The Sable Bucks Of Black Bog Swamp
Fall Fiction Series Part 1 of 5: “The Postcard”
The slow light of the new morning was just beginning to reveal the close-cropped openness of the three-acre field planted in bright green winter wheat. Continuous wind gusts were causing colorful poplar and maple leaves to rain down along the edge of the field like odd yellow snowflakes. The day was cold and blustery in early November, and the slate-colored sky was indeed angry enough to unleash a few real over-sized snowflakes of its own.
The young man took a deep breath and exhaled, watching the cloud of foggy air as it rolled out the window of the pop-up ground blind and slowly dissipated. Although bitterly-cold, it was a perfect day to be in the woods, even though the wind cut through him like a knife and made his hands and feet painfully cold. As the world around him began to brighten, he noted the heavy frost on the grassy ground and the thick carpet of brown leaves around the edge of the field. The frost on the short green wheat glistened like a thousand sparkling diamonds. He knew the frost would begin to go away as soon as the sun penetrated the dark edges on this side of the field.
The 17-year-old hunter was sitting in a well-camouflaged pop-up blind just inside the tree line, well hidden in the broomsedge and high grass that grew alongside the food plot. The wind was blowing from left to right in front of him, offering a perfect situation because the field emptied into a thick swamp bottom 80 yards behind him, and he knew that any approaching bucks in search of receptive does would probably sneak in from that direction. The crosswind would be a tremendous advantage.
Suddenly a doe ran out of the woods on his left side. She stopped about 10 yards from the edge in the green wheat and looked back toward the almost impenetrable swamp bottom. Then she loped majestically out into the middle of the field and stopped again. Cougar Kincaid tensed up, saying a little prayer and hoping that the next actor to appear in this unfolding drama would be wearing antlers. Taking a deep breath, he carefully placed his rifle on the triangular shooting sticks and waited. Several low grunts emanated from the dark woods behind him sending cold chills down his back and causing his heart to pound. Then a fine buck with long tines and a spread that grew several inches beyond his ears appeared in the edge of the woods less than 30 yards from the blind.
Suddenly Cougar’s heart was in his feet. The magnificent whitetail ran out into field and stopped broadside 45 yards from the small blind. With a thickly swollen neck and a heavy, muscular body, he carried eight or nine darkly colored tines. He had a commanding presence that made him appear much larger and more invincible than he actually was. Cougar knew this buck was not a record of any kind, but it was the largest buck the young hunter had ever seen this close up. And now, staring at such a magnificent animal standing only a rock’s throw away, Cougar’s body became paralyzed. He couldn’t move. It never occurred to him to aim his rifle or look through the scope.
After a few seconds, the buck put his nose to the ground and started weaving toward the doe in what seemed like a slow-motion, gravity-defying, quick-trotting dash. As the single-minded buck approached the doe, she shot ahead as if being launched from a cannon and bounded across the field like an antelope, disappearing into the far tree line. The excited buck remained only a few feet behind until he disappeared. Cougar sat there for a moment as if in a trance. Then he started shaking so badly he could hardly remain in his small, folding chair.
Cougar sat without moving for a full five minutes—thinking about what just happened. As his nerves slowly calmed down enough so that he was no longer shaking, he felt extreme embarrassment. No one had seen his reaction to the buck, and no one need know about it if he so chose to keep quiet. He quickly resolved to never tell a living soul. He knew how critical his father would be if he found out. Jimbo Kincaid, the tough retired Marine who had seen considerable action in Iraq in 2008, would never stand for such things. The same thing had happened while he was sitting with Jimbo a year ago and his dad had been outraged that one of his sons could get buck fever. He had cruelly condemned Cougar in front of his brother and his uncle by bluntly declaring, “You’ll never be a deer hunter like the rest of us if you can’t control your nerves.”
Now it had happened a second time. How could he have committed such a cardinal sin? Again? He was an excellent young woodsman and a very good shot with his rifle. So why did he always get such a bad case of buck fever? He was furious at himself.
“Never again!” he said out loud. “Never again! Next time I’ll be ready. Next time I’ll get my rifle up and make a perfect shot! Never again.”
Then he made a solemn vow…
“I’ll show everybody.”
This buck was handed to you on a silver platter and you blew it, he thought. What could he do to keep it from happening again? He shook his head as he thought about those beautiful long tines. The buck had obviously been rubbing on some type of tree that stained his antlers a dark brown color. “He was a beauty,” Cougar whispered.
Twenty minutes later the sun was just peaking up through the far tree line when Cougar heard what sounded like a faint, faraway bleat. He looked out across the field. To his amazement, the same doe was running directly toward him from the far side of the field.
“No way!” he whispered quietly.
