The Woodsman Magazine

Phantom Buck, A Lesson To Remember

The Life and Times of Woodsman Boss Stalker
Phantom Buck, A Lesson To Remember
By John A. Hallock
       It was the season of the Starving Moon and the hollow ache of hunger rumbled through the woodsman's stomach while he stood statue still in the fog shroud forest of 1830. The tops of the pines were lost in a canopy of white as columns of fog swirled around him and all through the woods. Visibility was low, and though this warm spell in mid-January was nice, it was the least of woodsman Boss Stalker's worries. A full belly was the top priority now. He lifted the .50 caliber Hawken rifle to his shoulder and aimed down the long, steel barrel.
       Fifty yards away a whitetail deer, barely visible as the gray light of dawn mixed with wispy, 
white fog, pawed anxiously in the snow along an ice crusted creek. The buck's thick, wide crown
of antlers moved in and out of the fog to give it a ghostly appearance.
       Boss took a breath, held it, and squeezed back on the trigger. The rifle belched fire and smoke and bucked back on his shoulder. Thunder quaked through the woods. The echo rolled down the open creek bed and bounced back off the trees. A cloud of smoke engulfed the woodsman, When it cleared a few seconds later the buck was gone.
       "Well I'll be," Boss exclaimed. "I couldn't have missed from this range. But it just disappeared, into thin air, like a, a .... ghost!"
       Boss' voice trailed off.
       "Or a Phantom," he finished the thought when he remembered the warning his friend Runs With The Elk had offered to him a few weeks earlier.
       "You know this region, this vast wilderness," the Ojibwa warrior had whispered to him over a dyeing campfire. "It has been many seasons since our last big snows, but if they come all the deer will band together and hide, finding meat to eat or skins to wear can be difficult."
       Boss remembered, in particular, the Indian's steely stare as he spoke. It was a warning not to be taken lightly, or to be forgotten.
       "But you must not be fooled by the Phantom Buck," the Indian had cautioned.
       "He will appear when your stomach aches and your mouth drools for fresh meat. Do not follow. He will lead you deep into the forest. He will take you through dangerous swamps and river bottoms so thick with Popple and underbrush you'll need to be half beaver to get through. He will pull you into the very bowels of the forest. To the end of time and, maybe, to the end!"
       Boss listened and remembered. But he put little stock in his friend's hushed warning. He was, after all, the Boss Stalker, an accomplished woodsman, a tracker, a trapper, a hunter of the highest reputation. He had great confidence in his skills. And lest he, and Runs With The Elk forget, it was the Ojibwa who called him Agawate-nitagewinini, the Shadow Hunter. They
considered him a warrior of uncommon abilities; and it was true, Boss had never had a problem filling his belly before and he didn't intend to worrying too much about it now.
       This hunt started as a scouting mission. He was five days out, a long way from his cabin and a cache of elk meat. He was looking for a suitable network of creeks and rivers to run his trap line. But now, while his stomach growled again and a quick search of the area revealed no blood, no sign, and no buck, he experienced a fleeting regret for not bringing along
more smoked elk meat. He knew it was because he liked traveling light, living off the land day to day like the wolf, but now the few pounds of meat he had brought had run out over last night's campfire.
       Things weren't improving as Boss wondered why the deer had all disappeared. The elusive big buck was the only deer he'd seen. He hadn't even seen any tracks and he wouldn't waste gun powder and lead from his powerful rifle on small game.
       Boss moved to where the deer had been standing when he took the shot. He pulled his coat collar higher onto his neck as a strong north wind began to howl through the pine tops. The fog swirled with the breeze and reminded Boss of ghosts and boyhood nightmares. A shudder ran through him.
       Boss shook and tried to push the childish notions from his mind. He stooped to inspect, closer still, the snow where the buck had been standing. He found a speck of blood among the deer's tracks. One tiny spot of crimson but enough to excite him again. Enough to urge him on to follow the big buck. The tracks went northwest into the wind, and typical of a wounded deer, straight into thick cover.
