Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’ve been in the south. Got shot at running rural streets in Raleigh, NC; ran free on the levees in New Orleans. Love Faulkner. Parents & in-laws retired in Florida. Almost died from fire ants in Tarpon Springs. Enjoy sipping good shine. Been other places too, but memory ain’t what it was.
Kel hurried Daryl along the deer trail that cut across a corner of the Chequamegon National Forest in northcentral Wisconsin. “We put the first one up five years ago. It’s was my uncle Zeke who figured it out – start to finish. Took a lot of cooperation on the part of the critters but you know what they say about ‘United We Stand.’”
“Yeh,” Daryl chuckled, stopping to rub an itchy antler on a convenient tree, “standing united on all four legs.” Then he became serious. “I seem to remember, it’s up ahead!”
It was Kel’s turn to laugh. “You would say ‘head’ – it’s a beauty. You know it was Zeke who figured out how to get the squirrels in on the game. Started a raffle, an acorn apiece. Grand Prize – skull mounted in the tree with your nest. No one’s going to mess with any squirrel in that tree!”
“How did he get that trophy in the first place?”
Kel coughed, stomped the ground to get his breath back. “That was easy. Hunting ‘accident.’ Word out was one hunter was boffing another’s wife. They were supposedly good friends. Never should have gone hunting together but who knew? Clean shot though. Zeke had one of the black bears twist the head off, put it out for the crows to pick clean, best parts inside were cleared out by a pair of escaped minks. No love lost there. The way they’re raised by people shouldn’t be allowed. Zeke told me it was a ‘righteous eat!’”
“And there was no search for the body, sans tête? Daryl’s antlers occasionally picked up a French station from Canada and he was always showing off.
“Initially, but it was a lean fall and there were some very hungry coyotes. We’re almost there, just beyond those firs. But to answer your question, no, the coyotes buried the bones so they’d have something to eat come winter. The next season my cousin heard another hunting party talking about the kill and how the surviving friend got divorced, became a vegetarian, and moved out of state. Said it was some kind of trifecta.”
Kel stopped. “There he be, Daryl. This time of the year the setting sun hits the skull full-on about 5. Zeke said that when it was first put up some of the herd thought it was smiling. But the lower jaw dropped off and now you can’t tell.
“If we hustle, we can get to the grove when the sun sets. It’s the initiation place for The Society of Elken Equilizers.” When Daryl looked puzzled, he added, “I’ll explain when we get there. You’ve probably heard them called S.E.Ers. from the initials.”
Kel picked up the pace. They crossed a fire road and walked quickly for a minute down another then jumped a ditch and up the other side, continuing on another deer trail that cut back into the woods. Five minutes later they approached a grove of aspen. Kel slowed down and reverentially trod his way through to the clearing on the other side. Daryl followed silently.
Kel turned around and bent his forelegs. Four identical young trees had skulls atop their central leaders. Daryl followed his gaze; his jaw dropped when he saw the skulls riding high on the crowns of the trees. A hoarse whisper escaped his lips. “Oh my goodness.”
Kel snorted. “I understand; you never get used to it. I’ve been here dozens of times and still find it overwhelming. That was the time it was meat for the deers rather than the other way around. Then there was all hell to pay. Zeke had to get out of town after his picture showed up on a farm’s trail cam less than a mile from where they found the hunters’ car crashed around a sharp turn in the road.”
They stood silently until Daryl finally asked about the skulls. “Was it Zeke that killed them? I mean, they were all armed, probably itching to shoot anything on four feet that moved.’
“Oh, it was Zeke, all right. Told you he was smart. Knew that by the time the sun set most of these hunters were six sails to the wind – never understood that one – just means that after dark most hunters are good and drunk. But even if they shouldn’t be shooting, they see a big buck when they’re driving back to their camp, they’ll pull off the road and take a couple of shots hoping to get lucky. Heck, some roll down the window and start shooting without stopping the car.”
“But that’s doubly illegal, hunting after dark and shooting from a car!”
“Yup, that’s what made Zeke so mad. He had an idea. Said he got it after reading about the Indonesian shadow plays. He set up a large log around a sharp turn in the road. Front end sticking out of the trees, ten feet back. He stuck branches on the front to look like antlers if you came up fast. And then he waits up on the opposite side where there’s an outcrop. Sees a car coming or gets the signal from a lookout down the road, I forget which, and at the right moment he rolls a large stump down the hill. Driver doesn’t have time to think. Boom – into the ditch.”
Daryl started to whistle taps. When he stopped, he asked, “Still, how did they ID Zeke?
“Another cam, this time on one of the hunters. The hunter’s body cam was either on or it got bumped on in the crash. Go figure. Anyhow, they put a bounty on Zeke. Took two years plus to get him. Really, people should thank us – helping thin the herd of the dumb ones.”
Daryl smiled. “Going to take a while – the thinning.”
“You could say so. Still, must have been a smart one that got Zeke.”
Kel coughed into his hoof. “You could say so. But I heard some of his cousins say that if you come here on a moonless night you can hear Zeke rallying the troops. But I think that it’s him, puffing his chest out, claiming all the bragging rights are his.”
Daryl hung his head. Waited silently for two minutes in case Kel had something to add. Then cleared his throat and said nervously, “I heard that they got him last year. There’s talk about building a memorial museum in his honor.”
Kel ignored his remarks. “You know, the joke’s on the people that shot him if they ever try mounting his head. Zeke showed me how he practiced skewing his eyes and muscles in his face. He planned to do that if he was ever shot, claiming his face would eventually twist so he’d be looking out cross-eyed. Now that’s the Zeke I remember. No question the bragging rights are his.”