The Mentor Of Blues Bog Part 3
Maggie kills her first deer, while multiple shots at night have Dillon Craft worried his buck is dead.
The last thing Dillon remembered was a blast that sounded like a stick of dynamite exploding between his ears, and a white-hot flash of light that seemed to make the forest vanish in a bright haze. Then he was weightless and flying through the air; a brief flight abruptly halted by the end of his safety harness, and he rebounded back into the tree, slamming the side of the ladder stand hard. His bow pitched to the ground.
“Where is Maggie?” was his first thought.
In a daze, he could not see clearly, but he grabbed for the ladder and pulled himself onto it. The rubber pads he had placed between the stand and the tree smoldered, but they had apparently prevented the lightning from jumping directly to the stand. Then he saw his little sister hanging limply from her harness below the stand, apparently knocked off the top of the stand as he had been. Her hat was missing, and tangled strands of her long hair, littered with pine bark and pine needles, covered her face. She was not moving.
“Maggie,” Dillon shouted, “Maggie!” and he reached for her hand.
Maggie’s head suddenly jerked to the side, and she snatched her hand away from him.
“Don’t you touch me!” she hissed as she pulled the hair from her face. “I told you we should have climbed down. You wouldn’t listen!”
Her face was red, seething with anger and with fear.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Dillon blurted as Maggie struggled back onto the ladder. “Are you ok?”
“I’m just wonderful,” she snapped at him, spitting pine-bark fragments from her mouth. Then she coughed and her face twisted with emotion as she burst into tears. “We could have been killed,” she sobbed. “Just because you want to shoot that stupid buck.”
• • • • • • • •
The next day was Sunday and Dillon’s 16th birthday, but he didn’t think much about it. Money was tight on the Craft farm, and if things went as usual, his mother would cook a fried-chicken dinner and bake a cherry pie—his favorite—and he would probably receive a new shirt to wear to school. He was about to be surprised.
Mid-morning, after Dillon returned from feeding cows and cleaning the barn, his father called him to his “office,” a back bedroom with a desk where Chandler did the farm business accounting. Above the desk was a dusty old 10-point rack, the biggest buck Dillon’s Grandpa Olin had ever killed. Dillon sprawled on the sofa next to the desk, noting that a long wooden trunk had been pulled to the center of the hardwood floor.
“Now that you’re 16, it’s time for you to have this,” said his father, and he opened the trunk.
Inside the trunk, a navy-blue blanket lay on top of some old book. Dillon’s dad unfolded the blanket, revealing a gleaming rifle, topped with a scope. Dillon’s mouth dropped open. The rifle, an old .30/06, was the hunting rifle that had belonged to his grandpa who had fallen ill and died when Dillon was a toddler.
“There’s also this,” said his dad, handing Dillon a letter sealed with a wax stamp with his name on it. Dillon thought there was a strange tightness in his dad’s voice when he added: “It’s to you from your Grandpa Olin.”
Dillon tore the end of the envelope open and unfolded a single sheet of paper with a few handwritten lines scrawled on it. The letter read:
To my grandson Dillon,
I’m leaving my old hunting rifle for you on your 16th birthday, if you want it. I ain’t likely to live long enough to see you shoot it, and I regret that. It’s a sorry thing, too, I won’t be able to go hunting with you like I been looking forward to, and I ain’t going to be able to hear you tell your hunt stories. Even so, I’m proud and satisfied to know my hunting rifle will end up in your hands. I have reason to hope this will be the year you’ll shoot a buck bigger than my old 10-point.
Dillon handed the letter to his dad, then carefully lifted the rifle out of the trunk and turned it over in his hands. The rifle was clearly old. Minor rusting had pitted the barrel in places, and the polished stock had several dings and scratches from long use, but in Dillon’s mind the .30/06 was perfect. It was his grandpa’s hunting rifle, and now it was his.
“If I want it?” he thought, “This is the best gift ever!”
