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Fall Fiction: The Homecoming Part 5

Mike’s plan to kill a giant coastal buck fails, but he gets some unexpected help from a man in overalls...

Craig James | December 7, 2018

The next morning, after finding his dad’s old stand in the woods, Mike’s alarm went off as the sun was just starting to peek through the trees. Mike was convinced that his dad had come to him. He couldn’t explain how that was even possible, but he knew what his father wanted him in the woods hunting.

Mike decided to hunt the ol’ buck during the few remaining weeks he had left in the season, even though the pain of not having his father with him still hurt him to his core.

After finishing his coffee and slipping on his boots, Mike heard his phone ringing. It was Keith.

“Man, I just woke up and got your voicemail. What do you mean your dad was in the woods last night?” Keith asked in a sleepy voice.

“I will fill you in more when you get here. I’m gonna hunt that buck, but I’m going to need your help,” said Mike.

“That’s all I need to hear. I’m on my way,” Keith said with excitement in his voice.

• • • •

Thirty minutes later, Keith arrived at Mike’s house, and the guys headed into the woods so Mike could show him the stand he had found the night before.

“This is it. What do you think?” Mike said grabbing a step of the lightly weathered olive green ladder.

“Unbelievable man. No doubt your dad wants you to hunt here. It’s like he put this stand here just for you. Wow! Look at that rub!” Keith said as he noticed the freshly mauled pine just yards from the ladder stand.

After spending a half hour doing a little scouting around the woods, the pair headed to town to pick up a new ratchet strap for the stand and most importantly a safety harness for Mike.

As the pair browsed the isles at Seth’s Feed and Outdoors store, they looked at the various models of safety harnesses available.

“I’m telling you, man, this Hunter Safety System harness with a Lifeline is the way to go for a ladder stand,” said Keith.

Mike decided to take Keith’s advice, and after looking around a little more, the pair headed back to the woods to get the stand ready to hunt.

After getting the new ratchet strap in place, Mike tried out his new harness and was impressed with the comfort and added security it offered.

After trimming a few shooting lanes in the moss-draped trees around the stand, Mike and Keith quietly slipped out of the woods.

The wise ol’ buck was fully aware of their movements as he listened from only 100 yards away. Despite the danger, the buck felt safe as long as he stayed bedded down. As the hunters exited the woods, silence once again filled the air.

The buck’s stomach growled, but he would have to wait a few more hours on darkness. He knew his survival depended on it.

• • • •

Mike spent the remainder of the afternoon going through a few totes of his dad’s old hunting gear, while Keith lay stretched out in Mike’s recliner flipping through the T.V.

“Man, you really need some more channels on this thing. This is like 1980s cable,” Keith joked.

“I tell you what, leave me a $20 on the counter, and I will be sure and upgrade to the premium package,” Mike said as he laughed.

“Hey check this out, Keith.”

It was a photo of Mike and his father standing together with Mike’s first deer.

“He’s proud of you, ya know. I think that’s why he came back,” said Keith.

“It’s hard, man. No matter how many times it runs through my head, I just can’t forgive myself for what happened to Dad. If I would have double checked that stand, he would still be alive,” Mike said as he rubbed a tear out of his eye.

“You can’t keep beating yourself up. It was a freak accident. If your dad was here right now, he would be telling you to dry up those tears and to be coming up with a plan to hunt that giant buck. He wants you to kill that deer, and if you’re going to do it, you better get serious about it.”

Keith’s words gave Mike a boost of encouragement.

“You’re right. I think I’m going to try him in the morning before work. It’s a long shot this late in the season, but you never know,” said Mike.

“That’s more like it, buddy, and once you do that, see about upgrading this T.V. service, it really stinks,” Keith said as they both started laughing.

• • • •

The next morning, Mike’s alarm went off a full hour before daylight. He quickly put on his faded blue jeans and his dad’s favorite camo jacket he had found the day before in one of the storage totes.

