The Ghost Hunter Of Shinbone Creek
Part One of GON’s Five-Part Fall Fiction Series
November 20, 1864 between Hillsboro and Milledgeville:
“Ten more steps,” the boy breathed to himself as he sighted down the long, octagonal barrel of his muzzleloader. “Just ten more steps…”
The front bead of his sights was lined up on the shoulder of the biggest buck he had ever seen. It was standing 50 yards away with three nervous does. One of the does had lain down to escape the persistent attention from the buck hovering impatiently over her. The long-bodied, sway-backed buck with a grizzled-gray face dwarfed the does. Over and over, Jeremy had counted 12 long, thick points rising tall above the heavy-set beams. His heart thumped with anticipation—just 10 more steps…
It had taken the boy three weeks, hunting nearly every day, to pattern the buck, to learn its secret. Two full hours before daylight he had come to this place and hidden himself to await the buck he was certain to see. At daylight, the buck had arrived, herding the does. The 12-pointer was about to be his.
Jeremy’s granny, his only family, was spittin’ mad with him for pursuing the buck at all, but he could not help but hunt it—despite her howling complaints and threats. The spectacular antlers had mesmerized him.
“Yer goin’ ter boil an’ eat them antlers?” the gray-haired woman had screeched at him in a fury when she learned he was hunting a buck rather than shooting the first deer he encountered. With the Civil War moving into the South, food had become scarce. His granny depended on Jeremy’s hunting prowess to provide venison, and she bartered the venison with neighbors for other staples.
Only 14 years old, Jeremy Dufore was regarded as the most skilled deer hunter in the area even though hunting competition was sparse with most of the able-bodied men gone off to the war. Jeremy’s father and grandfather had eagerly rushed to enlist when the first cannon shots of the war had echoed over Fort Sumter, and his mother had gone to Atlanta to work in the Confederate hospital. All had come to unhappy ends.
Jeremy lived with his granny in an old rock-and-log shack. She was an ancient, eccentric, wrinkled woman with deep-set beady black eyes glaring above a long, jutting nose. Her waist-length gray hair was usually twisted into long braids she often wore coiled like snakes upon her head. The neighbors considered her a witch, and on full-moon nights, after Jeremy had climbed the ladder to the loft to sleep, he sometimes heard her cackling and laughing as she chanted incantations before candles set in front of the fireplace. While she loved him like her own son, his granny had a white-hot temper, and Jeremy feared her wrath if he did not bring venison to the cabin today. Without this buck, he could not go home.
Sprawled on his belly in his tattered and patched, grey-brown deer-hide jacket and pants, and with pine boughs pulled over his back, the boy was nearly invisible on the forest floor just in front of a massive white oak tree. As a final touch to complete his camouflage, he had painted his face with charcoal from the fireplace. Tufts of brown rough-cut hair sprouted from beneath a raccoon-skin cap, and his blue eyes burned with the intensity of a wolf as he watched the buck.
The doe that was the object of the buck’s desire finally lurched to her feet and jumped a few steps toward Jeremy, stopping under a low-hanging limb to thwart the buck. The 12-pointer moved toward her, head low to the ground, upper lip raised, and he made a nasal, pig-like grunt with each step.
Jeremy’s pulse raced as he quietly thumbed the sidelock back, cocking his rifle with a soft click. At the back of the barrel, a 40-caliber lead roundball nested firmly in a patch cut from gingham cotton ticking tamped over a charge of black powder. The powder awaited only the hot spark from the flint and steel when the hammer dropped.
“One more step,” Jeremy pleaded, his trembling finger curling around the trigger.
Then, from just beyond the deer, three blue jays exploded from the pines screaming raucous alarm calls. The does, alerted, snapped their heads in the direction of the commotion, big ears cupped forward, eyes scanning the woods. The 12-pointer did not hesitate but sprang away—the gray blur seeming to vaporize into the brush. Then the does, panicked by some unseen impending threat, turned and bolted straight for Jeremy’s hiding place. The boy covered his head with his arms as the deer streaked by—one doe jumping directly over him.
