The long tufts of white deer hair marked a melancholy trail across the old logging road and down a draw to a thicket where the yearling buck lay.
It might have been a day or a week since the dog -- or dogs -- brought the deer down, because the weather had just moderated after a 10-day freeze.
The two men and the boy hoped the little buck's final stand had been brief, but it did not look to have been. The ground around him was covered with hair torn from his belly and hindquarters, the feathering of an obscene nest. He had mere knobs for antlers, and a broken foreleg, which had made him pitifully easy prey.
There were no pug marks on the still-frozen ground, no way to establish how many dogs were involved. The landowner was worried because in many areas dogs, both free-running pets and castoffs that have turned feral by necessity, kill more deer than all other causes combined. He knows a man whose land is so overrun with packs of wild dogs he is afraid to walk his own woods without a shotgun.
But something about the scene did not make sense. In this area of the Maryland Western Shore there are few stray dogs because the farmers, and the farmers' dogs, kill them on sight. The landowner had never seen any sign of them on his property, and the draw where the deer lay was miles from the nearest house or highway.
They looked more closely at the button buck, shapely and beautiful even in death, and a likelier chain of events began to suggest itself.
In the first place the deer was too lightly marked to have been harried by a pack or even a pair of dogs, yet a lone dog can seldom run down, and even more seldom take down, a healthy deer. If a deer can't outrun a dog it will turn and strike with its sharp forehooves, which can rip flesh and break bones; usually the dog will decide to go back to chasing rabbits.
The buck's right foreleg was broken and looked as though it had been chewed.
The original assumption was that the injury was from the death fight, but the lower section was seen at second glance to have been broken much earlier, and not just broken but shattered. A hunter's bullet was suspected, and the two men, both hunters, had a flash of anger over the careless shot by a poacher that had crippled the littel buck.
That scenario soon fell apart also. The bone was too throughly shattered, and over too long a section for buckshot or a bullet to have done it. The deer had been hit by a car.
One of the men got down on hands and knees to examine the leg and saw that the stump of the bone was worn nearly smooth. The lower part of the limb had been cut off from its blood supply long enough before the animal died for gangrene to have set in. How many miles had he labored over the frozen ground before the dog -- the beneficent, pain-ending dog -- gave him quietus?
Too many miles to believe, the men thought, unitl it was remembered that the broad marsh bordering the land, normally too soupy for an animal to walk on but too thick to swim, now was hard frozen. Half a mile in that direction was the highway where he must have been hit. Between it and the marsh was a subdivision where the dog may have picked up the trail.
All the mystery that remained was how the deer had come any way at all under his own power, for beneath the smooth coat his shoulder and flank were massively hemorrhaged; most soldiers so hard hit would give up on the spot.