Author: James L. Bruner
Like his majesty walking through the hallowed halls of his kingdom the old monarch swaggered through the field wearing his crown of antlers in pride. The flushing of a lone pheasant brought him to a momentary halt as he quickly surveyed the surroundings then continued on his journey to somewhere unknown to any man and oblivious to danger. This beautiful whitetail didn’t grow those tremendous antlers overnight and with Bow Season getting closer his daily routine was sure to change any day now. My last vision of him melting into the forest with the sun rising at his back illuminating his crown left me breathless for words or thoughts.
Up until now the buck was easily patterned the same as he was last season. But as eerie as a ghostly figure dancing under a pale moonlit night, he would soon disappear for the remainder of the hunting season. But this year was to be different and my plans brought the notion that if he wouldn’t come to me…I’ll go to him! How could I penetrate the very depths of his core range when he was aware of every branch, rock, and leaf that I was sure to disturb? Only once did I dare to intrude on his home-range as I trekked a mere 40 acres back and found trees the size of a small mans leg, scarred and damaged from present and past years.
The musty smell of the moss that lay afoot was obviously impregnated with years of markings and droppings from years gone by. The pungent odor filled my nostrils as I studied the scarred trees where the monarch had left his calling card and staked his claim to this dark and silent section of forest. It was obvious from the many battle-wounded timbers that this had been a long-time favorite haunt of his and showed no signs of changing. For the most part, it was an impenetrable fortress guarded by century old thorn berry brush and sunlight starved cedars that touched limbs from one to the next. A small creek ran north and south to create one last obstacle should any of the previous parameters be broken. I could envision that buck as he walked silently on the mossy carpet of his home and listened intently for intruders trying to defy the walls of defense that surrounded him.
I often wondered how this magnificent animal survived the instinctive hormonal rage of the rut, which has brought down countless numbers of world-class trophies. My only reasonable suggestion to myself was that he had honed his survival skills to perfection and became a nocturnal prince of the night calling on the suitors of his choice under the comfort of nightfall. But there had to be a flaw. A small piece of the puzzle was left somewhere that I hadn’t seen and held my key to success and the harvest of his majesty.
The dawn of the next day found myself trying to alleviate the heightened excitement of the coming bow season. As I guided a well-placed fly in front of a wary brook trout he snubbed graciously at my presentation and disappeared under the security of the undercut banks of the creek. As I stalked the banks my mind drifted back to the buck. Staring intently into the cool fresh water racing past I realized that the morning frost had lost its battle to the early rays of morning light.
My walk back would now be as wet as walking in the creek itself as I high stepped back in an effort to stay as dry as possible. The site of the old pickup was welcome indeed as I stowed my gear behind the seat and sat behind the wheel. One last look at the creek meandering through the meadow and I was gone. A short distance down the old gravel road the truck came to an abrupt halt as I hit reverse and headed back. There it was, right before my eyes. The piece of the puzzle that had been missing suddenly came into full view. I would follow the bed of the creek that led me right to the old monarchs sanctuary and relish in the spoils of my victory.
The creek was as wide as an average man could leap with a running start. The banks carved three foot deep from the once raging waters of a small river would provide cover to each of my sides. The water only a foot in depth supplied enough subtle sound to mask any small error or slip of the foot. A north wind would be sure to wash my scent downstream away from the buck. I had a plan all right, but would it work? The last few days before season were spent polishing shooting skills to precision pinpoint accuracy. My plan was simple. Slip into the creek an hour after sunrise and work my way cautiously to my destination. With the whole day ahead of me the estimated three-hour walk should put me there right around noon.
After a long night of restless sleep I awoke at sunrise and tried to refrain from the urge to get an early start. The ride to the creek was all of 15 minutes to the old family property that was once a flourishing farmland but had since grown over in the passing years.
The last of the barns were salvaged for the lumber and all that was left standing was the weathered hand pump that no longer pulled the fresh water from the earths depths. Thinking back I remember as we gathered around as children with our hands cupped to be filled with cold water while we took turns pumping the old well for one another on those hot summer days. I recall the stalks of corn as tall as small trees and the wagons of hay that filled the loft in an endless sea of gold. The occasional herding of an elusive cow that had ideas other than being milked. And as always an endless barrage of cats and kittens, too numerous to count or name, that earned their keep by hunting the armies of field mice that constantly tried to infiltrate their way into the grain bins. After my short stroll down memory lane I realize that it’s time to go.
Even with hip boots on, the spring fed waters of the creek are cold. I soon find that once in the creek the banks rise to my chest area, this couldn’t be more perfect. With barely a breeze my mindset turns to that of the predator as I slowly navigate upstream choosing each step carefully and calculating the path ahead. With every motion I listen and observe my surroundings in an attempt not to alert the other inhabitants of my presence. Time passes slowly as I find myself drifting back to the picture of the old buck walking away in the last rays of the evening light just a few weeks earlier.
The forest has thickened and taken on a silence so deep that it makes my ears ring in an attempt to hear something. The trees have enveloped all but the last hints of daylight and fingers of moss have begun to stretch down the banks in a desperate search for water. A musty smell has been growing ever stronger with each calculated step and an overwhelming presence of being watched has sent chills down the back of my spine.
As I scan the area I realize I am here. The trees show their newest battle wounds and the earth permeates the odor of territorial marking once again. I see no sign of the buck. No sign of any deer for that matter. For the moment I wonder if I had been watched and he wisely slipped out the back door undetected and unscathed. With my thoughts and hopes quickly diminishing I soon find myself conceding to defeat in this strategic game of chess played between human and nature. A perfectly calculated plan gone awry by some matter unseen to my self-centered human eyes.
As I lower my bow the once bolstering confidence turns to criticism with each passing minute. I fight with myself to refrain from walking back through the woods rather than the creek. Feeling the buck was untouchable I wanted to let him know just how close I had gotten by announcing my existence as I crashed through the army of obstacles on my way back to the pickup. One last glance of my opponent’s domain brought a sense of defeat yet a sense a great accomplishment knowing I had penetrated his walls of defense. The obvious was there to see. This placed seemed lifeless, void of any living creatures and shrouded in damp darkness that chilled me to the bone. Turning to leave I notice a hoof print in the soft mud. Larger than most and stamped in the earth like the calling card of a thief who had squandered my last hopes of victory as I look in the direction of their departure. And there, in all his glory was the magnificent monarch picking his way through the forest making no audible sound and walking in my direction.
He had crossed the creek earlier in the day, possibly to mark the outer edges of his kingdom, and was returning to the safety of his core with no obvious concern to the lone sentinel that had unknowingly positioned himself perfectly. At thirty yards the giant stopped and began to work the earth with his hooves. The clumps of moss became airborne in a steady flow as the scrape was worked and the monarch turned broadside. In the same instant he stopped to test the air, my arrow flew in seemingly slow motion and found its mark. With my heart pounding in the heat of the moment I watch as the giant trots away then stops, looks back in my direction, and collapses in a heap that shakes the ground. As I walk up to my trophy I can’t help but wonder how many times he has passed on his dominant genes. Perhaps one day, with the falling of the king, a new leader will rule in this same domain offering a chance to hunt, a son, of the great monarch.