He sat on the porch under the yellow glow of the porch light, sipping his coffee. Mike had never been one for believing in ghosts, or life after death, but he could almost feel his dad sitting next to him. As hard as it was to go hunting without his dad, it sure felt good to know his dad was watching.

After a few more minutes of staring into the darkness, Mike poured out the last cold swallow of coffee from his mug. It was time to get down to business. Mike had plenty of deer rifles, but something told him to grab his dad’s 12-gauge 870 shotgun and load it with buckshot.

Mike used the heavy dew from the night before to walk quickly through the leaves without making a sound. Just as the sun began to turn the darkness of night grey, Mike settled quietly into his stand.

• • • •

After an hour of total silence in the woods, Mike heard a limb snap approximately 50 yards behind him. Mike held the walnut stock of his dad’s shotgun firmly as his heart began to beat wildly. For the next few minutes, footsteps in the leaves came closer and closer. Though he wanted to turn around to see the source of the noise, Mike wisely remained motionless, convinced his buck was going to step out on his left side at any minute.

After a long pause, the animal started walking again. Mike slowly moved his shotgun up and around to get ready and take a shot on his deer. Mike stared down the barrel waiting on the buck to step out from behind a 100-year-old oak tree.

Suddenly, a giant fox squirrel hopped from behind the tree and dug around in the leaves. Mike couldn’t help but quietly laugh at himself.

After another hour with no activity, Mike slipped out of the woods and headed in to work. On the way, he called Brandy to tell her about his morning hunt.

“Oh, you shouldn’t have told me that story. You will hear about this one until the end of time squirrel boy,” Brandy said laughing.

“I don’t doubt it,” Mike said sarcastically.

Once he got off the phone with Brandy, he called Keith and told him the story. Keith also enjoyed a good laugh at Mike’s expense.

After listening to Keith give him a hard time about his squirrel encounter for several minutes, Mike finally managed to get off the phone and head into work. When he walked into the lobby, he was immediately greeted by Tom Dykes, his neighbor.

“Hey, Mike. You think we could talk for a minute?”

“Sure, Tom. Come have a seat in my office.”

After closing the door and sitting down in his chair, Mike asked, “So what can I help you with today, Tom?”

“Do you remember a while back when you had the trespasser on your land?”

“Yes.”

“Well I need to be honest and tell you it was me. I got saved a few weeks ago, and not telling you the truth has been weighing heavily on my heart. I know you will probably still want to press charges, and I totally understand. I just had to make things right with you and ask for your forgiveness,” said Tom.   

Mike thought for a few seconds as he looked at Tom.

“Apology accepted.”

“Really? You don’t want to press charges on me for trespassing.”

“No, Tom, I don’t. We all need forgiveness, and for you to walk in here and man up and ask for mine, well I think you deserve it,” said Mike.

“You don’t know how good it makes me feel to get that off my chest. I will do anything to repay you,” said Tom.

“How about buy me lunch today, and we will call it even,” said Mike.

“Sounds like a plan,” Tom said as he stood to shake Mike’s hand.

• • • •

Later that day, Mike met Tom at Gram’s restaurant for lunch and actually enjoyed talking with him, as it was evident a change had taken place inside of him. When they got done eating, they shook hands in the parking lot.

“By the way Mike, I know the buck is back. I got a picture of him the other night on my side of the property line. I won’t be hunting him, though. This buck was meant for you.”

Driving home, Mike thought about what Tom had said. He felt like it was his destiny to kill the buck, but with little time left in the season, he really didn’t know if that would happen.

Mike managed to hunt the last hour or so before darkness faded and watched two does pass by his stand during the last few minutes of safe light.

• • • •

For the next few weeks, Mike continued to hunt the stand in the mornings before work and every afternoon that he could slip out of the bank a little early.

Mike managed to see deer nearly every day, but still, the ol’ buck was nowhere to be found. Staring at the date on his phone, Dec. 19, he knew time was running out in a hurry.

• • • •

The next morning Mike was sound asleep when he heard loud frantic knocking on the door. Without a doubt, Mike knew the source of the noise was none other than Keith.

