He heard him when he jumped the creek. He stood and got the rifle ready, leaning against the tree, his feet firm in the tree stand.
He tried to steady his breathing. “Heck,” he thought. “It may be a doe. Or it may be a buck chasing a doe.”
The morning before, he had put the truck in four-wheel drive and crawled down the ridge to a flat near the creek. There he made camp -- such as it was.
He was sleeping in the truck-camper and all he needed was a small fire. By afternoon, he had his climbing stand on the base of a white oak in “The Bowl.”
He had leased the land two years ago, a section, 640 acres of hardwood ridges and creek bottoms.
He paid one dollar an acre. No fields, no food plots, no feeders, one very bad road. Just big woods. The deer were starting to get well established. Not plentiful, yet. Some days he saw none. Some days a few. He had killed a small buck and two does during bow season. Gun season opened tomorrow morning.
After a supper of deer back strap, baked potato, green beans and cornbread…and a healthy tot of Old Charter, on the foam pad in the back of the truck, he slept well. Coffee and oatmeal got him going early and he was in his stand and up the tree before dawn.
A Pileated woodpecker, somewhere up the holler that hosted Jerry’s Branch, beat his head on a dead tree and laid down the rhythm for a soprano wren. But something was coming his way.
A small, shallow branch was to his left. The creek was behind him. The natural bowl spread out in front of him…a natural travel pattern. If he read correctly.
He learned about deer in the cypress swamps of the South. Sharpened his knowledge in the Hill Country of Texas. Expanded it on the prairies of Alberta and the mountains of Wyoming and in that state’s, University.
But his real education came in the hardwood ridges and creek bottoms of Tennessee. He didn’t hunt farms or fields. He hunted the big woods deer where reading sign and understanding it was a must. And he was good at it.
The sun was kissing Jerry’s Branch when they came -- a doe and her seven-month old fawn. She saw him, the doe. He froze, not looking at her as she scoped him, stomping and bobbing her head. Finally, she looked back and moved on. The sun bounced and ricocheted off the burbling creek.
He wondered, “Is she alone? Is there a buck behind her?”
He stood for three minutes, watching the back trail…waiting. Finally, he took a deep breath and sat down. Well,” he thought. “It’s a start."
Then he heard or maybe just felt, a sound over his right shoulder. He moved his head slowly.
He had his nose to the ground, the buck. As he passed behind a big sycamore tree, the hunter turned and got the rifle up. The buck was 40 yards away, following the natural trail around the bowl.
The crosshairs steadied and the trigger broke crisply.
He sat back and smiled. Not huge. Certainly he had killed bigger. But there were no huge deer, here and he had not yet begun his life as a “trophy” hunter.
It was a good deer for Jerry’s Branch. He smiled again as he thought about the history of this place.
A small, Civil War skirmish had been fought, here. He had found mini-balls. It was haven for moonshiners.
Every holler was filled with remnants of old sugar cans. Small, spring fed seeps fed into Jerry’s Branch and it in turn, fed into the river. The ridges were high and steep, never touched by a saw. He had walked and scouted them all.
There was one road in -- a mud, two-track -- it took guts and stupidity to drive it. He loved it. This was before they would send him to all corners of two countries, hunting, “Trophy Bucks” from fancy camps and lodges.
He sat smiling, looking at the deer on the ground, 45 yards from him.
“That is a wild, natural product of Jerry’s Branch."
"After tenderloins and eggs and home fries, after the fire is out, after I check him in, I just might try that Hatchet Ridge stand, tomorrow. The one above Jerry’s Branch."
He relished another night on the edge of the creek.
As he lifted the buck’s head, he looked back at Jerry’s Branch and thought, “I am done for the day. But I can enjoy another night and day on Jerry’s Branch.”