On The Trail Of The Ridgerunner
With the sale of the Tanner Place, the Hicks boys could lose the rights to hunt their mountain paradise — the home of The Ridgerunner
More than a mile up the old 4-wheel drive track, Otis stopped walking, propped his fly rod against a tree and reached into the back of his fishing vest for his water bottle. He unscrewed the cap and, taking a moment to catch his breath, peered through gaps in the thick growth below him. From tall hardwoods, the hillside fell in a carpet of ferns almost vertically from the trail about 60 yards into a dense tangle of rhododendron before bottoming out into a gravelly flat on the downstream edge of a deep plunge pool. In a span of almost 40 years, this pool, the “Blue Hole,” had yielded some fine trout for Otis. He drank deeply, wiped a few stray drops from his red, grizzled beard and unfolded a jointed walking stick to descend the narrow, winding trail down to the gravel bank. There was a time, before his knees and ankles began to fail him, he had jumped over the lip of the road and sped down the incline, hopping and cutting like a snowskier in an avalanche of loose dirt and rubble. Now he took it slow and steady, using his stick to test the ground in front of him.
Otis followed the trail down below the leafy thickness of the treetops and paused, leaning against a giant poplar, this time on a narrow shelf bisecting the hillside. One of the advantages of taking his time was noticing spots like this. From this vantage point high above the Blue Hole, Otis had a bird’s-eye view of the entire pool, and, if he was still enough, the trout wouldn’t notice him. He was looking for rising fish where a torrent of whitewater rushed urgently over the falls, fell 15 feet then tailed out at the base of the hole. And, if the fish weren’t rising, he was seeking the tell-tale flash of a silvery side steering through the current to pick off some sub-surface morsel.
He hadn’t been watching long when he saw what he was looking for. As a late-afternoon summer sun sank behind the ridgeline above, big brown mayflies were flitting about the surface, and as they settled onto the water to die, the brown trout were picking them off with gusto, leaving expanding rings of wake on the water.
“Finer’n frog’s hair,” Otis muttered under his breath. “I knew it was gonna be a good ’un when I got that feelin’ this morning. I told the boy he was a fool for layin’ out.”
Now, in a bit of a hurry to catch the short-lived hatch, Otis again set out down the trail. This time, throwing caution to the wind, he stumbled on a rock and dislodged it. A shot of fear surged into his chest as he wobbled precariously on the incline, dropped his rod and blindly rammed his walking stick into the ground. He caught his balance and watched as the rock gained momentum down the hillside and bounced into the rhododendrons with a rustling crash. A split-second later the thicket came alive, and Otis watched as a buck leapt out of the brush, tore out onto the gravel bank and splashed down into the pool. It disappeared in a wave, then a heavy, velvet-covered rack punched through the surface as the buck’s haunches began churning water.
Spying that mass of velvet-covered bone, Otis chuckled as one side of his mouth twisted up into a smile.
“Ooowhee, the ol’ Ridgerunner made it. I guess the boy missed him,” he whispered to himself. “Surprised that wily old booger let me get this close.”
• • • •
Otis Hicks and his grown son Murphy had caught glimpses of The Ridgerunner for the last four seasons. They knew it had to be the same buck because they had never seen another that even came close to matching it on this property. Even four seasons ago, when Murphy first saw The Ridgerunner as a young buck, it was magnificent, and since then it had developed into the kind of deer they had seen only in magazines. Broad-chested and proud, The Ridgerunner had a symmetrical set of antlers sweeping outward some 18 inches before shooting skyward with 10 tall tines that gave it a high-racked appearance, despite the impressive mass and spread of the main beams.
Murphy had taken a crack at The Ridgerunner the previous season, but an extensive search didn’t reveal a drop of blood. They hoped it had been a clean miss, and this proved it. The Ridgerunner was still cruising the boulder-strewn mountains they hunted.