“Come on in. What time is it anyway?” Mike asked as he opened the door.

“Ten till 7, but trust me, you’re gonna want to hear this,” Keith said as he began unrolling an aerial photo on Mike’s kitchen table.

“Mind if I use these Cheetos?”

“Do I even have a choice.”

“Not really,” Keith said as he popped a few in his mouth and laid several on the table.

“I’ve figured the ol’ buck out. I have been getting pictures of him here, here and here, almost every night,” Keith said marking the spots with Cheetos.

“And of course, your stand is right here.”

“Okay, maybe I’m still asleep, but what does that mean?”

“By the times on the cameras, I’m almost certain he’s bedding down in this little patch of woods 100 yards from your stand,” Keith said.

“So, you’re saying I should move to that little thicket?”

“That’s what I thought at first, but that will never work. He will be long gone if we invade his space. We’re gonna have to make him get up from his bed just before the sun goes down, and we will make him come straight to you.”

“How the heck are we going to do that?” Mike asked.

“We’re going to make the buck think your right here,” Keith said.

“There’s a strong wind forecasted for Christmas Eve, and I’m thinking if I sneak in 100 yards upwind of the buck just before dark, and hang some of your clothes on a limb, the buck will feel threatened and head directly toward your tree.”

“You really think it will work?” Mike asked.   

“To tell the truth, I really don’t know. It’s a long shot, but if the wind plays to our favor, and the buck relies on his instinct, he will come right to you,” said Keith.

“Sounds like a plan. What time should we meet up on Christmas Eve?”

“I’ll come over here at 3. It’s going to work,” said Keith.

• • • •

On Christmas Eve morning, just as Keith had predicted, a strong cold wind began to blow from the North, perfect for their plan. After talking for a while, Mike headed for his stand, and Keith circled down an old logging road to put out Mike’s clothes upwind of the buck. With a strong, 18 mph wind blowing the scent of Mike’s clothes to the buck, it seemed that things were in their favor.

The ol’ buck laid stretched out on the palmettos. As soon as the next breath entered his nostrils filled with human scent, the buck was on full alert.

With 25 minutes of light left, and the smell of the hunter getting stronger with the gusting wind, the buck stood from its bed. The buck lifted a front foot and put it back down. Indecisive. Then it took a few steps, headed for Mike’s direction. After a few steps, the buck stopped again.

He stood frozen, nose in the air, making a decision his life could depend on. After a long 30 seconds, the wise ol’ buck laid back down. Something wasn’t right, and he wouldn’t run until he was forced to.

• • • •

To say Mike was disappointed as he walked through his backyard toward the glow of his back-porch light would have been the understatement of the century.

Later, Mike headed to Brandy’s parent’s house for a Christmas Eve party. He did his best to smile and enjoy the evening, but the ol’ buck was on his mind, and Brandy knew it.

“You will get that deer. Just wait and see,” said Brandy.

“I doubt it. He went nocturnal, and he isn’t going to move during the day. He’s just too smart,” Mike replied.

“Well, the way I see it, your dad has managed to get you back in the woods. I’m sure he will help you get the buck, somehow, someway.”

• • • •

The next morning, Mike woke up in his recliner as the morning sun lit up his living room.

Mike turned the heat up on the thermostat as he looked at the outside temperature on his phone. It said 21 degrees…wow that’s cold for south Georgia, he thought to himself.

He grabbed a blanket and kicked back in the recliner. The clock on the wall read 8:15. Watching an episode of Bone Collector, Mike drifted back off to sleep. He immediately started dreaming that he was on his front porch talking to his dad.

“I’m proud of you, son, but you can’t quit now.”

Mike woke up. That wasn’t just a dream. He knew his dad was talking to him. Mike quickly grabbed his boots and put on the warmest clothes he had. He was going to keep hunting that buck no matter what.

• • • •

Once he got to his stand, Mike climbed the cold steps and settled in for a mid-morning hunt.

