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Fall Fiction: The Homecoming Part 4

The big coastal buck returns to Mike’s property, which became the catalyst for his return to deer hunting.

Craig James | November 7, 2018

Thirty seconds passed as the buck stared at Mike and Keith, frozen like a statue in the middle of the road. He looked strong and healthy, well on the way to recovering from his gun-shot wound, despite it only being a few weeks since he was hit. Finally, he flipped his tail and bounded off the roadside into a 5-year-old pine thicket.

“I can’t believe it! He’s alive! Did you see that?” Keith shouted.

Mike sat speechless in awe of what he had just witnessed as Keith continued to holler and carry on like a mad man. After a few moments, the pair started to drive down the road again.

“I just don’t believe it. Did you see those horns?” Keith asked.

“He’s an absolute monster, I’m glad he’s still alive. I just wonder what he’s doing way down here,” Mike replied.

The pair continued driving, while the buck was on a mission of his own.

The scent of a doe that had come into heat two months late had the buck’s full attention. With his nose to the ground, he trailed her scent. He hadn’t had the chance to breed any does earlier in the season, but he was bound and determined to handle his business now.

• • • •

Mike and Keith loaded their plates down at Gram’s with pancakes, eggs and bacon as they continued to talk about the events of the morning.

“I’m telling you man, that ol’ buck was meant for you to hunt. Think about it. He didn’t show up until you came back, the dreams you’re having about your old man. Everything else crazy that’s happened all points to the fact that you were meant to kill this buck,” Keith said excitedly.

“I think this one was meant for you old buddy, my hunting days are long over,” Mike replied.

Deep down inside though, every bone in Mike’s body wanted to hunt that buck, but he just couldn’t. It hurt too bad to think about his dad and how he died. In his mind, everything was all his fault.

The buddies finished up breakfast and swung by Big David’s to drop off Keith’s deer. Several hunters were crowded around the November issue of GON magazine admiring all of the bucks that had been entered into the Truck-Buck contest.

“Too bad there aren’t any deer like that around here. The big bucks all live up north,” Big David said addressing the group of hunters.

If they only knew, Mike thought.

• • • •

The buck continued to trail the doe, despite his hunger and exhaustion. His neck had become so swollen that he could hardly turn his head, but he pushed on. He continued to follow her scent until he came to some fresh urine. As he sniffed the ground, anger immediately boiled inside of him. Another buck had marked his territory and was now also on the doe’s trail.

The ol’ buck knew what deer had cut him off, and he wasn’t having it, even if it meant a fight to death.

• • • •

Mike spent the afternoon in a local jewelry store looking at engagement rings. He thought to himself that they should give a free shotgun or two away with every ring purchase.

He continued looking, thinking about Brandy as he did.

It was crazy how they had reconnected after all this time, despite the fact he had practically run away and abandoned her when his dad had died. He knew there would never be another woman like her, and so wanting to marry her was an easy decision.

“I won’t tell, I promise!” Brandy’s lifelong friend Sarah said as she walked up to the jewelry counter.

“Geez! I didn’t know you worked here. You better not say a word,” Mike said with a smile.

“Your secret is safe with me, and lucky for you I know just what she likes,” Sarah quipped.

Sarah spent the next hour showing him different rings, and he finally decided on the perfect one.

Once he finished paying, he left the store with a smile on his face. Six thousand dollars less in his bank account but still a smile on his face.

• • • •

The ol’ buck was now in a full-on rage. He knew he was closing in on the doe as he could hear the other buck grunting at her. He broke into a full-on sprint as he cut through a block of 5-year-old pines.

When he finally saw the doe, the other buck was preparing to breed her. He charged at the buck at full speed, lowering his horns as he went. He knew one of them wasn’t going to make it out of this fight, and it wasn’t going to be him.

The two racks collided, sounding like the crack of lightning as both deer kicked dirt with their hind legs, attempting to drive the other into the ground. The ol’ buck was intent on breeding the doe and continued to fight with intensity like he never had before.

His competitor was no pushover in his own right. At 3 years old and around 130 inches, the 180-lb. deer was also prepared to defend his turf, no matter the cost.