• • • • • • • •
A week before firearms deer season opened, Maggie and Dillon moved the double-seat ladder stand to a white oak tree in the middle of a finger of woods separating three fields. The swath of trees sloping toward the Bog was about 40 yards wide with a rusted, vine-draped fence in the middle. Another fence line with a wide border of trees intersected from one side, forming a “Y” shaped intersection of three lines of trees between the fields. The overgrown creek drain and intersecting fence line included a mix of oaks, hickories, a few hackberry trees, some elms and several persimmons rising above the underbrush. Acorns had been falling for weeks, and the hogs and deer had been feeding in the strip of woods. In the center of the finger of woods was a wet-weather creekbed with steeply eroded banks. The ladder stand stood to one side of the ditch, and from it Dillon and Maggie could cover the intersecting fence lines and most of the field edges. The stand was in an excellent position to see deer funneled by the narrow travel corridor, deer that might also be attracted by acorns and persimmons. Maggie could hardly contain her excitement as opening day approached. Dillon’s old .30-30 had become her hunting rifle, and she was going on her first deer hunt with a rifle in her hands.
At long last, opening-day Saturday arrived. After a quick breakfast, the two young hunters were out the farmhouse door, into the dark farmhouse yard and onto a field road. They walked quickly under a clear, starry sky heading toward the finger of woods located halfway between the house and the Bog.
Before they reached the stand, they angled far into one of the adjacent fields then turned 90 degrees and walked directly toward the stand to avoid leaving scent on the field edge close to the stand. A half-hour before shooting light, they were sitting silently side-by-side in the ladder stand eagerly waiting for shooting light.
Dillon chambered a round in his grandpa’s .30/06 and checked the safety, even though it was unlikely he would shoot. His dad had made it abundantly clear that Maggie would get the first opportunity to shoot—even if a buck with Bullwinkle-sized antlers showed up. Maggie loaded a round into the chamber of the .30-30 and placed her lever-action on half-cock. They were ready, and they didn’t have long to wait.
Fifteen minutes before sunrise Maggie saw something move.
“Deer!” she whispered, motioning farther down the drain.
At first Dillon could see nothing in the shadowy, gray woods, and then he saw a deer stepping slowly up the dry creekbed ditch.
“It’s a buck,” he whispered to Maggie as he put his binoculars down. “A 5-pointer, I think. Get ready!”
The deer approached in deer fashion: meandering within the creekbed; stopping to browse; stopping to scratch; and stopping for no apparent reason. The buck had first appeared at 80 yards. Now it was 40 yards away and continuing to follow the bottom of the creekbed, appearing and disappearing between the tree trunks and leafy branches.
Maggie’s .30-30 rested on the shooting rail, and she tracked the buck’s every step.
“Let him come on in,” whispered Dillon. “Closer is better.”
Maggie nodded. She was breathing hard, and the rifle muzzle wobbled.
Finally, the buck sprang up the bank from the creekbed, and it stood on the lip of the ditch, broadside, just 25 yards away.
Maggie reached up with her thumb and pulled the hammer back to full cock. At the sound of the crisp “click,” the buck’s nose jerked in their direction, the deer staring up at the two teenagers in the stand, ears forward, tense and alert.
“Shoot, Maggie,” Dillon whispered urgently. “He’s gonna go…”
He had barely spoken the words when the .30-30 blasted, the recoil rocking Maggie. Twenty-five yards away, the buck jumped, then pitched forward to the ground, kicked twice and was still.
“Perfect shot!” Dillon exclaimed excitedly. “WoooHOOO! Your first deer, Maggie—and it’s a buck!”
Ten minutes later, Maggie knelt over her first deer quietly smoothing its hair and inspecting the 5-point rack.
“That,” she said, “was awesome!”
• • • • • • • •
That afternoon, Maggie and Dillon took the 4-wheeler into Blues Bog to find Phineas. Chandler gave them rough directions to the hermit’s cabin, and after several wrong turns and dead ends, they puttered along an old road that was little more than a deer trail that finally led to an unpainted, metal-roofed, two-room cabin set under several towering white oak trees. Phineas stood on the front porch, with no coat or hat, his gray hair pulled back, his hands on his hips, thumbs stretching his suspenders. He did not look happy to see the teenagers.
“What in tarnation are you doing here on that contraption,” he growled. “You scared every critter for half mile with that dad-blamed racket. Ain’t there a No Trespassing sign out there? Dern kids think they can go anywhere…”
“Maybe we should go,” Dillon whispered to Maggie, but the girl was undaunted by the gruff old man.
“We came to see you,” she said. “I have something to show you.”
Maggie reached to the floorboard and produced the 5-point rack from the buck she had killed that morning.
