The Sanctuary Buck
The Incident On Flat Rock Creek — Part 1 of a 5-Part Fiction Series
Like shooting fish in a barrel, only easier. Even this buck, a mature one from what he could see so far, didn’t seem to have a care in the world as it walked through the hard-wood bottom toward the creek, approaching steadily.
Pathetic deer. Time to put a little fear of man back in ya, he told himself.
In his head he sang… Bag ’o bones in a fur sack. Bag ’o bones in a fur sack.
Shut up! Why can’t you get that stupid, made-up song out of your head?
The buck paused behind a thin patch of privet, and that’s when it struck him. This deer was different. He could see that now. The body was huge. Its neck and head were hidden above the browse line on the privet, while the other deer he’d seen while hiding next to the big elm along the creek were always so exposed in the thin vegetation. One thing to say for this browsed-over wasteland, nothing to deflect an arrow — or a crossbow bolt.
No where to hide. No where to hide. Bag ’o bones…
Stop it! Just shoot the deer. The buck continued a slow, steady walk, and now its antlers were in the clear. The rack was breathtaking. The buck was going to pass upwind, and the young man sit-ting Indian-style on the ground, barefoot and shirtless on a muggy evening in late July, shifted a bit to get ready. The only sound was the water flowing over and through a big log jam in the creek.
Those huge antlers, exaggerated by the blood still coursing through the velvet-covered beams and tines. The muscles rippled in the buck’s shoulders as it methodically closed the distance.
Ezekiel Pembroke III tightened his grip on the crossbow.
• • •
“Isn’t this just beautiful?”
Jack Elliot didn’t notice his reflection in the clear water as he spread a blanket on the sandy bank next to Flat Rock Creek. Jack looked young for his 41 years, his light brown hair worn just a bit long, his build still slim and muscular. He got teased that he tried to look young with his trimmed goatee, and he often wore a backwards ball cap. It was a look Jack Elliot pulled off with ease.
“You know we actually own the creek. Well, half of it. Our property line is right down the center,” Jack said.
That he was overselling this little family excursion was too obvious. Kaylee, his 13-year-old daughter, raised both eyebrows and scrunched her nose with the best ‘whoop-tee-do’ look Jack had ever seen.
Their move two months ago from a sprawling suburban neighborhood in Gwinnett County —with stores and shopping centers on seemingly every corner — to a house in the middle of the woods in a county that only had 16,000 people, was not the most popular of Jack’s ideas, not in the eyes of the Elliot women.
Lori, his wife, didn’t look back when Jack spoke. She was turned away from them, facing upstream along the creek.
She motioned at them with her left hand low behind her back, her palm extended like a traffic cop stopping the cars.
Jack didn’t notice. From the basket he pulled out a surprise for Lori, a bottle of Clos du Bois chardonnay, a rarity in the Elliot household but her favorite on those occasions when wine was served. One of the wine glasses tipped and clinked into the other as it fell over.
“What, mom?” Kaylee asked. “What is it?”
Lori motioned with her hand again, with emphasis, urgent this time.
Jack glanced up and saw the intensity on his wife’s face, the usually indiscernible lines on her forehead and around her eyes exaggerated, showing her concern.
Lori’s Carolina-blue eyes were locked on something. He rose slowly and moved up close beside her. Lori leaned toward his ear, but held her stare up the creek.
“I just saw something… moving… up there on top above the creek,” she whispered, barely audible.
Jack’s eyes scanned both sides of the high creek bank. The leaves quivered a bit and small branches danced slightly with the summer breeze, but other than that Jack didn’t see anything moving. It was thick along that part of the creek, a mix of cane and privet surrounding big trees, especially across on the State Park side where the trees were truly enormous.
“It was probably a squirrel, or a bird,” he whispered.
“No Jack.” She had an overwhelming urge to send an elbow through his condescending ribcage. “It was big.”
• • •
This is not about antlers! Shoot the stupid deer.
