Fall Fiction: Buck No. 27 Part 1

The New Horizons Hunt Club is formed, but poachers from the former club are ready when a giant buck falls to the dirt.

Brad Gill | August 1, 2004

Two minutes after midnight on the new moon in August, clouds hid the stars and a light wind kept the mosquitoes from landing on Lee Blantonʼs face. With his rifle propped on a pine limb, Lee flipped a switch on a camo-covered spotlight attached to the bottom barrel of his gun and a two-acre pea patch lit up like a 150-watt bulb had come on in a small closet. There were several deer feeding on the green shoots, including a skinny-tined 8-pointer with a velvet rack that met at the ears. It wasn’t the buck Lee was looking to squeeze the trigger on.

“Dang-it,” he whispered as he turned off the light and rested his forehead on the stock of the gun.

It was 10:30 p.m. when Lee had parked his black, 4X4 Toyota beside an old abandoned barn that sat behind a one-story, country home. The house was part of a 153-acre tract owned by the Williams, a couple out of Atlanta who stayed so busy working for Delta Airlines that they only showed up at their remote home in the country during the holidays.

After easing his truck door shut Lee slipped down a small hardwood hill, hit a narrow woods road and headed west until he slid down the banks of a shallow creek. Playing the wind and using the creek to help lessen the number of crackling leaves under his feet, Lee took a full hour to slip 300 yards down the creek until he reached a steep pine hill. Sixty feet up the hill was the back corner of a food plot, where he now stood waiting for the buck.

“I know youʼre here, big boy,” he whispered to himself.

Two weeks earlier in this same plot Lee had shot a young 8-pointer with short brow tines and a pair of matching acorn tips, and when he knelt down to look at the young buckʼs antlers he saw a buck tract in the dirt large enough that a dollar bill would barely cover it. This was the buck Lee had hoped to see on his return to the pea patch.

It had been 25 minutes since Leeʼs first shine into the pea patch when a leaf crunched a stoneʼs throw to his left along the woodline. Lee turned his head toward the sound, and with a cup of the ear, he could hear peas being ripped from the dirt.

The buckʼs neck stretched just after Leeʼs forefinger flipped the light switch — but it was too late. After a solid hit, the buck ran to the edge of the food plot and toppled to the dirt.

Lee walked over to the buck, knelt down and counted 10 thick tines on a symmetrical buck with main beams that nearly crossed in the front. Shining his flashlight in the deerʼs mouth, he looked at the deerʼs jaw.

“Four and half years old,” he whispered. Leeʼs smile relaxed when he noticed the buck had a broken hoof, and it looked like it had been in the healing process for over a month.

“Dang — youʼre not the buck I was hoping to see.”

Although the buck was mature with thick mass that grew from his skull, it didnʼt match the buck track he had seen two weeks earlier.

•   •   •

Jeff Harris pulled up to a yellow, locked gate in his 1974 K-5 Blazer as the first hint of morning was minutes from peeking over the horizon. His younger brother, Ben, opened a creaky passenger door and slid his tall, skinny frame off the seat until his Rocky boots touched the ground. He turned around to let his Jack Russell terrier hop out and find the nearest sweetgum.

“Go on, Stump,” Ben said. “Whereʼd daddy wanna start first this morning? I still think we oughta put up the deer stands first — thatʼs whatʼs going to be the killer.”

“Doesn’t matter — itʼs all got to get done,” said Jeff as his calloused hand wrapped around a cup of coffee on his console.

The brothersʼ father, Trent, pulled up behind his sons in a green Dodge 2500. He was pulling an old, wooden trailer with a John Deere tractor sitting on top, fueled up and ready to plow. All around the tractor was a tangle of deer-stand pieces — tripod legs, ladder-stand sections and speed ladders.

On the back of Trentʼs truck was an assortment of multi-colored ratchet straps and bungee cords. There were pull-up ropes and screw-in steps, three bag spreaders, a cooler full of iced-down drinks and enough lime, fertilizer and seed to plant about three acres of what theyʼd hoped to be good places to hammer a deer this fall.

The family of hunters had a new hunting lease. Trent leased the property in May. Heʼd been on a waiting list for this property for two years before a region supervisor for the Green Timber Co. called and told him that the property was available. Trent found out later that Green Timber had evicted their former lessees — Outlaws Hunting Club, a club that apparently lived up to its name.

DNR Law Enforcement rangers were tired of the midnight calls of gunfire, the occasional complaints of vandalism from adjacent clubs and all the weekend traffic. Rumor was that during turkey season they threw a party on the timber land — with 100 of their closest friends. When one of the loggers from Green Timber arrived the Monday after the party, he found one of his stacks of timber still smoldering.

