The majestic deer mount still gives me shivers as I peer into the eyes so meticulously placed into the form that is attached to this most spectacular of racks. Fifty-six years have passed, I was a mere nineteen-year-old boy when this animal rode with me to the taxidermist for him to do his work. The crowd of onlookers gasped when they saw him, massive ten pointers melted into nothingness when my deer was exposed to them and I was the center of attention or shall I say my buck was the center of attention, but I was the storyteller behind him!
My family farmed one hundred and eighty acres of hill ground in a county with a population of only 1100 residents. My father, rest his soul, worked hard and did without to provide for his family. I was about six years old when one of our steers escaped the fence and ventured to the West onto the neighbors’ property. I sensed the uneasiness in his voice when he told my mother he would visit Ol’ Tom to ask permission for the errant steer’s retrieval. I had heard Ol’ Toms name muttered before from my mother with instructions to never cross onto his property with the admonition that the wrath of God will fall upon you in the form of a hickory switch that will scar you forever! Normally, this would be the motivation needed to do just the opposite but the fear in her voice just in mentioning his name was apparent – I heeded her directions.
As it turns out, according to my father, the steer was found right across the gated fence munching grass within the compound that was Ol’Toms yard, if you want to call it that. The steer was within a fenced area indicating his presence was orchestrated not random! Dad simply opened the gate and loaded the steer onto his trailer for the journey back to the farm. He knew he was being watched and doing exactly what Ol’ Tom wanted him to do under the circumstances. Circumstances that Ol’Tom had provided for us!
The early teenage years where typical for a farm boy – all work and no play. My classmates did manage to tell me the story of my neighbor or at least the story that was told them!
He was a giant of a man with a hand like that of a bear paw, his skin was as tough as an old saddle but always clean shaven. His strength was not gained in a gym but in the arena of hard work as his early days was that of a bridge worker on the L&N railroad line working in the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky. It is said he could hold two sixteen-pound mauls one in each hand with his arms outstretched and let his wrists bend to allow the head of each maul to come down and touch his nose and then bend them both straight up again!
Once his gang was working on the Indiana side of the Ohio, replacing the deck on the mighty Ohio River Railroad Bridge, the largest bridge in the United States, built to withstand more tonnage than any other. As with most RR gangs, drinking and rough living was their way of life but only after their work was done! One of the members was patronizing a downtown bar in Henderson, Kentucky when the subject of strength came up. Evidently the braggadocio from the local gym rat’s pie hole insulted the gang members’ working-class roots when he claimed no gandy dancer could stand with him in feats of pure strength. Tom was summoned from his bunk in his camp car and after much cajoling agreed to go to the bar where he walked up behind the braggarts bar stool and with each hand placed on a stool leg lifted the man still sitting on the stool over his head with one motion. The strength contest had ended before it began!
Several years later, while helping one of his gang mates’ on their family saw mill a young boy was climbing on the stack of rough lumber when he fell sure to roll onto the spinning teeth of the saw blade. Tom lurched for the boy and caught him with his right hand tossing him away as if he were a spent handkerchief saving his life! Unfortunately, Tom’s left arm was severed three inches above the wrist as a result. Toms’ Rail Road life had come to an end.
How Tom came to our part of the country is a mystery. He had an old truck but was seen only once a month when he came to town to obtain necessary groceries and visit the library. His mere presence seemed to cause young mothers to clear their children from the street in panic! He would walk the mile walk down his lane each day to get the mail from his box, the mail carrier simply trashed the junk items from experience as Tom would not carry them back to his abode which was nothing more than a glorified barn built many years before! His farm was isolated by a large valley rimmed by straight up and down cliffs to the South and South East and a large wooded tract to the East and North East – no inhabitants lived within a two-mile distance from his West property line. His property was said to be the home of monster sized whitetails, but no county residence would dare venture onto the property for fear of reprisal. This fear was real as a Peoria resident once attempted to poach on his property only to be found days later walking the road in a dazed state with a broken nose so severe, he was lucky to be alive – he would tell no one of the encounter and most definitely press no legal charges it was as if he had seen the devil himself.
His legend grew over the years – he knew every rock and tree limb on his property and if it was disturbed, he would know it! The woods had eyes and you had better not venture into the unknown!