Phineas’ features softened when he saw the rack, and he stepped off the porch.
“Well, well,” he said, taking the rack from Maggie’s hand and studying it closely. “You shoot this buck?”
“She made a perfect shot,” Dillon volunteered.
“Well, that’s fine,” said Phineas, turning the rack over in his hands.
“It’s not very big,” said Maggie.
“It’s perfect, just perfect, that’s what it is,” he said. “Huntin’s not all about the buck. The size of the antlers don’t always match up with the quality of the hunt. When you’re 85 and rocking in your rocking chair, I guarantee you’ll remember this 5-pointer.”
Phineas turned to Dillon. “And she’ll remember you were with her when she shot it, and that you took the time to help her. Yes sir, the little lady may shoot bigger bucks, but none will ever be as special as this big ol’ 5-pointer.”
Phineas retreated to the cabin porch, where he sat down, the rack still in his hands.
“Come over here and sit a spell,” he said. “I want to hear you tell your hunt story…”
• • • • • • • •
Friday afternoon after school, Dillon hurried home hoping to head to a deer stand. But as he left the house with his rifle over his shoulder, his dad Chandler intercepted him and directed him to bushhog the pasture bordering the O’Neal property. Instead of going hunting, Dillon carried his new rifle to the tractor and glumly spent the late afternoon pulling a bushhog around and around the pasture leveling the ragweed. A barb-wire fence separated the Craft property from the O’Neal land, and just beyond the fence, at the edge of an adjoining pasture, were round-bale hay feeders and mineral bins for the O’Neal cattle.
Just before dark, as Dillon made his last pass in the center of the field, he saw two does, white tails flying high, emerge from the woods and prance toward the mineral feeders. Behind them, as intently focused on the does as a beagle after a rabbit, was Dillon’s buck—the big 13-pointer, the massive antlers swinging in cadence to the buck’s stride.
A jolt of adrenaline surged through Dillon’s veins as he jammed on the brakes and shifted the tractor into neutral so the diesel would continue to rumble. He had heard the stories at school about classmates shooting big bucks just this way: “Tractor Hunting,” they called it. He slid his Grandpa Olin’s .30/06 from its case, chambered a round and eased the door to the cab open. The buck was about 150 yards away and was far more interested in the does than in the distant tractor. The shot would be longer than any Dillon had ever attempted, and it was probably past legal shooting hours, but he pushed those thoughts from his mind. The crosshairs wavered on the buck’s shoulders, but with the vibration from the diesel engine, he could not hold the gun steady enough.
Dillon reached down and switched the engine off. The buck instantly looked in his direction, but Dillon already had the crosshairs lined up on the buck’s shoulder. The buck stood stock-still for five seconds, then turned and sprinted for the tree line, diving into the cover of the woods.
Dillon sighed as he pulled the bolt back to unloaded his rifle, and he slid the gun back into its case. He then cranked the tractor, and turned toward the house. He had traveled only a short distance when his eyes noticed an out-of-place shape against the base of a big water oak on the field edge. It was a man, and as he drove closer in the dusky light he saw that it was Phineas, as rumpled as ever in his worn jacket and wearing his broad-rimmed hat. As always, his muzzleloader was at hand, propped against the tree.
“How is it that the old man seems to be everywhere?” thought Dillon
Phineas had witnessed what had just transpired, and Dillon felt himself blush as he shut down the tractor, emerged from the cab and stepped down to the ground.
“I guess you just saw…” he mumbled.
“Yep,” said Phineas.
“I didn’t shoot,” said the boy. “It was wrong.”
Phineas said nothing.
“Why didn’t you try to stop me?”
“Not for me to decide,” said Phineas as he hauled himself up from the ground and slung his muzzleloader over his shoulder. “Huntin’ is all about choices. A man’s got to decide for himself whether he’s going to hunt fair or cheat. Good choice you kept to the high ground. Shooting that buck just now wouldn’t have been a hunt story you’d be proud to tell your Grandpa Olin. He would’a kicked your butt if you’d shot, and since he ain’t here to do it, I would’a done it for him. That’s one fine buck, too. It deserves better than to be poached by some teenage kid on a tractor.”
