The Mentor Of Blues Bog
For 15-year-old deer hunter Dillon Craft, the monster buck roaming Blues Bog offers a chance at redemption, but he’ll need more than luck.
Thanksgiving Day morning nine months earlier:
Dillon Craft thought his heart was going to pound right through the front of his hunting jacket. Fifty yards from where he sat nervously in his deer stand, a monster buck was thrashing a decent 8-pointer. Dillon could see only flashes of brown deer hide through the trees and brush, but he could hear plenty: crashing limbs and the crack and clash of antlers. The smaller buck had just gone completely down, bulldozed under the 10-point rack of the larger buck—Dillon’s buck—a buck Dillon had hunted all season. All he needed now was a clear shot.
A buck burst into view, running directly toward Dillon’s stand. The deer was the smaller buck escaping the fight. Long red furrows torn into its neck by the 10-pointer’s antlers were visible, and its tongue hung from the side of its mouth as it limped away. Behind the 8-pointer, the 10-pointer charged into view, then stopped in a gap between two tree trunks. Dillon’s lever-action .30-30, already to his shoulder and propped on his knees, smoothly adjusted toward the buck, the crosshairs settling on the buck. Then he hesitated. A single branch the size of a baseball bat partially blocked his view of the buck’s shoulder. In that half-second of indecision, the buck seemed to realize it was vulnerable, and it was gone like smoke in the wind.
“Dang, dang, dang!” Dillon thought, hoping against hope that the dream buck would somehow reappear. “I should’a shot. You don’t see a buck that big very often.”
As disappointed as Dillon had been, he was destined to see the 10-pointer again, and soon.
• • • • • • • •
Dillon was a tall, lanky 15-year-old with tanned arms from working the family farm with his father, Chandler. His tousled brown hair spilled from beneath a well-worn Purina Feeds cap. Faded blue jeans and a T-shirt was his usual attire—if he wasn’t wearing his hunting camos. He was a fair student at the county high school, but he was an excellent student of anything having to do with hunting or fishing. For a boy captivated by the outdoors, he could hardly have been born in a better situation than living on a south Georgia farm.
The 480-acre Craft farm lay two miles from the Flint River. The property had been farmed by the Craft family since the end of the Civil War, and they grew soybeans, corn, cotton and cows.
The property was a deep rectangle, the high ground at one end fronting on a county highway; the back side ending against an extensive swamp called Blues Bog, a nearly impenetrable jungle of vegetation criss-crossed by a maze of sloughs and sluggish black-water creeks that extended to the Flint River. A favorite topic around hunt campfires in the area was stories of the ghosts and ghouls that roamed the Bog on moonless nights.
Just off the county highway at the center of a pecan orchard stood the Craft’s two-story, white clapboard farmhouse where Dillon lived with his father and mother and his pesky tomboy sister, 14-year-old Maggie. “Maggot,” Dillon sometimes called her when his parents were out of earshot.
The Craft farm was a patchwork of agricultural fields, pastures and hay fields bordered and separated by overgrown fence lines and strips of hardwoods and towering pines along the creek drains. The diverse mix of agriculture adjacent to the sanctuary provided by the Bog made the property prime hunting land. Dillon had grown up hunting, and while he had killed a dozen deer, he had yet to take a real wallhanger. Taking a dream buck had become the teenager’s passion, but if there was a thorn in his big-antlered, buck-hunting aspirations, it was that the Craft farm shared a long property line with the O’Neal family farm next door and with Clark O’Neal, a 16-year-old deer hunter and Dillon’s classmate.
Only two days after his missed opportunity on Thanksgiving a year earlier, Dillon had seen the 10-pointer again. The rack was indeed magnificent, all 10 tines long and polished in symmetrical rows on thick beams. The rack was the biggest Dillon had ever seen gracing a buck’s head, but he bit his lip and frowned as he looked at the buck. Too bad it was lying in the back of Clark O’Neal’s pickup parked to the side of Hobb’s Gun Shop. A dozen envious men and boys crowded around the tailgate admiring the buck.
“That was my buck,” Dillon thought sullenly.
