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When Life’s Struggle with Death Leaves a Blood Trail

He lifted his nose to the breeze gently riding the first rising rays of the sun. Beneath October’s dank, musty fallen leaf blanket and balsam bough cover scent, the crisp north woods promise of snow filled his nostrils.

Headed towards his fifth high peaks winter, the whitetail buck was the old man of his herd. Along with the black bear who denned at the base of the rock cragged cliff face overlooking the brook, he shared patriarchy of this stretch of mountainside forest.

Tucked in tight against an uprooted cedar root mass with his back to the dawn, he cautiously surveilled the steep hardwood stand sloping downward before him. Danger lurked hidden in these mountains this morning. He could sense it. He perked up his ears for nature’s early warning chatter of chipmunks or caw of a crow.

His wilderness kingdom this morning, however, while never silent, was quiet. Each exhaled breath rose from his nostrils in wisped vapor vines, wafting slowly upwards as morning mist silhouetted mature maple, beech, black cherry and oak.

Does and fawns arose first, quietly rising from nearby balsam beds to descend the steep ridgeline protection to still lush marsh grass, acorns, beech nut and alder browse breakfast the lowland swamp forest floor offered below them.

Several young bucks quickly followed, driven both by the new day’s hunger and estrus spiked hormones.

Secure in his cedar log throne, he watched it all slowly unfold beneath him. The rainfed brook babbled its way briskly downward. Chick-a-dees-dee’d. Scolding red squirrels dropped acorn laden oak canopy clusters. Mist rose through the trees. Sun’s rays pierced pre-dawn shadows. The forest itself stretched, yawned and awoke.

The buck remained alert, nostrils flared, through it all. Danger was out there, somewhere, lurking. And with it the reaper. He could not yet see it, but his experience sensed it. So, he lay quiet, silent and still. Patient. In full surveillance mode. Watching.

Does and fawns browsed in peace. Blue jays, sparrows and woodpeckers flitted about. A lone coyote skulked past. An emergent six-point buck crossed down into the brook for a drink from over the ridge just beyond.

Dawn turned to daylight. Instincts notwithstanding, the buck’s keen night eyes, ears and nose still sensed nothing. He quietly rose from his bed. He stepped with a slight front right leg limp. Reminder from a close encounter with the reaper’s bullet he’d survived two winters earlier. Despite the limp, his shoulders were strong. He carried his ten widely spread points high and proud.

He meandered slowly down the steep ridge towards the brook, pawing wet leaves as he went, foraging beech nuts and acorns. The buck reached water’s edge, pausing briefly to lower his head for a drink of his own before crossing.

The morning’s breeze that had been gently rustling the trees shifted slightly. A twig snapped. A partridge flushed somewhere to his left, further up in the balsams along the ridgeline above him. The buck quickly lifted and turned his head uphill.

Standing there at the brook, water droplets hanging from his whiskers, he then did what his instincts told him. Nostrils flared, scanning the landscape above him, the buck froze.

A split second too late, his keen ears heard the telltale click. The buck reflexively ducked his shoulders, white tail flag up, quickly turning to bolt across the brook downhill to the right as that click was almost simultaneously followed by the reaper’s echoed rifle staccato.

The buck stumbled forward briefly and nearly went down as he felt the reaper’s hot round pierce flesh. Somewhere back behind and below his hart’s lungs, liver, kidneys and rib cage, the round entered, then exited, painting matted forest floor leaves with a tuft of white underbelly hair, specks of fatty tissue, and a brownish blood spatter.

Several wild shots quickly followed as the buck regained footing, leapt the brook, dodged back to his left, and then bolted, zigzagging uphill towards thick balsams in a survival fueled last ditch adrenaline rush.

The buck reached the crest of the ridgeline, lathered, wheezing. He stopped momentarily, turning his head to listen. He heard the reaper’s footsteps behind him. Brownish red blood mixed with bile stained his white underbelly as life slowly dripped to forest floor leaves from his abdomen in a spattered, patternless blood trail.

“Keep heading uphill. Do not stop. Don’t lay down. Go.”

The buck followed his instinct’s strong lifewill voice. He surged uphill along the ridge. Forward.

Morning morphed to afternoon. The buck crossed the ridge, circled back down to his left, finally stopping to rest in a lowland alder swamp on the far side. He lay there awhile. He tried licking his wound. A small pool of blood formed beneath him. His oozing guts mixed with coagulated blood, plugging the reaper’s hole. External bleeding slowed, then stopped, but the internal damage continued draining life fluids into the pit of his gut.

The buck felt himself slowly drifting towards a sleep from which he might never awake. Then, suddenly alert, the buck struggled and stood, startled awake by the sounds of the reaper tracking the blood trail behind him.

The buck forged his way onward, deeper into the swamp. He crisscrossed through muck and mire, tangled alder, crossed a swollen lowland stream and began steep ascent up an unfamiliar ridge on the far side. Driven by adrenaline and instinct, ignoring fatigue, fear and pain, refusing death’s calling, the buck was determined to outrun the reaper he was certain was somewhere behind him, still following.

The buck crested the ridge. He’d gone as far on this day as his life’s will would carry him. He made his bed on soft moss in under a thick stand of dense hemlock. He had no idea what lurked beyond the darkening forest dusk’s sleep that so desperately called him.

He only knew that he’d survived this day.


Leaving a blood trail.



Until Our Trails Cross Again:


Author’s Endnote: As a fifteen-year tongueless tube fed x3 cancer survivor, I penned this story as a hunting tale metaphor on life’s sometimes cruel reality and the fight for survival. Every shirt in my closet is permanently stained on the front in a testament of sorts. Like the buck in the story, I focus each moment on outrunning the reaper, masking my blood trail, traversing life’s terrain, gutshot.

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