Without waiting for a response, Phineas turned and walked off, leaving Dillon alone in the dark pasture, his face burning. The boy finally climbed back into the cab and reached for the key to crank the tractor, but before he could, he jumped at the crack and boom of a high-powered rifle shot close by. Dillon sprang out of the tractor to hear better, and standing on the steps, he heard a second gunshot echo through the dark woods. Both shots came from the O’Neal property—from the exact direction where the 13-pointer had run into the woods not 10 minutes earlier.
• • • • • • • •
“People shoot at all kinds of things,” said Chandler that evening after his son complained about hearing the gun shots after dark. He had left out the detail about aiming at the big buck from the tractor or about seeing Phineas.
“Unless you’ve got better evidence than just hearing shots, I wouldn’t go accusing Clark of shooting a deer after dark. Far as I can see, Clark doesn’t have any better chance of killing that buck than you do.”
“He does if he’s hunting after dark,” Dillon fumed.
• • • • • • • •
Late the next afternoon, Phineas was completing a circuit of the edge of Blues Bog along the Craft property line looking for deer trails, and particularly trails that were being used by the 13-pointer.
“Huh, trouble afoot here,” the old man thought to himself as he went down on one knee to inspect a footprint he found in the mud. In this trail he had found both enormous deer tracks and boot prints with the same “V” shaped imprint in the heels that Dillon and Maggie had found earlier. Phineas pulled at his gray beard and then set out on the back-trail to see where the tracks might lead.
Hours later, as the sun was setting, Phineas returned to his cabin, dug into a duffle bag and produced a night-vision scope and other equipment which he stuffed into his backpack. As the evening woods darkened, the old man shuffled into the dark, heading toward the Craft property line.
• • • • • • • •
At the Craft farmhouse, long after dark, Maggie and her mother were coming in from the grocery store, and Chandler was helping carry the bags.
“Guess who we saw at the store?” his mom asked Dillon.
“We saw Clark O’Neal,” Maggie blurted. “He’s really nice—and he’s really cute!”
“He asked how your hunting was going,” his mom continued.
“I told him you’d seen a really huge monster buck in Blues Bog,” Maggie cut in.
“Maggie!” Dillon cried. “You didn’t have to tell him that!”
His mother ignored the interruption. “He showed us a picture on his iphone of a coyote he shot. A big charcoal-and-gray coyote. He said he shot it last night after dark because it was raiding their chicken house.”
Chandler looked at Dillon and laughed. “Well, that ought to be a relief. The shots you heard were taken at a coyote. All that fuming for nothing—as usual. Looks like Clark didn’t shoot ‘your’ buck after all.”
“At least he hasn’t shot it yet,” thought Dillon.
• • • • • • • •
The view through the night-vision scope transformed the nighttime landscape into a shimmering, light-green-and-black world lighted by a half moon. To one side of the field four chartreuse-colored does fed quietly in front of a black wall of shadows thrown from the tree line along Blues Bog. The man lying prone on the ground just inside the tree line reached up and adjusted the scope to improve the hazy image. It was 12 minutes to midnight, and he had been waiting for two hours for the one-in-a-million buck he was sure would come, following the same trail out of the Bog, scouting under the safety of darkness for does approaching estrus. He shut the night-vision scope off to save his batteries and checked the distance with his range-finder. The green digital numbers read: 200 yards. Not a problem for the .308 attached to the night-vision scope. Ten minutes later, when he turned the scope on again, the does were visibly nervous looking toward the tree line behind them that fronted Blues Bog. Then he saw another deer step out of the black shadows into the field—the Bull-of-the-Woods buck had arrived. Even through night-vision equipment, the glowing-green buck was clearly huge, and the antler beams and rows of points seemed impossibly large. He adjusted the rifle toward the buck across his backpack, which he was using for a rifle rest. As he did, he noticed another unusual dark shape beyond the deer at the edge of the Bog. Coyote? He even thought he saw a glimmer of eye-shine, but he focused back to the buck, which was walking slowly toward the does. The buck stopped broadside, looking back alert to some new, unseen danger. The man steadied the crosshairs on the buck’s shoulder, took a deep breath, exhaled half of it, and pulled the slack out of the trigger.
At midnight, in the Craft family farmhouse, Dillon sat bolt upright in bed listening through the screened window to the echoing rumble of a high-powered rifle shot fired from the direction of Blues Bog.
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