The boy had first seen the 10-pointer in a soybean field in August. He had hunted it throughout archery season and in gun season up until Thanksgiving Day. This wasn’t fair, he thought, the buck was supposed to be his!
“If only… if only,” he thought, mourning his lost hunting chance on Thanksgiving. “Why didn’t I pull the trigger?”
Now, Clark O’Neal, Dillon’s classmate, the football team quarterback, the kid with a brand-new truck, a brand-new deer rifle, but little hunting sense, was glowing with pride and exaggerated hunting prowess as he recounted a lame hunt story.
Dillon had seen enough. He spun on his heel to leave and in turning ran smack into his father, Chandler.
“What?” his father said, “You ain’t going to congratulate Clark on his buck?”
Dillon looked down at his boots.
“I thought that was going to be my buck,” he mumbled. “I almost had it. I don’t know how that clown Clark could ever have killed it.”
“You figure that buck belonged to you just because you’d seen it?” said his dad. “Seems like Clark had as much right to hunt that buck as your-gloomy-self. And far as I know, Clark killed that buck fair and square.”
It had been a bitter pill to swallow that his neighbor had succeeded in killing such a great buck—especially after Dillon had blown his golden opportunity.
Dillon shook his head to end his hunting nightmare of the previous season. Now it was August, the temperature was 91 degrees, and deer hunting seemed far away as he circled a hay field in the Massey Ferguson pulling a tedder to fluff cut hay. Dillon turned the tractor to make another round of the field, slinging hay on his down-slope route toward the Bog, when movement along the field edge caught his eye. There, a hundred yards away, was a coyote. The charcoal-colored coyote was attempting to run, but was hampered by the spotted deer fawn it was dragging by the throat. The limp body of the large fawn extended between the coyote’s legs and interfered with its ability to run.
Dillon hit the brakes and the clutch, and kicked the tractor door open as he grabbed his .30-30 laying in an open case behind the seat. He jacked a round into the chamber as he brought the gun up and put the crosshairs on the coyote’s shoulder. At the sound of the gunshot, the coyote stopped, the limp fawn still clenched firmly in its jaws, gold-colored eyes staring toward the tractor. The shot had missed. Dillon worked the lever to jack another shell into the chamber, but when he looked up the coyote and the fawn it had killed had disappeared into the woods.
• • • • • • • •
“Dern gun,” Dillon complained to his father that evening. “I was dead on that coyote, but I missed.”
His dad grinned. “Yeah, probably was the gun’s fault, all right. How much have you practiced shooting?”
Dillon grudgingly admitted it hadn’t been much; shells were too expensive.
“Here,” his dad said, pulling a $20-dollar bill from his wallet. “Go to Hobb’s tomorrow and buy some .30-30 shells. But there’s a catch: I want you to take your sister Maggie out and let her shoot that gun. She’s got an itch to hunt, too, and you’re going to be her guide because I’m going to be tied up with the harvest.”
Dillon opened his mouth to protest, but his father put his hand up to stop him.
“Maggie wants to learn to hunt; she passed the hunter-education program; and you’re going to be the one to help teach her. Understood?”
Dillon nodded; there was no use arguing with his dad, but his heart sank to his knees. How was he ever going to hunt while dragging a sister-anchor through the woods?
• • • • • • • •
Deep in Blues Bog, two bucks moved quietly though the early morning fog tracing the edge of a deep, black-water creek. The lead deer was a 1 1/2-year-old forkhorn, the rack’s tines as thin as pencils. The second buck, trailing the first by 10 yards, was so much larger than the forkhorn that it appeared to be a different species. The mature buck outweighed the forkhorn by 150 pounds, and its massive, 13-point rack dwarfed the tiny 4-pointer it was following. The smaller buck was the unwitting satellite to buffer the bigger buck from danger, a service it was about to be required to fulfill.
Close by, dark, unblinking eyes were watching.
The forkhorn stopped ankle deep in the water at the edge of the creek and lowered its head to clip leaves from a vine. It never knew what hit it.