• • • •
Having dropped instinctually into a low crouch, Otis watched the frenzied buck scramble up the bank below him and bolt up the hillside, briefly disappearing into the thicket before seemingly defying gravity to stretch out into the steep hardwoods just 30 yards to Otis’ right.
“So much for fishing,” Otis chuckled as he shook his head and turned back up the hill.
• • • •
“You saw him? At the Blue Hole?” Murphy asked, stirring a plate of loaded hashbrowns and eggs into a chunky mess on his plate.
“Yep,” Otis replied as he pulled the end off a piece of rubbery bacon and popped it in his mouth, chewing longer than he needed to absorb all the flavor before washing it down with a sip of hot coffee.
“What was he doing down in the bottom?… How did he look?… That rack couldn’t have gotten any taller!” The stream of thoughts flew from Murphy’s mouth, along with a bit of food that arched across the booth to land on Otis’ cheek.
“Boy, calm down,” Otis said to his 30-year-old son. “Your mama’d slap you if she saw you chewin’ with your mouth open and talkin with it full.”
“Mama’s dead, and I thought the ol’ Ridgerunner was too,” said Murphy, leaning across the booth with a napkin to wipe the food from his dad’s cheek. On the way across, Murphy’s overblown gut upset his Coke, spilling it across the table.
Otis slid out of the booth but failed to escape the Coke overflowing from his plate and running into his seat.
“Boy, you been doin’ that since you was a toddler and still ain’t learned any better.” He shook his head and looked over to the counter, where a waitress was on her way with a rag.
As if on cue, the string of bells on the door jingled and Jim Bartlett, an old friend and the owner of the local deer cooler, stepped in. He saw the scene, started shaking his head and chuckling.
“Murph, you big oaf, you done wet your daddy’s trousers again,” Jim said. “What you so excited about anyway?”
“Pop saw The Ridgerunner! I must’a missed him clean!” Murphy blurted.
“Good,” Jim said before jamming his hands in the pockets of his jeans and looking down at the floor.
He cleared his throat and said, “But I got real bad news. Somebody else is gonna be huntin’ the ol’ Ridgerunner come fall.”
“Say what?” Otis asked.
“Yeah, somebody bought the Tanner place, all the acres runnin’ up the gulch from the big pasture,” Jim said. “They’re sayin’ no more huntin’, no more fishin’.”
Murphy’s jaw dropped, and he stood there silent, like he might cry.
“Who’s they, and what exactly are they saying,” Otis asked, calmly assured the Tanners would never sell and doubtful anyone would restrict him from land he’d roamed for so many years.
Otis’ dad had worked for the current Mr. Tanner’s father. The land had been in the family for longer than anyone could remember, and the Tanners had let the Hicks boys hunt and fish in trade for keeping the place clean and running off trespassers.
“Mr. Tanner told me hisself,” Jim answered. “He got an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
• • • •
That evening, Otis opened a can of beef stew, pushed a pile of hunting magazines to the side and sat down at the kitchen table. He was spooning the first bite of cold stew from the can when the phone rang.
‘I wonder what the boy’s gotten himself into this time?’ Otis thought as he walked over to the phone hanging on the wall next to the refrigerator.
“Otis,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “This is Wayman Tanner. You might have caught wind, but I just wanted you to hear it from the horse’s mouth. I signed the papers this morning and sold the land.”
“You sold your grandaddy’s land? How much of it?”
“All of it.”
“All of it? All 1,200 acres? Who’d you sell it to?”
“Some joker from Chattanooga offered me more than it’s worth. That place is good for nothing but mountain goats. With what he gave me, you’d think there was oil in that gorge.”
“Nothin’ but mountain goats,” Otis said, resting his elbow on the counter and his forehead in his hand. “What’s he plannin’ to do with it?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. Listen, I know y’all have got a bond with that place, and I’m sorry, but they told me they don’t want anybody over there any more. You and the boy need to get over there this weekend and collect whatever you got in that old cabin.”
