Streaks of pink across a gray horizon allowed Shane to make out the silhouette of a deer as it crossed a frosty cutover. Perched on a single-notched board wedged between two low branches in a pecan tree, the boy raised his muzzleloader but struggled to see its sights. It was just too dark.
Three minutes seemed like three hours before antlers on the deer’s head became visible. A 6-pointer! The buck quartered toward him, 35 yards away, with its head down feeding. Its chest was exposed.
Shaking big-time now, Shane placed the bead on the largest area of the buck’s chest. He didn’t remember pulling the trigger, only the roar of the muzzleloader and the thick gray smoke that hung like a blinding fog in the windless air.
When it cleared, Shane saw the buck crumpled on the ground, exactly where it had been standing only moments before. "Thank you, God, thank you!" Shane mouthed to the heavens as the shakes overtook him and his gaze shifted down upon his first buck.
He briefly remembered the last words his father said to him before dropping him off that morning: "Use your safety rope, and if you shoot something, reload your rifle and wait a few minutes before you do anything."
Shane waited a minute or two until he couldn’t stand it any longer. The buck—his buck—was lying lifeless, and there was no good reason not to go inspect his trophy at once. He slung the rifle on his back, clambered down the tree and approached his prize.
But when Shane neared the animal, its eyes sprang open just before it lurched to its feet, tail held high. In one motion Shane cocked the rifle, swung with the bounding buck and pulled the trigger. But his pull was met by a sickening click.
He’d forgotten to reload! And now his buck was gone.
Frantic, confused and overwhelmed by the swing of emotion, it was all Shane could do to kneel down and think. He knew his father must’ve heard the shot and would come around sooner or later, but Shane had no way of knowing when. So the boy did what most would: He reloaded his rifle and began looking for his buck.
Shane searched all possible and likely paths the buck could’ve taken, but he found not a speck of blood anywhere. In the brush he discovered fresh, smeared tracks from a running deer, so he followed them a quarter-mile to the creek that formed the hunting lease property boundary. He could see the tracks in the mud on the other side.
Right then Shane sat down in the cold grass and felt his heart plunge into his stomach. Tears welled in his eyes—not so much from losing his deer, but for ruining the life of such a beautiful, innocent animal. He’d hit it, that was clear. How could it run off?
When the boy’s father arrived, Shane told him every detail as the two walked back to the cutover where Shane claimed the buck had gone down. They searched for the rest of the morning, but to no avail.
During the long ride home, Shane finally said, "You believe me that I hit it, and it was lying there, don’t you Dad?"
"I do, Son," said his father. "But sometimes things happen. It’s what you do afterward that counts. In this case, we exhausted every effort to find the buck, because we respect him. But just because we are sad for the deer doesn’t mean we should deny nature. Fact is, he is a deer and you are a hunter. Your obligation to him is to learn from your mistakes and be better prepared for next time. And you know what your mistake was, don’t you?"
Shane nodded yes.
"Keep in mind, game animals get away sometimes, and that’s what makes them game," continued his father. "It’s OK to show some humility sometimes."
Ten days later, Shane and his father learned that Keith, another member of their deer lease, killed a 3-point buck not too far from Shane’s stand. Keith said the young buck likely would’ve been a 6-pointer had it not been missing its left antler. Shane didn’t exactly know why, but hearing this news eased a weight from his chest.
"I suspected it, but now I know," said Shane’s father. "You hit the buck in the antler and just knocked him out."
"I guess that explains why there was no blood," said Shane.
"Yep, and we can also deduce something else here, because you’re normally a dead-eye. You got buck fever and yanked the trigger, didn’t you boy?" Shane’s father teased as he ruffled his son’s hair. "Heck, maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t reload, or else ol’ Keith might’ve killed a no-pointer!"