We were shopping in Burson’s Feed and Seed, back when we had chickens and needed feed. Mr. Burson stopped for a minute to chew the fat. We talked about the weather and some of the new businesses on the square. Finally, he told us about a buck he saw last time he passed our farm. “It was a big one.” He said, nodding his head appreciatively. “Real big.”
I was pretty sure he had seen “The King.”
Pop spotted the King once through a big bramble patch, but couldn’t get a good shot on him. Since then I’d found his prints by the lake, deep ones cut into the black mud. The prong on the back of a buck’s foot had cut into the mud like a thumb. We saw his tracks, but we never saw him.
Once, my black lab brought us some evidence of his existence. I saw her hiding in the bushes, chewing on something. Usually, it was a something I didn’t want her to chew on, so I went to investigate. It was a big antler. So big that at first, I thought it was an elkhorn. I wrestled it away from her for a closer look. I weighed the whitetail deer antler in my hand. Very heavy. The base was so big that I could hardly get my finger and thumb around the circumference of it.
That fall, at the outdoor expo, I took that shed antler to have it rated by the Boone and Crocket antler expert. It was a nice fellow, a biologist who worked for the Forestry Department. He spotted the antler that I carried and his eyes lit up. He took the antler and hefted the weight in his hand. “That’s a good-sized deer.”
As I stood and talked to the biologist, I noticed some crafty individuals spy the size of the shed and begin creeping toward us, ears craning to get details about the location of this monster. I asked the biologist, “Do you mind if we speak in private?” He laughed and said, “Not at all.” Away from prying eyes, he began measuring top to bottom, tip to tip. As he measured, he asked “Where do you live? How long ago had someone actually spotted the buck? Do you think it is still alive?”
I asked him if he thought this was the same deer that Pop had seen years ago.
The biologist told me that in Carroll County it’s very unusual for deer to live to a ripe old age. Here we’re razing trees and building houses. That means wildlife habitat is shrinking. And traffic is increasing. He said that most deer are killed in the first three or four years of their lives before they ever get big enough to grow a rack as big as the one he inspected. He said our deer was very unusual for Carroll County and gave it a Boone and Crocket rating of 140-145.
Which I’ve been told by our hunter friends is mighty fine.
On the way home, I determined that I was going to hunt the King. Not to shoot and eat. I was going to wait in the cold woods, at dawn’s early light, just to see him. Just to see him raise that crown of antlers. That would be enough.
It was two days after I had taken the antler to be measured. I hadn’t made time yet to go out and seek the King. The beginning of the week is always busy for me and long stints in the woods sometimes get in the way of making a living. I stopped by Pop and Mama’s on the way home and Pop told me that somebody had hit a deer next to Jack and Wynelle’s house. A big one. But he couldn’t tell if it was a doe or a buck and he was on his way to fold the funeral flag, so he couldn’t stop and see.
Curiosity got the better of me, as curiosity often did. I stopped by our neighbor’s house and asked him about the deer. He told me he’d seen the whole thing. It was a buck. A big one. He counted on his fingers and told me it was a ten-pointer. His eyes themselves got big as he described it running down our road and across his yard and out into the front of an oncoming car. My heart sunk.
He continued the story and jerked his arms around, as he described how the buck didn’t die at first but leaped high in his last glorious moments of life. Then he fell and was still.
The car that hit him apparently drove off, although I’m not sure how they did, with a caved-in hood. Then my neighbor said a truck stopped and loaded the King up into the back and drove off.
My neighbor’s story made me sad. I never got to see the buck. I walked home and looked into the pinewoods. At least his life wasn’t wasted. I thought about the men who had stopped to pick him up. I hoped his rich meat would feed their family this winter, and his noble rack of antlers would hang on their wall, reminding them of the beast that once carried them.
The King was dead. Long live the King.