       Boss looked after the buck's trail. He knew he needed to start, to get at it. Yet, he stood still and stared into the gray, foreboding wilderness and whispered to himself, "what am I walking into?"
       Boss waited an hour or so to give the buck a chance to lay down, but then his stomach growled and hunger pangs overcame any apprehension.
       "Ha!" Boss grunted. "I'll find that buck and fill my belly before doin' anything else."
       He gripped his Hawken tightly, but hesitated for a second, then he plunged into the forest. Several miles along the trail the fog disappeared as large flakes of snow replaced the fog and swirled just the same in the blustery wind. The temperature had dropped and the storm he'd sensed all day had finally arrived. And from the look and feel of it, it meant business. Boss knew he'd better take cover soon.
       He looked down at the tracks. He didn't seem to be getting any closer to the buck. Well, no problem really, Boss thought once the snow started coming harder, the buck will have to take cover, too. If I can get close enough to the deer's bedding area before the snow covers his track, I'll have a better chance.
       Boss picked up his pace atop the big buck's trail. The snow was heavier, the wind louder in the tree tops. After almost another hour and reluctantly, Boss decided to go off the hunt and find some kind of shelter. He'd lost the tracks to snow anyway, he thought. Then, through a gust of wind and snow, he caught a glimpse of movement.
       It was the Phantom slipping quietly through the trees. The woodsman knew what he had to do and kept going after the illusive buck. It was the only way.
       It wasn't long before Boss found fresh tracks, and it was also then he realized the buck had circled back. Boss figured it had probably done that all along and he followed without notice. But now that he thought about it, when he started out he moved directly into the teeth of the storm. But now the snow and wind battered the side of his face. Would that mean, he
wondered, if the buck will eventually put the storm at his back? If he does, Boss thought, I want to be there first!
       Boss looked ahead to see the trail go up over a hill. He decided then and there to take a gamble and cut cross country. If he guessed right, if he was lucky, he would come face to face with the big buck back near the creek.
      Boss pulled up his collar, put his back to the wind and headed through the woods in the opposite direction. It was a long shot, but it might also be his only shot. A short while later the tired woodsman topped the ridge above the creek where he first saw the buck. The snow was falling harder and the deer or its trail were nowhere to be seen. Boss waited a couple hours, hidden beneath a pine and somewhat out of the wind, before he began to second guess his decision to double back himself. He was disappointed, how could I have
guessed so wrong he wondered.
       Though maybe it was best for now. The weather was really getting bad and he knew he should give it up and find some kind of real shelter. The snow was falling so heavy, as it often does in these spring time storms, he could barely make out trees twenty-five yards away. The raging blizzard was working against him and benefiting the illusive buck.
Boss moved down hill to search for a suitable spruce or pine tree to crawl under. But then at the foot of the ridge he spotted tracks. Fresh tracks. Or what was left of them, now they were just depressions in the snow. And they were filling up fast under the heavy snow fall. It had to be the buck. What else would be out in such bad weather. And just like that, the hunt was on
       Boss felt a new resolve. He vowed to follow the tracks until they disappeared all together, or until he had the buck. He lowered his head and butted straight into the howling wind, again.
The hungry woodsman hadn't followed the tracks very far when he knew he'd been right to stay at it, and in spite of the raging blizzard a smile crossed his face. A pang of excitement washed over him. The trail ended at the edge of a giant spruce, its thick boughs were covered heavy with snow and all but impenetrable against the wind. He could see where the buck had
laid down and crawled under and out of the storm.
       Hunger rumbled through Boss' stomach again. It shouldn't take long to kill the buck, cut a smoke hole under the spruce and have plenty of dry wood to burn. Warmth and food and out of the weather. He was ready for all of them.
       "This weak sister of a blizzard can be damned," Boss whispered as he shook his fist at the storm. "I've got my buck."
