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A buck for the ages

by Jefferson Weaver on 7th-July-2014

He was likely born in mid-spring, the Moon of Greening Grass, when other wild things are beginning to be born as the woods awaken from their winter’s rest and those animals that made it through the Hunger Moon can finally feed without such desperation.

I speculate that the buck was born in the “normal” time simply because he was obviously a healthy, strong whitetail. To grow antlers like that—with no evidence of the supplements so many people nowadays will throw out like candy at a Christmas parade—the buck came from some good bloodlines. He was a solid, thick, well-ridged eight-point; one could argue ten plus the brow tines, one of which was slightly bent from a mishap whilst he was still in velvet.

But well before that brow tine was bent or broken or even bitten, the buck was likely the lord of the forest.

When I first found the rack, I thought the skull had to be from a small cow. We don’t often grow deer that size around here anymore. The silly idea that so many have of there being something unmanly to shoot a doe, but yet the pinnacle of manhood to shoot every button buck that moves means the days of the 175-pound six-point are long gone. There just isn’t the forage needed to support a burgeoning deer herd that can, even with coyotes and bobcats taking their toll, increase by half ever single year.

I’d be willing to bet the buck was from back in the days when the rut was a brief, tenuous period in mid-winter. We grew big deer, without supplements and steroids, back then, and it was in part because the quality bucks bred the quality females. Youngsters and lesser quality critters didn’t have the chance to scratch the itch until they were worthy or could displace someone else in the herd.

The buck came from a place where Carolina Bays dominate the returning longleaf pine savannahs. From the air, the bays are dark green spots, as if God flipped His paintbrush during Creation, and had a little more Creation left on there than He thought.

I love the bays—their outer walls are as forbidding as any medieval castle, but their interiors are places where hard-pressed critters can seek refuge and grow. A savvy deer can twist and turn his way through a bay in such a way that even the best hound is left hassling and confused. Most hunters are loathe to enter the average bay, since there’s a good chance you’ll spend part of your time on your hands and knees, fighting thorns and hoping the copperheads and diamondbacks are still asleep. Man can never know all the secret trails and paths through the muscadines, scuppernongs and blackberries, and it’s better that way.

An old deer is a smart deer; nature is designed that way, and for this buck to have gotten as large as he was, he had some years on him. He likely rocketed through bays from the time he was a spotted fawn, chased by one predator or another, following an equally savvy mother who knew in her genes that sometimes a scentless fawn can hide, but sometimes flight is the only salvation.

The bleached white of the buck’s skull told me he was likely from the time before coyotes and wild pigs arrived to eat fawns by the dozen, possibly even before radios and tracking collars and four-wheel-drive changed the playing field between deer and deerhunter.

I guess I could have a biologist friend try to age the buck; normally I thrive on data like that, as my own homage to the modern way of managing wildlife. However, I’m content to guess on a lot of things; his sheer size, and the points on the “rocking chair” he once used to defend territory and his harem, suggest he was an old deer when the end came. The teeth in the top jaw are worn smooth; there’s a slight bump on one side of the skull from an old injury.

I have no idea whether the buck was a trophy, or whether a wanderer like myself found the skull one spring. I’d like to think the old fellow outwitted and survived every hunter save old age, since that would have guaranteed his heritage would live on through the fawns of the does he dueled for, then defended, then charmed when the Moon of First Frost, what we call November, shone bright in a blue-black sky. Several of the biggest bucks I’ve ever seen were found deep in the woods, with no sign of a hunter’s bullet or arrow leaving a mark to trace the end of their days. Nature’s death, however, if never as swift and clean as a well-placed shot, and a forest lord like this one deserved better than a starving, painful cold death after being crippled by a car or defeated by a rival.

The place where I found the forgotten trophy showed signs of a hunter’s camaraderie. I’d love to think the deer was taken by someone who valued him, and shared the bounty with his friends and family in the light of a campfire or even the glaring overheads of a skinning shed, where the story could be told time and again, along with stories of other hunts. The veracity of the stories wouldn’t be as important as the friendship shared on a crisp autumn night when the dogs are exhausted and everyone joshes with a blushing boy who had joined the ranks of the grownups by bringing meat to the home.

Either way, the buck wasn’t completely forgotten. The skull sat on a shelf until new owners of the property saw it as just one more piece of debris.

It bothered me to see the buck’s crown in a bucket of trash, and being the inveterate ragpicker I am, I carefully placed the antlered skull in the trunk of my car. I am not a big fan of hunting trophies, although I have a few. I’ve never been comfortable with placing the antlers of one deer on the hide of another and stretching it around a foam form. I know several taxidermists whose work is pure artistry, but they are few and far between. I prefer the so-called European mount. If I take a trophy-quality deer, I feel it deserves more than staring down with glass eyes at the television forever.

I hung the forgotten trophy in a prominent place in my barn; he faces toward a small Carolina Bay at the bottom of the pasture, where my resident buck occasionally stands and stares in surprise. I wonder if the four-pointer, who’s slightly larger than most bucks in the neighborhood, will survive to become a Forest Lord in his own right, a king of the bays, and a buck for the ages.

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