Short Story: Reign Over Sugar Run

As I stood over the deer in this piece, feeling that ever-familiar remorse, that heaviness in the heart, I thought of this from Desiderata: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

For the longest time I wondered, “Do I really believe it is. Am I really supposed to be playing this role?” Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not…

Reign over Sugar Run

“Gee, Pop, this hollow reminds me of church, kinda. It’s so quiet and peaceful.” Those words were my son Justin’s, soon to be 9-years old, as we topped a ridge overlooking the surrealistic Sugar Run Hollow of Washington county, Pennsylvania in the southwestern most corner of the state. I was attempting to create a hunter, a taste in his life to parallel his father’s…

It was just a few days prior to the opening of buck season and we were scouting out the territory of a magnificent whitetailed specimen, we’d earlier labeled the King. A deer which I declined to take the previous year – for reasons that to this day remain abstract to me.

“In a way, son, it is a church. Nature’s cathedral, you might say. Now, you should easier understand Pop’s love of this hollow and the forests of Pennsylvania? It won’t be long, partner, until we’re hunting it and many others, together, just like I told you I’ve dreamed of for so many years.”

I drifted into a sort of daydreaming state, thinking of the longtime fantasy of having a son with whom I could hunt the whitetailed buck.

These scouting trips were something in which I included my son since the day he could walk without holding onto my hand. To my way of thinking, they were the next best thing to the hunting itself, in one way, better; the kill factor didn’t enter into the endeavor, thus they lacked the always hurtful remorse. And over the few years, Justin had learned his lessons well and except for his age, his maturity with regard to respecting the wild, told me he was ready for the whitetail woods. He loved them as I do, and his feelings for wildlife were such that I felt them quite unusual for his age. He was, seemingly, born to be a hunter and each trip to the woodlands left him happy and fulfilled; the intangible reward of all visits to the wild…

As we inched our way along a bench paralleling Sugar Run, Justin spotted a favorite section of the stream. A celestial place indeed, where three consecutive waterfalls cascade into a sky-blue, but crystalline, pool. Deep and clear and mysterious…

Tapping me on the hip, Justin pointed to them, “There are three reasons why old King loves this place so much, Pop. It’s so wild, so pretty. He probably never wants to leave it, huh?” We sat there for a moment, in silence, tasting and drinking of the beauty there. After a few moments, Justin whispered (this area always, and strangely makes us whisper) “I really can’t blame him, Pop, ya know? You?”

“You seem to be a little sentimental, son, and you’ve never even seen old King yet?”

“What about you, Pop? You had your chance to kill him last season and shot the six-point instead?”

“Justin, I really didn’t have a clear view of him through that prehistoric crab apple thicket and in a way, I thought I might miss him!”

“Yeah, right Poppa. I know all about that…”

Not quite 9 and the boy knew his father better than his father knew himself. But this season would prove to be different. There would be no alleged sentiment and the method of pursuit would change as well. The King would be mine opening day, on my terms and his turf…

Snow, sleet, rain, hail or windstorm, I would stillhunt however long it took. For this, I felt, would be the ultimate way, the toughest way, to conquer and kill the King of Sugar Run. Sooner or later, he’d make a mistake and I’d be hot on his track when he did; it was just a question of time, that which I had plenty of…

I’d observed this buck since his spring birthing, when he wore the camo coat of a fawn and in the ensuing years, I’d conditioned myself mentally, rationalizing perhaps, that it would be better to fall by my bullet than by the oft times crueler hand of Mother Nature; and the thought of him becoming a roadkill statistic caused me to have recurring nightmares.

Nearly dozing into a fairly deep sleep, Justin nudged my sensitive ribcage with his pointy, little elbow. “Deer coming Pop! They’re coming down the sidehill over there, headed toward the falls! Looks like four does?”

Immediately I was able to spot the four deer but just behind them, I thought I saw what looked like another deer? Just its shadowy form – and it moved slowly but seemed to be picking at something on the ground? It soon came into full, glorious view and I nearly hollered with excitement when I realized it was the King himself, the King of Sugar Run! “Justin, it’s him! The King! Just look at that set of antlers, is he a monarch or what?”

