This is the story of my brother Ronnie - whom some of you now know through my stories - versus the black water swamp.
It is a tale full of drama and of missed opportunities - with some victory and defeat thrown in for good measure. Not because I added it to the story - but rather because it just happened that way.
It is not my traditional "hunter defeats all odds and takes a great buck story", however - although I admit I love stories like that and try very hard to find those and then write about them... no, this is a different story, with an altogether thrust... as you will soon discover.
Wander with me now, if you would be so kind, down into a black water swamp that makes a twisted and meandering path between an very dense cut down - jungle like - and a large agricultural field. This seemingly non-directional ribbon of dark water, splintered in many locations before it rejoins itself further down the bottom, harbors some great bucks.
We know, because we have seen and taken them in the past.
In the early morning hours of a December morning, Ronnie was perched in the deer stand on the edge of the black water swamp that you have been kind enough to follow me into.
This is a tall ladder stand that was set just a little way up the hill from the swamp, on drier ground - but with a great view of the swamp bottom - particularly now that the leaves were mostly off of the trees.
It was secured to a smaller elm tree but was incredibly well framed by a holly tree that stayed green all year - making a great backdrop to "hide" the hunter, in spite of the fact that it was December and most trees are barren at this time.
Several does had already threaded their way through the swamp early on that cold morning.
Black water gurgled in the main run out in front of the stand, a beaver passed by headed down the creek and with his nightly chores done - he is headed toward the huge set of dens that are down at the base of the swamp - right where it becomes a large, old mill pond.
Ronnie was not interested in does today - or beavers for that matter, either... the freezer was full of deer meat and he had one thing on his mind - a Bulloch county bruiser with big antlers!
Wickedly cold that morning, Ronnie and Larry (one of his constant hunting companions) had gotten in the stands very early that morning.
Frost lay heavy on the grass as they made their way down the field and headed toward swamp stands that were no more than 200 yards apart. That sounds close, but in reality, we hunt this way all the time and rarely see the same deer. It happens but it is not the norm...
The sun rose out in front of Ronnie that morning - the stand faces east - and this is sometimes considered a curse... the bright sunlight in your face.
This cold morning, however, it was a blessing. The suns rays started to chase off the lingering cold of a December morning in the deep south; a more wicked cold - I do not think you can find. Perhaps it is because we expect the south to be warm, I am not sure.
The morning advanced, however, and no more deer were seen as the clock wound... past nine... then to ten... and toward eleven o'clock....
The buck, when he appeared, was a strange apparition, to say the least. Freakishly wide with tall, thick antlers, he appeared to come floating into the swamp out of the cut down.
Without an apparent care in the world, he stopped in the middle of the swamp, looked left, then right - and then just stood there, like a lamb waiting for a merciful slaughter.
The very well worn Savage 30.06 came up in a fluid motion, but before Ronnie could apply the pressure to snap the imaginary glass rod, a strange whistling sound filled his ears... it was the sound like that of wind, perhaps being pushed through a slightly open window on a gusty spring day.
Perplexed, Ronnie did not squeeze the trigger that morning - but rather tried to figure out the source of the sound.
The shock, when it came, was so staggeringly powerful and all encompassing, Ronnie at first had no idea what had happened.
To this day, he does not recall the trip.
A long way down.
18.5 feet from the foot platform, give or take a few inches.
He also does not recall hitting the ground - but he remembers very well what happened after that.
His first recollection is that of leaves and dirt in his mouth.
And of not being able to breathe.
Ironically, he notices in this moment of sheer terror that the rifle is stuck, muzzle down, in the soft dirt... and he thinks, "I need to make sure I clean the mud out of the barrel before I shoot that rifle again".
He struggles now just to catch some air... the brain is screaming BREATHE, BREATHE, BREATHE but the body is not following these incredibly frantic commands.
Seconds tick now... and life, to our wounded comrade, appears to hang in the balance.
"I can breathe and live - or I can not - and die. I am telling myself to breathe... to suck in some oxygen - but it looks like a 50 / 50 chance from where I lay", thinks Ronnie.
Finally, a hitch of breath (of course you know this... he is not dead, after all) and with that, comes another, and another and then another.
One would consider this a good thing, and it is, but it opens a door to a staggering world of exquisite pain that Ronnie had no idea existed.
Incredible, nauseating pain that appears to be everywhere and nowhere.
Ronnie struggles to his knees, drool falling from his open mouth - and tries to figure out what the hell happened.
Incredibly, he stands, the dream of the majestic buck long gone now. The tree stand dream has now turned into a real life nightmare.
Ronnie looks around, dazed, and begins to piece together what happened.
I was dreaming.
The sound - whistling in my ears - was that real? (to this day, we do not know... we think it may have been - air whistling in his ears as he fell)
He tries to call for Larry and can not utter a sound.
With no idea what do to and against all odds, Ronnie climbs back up the stand, gets his pack, pulls his rifle out of the dirt and walks - about a half mile - back up to the farm house.
The landowner takes Ronnie to a nearby hospital - where he is examined - nothing is broken - and is released.
He spends three days in bed, one in the farm house and two at home, and will tell you in spite of the fact that he did not die, there were times he wondered if it were not a great alternative.
We do not know the events of the fall - he can not recall them. We think he fell face forward and remained that way all the way to the ground - we do not think he turned 360 degrees in the air, although it is possible. Ronnie hypothesizes that perhaps - in the dream - he may have either really lifted the rifle, or perhaps only his arms - and this counterweight pulled his body forward in the stand. He does not recall if he bumped into or off of the ladder on the way down.
He does think he landed face first - there were leaves and dirt in his mouth.
If he did land in that position, he was only a quarter of a rotation from landing on his head - and there is no way, in that circumstance, that the end result could have been the same.
At best, likely paralyzed.
At worst, dead.
Here is a photograph, from this past weekend, from the same stand that is still on the same tree.
I had Ronnie take this and send it to me... it is hard to get a feel for the height - but 14 steps at roughly 16" apart - looks like 18 feet to me.
Please hunt safely and please wear a harness.
Too much hinges on it.
(by the way, this stand now has a safety rail on the front of it)