’re plumb invisible, and they can pull a disappearin’ act b’fore yer very eyes that’ll make one a’ Houdini’s tricks look like kid stuff!
“An’ if all that ain’t bad enough by itself, they get plenty a’ he’p from the peanut gallery. Ever’ time ya so much as set foot in the woods, ya got birds an’ squirrels and Lord knows what else chatterin’ and scoldin’ and tellin’ the whole world exactly where you are and why you’re there. The odds are so stacked against ya, it’s a wonder anybody ever shoots ‘im a decent buck. But it does happen ever’ now an’ then. Maybe it don’t happen as often as we’d like it to, but once in a blue moon, ol’ Lady Luck’ll smile her pretty smile down on some undeservin’ hunter like you or me, and we end up shootin’ ourselves a real honest-to-goodness wallhanger. That’s when ya realize jus’ how lucky ya are to be able to hunt these crazy critters in the first place. Ya also realize all them trials an’ tribulations ya done been thru are a natural part a’ deer huntin’, ‘cause ever’body has to pay their dues.
“Yes, sir, buck huntin’ is a frustratin’ business, all right. Nobody ever said it was gonna be easy. Sometimes it’ll make ya feel lower’n a toadstool. Other times, you’ll be walkin’ on clouds. Some people jus’ ain’t cut out for it. But if ya can learn to take whatever the woods dishes out without lettin’ it get to ya, you’ll end up beatin’ them lopsided odds sooner’r later. An’ when ya do, the feelin’ ya get inside is sump’n that’ll stay with ya the rest a’ yer life. They ain’t nothin’ else like it in the world, I’ll tell ya that much!”
Chip stood up and grabbed his rifle. He stared down at the beautiful wood grains on the unusual cherry stock.
“I don’t guess I’m ready to wrap you around a tree, yet,” he said. “It wasn’t your fault, anyway… Next time, though, we’re not gonna miss.”
He started back toward the creek. Somehow, he felt a lot better. He was sure Dexter had heard his shot. He figured Dexter would probably go and check on Marty first. Then he and Marty would both probably come looking for him. After he crossed the creek he knelt down to look at those huge tracks one more time. He smiled and shook his head. He had just missed the biggest buck he would probably ever see in his life. Yet, somehow, he wasn’t that upset anymore.
“I sure hope Marty didn’t miss,” he said. “One’s bad enough…”
• • •
Marty inspected the polished antlers. Then he examined the bullet hole. He had made a perfect lung shot. The heavy .44 Magnum slug had entered just behind the buck’s right shoulder and exited just behind the left.
“Right where I was aiming,” he exclaimed.
For the first time, Marty realized that his buck had left a very distinct blood trail. Looking back along the course the buck had taken, he could see that the ground was painted red with blood. In his great excitement, he had never even thought about trying to look for a blood trail.
“It was there if I needed it, though,” he said out loud.
Marty studied every detail of his first honest-to-goodness trophy buck. He proudly ran his hands over the buck’s thick winter coat again and again, noting how long the pure white stomach hair was underneath. He was so engrossed with admiring his trophy that he jumped several inches at the sound of Dexter’s voice.
“What’s all the yellin’ about?”
Totally astonished, he spun around and looked at Dexter in amazement.
“How’d you find me so quick?”
“A deaf, dumb, an’ blind man coulda’ found you from the likes of all the noise you was making. Ya do remember screamin’ out, don’t ya? Or was I just imaginin’ I heard sump’n? Maybe it was the swamp creature…”
“No, it was me,” Marty said happily. He looked down at his buck. A big smile filled his face. “You do see him, don’t you? You see him!”
Dexter was leaning against a tree with one arm, cradling his rifle with the other. He was wearing faded camouflage coveralls, and he had on his weathered dark brown felt hat with the copperhead skin hatband that he always wore in the woods while hunting. Several days’ growth of beard covered his face. No emotion whatsoever showed in his eyes.
“I see a dead critter layin’ there on the ground,” he answered dryly. “You ain’t pulled one a’ yer stunts from last year and found a deer somebody else shot, have ya?”
“No… He’s mine,” Marty said cheerfully. “He’s all mine!”
“What’d ya shoot ‘im with, a dadburned cannon? I ain’t never seen a blood trail like that in all my life. I don’t reckon ya had much trouble follerin’ it…?”
“I never even saw it,” Marty confessed. “I just walked… er… ran, right to him. I thought I heard him go down, and I just came straight over to where he was.”