“Boy oh boy oh boy, Pop,” Justin whispered, “no wonder you want him so bad. He’s fantastic. Even prettier than I thought…” He blew a half-whistle and sat there staring and gently shaking his joy-filled little head.

Little did he know just how much, how badly I wanted the King but I figured he’d learn the depth of that need one day on his own?

By this time, the deer became alerted to our presence but didn’t push the panic button. Instead, they stood frozen and stared our way. Seemingly sculpted right onto the hillside…

Seconds later, a lesser buck of about 6-points came trotting into the area where the King stood staring. He spun his head to confront the smaller buck and that was all it took to send him on his way. He appeared to be a nice buck, high tines, well-polished and a trophy in any hunter’s eyes…but indeed small when compared to King…

Justin, still awestruck with the King’s dream-like magnificence, and still shaking his head, said, “He is some buck, Pop! Some buck! I really hope you get him this year.”

“I shall little buddy, I shall. That, you may take to the bank!”

I’d promised myself to stillhunt this deer, thinking it would provide the ultimate challenge. Afterall, he was the ultimate buck and killing him from a stand, in ambush, would somehow tarnish the dream, take something precious and special from it. My reasoning? I truly didn’t know just why I wanted it to unfold this way…

I guess the wildest of all my daydreams, was one wherein I wanted to kill him in a hell-bent for cover, full-out run. In a sense, I was going into this hunt as playwright, the King a player. Or would he magically force the reversal of those two roles?

Justin is a lover of wild water as long as he’s not in it and he wanted to follow the stream part of the way back to the road. “Just wanna explore a little, Pop. Mountain streams are really peaceful…”

He fiddled around with some underwater things for a while and eventually came up with a mystery from the “deep” he called “a perfectly round pebble.”

“Here ya go, Pop! Take this hunting with you for good luck!” Then fussing with junk that filled his jeans’ pocket, he came out with a shiny, new penny. “And here’s a penny for our bet!”

“What bet?”

“Well, like I said, the pebble is for your good luck and the penny is for a bet that you’ll get your buck as usual, but…” He hesitated.

“But what?” I asked, feeling the agony of curiosity.

“I hate to say it, but I’ll bet you don’t take old King.”

“Unwise wager partner. I know that old stag better than the Road Runner know Wiley Coyote.”

He snickered, handed me the pebble which I shoved into my pocket, and said, “Make sure you keep that pebble, Poppa, ’cause you’re gonna need all the luck you can get!”

I admit, he had me more intent on taking King than ever before not to mention twice as apprehensive…

“Thanks,” I said, “I really needed that generous note of confidence, you monkey! C’mon, let’s head up toward the road.”

Sunday night before the opener, I went to bed at 8 p.m., wanting to be as sharp as possible the next day. After the usual “goodnight” affections for everyone, I headed for my bedroom. One thing remained to be done; something I do prior to going anywhere if indeed my absence will be longer than a few hours. I always leave a note, and especially because Justin would “chew” me out, otherwise. In part, the one written on this night, read: “…and take care of things until Pop comes home, Partner. Help Mom with your sister and I’ll be home around noon – WITH THE KING! Hours before you arrive home from school. I love you all, Pop.” The post-script stated: “Have your penny handy because you will have lost a big bet by then!”

Not long after I fought off insomnia aka childish excitement, I heard my bedroom door creaking as it slowly opened. I cocked one eyelid to half-mast and saw Justin’s smiling face reflecting in the luteous glow of the hall night-light. “Pop,” he whispered, “you awake?”

“Half. What’s up?”

“I just wanted to tell ya something. Well, two things, really!”

“What’s that, partner?” He shook his head several times from side to side and with what one might call a heinous smile, he said,

“I love ya, Pop, but that last part in your note?”

“Yes?” I prodded.

“Ain’t no way, Pop! Noooo way!” He laughed and quickly shut the door… Needless to say, I remained awake most of the night!

