The air was cool and dry as Hildreth Middleton walked down the potholed dirt road to the lodge, his shotgun, a new Belgian Browning was in flannel lined brown potato sack. Good weather for a hunt he thought, a good time to be in the pines and on the coast. It was late September; the leaves were turning, and he’d hitched a ride from Chesterfield in the sandhills down to the old Kings Highway between Georgetown and Charleston where old man Cooney Vereen had a very prestigious hunting lodge called The Bonne Dunes. Hildreth was a man now, tall, rugged, good looking, almost 19 and was told by his brother-in-law John Merriman that if he wanted to hunt the Vereen land, which was considered some of the best coastal acreage in the Carolinas, that Jacob Ravenel would put him up and let him join some hunts if he’d take care of the dogs and run the drives for the fall.
Ravenel was the manager of The Bonne Dunes which hosted everyone from the Governor and influential doctors from Charleston to attorneys, plantation owners, and statesmen as well as their guests. The lodge was back off the highway about ten miles and offered everything from duck ponds to dove and quail hunts and the best deer drives with the biggest bucks in the Southeast. The lodge looked like a low country fish camp except about five times the size, it was surrounded by century old oaks draped in Spanish moss and overlooked the river, it had large floor to ceiling second story windows, a steel and tin roof, covered porch that surrounded three sides of the building, oversized dining room, three or four large second floor privates as they were referred to, one well-dressed barracks building with an open bar for the hunters and another lesser barracks for the workers.
He had come here once or twice with John and had expressed a great interest in joining a deer drive as they had always hunted quail and turkey. Now was his opportunity and he jumped at the chance.
Hildreth had made a name for himself when younger because of how well he could do anything hunt wise from construct a successful deer drive to scout and track bucks, handle dogs from pointers, labs and hounds to spaniels. He’d even won some state competitions with his bird dog pups Jack and Jill taking home the county title.
Well, he was here now and eager to start so Mr. Ravenel spent the next day, after getting him set up in the bunkhouse the night before, walking through his duties regarding the dogs, the gunsmith shop where he’d clean guns, to the lay of the plantation, corn and rice fields, deer stands, boundaries, swamps, and the river.
During his walk with Mr. Ravenel, Hildreth was told without question that if a guest had issues with anything that he should be told immediately, that you never spoke to the guest unless asked a question or offering a service, that he should always address the guest as sir and that he never conversed with or saw anything when the girls from Charleston came to the lodge on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.
Hildreth said he understood and was fine with the rules, told Mr. Ravenel that all he wanted was an opportunity to take a shot at the legendary buck known as Geronimo. Ravenel grinned, chuckled aloud and said, “sure boy you’ll get your chance, just do your chores” and walked back towards the lodge.
Now you have to understand, Geronimo was a legend. A massive albino white-tailed buck who had alluded hunters in this area for years. The tale goes that he’s white as goose down with haunting pink eyes and thirty points, then others say he’s a delirium of those who had too much whiskey the previous night and were still drunk during the predawn hunt. Either way, Hildreth was there to find out and if given the chance knew that he’d be hanging a big rack on his deer camp wall back home.
Over the next couple of months Hildreth excelled, his deer drives harvested the largest tally in the lodge’s history. The guests, many who had been to the lodge multiple times had praised him and reported to Ravenel that how he worked the dogs during his bird hunts were the best they had experienced and that they would be returning next season. Everything seemed to be perfect and everyone was looking forward to a large bonus once the season closed. Everyone except for Hildreth.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t grateful or even happy as he had two bucks and a doe under his belt, but there was no Geronimo, not even a sighting.
It had come down to the end, there were five days left to the season and the deer drives had concluded, the majority of the guests with the exception of a small private group of hunters from Charlotte had left and it was relatively quiet.
One morning Hildreth was walking through the main room of the lodge and Mr. Ravenel called him over. “Hey”, he said, “you want to make a buck”? Well, it was 1933 the depression had just ended and a dollar? “Sure, what you need”? Mr. Ravenel said, that he wanted Hildreth to take breakfast to a man in the corner private on the second floor. Said to knock, take the breakfast in, set it down and leave. “You’ve got it”, Mr. Ravenel Hildreth said.
Hildreth went to the kitchen, grabbed the tray, ran up the stairs making sure not to spill or slosh over anything.
He knocked, a voice answered, “Who is it”? “I’ve got your breakfast,” Hildreth said. “Come in” the opposite side called out. Hildreth, open the door and peered in. The room was dark, shutters closed with the exception of the big front window where a man sat in an easy chair and table with the shutters opened overlooking the front of the lodge. He was slumped down in the big chair, dressed in city clothes, suit pants, wingtips with a wife beater t-shirt. A dress shirt, tie and jacket hanging over the chair across from him next to the table. He smelled of cologne, was clean shaven except for a pencil-thin mustache and seemed to have a crooked smile. Hildreth walked over, set his breakfast down on the table, when the man asked, “what’s your name”? “Hildreth Middleton sir,” he said. The man then flipped him a silver dollar which he fumbled and dropped on the floor. He quickly picked it up and still bending over thanked the man while backing out of the room.
