The Hunt For The Cemetery Buck
The Cemetery Buck had lived six years in the Nine Run Swamp without knowing hunters. Now, two men have found the deer. One, a young man, the owner of the buck's sanctuary. The other, a man who has no right to hunt the land but every intention of killing the buck anyway.
The buck was tiring when it reached the top of the sandhill and stopped near the cemetery. It turned and stood in the open, facing back into the swamp where the dogs would be boiling out of the trees. Through its nostrils and open mouth it blew loudly. It had run far enough and played along, but the dogs had not stopped.
A giant hoof pawed at the dirt. The buck was going to put a stop to this chase.
Out of the palmettos the first dog burst onto the slope of the hill and stopped when it saw the buck standing at the top. It was a lanky hound, the fastest of the pack. The dog’s ears were seething with ticks, mange covered its rump in patches, but it didn’t stop long. The rest of the pack tore in behind it, baying furiously unlike any dogs that run deer for men. Reassured by the yelps, the hound sped up the hill just as a pit bull bounded out of the brush tongue flapping against the side of its head. The bulldog did not stop short when it saw the buck looming above, and behind it a German shepherd the rest of the scraggly hounds, one wearing a frayed collar, took the bull’s lead.
As the first hound reached the top and bore down on the buck, the deer lowered its heavy head and rack. The buck’s antlers were not calcified, but its instinct to defend itself overshadowed the weakening instinct to protect the antlers. Its ears pivoted straight back, and the hair on its neck and shoulders bristled. The hound came straight on, then flanked the deer at the last second, but it cut too close. Its ribs caught the impact of the antlers, and for a moment the rack cradled the dog like it had been put in a basket, then the dog was thrown like a toy, landing hard on a stump.
Sudden pain in the roots of its antlers made the buck fall back, and then there was pain in its shoulder. The pit bull had latched onto the skin of the buck’s neck before it could swing the rack around, but the dog had bitten too low. Twisting its neck, the buck dropped, pressing its shoulders down on the dog, rolling it prone in die dirt, and the deer’s front hooves punched the soft gut that was exposed. The pit bull wailed and the jaws unclenched, and as the dog tried to roll away the hooves jabbed it again.
By now, the other dogs had surrounded the huge deer, and a hound rushed in, clamping its canines into the muscle of the deer’s thigh.
The dogs would kill the buck with their numbers in the same way that they had killed many deer, and they circled it, biting at its ears then dodging as the buck spun, looking for a single target. One dog was swinging from the top of the buck’s back where it had grabbed a knot of skin in its teeth. Blood ran from the deer’s flank, spattering the sand and the dogs with flecks of red. The pit bull circled and lunged again for the deer’s exposed throat when the buck, snorting and sucking for breath, pinned a hound to the dirt with its antlers. Ribs snapped and the dog hacked and popped its teeth together as the buck pressed, but the buck drew back when the pit bull hit its throat. Three dogs were now hanging to the thrashing animal, and the rest darted and circled closer.
With one kick and a heave, the buck shook loose the dogs and bolted, low to the ground like a brown blur down the sandy hill into the dark edge of the swamp. Almost as quickly, the dogs were after it again, their twisted instinct to kill the deer whipped into a frenzy by the brief victory. Their tongues could taste the metallic tang of blood.
The buck was wearing down more rapidly now, and it was far more exhausted than when it had stopped on the hill to challenge the dogs. Three, four dogs it could have handled, but never as many as had come pouring out of the woods. The pack bore down on it now with renewed energy, their yelps echoing off the trees.
• • • • •
Toad cranked the little outboard and eased up against the bank of the river when he heard the dogs, letting the motor idle in the narrow, black flow of the Nine Run. He sat quietly and listened, one hand on the motor, the other hand tending idly to a cigarette. As usual, he talked aloud to nobody in particular.
“Awright… come on boys, make it easy for me. Run me a deer up here. Backstrap beats gator tail any day.”
