Mentor Of Blues Bog, Final Chapter
The conclusion of Dillon’s hunt for the giant 13-pointer. What finally happens to Phineas...
Maggie ran as fast as she could, her hair streaming behind her head, her anger driving her feet as she sprinted across the pasture heading for the tree line. It’s not fair! she thought. She and her brother Dillon hunted legally, but now someone trespassing had shot Dillon’s 13-pointer. Another shot of angry adrenaline spurred her on.
“Maggie! No!” she could hear Dillon yelling trying to stop her, but she would not. Whoever the poacher was, he needed to be caught.
She reached the treeline but saw no one. Then she glimpsed someone in camos running away far into the woods. She ran 50 yards in that direction until her right foot dropped into a stump hole and sent her sprawling to the ground. She was picking herself up when Dillon arrived.
“The coward got away,” she said angrily.
“Good thing you didn’t catch him,” said Dillon. “You’d have probably punched him out.”
“I’d like to.”
Once again, Dillon’s buck had been taken from him.
“Well, let’s go see the buck,” he said dejectedly.
The teenagers walked without speaking down the pasture past the duck pond and across the corner of the lower pasture where the buck had run. Finally, they reached the trees and ducked under the barbed-wire fence at the spot where the buck had fallen. The ground was scuffed up where the deer had rolled, but there was no deer.
“That’s impossible!” said Dillon. “I saw him go down.”
“Me, too,” said Maggie. “I know he fell.”
The teenagers could find no evidence that the buck had been hit. Then Dillon noticed a coiled strand of barbed wire hanging where the fence was stapled to a tree trunk. Two strands remained stapled tautly between two trees, but the third and lowest strand was broken.
“Here’s the other end,” said Maggie, showing Dillon a short piece of barbed-wire coiled against the next tree. “I bet I know what happened: that buck was running low to the ground and tried to dive under the fence in that low spot instead of jumping. But his antlers are so big they caught the bottom wire. The wire held long enough to snap his head back, and he fell—so it looked like he was shot, but he wasn’t.”
• • • • • • • •
For the following two weeks, the 13-pointer wasn’t seen, nor were its tracks found. Dillon resigned himself to the fact that the deer might have left Blues Bog. Phineas had returned to the top of the field above the duck pond and located four .308 casings, which he saved. A week after the night-hunting incident, Chandler ran into Clark O’Neal’s father in town and told him about the trespassing hunter. Clark’s father said Clark hunted with a bolt-action .270, not an autoloading rifle and not a .308. Clark, Dillon’s prime suspect, seemed to have been cleared.
With a certain sense of urgency, Phineas encouraged Maggie and Dillon to go with him to scout in the Bog, and for three hours one afternoon the trio rambled though the swamp.
“Warm enough for gators and snakes,” said Phineas, mopping his forehead.
They followed the main creek channel in the swamp until it converged with a second creek. As Phineas had predicted, the area was a complete tangle of downed timber, interlaced vines and cane, and it was so thick it was difficult to penetrate. The scouting was worth it, however. As they pushed out on the narrow peninsula between the creeks, they found a series of old rubbed trees. A row of large trees had been polished until they gleamed, and the rubs extended high above the ground. There were also a number of old scrapes, now unused and filled with leaves.
“Looks like the 13-pointer’s home place,” said Phineas. “Too bad we didn’t find it a month ago.”
Fifty yards farther along, they came to a massive, ancient sycamore tree that had been blown over by the tornado. Maggie walked right up the side of the inclined trunk to the first limbs and sat down.
“We could hunt right here,” she said. “It’s in the right spot.”
“It’s too late to be dragging stands in here, and too thick to hunt on the ground,” said Phineas. “I reckon it’d be worth a try.”
“What’s this?” said Maggie. She indicated a rusted metal spike protruding from the side of the downed tree trunk. There were a series of them.
“Well, I’ll be…” said Phineas, removing his hat to push his hair out of his eyes. “That must be the tree your Grandpa Olin hunted from. He said he hunted from a sycamore so big he needed spikes to climb it.”
Maggie walked down the tree trunk, then jumped to the ground.
“Hey, look at this!” she called.
There in the soft mud in a well-used deer-and-hog trail was a magnum-sized deer track—a fresh print. A track so big it could have been made only by the 13-pointer.
Phineas seemed as excited about the find as the teenagers.
“This place is looking a mite better,” he grinned.
They quickly left the area by following the game trail which soon opened up into the bottom of the Craft’s big pasture. Far to the left they could see the grown-up duck pond. Two hundred yards to the right, the tree-covered fence-line funnel where Maggie shot her buck extended across the pasture. Through her binoculars, Maggie could see their double-seat stand half-way up the border of trees that separated the fields. They walked in that direction, and soon arrived at the base of the ladder stand. Maggie was about to climb up to the stand, when Phineas grabbed her elbow.
