I didn't know it then, and refused to acknowledge it for hours thereafter, but this was the end of the line. After making increasingly large circles around that bed without finding any more sign, I started to get that dark feeling that most seasoned deer seekers have experienced: I'd lost my only tangible link to this animal whose life I'd tried to take.
With a heavy heart and my confidence nearly gone, I swore to myself that I'd stomp through the whole damn county and hope to find him lying somewhere. I'd find him and drag him to hell and back if necessary.
For more than three hours I plodded through the countryside, peering under blow-downs, busting through thickets, and maneuvering along hillsides to access rugged places I might seek if I were a wounded whitetail. And toward the end I began to berate myself:
You crotchety old coot, you're getting too long in the tooth to chase deer. This is a pursuit for young people-maybe you oughtta give it a rest. You should have spent more time putting holes in targets with this rifle. It's not like you're shooting that tack-driving .308 with all its shock power. And what about that cataract you're growing in your right eye? That's your aiming eye, Jerk! The doc says he can't remove it yet, so what're you gonna do about it? Did you really have a good sight picture, or was it wishful thinking?
Quick, quick-somebody tell me I'm having fun! Like any hunter worth the name, I detest wounding and losing an animal. But then my more or less rational side started to be heard. Nothing's unfailingly reliable in our world-not politics, not brain surgery, not human nature. Bad stuff happens-it's how we react to the bad stuff that really counts.
And I found it easy to call to mind the many incidents-just in my own experience-that prove how truly intelligent and cunning a mature whitetail buck is. Only a week before, I'd been "taking my crossbow for a walk in the woods" and had hunkered down in a little draw looking down on a small hardwood bottom where there sat a guzzler, or watering tank for livestock. We'd had no real rain for more than a month, and I hoped the easily available water would pull in the critters.
And it did, as half a dozen or so does ghosted into view down by the tank. I was trying to get into a good shooting position-moving like a glacier, I hoped-when Big Daddy joined the little harem. Nice buck-8 points, decent tine length. I tried to make like the boulder next to me, but was in an awkward position and had to straighten one leg.
The buck, only about 25 yards away, saw something it didn't like and stared my way for more than a full minute. Then it walked diagonally to my left, actually moving a bit closer to me, and got behind some low pawpaw bushes. I was just about set, the bow's red-dot scope just inches from my eye, and as immobile as I could be. After some 18 years-okay, probably two minutes-I noticed a small opening in the brush about 6 inches above the forest floor. Centered in that opening was an eye. That buck had its head almost flat on the ground and was watching me. As soon as eye contact was made, it snorted and was gone. Conjuring up that incident dispelled some of the gloom as I plodded back toward my car after giving up on the muzzleloader buck.
Best medicine of all, though, was the dose served up just three days later. Dusk was deepening as I stood in another hedgerow in a different county and watched a large, healthy doe meander out into a fescue field to add bulk to its already rotund figure. The crosshairs settled on the sweet spot, the Disc rifle roared, and when the smoke cleared, it lay dead on the spot.
The freezer is full, the buck is a bittersweet memory and somehow I feel younger.