He laughed and kicked at one of the rubbery dead alligators in the bottom of the jon boat. Both of them were small, four-footers, about the biggest he could find anymore. He picked up the battered .22 revolver off the seat beside him and flipped open the cylinder to make sure he had reloaded, then he set the pistol back down.
“Gettin’ closer…” he said.
He listened as the baying and yelping stopped and the dogs began a loud barking and snarling, and he heard a dog or two begin to screech and whimper m pain.
“What the… I know that ain’t no bear.”
He knew because he had personally cleared the Nine Run swamp of its scant population of black bears from Indigo all the way to the Altamaha River, and he had done it years ago. He didn’t have time to think about that, because the next thing he heard was crashing underbrush, the sound of the running animal that the dogs were after. Toad snapped the cigarette into the river and eased the throttle forward, angling the little boat upriver to where he thought the animal would come out.
“Got to be a deer…” he said. “Got to be. What else? Boar hog would’a been gruntin’ ‘n screamin’. It ain’t no hog.”
Limbs snapped and the ground thumped with the weight of the running animal. Toad sped up. He knew he would not have much time, the river was so narrow, and the deer, if that’s what it was, would be helpless in the deep water for a very short window of time.
“Here it comes… Here it comes,” Toad whispered. “Get ready now.”
Out of sight behind the thick bank cover of brush there was a splash, and waves surged out across the stream. Heavy, loud breathing like a winded horse reached Toad’s ears, and as he waited, he grinned and giggled like a little boy.
Then the buck floundered into the main run, nothing but its nose, eyes and antlers above the water, and it heaved and grunted like a drowning buffalo.
Toad stood straight up in the boat when he saw the rack, letting go of the motor handle, and his lower lip dropped open. He stood in a stupor as the boat began to drift back, idling off course. For once in his life, he had nothing to say to himself.
Water spewed from the buck’s mouth, and streams ran from its nostrils as it struggled to catch its breath and fight the current at the same time. It saw the boat and the man, and turned in a panic back for the bank, only to see the snouts of the dogs emerging from the dark green swamp, and it struggled back into the current.
Then the boat drifted under a limb that knocked Toad in the head, and he blinked back into the present. He grabbed the motor again, throttling forward.
“Good…Lord!” he finally said.
He did not sit all the way down but squatted just enough to reach the motor. The monster was just ahead, drifting to the boat as it struggled against the swiftest part of the current, and above its ears was that rack that Toad could not believe. It was still covered in thinning velvet, and patches of hard bone were exposed, but Toad thought that even once the velvet was gone, those beams would still be as thick as his wrists, and the tines as tall as a shotgun barrel.
The buck had crossed the river many times, but this time it had been near dead with exhaustion when it plunged into the water. It struggled only to breathe now, and it was not concerned with the boat or the man or the dogs. Toad saw this as the buck drifted down the side of the boat, not trying to turn or go under or dodge the boat, and he reached down and put his hand almost tenderly around the scratchy, velvet-covered beam. His finger-tips were nowhere near meeting his thumb.
He lifted the drowning deer, realizing that the magnificent animal was sadly vulnerable. The sight of the antlers had clouded his mind like a snake charm, but the charm dissolved now. It wasn’t that catching the buck of a lifetime had been too easy; Toad would take a deer any way he could get one. His voice returned, and he screamed with joy, laughing like a maniac.
“Woohoo… Woohoo… Woohoo!” he yelled again and again as the deer, held up against the tipping side of the boat, breathed deep, grunting and gasping at the same time. The rack alone will fill the boat, Toad thought as he yelled, and it came to him that he should quit playing around and go ahead and kill the deer. He reached for a piece of nylon cord and strung it around the buck’s neck, wrapping it several times around his own hand, then he lifted. The buck began to kick furiously again as the air was choked from its lungs, and water spilled into the boat.
Then the dogs caught up with the boat. Some tried to bark as they held their noses above water, but the most they could do was gargle, and they all surrounded the buck and the boat, pawing at the deer.