“I’m sorry, too. Take care,” said Otis hanging up the phone.
• • • •
The full weight of the August sun had not yet settled onto the day the following Saturday morning as Murphy put his pickup into 4-wheel drive and pulled through the gate at the Tanner place. As he splashed through the mud holes and began making the turn into the short dirt drive to the old log cabin, he was overcome with a sense of nostalgia. This would probably be the last time he pulled up to the hunting cabin where he had spent so many autumn evenings cooking on the wood-burning stove and sharing stories of the day’s hunt. Never again would he wake up on an icy November morning, slide out of his sleeping bag and step onto this porch with anticipation for the day’s hunt churning in his gut. The reality was tough to swallow. Back to the days when he was a kid, and his dad was teaching him to hunt, they had always taken this beautiful slice of steep terrain for granted. Now they would have to find somewhere else to hunt.
As he put the truck in park in front of the cabin, Murphy saw something that yanked him back into the present. The cabin door had been yanked off its hinges and was lying at an angle in the door frame. There had been a break in!
He hoisted his long-barreled, .44 mag. out of the center console, jumped out of the truck and ran up onto the porch. He heard noises from inside the cabin that sounded like someone or something was poking around inside. Leading with his pistol, Murphy peeked around the door jam into the darkness of the cabin.
As his eyes adjusted to the dusty gloom of the interior, dust motes circled in shafts of sunlight pouring through two small windows high on the walls on two sides of the cabin. Past the two rectangles of timber flooring illuminated by the windows, deep in a dimly lit corner of the cabin behind an overturned set of bunkbeds, Murphy could make out what looked like a mass of fur. The smell coming from inside was nauseating, the noises had ceased, and all Murphy could hear was heavy breathing. As he squinted his eyes for a better view into the dark corner, two beady eyes emerged from the gloom. They were staring right back at him.
Murphy took a step back and thumbed the hammer on his revolver, then leveled its sights between the two eyes. He was shuffling to his right still trying to get a better view through the door when his boot caught on an exposed nail and he stumbled. The big pistol roared as he involuntarily yanked the trigger and sent a wild shot through the back wall of the cabin. At that moment, 300 pounds of rampaging black fur crashed over the fallen door and into the right side of Murphy’s body with a bone-jarring thump. The pistol flew from his hand as he spun off the porch, and the back of his head smacked with a sickening thud on the hood of the truck. Everything went dark…
• • • •
Murphy woke up to find Otis standing over him with a worried look on his face.
“You alright, boy?” Otis asked. “What happened?”
Murphy shook his head to clear the cobwebs, but it took him a minute to process what had just occurred.
“I think… I think it was a bear,” Murphy said, surveying the scene around him. The loaded weapon had skidded under the truck, and there was a big knot forming on the back of his head. “What else could it have been?”
“Looks like a bear to me,” said Otis, as he knelt down next to a large paw print. “A big one, too. Must be the bear that’s been getting into Mr. Ledbetter’s corn down the road. And I heard a big bear chased that old woman Molly Ingram out of her garden and up onto the porch last week,” he continued. “You’re lucky. There’s got to be something wrong with that bear for it to be acting like that.”
• • • •
The cabin was trashed. The old card table in the corner was broken, standing upright on its side, and the shelves above it had been pulled down scattering pots and pans, old magazines, canned goods and broken glass across the floor. One set of the two heavy wood bunkbeds was broken where it had crashed down on the old, iron, wood stove, and there was garbage everywhere, giving off a stench strong enough that even Murphy had to pinch his nose shut while wading through the wreckage.
“You didn’t take the trash with you the last day of turkey season, did you boy?” Otis accused.
“I must have forgot,” Murphy replied, as he picked up a can of sardines in cottonseed oil. The can had been ripped apart, leaving jagged edges with two almost perfectly circular holes punched in it a half inch in diameter. The bear must have smelled the garbage and found something to eat when it came in to inspect the stink.