Jeremy stood up and brushed the leaves from his hair and pulled his fur cap down on his forehead.
“Granny’s gonna kill me,” he said, disgustedly.
Then he heard what had alarmed the deer—the staccato clatter and pop of musket fire.
• • • • • • • • •
August 27, 2012, Varner property between Hillsboro and Milledgeville:
Hamp Varner walked the edge of the just-plowed food plot, his eyes scanning the edge of the woods. Behind him, his teenage granddaughter, Leia, meandered along with her border collie named Radar.
“Look,” said Hamp, kneeling to inspect the ripped, fragrant bark of a thick red cedar tree. “The first rub of the year—that’s a good sign!”
Leia Varner, 14, stepped forward to inspect the tree, pushing shoulder-length brown hair out of her eyes and poking it back under her ball cap.
Hamp watched the slender girl check the rub with her fingers and listened as she detailed the damage and speculated about the size of the buck.
“Must have been a buck as big as Bullwinkle,” she declared.
Hamp grinned at the girl as he pulled off his wide-brimmed hat and rubbed his balding head, but he sighed inwardly. It had been an extremely long and difficult year. Leia’s parents had been killed in a car crash the summer before, and he and his wife had gladly taken in their orphaned granddaughter. Her father, Hamp’s son, had nurtured in Leia a love of all things outdoors. She could read the woods better than most men and was already an accomplished hunter. She had bagged her share of squirrels (and could skin one in hurry) and took her limit on a dove field with her 20-gauge using fewer shells than most men. In the year since her parents had died, Hamp had continued to encourage the hunting tradition, and rambling in the woods with his young granddaughter and chasing catfish jugs on nearby lakes had clearly been therapeutic for the girl. She eagerly anticipated her first year deer hunting with a rifle in her hands—and Hamp could hardly wait, also. If only he could figure out a way to pay taxes on the property that had fallen suddenly, tragically and expensively into his possession.
The Varner property lay along Shinbone Creek, which bubbled and flowed across the county before it emptied into the Oconee River south of Milledgeville. To secure a place for the family to hunt together, Hamp’s son had extended himself financially to purchase the 525-acre tract of prime deer-hunting land. The creek bottoms were lined with towering oaks and hickories. The uplands were a mix of old grown-up fields and young planted pines, the field edges punctuated with sprawling water oaks, their limbs sagging with acorns each fall. Wet-weather drains and heads extending out of the hardwoods into the planted pines were thick with muscadine vines and persimmon trees. In one particular spring-fed head was an ancient orchard of broken-down old apple and pear trees that dated to the mid 1800s. The rock foundation, a hard-packed yard and a trickling spring were all that marked an earlier owner’s homesteading efforts.
“Radar! Come here!” Leia shouted. “Where is that dog?”
The black-and-white dog came crabwalking awkwardly up the field edge dragging something to the side that was hidden in a tangle of dead grass. Hamp whistled when he saw it.
“That is one BIG shed,” he said, as he took the antler from the dog and pulled the streamers of dead grass away.
The shed, with a beam more than 2 feet long, would measure more than 4 inches in circumference at the base. Some of the tines had been gnawed on by rodents, but it was still was an eye-popping 6-point shed.
“Maybe that antler belonged to the very buck that peeled the bark off this tree,” said Hamp.
Radar happily wagged his tail, proud of his find, then suddenly the dog jerked his head toward the woods ears up and he barked nervously as he sidled up to Leia. As Leia looked up from the shed, her eyes registered an odd blur of movement along the field edge 50 yards away, and a chill ran down her spine. It had looked, she thought, like something had moved between her and the trees and that the movement had somehow distorted the background—like droplets of water moving down a window pane.
“Did you see…” she started to say, but Hamp, still turning the shed over in his hands, had seen nothing. She knew her grandpa worried about her, and she didn’t want him to think she was seeing things where nothing existed.
“Got chilly all of a sudden,” he said, noting the setting sun. “We best get back to camp.