“Get back!” Toad yelled. “Get off my deer! It’s my deer! Get off, you mangy son-of-a…”
He leaned over and struck savagely at the dogs with his fist, grabbing one by the ear and yanking it out of the water to beat it against the boat. The veins in his thin arms bulged like ropes. He remembered the pistol, and stretched out in the boat to reach for it, holding the buck like he was hanging on to the edge of a cliff.
When he had the pistol, he stood again, and plugged one of the swimming dogs in the top of the head. The water-logged hound sank out of sight beneath the dark current, and the rest of the dogs scattered and headed for the bank, where the pit bull and the shepherd had already scrambled out. Toad fired three times into the pack without aiming, and they vanished into the woods.
“Now, we’ll take care of you, big boy…” he said.
Toad didn’t know or didn’t care about where the boat was going. He just looked down at the antlers and laughed. Suspended in the water and choking, the buck could not use its rack to struggle, but as the boat wheeled farther down the current and as Toad laughed louder, the buck suddenly felt sand gritting under its hooves.
Ain’t nobody gonna believe this! I’ll just hafta save these horns out in the barn until…”
The buck rose out of the shallow water and, with the last of its strength, snatched Toad out of the boat. The nylon cord popped as Toad was in mid-arc over the antlers, and the buck felt air rush back into its lungs. With the force of the lunge it collapsed into the water, then staggered onto its feet and stumbled toward the bank, tripping over and gouging the man where he had fallen in the cypress knees and mud. The palmettos parted and the buck whisked through them into the open swamp. It came out on the same side of the river as it entered, its familiar territory, and it slashed through a backwater slough, building speed, still snorting with exhaustion as it turned away from the smell of dogs.
Toad shook his head and got to his feet in the murky shallows, spinning as he tried to remember where the pistol had been thrown, but it was gone. The swamped jon boat was drifting away downstream; the little three-horse outboard had sputtered and died, and one of the limp alligators drifted belly-up downstream of the boat. Toad waded out and swam for the boat, pulling himself over the submerged gunwale.
“That’s okay,” he said, “that’s okay. We’ll get ‘im.” He reached for his pack of cigarettes that was floating among the debris in the boat and wrapped his lips around one that was half dry. As he tried to light it, he looked around.
“Where’s my other gator?”
• • •
Harris Aspinwall did not like wild dogs. Too many times that summer he had caught them running deer on the Case Farm, and the dogs that he had seen lately were good at what they did. He had already found one doe that he knew had been killed by the dogs. The carcass had been mangled and torn, but none of it had been eaten.
“You hear that?” he said.
Jay was leaning against the opposite side of the truck hood.
“Yeah, but they’re way off, maybe across the river,” he said. “I bet its that same bunch with the pit bull and the big German shepherd,” Jay said. “Larry Harvey said he saw that pit bull across over on his place last week.”
“Remember how everybody around here thought coyotes would be so bad on deer?” Harris said, “I never saw a coyote do near as much damage as somebody’s sorry yard dog that went wild.”
“What do you think those dogs would do with a big buck?” Jay said.
“I doubt a real big buck, I mean a dominant buck, would run from a dog,” Harris said. “Or he’d be too slick for a dog to catch, don’t you think? If they did catch up with him, seems like the buck would just get mad and whip some tail.”
“I reckon,” Jay said.
“Besides,” Harris said, “there aren’t any big bucks on this farm. If there are, I’ll kill’ em, so what’re you worried about?”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
Harris extracted a can of Copenhagen from his back pocket and snapped it four times with his wrist and thumb.
“Want some?” he asked, as he always did.
“Get that away from me,” Jay said, like he always answered. “I reckon I’ll go finish building the cabin while you stand here drooling.”
Harris had inherited the Case Farm the past December when his great aunt died, and he and Jay set about turning the place into the hunting paradise they had planned since they first met in grade school. No one had hunted the place in more than 12 years, they figured, and it needed a lot of work, but they put in every spare hour during the winter and spring outside of their carpentering jobs. Now they had almost finished the cabin up on pilings at the edge of the swamp, and they had a fine walk-in cooler and skinning pole and deck. Half of the residents of Indigo had been invited to use the skinning pole during deer season, but Harris and Jay made it clear that 2,100 acres was room enough for only the two of them to hunt.