• • • •
It had been a hot, dry summer. There hadn’t been much for the wildlife to eat, which explained the bear coming to investigate the stench from the cabin. There hadn’t been a bear spotted on the property for several years, but recently two farmers in the county complained of a big male black bear raiding their crops. All the reports indicated the bear was acting strange, and that it was not afraid of humans.
The weather also explained the appearance of the Ridgerunner down in the creek bottom. The big buck typically stuck to the high ridges on either side of the property, which kept it well away from most human activity.
• • • •
The two men were cleaning up the mess when they heard a truck pull up to park next to the fire ring in front of the cabin. As they were turning to make their way out onto the porch, a horn honked and a high-pitched man’s voice screeched, “What the heck are y’all doing here! Get off my property now or my lawyers will have you locked up so long you won’t recognize yourselves when you get out,”
“Yikes, I guess we’re about to meet the new owner,” Otis muttered as they filed out onto the porch.
A short man with a pinched, red face, overalls that looked like they had been starched and ironed since he bought them yesterday and a ridiculously oversized camouflage cowboy hat stepped around the hood of a full-sized black Hummer. The tires on the sparkling-clean vehicle came up to the short man’s chest, and he came around the hood wagging his finger.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here!” the short man shouted.
“Sorry sir; you the new owner?” Otis asked, trying to defuse the situation.
“Yeah, I’m the new owner. What I want to know is, who the heck are you?”
“We’ve sorta been caretakers of this place for the Tanners, and we’re just here picking up all our stuff. We were getting ready to ride up the gulch. If you want to come along, we’ll show you around a little,” Otis offered.
The explanation calmed the short man visibly, and he let his guard down. Since he lived a couple of hours from his new hunting land, he was hoping he could find someone to work on and keep an eye on the place. He thought maybe these two hillbillies would do. By the looks of them, it wouldn’t cost much to hire them. He stepped forward and reached out to shake Otis’ hand.
“Charles Lee Beale,” the short man introduced himself, “Sorry, you startled me.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Charles. I’m Otis Hicks, that’s my son Murphy. If you’re ready, hop in my truck and we’ll all take a ride up the gulch to have a look around.”
“It’s Charles Lee — double name,” spat the man. It was almost as if he expected Otis to know who he was and was miffed that he didn’t.
As they were talking, a long-haired kid about 16 years old stepped out of the Hummer, pulled a pair of earphones from his ears and approached the group. Standing a little under 6 feet tall and gangly, the boy, Charles Lee Jr. or Charlie, had brown hair past his shoulders, a nose ring, and when he opened his mouth to speak he revealed a silver stud in his tongue.
“What’re we doin’ dad?” he whined, apparently tired of being in the truck with his long-winded father.
Charles Lee ignored the boy and said, “I’ve got a better idea, hop in ‘the tank’. I haven’t had a chance to really work her out, and that road looks like it could test the suspension.”
“I don’t know, that thing’s got an awful wide wheel base. The road gets real skinny up there in the gulch,” Otis was saying as he was herded into the front passenger seat.
“I paid darn near $100,000 for this beast with all the extras,” Charles Lee answered. “And if your old junker can make it, mine will fly up that road.”
“I bet it gets great gas mileage, too,” Otis muttered under his breath.
• • • •
Charles Lee had seen the photos of the property, he had ridden up the road about a quarter-mile to the last turn-around, and he had even flown over it in a helicopter before he bought it as a hunting and fishing retreat. But he had never really gotten out of the truck and seen it from the ground. Wayman Tanner had assured him there were plenty of deer in the woods and trout in the creek, but Charles Lee didn’t care. He figured the deer weren’t as big as they would be after he initiated a strict management program. And as for the fish, he had seen it on a friend’s stream. The only things needed to catch trophy trout are cold water, a stocking truck and daily feedings.