“Here,” he said, handing her the shed. “This is yours—looks like we have a really big buck to hunt.”
Leia accepted the shed, then looked nervously back to the field edge. She could see nothing unusual, but she had the keen sense that she was being watched. The trees stood silently, but in the declining light, her eyes could not penetrate the growing gloom deeper in the forest.
• • • • • • • • •
Less than a half mile away, the buck that had dropped the shed the previous January stood next to an old rock wall, its rear legs planted in the ripped dirt as it leaned its head and rack into a gnarled old apple tree trunk. Its muscles rippled, the sharp eye guards of the old buck’s rack plowed deep furrows into the tree, peeling away long strips of fragrant bark. The buck worked methodically, starting low on the trunk then raising its head, tines stripping the bark.
In the deepening twilight, the buck’s antlers, tall ivory-tipped tines, were luminous in the last low light of day. The buck stopped suddenly and raised its head. A wafting breeze had delivered to it the distant scent of an old man, a girl and a dog. Secure in the advancing dusk and protected by distance, the buck lowered its head to continue its determined work destroying the apple tree, the rack turning like a section of brown picket fence.
The buck was nothing short of magnificent. A rare, perfect combination of superlative genetics, exceptional nutrition and longevity had created a freak—a one-in-a-million monster buck. Five-and-one-half years old, the buck weighed more than 250 pounds. For three hunting seasons, hunters in two counties had returned to hunt camps babbling about the elk-sized deer tracks they had found and raving over huge scrapes and rubbed trees they had located. The mostly nocturnal buck had rarely been glimpsed, but a single trail-camera photo of the buck had been snapped the previous November. The photo had been taken at a cattle-farmer’s feed trough 3 miles from the Varner property and created an instant sensation and hot controversy when it was posted on Facebook. Mostly, people insisted the shot was a fake. No buck could possibly grow or carry that much antler, the critics said. The photo had absolutely been Photoshopped, they argued.
The buck was real; not Photoshopped at all. Hamp, who didn’t know Facebook from a face lift, had never seen the trail-camera photo of the buck, but many others had. As he and Leia walked from the food plot, on another dirt road not far away the driver of a vehicle pulled down his sun visor to stare for the thousandth time at the photograph of the 12-point buck he had pulled from the Internet and printed. Covered in the back seat of the vehicle was a scoped black-composite stock .308 with a night-vision scope mounted on it. On the passenger seat was a county map folded to the quadrant that including the Varner tract.
“I have just about figured out where you are,” he mused. “Sooner or later, my .308’s going to find you…”
• • • • • • • • •
“We’re gonna call this Leia’s Tossed-Salad plot,” said Hamp, grinning, as he picked up empty seed bags. Indeed, the food plot would be unique. Hamp was quietly focused on ways to cheer his granddaughter up; to make her smile. At the local seed and feed, Hamp had encouraged Leia to pick and choose from the large array of food-plot seeds. The shopkeeper had laughed and shook his head at the diversity of seed she happily selected—wheat, lab-lab, chicory, buckwheat, oats, iron and clay peas, grain sorghum—plus beets, radishes and even a dash of collards.
Hamp completed scattering the last of the seed from a spreader attached to the 3-point hitch on his old Massey-Ferguson. He then swapped the spreader for a drag and watched as Leia skillfully drove the tractor to cover the seed, level and compact the plot. She finished the task and parked the tractor to the side of the plot where Hamp was gathering fertilizer bags.
“Now all we need is rain,” he said.
“I can fix that,” said Leia.
She began to dance and sing, hopping and waving her arms—her “rain dance,” she said.
Over her singing and the sound of the idling tractor, she did not at first hear the county sheriff’s SUV as it emerged from the woods from the direction of their hunt camp.
Sheriff Earl Henderson and deputy Emmitt Frost stepped out of the vehicle.
Emmitt, a thin, scarecrow of a man with a prominent Adam’s apple and bulging dark eyes stared with an ape-like grin at Leia.
“That there was some kind of dance,” he said.
Leia blushed furiously.