“I know it’s hot, but I’ve got an itch to go scouting,” Jay said as they worked. “We just spent the last eight months pushing food plots, planting seed, plowing firebreaks, burning woods, discing woods, planting trees… I’m tired of getting ready for deer season. I want it to be here”
“Me too,” Harris said.
At dark, Jay left for home and Harris worked on in the lantern light. He stopped at midnight and looked up through the live oak trees draped with moss at the stars overhead. Off in the swamp, a whippoorwill was singing its tune over and over as it had been since the sun went down. Harris took off his tool belt, climbed down the ladder and pulled on his snake chaps over his jeans. He walked down the slope of the open white oak ridge into the heavy air swamp. For now, the Nine-Run had retreated into its banks, leaving sloughs filled with stagnant water scattered throughout the flood plain.
In the dark, Harris waded Big Slough. Past this water the flood plain was dry, and Harris walked southeast through the water oak and cypress and tupelo toward the big sandhill near the river. He walked almost a mile before he reached it, and he walked to the top slowly and sat down, sweating in the dark.
Every night that he got the chance, whether he was at the Case Farm or at his house near town, he did this, walking into the woods and sitting. He did it because when he was younger he had been afraid of the dark, especially of dark woods. He had never told anyone, and would never admit it now, that he had been afraid of the dark right up until he was 16 or 17 years old. By then, he had grown to be bigger than anyone his age, and lifting weights and running windsprints with the football team had made him into a machine. People stepped carefully around him, and most picked their fights elsewhere. It wouldn’t do for anyone to know that he left his deer stands before the sun went down because he was scared to walk out in the dark.
Slowly, he ended the fear by forcing himself to walk in the woods at night, making himself see that there was nothing to be afraid of, and now he was as comfortable in the dark woods as he was at home. He looked forward to nightfall when he could walk off into the swamp, and he had become attuned to the nighttime woods, the sounds, the animals, the birds and the stars.
Nearby, on the top of the sandhill, was a small cemetery that held four graves. No one knew who was in them. The names and dates on the lichen-covered stones had all been scrubbed away by the rain and the years, except for one inscription that said “Gone but not Forgotten.” Harris felt more peaceful near this cemetery than anywhere else, but no one, not even Jay, knew that he came here late at night.
In the dark, he could feel a slight breeze lifting from the direction of the river, and down the sandy slope he heard a deer moving quietly up from the swamp. He knew it was a deer the same as he would know if it was an armadillo rooting in the leaves, or a hog, or a nightbird or a person. He strained to see into the pool of black at the bottom of the hill, but there was not even a sliver of moon to help.
The deer was walking up the hill toward him. When it reached the sandy slope, the deer’s hooves no longer made any sound, but he could see the silhouette of the body as it glided over the ground. Was it a buck? He strained even harder. Harris imagined for a second that an enormous rack towered above the deer’s head, but he knew his eyes were seeing things in the dark that his mind wanted to see. He closed them for a moment, then opened them again, and the deer was closer, maybe 15 steps away.
The wind was in Harris’s favor, and he was leaning against a scrub oak; the deer did not even know he was there. But the rack was still there.
His heart started to pound, and it rose into his neck. Sweat broke out anew on his forehead, and he tried to swallow the painful lump in his throat. It was the feeling he got when he killed his first deer, the feeling he still got when he saw big bucks, but now he was not even hunting. He knew he could calm himself by breathing deep, but the buck was too close.
It’s too big, he thought, I’m still seeing things.
Then the deer was aware of him. It could hear his heart thumping, and it felt the awareness of another animal groping in the dark. In the starlight it picked out the flat, pale face of a predator crouching in the sand. It raised its head quickly, and in that instant Harris knew that he had not imagined the rack. He saw clearly the outline of broad shoulders, the long, muscular neck, and the spread of antlers that enclosed the entire animal in its width and rose half again as high as the shoulder.