The deeper water in the creek channel suddenly seemed to bow up, pushed by some unseen force arising from below—then the long dark form of a alligator rocketed from the water, long jaws gaping, as it surged upward in a fountain of water toward the unsuspecting forkhorn. The tooth-studded jaws snapped shut around the buck’s belly, and in a blur of motion, the gator jerked backward and rolled, savagely flipping the deer off its feet and wrenching it into the water. The gator submerged, and after a set of thrashing ripples created by the brief struggle below, the water became as black and still as motor oil.
The 13-pointer had jumped 20 feet sideways when the gator attacked. Now it stood silently watching the creek. For long minutes, the buck stared, then it turned and continued upstream, heading toward the Craft Farm.
From across the creek, another set of eyes had witnessed the ambush.
The old man standing against a tree trunk was dressed in a brown jacket and worn brown pants. He wore a faded plaid shirt, under wide suspenders. Both a gray beard and graying hair flowing nearly to shoulder length framed a deeply wrinkled face. On his head was a broad-brimmed canvas hat. Over one shoulder he carried an aging, heavy-barreled muzzleloader; over the other shoulder was a small knapsack. In contrast to his rough appearance, his wide-set eyes were soft, thoughtful brown, watching the creek through round glasses perched on his nose.
“What a gator,” he said quietly to himself. “Big as ol’ Smaug.”
Then the hermit named Phineas moved silently into the gloom of the Bog.
• • • • • • • •
The next afternoon, Dillon was back on the tractor pulling a hay rake, wind-rowing the cured hay for his father to round-bale. In the lower end of the field, 50 yards from the treeline, was a shallow pond. A wide buffer around the 2-acre pond had been allowed to grow up thick and tall as cover for hunting wood ducks that used the pond in the winter. As Dillon drove the tractor closer, he was not surprised to spot a tan cow standing in the head-high Johnson grass bordering the pond looking over its shoulder toward the tractor. Then he did a double take: that wasn’t a cow at all, but a cow-sized buck gazing back at him. Many times Dillon had seen deer that were unafraid of a tractor working in a field, but never had a buck as large as this one let his tractor approach.
Dillon threw the tractor out of gear and grabbed his binoculars. As the buck came into focus, his jaw dropped. No buck could be this big, he thought. The buck’s body was thick and heavy; its face long and gray giving it the look of an exceptionally old, mature deer, but it was the rack that made the buck spectacular. Long tines arose from stout beams that curved upward and out well beyond the buck’s ears. Dillon counted 13 points, including a split brow tine and an unusual crooked tine. The deer finally turned away and sprinted along the weed-lined drainage ditch that led from the pond into Blues Bog.
The buck was gone, but Dillon could still picture the rack perfectly. This buck’s rack was far bigger than the 10-pointer he had seen the previous Thanksgiving. He stared at the place where the buck had disappeared in disbelief, then put the tractor in gear and resumed his hay raking. The sighting, however, had changed his deer-hunting world: now he had a dream buck to hunt—and a chance for redemption.
• • • • • • • •
A week later, late in the afternoon, Dillon and his little sister Maggie sat side-by-side in camp chairs in a small shooting house overlooking a cut corn field that sloped off to the edge of Blues Bog. The field had been ravaged regularly by hogs that foraged out of the Bog, and the field edge was cratered with wallows much as if it had been bombed. Maggie hoped to kill her first hog, and she clenched Dillon’s .30-30 in her hands as she watched the field edge.
Maggie was a slip of a girl, too, thin, her mother lamented, because she was active from sunup to sundown. Her long, straight brown hair poured from under her Carhartt cap and cascaded below her shoulders, surrounding deep brown eyes set in a pretty face. The boys in her class thought she was awesome, but she had no time for them. She’d rather be rambling around the farm on her horse, helping her dad with the cows or learning how to operate a hay cutter. Now, like everything she did, she was going all out to learn how to hunt.
Dillon had to admit that Maggie had shot the .30-30 extremely well. Although he would never say so, the truth was that she was steadier with the rifle than he was, punching tight three-shot groups through a bull’s-eye at a hundred yards.
The field edge was almost a sure thing for seeing hogs, and just before sunset, right on time, the distant squealing began as unseen pigs approached the field from the Bog.