“Rain dance,” she muttered, studying her boots, thinking: “And who asked Barney Fife?”
“I hope it works, Leia,” said Sheriff Henderson, a tall, weathered man under a beat-up cowboy hat. “We could use some rain.
“We stopped at your camp, and when you weren’t there, we thought you might be working on the plot. We came by to give you a heads up about some trouble that’s cropped up in the county. Same as last year: missing deer stands; a couple of break-ins at camps over on Redwine Road, some missing ATVs and some poaching. Fred Hastings, the game warden, has located carcasses of two big-bodied bucks some skunk shot, probably at night. Keep your eyes and ears open, and let us know if you hear anything.”
The deputy’s cell phone rang, and he stepped away to answer the call, then he returned.
“That’s a shore-enough fine buck mount you got hanging in your cabin,” said the deputy. “Did you kill it on this here property?”
“No,” said Hamp. “I killed that buck over on the Flint River about 25 years ago. That’s my best buck ever. The rack netted right at 160 Boone and Crockett.”
“A fine buck anywhere,” the deputy said. “Ain’t you and your brother the only ones hunting this big ol’ tract?”
“My granddaughter Leia is hunting with us, too,” said Hamp.
“Oh, well, her, too,” he said, with a tone that said girls had no business hunting deer. “Well, anyway, just wondered. I’ve got a friend and his 17-year-old son who need new land to hunt. On a place like this, with a big buck on it, he’d pay a thousand dollars to hunt.”
The amount was what Hamp needed to cover the property tax bill.
“Tell him to give me a call,” he said.
Leia glowered at the deputy.
“How does he know there’s a big buck on this land?” she thought.
• • • • • • • • •
Promptly at 9 a.m. the following Saturday, a shiny black Escalade wheeled into the hunt camp and skidded to a stop. A middle-aged man stepped out from the driver-side door. He wore designer blue jeans, a khaki shirt with camouflage shoulder patches and a buckskin vest, flapping unzipped over his round, low-slung belly.
“H’low,” he said, stepping forward hand outstretched toward Hamp.
“I’m George Gentry. You must be Hampton,” he said.
“Just ‘Hamp’ will do.”
A teenage boy sat slouched in the passenger seat, busily tapping keys on a smartphone. At his father’s urging, he reluctantly slid out of the vehicle, still rapidly clicking keys. The boy was tall, athletically built and handsome under a shock of dark, curly hair.
“Meet my son, Brent,” said George. “He’s an excellent deer hunter.”
The boy paused in his texting to glance over the smartphone and nod at Hamp. He smirked at Leia, then rapidly continued keying as if making a comment about her appearance to someone out in etherspace.
“Arrogant creep,” thought Leia.
“We are really looking forward to hunting here,” said George. “There is supposed to be an outstanding 12-pointer in the area.”
“How does he know that?” Leia thought.
“Can we hunt over bait?” Brent asked.
“Not here,” said Hamp. “It’s legal farther south, but not here.”
“Too bad,” the boy sniffed. “Last year I killed a 10-pointer over corn. One shot from 25 yards.”
“I’ll bring our trailer the weekend before archery season, and we’ll park it right over there,” said George. “Then I’ll put up a map board, so we can keep up with where everyone is hunting.”
After a few minutes of small talk, Brent and his dad departed.
Hamp and Leia stood and watched the Escalade disappear down the woods road. Leia turned to her grandpa.
“The boy’s a troll,” she said.
• • • • • • • • •
Late on a sunny, Wednesday afternoon, Leia and Hamp drove to the hunt camp to inspect her food plot. They walked the lower field edge, leaving deep prints in the damp soil. Fortunate timing of late-summer thunderstorms had resulted in excellent germination, and a thick and varied stand of green shoots had burst through the dark soil.
Hamp stopped to point out a set of outsized deer prints leading across the plot. The long prints, driven deeply into the soil by a heavy buck reminded him of elk tracks he had seen in the snow of Colorado, and he whistled.
“Look at the size of these tracks!” he said to Leia. “Looks like your Bullwinkle Buck is still using our property.”