He knew the buck would be following. This time he clutched the rifle and sighted his scope on the doe and waited. He knew his 3x to 9x scope was set on about 6-power. Leaning back in his chair, he made sure the barrel of the rifle was unobstructed by brush he had placed in front of the blind and the gun was resting solidly on the shooting sticks.
This is too good to be true, he thought as he waited. The doe stopped about 60 yards from his blind. Once again she looked back. Then she sprinted ahead, running into the woods near Cougar’s blind in almost the same spot where she had first appeared. Cougar scanned the field intently. Suddenly there he was, coming full tilt, in all his glory like a crazed bull, following in the doe’s tracks with his head to the ground. With every breath a heavy mist streamed from his nostrils. This time the buck stopped less than 20 yards from the blind straight on, staring directly toward Cougar and seemingly staring right through the anxious hunter. This time Cougar refused to let his nerves rule his body.
Should I wait for him to turn broadside or should I shoot straight on? he wondered.
He had always been taught that straight-on shots could be risky. It was always better to try for a broadside shot that would go right through the boiler room. Fortunately he didn’t have to make that decision. The buck turned broadside as if in cue and stared into the woods where the doe had disappeared. There was no thinking about it, no taking a deep breath, no trying to place a perfect shot. The gun roared, and the buck lurched straight ahead and ran into the woods only a few feet from the blind. Cougar lost sight of him but heard him go down right behind the blind. There was no mistaking that glorious sound. Then all was quiet again. The shakes began to come back as his body trembled and the realization of what had just happened began to sink in, but this time it didn’t matter. “I just… shot… my… first real buck,” he said our loud. He had taken several spikes and forkhorns but never a buck of this size. Jimbo had not allowed him to hunt alone until he turned 13. Now he knew his father had no grounds to criticize him. At last he was a full-fledged buck hunter!
• • •
When Cougar got back to camp, all Jimbo had said was, “It’s about time. Now get that buck hung up and be careful not to taint those tenderloins when you gut him.”
Uncle Wiley had been much more supportive. He made a big deal out of Cougar’s first antlered buck. He took numerous photos and insisted on footing the bill to have Cougar’s first “real” buck mounted.
• • •
Six months later, Cougar celebrated his 18th birthday. He was also on the verge of graduating from high school. The previous season was long over but not forgotten. That first antlered buck had been a milestone in his hunting career, and it now hung proudly in his bedroom. Cougar received a special birthday gift from Uncle Wiley. It was a book he’d heard much about and always wanted. It had belonged to his great grandfather, James Lee “Sonny” Kincaid Sr. The book was “Shots at Whitetails” by Larry Koller published in 1948. Wiley had owned the book for many years, read it numerous times, and he had whet Cougar’s appetite by telling him all about how the author hunted mature bucks in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Uncle Wiley had written a note to Cougar and left it just inside the book:
On the occasion of your 18th birthday and high school graduation. As you know, this book originally belonged to your great grandfather, “Sonny” Kincaid Sr., who got it when he was 80 years old. He lived to be 88, and he hunted right up until the day he died. He passed it down to his son, your grandfather, James Lee “J.L.” Kincaid Jr., our father and the man who taught Jimbo and me to hunt when we were boys. We both read it and loved it. I’ve probably read it three or four times since. It’s that good and it’s very informative.
Now it’s your turn! Enjoy!
With much love and respect,
“I can’t wait to read it,” Cougar said excitedly. “I’ll start on it tonight. Thanks, Uncle Wiley!”
“You bet, Cougar.”
Unlike many of his friends, Cougar was a great reader, especially anything pertaining to deer hunting or American history. His father, who read very little, criticized him for reading so much and frequently told him, “Book learning can teach you some things, son, but it doesn’t help you much if you don’t have the practical experience to go with it.”
“I noticed it has ‘Cypress Hill Farms’ written in the front,” Cougar said. “So it came from the farm?”
“Yes it did,” Uncle Wiley answered. “It was there for many years. The last I hunted down there was in 2009. That’s what, 14 years ago? I grabbed the book out of Dad’s library at the cabin and brought it home with me to read. Your grandpa had died the year before and I never returned it. Actually I haven’t been back down to the cabin since then because we couldn’t hunt there anymore after Dad’s estate was settled. It’s been sitting in my bookshelf just begging for someone to read it. Thought you would enjoy it.”
“I know I will, Uncle Wiley. I don’t just like it, I love it!”