Only he didn’t. A trophy hunter he was not — a point he would quickly indicate to anyone — that is if someone would actually speak to him. The last time that happened was almost 29 weeks ago — 201 days since his immersion. That’s what Zeke called it, his immersion. That’s what he called it when he talked to himself — he didn’t say it out loud. Only when he talked inside his head. To himself.
But the antler bug had just taken a bite out of his rear-end. The thought of those antlers in another month, all slicked out and hard, was a bit too much for old Zeke. He wanted a mount.
It didn’t matter. The buck never walked out from behind a patch of cane like Zeke expected. The buck stood, frozen, sensing danger ahead. Its guard had been down in the Park as the buck quartered with the wind instead of against it. The buck’s nose, its best sense, was useless. The buck quickly corrected that mistake, using the cane thicket as it slipped ghostlike to the creek’s edge.
All Zeke saw was the tips of its velvet tines disappearing down the side of the creek bank.
• • •
Lori squeezed Jack’s hand. Hard. Whether what she saw was real or imagined, he knew her fear was all too real. At that moment he wished they were at the house, playing Hearts or Scrabble… anything. Lori had never been afraid of the woods, not until they’d built a house hidden and surrounded by a forest of hardwoods on a hill above Flat Rock Creek. She’s a hunter, for goodness sakes. Now she was tense and uneasy when alone at the house. She mentioned several times getting a creepy feeling. And the lights… one night, well past midnight, deep in the woods, she saw it, and no explanation could possibly ease her memory of that soft, eerie light flickering deep in the woods.
He regretted now that he had brought them down here to the creek. He just wanted them to see a little of what he saw in their 53 acres… especially the beauty of the creek and the woods that bounded it. He wanted them to experience those last shafts of evening sunlight filtering through the trees down to the rocks and sand and crystal-clear water. A sight that when he first saw it made the hair on his arms stand up.
Now Jack saw something move. Only it wasn’t up on the creek bank where his wife was staring. It was eye level, not 60 yards upstream, behind a pile of branches and trees that had washed up and found a home against one of the creek’s sentry water oaks that had long ago lost its grip and fallen in.
Jack squeezed Lori’s hand now. Out into one of those shafts of evening light stepped the most magnificent buck Jack had ever seen. It was standing knee-deep in the flowing water, its tall, wide, velvet-covered rack framed in glowing light against an outcropping of black rock on the creek bank. For Jack, time stood still in the three seconds that elapsed as the buck posed, slightly quartering away. Watching, mesmerized, Jack didn’t even think to count points. The two visions of that experience he’d remember until his last breath were the flies flitting around the buck’s head — backlit by a ray of evening summer sun they looked like little light bulbs dancing around the rack. And he would always remember the size of the buck’s body, so much bigger than the does and young bucks he’d seen. The buck was so big it looked like a different species of animal.
Never looking downstream at the Elliots, the buck took two deliberate steps and vanished, like it was never there at all. Jack stared at the spot in wonderment.
“Man he was huge! Did you see how big he was?”
Jack was overcome with a sense of fulfillment. Could a man have a more complete, more wonderful life? Already blessed in family, here he was, 41 years old, living in a new house on a tract of land teeming with deer, and now this buck. He looked back at his daughter, so smart and way too pretty; then to his wife, her summer-tanned face framed by that strikingly black hair. His incredible wife — who was still staring at the creek bank like there was a mountain lion or something about to pounce on her daughter.
“Eewwww!” Kaylee suddenly squealed. “What is that smell?”
Jack smelled it too. The wind was at their faces, and a rank smell filled their nostrils for just a moment.
“Jack. Jack!” Lori was pointing now, toward the creek bank on the Park side. “JAAACK!”
Lori never saw the buck. Her eyes had never left the spot where she first saw the movement. She had been staring hard into the shadows, staring with the eyes of a predator, someone whose senses instead of dulled by modern life had been revitalized by the experiences of the hunt. She had not hunted all that much in recent years, but it was a sense — the ability to see — that was indelible once awakened.