In the presence of such pure joy and delight, Dexter could not hold his poker face for very long. He smiled broadly. He stepped over to Marty and gave him an enthusiastic pat on the back. Then they shook hands.
“Congratulations, Hawkeye! You done a good day’s work, here. That’s as fine a first buck as I’ve ever seen anybody kill!”
Marty beamed with pride.
Dexter leaned down to examine the bullet hole.
“Looks like a fine piece a’ shooting, too. That ol’ Ruger might jus’ live up to its reputation… Clean thru the lungs, jus’ the way it oughta’ be done… Don’t mess up no meat, thataway… Well tell me what happened, sport. I don’t reckon he jus’ walked up and asked ya to shoot ‘im, did he?”
“Not exactly,” Marty said. “First, there was this big doe and two button bucks. Then he came along… I was in the dogwood tree…”
Marty started talking in a rapid, non-stop chatter. He tried to tell Dexter everything at once. His voice got louder and louder, until he was practically yelling.
“Whoa!” Dexter said. “Slow down. You can tell me the whole story while we’re dressin’ him out. Then we’ll tote ‘im out to the road where I left the truck. It’s gonna be a right good drag, gettin’ ‘im to the road. You ever dressed a buck by yerself?”
“No. Not all the way. I sort of helped Dusty out last year, but…”
“Take off yer coat and roll yer sleeves up as far as they’ll go. I reckon a man’s first buck is as good a time as any to learn the whole routine. Ya got a sharp knife?”
“Yes,” Marty said, reaching for the knife on his belt.
He handed it to Dexter, handle first. He took off his coat and dropped it on the ground.
Dexter tested the blade with the tip of his finger.
“It’s got an edge on it, all right. Somebody musta’ taught ya how to sharpen a knife.”
“You did… Last year,” Marty said, rolling up his sleeves.
“Oh, yeah… I remember now. I guess some of us old fools’re good for sump’n aroun’ camp, ey?”
“Okay. Let’s turn this ol’ boy over on his back… Yeah, like that. Good. Now I’ll hold his back legs… You make a cut right there at point A… Not too deep! Yeah, that’s right… Now, cut all the way down to point B…”
Fifteen minutes later with bloody knife in hand, Marty was triumphantly standing over his first field-dressed trophy buck. He was smeared with blood from head to foot. His arms were caked with dried blood all the way up past his elbows. Blood covered his boots, the front of his pants, his shirt and his face.
Dexter stood laughing at him, holding the dripping liver in one hand to keep it off the ground.
“If I’d jus’ walked up on ya, I’d have a hard time sayin’ who’s killed who, or which one a’ you is bleedin’ the worst!” He laughed. “You do enough a’ these, though, and you’ll get to where ya don’t hardly get no blood on ya at all. Ever’thing considered, I’d say ya done a pretty fair job. Good thing we went ahead and dressed ‘im here in the woods… Ya know what Dusty and some a’ the boys back at camp would wanna do with yer first buck, don’t ya?”
“Yeah, rub guts in my face,” Marty answered, wrinkling his nose and frowning deeply.
“You better believe it. They woulda’ had a big time paintin’ you up with the blood and guts from yer first buck. Least ya ain’t got to worry ‘bout that now. Go on down to the creek and try to get some a’ that blood off. On yer way back, try to find us a good, stout stick about 18 inches long.”
After Marty brought him the stick, Dexter pulled out a 6-foot length of cord from his pocket. He tied one end of the cord around the buck’s antlers, and the other end to the middle of the stick. He rolled the cord around the stick until there was about a 2-foot span between it and the buck’s antlers.
“I reckon you’re aimin’ to put this ol’ boy on the wall, ain’t ya?”
“And how! He’s going on my wall, all right… In my room!”
“Then we need to be real careful a’ the hide. We don’t wanna rub any hair off his shoulder while we’re draggin’ ‘im out.”
“How far do we have to go?” Marty asked.
“Far enough to work up a sweat and earn them steaks we’re gonna be eatin’ for supper tonight. Most of it’s uphill. Grab yer rifle and yer coat, and get one end a’ this stick. It’s a whole lot easier if two people work together on a big buck like this. We’ll jus’ take it slow an’ easy, so nobody gets ‘em a hernia.”
Editor’s Note: This story was excerpted from an unpublished, full-length, book manuscript titled Coon Dog Cemetery by Duncan Dobie. The author welcomes and appreciates comments and feedback. Email [email protected].
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