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Finally making my way to the young hunter, he stood there almost speechless, a look of shock in his eyes. He looked like he had seen a ghost. It had been the biggest buck he had ever a seen, a monster of a dreamer’s proportions, and he had knocked it down with the buckshot, only to watch it get back up and run off. Drew’s father, Dennis, and the rest of the hunters in our group gathered and began trailing.

“Don’t worry,” we told him. “We’ll find that deer.” The hunter was sick that we wouldn’t. Almost near tears.

We tracked for an hour, leaving our property and heading onto the adjacent lease. Somebody ran to confirm it was okay to continue the pursuit from the leaseholder, while the rest of us doggedly sought out the now-tiny flecks of blood scattered along a deer trail through a thick reed bed.

Suddenly, the buck exploded from hiding ahead of us, my only glimpse of the monster coming over the guy’s shoulders in front of me. At that time, it was truly the biggest buck I had ever seen. In the narrow deer trail ahead, I could see only antlers dashing away. Drew hadn’t been exaggerating the size of the buck and confirmation of that steeled the rest of us to the pursuit. Hours later, though, the trail was lost. We eventually had to give up the search. We never found the buck. And everyone involved felt sickened, but none as badly as Drew.

Drew recovered from the loss and moved on as any good hunter does. As any hunter must. But I don’t think he ever forgot the image of that deer running past his stand. I know I will never forget that day of hope, of loss and of comradery among the searchers, nor how one young man bravely shouldered the responsibility of his actions and kept right on in the effort to finish what he had started, imploring us to keep looking when everyone knew it was a lost cause.

Now, this weekend, as the Virginia firearms deer season opens, a time when every hunter should be rejoicing in another season, many of Drew’s friends will be saying a final good-bye. No doubt the thought of his children growing up and never really getting to know their father will be first and foremost on everyone’s mind. There is no sadder thought. But I’m also sure that as they grow, their mother and grandparents will remind them that their Dad was a good kid.

I also like to think that entering into the hereafter is a little like Corey Ford’s famous short story, “The Road to Tinkhamtown,” where a dying hunter joins his birddog and leaves this life into the world of one last, great successful hunt. It’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read.

As such I picture Drew head deep in reeds, tracking that monster buck of long ago, but this time he pushes through the wall of grass and reaches down with a joyous cry and grabs the heavy beams of the rack in his two hands. I see him kneeling there and smiling, that big, wide grin that was always on his face (I wish I had a picture to share right now). Yes, that’s how I’ll picture Drew–finally finding his buck, finally going home to a place where all hunts end as they should and no sadness is ever known.

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