When the buck walked out in the creek bed, she was locked in on the underbrush next to a big elm on the Park side of the creek. The hint of movement, just for a brief second, was a man — of sorts. When the smell wafted down to them and Kaylee squealed, whatever it was, deep in the shadows, turned ever so slowly. Lori saw a pair of eyes looking right at her.
She whirled, grabbed her daughter’s hand, and scrambled up the creek bank, almost dragging the girl up the sandy path that led back toward the house.
• • •
The buck stood motionless, listening to the commotion on the creek. It tilted its nose up slightly to test the wind. The sounds and smells of people were an everyday occurrence, but the buck had learned that when on this side of the creek, there was danger associated with man.
The buck had already done a reverse-limbo shimmy of sorts to get under a stand of barbed-wire added below a deer-proof fence. More than a year ago a tropical storm spun in place for three days over middle Georgia and further washed out a gully below the fence. The runoff into the creek moved just enough clay that the buck had a way into an oasis for those parts of the Flat Rock Creek bottomland and surrounding hills. The buck would put its nose to the ground, antler tips under first, then ease its massive headgear below the wire, following with its belly, almost crawling in the dirt as its body slid under the fence.
Two years ago as a 3 1/2-year-old, the buck carried a respectably-wide 10-point rack with rather short, thin tines and beams. But he was now unrecognizable at 5 1/2, so much bigger since he had stumbled upon a way past the deer-proof fence and into the truck farmer’s two-acre field. The farmer, a man called Frog for so long that no one even knew his given name, sold his vegetables out in front of his house, along the main road into the Park, always wearing those overalls that looked to have more wear than the man himself.
Frog grew cucumbers and squash, lots of beans, and English and southern peas. Most of the local folks came to see Frog about his greens. He grew collards and kale, and four long rows of the prettiest turnip greens in the county. And every year he’d have some poke weeds back on the far corner against the fence. A few of the old-timers would buy those, but mostly Frog picked the poke salad for himself.
The buck came for the greens, too. It browsed on about every plant in Frog’s plot, but the greens were the main course. It could recognize the most nutritious foods, and the greens were loaded with something the Park deer lacked — protein. The nutritional boost from this little oasis had let the buck reach its growth potential despite a dearth of food in the Park. Many of the Park deer looked sickly, and so did the woods — devoid of growth to the height of an average doe’s nose when balancing on its back legs.
Luckily for the buck, the greens growing in Frog’s truck farm were hardy. They withstood the deer’s nightly forays over the last two summers. As darkness fell over the eastern Piedmont, the buck stood just inside the fence, still out of sight down in the gully. Finally it stepped up into the field, lowered its mouth, and pulled up a collard, its jaw working the leaf side to side as the buck looked up toward a light in the window of the little house on the hill.
Later that evening, the buck suddenly froze. Barely hesitating, it bounded to the gully and slid under the fence. Then creak of weight on weathered wood cut through the chorus of night sounds. Frog stepped out his back door, a .22 Mag in one hand, a light in the other. The beam danced across the empty rows of greens. For 82, old Frog was still pretty good, but he wasn’t as slick as he used to be, certainly not slick enough to catch this deer in his field.
• • •
It was a perfect blood-red Georgia sunset — well, almost perfect. Lori sat on the bench swing on the screened-in porch, her eyes, usually so striking that strangers had literally stopped and simply stared, now matched the color of the western skyline.
“I saw a person,” Lori said. She said it over and over.
For a time — too long — Jack tried to convince her it was a buck. Now he just sat with his arm around her and held her tight.
“I’m taking Kaylee, and we’re going to stay with your mom a few days in Marietta,” Lori said flatly. “I want you to come with us.”
Jack hesitated. He desperately wanted to spend time in the woods.
“I was planning to get some things done around here this weekend,” he said, rather meekly.
Inside Jack felt a tinge of excitement. He would have all weekend to start setting his game plan, and not five weeks until bow season.
