He majestically rises to his feet, cranes his neck, and steps cautiously from his bed in the deep-woods thicket. Normally, he would stir much later in the afternoon, but for some reason he is especially hungry today. Besides, there aren’t as many humans in the woods now; spring is approaching, and those new buds and greening shoots are mighty succulent and nourishing.
Though he still feels a mite weak now and then and he’s a bit on the thin side, his body tells him he’s recovering. He was a wildly promiscuous sex maniac in the not-too-distant past, but lately he’s lost interest in the ladies and that old barroom-brawler fighting spirit has left him. The old wounds are slowly healing and turning into scars. The heavy ten-point antlers he sported last winter are gone now and he’s at last getting used to the reduced weight of his head.
He’s been through this transition six times before. Six times he’s spent late fall and winter in desperate combat between bouts of intense sexual frenzy. Should he survive the spring and summer, there will be a seventh. He will survive, if the food is plentiful and the wounds continue to mend.
Food. That’s what he needs. Greenery. Spring tonic. A bit of honeysuckle, a mouthful of new grass, an early-spring blossom or two. Something to tide him over until the clearings are lush with vegetation.
By all rights he should be dead. Those ten points he carried not long ago marked him. He commanded attention. Deadly fame. He made only one serious blunder last fall, but it was nearly fatal. He owes his life to a very poor marksman who was just too excited to shoot straight. He doesn’t dwell on those occurrences, doesn’t even clearly remember them. Still, he is cautious out in the open. Some primordial sense tells him he must be. He did not grow old by being stupid.
He pauses at the edge of a forest opening. There’s a boy in the clearing. He sees the boy well enough from where he stands, but it is the man-smell that identifies him fully as an age-old adversary. The youth does not seem a threat. He’s merely removing a strange, ladder-like contraption from the side of a tree. Still, it’s best to wait before crossing the open space. Never can tell about these predators that walk upright and make loud noises. He’s stood and watched many of these creatures who never became aware of his presence.
The boy frees the strange contrivance from the tree trunk and drags it away. He’ll probably bring it back in a few short months. Can’t forget to test the wind in this spot from now on, he thinks. A lesson learned.
From the corner of the buck’s eye movement is detected. An ear-flick. Another buck, younger, but almost his size. He stiffens and steps into the clearing, almost challenging, but the instinct is going dormant and the hormones are again normal. Instead, he relaxes and walks over to share, not contest, the honeysuckle patch.
Dark is coming on quickly now. With it comes more freedom of movement and the chance to venture faster and farther in search of nourishment and the new strength it provides. The boy is forgotten. His scent has faded.
As dawn approaches, the buck returns to his bed. Rest now, and repair. The boy stirs fitfully in his own sleeping quarters. He dreams a recurring dream, a dream of next season …
And a big buck he’s never seen.
Now that season, the buck’s seventh and the boy’s third, has come again. The deer’s rack is impressive this fall, but the coordination, innate wariness, and quick reaction time are not quite the same as before. Age is taking its toll. He is old, not the buck he used to be.
Age has changed the boy as well, but not in the same ways. The youth is now a more mature, and wiser, woodsman. He has had a spring and a summer to think about and learn from the baby-hunter mistakes of the past two seasons. The odds are beginning to shift.
Will this be the year? Will the old buck at last make a fatal misstep? Will he show himself and be that fraction of a second too slow to lithely bound away?
And will the boy be silent, rapt, and ready should it happen?
Time will tell.