Without a sound, the buck was gone.
Harris sat still for 30 minutes before he allowed himself a deep breath. The mosquitos had located the spots that were not smeared with repellent, and they had been gorging themselves through the thin cloth of the T-shirt, but Harris did not move. He had settled deep into thoughts of the monster he had seen. He was already planning, already wondering. Tomorrow he would come in the daylight to the big sandhill and find the buck’s sign and know that what he had seen was real. He left the swamp and drove out the lane to the highway.
• • • • •
If Harris had left a few minutes later then he had, he would have seen a pair of headlights in his rearview mirror when he turned onto the highway, and he would have seen them disappear as a small green truck turned into the Case Farm drive. The dust from Harris’s passing still hovered over the dirt road when the green truck turned in and slowed. Through the open windows, the voices of two men drifted out into the darkness under the pine woods.
“Somebody’s in here,” one said.
“Or they just left,” said the other.
“What you worried about? If they see us, we’ll just say we took the wrong dirt road.”
“Have you got to do this?” said the worried one. “I ain’t seen you around home in ten years, and you got to go trying to get me in trouble right off, just like in high school.”
He looked to see if his words held any importance for the man that was driving.
“Come on, let’s just ride to town, Toad,” the worried man said. “I’ve got a job now, and a family. This ain’t high school no more.”
Toad eased on. He seemed buried in more important thoughts.
“Look, ridin’ around and drinking beer is one thing,” the worried man continued. “I know the deputy pretty well, but he can’t help with trespassing and…”
Toad turned his head to look at his old high school friend and gave him a cold stare.
“Shut up,” he said.
The green truck rolled on down the main road, turning left at a dead end.
“I tell you what, Edwin. I killed a lot of deer on this place back in high school,” Toad said. “I think I was the only one hunting it. But that deer today… I ain’t never seen one like… well…”
Edwin just looked at the driver as he spoke, then he looked off into the night. He had no idea what his old friend was talking about, but that was okay. He had known long ago that the man was semi-crazy.
On the edge of the lane, in the headlights, Edwin noticed a tractor shed under the trees next to the frame of a house. Toad spoke before he did.
“What is that?”
“I heard that Aspinwall fella was building a house out here,” Edwin said. “I hear that old rich lady that lives on that pond gave him the whole place.”
“What? Who is he?” Toad asked.
Edwin thought that he sounded irritated.
“I don’t know him, Toad,” Edwin said.
“Is he from around here?” Toad asked.
“Yeah, he lives up towards town,” Edwin said. “He’s a carpenter. Sarge said he heard him and Jay Wheelis in the cafe the other day working up some big plans for hunting this place.”
Toad looked at Edwin.
“I guess my invitation got lost in the mail,” Toad said, and then he laughed. He stopped laughing abruptly and looked out the window, mumbling something that Edwin couldn’t hear, but Edwin could hear anger. Anger over what, he couldn’t figure. The man always talked to himself, too, even when someone was there to talk to, another reason Edwin knew the man had lost it.
Toad turned left up the narrow lane by the shed, and right away Edwin saw that the lane opened into a clearing at the far reaches of the headlight beams.
“Well, this is new,” Toad said.
He gunned the engine and sped up the lane. Limbs and vines slapped at the windshield and plucked the radio antenna. Toad hit the brakes as he swung the headlight beams into the field.
In the sudden flood of light, deer darted everywhere on the south end of the food plot, ten of them at least, Edwin thought, and more than one was a buck. All of them vanished like vapor into the black underbrush, and Toad ripped the gearshift into reverse, swinging the lights into the northern end of the field. Four ghostly yellow globes of eyes hovered in the corner one hundred yards away; a doe and small buck had not yet run, and they watched the lights, necks stretched high, legs tensed to jump.