So on a rainy, May afternoon Trent rode over to look at the 950-acre tract and that same day he handed Green Timber a check. One week later, the property had 12 new members, and all of a sudden the property was seeing an improved set of hunters.

Jeff, who had just turned 19 years old, stood at the gate by his year-younger brother, Ben, with their arms crossed as they looked out at a sea of planted pines as the sunʼs first rays hit them in the face. Trent walked proudly between his two sons with a white sign in one hand and a hammer in the other. Taking a tall step over the gate and just off the edge of the road, Trent bent over and hammered the sign six inches into the ground as the first bead of sweat was making its way through his untrimmed, gray beard. He took three steps back and leaned his muscular body against the gate between his two sons. All three grinned as they read the orange, newly-painted words to themselves.

New Horizons Hunt Club.

•   •   •

Thirty yards from the edge of a powerline, in a mat of heavy-thorned briars, lay a heavy set of antlers attached to a fat-bellied whitetail. The buck had it all — tine length, mass and long, curvy beams. It had a typical-racked 6X6 frame with four tines over 12 inches, six-inch bases and one kicker tine off the left G3. The oddity was just enough to give an already impressive deer a little more character. For a deer hunter, it was a one-in-a-million buck.

The buck was 6 1/2 years old and had graduated top buck in his set of the woods two summers ago after a buck with gnarly, non-typical antlers was hit by a truck. It was an unfortunate ending for one buckʼs life, but it paved a path for a new buck to step up to the plate and be the dominant buck in the same stretch of woods where it was born. That fall he proved his dominance, spending time locked together with younger bucks, running and breeding does and by Thanksgiving he had established himself as the dominant buck in the herd.

Now, two summers later, the buck was relaxed, spending his days laid up inside a cluster of blackberries dozing before heʼd file out into the nearby rye patch with other local deer right at dark.

As the trees above the buck silhouetted against an orange sunset, the deer leaned his weight to his front elbows and lifted his backside into the air. Straightening his back legs, he stood on all fours and looked into the powerline where he saw the usual half-dozen deer.

The buck took a careful step from his bed and slowly crept, one easy step at a time, down a familiar game trail. As he neared the field edge, his fuzzy antlers lightly tickled briar vines and sweetgum branches. Then, like the magicianʼs rabbit, the buck appeared along the perimeter of the powerline evaluating the other deer with all four hooves buried in the soft, plowed dirt. Every deer in the food plot had their head up to watch the buckʼs grand entrance. A six-pointerʼs head bobbed at the newcomer for a few seconds and then trotted 30 yards away, his tail switching like a metronome before he turned back around to stare at the magnificent animal.

With the sunʼs light about gone, the giant buck let his head fall into the short grass and he ripped up a mouthful of grass. One by one, each deer followed.

As the mature buckʼs sagging belly began to fill with rye grass and his long beams nearly touched the dirt, 300 yards away his impressive features were filling twin circles of a set of high-dollar, night-vision binoculars.

•   •   •

Ben Harris, the younger of the two brothers, was nearing camp. His jeep tires crunched under the freshly-laid gravel as he straddled a road lined in the center with weeds heading toward the clubʼs newly-constructed hunt camp. With head-high pines out both windows, he grinned as he thought about the six food plots that he, his older brother, Jeff, and his father, Trent, had helped plant two weeks ago.

Ben had missed the first campout at the club. He had a date with Jenny Lewis, a date not too many 18-year-olds would pass up to sit around a campfire in August with a bunch of men telling lies while comparing the volume of body noises. Thanks to a late movie and a long drive down by the lake, Ben didnʼt see his front porch until three oʼclock in the morning, but he still rose before sunrise, threw a UGA hat on his short, brown hair and headed to the club. His early-morning grin said he was excited to be a pioneer member of New Horizons.

His jeep whined in first gear as he made a small pull up the final hill and hit the front edge of camp, which was situated in the back of a dead-end road. It had the familiar rows of pines on two sides, but it backed up to a small hardwood drain with a wet-weather creek running through it.

Smoke rose from the short pines, and Ben saw his dad under the 10X30 wooden cook shed pulling biscuits from a propane-heated oven. His older brother was stirring a mixture of eggs and ground sausage on top of the stove. Ben opened the door and headed toward the kitchen.

“How was your date, pretty boy?” Jeff hollered with a mixing pan in his hand.

“Why? You jealous?”