“Wait,” he said, stepping forward to inspect the ladder. Tied across the gap between the second and third rungs was a tiny brown thread.
“Someone wants to know if you’ve been using this stand,” said Phineas. “If the thread is broken, they know you’ve climbed up so he knows if and when you’re using the stand. Might be he figures if you hunt for the buck in Blues Bog, this is the buck’s best escape route—which it is. Evidently, the skunk is still on the prowl.”
Phineas turned to head toward his cabin.
“Wait a minute,” said Maggie. “What do you think a buck can remember? Do you think that big buck remembers what we smell like?”
“Could be…” said Dillon.
“You might try puttin’ your hunting clothes in a bag with pine boughs,” said Phineas. “Couldn’t hurt.”
Dillon had other ideas. He was remembering the map Grandpa Olin had drawn, noting the long trail deeper in Blues Bog that connected to the fence-line funnel where they stood.
“There’s something else we could try, too.”
• • • • • • • •
Maggie and Dillon hunted from the leaning sycamore tree in Blues Bog the following Saturday. On their way in, Dillon wanted to make a side-trip to the point where the fence-line funnel intersected with the bog. Maggie waited for him in the pasture as he left with a sealed plastic bag. He returned a few minutes later but would not tell her what he had done.
“It’s too crazy,” he said.
They crept into Blues Bog on the game trail leaving behind only rubber boot tracks and the aroma of pine boughs. An hour before daylight they were perched in the sycamore 15 feet above the ground waiting.
“What will the story of today’s hunt be?” Dillon thought.
The half moon cast dim shadows over half-visible dark shapes below. A half-dozen hogs skittered past, squealing in dark.
“This swamp is creepy,” Maggie thought. Then they heard footfalls crunching in the brush nearby, but it was too dark to see what was passing by.
“Probably a deer,” Dillon whispered.
“Or a three-headed zombie,” Maggie whispered back, stiffling a giggle.
Dillon smiled. He had to admit he had been wrong about Maggie. She was fun to have along hunting.
Daylight was slow reaching into Blues Bog, and when they could finally see details, what they saw was a sea of green leaves and vines criss-crossed with tree trunks and branches. Only in rare gaps was the ground visible at all, and Dillon’s heart sank when he saw how few openings where he might be able to shoot.
The first deer didn’t arrive until mid morning when the sun was high overhead. A spike and two does meandered toward the sycamore picking their way through the cluttered understory. Then Dillon and Maggie both flinched at the sound of sudden loud grunting, the 13-pointer announcing his presence to the does.
“Over there,” Maggie whispered, pointing. She could hear footfalls in the dry leaves but couldn’t see the deer.
Dillon stared into the vegetation until his eyes began to burn. Then a twig cracked, and he focused on movement in a privet hedge. He spotted antlers. Lots of antlers, and the glimpse of a deer’s ear. Then a flash of brown, 50 yards away. But try as he might, he could see nothing through his scope, not even a silhouette of the buck stalking the does.
It was a doe that was their undoing.
“Dillon, look…” whispered Maggie. Immediately below the tree, a doe emerged from the understory. She looked at the big tree trunk, and the deer’s eyes followed the trunk up to where Maggie and Dillon sat. The doe jumped in place when it saw the two teenagers perched on the tree then blew as it turned and ran. Forty yards away, Dillon saw the 13-pointer flash through a gap, but there was no chance for a shot.
The deer crashed off to the left following the longer trail that looped into the swamp then toward the fence-line funnel tree line.
“Come on,” said Dillon, “We need to move! The buck wasn’t that alarmed, and he doesn’t know why the doe was blowing.”
He slid down the inclined tree trunk and jumped to the ground. Maggie was in his shadow as he hurried down the twisting hog path toward the Craft’s pasture.
“There’s still a chance,” Dillon thought, but they had to get to the pasture quickly.
Dillon hurried around the next twist in the hog trail, coming to an open spot with a blaze of sunlight hitting in the ground. Stretched across that warm sunlight lay a snake as thick as Dillon’s arm, the diamond-shaped pattern on its body gleaming in the sun. Dillon plowed his heels into the dirt and threw himself backward so fast that he fell down, and Maggie all but fell on top of him.
“Ssssnake!” was all Dillon could choke out.
The brush on both sides of the trail was too thick to easily get around the snake, and they didn’t have time to spare.
