Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Paradise Lost

Richard and I were crawling along, inch by inch. Our hands and knees stirred up small puffs of fine dust that hovered in the stillness as we trailed the wounded buck. We blinked sweat from our eyes and felt it mix with dry, alkaline soil to paste our shirts, clammy and pungent, to the skin of our backs. Typical of mid-November weather in the Brush Country of deep South Texas, it could be hot as the gates to Hades one minute and freezing under the grip of a howling blue norther the next.

Flies worked at us with infinite patience, seeming to know that we were unable to swat them for fear of spooking the deer to whose spoor we clung so desperately. The undergrowth was thick, with rolling swells of hills covered in granheno, coyotillo, blackbrush, huisache and mesquite. Huge towering flats of prickly pear liberally covered the countryside. The cactus would rise six to eight feet in height, forming impenetrable barriers which one simply had to go around.

Blood sign became less frequent as the once-steady stream had tapered off to an occasional drop or a rare smear on a branch of the heavy brush. We were no longer able to stand, as thorn shrouded boughs bore down heavily on us from above. The path was difficult for an animal on all fours and impassable for an upright man. Wounded bucks usually head for the thickest, heaviest cover they can find, and this one was no exception.

Two blue quail darted across the path directly in front of us, disappearing into the maze of dried grass and brush. The air filled with the sound of beating wings as the rest of the covey flushed around us. I slowly released the breath that had caught in my throat.

Richard had assured me that this had been a tremendous buck. It had moved by so quickly and had been so big that he felt compelled to take a shot, rushed though it was. He had been certain of "hitting him hard," and knowing Richard I was sure it was so. He had seen many good bucks, and as he sat in the sendero describing this one with "horns everywhere," it became obvious that we would be tracking a very special animal.

At this point in our lives Richard Smith and I were 17 years of age. Our families had been close friends as far back as our memories reached. We had grown up together in the Brush Country of southern Jim Wells County in Texas. Our two families as well as four others now shared this hunting lease which sprawled over the boundaries of Webb and Zapata counties, reaching to the Mexican border.

Deer were not as numerous here as in some other areas of the state, but they were very heavy horned and large bodied. The ranch had a large javelina population along with a healthy sprinkling of bobcats and coyotes. At one point, we even had a pair of Mexican or mountain lions working the area. I became obsessed with getting a crack at one, but that notion dissolved when one screamed near where I was hunting.
I could only describe it as the cry of a woman terrified of losing her immortal soul. My own hide became a major concern at that point, and I immediately gave up all thoughts of stalking one of the big cats.

As boys, we all loved the joy to be experienced in hunting and fishing. When we were not actually involved in one of these pastimes, plans were being made for the next outing. Characters like Richard, Todo, Wayne, Charly, Clyde, Forrest, Rocky and others were always up to something. For now, it was just Richard and me.

Like exploding bellows in an old blacksmith's shop, a roar of sound erupted around and over us! The hair on the back of my neck went straight up. About 20 feet up the trail, a huge diamondback reared its ugly, angular head. It issued an enraged challenge to our right to share the same ground. The snake was big--and mad. Its slowly moving head--the size of a man's fist--and deadly myopic stare froze us completely. Its tongue flicked rapidly in and out of its venomous mouth. Its rattles were a shadowed blur of motion. The sharp, diamond etched pattern appeared on its skin as a greenish grey warning that was both brutal and direct.

I quickly backed into Richard's lap, and the two of us retreated together from that point. The snake crept slightly forward before recoiling and resuming its coil and ugly display of temper. Wits were slow to return, so great were our shock and the taste of fear in our mouths. I hastily pulled a 22-caliber pistol from the holster on my belt. I spewed hollow points in his direction until the eleven-shot clip was empty. The first two or three rounds ended the threat. The rest exorcised the surprise and fear he created in us. It had seventeen rattles to the point where they were worn or broken off.

The narrow path ahead grew more difficult, and we finally lost all sign of the buck's passing. Backtrailing and careful scanning bore no fruit, and with great regret, we gave him up for lost. Only someone who has endured this experience can know what a truly sad feeling this is. Losing an animal under such circumstances places a tragic sense of loss and waste in the heart of any hunter.

We finally broke free of heavy underbrush, emerging into the open sendero where Dad's old Ford pickup was parked. Rifles were unloaded, and we began the slow drive over swells, down ravines with a scramble back up the steep side and around rolling hills as we moved back toward camp. The various parts of that old truck groaned, cracked and squeaked every inch of the way.

Pulling through the main gate, we passed the ancient set of sun-bleached, stacked post working pens flanked by a squawking windmill pouring clear, sweet water into an aged concrete cistern. The cloud of dust churned up by our wheels and billowing into the air behind us caught up and rolled over us as we braked to a stop, adding to the already impressive layer of dirt coating us and the vehicle. We stepped out of and around the truck, slapping dust from ourselves and each other as we moved toward the house.

The smell of frying meat hung in the air just outside the house. Grinning, we elbowed each other through the closest of the five doors that granted access to the camp house. Richard's mother, Faye, shouted a greeting as we made our way to the stove top. We each snagged a plate from the stack on the corner of the dining table and heaped it with pinto beans, camp fried potatoes and deep fried venison backstrap. A generous blanket of mother Faye's thick, rich cream gravy covered everything on both plates. Dessert was Teresa Kelso's chocolate cake--she always seemed to have one in camp.