The pair continued to scrap, horns locked, rolling in the dirt, both struggling to gain the upper hand. The young deer struck first, cutting the ol’ buck just above his right eye. He began to bleed profusely as blood hindered half of his field of vision. The younger buck seized his opportunity and continued to pummel the older deer, driving his head into the ground. The ol’ buck was in trouble, and he knew it.

The younger deer backed off snorting and grunting in a display of domination. The young buck made a final charge at full speed with his horns lowered. With every ounce of his being, the ol’ buck drove hard and low preparing for impact. As the bucks collided, the ol’ buck’s main beam penetrated the young bucks jugular vein. Blood began to spray as the younger deer fell to the ground and began to shake violently.

Thirty seconds later, the younger buck lay dead. The ol’ buck looked at his motionless competitor and walked away in pursuit of his doe. These were his woods, and he would do anything to keep it that way.

• • • •

A few days later, Mike stopped in at Walmart to grab a new battery for his pickup truck. As he looked at the selection, he heard a familiar voice.   

“What’s going on cuz” What you been up to?”

It was Mike’s cousin Oliver.

“Not much man, staying busy. How you been?” Mike replied.

“I’ve been real good. It’s good to have you back home with us. We need to get together before long. Speaking of that, you still shooting ducks?”

“Nah man, it’s been a long time.”

“Well we need to change that. Opening day is just over two weeks away, we will save you a seat. Here’s my cell. Call me next weekend, and I will let you know what time we’re rolling,” said Oliver.

As he walked away, Mike processed the conversation. Oliver had a way of persuading you to do most anything, and the fact that he was one of the best duck hunters around sure made it hard to say no.

Mike spent the next hour purchasing a buggy full of various things he didn’t plan on buying, including a case of 12-gauge steel shot, just in case he actually decided to go hunting with Oliver. Still, the thought of hunting without his dad hurt way down deep.

Later that night, Mike sat at his kitchen table cleaning his dad’s old Remington 870 shotgun, thinking about the possibility of hunting with Oliver soon.

As he carefully oiled every crevice, he thought about his father.

A tear rolled down his face as he thought about the very first time he fired the old shotgun. He was 7 years old and could barely hang on to the walnut stock to hold the long barrel steady.

The very first time he pulled the trigger and watched that old Coke can roll backward was etched in his mind like it was yesterday. He could see his dad standing there proudly and could almost feel him patting him on the back.

It took all of about five minutes to go over the gun. It was still as clean as the day Mike’s father had passed away.   

Once he finished wiping off the excess oil, he put the gun away and turned on the TV. It didn’t take long for the typical depressing evening news to put him fast to sleep.

• • • •

The next morning he headed for work at the bank. When he turned in, his phone began to ring. It was Brandy.

“What time are you getting off today?” Brandy asked.

“Well, I’m not sure yet, I just got here,” Mike chuckled.

“Well when you do, come over to my place. Daddy has a bunch of hogs on his property near the river, and they are destroying everything. We should be able to shoot a few right at dark,” Brandy added.

“Well, I don’t know if I will be able to.”

“Of course you will. See you then. Love ya, bye,” Brandy said, hanging up the phone.

Mike stuck his phone in his jacket pocket as he walked in the bank and into his office. It seemed no matter how hard he tried to stay out of the woods, everything and everyone was pulling him there.

• • • •

After eight hours of long phone calls and a few loan closings, Mike was off work. After swinging by his house and changing clothes, he headed for Brandy’s house. She was already outside waiting by her truck when he pulled down her driveway.

“Come jump in my truck. We gotta hurry, daylight is fading quick,” Brandy said.

“I’m coming, give a working man a break,” said Mike.

Brandy and Mike made the short drive down the road, then through the woods down to the river. The pair parked next to an old makeshift gravel boat ramp, and as they got out, the smell of rank boar hog drifted with the evening breeze.

“At least we know they are still here. Here you go, I brought you a gun just in case we run up on a bunch of them,” Brandy said passing Mike a scoped .22 magnum.

“I’m good. I can just watch.”    

“Not today, I need your help. We need to kill as many pigs as we can,” Brandy replied.

Mike took the weapon, and the two began to walk alongside the river through a large bottom littered with acorns and fresh hog sign.

Just as the smell of hogs grew stronger, a squeal pierced the silence of the woods. The hairs on the back of Mike’s neck stood up when he caught the first glimpse of black hair through the palmetto bushes 70 yards away.