       The confident woodsman crept silently to within a yard of the spruce. He stuck the butt end of his Hawken into the snow. It would be close quarters, under the tree, and there was no room for a rifle. He would have to do it the hard way, hand to horn combat.
       Boss pulled out his antler handled skinning knife. The long steel blade glistened even against the storm. It was all that stood between him and a cold, hungry night, or a warm full belly? He took a deep breath, coiled his muscles and his courage, and dove through the spruce boughs.
       The mighty woodsman's screaming attack into the pitch blackness under the
tree was met with no resistance at first. And at once he realized he'd landed directly on top of the fury animal. He could feel the warm, hairy body against his face and hands. Though, something didn't seem right. The hair was too long, and there was an odor. That's when a deafening roar erupted out of the blackness beneath him. Terror shot through Boss and that horrible stench burned his nostrils. He froze...
       "Deer don't roar ... or stink, not like this."
       Another roar tore through the darkness and stabbed into the panicked woodsman. He shook with terror as a flurry of motion erupted beneath him, as he had sat down on top of ...
"A bear!" he shouted.
       A heavy blow struck Boss hard on the shoulder, sending him flying backward. He fell hard against the bare frozen ground in the dark under the tree. The woodsman sprang up and lashed out with his knife at the invisible monster. He struck something solid but then he felt claws against his legs. Boss scurried away in the dark. He got up onto his knees and he again stabbed wildly with his knife. But they were futile attempts. Another roar exploded
only inches away from him.
       Boss knew this wasn't just a bear; it was a grizzly! And after being surprised and stabbed, it was a mad one, too. The woodsman dove for what he thought was the outside wall of boughs, but not before taking another hard blow to the ribs. A rush of cold air blasted
his face as he was thrown through the spruce boughs out into the storm again. He fell hard into the deep snow, then scrambled to his feet.
       Luckily, he found his rifle and charged away down hill. A loud but half-hearted roar followed him, though the bear did not. Boss was bruised, battered, cut up a little and most of all, relieved the big bear was more concerned with going to sleep than to chase after a crazy wild man through a blizzard.
       Boss moved off through the storm to the opposite side of the next ridge before he found another suitable spruce and crawled under and out of the storm. He cut a small smoke hole near the edge of the boughs and used the blade of his knife to strike against the flint he carried to spark a fire to the dry spruce twigs he found under the tree and along the bottom of its trunk. After he'd built his fire to a suitable size he spent time to tend his superficial wounds and bruised pride. He chided himself for being so foolhardy. As experienced as he is, he'd been fooled by a Phantom Buck. How could I have been so dumb? The snow was heavy enough to cover the buck's tracks before Boss reached them. It was the larger, heavier tracks of the bear that hadn't been filled in by the snow.
       "I should have know," Boss said to himself in disgust. "It was a greenhorn mistake if I ever saw one."
       Boss grumbled to himself like that most of the night. Crow was all there was to eat, and it sure didn't taste very good. His stomach growled, mocked his foolishness.
       "You might out smart a deer, or a bear but a man just can't out smart a storm," Boss said to himself. "Especially not when Old Man Winter decides he ain't quite ready to call it a season."
       Boss also knew over confidence could be dangerous in the big woods, even for the most experienced of woodsman. Though, he wasn't really too worried about starving to death. He knew enough about roots and nuts and snares to keep him in food, if it got that serious. Besides he'd come across a mouse nest when looking for food and managed to catch two of the mice. They didn't taste too bad after roasting them over the fire but they surely didn't tame his appetite. And right now he only wanted to survive this weather. The storm raged on before Boss finally fell into a restless sleep under the spruce. He woke with a start several hours later to an eerie silence around him.
