Blood Trail

This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of North American Whitetail magazine.

Photo courtesy of Dorothy Wills

Most old bucks have a sixth sense. This one had a seventh. Not that he needed it to give me the slip, mind you. He’d spotted me in the tree stand one season when I reached for my bow and then busted me later that same year when the wind swirled. I was sure I had him dead to rights the next November when he started to freshen a scrape. I just needed him to take one more step, and he took it. Backwards. Pretty sure he heard my heart beating that time.

The buck was worth every bit of the trouble he caused me. Fully mature, block headed and barrel chested, he looked like he belonged on the cover of a magazine. And he’d have been on one, maybe even this one, if I could ever get close enough to pose with him.

Because I didn’t have anything else on my trail cameras to get me excited, I reluctantly made the decision to dedicate yet another season to hunting the old buck. History had taught me it wasn’t going to happen with stick and string, though, so other than slipping in one August afternoon to hang a ladder stand, I stayed out of the woods until black powder season opened.

Considering the history I had with the buck, the shot I finally got on him was anticlimactic. Opening Day wasn’t five minutes old when he materialized out of thin air. I immediately cheated up on my rifle stock to draw as much light as possible into my scope and squeezed the trigger, enveloping myself in a cloud of smoke. The shot felt good, but when I remembered all the ways that the buck had given me the slip in the past, I sat paralyzed in the stand. The thirty minutes I waited there were for me, not the deer.

When I found a drop of blood on an oak leaf, my heart swelled with hope. But it was just the one drop. I reached down to touch it, to make sure I’d really hit the old bruiser, and smeared the drop between my thumb and forefinger. It was red, obviously, and as rich in texture as it was in color. But it didn’t look like lung blood. It wasn’t liver blood, either. Where had I hit the buck?

There wasn’t a blood trail to follow, but I thought I could see where the deer had dug in at the shot so I crept along his trail, bent over at the waist and studying the ground. Another drop! And as fresh as the first! But again, it was only the one drop. Afraid that I might push the deer completely out of the county, I retraced my steps and started the slow slog back to the truck, racking my brain for what had happened and what to do next, and nearly walked right into my buck. He was very much alive.

We regarded each other from a distance of feet, not yards. The buck had caught me flat footed and empty barreled. In the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten everything I knew about deer hunting and failed to reload my rifle. So I had no choice but to stand there and stare. The buck wasn’t in a big hurry and gave me plenty of time to look him over. He was everything I thought, and more. He had the shoulders of a bodybuilder and the sagging chest of a nursing home resident. Subway could’ve run a special on the length of his G-2s. 

Then it hit me. There was no sign whatsoever that the deer had been shot – no blood stain behind the shoulder, no favoring of a front leg. The buck wasn’t even breathing hard. So where had I hit him? Eventually, he eased off and left me scratching my head, which was now beginning to ache, as to what in the world had happened. I walked back to the truck and climbed into the cab. That’s when I caught sight of myself in the rearview mirror. A gash stretched across the bridge of my nose, as classic a case of scope bite as a guy could ask for. It was still dripping with blood. Instinctively, I reached up to touch it and smeared a drop between my thumb and forefinger. It was red, obviously, and as rich in texture as it was in color.

And all of a sudden, I knew exactly what had happened.

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