Lori brushed Jack’s arm off her shoulder and walked inside. She didn’t speak another word that evening, and neither did Jack. That night, laying on his back, the six inches between his shoulder and that of his wife felt like a million miles. That night, for the first time since he lived in his new house, the tree frogs were a dissonant, jangling interruption to his sleep, to his peace.
• • •
As his wife slept cuddling a pillow on the far reaches of her side of the bed, from a deep sleep Jack suddenly sat up straight. He peered over the foot of the bed. His black lab, Casey, slept contentedly, her breath-ing a cadence of heavy sighs.
Jack thought someone was in the house. He felt someone there, felt it with all his being. He slipped his legs out from under the covers, and without turning on a light he tipped from the master bedroom down the hall, his bare feet silent on the wood floors. Jack felt a sudden rush of adrenaline. He was keenly aware of everything, aware that he didn’t have a gun — or anything for that matter — but he was drawn down the hall, to look. He moved quickly now, stopping to peek in on Kaylee, her blonde hair spread out over her pillow, then he turned left, past the entryway and the front door, and into the kitchen.
Jack glanced right to the big window — and his heart almost came out of his chest. It took only a split second to register, but in that moment Jack had never been so scared. A doe was standing two feet from the window, brightly illuminated by a landscape light, a mouthful of leaves from a $59.99 camellia Jack had bought at the Ace Hardware the week before, bought to replace a gardenia that had been eaten, twigs and all, down to a bare main stem.
Jack turned on the flood lights and the doe just stood there. So did the four other deer feeding on his bermuda sod. Jack checked the alarm system, walked quietly back to the master bedroom, and gently slid back under the covers.
Past the lush, green lawn, beyond the sporadic line of big hard-woods that separated the lawn from a little field that sloped down to the bottomland, a former graduate student, the blue-blood son of Buckhead socialites, sat Indian-style against a big hickory tree, watching.
• • •
Jack Elliot built his dream house about 100 yards off the gravel road, far enough that even in the winter it would be impossible to see the house through the mixture of big hardwoods and smaller understory. His driveway was at the back of the gravel cul-de-sac that book-ended a 250-acre tract that had been split into 25- to 53-acre “estate” lots. Jack’s lot was the last one on the gravel road, and the biggest. Beyond, with access from a different road, was Frog’s 20 acres. Then an 18-acre tract, and then a big tract, 700 acres of timber land. All of these had creek frontage, and directly across the creek was the 4,000-acre State Park.
The Elliot property was shaped like a piece of pie — after someone took a healthy bite off the end. The road frontage was narrow, and the lot gradually extended in width all the way to the back line, Flat Rock Creek. The contour was gently, imperceptibly downhill at the front until the line of big hardwoods at the end of the bermuda yard. The contour then quickly dropped off from Jack’s field to the lush, different world in the bottom along Flat Rock Creek. Jack’s land included a 200-yard stretch of flat, perpetually-mucky swamp. What remained of a years-ago attempt to drain and tame the flatland were ditches that the beavers had since reclaimed.
Beyond the last ditch was Jack’s hill. Rising from the flatland stretch of swamp was a 5-acre slope that contained the rarest of trees to be found in the Georgia Piedmont — a hillside of giant red oaks and white oaks. Protected by the creek on one side — with a State Park across the creek — and from the swamp on other side, this hill had been untouched by man’s saw blades.
When the acorns hit every fall, and rarely did all of the big oaks on the hill fail the same season, Jack’s hill was a remarkable food source for so many of the area’s animals —most recently a growing wild hog population, the hungry deer from the overpopulated Park, and deer that lived and survived the hunting pressure on the surrounding lands.
Jack’s hill and the stretch of flatland swamp was also part of the core living area of a mature buck, a buck of unusual body and antlers for any area, but truly a giant for the overpopulated woods that included the Park.
For much of the summer the buck split time between the Park side of Flat Rock Creek and Frog’s truck farm full of greens. Two factors changed the buck’s habits every fall. The first one was acorns. There were several areas on the Park where deer could find acorns, but the hill on what was now Jack Elliot’s property was where the buck preferred to feed. The other factor was the rut.