“Yeah right. Jenny would have gone out with me if I asked her, but itʼll be deer season in two weeks, and you gotta have your priorities in order, baby brother.”

“Just because youʼre older than me doesn’t mean I canʼt whip your tail right here around this fire ring,” Ben said.

“Not only am I older, but Iʼm taller and I can bench press 50 pounds more than you — and I bet if I called Jenny right now sheʼd give me a date,” Jeff hollered back putting the mixing bowl down and taking a step toward Ben.

“Thatʼs quite enough you two — besides, itʼs about time to eat,” Trent said stepping in before the teasing turned into WrestleMania 21.

Directly beside one of the four campers that sat in the newly-built camp, Herb Miller, wearing nothing but a pair of way-too-small-for-his-belly khaki shorts and a pair of sandals, was waddling up to the smell of breakfast from a trip to the camp outhouse.

“Man, I like that extra-large padded seat, and the view at those two white oaks makes you want to sit and pull magazines out of the rack all day,” Herb said tossing his half-gone roll of toilet paper onto one of the kitchen counters. “You need to quit picking on your younger brother, Jeff. I could hear yʼall squawking coming up that hill.

Herb turned to Ben.

“Understand you had a hot one last night. Donʼt let Jeff tease you. I donʼt blame you for missing the first campout. I remember when my wife was a pretty young thing when I was about your age. She was full of fire. You couldn’t keep me in a deer stand, then. You wouldn’t believe the way we were when we were 19, weʼd…”

“Herb, donʼt you think we better get to eating?” Trent asked, still protective of the sorts of things his two sons heard.

Herb eased his eyes over at Trent, knowing that he may have pushed the story of his young days a little far, so he was quick to change the subject.

“Uh, guess you two brothers hadn’t heard the big gossip about one of our rye patches on the backside being vandalized, have you?”

“HERB, I was saving that until after breakfast,” Trent yelled.

Herb decided that maybe heʼd stepped off in a deep enough pile of manure before breakfast and that it was probably time to check out of the conversation.

“What? You gotta be kidding me,” Jeff said turning to his dad.

“You may as well know then,” Trent said as he glared at Herb rushing into his camper.

“Herb and I rode over to the food plot in front of the Lookout Tower this morning and somebody had been in there with a 4-wheeler and destroyed it. They rode on it before the seed got up, and now the dirt is hard as concrete,” said Trent.

Jeff still had a big spoon in his hand from stirring the sausage mixture, and he was so mad that he slung it right into the side of his already-battered Blazer.

“All that work gone totally down the drain. We busted our tails on that.”

Back down the hill, about 100 yards away, two men stood grinning inside the pines between two rows of briars. They listened to the disgusted voices of the New Horizon Hunt Club.

•   •   •

Two days later, Jeff and Ben sat in a two-man ladder stand on a briar-chocked hill. Both boys had binoculars stuck to their eyes, looking 250 yards away to the powerline planted in rye.

“Rye looks great,” whispered Ben. “Thank goodness we’ve actually had some rain this month.”

A pair of young bucks — a four- and a six-pointer — had been nervously feeding on the far edge for about 15 minutes. Both bucks would get a nip of grass, lift their heads and look around in all directions before filling their mouths again.

“You ready? The sunʼs gone and itʼs about too dark to see,” said Ben.

“I guess so. You get down first.”

Ben laid his binoculars on the floor of the stand and stood up. Turning around he started down the the ladder and blindly reached back up for his binoculars. When he did he sent the pair of Nikons over the edge of the stand, and they clanged against one of the ladder rungs before nailing the ground.

“Make some more noise why donʼt ya,” Jeff whispered down to his younger brother.

“Sorry, man. Didn’t mean too.”

Ben jumped off the steps and grabbed his binoculars.

Jeff was still sitting in his seat and decided to give the field one last squint before climbing down. He instantly made out the black outline of a deer trotting across the powerline at a pretty good clip toward a small line of water oaks. Although he could tell it was a deer, it wasn’t until the deer hit mid air crossing a small ditch in the middle of the powerline that Jeff captured a brief glance at the buckʼs antlers in the fading sky. He thought it was more antler than heʼd ever seen before.

“What are you looking at?” Ben asked from the bottom of the ladder.

“I think I just saw a dang monster.”

•   •   •

While zig-zagging at a trot through a series of short pines, Todd Swainʼs boot hit a rock and his body fell face first into a stagnant hog wallow. His brown mustache filled with muck as he quickly began spitting the stale water out of his mouth.

Mike Kilgore, his chubby partner in crime, was right behind him to hear the big splash. When Mikeʼs flashlight beam landed on Toddʼs muddy face, his heavy body fell against a beech tree and he began to laugh.