Over the past few months, Hildreth had seen all sorts of people in the lodge. Men of importance he had assumed, some had even come with bodyguards and very friendly girlfriends but none of them had given him a silver dollar for delivering breakfast.
The week was moving on and Hildreth was wrapping up his visit, making sure the kennels were cleaned, the dogs were ok, clearing out the back barn he worked from, just cleaning up in general as he had to leave in four days for home. During this time, he did, however, make sure that he was in the lodge dining room by 6 AM every morning to see if Mr. Ravenel needed him to take breakfast to the private. Sure enough, every morning he’d show up, get the breakfast from the kitchen, and the man who still sat in front of that window would give him another silver dollar.
It had been a good week and the night before Hildreth was leaving he walked around the lodge thanking everyone for their kindness. He’d learn to really like the people who worked there especially the cooks who he gave an extra-long thank you too. He packed before settling in for the night even though he was overly tired because he didn’t want to miss another morning and the opportunity to deliver another breakfast. He figured this man on the second floor must be some sort of rich businessman from the north and that he was used to having people wait on him. That money wasn’t a concern and another tip was no big deal.
Waking at 5 AM, Hildreth knew that he had to be out of the lodge by 6:30 in order to get to the highway for his ride. He had since learned of a short cut through the backfield which would save him time, but he didn’t want to take any chances. The weather had turned sour and a nor eastern had started blowing with a cold rain. It was dark and the winds were whipping the old oaks knocking them against the bunkhouse and main building, throwing limbs, leaves and Spanish moss all over everything. Hildreth grabbed his gunny sack with his shotgun and satchel, ran across the back field and entered the lodge. When pulling open the huge front doors of the main lobby, winds caught their tops slamming all ten feet of carved cypress behind him. Mr. Ravenel was standing there next to the dining room entrance, quiet, arms crossed and a frown on his face. Hildreth slid on the wet polished floor, looked up and apologized. Mr. Ravenel’s arms dropped and he smiled at Hildreth motioning for him to come over.
Hildreth was eager to deliver another order and dropped his bags running over to where Mr. Ravenel stood. “Another breakfast Mr. Ravenel,” he said, not this morning was his reply, the gentlemen in the private left last night, Hildreth hung his head. “He did leave you this note though” and “here’s your bonus for the season” handing him both envelopes.
Hildreth thanked him, opened the bonus envelope and his mouth feel opened as it held a $100-dollar bill. Thank, thank you he said to Mr. Ravenel and shoved both envelopes in his jacket pocket. I’m sorry Mr. Ravenel he said but I got to get to the highway before I miss my ride. Ravenel slapped him on the back, said I hope to see you next season and Hildreth headed out the door into the darkness and rain.
Well, it had been about an hour when Hildreth reached the short cut and the sun had just begun to rise in the east. It was still very windy, and the dark clouds were moving above him liked greased lightning, but the rain had stopped, and though muddy nothing was falling out of the loblollies’ and swamp cypress. The path which was normally pretty clear had gathered a good deal of debris during the night but he figured the time it saved was well worth the trouble of pushing through it so he moved ahead quickly praying the storm would break. He’d gotten halfway through the trail before the winds picked up again tossing the trees back and forth like straw in a field, a downpour of rain burst above him, and he noticed he was coming to a clearing.
Just about the time he pushed through the brush to reach it he heard what sounded like a stampede of horses exploding through brush and scrub pines on his right causing him to trip, grab a small branch and tumble to the ground, bags and all. He was stunned and confused for a second trying to gather himself, he looked up from the mud hole he was sitting in and just before him in the clearing stood Geronimo. White as snow, twelve hands high, a rack as wide as a big man’s shoulders, with bright pink eyes and a chest that looked like the front end of a locomotive. They both stared at one another, neither breathing, frozen in the moment. Then in a matter of a split second, the big buck snorted leaped over a ditch on the left and was gone into the swamp.
Hildreth sat there, not sure what had just happened, his now long hair in his eyes, mud, and leaves covered his pants and jacket. He stood, brushed himself off and as he picked up his satchel and gunny sack the note the guest in the lodge had left him fell from his pocket. He picked it up, it felt heavy he thought, opened it and out fell a $20 gold piece. He stood there in awe. He opened the note and read the words. Thanks, kid, John H Dillinger 12/15/1933. A chill ran through Hildreth. He shoved the letter in his pocket with the $20 gold piece, picked his bags back up and headed wet and muddy down the trail.
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