Brandy and Mike continued to stalk closer, using big white oaks to conceal their movements. Once they closed to within 30 yards, Brandy whispered to Mike, “I’m gonna start on the right side of the group, and you start from the left. Let’s try to get as many as we can.”

Mike’s whole body was trembling as he looked through the scope at the 20 or so hogs rooting through the river bottom in front of him. He had sworn to himself he would never hunt again after his dad died, but here he was seconds away from squeezing the trigger.

Brandy counted 3… 2… 1… and her gun went off as a perfect head shot dropped a 150-lb. sow in its tracks. She quickly fired off two more shots as a mob of squealing hogs took off in all directions.

Mike stared through the scope frozen, then noticed a large boar hog was running directly toward him. Instinctively without hesitation, he squeezed the trigger. The 350-lb. boar came sliding to a stop just 10 feet away with a bullet hole centered perfectly between its eyes. Mike felt a rush of adrenaline surge through his body as Brandy came over to him.

“Wow what a shot! You brought that hog down just in time. I was wondering if he was going to run you over,” said Brandy.

“Me too. I’m sure glad you had that thing sighted in. He was gonna bulldoze me getting out of here.”

They loaded the four downed hogs into the back of Brandy’s truck, and the pair headed back to clean the hogs.

As he rode, Mike sat quietly thinking about his dad. Shooting that hog was more fun than he’d had in years, but after the smoke cleared, as usual the sadness came back. Without his dad, hunting just wasn’t the same, and it never would be again.

“You know, for what it’s worth, your dad is definitely proud of you today. I’m sure he watched the whole thing sitting in the clouds, wondering if you were gonna shoot that hog or get run over,” Brandy said.

“Yeah. It sure ain’t the same without him, though, I just can’t enjoy it anymore,” Mike said biting his lip to hold back the tears.

“He was a good man Mike, and he would be proud of the man you have become,” Brandy said as she grabbed Mike’s hand.

Once the pair got back to Brandy’s, they spent the next few hours cleaning and icing down the hogs. After they finished, Mike headed back to his house with his father still weighing heavily on his mind.

• • • •

The ol’ buck also had plenty on his mind as he had successfully bred the doe he had been trailing. Now after days of rutting, he was hungry and in need of nourishment. Since he had been pushed out of his home behind Mike’s house, he had been moving around day to day on adjacent properties. After being nearly killed, the buck was limiting most of his movement to the cover of darkness.

The moon stood tall in the November sky while the old deer fed quickly on corn from a hanging feeder. The buck consumed as much as he could and then quickly retreated into a small patch of woods surrounding an old black-water beaver pond.

Considering the events so far this fall he was lucky to be alive, but deer season was far from over.

• • • •

The weekend before Thanksgiving, Mike met Oliver at the Champney River boat ramp for opening day of duck season. The clock on his dash read 1:45 a.m. when he pulled in the ramp parking lot, and he struggled to find a parking space amongst the 50 or so trucks that were already there.

As soon as Mike jumped out of the truck, Oliver shouted, “Get a move on buddy. It’s time to go lock in a spot before they are all taken.”

The run down the river was in darkness. Then they crossed over a dike and into the WMA. After setting out decoys and checking equipment, the guys kicked back in the boat under a million stars to get a nap before daylight broke.

• • • •

As daybreak began to spread over the marsh, the sounds of whistling wings filled the air. Mike gripped his dad’s 870 Express tightly. The whispers of windblown marsh grass brought instant and vivid memories.

“Ducks in the air, ducks in the air 3 o’clock,” Oliver said in an excited whisper.

The teal were 100 yards out and coming in fast as the guys waited motionless.

“Kill ’em!”   

Oliver’s words were followed by three quick shots from his gun. Two ducks fell as two more veered in front of Mike. As he squeezed the trigger, the first duck fell from the sky. Mike quickly racked another shell. He quickly fired again, sending the last duck tumbling down into some marsh grass.

“Heck yeah, man! You still got it! Nice shooting, brother!”

“Thanks man,” Mike replied.

When he waded out to pick up his ducks, Mike couldn’t help but smile a little. Hunting without his dad there was hard, but deep down it felt good to be out enjoying God’s creation.

The cousins spent the next few hours picking out the best ducks to finish out their limits, and then they headed home worn out from the long night and exciting morning.

