The Hometown Buck
Big bucks and small towns. When combined, the two variables create heroes. Rusty Purdy was one of my best friends from grade school through high school, and he killed such a buck. It was a newspaper-maker, one that stirred talk at local ballgames and in the halls at our county school.
I've killed a lot of deer myself. I've shot a few decent bucks. But little details of animals I've shot even recently are soon forgotten. I'll never forget Rusty's buck. The animal wore a wall of tines and charged into the field in front of us in the middle of a grinding rattling sequence. Its hair stood on end and its ears were folded back. A blast of white smoke erupted from the muzzleloader, and the deer was gone faster than it appeared.
My dad had been at the other end of the field, watching a small 8-pointer tend several does. He was just out of earshot of our rattling sequence, and a bend in the field kept him from seeing the beast it provoked, but he heard the gun. Initially, he thought I'd told Rusty to fire a wild shot at the 8-pointer. He walked with a determined stride as he came down the edge of the field. The sun had set, and it was getting dark and cool. I was shaking, trying to align the 300-grain bullet over the green plastic sabot and muzzle of the rifle before starting it. Some of the shivering was from the evening chill, but most of it was from pure adrenalin. Rusty, cool and calm, gazed out across the plot, where the deer exited. We didn't even know if he'd hit the buck or not.
What were you boys shooting at? Dad demanded.
Biggest deer I've ever seen, I said, my voice cracking from a chilly dose of adrenaline. We stepped into the sprouting clover plot and almost immediately I noticed a giant track freckled with blood.
Let's give him a little while, Dad said, now in the company of his flashlight, steam penetrating the light's beam. We don't know where he's hit. Could be in the gut.
The buck wasn't hit in the gut. A crimson blood trail, splashing on brush and saplings for only 50 yards led us to him. Rusty's aim had been as true as any I'd ever seen—directly behind the shoulder, probably clipping the top of the heart, and punching solidly through both lungs.
Rusty and I had engaged in countless talks about deer hunting in the years prior to that cool October evening. In those days we were together, playing basketball (with a foot's height advantage, Rusty had to take it easy on me) every afternoon after school and fishing every weekend. Rusty was well known among our classmates for his especially cool, calm demeanor. The fact that inflection in his voice seldom varied made him a hilarious guy to be around when he was in a joking mood (and Rusty had a legendary sense of humor). That same personality, in addition to him being taller and a better athlete than most of our buddies, made Rusty pretty popular with the female contingent in our class.
But, I was blessed with good places to hunt, many of them within walking distance of where I lived. Rusty didn't have as many spots, and never saw as many deer. By the time I had a dozen deer under my belt, Rusty had never filled a tag.
We were in high school the year Rusty shot his buck. I had filled my only buck tag with a little velvet 5-pointer on opening day of bow season, my first deer with archery tackle. When the early two-day muzzleloader season rolled around in mid-October, I asked Rusty to hunt with me. I'd do some horn rattling and he'd do the shooting. I wanted him to kill his first deer, and I wanted to extend a season that ended too quickly.
We saw a good buck first thing that morning, but the deer was out of range. Several other deer crossed the field in front of us, including a doe that offered a marginal shot for an open-sighted muzzleloader. I encouraged Rusty to shoot anyway, and he did, but the doe escaped unscathed.
That evening, we decided to try things over a food plot, and for the first two hours, the pace was agonizingly slow in the way watching a barren food plot can be. No squirrels, no birds, no nothing—just grass. I'd made two or three rattling sequences that I knew would get something into the field, but produced nothing. But 30 minutes before dark, a small 8-point stepped into the other end of the field with three or four does. We watched him for a while, and with darkness coming, I decided to try a last-ditch rattling effort. I hit the horns especially hard and loud, spacing things out with a grunt call clenched between my teeth. That's when the buck appeared.
Rusty's grandfather, Bob Bullock, the best taxidermist in town, mounted his buck for free and kept it displayed in the little shop behind his house for quite a while. And, Rusty's deer was featured prominently in our local paper, The Dawson Springs Progress. I don't know how many times we both passed around pictures at school and retold the story to peers and teachers alike.
Rusty and I graduated friends, but keeping in touch was tough after high school. Phone calls were fewer and fewer between until there were none at all. My high school sweetheart and I left town shortly afterward. We've lived in other small Kentucky towns, and a few big towns, like New York City and Memphis, since then. My job has since found me hunting and fishing across this country and others, and I've been on the water and in the field with a lot of good folks. But it didn't take long for me to realize that hunting and fishing buddies you have as a kid are tough to replace.
I've only run into Rusty a handful of times since our high school graduation. He's married with two little girls, and still lives in our hometown. A few weeks ago, I called him to chat.
It was the afternoon of opening day of bow season when I pulled into his parents' driveway and parked next to the old basketball goal where we used to shoot hoops after school. Rusty was waiting for me, the mount of his buck sitting in the front seat of his truck. I snapped a couple quick photos, and we sat down to talk. Conversations quickly turned to hunting. I still remember him, Rusty said. Every minute of that hunt. Him running into that clover like that when you hit those horns.
Rusty humbly mentioned he'd shot an 8-pointer with his bow the season before. It wasn't real big, he said, but it was an 8-pointer. It was bigger than anything I'd killed the season before.
We cracked open two cold ones, and toasted on the past. With a graduating class of 29 students, we talked about several folks we'd kept in touch with over the years. A few were still in town. There were several more that we both knew we'd never see or hear from again. Be time for the 10-year reunion soon, Rusty said. It would.
Before long, we'd burned two hours. We'd been talking and laughing the whole time, but it was time to go. I had a tree stand to be in that afternoon, and Rusty had to get home to his kids. I shook his hand, and he asked how often I made it through town. I told him quite a bit when hunting season is in. No reason not to stay in touch, he said. I smiled and nodded. He was absolutely right.