“Man, you stink. Your old lady ainʼt lettinʼ you in the house tonight,” Mike said still holding the flashlight in Toddʼs squinty eyes. “Hey man, your cigarettes are going to taste kinda funny, too.”

Todd didn’t care that his mustache smelled like a barnyard or that his smokes fell from his front pocket and into the brown water. He just wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to get caught.

“I thought you said there wasn’t anybody in the hunting camp this afternoon — I know I heard a truck crank over there,” Todd said getting back to his feet and pointing down a quarter mile stretch of powerline.

“There wasn’t — reckon they made it in here late.”

Todd and Mike were familiar with this stretch of the powerline — it was where they both liked to hunt when they had been club members of Outlaws Hunt Club. In March both men had found a giant set of deer antlers in an area where they had scattered corn to attract turkeys.

“That buck may not even be around here anymore, Mike,” Todd said taking his wet hat off to scratch his balding head.

“Heʼs alive alright — at least Iʼm about positive he is,” Mike said taking a high-powered rifle off his shoulder and leaning it against a tree.

“What makes you so sure?”

“Well, I was gonna tell you this when we got back to the house, but Iʼll go ahead and let you know,” Mike said. “You remember that night last week I told you I was coming over here to try out my new night-vision scope?”

“Yeah. What about it?” Todd asked.

“I crawled up in the Lookout Tower since these new yahoos fixed the steps. I just wanted to look at some deer, so I started looking around, and you wonʼt believe what I saw.”

“Let me a guess — a monster, right?” asked Todd.

“Better than that. I saw a man crossing the powerline with a rifle on his arm.”

“What are you talking about moron?” Todd asked slinging a muddy finger at Mikeʼs chest. “How is that better than you seeing a big buck?”

“The man was Lee Blanton, MORON,” Mike said reaching for his can of snuff.

Todd slowly dropped his finger as he thought about the consequences, both good and bad, of Lee Blanton on the same piece of dirt as the two former Outlaws members.

“I donʼt think heʼd be here if it weren’t for that big ʼun,” Mike whispered.

“How can we compete with Lee Blanton?” Todd whispered back with a slight grin.

“We canʼt — thatʼs why weʼre gonna let him lead us right to that buck.”

•   •   •

The buck had been at a half trot for 10, dark minutes when he busted out of a hardwood flat and onto a dirt road, right above a new culvert that Green Timber had installed in early July. The buck stared at the two pieces of silver pipe sticking out from the dirt bridge for a few seconds before stepping into the road and crossing the culvert. The buck looked right at home as it hit a small, grown-up deer trail on the opposite side of the road, dashed through a 10-yard strip of pines and came to a halt along the edge of a half-acre opening on the banks of Gum Creek.

The buck had been content with his powerline haunts — even watching the Harris brothers plant a food plot through a wall of briars. But now, with the rut just a few months away and the first pieces of velvet beginning to slowly peel off its rack, it was time for the buck to make a move.

•   •   •

Lee Blantonʼs feet hit the ground about the time the sun was straight overhead. He squinted as he glared up, to make sure his newly-placed lock-on stand just above the fork in the sweetgum was well hidden.

It had taken Lee about a week to figure out that the giant buck had left its summertime home and was probably making its first shift in home-range size with the upcoming rut. At the end of August, Lee had stumbled upon a small kudzu patch 200 hundred yards from the banks of Gum Creek. Leeʼs scouting turned up three abnormally large clumps of fresh buck droppings where the kudzu vines met a wall of 12-foot pines. Inside the entanglement of green vines was one area where it looked like a big deer had laid down and fed on kudzu leaves. In the center of the kudzu patch was a single, 80-foot tall sweetgum tree.

Lee took a bottle of skunk urine from his pocket and sprayed around the base of the sweetgum and looked back up at the stand one more time.

“Three days,” he whispered.

•   •   •

Three days later, almost to the minute when his newest lock-on stand was being hung, Lee was swallowing his last bite of ham sandwich and wheeling up to a yellow gate just inside the woodline off Hwy 37. He hopped out and threw his rainsuit hood over his head as the steady rain began to fall harder. He opened the gate and was able to get his truck inside and shut back without a vehicle passing. He eased the door shut, slid the transmission into drive and headed toward his sweetgum stand.

Across Hwy 37, Todd Swain watched Leeʼs black Toyota disappear as he squatted behind a line of county dumpsters. He hit his Nextel button to let his buddy, former Outlaw Hunting Club member Mike Kilgore, know that it was time to move.