His granddaughter glanced at the plots then scowled.
“He’s stomping down the plants!” she said.
Radar had been left at home expressly to prevent dog tracks on the tender shoots of her plot.
“The plot will be fine,” Hamp reassured her. “And when the tracks are that big, it’s a great problem to have. I bet he left the tracks after dark. A big buck like that doesn’t usually come out into the open during daylight—and it looks like he was in a hurry.”
He continued along the plot edge, then stopped again and knelt to examine something else.
“More big prints,” he said. “Not so good this time: boot prints.”
The boot prints, comparable to Hamp’s size 11s, followed the lower field edge before disappearing into the woods.
“Who could it be?” said Leia.
“Don’t know, Honey,” he said. “Shouldn’t be anyone in here.”
“Well, that’s evidence of trespassing then, isn’t it?” said Leia.
She pulled out her cell phone and took several careful photos of a clear track.
Hamp followed the boot tracks along the food-plot edge, and then he bent forward and picked up something shiny.
“Wish I hadn’t found this,” he said.
In his hand was a spent .308 casing.
• • • • • • • • •
As Hamp had guessed, the 12-point buck Leia had named Bullwinkle had crossed the food plot at midnight a little more than 12 hours before Leia and Hamp inspected its tracks. Hamp was also correct that it had been in a hurry—to escape.
That the deer had survived five deer seasons was tribute to both luck and its instinct for survival. The night before had been yet another close call. Buried into the bark of a pine tree where the buck’s tracks left the upper side of the food plot was a .308 slug. The bullet had been fired the night before just after midnight. Fired from the bottom end of the plot at a distance of nearly 300 yards, the offhand shot, aided by a night-vision scope, had whistled past the buck 2 inches above its back as it stopped to check its back track.
• • • • • • • • •
A half hour after sunset, Hamp was locking the gate on the road to the cabin as he and Leia headed back to town. Leia stepped out of the truck to help him swing the double gates shut. As Hamp threaded the chain around the gates, a thin wailing cry rose from the woods on the Varner property. The desperate scream made the hair on the back of Hamp’s neck stand straight up and goosebumps dimpled his skin.
“What was that?” whispered Leia, her eyes wide in the glow from her flashlight.
“Must have been a bobcat screaming,” said Hamp calmly, hiding his unease. “They will do that sometimes.”
Over the years, he had heard several bobcats scream but never one that wailed like that—full of wrath and desperation.
“To me, it sounded like a woman screaming,” said Leia.
Hamp said nothing as they climbed back into his truck, pulled out onto the hardtop county road and accelerated. The headlights illuminated a narrow swath of highway ahead of the truck.
He glanced toward Leia, who with the light of her flashlight was marking the location of the big-buck tracks on their map of the hunt property.
Leia glanced up.
“Grandpa! Look out!” she screamed.
Hamp instinctively went for the brake pedal as he turned back to the road to see a deer coming out of planted pines on Leia’s side and onto pavement directly in the path of his truck.
In that instant, Hamp’s eyes registered the sight of a buck so big it looked like a stretched cow with outlandishly large antlers on its head. The buck was close—far too close. Hamp could clearly see the white of its eye as the buck looked toward the truck headlights hurtling toward it—only a few yards away.
Hamp’s stomach flipped as he realized he was too close, going too fast, and there was nothing he could do to avoid hitting the deer—and hitting a buck so large was going to cause severe damage.
“Please, please, Lord,” he prayed in an instant. “Don’t let Leia be hurt.”
Hamp gripped the steering wheel tightly and braced himself for impact. The truck tires began to squeal as the brakes locked down.
“Hang on, Leia,” he choked. “We’re gonna hit…”
• • • • • • • • •
A man dressed entirely in black down to the black shoelaces in his black boots disgustedly tossed his .308 onto the seat of his vehicle.
“That buck has more lives than a cat,” he muttered.
For the second night in a row, he had missed a shot at the big 12-pointer. He had correctly anticipated the buck would come after dark to the lush alfalfa field where his vehicle was parked.