Toad’s battered .22 magnum lay on the seat beside him, and he grabbed it with his right hand as he eased the door open with his left. There was no need to load it: he always kept one in the chamber. He brought the rifle up smoothly as he stood and laid it over the open door, knowing that at 100 yards the 55-grain bullet would drop no more than half an inch, and he hugged the rifle tight, mashing his cheek against the smooth, greasy stock. Two yellow-green balls of light hung just below a rack of four… maybe five points. The eyes filled the scope and he put the crosshairs barely above the dead center point between them and squeezed.
To Edwin, the crack of the varmint gun seemed tiny, not loud enough to produce the reaction that he saw. The buck was dead by the time Edwin heard the gun, but its head snapped back as its legs uncoiled in a reflexive lunge, and the body turned a back flip. The carcass crashed into the vegetation, shaking the myrtles and vines as if a gust of wind had passed.
“Well,” Toad said to the buck. “You ain’t who I was lookin’ for, but that’s okay. Come on, Edwin, let’s go get’im.”
“Who are you lookin’ for?” Edwin asked.
Toad reached into the cab and grabbed his cigarettes off the dash. His face looked evil in the glow of the match, Edwin thought. Toad leaned into the cab and looked at Edwin.
“Come on,” Toad said. “Get out. I’d hate to drive over the man’s rye.”
• • • • •
Toad was back at his shack at the dilapidated Nine Run Fish Camp. He sat on the sagging porch in the dark, thinking about the buck until the sun was rising. When he caught the deer in the river, it had been chased by the dogs from the west bank, but when it escaped him it wound up back on the same bank. The dogs must have caught it bedded down in its territory, and Toad gambled that the buck would not return to its territory with the dogs still so close in the area.
“No,” he said as he walked the four miles up the river swamp from the fish camp to the Case Farm. “That buck didn’t go back home. He come back at dark and crossed the river.”
The buck had done exactly what Toad guessed. He found the unmistakable track of the buck emerging on the east bank not far upstream from where he had caught it the day before. He laughed when he saw the tracks.
“I was right,” he said. “I’m always right.”
He tracked the buck through the damp mud and sand rills of the swamp. The buck was headed north, upriver. It was just after daylight, and the edges of the prints had smoothed and settled slightly.
“He musta crossed not long after I left that field last night,” Toad said, pinching and probing the soil in the print.
Toad lost the track in pine straw on a small island, found it again in a dry slough on the other side, then lost it for good in a broad tangle of wild muscadines and scrub oak. Sweating heavily, he lowered the weathered .270 that he carried on his shoulder and listened. He pinched a tick from the back of his neck and plunged into the thicket. If the buck was bedded here he aimed to drive it out and shoot it in the open swamp.
But the buck was far off.
• • • • •
As Toad bent over the buck’s trail just through the trees on the far side of the river, Harris walked the sandhill, looking for the track of the monster he had seen the night before. There it was on the face of the hill, 17 steps from where Harris had been sitting. He followed the deep, broad impressions in the sand until they led into broom sedge and brush that bordered the hill, but he did not try to follow them or see where they would come out. His doubts about what he had seen were relieved; at least he knew that this deer was a behemoth animal like the silhouette that had approached him in the dark, but he still wondered about the wide sweeping rack he had seen and whether the dim image he recalled was anything like the reality of the animal. He began to search the far end of the sandhill.
Sweeping back along the buck’s path, his eyes picked up other marks, and he found a wide swath of churned sand and scrub oak leaves where several dogs had passed, running. He was angry at himself then for not having brought along his pistol in case he met with a dog, but it was no good now. Even if he found a good limb he knew he couldn’t get close enough to brain one of the mangy hounds. He looked at his watch, then at the dog tracks, and headed for his truck. He had to get to work.
That afternoon, a swollen thunderhead rolled in and darkened the swamp, bursting over the river and the farm, washing away the tire tracks, bootprints and drag marks left by Toad and Edwin in the food plot. The tracks of the buck on the sandhill were erased as well, and two weeks after, Harris had not found any other sign of the buck.
• • • • •
As much as he hated to ask for help, Harris finally told the whole story to Jay and took him to the sandhill, showing him where the monster had walked.