Our neighbors to the North were wealthy landowners simply living the grand life as provided by earlier generations of ancestors. They owned several business’s in the town and did not socialize with poor folk who they held in obvious disdain. The only child, a young boy of now fifteen years of age would shoot his gun at any bird available with no regard for species or target backdrop. Whatever Jr wanted Jr. got. I on the other hand I had to make do with my iron sighted rifle purchase for me at age 12 on my birthday – it served me well and still hangs as my most treasured present. I can still remember the visit to the old Hardware store with tall ceilings and a freight elevator to move people and merchandise between the floors. The store owner was selling his firearm inventory and this rifle was the last one.
The neighbors gave their child a motorcycle suitable for climbing trails and racing in the fields, with that the bucolic serene environment was disturbed by the two-cycle engine revving constantly through the wooded environment. All of the neighbors hated the thing but of course their existence did not matter. I was heartbroken when the turkeys, normally roosting on our property left for a less stressful environment. The whitetails adapted but the sound of the damn thing sure did not make my hunting adventures seem like the tales told in the latest Outdoor Life or Field and Stream magazine!
This opening day of deer season was quiet, and I was about to give up hope when I caught movement to the South West, suddenly a giant whitetail materialized. I moved the gun slowly to my shoulder and took aim – the shot seemed good, but the buck took off on a dead run in the direction of his earlier travel. I waited for thirty minutes for good measure and followed the blood trail which was evident on both sides of the deer’s line of travel indicating a well placed lung shot with entry and exit wounds pouring blood profusely.
The deer made the land where no fence existed, but no one was sure where one line started and the other ended. My anticipated joy and elation turned to disdain when the sight of my neighbor, just a few years younger than I standing over the buck. I approached the two apprehensively but was soon told to get off of the property and the dead buck belonged to him! How can he belong to you when you did not shoot him I asked incredulously! I did not notice the boy’s father approach but hoped the father would do the right thing under these circumstances. Instead, the father only mimicked the son’s demand that I leave the property. My disdain turned to anger, my rage was so intent I was about to use my firearm to rid the earth of these two dirt bags! Suddenly, the smell of the dead rutting buck was overridden by the strong smell of urine and tobacco juice, I turned to see Ol’ Tom standing to my left only feet away! His stature had not been exaggerated – it was as if Moses and Goliath were one and had come from Mt Sinai to set the record straight. His booming voice was directed at the two interlopers with the message that the buck belonged to the boy and to let him take it!
The boys’ father mouthed off constantly and he threatened to shoot Tom if he did not leave the property! Tom did not flinch, in fact he moved directly toward him without fear. I could sense the feeling that a Cape Buffalo hunter who has expended his last cartridge at the charging buffalo and only feet remain from completion of the charge!
Ol’Tom snatched the gun as it was pointed at him as if it were a toy and with the swing of his hand the gun was splintered into pieces against a small hickory tree trunk!
The father’s mouth uttered all sorts of garbled threats but with nothing to back them up they were meaningless! Ol’ Toms’ voice boomed” you will leave this place and if any further trouble is made of this – your bodies will never be found and the catfish will be able to suck you from the rivers’ bottom like relish at the bottom of a jar!”
Those two left like I have seen dogs run in terror with their legs between their tails! Ol’ Tom grabbed the buck by the horns and dragged him to within eyesight of our farm house. I will never forget the smell coming from Ol’ Tom as he dragged the buck. His only words were that the shot was good and he was a tremendous buck! Treat the land as if is were the breasts of your mother and always remember the secret to shooting big bucks is to never shoot a small one! He left me and I never saw him again although I had left to return to college after that season.
The Jack Ass neighbors remained but everyone in the county knew their true makeup after this episode.
Two years later, a certified letter arrived in the mail. It was from Lawyer Weinzapfels office. The letters’ content indicated Tom Matthews had died. It was his wishes that I would assist the funeral director in carrying his body to his final resting place.
I did as asked. No services were held, only a few short readings from the Bible and his favorite poems! When I picked up my share of the coffin, I doubted if the other funeral home employees were up to the task but we made it. His land was deeded to the local university with the promise that no development would ever be allowed and the land was to be used for wildlife research only. Any management hunting was to be approved by yours truly. I have taken this request seriously for my entire life.
The local Doc Johnson later revealed to me that Tom was in the last stages of his battle with Prostate Cancer at the time of my encounter. He had little control of his bowels and the cancer had formed lesions on his chest that were in effect open cancer sores. This was the reason for his awful smell.
I do not know what would have happened that day many years ago. Would I be in prison for the rest of my life? Would I have lost the buck to those arrogant piss ants? Thank God Ol’ Tom arrived when he did!