Dad asked what had kept us so long, and we related the morning's events. We ended the storytelling by dropping the rattles from the snake on the kitchen table. This act would have seen me banished from the dining room at home, but was perfectly natural here. Why couldn't we really live in hunting camp...?

Dad, T.C."Sleepy" Fine, Tommy Kelso and Richard's father "Smitty" were well into their next game of 42 as we finished lunch. I noticed Alston Brown with his chair leaned back into the wall in a corner. He was fast asleep with his characteristic "chaw" of tocacco in his cheek. Richard and I slipped out into the early afternoon heat, leaving the sounds of laughter and the clatter of dominoes behind us.

Clear, cool water from the concrete cistern by the stacked pens washed away the morning's grime and left us fresh and invigorated. We washed and wrung out our shirts, then draped them over the side of the old corrals to dry in the warmth of the mid-day breeze. We stretched out in the shade of a big mesquite and watched a solitary buzzard ride the updrafts with no visible effort of any kind. How the heck could it do that? Those fresh shirts were a luxury after the sun had dried us. A thin line of blue-grey clouds could be seen far away in the distant north. Richard looked at me with arched eyebrows at the sight.

As we re-entered the cabin, Alston's chair was still canted back firmly against the wall. We had been outside for at least 45 minutes, but Alston was still quite soundly asleep. The 42 game was in fill swing. I don't recall ever seeing Alston without a chew of tobacco, and this was no exception. Taking his arm and shaking it gently, I wondered if he needed to spit. His eyes rolled slowly into focus, recognition dawned and panic ensued as he bolted for the closest of the doors!

Winds from the southeast kicked up great clouds of dust as we moved into the yard a bit later to load up for the afternoon hunt. Sand devils, or whirlwinds, moved at random intervals across the range below camp. This was going to be an interesting afternoon. Vehicles coughed to life, and we all moved out toward our chosen locations.

A short time later, I backed into the secure cover of a large outgrowth of cactus near a fence row. A very active game trail passed under the fence some 150 yards distant. My rifle stock was wedged into the fork of a mesquite limb at rest, should the need for a shot arise. The heat persisted, and the wind blew, twisting the brush into weird, unnatural contortions in its fury. Unexpectedly, the wind laid just before dusk. An eerie setting sun bathed the world in a strange, golden light. Everything around me took on an odd, luminescent hue. Now, in the stillness, maybe something would move in the few fleeting moments of remaining daylight.

I had always been frustrated by evening hunts. They end in their own time, not one of my choosing. As I eased back into the pickup, I reflected on the fact that wildlife does not like high winds. Their senses are confused by it, and they become reluctant to move about. My mind wandered back to the buzzard riding gentle updrafts earlier in the afternoon. What had become of him? My best bet would have been a slow, steady stalk into the wind, hoping to find an old buck bedded down and waiting for things to ease up a bit. The whipping brush in that wind would have masked my movement, providing a much better chance of getting in close enough for a shot. However, the rattlesnake earlier in the day made me hesitant to follow that strategy in this heat. Snakes were numerous and aggressive in this country. I wasn't unduly afraid of them, but they did have my respect.

At dark, Dad and I picked up Richard and Smitty, then coasted to a stop in front of the camp house under a clear, beautiful South Texas sky smeared with glistening stars. That distant ridge of clouds was much closer now, casting an ominous black pall over a full quarter of the glorious evening sky.

After supper we sprawled on our bunks, each relating their take on the day's events. Randy Kelso had taken a fine 11-point buck at daybreak. Richard still mourned the loss of his. We were all regretting that loss when a howling norther slammed into the cabin. A couple of doors were thrown shut when the first gusts struck. The wind carried grains of sand and other debris with it as it slashed through the room. The grainy wind stung our eyes and rasped against our skin as we rushed to secure other openings from its onslaught. The full force of its fury tore at the little house through much of the evening.

Particles of sand and grit continued to slip through cracks in the walls, mingling with the rich smell of burning mesquite smoke curling from the fireplace, which drew poorly, if at all. A bone chilling cold fought to penetrate our small refuge of warm, dancing flames fed by logs tossed into the fireplace over the course of the night.

From beneath a pile of quilts, I remember watching Sleepy staring into the flames from a chair placed carefully before the open hearth. The play of light danced on his face as he turned to smile at me. How had he known I was watching? Passing years had etched deep lines in his face that I had never really noticed before. As Chief of Police back home I knew he dealt with things I could only imagine. He had lost a daughter. "Bill," he said, "sometimes we are overly impressed with our own importance. The way we value things and ourselves can be so strange. When we experience the full force of an act of nature, we realize just how insignificant we really are. We can be so childish!" His eyes turned back to the flames. "Our Creator blessed us with life. He also gave us a sense of awareness... and a will. That's a blessing and a curse. It can get away from us sometimes. A man can be arrogant. He decides to bend nature and others to his will. That's how things good in man and nature get destroyed, get lost. Sometimes, forever."

He had gone outside only minutes earlier. I didn't know what time it was, only that everyone else seemed to be asleep. He smiled through a kind of sadness in his eyes. "It's faired off," he said. "Should be a fine hunt in the morning." He tousled my hair, then returned to his chair.

I was never sure what had stirred those thoughts in him. I just knew that as I watched him from beneath those quilts, when I finally drifted off to sleep, nothing truly existed then but me, and him and the wind...