• • • •

Once he got up from his nap, Mike sat in his recliner twirling the engagement ring he had bought for Brandy. He was nervous as a country boy could be but had decided this was the night he was going to do it.   

A few days earlier, he had asked her dad for permission to ask for her hand, and he was thrilled, telling Mike he was sure she wouldn’t be able to find a better husband than him.

After Mike showered and finished getting ready, he stuck her ring in his pocket, jumped in his pick-up and headed for Brandy’s house.

• • • •

The ol’ buck was bedded down in some thick palmetto bushes about 2 miles from Mike’s house. A soft coastal breeze was bringing the smell of a hunter directly to the buck. Less than 100 yards away, the buck knew he couldn’t even risk standing to make a break for it. His only choice was to wait for the cover of darkness.

It seemed as if everywhere he went the buck couldn’t find a safe place to be. Fearing another encounter with a hunter, he made the decision to go back to his true home.

As soon as darkness fell, the hunter angled back to his truck and passed within 40 yards of the buck, but the wise deer remained motionless and undetected.

The two or so miles back to his old core area only took about 20 minutes for the buck to cover. When he arrived, he immediately caught the scent of another doe that had come into heat late. Sniffing the doe’s urine, he also detected the scent of another rival buck.

The hairs on his neck stood up as fury burned inside of him. He slashed a nearby oak repetitively with his horns until he had ripped the bark off of the 8-inch tree nearly 30 inches up from the base. These were his woods, and he was ready to fight for them.

• • • •

Mike and Brandy had an excellent date at one of their favorite restaurants, and then he took her for a walk on the beach. They walked along laughing and enjoying the nice weather and the gentle breeze from the ocean, until Mike knew the time was right. He dropped to one knee in the Georgia sand, taking the ring from his pocket.

“Brandy, you’re the love of my life, and I could search the world over and never find anyone like you. I know it hurt you years back when I left after dad died, but coming back to you was the best thing that ever has happened to me. Will you please be my wife?”

Tears filled her eyes as Brandy prepared to respond.

“Yes, I will! But on one condition.”

“Anything.”

“You have to come hunting with me, at least every now and then,” Brandy replied.

“That I can manage,” said Mike with a laugh.

The pair enjoyed the rest of the evening, and then after dropping Brandy off, Mike went home, watched a little TV and finally managed to fall asleep, still excited about the night’s events.

When Mike drifted off to sleep, he began to dream about his father. His dad was in the yard standing with him laughing and talking, then he told Mike to follow him. He followed his dad into the woods behind his house, winding and twisting as they went. Every 25 yards or so, Mike’s dad broke a tree branch the same way he used to when he would mark a trail through the woods. After going a few hundred yards, Mike’s dad made a X with his boot in some sandy dirt, then put his arm around Mike.

Suddenly, Mike woke up as sweat drenched his clothes. This dream was too real. He could feel his dad embracing him, feel his old overalls as he put his arm around him. It was like he had just been there.

Trembling as he went, Mike threw on some clothes, grabbed a flashlight and headed out the back door. The clock on his phone read 2:45 a.m., but that didn’t matter. He had to see for himself.

He ventured off into the darkness carefully scanning his surroundings as he went. After five minutes with no sign of anyone being in the woods, Mike scanned one last time and then turned to his right to head back to the house.

When his head turned, his heart nearly stopped when there in front of him was a perfectly broken branch hanging in the night. Mike’s heart began to race, when he scanned the woods and found another. He followed the trail of broken branches into the night and finally made it to the X his dad had marked in the sand.

Mike carefully scanned the woods, and noticed an object about 25 yards away on the other side of a large oak tree. When he walked over to it, he realized it was one of his dad’s old ladder stands that had been nearly covered by vines and other vegetation.

Surprisingly, it showed little sign of wear from the elements as Mike carefully examined it with his flashlight. When he shined his beam straight through the steps of the ladder, Mike picked up on something through the corner of his eye.

Fifteen yards in front of the old stand was the biggest, nastiest rub Mike had ever seen, and from the looks of it, it had just been made.

Examining the tattered tree, Mike knew what his father wanted him to do.

The ol’ buck was back. And so was Mike.

 

Read the Conclusion of “The Homecoming”

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