In Arapahoe, Nebraska, just north of the Kansas border nestled along the Republican River, is a sleepy little motel just off the main drag. If you were to check into this motel and draw the key that opens door No. 6, you could walk into that room, pull up a chair next to the bed and count 856 flower pedals printed in the design of that old comforter. One-hundred and seven flowers each wearing eight pedals equals 856 pedals.
It’s incredibly stupid that I know this, but it’s true; I counted those damn flowers at least a dozen times. It’s not that I have some controversial fetish with flowered bedspreads, nor do I have “Rain Man” skills that allow me to blink and have a tally. Sleep wouldn’t come, and the only thing worse than the silence was the 3 a.m. infomercials. I had nothing else to do while I waited for tomorrow.
The short truth is that I completely came apart. The buck was right there, as in 30 yards away and I carried a .300 Win. Mag.—right there. I shot. The buck struggled away. I simply came apart. Somewhere out there was a wounded buck that likely wasn’t sleeping because of my misplaced shot, and I didn’t deserve sleep, either.
A Week In Wonderland
The sun had yet to break the horizon during opening morning of Nebraska’s firearms season opener and I was already swimming in deer. From fawns to does to young bucks, one ill-timed sneeze would spontaneously dismantle the literal herd that had taken up residence around my stand in response to my rattling sequence. I was completely pinned down and loving every buck-fever-laden second of it, even though there was little I could do in the event a shooter did show up with all those eyes and ears and noses so close.
Throughout the course of the morning, rifle shots ebbed and flowed, some near and some far, but my safety remained engaged through midday when it was time to regroup. My hunting partner, Mike Mattly, had seen several big bucks using this particular piece of river bottom a few weeks prior during the bow season. News like that made it easy to pass on these young deer, at least for now.
The deer were here, they were everywhere in fact, but finding a shooter by week’s end seemed more futile than searching for a republican at the DFL National Convention. If the big bucks were still close, they were definitely hiding despite the increasing signs of the quickly escalating rut.
Mike made a brag-worthy shot on day No. 1 on a beautiful buck as it busted from cover on a dead run, so it was officially my turn and the wick was beginning to burn short.
The afternoon weather on day No. 4 turned ugly. With Mike’s buck already in the bag and our third hunting partner, Dick Scorzafava, settled cozily in a ground blind, Mike and I tugged our caps a bit tighter and drove our noses into the pelting snow and rain.
With perfect conditions for a carefully calculated stalk, Mike led me into the bowels of the river bottom with the intention of sneaking through the backdoor and shooting a big buck in his living room. Although “breaking and entering” sounded like my idea of a good hunt, I was a bit edgy as I toed Mike’s heels through the lightly accumulating slush. Treestand hunting with a bow is where I live during the fall; this “on my feet” style of “out West” hunting was a brand new endeavor … and it made me feel nervous and vulnerable.
“Snuggle into this cedar bush, Luke,” Mike whispered with an extended index finger. “I saw a big buck here a few weeks ago while bowhunting, but never got a shot. I bet he’s still here.”
Mike and I ducked in the cover of that cedar bush as the snow and sleet continued to pound. The snow wasn’t accumulating much, but everything was wet, and I was already damp by the time I realized the water running down my face and dripping off my chin was finding it’s way down the inside of my jacket front.
Within a half hour, deer began filtering out of nowhere and working around in front of Mike and me. Does fed on corn and young bucks chased the increasingly annoyed does, but par for the course, no big bucks were to be seen.
And then, just like it always does, all hell broke loose.
“Mike,” I hissed, “There’s a buck coming from the right. Can’t see through the trees. How big is …”
“Shooter, shooter, shooter!” Mike’s whisper struck so cold I swear the water dripping from my face froze instantly.
“How big is …”
“Get your gun up, now!” Mike interrupted. “He’s coming around front.”
And around front he came, trotting with his nose to the ground, chasing a doe directly past us and grunting like a feral hog with a stutter. I had no time to think, so I simply reacted: I tapped into my subconscious bowhunter mentality and grunted at the buck, desperately trying to get him to stop. Nothing. I grunted again, louder. Nothing. Realizing my intentions, Mike grunted, too. With the buck at 30 yards, cruising right to left, I had mere seconds before he’d clear my shooting window. I pulled up my rifle, found what I thought was the buck’s shoulder in the crosshairs, and cut loose 180 grains of attitude.
The rifle cracked so loud it forced the rain to stop, but it didn’t stop the buck. I blew through the cedar branches, aimed at the fleeing buck and saw nothing but fog. In the heat of battle I apparently brought the scope too close to my face and exhaled heavily, fogging the scope. At least that’s the logical explanation … I don’t really remember … both visually and mentally, those few moments are a blur.
I quickly smeared my soaked sleeve across the ocular bell of the scope, shouldered the rifle and fired twice more at the buck before he disappeared into the brush. It would’ve been just as effective to throw a couple rocks in that deer’s direction because with the extent of my shaking, those last two shots landed nowhere near “my” deer.
Mike looked at me and I looked at my trembling fingers. I simply came apart.
Back at the motel, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole or at least under the bed and rot. Mike and Dick tried to console me with their own horror stories, but if you’ve been in those shoes, you know there’s little to be said to prevent blisters.
As I gave Dick the rundown, it really sunk in as to how ugly this situation was. My best guess was that the bullet had caught the buck low and away, directly in the paunch.
“I’m not going to ever touch this buck, am I?” I begged Dick for some reassurance.
“You’ll get him, Luke.”
My hunting partners eventually went to bed, and I counted flowers.
Of Tunnels And Lights
After delivering Dick back to his ground blind the following morning, Mike and I headed toward where we’d last seen the buck, accompanied by the landowner and his son-in-law. As much as it pained me to think about it, if this buck was still alive, I wanted all the guns along I could get. As my suspicions had hinted, the blood trail was sparse. And after a few dozen yards, it was nonexistent.
But occasionally—though not often—things have a way of working out. After losing the blood trail for more than 300 yards, we scoured the fence on the property line for a clue, and found it. The buck had jumped the barbed wire fence and reopened his wounds. A quick call to the neighboring landowner granted us permission to cross and continue pursuit.
As a conservation-minded hunter, I’ve never been a fan of habitat loss, except for just this once. In an effort to improve grazing habitat for his cattle, the neighboring landowner had cleared all the trees and underbrush, and we followed the blood trail with ease, and I began to see light at the end of the tunnel. We followed the blood trail to the river … and the light immediately extinguished.
“Mike, there’s no way we’re going to pick up the blood trail on the opposite side of the …”
The firecracker went off.
Not more than 15 feet from the bank on which we stood exploded the buck from a small grassy island. With guns drawn, we waited for the buck to navigate the screaming current and climb up the opposite bank before finishing the job like I should’ve done the day before.
The cascade of emotions brought me to my trembling knees. The job was done, but I had definitely seen and lived through the ugly side of hunting.
“You got to touch your buck, Luke,” Dick said, recognizing the smile of relief on my face when we picked him up from his blind. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that things will eventually go wrong for everyone at some point in their hunting career. You did everything you could, you stuck with it and you finished what you started.”