I’ve watched him. We all have.
For years now, his sightings have been topics of conversation. If a neighbor passed him on the dirt road, they’d be sure to stop and tell you, “I saw that big buck running toward your south field yesterday.” Or, “I saw him down by the headwaters, chasing a doe.”
He was always running. And he was always chasing a doe.
His impressive antlers made him easy to identify. Over more than 800 acres, there’s not a single high fence or feeder. The deer on our ranch come for a quiet place to lay down and a good amount of acorns, and usually, I leave them to both.
But not him. Him, I marked. And waited.
A couple more Falls and he was fully mature. By then, I could tell which bucks were his offspring as well. Solid bucks, with big bodies and wide, tall antlers even at a young age.
The next September I recognized the old buck in him was a lot like the old man in me. He still ran, but not so lightly anymore. Each step looked like it took work. His neck and chest were bigger than in his youth, but so was his belly, and his back sagged a bit with the weight. His body was on the decline.
I told myself, “next year.”
I saw him once that next year. As I walked up the top of the hill overlooking our south field, bow in hand, he was already there, and running away. He snorted and blew as he ran, but he never so much as stopped to look back. And he was gone.
Nobody saw him the next fall, and that winter was the coldest on record, with a shocking ice storm that made international headlines. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.
Scores of birds lay dead in the snow, frozen to death. Hundreds of oaks on our ranch burst and died. I suspected the old buck had succumbed to the elements, his age, or another buck. I prayed it wasn’t the indignity of a windshield.
He showed up early the next August.
Unlike previous years, his sightings now came several times a week, and aways around that same south field. Ever since the ice storm, the does had been there every morning. It was ringed by heavy brush, and still had a bunch of old, relatively unharmed oaks. The does followed the acorns, and the big buck followed the does.
People wondered if it was the same deer. He looked mostly the same, with the same shape of the antlers. He clearly outclassed the other deer around. And yet, he was somehow “less than” the deer they remembered. He looked tired. And was he limping?
Just about every day in October, I’d do my best to sneak into the south field, hoping to get within bow range of the old buck. I could have taken a dozen does and even a couple younger bucks all that month, doing nothing more than sitting still behind some junipers.
But not him. A few times I got within 50 yards, but he was always moving, and wary. I never saw him eat. He seemed focused on nothing but pushing the younger bucks out, and the does, But if I so much as raised my bow, he bolted.
As November approached I was seeing him less and less. I had resigned myself to the fact that one old man had beaten the other, but I had no misperceptions that this would almost certainly be his last Winter. The buck’s that is.
The next day would be the first day of rifle season. As I went to bed, I considered trying to take him with the M48 Nosler Custom Handgun I had used on a black bear in Idaho earlier that year. The considerable range advantage it offered would be appreciated. That next morning I woke up extra early, intending to be under the junipers by four. I grabbed the Nosler and headed out the door.
At the bottom of the porch I turned around, went back in the house, set the gun down, and picked up my longbow. There had been a cold snap that night and with so little moon and so few acorns left on the ground relative to other years, this morning would likely be the best day to hunt in a decade. If there was ever a morning to get in close, this was it.
By five I walked to the edge of the field. Instead of sticking to the junipers, I crawled out a bit further, another 30 yards or so, and hid behind an old pile of junk metal.
I waited quietly, but the deer didn’t.
Long before the sun’s glow touched the grass, I could hear them stomping, running, and sparring. By the time it was fully sunrise that hilltop field was absolute bedlam. I was completely engrossed in the scene in front of me. Two eight-point bucks were chasing any doe that came around. They would run her off, only to return empty-handed to fight it out amongst themselves. More excited does and curious bucks would arrive, and the scene would play out all over again.
And then, all at once, everyone picked up their head, me included. Sure enough, here he came, out of the brush, running hard, furious for the younger bucks. The herd scattered, gone.
But one doe came back. As the boys worked out their differences, she browsed nervously. His previous business attended to, the old buck came rushing back as well. Now within 50 yards, but still running, he chased that lone doe out of the field.
It was a good while later when she returned out of the brush. This time, she barely got enough time to put her head down when the old buck showed again, nose down and huffing. Wide-eyed, she fled. He followed.
I stifled a chuckle when she showed up a third time. She would have had a moment’s pause, but those heavy hooves betrayed him. She ran again, this time within feet of my impromptu blind.
He thundered in and covered 50 yards fast. His neck was fully forward, lip curled back, focused on nothing but her scent.
He passed, and not 30 yards in front of me, slowed to a trot. My arrow flew.
I don’t remember drawing the bow. I don’t remember releasing the string. I do remember seeing the shallow line of muscle in his shoulder, and I remember the audible “thump” of the broadhead as it struck.
If he felt the arrow sink, he didn’t show it. His posture never changed, and I watched him continue to chase his quarry into the brush, the feathers of my cedar arrow sticking from his shoulder.
As I sat there, I realized that, after primarily hunting with firearms for so long, I had shot him a little far forward, through the edge of the shoulder itself, as I would with a rifle, instead of just behind it. I hoped that, given the 55-pound draw weight of my longbow, the arrow still had enough momentum to punch through the shoulder and do the job.
Preparing my mind — and my knees — for what I feared would be a long blood trail, I stood.
He lay not 50 yards away, piled up under an oak. The arrow had indeed passed through his shoulder, right through his heart.
Evidence of a hard life, and a harder last few years, marred the monarch’s body. Antler points were broken, either at the base or the tips. He had two long scars down his chest, and a hole in his belly skin that went all the way to an exposed bowel, likely from not quite clearing a barbed wire fence, and more than once.
Fresh gouges adorned his face and neck from fighting with the younger bucks. Some previous injury, perhaps from a gunshot, showed as deep scarring and deformation in the lower part of his sternum and rib cage.
When I looked at all he’d been through and kept going, I couldn’t help but feel proud of the old man.
I’ll be living with him, or part of him, for a while yet. I’ll remember him, his drive, and his determination every time I look at his antlered skull. But that’s not the part of him I mean. The peak of the rut is over, but a few younger bucks with wide, tall antlers and big bodies are still showing up in that south field. In a couple more years, my sons will be up there, too.