Maggie, however, was already moving. She backtracked only a few feet and found a long dead limb that she used to push the lethargic snake off the trail.
“That one was venomous,” Maggie whispered. “Let’s go!”
In two minutes more the trees thinned out, and they arrived at the edge of the pasture. They both peered out from behind trees, scanning the field edge toward the fence-line funnel 200 yards away.
“Don’t we need to get closer?” said Maggie.
“Look,” said Dillon,“there’s someone in our stand!”
“If the buck goes that way, he’ll shoot it,” said Maggie.
“Maybe not,” said Dillon. “Here comes the buck…”
Through their binoculars they watched the 13-pointer just inside the Bog, following the trail that would lead up the strip of woods to the spot where someone waited in their ladder stand. The buck was moving at a fast walk, the huge rack gliding over his head
“Come on, come on!” Dillon whispered nervously. “Right about now!”
As he spoke, the buck spooked badly. The deer seemed to rise off the ground until it was almost upright on its back legs before springing to the side and running—but away from where Dillon and Maggie waited.
“He’s gone,” said Maggie.
“Maybe not,” said Dillon, holding his breath.
In fifteen seconds the buck returned running their direction, following the trail that ran just inside the edge of the Bog. The 13-pointer was heading straight at them.
Even in the distance, the buck was magnificent, bounding down the trail, the incredible rack riding up and down as the buck jumped.
One-hundred and fifty yards… one hundred yards… still the buck came on.
“Let him come on in,” Maggie whispered. “Closer is better…”
Dillon was standing beside a big white oak, his rifle braced against the trunk.
Seventy-five yards… fifty yards.
When the buck was 40 yards away, it stopped abruptly and spun around on the trail to watch its backtrack as if uncertain about what had spooked it. The deer stood quartering away, completely unaware of Dillon and Maggie.
The crosshairs of the scope on Grandpa Olin’s rifle steadied just behind of the buck’s shoulder.
“A shot I can make,” thought Dillon as he squeezed trigger.
At the boom of the rifle, the buck sprang forward, cutting toward the pasture, but it was immediately stumbling sideways, and as it reached the edge of the pasture it toppled over.
Dillon turned to see Maggie doing a victory dance—her arms flailing the air, a big grin on her face.
“Yes!” she cried. “You got him!”
• • • • • • • •
A few minutes later, they were kneeling next to the big-bodied buck open mouthed in awe of the antlers. They were still enjoying the moment when they saw two men approaching down the pasture edge.
“Look what I caught,” said Phineas, as he walked up with Clark O’Neal in tow. “A sure-enough skunk I treed in y’alls deer stand.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” said Clark.
“Just trespassing and hoping to do lots more, I expect,” Phineas growled.
“What do you reckon is on the heel of his boot?” the old man asked. “Show them your boots, son.”
The boy turned the bottom of a boot toward Maggie and Dillon, showing the heel tread that formed a perfect “V.”
Phineas pulled his muzzleloader and another rifle from his shoulders.
“Turns out Clark here is trespassin’ and totin’ a .308 rifle. Imagine that!”
Maggie was livid with rage. She whipped her cellphone from her pocket and snapped a photo of Clark.
“You sneaky coward,” she fumed. “Just wait until I post this on Facebook!”
Phineas then produced two yellow balloons on strings from his backpack. Then with two fingers he extracted a boy’s high-school gym T-shirt.
“These yours?” he said to Dillon.
Dillon grinned from ear to ear.
“I can’t believe it worked,” he beamed. “Maggie said the buck might remember our scent. You said the buck might try to leave the Bog on the fence-line funnel trail. I thought if there was something on the trail that smelled like me, like that T-shirt, the buck wouldn’t go that way.”
“What about the balloons?” said Maggie.
“I went past the trail and hung them from the trees at the edge of the woods in case the deer spooked that way. I thought seeing the balloons might make him turn around.”
“That’s what happened,” said Phineas, shaking his head in disbelief. “I saw it. The buck just about turned inside out when it got a close-up whiff of your shirt. It was going out the other way on the trail that parallels the pasture until it spotted those balloons and it spooked back your way. A crazy plan, but it worked. And that is truly a fine buck. Your Grandpa Olin would be proud!”
Two trucks appeared at the upper end of the pasture. The first belonged to Chandler Craft, the second to the local game warden Tom Hall, who had been summoned by Phineas after Clark reluctantly gave him directions on how to use his iPhone.
Chandler pounded Dillon on the back and gave Maggie a squeeze when he saw the 13-pointer. “You got your buck,” he said.
“We got the buck,” Dillon replied. “Maggie and Phineas and me.”
“Wow! What a buck!” said the game warden as he stepped out of his truck.