“I haven’t seen his track since that storm,” Harris said, “and that was two weeks ago.”
“You reckon the dogs run him off?” Jay asked.
“Could be, but I hope not.”
“Or maybe,” Jay said, “like I said all along, you were just seeing things.”
“If I hadn’t seen those tracks I might agree with you,” Harris said, “but I know what I saw.”
“What about rubs?” Jay said. “I found two small ones already out in the planted pine. Found any down here?”
“No, nothing like I know this buck can do.”
Jay stood up and looked around.
“Well, I ain’t wasting my Saturday fooling around this cemetery chasin’ after your imaginary animal friends,” he said. I’ll be up around the three-acre food plot.”
“You stay up there, too,” Harris said, “right on through the season. And after I kill this cemetery buck, you better still be up there.”
“I will,” Jay said, walking away.
“Tell the Cemetery Buck I said hello when you see him.”
The swipe of Jay’s canvas snake leggings faded off into the trees and Harris squatted alone near a gopher tortoise burrow, snapping twigs into small pieces and thinking. He listened, hoping at least to catch a dog or two while he sat trying to decide where and how to find the buck. His stainless .44 magnum revolver hung under his arm like a lead pipe, and he wished he had something more convenient to carry in the woods. Mosquitoes droned in his ears, sweat rolled down his forehead to the tip of his nose, and he thought about shucking off his clothes and jumping in the river.
A stick cracked off in the trees toward the Nine Run, and suddenly he wasn’t bored. Like an apparition that had waited until Harris was alone to present itself, the buck materialized in front of him, trotting parallel to the hill, one hundred yards through the open swamp. The deer blinked through the sparse flecks of sunlight, moving steadily, its head held out straight so that the spine and neck were nearly in a straight arrow with the nose at the tip.
Harris raised his binoculars and scanned until he found the buck, which had almost vanished again in palmetto. The rack stood out above the spiked clumps.
Harris could see from the way the buck moved that it had been spooked, but he could not take his eyes off that rack to look for what had spooked it. The deer was still slender in its summer form, almost red in the sunlight, and its long neck was wiry with muscles that would swell and bulge as the rut approached. The muzzle and forehead of the animal were frosted with grizzled white hair among the black that bristled around the antlers, fading into a reddish hard jawline and white throat. Like a picture-book image, the rack floated above the neck and head, a separate array of long spikes and curved arms, ridiculously heavy even above those thickset shoulders and ox-like neck.
The buck passed on, silent except for the one snapped limb that had exposed it to the man. It was gone as suddenly as it had danced in, flicking into a thicket with no more sound than a mouse moving through a trailer-load of cotton.
Still and silent except for his breathing, Harris waited. His thoughts flashed by in excitement as he skipped past all plans of scouting and hunting to conjure up images of himself bringing the buck down with his bow. He pictured himself approaching the animal lying massive and broad among the white oaks. Then he cussed when he thought of Jay having left minutes before the buck passed.
He listened for dogs, hoping that he would not see any, but at the same time hoping he would get a chance to puncture one or two. Not once, not ever, did he guess that it was a man that had spooked the buck, and even when he saw the man, and looked again to confirm that it was a man, he did not make the connection.
Then the movement that he had seen became a man, trotting stooped and scanning the ground. With the binoculars he saw a rifle carried gently in one dangling hand. The man was as silent as the buck. Harris tried to see the man’s face, see if he recognized the man, but the man was in palmetto now, walking along the far side into scrub oak, circling to find the track. Harris had never seen a man hunt a deer like this, and the thought of poachers on his own land had never been a consideration, but Harris’s eyes were opened now, and he stood immediately and yelled.
The man froze for an instant like a startled wild animal, then he darted behind a cypress and faded into the deep green undergrowth.
