Sunrise was still an hour away when Payton left the truck and started toward the top of the ridge. It was clear and very cold, a billion stars in a million galaxies overhead, and the feeble light from his small flashlight cast a pale yellow beam on the pine needles and brittle hardwood leaves as he carefully picked his way through the undergrowth. A thin moon was about to set, and the darkness closed in around the beam of light as water closes in on the wake created by a boat skimming across a lake.
His tree climber was located on a slick-barked longleaf pine just off the crest of the ridge. As he secured his rifle to the lift rope and climbed in the stand as quietly as possible, a single bead of sweat ran down his forehead and perched precipitously on the end of his nose. He climbed slowly and methodically: stand up, sit down, legs lifting the base of the stand toward the seat, like an inch worm travels the length of a twig, until he reached a point about twenty feet off the ground. The sound of the metal scraping against the tree seemed magnified in the cold air, and Payton wondered if he could be heard in the swamp a half mile away where he believed his quarry was located. He secured the base and top of the stand together with the nylon safety strap and settled in, finally pulling up his rifle slowly with the lift rope. He chambered a round, cut off the flashlight, took a deep breath, and was immediately engulfed in thick darkness and silence.
The stand location had been chosen six weeks previously, and Payton had purposely not been back since that rainy afternoon of scouting and cutting sign. There should be no human scent here now beside that he had left on the undergrowth this cold morning, and he hoped that the gloves he had worn and the store-bought cover scent he had applied to his clothes and boots would overcome the sensitivity of the buck’s nose and the scented warning that might give away his presence.
The scouting trip before had given every indication that this spot would give him an excellent chance to take the buck the locals of Swamp Creek Hollow called “Old Mossy Horns.”
There were three big white oaks along the trail, all within sixty yards of the longleaf pine he now found himself perched on. The trail leading up from Big Swamp was well-worn from the daily passing of numerous small hooves, and the leaves under the wide canopies of each of the oaks looked as if they had been turned over repeatedly as deer and wild turkey had frequented each spot in search of the succulent acorns. It was late January, and although the acorns would now be long gone, the does would continue to return to these spots, as if guided not out of habit but out of some embedded genetic code, some inner instruction over which they had no choice but to follow and obey.
The buck’s trail ran from the cane patch along Swamp Creek up through the hollow, where sweetgum and blackgum grew side-by side with huge yellow poplars. It ascended the side slope through occasional granite outcrops, until it reached the very crest of the flat-topped ridge. There were scrapes at more-or-less regular intervals—pawed patches of bare earth under low-hanging branches of the slower-growing ironwood and sassafras. The scrapes were the buck’s calling cards, a reminder to the doe that fed through the area that he was around. At each he would leave his musky scent by rubbing his forehead on the overhanging branch and by urinating across the tarsal glands on his hind legs. The message he left was “I’m ready when you’re ready,” a love note written and read only in scent. The trail followed the ridge, winding through red cedar and Sparkleberry, where it diverged at a point some forty yards from where Payton now waited for daylight.
An old cedar with a trunk some twelve inches around marked the trail’s split into two distinct paths. The bark had been rubbed off on either side of the cedar by heavy antlers, and it hung in thin shredded peels along the trunk of the tree. The rub stood some three feet off the ground, a sure indication to Payton that this was no young buck that frequented this particular trail. Only a mature buck would rub so high on the tree, and healed-over scars indicated that this same spot had been visited and marked for many years, much like the Creeks and Choctaws had marked their trails one hundred and fifty years prior. No young buck would dare venture into this territory at this time of the year, not with a potential adversary who had left such a warning. Any who did would risk a merciless whipping, one that might leave deep puncture wounds from heavy antlers; punctures that would lead to scars at the very least, if escape was even possible.
The two trails diverged at the cedar. One led down the side slope about a mile to the Jenkins farm. Old Mr. Jenkins had lived there from boyhood, and the once proud place was beginning to revert to the forest from which it had been first cleared by his grandfather nearly a hundred years before. The fields and pastures were long gone, given over to pine and sweetgum, but there were still the remnants of a working farm: the old apple trees and muscadine arbor, a small garden spot, and the leavings of about a half acre of Silver Queen corn that the old man still planted each year, now more out of tradition than necessity. Plenty of food on the place for deer to frequent in the dark of the night, and the wear of the trail indicated to Payton that frequent they did.
The other trail ran down the ridge line until it met a plowed fire break running north and south, and a blue-painted line along the trees that indicated to humans that the property changed ownership (although the deer and other animals hardly could have understood or even cared about such a concept). The timber changed abruptly here, the apparent randomness of the natural mix of pine and hardwood trees becoming paper company land comprised of row upon row of loblolly pines, evenly spaced along the side slopes downward and parallel to the remnant of hardwoods along Brushy Creek. This creek trickled and pooled along a granite bed in the dry months, but in winter it flowed steadily back to feed the larger Swamp Creek. This was the route back to safety for the buck, a circuit he would follow repeatedly during the cold winter months. The denseness of the blackberry bushes and the sumac growing interspersed between and beside the rows of pines provided food for the deer in the warmer months and cover in the winter.
All animals are creatures of habit, and it had taken Payton three years to piece this puzzle together. Although he had never actually seen Old Mossy Horns with his own eyes, old man Jenkins claimed to have caught a glimpse of him standing along the timber line just outside his corn patch as the sun was setting one fine October afternoon.
And so Payton sat in the old longleaf and waited for the sun to rise.
The darkness and quiet engulfed him. There was no breeze, and the very stillness of the air and the display of stars above made him feel very small and very alone. He breathed deeply and strained to hear a sound—any sound—other than his own breathing and the beating of his heart. This was no time to allow his mind to stray to old memories. He resolved to remain focused on the task at hand.