Years of new projects had taught Charles Lee he could make most things work if he just pushed hard enough and poured enough money on them. He was going to turn the old Tanner place into a trophy farm that would be the envy of everyone in the area. The land was already beautiful; now he just had to make the hunting and fishing better — and easier. He had already ordered a rustic-looking iron gate to put at the entrance when construction of the three-story lodge began after hunting season. The arch above the gate where his guests would enter was going to read “The Ridges at Beale Farms.”
What Charles Lee did not yet understand was just how rugged and steep the property actually was. Rocky soil, outcroppings and nearly vertical hillsides would make his plans for extensive food plots almost impossible. And, no matter how much work he put into it, the hunting would never be easy. You couldn’t even get a 4-wheeler to most of the prime stand locations on the property.
• • • •
In front of the cabin, the road ran flat and sandy through about 30 acres of old planted pines that had never been thinned. The growth spreading out from the road was too thick to penetrate without getting down on hands and knees, but there was an old grown-up roadbed on the east side of the main road that bisected the pine thicket and ran through pockets of hardwoods on the way to the base of the mountain. Over years of use, the deer had cut a trail down the old roadbed, and they kept it worn to the dirt when the white oaks fell like rain in the fall.
Otis asked Charles Lee to stop the truck where the old roadbed intersected the dirt road. The only ways to access those hardwood pockets were down the roadbed, either from the road or from the base of the mountain where the deer trail popped out of the thicket. The first and largest of the openings, about a half acre nestled into the thicket, contained one of the best meat stands on the property, partly because the abundance of acorns in close proximity to bedding cover, but also because it was the only stand on the property offering easy access for casual hunting. It was a short walk down the old roadbed.
The four of them piled out of the truck and made their way single file down the roadbed with Otis in the lead.
“This stand up here we call ‘The Murder Hole,’” Otis said. “It’s a great stand for bow season because you can pretty much see as far as you can shoot, and whether the acorns are falling or not the deer use this trail to travel between the mountain, the creek and the cutover next door.
“If you just want to take it easy and maybe see a few deer, this is the stand to hunt.”
The group stepped out of the pine thicket into an opening of hardwoods dotted with bathtub-sized boulders. Off to their right was an old, but well-maintained, open-topped wooden stand with enough room for two.
“That trail needs to be widened enough for a 4-wheeler,” Charles Lee said. “It’s too rocky for a good green field, but we can stick a corn feeder over in that corner across from the stand. We also need to replace that stand with a new shooting house.
“This would be a great place to kill your first deer, Charlie. What do you think?”
Charlie didn’t hear. His ear-buds were still jammed firmly in his ears, and he was beating out the rhythm on his thigh with his left hand while his right hand was fiddling with the small hoop in his right nostril. When he saw the three men looking at him, he pulled the bud out of his right ear and grunted, “What? Why’s everyone looking at me?”
Charles Lee shook his head in disgust then set out looking for sign around the opening, which was plentiful.
• • • •
By the time they got back to the truck, the August heat had them all sweating through their shirts. Charles Lee cranked the air conditioner up to full blast and drove up the road out of the planted-pine flat to the base of the mountain where Otis asked him to stop the truck again. Otis started to get out of the truck when Charles Lee stopped him.
“You aren’t thinking of hauling us up that hillside?” Charles Lee asked. “It’s too dern hot to be traipsing around in the woods like a bunch of idiots, especially when it’s that steep. Why don’t you just tell us what it looks like.”
“I’ll try,” Otis answered.
Sitting in the backseat, Murphy was relieved. In high school he had been an athlete, but he had let himself go, and the only way he wanted to climb that mountain was if he was actually hunting — with a rifle in his hands. Charlie was oblivious, still playing the drums on his thighs.
• • • •
From the end of the pine flat, the property was basically a rectangle with the creek running up the middle in a deep gulch. The valley rose steeply from either side of the creek up to high ridgelines on either side.
The steep hillside above them was mostly old-growth, acorn-bearing hardwoods. There were three 20- to 50-yard-wide shelves that broke the incline every few hundred yards up to a cliff line. Those shelves and the cliff line contoured with the mountain, paralelling the creek through the gulch. The terrain was much the same on both sides of the creek.