Jack did not know this yet, but the buck he saw that evening had a name. A man, a deer hunter, lived on the 18 acres between Frog’s truck farm and the 700-acre timber company tract, and he had two most-prized possessions that he kept in the glove box of his truck. Two trail-camera pictures, both snapped in the dead hours between midnight and dawn, of a monster buck, a buck that he’d never seen in person. His friend who ran the hunting club next door had never seen the buck either, and neither had any of the hunting club members. There was big-buck sign, and there were those two trail-camera photos. The buck stayed on the Park during the day, they surmised. The Sanctuary Buck was unkillable, but oh how they dreamed, and good-ness knows they schemed.
• • •
The creek was an oasis of coolness, a refuge of wetness and moisture. Jack Elliot slid one boot after the other, not lifting from the shallow water. A quiet, slow shuffle. A hunter’s walk. There’s a way to move down a creek — two ways actually — a way for everyone else, and a way for one who is not just absorbing the wild surroundings, but has become a part of them. A hunter’s way. Even at three o’clock on a late August Georgia afternoon.
That morning, as promised, Lori took Kaylee to Marietta. They were hardly out of the drive before Jack pulled on his knee-high rubber boats. Along the edge of his swamp bottom and the start of his hill, Jack found a cluster of big rubs. He also found a massive cedar rub on the other side of his hill, where it dropped to the creek. He put a ladder stand up against a giant white oak near the top of the hill. An October stand, where the prevailing winds from the northwest would blow away from most of the big oaks that would be dropping acorns.
Now Jack was approaching the log jam where he had seen the buck. He scanned both sides for tracks or any sign of a deer trail. The only sound was a slight crunch of creek gravel under boot, a sound easily dampened by the flowing creek.
Jack stopped, his chin tilted skyward as he eyed a massive maple tree that angled overhead across the creek, its base undercut just enough that the tree started to fall but had somehow grabbed ahold, hanging on and growing almost sideways across the creek. Limbs that should have been growing out at 45-degree angles instead grew straight up toward the sky.
As Jack paused, the wind whipped the back of his sweaty T-shirt. The breeze felt so cool down here in the creek bed.
The first time he heard it, Jack didn’t really pay any attention. The next time, he thought maybe it was a far-off gunshot. When it followed again… and again, noticeably louder each time, Jack turned around. The wind whipped through the bottom and swept across his face.
Is that thunder? Can’t be, he thought. There was no rumbling echo. It sounded like artillery shells hitting the ground, and if they weren’t getting louder — closer —Jack would have sworn a blasting crew was blowing rock. Suddenly the sun was gone. Eerily scary, Jack would later describe it. The first black cloud of a massive thunderstorm had blackened the sky.
Boom… boom…. BOOM!
A shot of lighting crackled through the branches around him, so close it left a smell of copper hanging in the dense air. Jack heard a roar approaching, a heavy rain sweeping through the bottom.
Jack scrambled up the other creek bank, the Park side, and began to run, not exactly sure where he was headed, but knowing he didn’t want to be in the bottom, not when the wind was whipping giant trees side to side like they were saplings, and not with white-hot lightning rattling the woods. He started up a steep hill marked by big, car-sized chunks of rock. Jack clambered over one, but at the top he slipped on the wet rock and tumbled forward. His knee hit hard, but he was still falling— another five or six feet, until he landed with a bone-bruising thud in almost complete darkness.
It took a few moments to realize he hadn’t been knocked unconscious—he had fallen into some sort of hole. Jack couldn’t see a thing in front of him. He looked up and saw the darkened sky above. He reached forward with both hands and felt only cool, damp air. He inched forward, fearful of falling into another unseen hole, until he was covered from the driving rain that pounded the forest above. Jack thought what a great spot this was for a big canebrake, or a fat copperhead that would not be kind enough to announce its presence.
Almost simultaneously, lightning flashed and thunder crashed above. And for a split second the far end of the cave was illuminated. And for a split second, Jack looked into the face of what was certainly a madman. And he was holding a crossbow.
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