“Dern night-vision scope must be off,” he said.
The shot had been long, 275 yards according to his rangefinder, but he had killed many bucks at night at that distance and more. And he had a steady rest, shooting from the driver’s side window. The buck had been nervous, possibly it jumped just as he fired. He couldn’t be sure. Had he flinched at the sight of such a large-racked buck? Never!
At the blast from his .308, the buck had streaked from the field heading through a narrow strip of young planted pines running wide-open toward the hard-topped county road.
Just then, the man heard the sound of skidding tires.
• • • • • • • • •
Hamp stood on the brake pedal, and the truck began to drift diagonally off the road as it skidded unevenly. From the corner of his eye, he was aware of Leia leaning backward in the seat, her arms over her face to shield her from the windshield. Then another thought flashed through his head: There had been no impact. “Where is the buck?”
Hamp let off the brakes and cut the wheel to correct the skid. The old truck careened and bumped to the side of the road and stopped suddenly, spraying gravel into the ditch.
“Are you okay?” he said, turning to Leia.
The girl was too frightened to speak at first, but she nodded her head, then: “Grandpa, did… did you see how BIG those antlers were?”
Hamp hugged his granddaughter and laughed as a flood of relief flowed through him. He still could not account for what had happened to the buck they were certain to hit.
“I saw it,” said Leia. “It jumped. It went up.”
As they had skidded, Hamp had been distantly aware of an odd noise on top of the cab. He and Leia climbed unsteadily out of the truck, stepped up into the bed where he shone his flashlight on the roof of the cab. From the top of the windshield diagonally to the back of the cab were two sets of slashes in the red-clay haze of dust where the buck’s back hooves had slid across the top of the truck. The buck had escaped by leaping and all but clearing the truck as the vehicle passed beneath it.
• • • • • • • • •
November 20, 1864 between Hillsboro and Milledgeville:
Jeremy threw aside his screen of pine boughs and jumped to his feet. He lowered the hammer of his muzzleloader then swung his backpack over one shoulder. The unmistakable chopped thunder of musketfire seemed to be sweeping in like a fast-moving storm. Jeremy took a dozen steps, stepped past a huge white oak tree and jumped and slid 10 feet into a dry creekbed. He ran 100 yards following the narrow, high walls of the twisting creek then splashed knee deep through a larger creek—years later to be named Shinbone Creek—before scrambling up a steep deer trail cut into the red-clay bank. Just as he topped the bank into a narrow thicket of river cane, he failed to notice a fine, gold chain around his neck as it snagged a branch, the clasp opened and the chain fell. He emerged, breathing hard, from the river cane onto a little-used road. The sound of gunfire was closing in on him.
Fifty yards away, the road curved along the creek and from that direction two men, ragged Confederate soldiers dressed in gray sprinted into view. The soldiers, wild-eyed with terror, raced past Jeremy, giving him only a glance.
“RUN BOY!” one of the soldiers shouted.
“They think I’m one of them!” thought Jeremy.
Other gray-clad men were streaming through the woods on the hillside above the road. Jeremy watched as one man stopped, raised his rifle and fired in the direction he had just left—a long plume of white smoke leaping from the gun barrel.
At first, the boy was petrified with fear. He was being swept up into a battle, but he could not believe it. Surely he was not—could not be—part of this. He was only hunting deer!
Then, in seeming slow motion, calvary horsemen rounded the bend in the road. The line of riders, four abreast, with dozens more charging forward behind them, wore long blue coats. In their hands, Jeremy saw the flash of silver sabers or revolvers. Long dark beards covered their faces, and black hair streamed from beneath broad-rimmed hats making the whites of their wide eyes stand out—as full of evil as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Spotting Jeremy in the road, the men spurred their horses, yelling, pointing at him, and the horses nickered and squealed as their hooves chewed up the ground.
Aware of his plight, Jeremy turned to run, his ears filled with the sounds of men yelling, guns firing, the smell of black powder and the thunder of pounding horse hooves.
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