Rain fell steadily, and heavily all through the night seemingly, with the “promise” it would last well into the next morning and assuring there would be miserable hunting conditions for my hunt.

At 4 a.m., I grabbed one of three rifles I’d sighted in, a .243 Smith and Wesson 1500 model, my gear, and headed west toward the Georgetti farm. The steady rains were not just flooding earth, but dampening my high spirits and confidence. I consoled myself with the thought that at least the rain would make for silent stalking and/or stillhunting as well as keep my scent down to a minimum. By the time I’d gotten to where I’d park the car, my spirits were somewhat higher – but the rains hadn’t let up…

I sat alone in the darkness of the car, listening to the rain tapdancing on the roof. I thought of the note I’d left the family and the post script to Justin. “I’ll be home around noon with the King.” And no sooner had that thought activated a churning in my belly, the rain’s rhythm accelerated, as if trying to “tell” me something…

Justin constantly questioned me as to whether I’d take the King should he happen past my early morning stand. I told him, I didn’t think he would or that I’d kill him if he did, but that I wasn’t certain. Instincts being what they are. Nonetheless, I wanted the challenge of a stillhunt, but if that’s the way things went down, so be it. What might I do remained a question I couldn’t answer. Justin agreed that I should down the King at first opportunity and it made me proud to learn that my son knew and understood what a hunter must do in the deer woods. That being what his heart dictates but also, that which is wisest and most ethical. I was satisfied knowing that when the time came, Justin would do all that which is right in all hunting situations.

Leaving the car a little early proved a wise decision. The usual 25-minute hike to the top of the mountain took all of 45-minutes; the slope was slickened with mud.

Gray squirrels had me a nervous wreck, causing me to turn at their every movement as I stood a while at the base of an old oak tree hoping the rain let up. The first shot of the morning sounded at 7:12 and I couldn’t help but wonder whether someone had shot “my” deer, “my” King? Gut feelings however, dispelled the fear and at 8 o’clock I began my stillhunt.

It took me until 11:30 to stillhunt my way to the area I thought they might be bedded; the King and his harem. As I neared this core area, Murphy’s Law again prevailed, and I slipped on a branch hidden beneath the leaves, snapped it and watched hopelessly as five deer bust out of the thicket, tails flagging! “My buck has to be in that group?” I thought. But even so, I couldn’t have, or wouldn’t have taken that going-away shot…

I felt I’d wasted a near-perfect stillhunt, which indeed turned out to be a stalk and close to four hours of prime-time hunting. Discouraged and very wet, I walked into one of Gene’s stubble, corn fields where I could plainly see another hunter beneath a makeshift, garbage bag canopy; a shelter from the rain. As I approached the spot, I could see it was Gene’s son, Andy Jr. He immediately, before I even got under the canopy, began yelling about his early morning dilemma. He’d had a chance to take the King at first light but soon learned he not only didn’t have a cartridge chambered, but he’d lost the entire clip from his Remington 760. He was now whittled down to using a single shot as he could place but one round into the chamber of his pump gun…

“I was nuts with panic and frantically worked the slide as that big rascal stood there broadside to me. Nothing! I looked and saw my clip had fallen out and immediately I thought of you and what Dad said. He told me that buck was a bit magical and that you, Parry, I swear, are destined to get him ’cause no one else can fer cryin’ out loud!”

After a short talk with Gene Jr., I headed back into the woods not wanting, of course, to lose the big bet with Justin. About the time I was getting into thicker cover, I crossed paths with another hunter who was dragging out a plump four-point. He told me where he’d shot the little buck and of what happened moments afterwards. “Why I no sooner dropped this bugger when another huge buck bolted from a thicket then right through the clearing where I got this one! Looked t’be at least a ten-point but coulda ben a high, wide eight-pointer. Plumb big is all!” I questioned him as to which way the big buck headed, and after he told me, I realized a certain, cautious circling stillhunt may well prove to be the nail in King’s coffin? I thanked and congratulated him and went on my way.

