Zeke Ward was always the last man in the cabin at night, but he looked unusually tired this night. He flopped down on the picnic bench next to me and we started the regular Deer Camp evening conversation.
“Did you see any?”
“Yep. I saw one.”
“So, where is it?” I asked, very much doubting there was anything but an alibi for an answer. I’d hunted with Zeke since I was in high school and never had he brought back a deer. A few times when I’d checked on Zeke at his stand I had found him asleep. It was pretty much understood that Zeke went to deer camp just to get out of the house for a few nights.
“Well, I tracked him some, but then I lost him.”
I almost spit my coffee while others were heard to chuckle aloud. But when I looked at Zeke, I could tell he wasn’t kidding. I asked him to show me just where on the map he had been, and marked it with a red grease pen. Kevin Friend and I had hunted together long enough that we didn’t have to talk about things, we just knew what the other was thinking and we backed each other’s play. Immediately we grabbed our gear and made for the woods.
When we started the tracking, I was using a big Mag-light, the state trooper model. It shed a lot of light across a broad area and close to the ground it was easy to pick up the deer tracks and the blood drops. This lasted about 40 minutes before the bulb went out. I reached into my coat pocket for the mini-maglites I carried for back-up. The two of them lasted about an hour, combined.
All through the night we followed the blood and the tracks, noting when there was a change in the deer’s gate. Here and there it slowed and stopped, then broke into a sprint again. Something was pushing this animal deeper and deeper into the heavy woods. We saw spots where it laid down, and struggled to get back up, and started to run again. This pattern repeated over and over. I’d tracked some deer in my time, but I’d never seen anything quite like this.
Then Kevin called me over to a parallel set of tracks. He cast his little surefire light down between his feet and said, “Those are not deer tracks.” I leaned forward to see a print with five furry pads and a claw on each one. “Coyote tracks, lots of ‘em ” That’s when Kevin’s light dimmed and went out.
For a second, it was very dark and very quiet. “Very funny. Turn it back on!” I said.
“I’m out. That was my last light. Turn yours on.” he retorted.
I threw the switch on my head lamp, the last light I had. Click. Click. Click, click, click-click, nothing. I put my hand in front of my face to see if the old idiom was true. I couldn’t even see shades of gray. Under the thick pine bough canopy, not even starlight got through.
I felt Kevin fumbling with my arm to affect a handshake between us and saying, “It’s been nice knowing you.” This was his sense of humor, but it wasn’t funny.
We weren’t picnickers, but the situation wasn’t good. We were both shivering cold and wet, hypothermia was setting in. We were in about an inch of water everywhere, including in our boots. We had both hunted hard all day, then gone out on this night excursion and were nearly exhausted. Starting a fire under the pines would be tough. We were armed with only two sheath knives and a bunch of dead flashlights, and had no idea which way to go, except back out on the tracks the way we came. We really wanted to find this deer for Zeke, but there were a lot of coyotes very near with the smell of blood in their noses. Coyotes aren’t known to attack “healthy” men, but given our compromised state in complete darkness, being torn to shreds by wild dogs was not something I wanted to experience.
Kevin and I made a quick inventory of everything on our persons. I found a novelty single LED light from a feed company in a pocket, and that was all the light we had to get out of several miles of woods. Taking compass bearings from tree to tree and leaving a trail of torn business cards from our wallets, we reckoned our way out of the pines to the nearest road just as the little light died. Hours later we made it back to the cabin and before I hit my cot, I hit my knees for getting us home.
In the daylight we got back to the trail of paper shreds, bloody tracks, and tufts of fur. The scene was like something out of a Fess Parker movie as only 200 yards from where we left off laid the badly damaged and half eaten carcass of Zeke’s buck. There wasn’t much left to drag out of the woods; it weighed maybe 75 pounds and was unfit for human consumption. But at the end of the animal that the coyotes hadn’t eaten was a beautiful and pristine ten point rack, which now hangs proudly in the den of my pal Zeke.