I remember it all very clearly, even though I was a young boy, and it has been so long ago now. It was the first year I was allowed to take a stand by myself. It had been so exciting in September, the first time I was alone on a stand. The heavy morning dew soaking through my boots as the mist rose skyward, the sun warming the cool morning. In my hands the smooth wood of a well worn stock and the cold steel barrels of an aged sixteen gauge double barrel shotgun. The gun had been my father’s, and my grandfather’s before, but now it was mine. Pride swelled within me as I stood in the glory of God’s morning, turning my head towards the warmth of the sun.
In the distance sounded the long chop voice of a single jump dog, soon the rest of the pack joined in, and for the first time in my life I was standing alone, witness to the wonderful hound music that I had loved since I was old enough to follow in my father’s footsteps. In my mind I could see the pack, coursing through the woods, making checks when necessary, and stretching out on long straight chases, trying to run down their quarry, the white-tailed buck deer in front of them. As the hounds gave chase, my chest could barely contain my heart. I could only imagine, and hope, that the hound’s chase would end at my gun.
That September Saturday passed from morning to evening. There were some great chases, but as the darkness ensued, the hounds had not brought a buck to me. I continued to hunt throughout that fall, and though bucks were killed all around me, none were run to me, and none fell in front of my gun.
December came and the cool mornings turned cold. The men would build a fire at the crossroads in the mornings when they met to plan a hunt. I remember trying to get near the warmth of the fire and playing in the sand with a stick while the men planned a hunt. I give them credit, they knew I was growing disheartened, and they were trying their best to plan a hunt that would end my spell of bad luck. I knew that with the end of December would come the end of my chances to kill a deer until the following season. I knew my chances were running out with every Saturday hunt. The men knew this as well. We hunted the best blocks. I was put on the best stands. But Saturday by Saturday my chances were dwindling.
When school let out for Christmas break, I could hardly contain my excitement. For the next two weeks, until the final day of the season on January first, I would hunt as hard as I could, nearly every day, from daylight to dusk. Surely I would get the chance to kill the buck deer I had dreamed about as long as I could remember.
When Christmas Eve came, I found myself on the hunting club, gathered with an unusually small crowd planning a morning hunt. This would only be a half day hunt, as most of the men had to go home to their families to prepare for Christmas. We had hunted every day I had been out of school except Sunday. It had been a good week of hunting. Deer were killed almost daily. A couple of guys had gotten really nice bucks. As for me, nothing had changed. No matter how hard I hunted, no matter how well I concealed myself, no matter how still I was, I never managed to have the pack push a buck my way. Now, this Christmas Eve, I was tired. I had hunted every minute I could, and I was discouraged. For even though everyone else on the club had shot deer, I couldn’t manage to catch a glimpse of a deer, much less shoot a deer ahead of the hounds.
This Christmas Eve morning my enthusiasm had started to fade, the days were short, and my chances were slim. As the men bounced around ideas about where to hunt, they finally settled on the bog. This would have usually excited me. There was no more beautiful place to hunt than this old growth swamp with its mixture of hardwood and cypress. Deer loved to run the bog, and some nice bucks had been killed there. This morning exhaustion overtook me, and little could peak my interest.
I was given the stand at the end of the rock road, right in the heart of the bog, the best stand on the hunt. I walked off the road about twenty five yards into the swamp and found a small opening along a deer path. It was way too open, and not at all the idea place to stand, but the sunlight shining through the treetops made my decision for me and I found a swamp oak in the sunlight to lean against.
The morning was cold and I was wearing a heavy coat. The warmth of the sunlight on my face was more than I could bear, and my exhaustion took over.
The cry of the hounds startled me awake. They were bearing down on me hard, and they were nearer than they had ever been. From out of the shadows of the swamp he quickly emerged, the biggest buck I had ever laid eyes on, dead or alive. His body was huge. He looked back over his shoulder away from me, ears cocked, listening for the hounds behind him. His rack was almost unreal. The massive main beams arched out well beyond his ears. Long tines extended skyward all around a perfect crown of antlers.
He exhaled as he turned his head toward me, and became engulfed in the warm misty breath of a cold morning. As the mist cleared in the December breeze, to my astonishment, I saw that the buck’s face was as white as snow.
Time seemed to stand still. What had been a matter of only a few seconds seemed to be in slow motion, almost as if time was frozen, at that one point in time. The buck seemed as if he was looking into the depths of my soul as I shouldered my shotgun. He never flinched as the bead fell on his shoulder, and my finger touched the trigger.
The buck exhaled and it seemed as if I were surrounded by the mist of his breath. When the mist cleared the buck was gone. I tried to take in all that had happened in the last few seconds, but the magnitude of everything was almost too great for me to comprehend. I wondered if it had all been a dream. I looked to where the buck had been, the bark had been skinned off the trunk of a large hickory tree by a load of buckshot. I broke the gun open and pulled out the spent shell casing. The hounds gave chase into the clearing, where they lost the track, almost as if the buck had disappeared.
I sat down on a log, still trying to figure out all that had just transpired. A few minutes later my father arrived looking for a deer. He wanted to know what had happened. I told him as best I could. He asked if I had hit the deer. I pointed to the hickory tree that had taken the whole load of shot. I knew the buck had been between me and that tree, I couldn’t explain how or why I had missed. It seemed as though the shot had passed right through the deer to get to the tree. My father thought it was odd that the hounds would loose a track in such an open area when the deer had clearly been missed. I was young, and I didn’t have a lot of experience, but it just didn’t make sense to me, I couldn’t explain what had happened.
All of the men were heading home to take care of Christmas chores, so I didn’t see many of them that afternoon, but I knew what was coming. The morning after Christmas, as everyone met to plan a hunt, I stood by the fire taking the ribbing I expected to get for missing a deer as best I could. I repeated my story by request to howls of laughter. You saw a what? He was how big? He disappeared! Well son, the only way to keep a deer from disappearing when you shoot them is by hitting them. I must say, everyone was having quite a big time at my expense.
All this time an old man stood back and said not one word. When he saw that I had taken all that I could, he quieted everyone with a stern, “Leave the boy alone! He’s not the only one ‘ere who’s seen the great white-faced buck. As a boy I too saw the buck, and I’ve seen ‘im may times since! Buckshot passes right through ‘im, like ‘es not even there. I quit tellin’ folks years ago. I got tired of all the laughter and disbelief. Now some body else has see ‘im too, and I’m tellin’ you ‘es real! Now leave the boy alone!”
It’s been nearly three decades since I first saw the great white-faced buck, and I still see him from time to time. He appears from nowhere, black eyes peering through my soul, only to disappear into the mist. The buck has been seen now for well over a century. I didn’t think deer could live that long. I’ve never taken another shot at the old monarch. I guess, like all legends, the Great White-Faced Buck will live forever.