Looking down the highway to make sure no one was coming, Todd scurried across the pavement, went inside the gate and began to follow Leeʼs fresh tire tracks.

 •   •   •

“Iʼm still mad about our food plots getting run over with a 4-wheeler,” Jeff Harris said to his younger brother, Ben, as he hit the brake on his Blazer. Just over the hood was a cottontail on the edge of a pea patch just waiting to be exercised. Jeff opened the door then headed to the back of the Blazer where he met Ben.

“Iʼm sure glad daddy watches the Williams property while theyʼre up in Atlanta working for Delta,” Ben said. “The fact that itʼs right across Gum Creek from our new hunting club really makes it great. Not to mention, itʼs a great place to run our beagles.”

Jeff dropped the tailgate and quickly had his hands on the dog box. Five small beagles poured from the wooden, double-doored dog box and onto the ground.

“Here he goes, here he goes,” Jeff hollered on his way to the last place he saw the rabbit disappear off the pea patch and into the pines. “Thatʼs it, Angel, get in there Dee, go with it girls, thatʼs it, you smell him.”

The race was on. One by one the dogs began to squeal on the track and the brothers stood with their arms crossed enjoying the race.

“Sounds like itʼll be a good one tonight,” Jeff said walking into the food plot. “Look at all these deer tracks, Ben. We need to get a stand over here and bowhunt this place before the Williams get down here at Thanksgiving and start shooting up the woods.”

Ben laughed at the thought of Mr. Williams actually sitting in the stand on a cold, November morning.

“Yeah, right. Remember when he went hunting with dad last year and he was back in his house 45 minutes after daylight? He said he trying to get the deer moving for dad, but his toes got numb in that pair of white sneakers,” Ben said laughing as he walked down the field edge with an open stretch of hardwoods to his left. Reaching the back corner of the field, Jeff could hear the swollen waters of Gum Creek. As he stood there staring at the soft, rain-soaked mud, listening to his beagles hammer down on the trail of a cottontail, he was looking at the biggest whitetail track heʼd ever seen.

•   •   •

Lee could just make out the outline of two does munching on kudzu leaves. Sunlight had been gone for three hours, but thanks to night-vision equipment he would stay on the stand until the first crack of daylight if he had to.

It was his goal to be done with his time on the stand before the opening day of bow season, which was just two weeks away. Lee had shot 26 bucks over the course of two years, but he lacked the one with giant antlers — the one that would give him a sense of completion.

Leeʼs gaze on the field was almost hypnotic, which is one reason he didn’t notice the buck standing along the edge of the kudzu until one of his antlers brushed against a kudzu vine. Upset that he may have wasted precious time that could cost him, Lee quickly grabbed his rifle off the hook and shouldered it.

Flipping his scope on, night became day in a tiny circle of green light with a red dot in the middle. Lee smiled — the buck was 30 yards away and oblivious to what was fixing to happen.

Itʼs never this easy in hunting season, Lee thought.

But he began to shake uncontrollably as buck fever began to roll through his blood, something he hadnʼt felt since his father taught him to deer hunt nearly 20 years earlier. He forced himself to close his eyes for just a second and two, long breaths to help calm his nerves.

One, two, three, he counted to himself as he exhaled his second breath. The light from Leeʼs night-vision scope reflected off his eye when he opened it back up only to see nothing but a tangle of green vines in his scope. Leeʼs gun barrel began to swing violently as he searched for the giant buck. Nearly 30 yards downwind of Leeʼs stand, the buck stopped to rip a kudzu leaf from its vine.

Lee jerked his head around, and there was the black body facing the edge of the pines where Lee had walked in nearly nine hours ago. In a fourth-quarter surge of energy, Lee rotated his body and threw the stock of the gun back to his shoulder. This time when the red dot found its mark, Lee immediately began to apply pressure to the trigger. A second later and the nearly-silent rifle popped into the late-August air. The hit was solid.

After bolting from the kudzu and through the pines, the buckʼs legs began to wobble when he stepped out on the dirt road. The buck staggered another 40 yards before crashing to the dirt, right on top of the culvert.

From deep inside the metal pipe, two beams from Mini-mag flashlights twisted on as Mike Kilgore and Todd Swain crawled from their hiding place toward opposite ends of the pipe.

They both splashed in the creek at the same time and turned around. There, between the two men in the middle of the road, laid the largest buck theyʼd ever seen.

“Thank you, Lee Blanton,” Mike whispered with an evil grin. “We better work fast, Todd. I hope your knife is sharp.”

Read Part 2 of Buck No. 27

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