“Ok,” Dillon whispered. “Wait for a good shot—and don’t shoot until I tell you to.”
Maggie was fairly trembling with excitement, but she glared up at her brother and stuck out her tongue.
“I’ll shoot when I want to,” she hissed.
Dillon glared back, “Well pick a big one.”
“I will,” she whispered. “A Boss Hog,” and she giggled nervously.
The first of the squealing pigs to emerge from the underbrush 80 yards away were black-and-white spotted piglets. Next, an 80-lb. russet-colored sow snuffled out, followed by a half dozen other medium-sized pigs. The last hog to show was bigger—a black boar that weighed 150 pounds.
“There’s the one!” Dillon whispered.
“I know, I know,” said Maggie breathlessly. She hunched over the rifle, the gun’s fore-end resting on the window frame as she tracked the boar through the scope. The boar moved along the field edge, stopping and starting.
“Are you going to shoot any time this afternoon?” Dillon whispered.
“Sssshh,” she said. “He won’t hold still.”
Finally the boar stopped, full broadside. Dillon held his breath. For long, agonizing seconds nothing happened, then the .30-30 fired, and a dried mud clump on the boar’s bristle-covered shoulder vaporized into dust as the round smacked the pig. The boar immediately bolted into the underbrush, accompanied by a dozen other squealing pigs.
Maggie opened the action of the rifle, then sat back, eyes wide, as she blew out a long breath.
“Did I hit him?”
“You did,” said Dillon, giving her a fist-bump.
A few minutes later they were inspecting the soft turf where the boar had been standing. At the edge of the field they found a gleaming spot of blood. Dillon gulped inwardly, he was not eager to blood trail a wounded boar into Blues Bog, but the sun was just sliding below the trees, so they still had decent light to check a little farther. With the .30-30 slung over Maggie’s shoulder, they pushed into the Bog, bending low to follow a well-trampled hog trail that tunneled under the overhanging vegetation. The blood trail continued on top of the hog path, and they found red splatters regularly as they pushed their way deeper and deeper into the swamp.
“Over there,” Maggie said, pointing ahead as they neared the first standing water.
Dillon shouldered though a curtain of privet, and there in an unusual grassy opening lay the boar at the edge of a black-water creek. The hog had collapsed on its belly and was lying in some sort of slide from the bank into the water made by a large, heavy animal. The boar’s snout almost touched the surface of the water, and blood dripped into the coffee-colored water. Dillon stepped aside to let Maggie approach her boar, the .30-30 ready. She crept quietly up to the pig, poked it with the gun barrel, then turned toward Dillon grinning excitedly.
“My first wild hog!” she said, arms raised in triumph.
At that moment, the water behind her erupted in a white froth as the biggest alligator Dillon had ever seen exploded out of the dark water like a torpedo heading straight for Maggie. The gator slammed her in the legs from behind, knocking her face-first to the ground, the rifle thrown into tall grass. Maggie’s shrill scream split the air as the gator clawed onto the bank, turned its snout sideways and bit down on one of her lace-up hunting boots. The gator then began to slide backward into the creek, pulling the girl’s leg. Maggie grabbed a sapling tree trunk gripping it with both hands as she kicked the gator’s nose with her other foot. The impassive reptile continued to slide backward, it’s lumpy green back disappearing into the murky water as the small tree slipped through Maggie’s hands.
Dillon scrambled for the .30-30, but he was so frightened he could hardly think. On his hands and knees, he pawed frantically left and right through the tall grass, groping for the rifle.
“DILLON!” Maggie screamed. “DO SOMETHING!”
At last, Dillon’s fingers touched the gun stock. He grabbed the gun— and fumbled it, the slick stock slipping through his fingers—then he grabbed it again. He cocked the hammer as he stood and brought the rifle to his shoulder, pointing over the top of the scope at a point just behind the gator’s bulging eyes. Only the gator’s head remained above the water; and in seconds his sister would be pulled under.
Maggie’s screams filled his head.
Dillon pulled the trigger.
With a loud “CLICK” the hammer fell on an empty chamber.
In her excitement over shooting the hog, Maggie had not loaded
another round, and the magazine was empty.
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