       "Am I dead?" he wondered, as he roused from a dream that had him running through the wilderness riding a big buck while being chased by a giant brown bear. He patted his chest and arms to see if he was still real. Then he felt the soreness in his ribs, he was, indeed, still alive. Boss groped through the darkness for his rifle. He found it there on the ground next to him. That's also when he began to feel a little claustrophobic. He held the rifle in one hand and dug frantically at the deep snow atop the thick boughs. A few seconds later he stuck his head out into a bright, beautiful snow covered forest. Every branch and bough, every stump and stick was covered in a deep blanket of white. But even the beauty of the forest and the quiet left by the passing blizzard couldn't hold his attention for long against
the gnawing hunger in the pit of his stomach.
       He would have to eat again, soon. Boss trudged through the deep snow for several hours. The only sign of life were the chirping chickadees fluttering through the woods scolding him from the bushes and tree tops.
       "That's right little birds," Boss said. "A man who allows his over-confidence to lead the way is a foolish man and deserves your contempt."
       About noon Boss spotted a turkey perched high in a dead pine. The spindly branches did not hold much snow. and his Hawken roared through the woods. Feathers rained down. A turkey is never as big as it looks once it is plucked. But the bird roasted nicely over a fire and with the exception of bones and feathers Boss ate most of it.
       "Ain't had turkey gizzard since I stayed with that Crow women up on the St. Croix four winters ago." Boss smiled at the memory. His spirits taking a turn for the good after his meal. "A full belly sure does make a difference in your outlook."
       After he'd eaten Boss started off into the wintry woods and finally came across a small feeder creek at a place where it flowed into a larger river. "The Namekagon River," he said.
Boss collected wood, dead little branches from the trunks of trees above the snow. He would build his fire later after he cleaned the snow off two small pines he bent down and tied off to form the frame of a small lean-to. Then he piled more pine boughs and branches on top of the arched saplings to form a ceiling and walls and cleared the snow away beneath before he scattered boughs generously on the ground for a nice warm carpeting.
       When he set out to hunt for the few remaining hours of daylight, he was surprised to see large deep fresh deer tracks only a short distance from his camp.
       "It can't be!" He was determined not to fall into the same trap he'd had the day before. Still, he followed the tracks with his eyes. They moved through the forest and up over a nearby ridge.
       "Well, maybe I could follow just to the top of that hill." Boss said as he tried to convince himself he had learned his lesson.
       It took Boss several minutes to trudge up the ridge through the heavy snow. He was sweating pretty good under his warm clothes as he approached the crest in silent deliberation. Once on top he moved behind a tall pine and peeked down the other side. He couldn't believe his eyes when he spotted the big buck that had led him into so much trouble the day before standing broadside. It was almost a hundred yards below and near the edge of a cedar swamp.
        Boss would not miss this time. He lifted the rifle butt to his shoulder and aimed, but then the buck leaped away and disappeared into the swamp before Boss could get his shot off. He cussed himself, "be shootin'" he repeated his number one deer hunting rule. A hunter doesn't have much time to shoot, he has to be ready and he has to be quick But then the buck hadn't moved that fast. It was probably right down in that swamp somewhere and chances are it will never leave. Boss figured if he cut straight north he, once again, might get around the swamp before the buck got across and he could surprise it from the opposite direction. And even though it didn't work the first time he tried this cut around tactic, surely didn't mean it wouldn't work this time. A hunter has to be confident in his plan and without another thought about it he headed north.
       Boss spent the rest of the day chasing that buck and never did see it again. Later that night he sat in front of the second lean-to he'd built that day. The first one on the banks of the Namekagon River was a good five miles away and sitting empty. He had himself a little fire, but he was tired, frustrated and, once again, oh so hungry. Pine needle tea, raw cattail
bulbs, and popple tree bark were his three supper courses. It's all he had as he'd hunted the buck for two days with nothing but indignation to show for it. And that's when for the first time in several days now he realized his friend had been right after all. It was a lesson he was sure he would never forget, that you can't fill your belly on a Phantom Buck.

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