Otis and Murphy had their favorite trails, intersections and funnels to hunt, but they had never bothered to erect stands or even to carry climbers. They didn’t need to. The slopes were littered with giant boulders that had come to rest on the mountainside after tumbling from above in some ancient cataclysm. They had left behind a sheer rock face that rose, in some places more than 100 feet, to the top of the ridgeline on either side of the gulch. As a result of this prehistoric upheaval, no matter where they wanted to hunt, there was always a big rock they could perch on that would give them a good view.
“So it’s steep and rocky, and there are some flat areas the deer use to get around?” Charles Lee asked.
“Yep,” said Otis. “And we’ve only got one stand up there. It’s on the other side of the creek near the top of the ridgeline at a spot we call “The Ramp.” Unless a deer wants to walk miles up into that gulch, it’s the only way up or down the cliff line. It’s about the best wildlife funnel I’ve ever seen. But getting to it is a beast of a hike, and you have to cross the creek.”
The well-marked property line ran parallel to and about 100 yards above the cliff line on either side of the gulch. The top of the mountain was a rolling plateau of national forest land, which bordered the old Tanner place on three sides.
• • • •
As the men made their way up the gulch below, a tall-tined 8-pointer was up at the top of the ridgeline near The Ramp pawing at what was left of a diminishing mineral lick. A steady stream of visitors to the lick had dug a hole in the dirt 3 feet in diameter, and Otis had some good trail-cam photos for his efforts.
The buck lowered his head to the lick, unconcerned by the click of the shutter as it captured several images. He continued working the lick as another larger-racked buck stepped into view of the camera lens behind him. These were The Ridgerunner’s offspring, and he was nearby. But he was browsing in a depression on the other side of a small rise. A hunter would not have seen him from the stand.
One night earlier in the summer, the 8-pointer had triggered the camera to flash while The Ridgerunner was making its way down The Ramp. Because of that, and because of the clicking noises emitted by the small box, The Ridgerunner would never use The Ramp again. He was wary of things that did not belong in his natural environment, and unlike most deer, he would never grow accustomed to them.
He had taken to using a precipitous track nearby that led through a patch of thick rhododendrons to get the bottom of the cliff line. He would meet up with the other two bucks on the slope below.
• • • •
Charles Lee put his truck into 4-wheel drive, and they rumbled up into the gulch. From the base of the mountain, the road followed the creek. It gained elevation quickly and grew thinner and more rocky as they went.
The big tires on the Hummer rolled over the rocks and paddled the vehicle easily through the deep mudholes that pooled in the dips, but Otis was worried about the narrows ahead. He warned Charles Lee as they passed the last turn-around.
Another few hundred yards up, the road clung to the side of a deep ravine. There was a large rock that jutted out into the road from the right side, and there was a 40-foot drop on the left, which made for an opening just wide enough for a normal pickup.
Charles Lee ignored the warning without comment until they turned the last bend before the narrows.
“Dang, you didn’t tell me it was that narrow,” Charles Lee said as he put the Hummer in park. “You think it’ll fit?”
“I don’t know, but if it were my truck, I’d be backing down to that last turn-around,” Otis said.
“I guess we’ll be on foot from here, then,” Charles Lee said.
• • • •
As they piled out of the truck, Charles Lee walked around to the back, opened the rear door and pulled a rifle out of its case.
“What’s that for?” Murphy asked.
“Just in case,” said Charles Lee.
“In case of what? Gun season doesn’t open for another two months,” Otis chimed in. “We ain’t gonna be out here that long.”
“In case we run into that bear,” Murphy blurted.
“Yeah, in case we run into that bear.” Charles Lee chuckled as he pushed three rounds into the magazine.
It was a beautiful rifle, with a fine custom-engraved scroll pattern and a detailed carving of a large buck in a wooded setting carved into the stock.