Cougar hadn’t thought about the old family farm in a long time, but now several flashbacks came to him in living color like an old home movie. He wasn’t even four years old when his grandfather died, and he didn’t remember much about J.L. Kincaid. Only that his father and Uncle Wiley had worshipped the ground he walked on and they still told stories about his hunting escapades. Cougar vaguely remembered going to the hunting cabin with Jimbo that last year when he was so small. He vaguely recollected seeing several mounted deer that looked more like elk to a 4-year-old, and many old black-and-white photos on the walls that enthralled him. The entire cabin was beautifully paneled in cypress. The one thing he did vividly remember was an incident involving a large cottonmouth moccasin. The cabin had been built on a slight rise overlooking a 4-acre pond, and Cougar had loved to stalk frogs around the pond with his sling shot. He was playing in an open sandy area in front of the cabin when Jimbo suddenly started screaming at him from the front porch. “Get back, son, get back!”
He didn’t know what all the commotion was about until Jimbo came running toward him with a shotgun. There, stretched out on the sandy beach several feet from the water’s edge was a thick, 3-foot-long cottonmouth. The image of that big, heavy-bodied, scary-looking snake was etched in Cougar’s brain for all time. He had been standing less than 10 feet from the snake and had never seen it. It was as thick around as his leg. Jimbo quickly ended the snake’s career by blowing off its head.
That night, Cougar started looking at some of the chapters and flipping through the pages of the classic book. When he got near the back of the book, a brown envelope, faded with age, dropped out. Inside the envelope was an old black-and-white picture postcard from the 1950s of a very old man posed with a very dark-haired 8-point buck. There were several more modern photos from the ’60s. One showed three hunters pictured with an enormous buck. The deer was a wide-spreading 6×6 typical that had to score well into the 150s. Cougar studied the photo. The rack was impressive enough, but something else really aroused his curiosity. Just like in the previous photo, the buck had a very dark face and head, almost black. Cougar could barely make out the buck’s somewhat lighter throat patch. The deer’s body also appeared to be a very dark gray. How strange, he thought. He had never seen or heard of any deer that were almost black in color. On the back of that photo was written: “J.L. finally got ol’ Sable. Black Bog Swamp, Nov. 22, ’63. ”
So his grandfather had killed this incredible buck in 1963 on the very same day President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. What a sad coincidence. Suddenly Cougar’s mind was filled with wonder and a myriad of questions. He knew his father didn’t like to talk about the farm, but he didn’t really know why. It was time to find out. The next day he drove over to Uncle Wiley’s house to get some answers.
• • •
“How’s the reading coming?” Uncle Wiley asked.
“Great but I have something I need to ask you.” Cougar opened the envelope and pulled out the old photos.
“Were they in the book? I forgot all about them.”
“Yes, sir, they fell out of the back when I was flipping through. I wanted to ask about these strange-looking deer.”
Cougar pulled out the photo of the three men posed with the immense 12-pointer.
“Ah, yes, the fabled bucks of Black Bog Swamp. Dad used to call them the Sable Stags of Black Bog.”
“So you know about these deer?”
“Yes. Black Bog Swamp is pretty large, and part of it is on our farm. There has always been a pocket of melanistic deer down in that area. Have you ever heard that term before?”
“Well just as in white deer or piebalds, melanism in deer is a genetic mutation that results in unusual darkening of body tissues and hair caused by excessive production of the chemical melanin. It’s not real common in Georgia, but it’s very dominant down on the farm. Sometimes you’ll see one or two black sheep in a large flock caused by the same condition.”
“So my granddad shot this deer on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was killed?”
“He sure did. How did you remember that date? That was Dad’s biggest buck ever. He had hunted that buck for two years back in the swamp. Named him Ol’ Sable. Sable is a dark brown color that can be described as black-brown or deep chocolate, but it often appears to be sort of an inky coal black color. J.L. saw him right after daylight that morning. Ol’ Sable was chasing a doe. J.L. was watching a creek crossing and Ol’ Sable chased that doe across the creek and almost ended up in his lap.
“It was sort of frosty that morning, and all that water on Ol’ Sable’s chest and belly turned to ice. Those are two of his best friends posed with him, Dennis Mays and Shorty McCullough. It took all three of ’em to get Ol’ Sable out of the swamp. By the time they got him hung up back at the barn it was almost noon. They took a few pictures and dressed him out, then went back to the cabin to grab some lunch and celebrate. Someone happened to turn on the TV set, and that’s when they all found out the President had been assassinated. That put a real damper on the day. Back then, everybody loved Kennedy… Didn’t matter what party you claimed.”
“That was a sad day, all right,” Cougar said. “Are there still bucks down there like Ol’ Sable?”
“I suppose there probably are. Should be, anyway, since nobody’s hunted ’em in years.”
“Why not Uncle Wiley? It’s family land, isn’t it? Why can’t we hunt down there?”
“That’s a real can of worms, Cougar. Your Daddy’s never said anything to you about it?”
“No sir, never. Will you tell me why? Please… I really need to know.”
“You got all day and part of tomorrow?”
“I’ve got as much time as it takes.”
“What say we grab us a Coke and go sit in the back yard…”
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