Harris trotted to where the man had disappeared. There were the tracks of the buck again, huge and deep, splayed from the weight and speed of the buck’s stride, and there were the boot tracks of the man. He found where the man had turned when Harris yelled, where the sand and scruffy moss had been kicked and scattered, but there was nothing to follow from there. Harris searched the area, examining each print left by the buck so that he could recognize it when he saw it again. He doubted that he would find another deer’s track that would compare in size, but then he had killed a doe once that had the biggest hooves he’d ever seen on any deer. He left at last to find Jay, and as he told him about seeing the poacher, his anger returned.
“I dern sure forgot about it,” Jay said, “but I saw a green pickup parked in the pecan orchard when I was coming from home this morning.”
“Dangit!” Harris said, kicking a huge clod of dirt from the ground.
“Don’t get mad at me!” Jay said, backing away. He knew better than anyone about Harris’s temper. Many times, at parties or in pool halls, Jay had seen Harris turn away from people who wanted to start a fight, but there were always a few who wouldn’t let it rest, as if their manhood would suffer if they didn’t challenge Harris. Jay still pictured the last one being pummeled senseless against the bar and then thrown like a dishrag across a pool table. He had to pull Harris off the unconscious man and push him out the door, and that time Harris had even hit Jay once before he regained his own senses. He could see that the poacher had come close to stirring a similar fit in Harris, and he watched his step.
“Easy, now!” he said as Harris punched the door of his truck, denting it slightly.
“I ain’t mad at you,” Harris said. “I’m just mad.”
“If that’s him, his truck’s probably still there.”
“I don’t know,” Harris said, “I looked around for a while. He’s had time to get out.”
“Well, let’s go see.”
• • • • •
Harris and Jay drove down the lane that would take them past a small pond to the pecan orchard beside an old house that stood on the farm’s southern boundary. They didn’t get all the way to the pecan orchard, because as they passed the pond, there sat Toad on the dam with a cane pole. Harris was as surprised by this sight as he was at the poacher.
“Is that him?” Jay asked.
“No, it ain’t,” Harris said. “It ain’t him. The man I saw didn’t have a hat on, and he had on a T-shirt, not long sleeves. I didn’t see much of the face or features.”
“Howdy,” Harris said when he stepped out of the truck.
“How you?” Toad said, grinning.
“Fine. Any luck?” Harris could see three or four bluegill thrown over n the grass.
“Just these here,” Toad said.
“That your truck in the pecan orchard yonder?” Harris asked.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“I don’t wanna sound rude or nothin’, but I’m the new owner of this farm, been so almost a year,” Harris said. “and I don’t allow fishing.”
“I been comin’ here for years,” Toad said. “I used to work for the old man what owned this farm, and he give me permission.”
“That so?” Harris asked. “What’d you do for’im?”
“Umm…” Toad stuttered and scratched his head, “picked t’backer.”
“Well, keep what you got there and head on.” Harris said. “I’d appreciate it if you find somewhere else to fish.”
“We’ll do,” Toad said, grinning.
“By the way,” Jay said. “You got anybody with you?”
No,” Toad grinned even wider, “just me.”
• • • • •
“He’s a liar,” Harris said as they drove off. “Uncle Jim worked these woods for turpentine. He never grew a a stalk of tobacco in his life.”
When the blue pickup disappeared into the lane through the planted pine, Toad looked after it for a moment. He wasn’t grinning anymore.
“No, sir,” he said, “I won’t fish here no more.”
He walked down the dam and dropped the stringer of fish into the creek drain. Pushing the cane pole into a briar clump, he exchanged it for his rifle which was hidden there and shouldered it. In no time he slunk back into the swamp and crossed the track of a big deer. He muttered, angry, as he picked his way along the track, pushing aside the thick grass to find the prints.
“Been huntin’ here long as I can remember. You can’t run a man off his huntin’ grounds when he’s got as much right to hunt here as you do,” he whispered.
He stopped and took off the hat and stared ahead into the woods. As he watched, not a hundred yards off, the rack, ears and neck of a buck rose above a patch of huckleberries where the deer had been bedded.
Harris and Jay were in the noisy truck cab, headed for the restaurant in Indigo. They did not hear the crack and rumble of the high-powered rifle that crossed the hill like noon thunder under the hazy sky.
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