“That’s a purty gun,” Murphy said, thinking of how he’d never lug a weapon that fine into these woods.
“It is purty,” Charles Lee said. “It’s a custom-made Weatherby .300 mag. I paid about 15 grand for it, and it’s worth every penny. See that Zeiss scope? That was another grand. I hit a mule deer running at 300 yards out in Colorado. Dropped him on the spot.”
• • • •
A short hike up the road, Charles Lee and Otis walked up on a fork in the creek where the road ended. There was a large, flat camping area near the creek just below the forks, and the slope of the hillside across the creek to their left was a little less steep than it was at the bottom of the gulch.
They were a little winded from the hike, and they had left their conversation, as well as Charlie and Murphy, on the side of the road a good ways back. As they rounded the last bend before the campsite, the hardwoods on the hillside opened up, giving them a view some 200 yards up the mountain.
Otis spotted the deer first. On the other side of the creek, browsing slowly away from them near the crest of the first shelf 150 yards above were two bucks. He couldn’t count the points from this distance, but as the deer moved Otis caught glimpses of velveted antler. They were both good deer.
Otis eased down onto one knee behind a boulder and pulled a small pair of binoculars from his pocket. Charles Lee caught on almost immediately, dropped to a knee next to Otis, slipped his rifle off his shoulder and brought the scope to his eye.
“Those are some pretty nice bucks,” Charles Lee whispered, thinking he might not have to do as much work to improve the deer herd as he had originally thought. “The one in front looks like a tall-racked, main-frame 8, and the one in back looks a little wider. It might have a couple more tines up front. It’s hard to tell because of the velvet.”
“Yeah,” Otis agreed, hoping The Ridgerunner wasn’t nearby. Though they were not as impressive last summer, Otis had seen what he thought were these two bucks traveling with The Ridgerunner. He didn’t want Charles Lee to know about “his” buck.
• • • •
About 50 yards behind the two bucks, traveling the same shelf behind them, The Ridgerunner had sensed something was amiss. He had heard something on the road below and had dropped behind, alert and tense, ready to bolt as soon as he determined which direction was the safest.
Letting the two younger bucks feed ahead of him, The Ridgerunner took his time scanning the woods with his ears and his nose trying to pinpoint the men. He felt exposed on the open hillside but resisted the urge to run. Years of avoiding humans in the woods had taught the old buck a few tricks.
He tucked himself tightly against the nearest cover he could find, a giant oak, and waited, listening for the slighest sound to give away the nature and location of the danger he somehow knew was there. The other two bucks browsed ahead, unconcerned, but he would not follow them until he was certain the danger had passed.
• • • •
Still crouched behind the rock, Otis turned his attention away from the two bucks and carefully scanned the hillside with his binoculars. He caught movement, and his eyes focused in on a flicking white tail. Most of the deer was concealed behind a huge oak, but its haunches were big, and Otis knew he was probably looking at The Ridgerunner.
‘Please stay put, don’t let him see you,’ Otis thought.
Just then he heard Charles Lee shift his position and slide the bolt to chamber a round. Otis lowered his binoculars and looked over at Charles Lee, who was kneeling right next to him, aiming in the direction of the big oak.
“What are you doing?” Otis whispered through clenched teeth.
“Just practicing,” Charles Lee answered, as he adjusted his scope to zoom in on the buck. “I don’t have a mount in velvet.”
Charles Lee saw the hind end of a big-bodied buck just before it disappeared behind a big oak. He hadn’t planned on killing a deer today, but if this one was any better than the other two on the hillside, it would make a fine mount to add to his collection. He had always wanted a buck in velvet but had never seen one during bow season.
Charles Lee eased the safety off silently and lowered his finger onto the trigger. He put the crosshair just to the left of the tree where he thought the buck’s neck would appear and squeezed the trigger lightly to the break-point. Then he waited.
‘One more step… just one more step…’
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