Gradually, a pale white glow began to appear in the East, and with it the first sounds, stirrings of the awakenings of creatures of the light, and the return home of creatures of the night. Somewhere in Big Swamp, a barred owl called, answered a few moments later by another from somewhere along Brushy Creek. A pair of wood ducks whistled by just below his position on the ridge, leaving their nesting area in Swamp Creek to head toward their day on the pond at Pemberton’s farm about a mile away.
As the light increased, so did the sound. A pileated woodpecker, as big as a small red-tailed hawk, hammered away at a dead tree just on the other side of the ridge. The hollow drumming cadence was repeated by another just behind him about fifty yards, and Payton slowly turned his head to try and get a look at the beautiful bird. This was the woodpecker the old folks called the “Lord God” woodpecker because of its size and powerful hammering. The movement of Payton’s head caught the bird’s sharp eye, and it darted away to find another tree from which to take its breakfast.
As the sun began to emerge, gray squirrels appeared from their leafy nest. They moved in a jerky rhythm down the tree trucks, scampering then stopping, tails flicking from straight to a question mark position. Payton had always thought this strange, as if their tails were asking a question in some sort of animal sign language: “is there a hawk nearby?” They scuttled through the leaves and vertically across the remains of fallen tree branches, searching for the small red oak acorns that would likely be the only ones remaining at this time of the year.
A few minutes of this explosion of activity around him went by when Payton realized his mind and eyes had wandered from the task at hand. He refocused on the trail he was there to watch.
Moments later a rustling of leaves down the ridge caught his attention. As he squinted, three grey forms began to emerge from the dim light. A doe with two yearlings were heading up the trail towards him. The doe paused and tested the air, head up and ears erect, nostrils twitching slightly, then advanced several steps and dropped her head to the ground below. The two yearlings trailed slightly behind, hungrier than cautious, glancing occasionally at their mother to observe any movement that might indicate danger.
The trio moved left and right of the trail, searching through the leaves for breakfast. The disturbed ground under the white oaks were checked in succession as Payton had known they would be, but there was little to find there on this morning. The doe continued forward, always returning to the well-worn trail, only venturing twenty to thirty yards either side. She stopped only to drop her head for some unseen morsel, or paused again to test the air for a scent of danger. The yearlings followed her cues and stopped when she stopped, but eventually began to play, a dog-like game of chase back and forth across the flat top of the ridge.
The doe continued feeding along the trail, until she suddenly jerked to a dead stop. Her tail jerked upward, and she nervously looked around. As if on cue, the two fawns immediately stopped as well, watching their mother to determine her intent. Payton ceased breathing, fearing that he had somehow been winded, although there was still not even a hint of a breeze. A few seconds passed before the doe looked back over her shoulder. Immediately she broke into a stiff-legged trot ahead, the two yearlings trailing behind in succession.
Payton’s gaze remained on the trail. He could hear the leaves crunching further down the ridge, and a larger doe appeared on the trail, dog-trotting and then stopping under one of the white oaks. Her tail was up, and she dropped her head quickly to the ground and then snapped it back upright. She looked back over her shoulder. Payton recognized instantly that she was being pursued by a buck, and he immediately raised his rifle and braced it against the trunk of the tree. He continued to watch the doe move up the trail toward him, looking just over the top of his rifle scope, waiting for the pursuing buck to come into view.
The doe’s pace quickened and she moved along up the trail and out of his view.
He heard the buck before he saw him, the low pitched throaty grunts and the halting steps. The sound in the leaves indicated a deliberateness, but one that was still alert and cautious. The outcome of the pursuit was inevitable— the buck had no need to rush. The doe would stop when she was ready for the act. The buck instinctively knew this and only trailed along awaiting the inevitability.
Payton waited for what seemed an eternity for the deer to come into view.
The buck seemed to appear out of thin air from behind a Sparkleberry bush about twenty yards to the left of the main trail. He advanced about ten steps and stopped near one of the scrapes, eyes ahead on the trail the doe had followed. Payton located him over the top of the scope and then dropped his eye to the magnified view through the tube.
The huge buck with the heavy rack stopped in an opening forty yards away. If this wasn’t “Old Mossy Horns” Payton thought, he surely was the biggest buck he’d ever seen. The heavy antlers were at least twenty inches wide from beam to beam, and they seemed to stand a good foot above his ears.
Payton ceased to breathe as he struggled to put the cross hairs of the scope on the buck’s front shoulder, finding it difficult not to shake even though he had the rifle firmly braced against the tree. He eased the safety off and moved his finger toward the trigger.
For an instant he hesitated. The buck stood frozen, as if he sensed danger but was unable to locate its source. His ears twitched slightly, and for a moment his head cocked upward, as if he were looking directly up at Payton. It seemed to Payton that their gazes had met in through the rifle scope in that brief instant, and something tangible yet unspoken had passed between them.
He tried to hold the rifle steady, but in that brief fragment of a ragged second’s hesitation a single tear slipped out of his eye and ran down his cheek.
And then Payton Lewis began to cry in earnest.
*Two things compelled me to post this. One was a text from my son, who noted that I hadn’t written anything here since June 22, 2015. A fact that he concluded was “unacceptable.” The second was a kind email from one of my favorite writers in Mexico. You should read his blog “The Unseen Moon.” It is always entertaining and exceptionally well-written.
I apologize for the length of this piece, as it exceeds the number of words most blog “experts” suggest. It is actually the first chapter of a novel I set out to write a couple of years ago. It didn’t move me, so I figured it wouldn’t move a reader either. Perhaps I’ll give it another go one day.