“You must be Phineas,” said Tom.
“Yessir,” said Phineas. “And this feller Mr. Clark has some explaining to do.”
Phineas pulled a gleaming new iPhone from his pocket and handed it to the game warden. “If you can get a warrant for Mr. Clark’s phone, I think you’ll find some interestin’ huntin’ photos.”
For 15 minutes Chandler took photos of the buck. It took some pleading and persuasion, but the best photo of the lot turned out to be a photo of the buck with Maggie holding one side of the rack, Dillon holding the other and an uncomfortable-looking Phineas between them.
Finally they loaded the buck into the back of Chandler’s truck. Chandler rode out with the game warden and Clark, leaving the keys to his truck with Dillon.
For the next fifteen minutes the three of them sat on the tailgate in the shade of a water oak, admiring the spectacular buck, and Phineas listened to Dillon and Maggie excitedly laughing and talking, telling every last detail of the story of their successful hunt for the 13-pointer.
Epilogue: One day later:
Ranger Tom Hall called Chandler to say Clark’s father gave law-enforcement permission to search Clark’s iPhone. The device contained a video of Clark shooting an 11-pointer a year earlier at night from the driver’s side window of his pickup. A second person identified in the video was picked up by the ranger, and when faced with prosecution, the accomplice provided the details of their illegal hunting. He claimed Clark borrowed his .308 rifle and firearms experts later proved the empty casings found on the Craft property matched the rifle. Clark faces charges for hunting at night and from a vehicle for shooting the 11-pointer. The mount of the buck was confiscated. He also faces trespassing and hunting at night charges for hunting on the Craft property. Clark’s father imposed the first three consequence for his son’s behavior by taking the keys to Clark’s truck, locking his deer rifle away and swapping Clark’s iPhone for a flip-phone.
Two days later: Early in the morning Maggie went alone to Phineas’s cabin to deliver ham biscuits her mother had made. She wanted a chance to ask the old man a question that had been puzzling her.
“Why did you come back?” Maggie asked suddenly, sitting across the table from Phineas. “I think you knew that Dillon was going to get Grampa Olin’s rifle when he turned 16, didn’t you?
Phineas said nothing.
“You came back because of Dillon.”
Phineas leaned back in his chair, pulled his broad-rimmed hat off his head and began pulling the rim through his fingers, bending it back and forth.
“Your Grandpa Olin was my friend,” he said, finally, his voice a low rumble. “My only friend. Tore me up when he got bad sick. Olin told me what he was going to do with his rifle. Then just before he died, he made a last request of me that went far into the future.”
Phineas gave a long sigh, then continued. “It was hard, but I promised him I’d do it. ‘A friend’s last need is a thing to heed,’ as the old poem goes.”
“Grandpa Olin asked you to come back to teach Dillon about deer hunting,” said Maggie.
“Olin knew he wasn’t going to be here to hunt with his grandson. That was his life’s regret. He wanted to be sure Dillon was doing things right, so I was the next best thing—at least in Olin’s mind. It’s over now. I know Olin would’a been mighty proud of Dillon—and pleased with his granddaughter, too.”
Maggie got up and went to Phineas. Much to his chagrin, she threw her arms around his neck and gave the old man a tight hug and then a kiss on the cheek.
“I’m glad you came back,” she said.
Before she left, Maggie hung a framed photo on the cabin wall of the incredible 13-pointer with Dillon and Maggie and Phineas lined up behind the amazing rows of tines.
“It wasn’t just Dillon’s buck after all,” she said. “It was our buck, all three of us.”
Three days later: Maggie and Dillon returned to Phineas’s cabin, but as they approached, they knew something was amiss. The cabin was silent, and no smoke rose from the wood-stove chimney.
“He’s gone,” said Dillon before they even pushed the cabin door open.
Inside, the old man’s few belongings were gone. On the table sat Maggie’s 5-point rack mounted to a beautifully sculpted piece of weathered barn wood. A handwritten note read: ‘This big ol’ 5-pointer was taken by Maggie Craft, the finest little lady deer hunter I ever knew. Phineas.’
Maggie held her mounted rack in her hand, and as she read the note, a single tear trickled down her cheek.
“I can’t believe Phineas left without saying goodbye,” she said, her voice thin and cracking.
Dillon stood silently in the nearly empty room. Then he noticed that the photo of the 13-pointer and of he and his sister with Phineas was gone.
“Look,” said Dillon, putting his arm around his sister’s shoulder. “It’s gone. The picture of the three of us with the buck is gone. Phineas took us with him, Maggie. He’s gone, but he took our hunt story to keep.”
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