Unlike my usual mode of operation, I chose to move directly through the middle of the clearing, just a ways and above the bedding bench where I’d first jumped the morning bunch. And even though the other hunter had just come up from the bottom and almost through the bedding area, I went with a gut feeling that they may still be in the general area? I inched my way along, quiet as a field mouse, and through one of the several thickets. Nothing! I was wrong this time, but immediately decided to work a larger thicket just on the other side of the big clearing. Time was fast running out. My push through these jumped several deer but I could identify only white “farewell” flags. I wondered a moment, took about three steps and just as I hit the very edge of the clearing, a doe burst from the brush, stopped on a dime in the clearing and caused me to quickly shoulder the Smith. Then another doe, and another and another! “C’mon,” I whispered to myself, “one big King for Justin!” Not seconds after that left my lips, a crashing of branches caught my intense attention. It almost sounded as though a motorless backhoe coming through the thornapples. Seconds later, I saw it was a buck running at full speed, not much concerned with how much racket he was making.

His high, creamy-white antlers contrasted beautifully against the dark, hillside backdrop. I found a small opening in the brush, a miniscule shooting “lane,” and just as his heavy brisket filled in the daylight, I touched off a round. There was no visible reaction from the running buck, his pace never slowed. A split second gone, I touched off another shot and still, nothing. No reaction that I could see? He quartered away from me, my cheek still tight to the stock, both eyes open with the right one dead on target and the deer never showing signs of slowing even a little, I let loose with the last round in the rifle. He vanished, or so it seemed, and I felt sick in the stomach. “God this one was for Justin!” I whispered. I stuffed three more cartridges into the rifle and headed for the spot where I’d last seen the buck. A few yards from where I’d taken my last careful shot, I saw a patch of white. There he lay. Eyes already beginning to glaze over and the three shots I’d fired covered an area smaller than a baseball, in reality, the first round killed the buck.

And no, it was not the King of Sugar Run Hollow. I realized that before I ever got close to him. But, nevertheless, he was a magnificent 7-point, not the dream-buck himself, but mine and beautiful…

I was full with this, yet another whitetail experience. I knelt and made my sacrifice to Mother Earth then began the long drag to the car. The longest one I ever had to make. As a hunter does this part of the culmination, there are two burdens, I thought. The one you’re dragging behind you and the one in your fickle hunting heart; both take their toll…

It was well past dark by the time I got him to the car and all I could think about was how anxious Justin must be, how worried my wife might be and how totally exhausted I was feeling.

As I turned into the drive, I could see Justin’s nose pressed firmly against the kitchen window, straining to see through the steam his breath made and I found the energy to laugh, however tentatively… I could just see that he still wore a portion of the smile I left him with the night before, trying with all he could muster, to get a good view of what Pop had brought home. To see whether Poppa had taken the almighty, King of Sugar Run Hollow…

He met me on the porch as I pulled the deer up onto it. “Gimme five, Poppa!” he said, then bent down and reverently fingered the creamy tines of my “nearly ultimate” buck. He whispered excitedly, “He’s a beauty, Pop! Really a beauty!” As miserably cold, wet and tired as I was, he warmed me to the marrow of my bones.

I placed my hand on his shoulder and said, “Thanks, Partner. I love you.”

He stood and said, “I love you too, Pop and I’ll take my penny now. But if you wanna get it back, we can double the bet next deer season?” He worked those dimples in his rosy cheeks, melting me to a near-putty mass.

“Okay, Partner, but only if you allow me to hang onto the lucky pebble?”

“Sure, Pop, but I have a feeling you won’t need it next buck season! I’d just bet ya you’ll take old King first thing opening day!”

Walking into the house with my arm around his proud, little shoulders, I wondered two things. One, how does a man define a love like that between father and son, and two, how many of the next 364 nights would be virtually sleepless…

Note: This story took place when my son was nearing 9-years old. To this day, as I rewrite the
story for this book, I still have and often carry that same pebble in my pocket. It’s gotten
smoother from wear and tear, and in a deep sense, means more today to this father than it
did years ago. Funny how sentimental a hunter, a man with a predatory heart can be…

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