The ol’ buck was bedded down, and with the wind still slightly blowing from the north, he could still smell the scent coming from Mikes clothes that had been hung up the day before.

Confident he was safe where he was, the buck lay bedded down next to the frost-covered palmettos.

Ten minutes later the buck’s ear flickered as he heard the sound of footsteps coming through the leaves. As he scanned the woods, he quickly saw the hunter through an opening in the trees. Only 40 yards away and walking fast, the overall-clad man was closing in quick.

The buck quickly blew a burst of air through his nostrils and took off in a sprint straight toward Mike.

The second Mike heard the deer blow, a gut feeling told him it was his buck. He quickly shouldered his dad’s 870 shotgun and flipped the safety off.   

Mike heard crashing coming through the thick brush as he waited on his chance. When the ol’ buck busted out of the thicket, he was in a full-on sprint. Mike quickly put a lead on the buck and snatched the trigger. Fire blew out the barrel of the 12 gauge as the buck bounded out of sight.

Mike sat shaking, trying to process the events of the last few seconds. Everything had happened so quickly. His mind was having trouble catching up. He immediately took out his phone and dialed Keith to tell him what had happened.

“Hello.”

“Keith, I shot him,” Mike said whispering.

“Are you kidding me? That’s awesome! Is he down?”

“No, he ran off. You think you can help me look for him?”

“I wish, man. The sheriff has me headed to the interstate to help the state patrol with directing traffic. They had a little fender bender out there a little while ago.”

“Understand, well I can’t stand it any longer. I have to go look for blood.  I will let you know if I find him,” said Mike.

“Good luck, brother.”

Mike was still shaking when he slowly climbed down from his ladder stand. He went over to where he suspected he had shot the buck. It didn’t take him long to locate some drops of blood.

He started to follow the trail of blood drops in the direction the buck had run. For the next few hundred yards, Mike carefully walked from one drop to the next following the buck’s path as it twisted and turned through the woods.

The blood trail began to get heavier as Mike followed it deep into the woods.

Mike ducked under a limb and spotted the massive buck’s antlers through some brush 15 yards away. Mike hurried over to the downed buck and couldn’t believe his eyes. The buck’s dark, chocolate antlers would easily score in the 160s, and his massive body was heavier than 200 pounds, an unheard of buck for the Georgia coast.

As Mike was soaking in the moment, he caught glimpse of something on a tree 20 yards away. Mike stood up and walked closer and realized it was his dad’s climber, the one he had hung for him. That climber was the reason his dad had died.

Guilt came over Mike as he walked closer to the tree. Tears ran down his face while he stared at the weathered climber. If he had secured the bolt, his dad would still be here. He had cost his dad his life by being in a hurry when he hung the stand, and now he could never make it right.

After he sat on the ground crying for a few minutes, Mike climbed to his feet. A rusty bolt with a wing nut caught his attention lying in the dirt. Mike picked it up and noticed it was broken clean in the threads.

He turned and looked at the top section of the climber. The bolt on the other side was still attached with the wing nut on. Mike stuck the bolt through the other side of the climber as his hand trembled.

All this time Mike had assumed he hadn’t tightened the nut, but he had. The bolt had failed, breaking and causing his dad to fall to his death.

Mike held the bolt in his hand and turned back in the direction of his buck, still processing the situation.

When he looked up, he saw a vision of what looked like his dad, standing in his overalls next to the buck. Mike wanted to run to his dad, but his feet were frozen to the ground.

“I’m sure proud of you, Mike.”

“I’m sorry, dad. I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Mike. I love you, son.”

“I love you too dad”

“I’m gonna go now, Mike, but I will always be watching.”

Mike stood in awe as his dad disappeared into the woods.

Mike didn’t know what to do for several minutes, while he thought about what he had just witnessed. He couldn’t help but crack a smile as he looked over at the buck.

Mike had come home, so had the buck, and though Mike couldn’t explain how, so had his dad.

The homecoming was complete.

The End

  

  

   

  

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