The Cousin’s Tale
The heart of a hunter is born in this excerpt from Gordon Hutchinson’s new book,“The “The Quest and the Quarry.”
By the time he got out of the Army, back from Vietnam, and back in college, working on his graduate degree, it was several years after all the night hunting and control shooting had occurred.
Damn, he could only guess what those years were like, because the first time he went down in the swamps with Larry and Petey, he saw more deer than he’d seen anywhere in his life. Just riding around, and deer were jumping out of the beanfields, crossing the roads, watching them from the safety of distance, looking like big collections of brown lumps, their bodies floating on a green sea of soybean plants. For a deer hunter, he figured he had to have found Mecca.
It had been fortuitous, their meeting. He ran into some of them at a wedding of a relative, and they had invited him up to hunt, like he had when he was a kid. And where had he been? He really needed to come up and visit them all. It had been years, and they hardly recognized him. The Army and age’ll do that, he told them, and they laughed, and said come visit. Come up next hunting season.
He really hadn’t known his mother’s family that well, his distant cousins up there in the swamps along the Mississippi River. He remembered visiting as a small child, and Pa Marquette taking them around, showing them the cotton fields, the oil wells working in the hills. He figured these country cousins had to be rich, with their wells pumping away.
Then, as a chap, he’d made a quick trip up there with his dad to hunt deer with the club. He remembered Petey and Larry sitting on their horses in front of the old camp — Cypress Creek they called it — waiting for the standers to be put out. They were ten or twelve years older than him, and it was the first time he’d ever had any idea that people hunted deer off horses. These young men awed him with the self-confident way they sat their horses, their beat-up shotguns stuck in the scabbards hanging off their saddles.
Of course, the extent of his hunting experience by then had been the relentless pursuit of blue jays, cardinals, sparrows, and any other bird he could get close enough to bring down with a seemingly endless supply of Daisy air rifles.
He had graduated to squirrel- and rabbit-hunting trips with his dad and a friend who kept a pack of beagles. He didn’t know what he was doing, but the entire process of hunting appealed to some deep-seated spark at the center of his being. From the planning and talking about it the night before, to the getting up and getting dressed in the cold, dark morning, to the anticipatory drive to the hunting fields, still sleepy, listening to his dad hum to the old truck radio, he loved it all.
It didn’t matter that it was only squirrels they were after. He treasured those mornings in the woods with his father, and longed after them in languorous daydreams in school classes that seemed to take forever before he could run home, sling the books, grab his air rifle and dog, and take to the woods near the house where he became Frank Buck, Ernest Thompson Seton, Jack London — anyone who wrote about hunting and guns and dogs, and he imagined he was them, traveling to exotic climes, hunting wild and dangerous beasts.
They had always lived in rural areas; his father was a farm boy turned businessman, so he tried to keep his family true to his roots. The boy had spent extended summer vacations on his grandparents’ farm where he learned to ride horses, fished the streams, and hunted anything and everything he could shoot with a Daisy. At one point, he believed that with a rifle, a good dog, and a horse to ride, he could wish for nothing else in life. As long as he could ride and shoot and hunt and fish and explore the woods, there was nothing else necessary for happiness.
Small wonder the chance to hunt deer with the extended family in Mississippi drew him like an insect to porch lights on a lazy summer night.
His dad had surprised him, telling him they were going to see the Marquettes, and make a hunt with them and their club. He barely slept the night before, and they had to get up about midnight to make the drive to get there in time to go down in the swamps to the camp where, on the porch, he’d seen Petey and Larry sitting their horses with the other men.
They’d directed them down an old rutted track that followed the edge of a field, given his dad an old jeep to drive, and told him where to park. It had been cold that morning, bitter cold. His dad had dropped him off next to a big hollow tree, and driven down about another 200 yards to take his stand just down from the jeep. He had waited until the jeep drove out of sight, then walked a short ways into the woods, realizing the ground sloped downward from the field in a gentle decline.
At its lowest point, it became a mud flat, covered with the paste of rotted leaves from the thousands of trees that dotted its bottom. This was a wash, a flat filled with shallow water much of the year — draining, drying and filling in nature’s symphony to give the oaks water without drowning the trees. Spaced throughout it were hummocks — gravesites of fallen giant cypress and oak on which the sediment had built. These formed islands in the muddy desert in which nothing grew except trees. Although he didn’t know it, it was on these the wise deer would lay up, safe in their island paradise in the wet times, their scents hidden from the hounds, their bodies hidden from the hunters’ guns by the shallow, wet moat of the swamp.
But now there was no water. Nothing grew except the wispy lace of the young cypress trees poking their branches skyward, and the dark cypress knees — stalagmites of the swamp — the upraised fingers of warning not to trespass here, here was not solid earth. This was soil that could not be trusted, that would mire you and trap you like black glue, sucking your boots from you, tripping you and pulling you into the bosom of the black gumbo.
It was over this Mesozoic ooze the buck strode as if walking on loam, its hooves splayed. The hooves trapped the soft mud and compacted it, supporting the animal’s weight in light steps. The filtered light of the sun cast a softness to the morning through which the buck seemed to flow, an aurora glow around its body.
The boy had heard the dogs running back in the swamps, the mournful sound faint, tickling the edge of his consciousness. Then the hounds’ voices became more defined, clear in the still air.
He had been fascinated by the sounds of the hunt, the hollow lonely calls of the hounds coalescing in the distance — indistinct but growing louder as the deer turned and headed his way. He had never experienced any of this before; the strangeness of it all fascinated him. He strained his ears, turning his head and pushing it toward the sounds as if a few inches of movement would increase his hearing.
Finally, he saw his first deer. The brown apparition appeared, walking through the dark sentinel trees, its movement wraith-like as it floated over the thick, muddy soup of the bottom.
In amazement, he realized he was watching a racked buck, its antlers reaching beyond its ears. Its head was carried regally, stiff-necked as it walked, gazing around its domain as it traversed the leaf-strewn floor of the wash.
The buck stopped between two trees. It turned its head, listening to the sounds of the hounds in the distance, now more distinct, excited. It started again, moving a few yards and stopping, this time its head hidden from view by a single tree.
The boy realized he was shaking. He held a fine German drilling in his hand, a Sauer, with its double 16-gauge barrels and a Mauser rifle barrel underneath. An expensive shotgun for a boy, but his uncle had loaned it to his dad when it became apparent the boy would need a gun to hunt deer. It would have to be a gun capable of deer. His uncle had smiled and told his dad the boy was safe with a gun, and this would fit him. Take this one, take these shells. This would kill a deer if he saw one.
What would his uncle think if he found he had let a buck like this one pass him by? What would his father say? What would the Marquettes say? He found himself trembling more as he raised the drilling, thumbing the safety off, pointing at the outline of the body of the buck. The antlers streaked the gray of the swamp as it moved its head, listening to the dogs.
The buck stamped its front foot three times, then lifted its tail as it walked stiff-legged into a small clearing. The boy knew the buck was preparing to run. It danced on its forelegs as it listened to the hounds, turning as if to decide which way. It looked to the left and saw the boy, a rock-still apparition locked into aim, the black holes of the shotgun barrels pointed directly at it.
The buck tensed its muscles and leaped as the boy pulled the trigger. His finger slipped and he hit the second trigger, both barrels recoiling with an instant roar and explosion. The boy was kicked viciously by the recoil; the gun flew upwards as he fell against a tree, his head knocking bark off its side.
He slipped to the ground, his ears ringing, his head throbbing, his senses foggy. He looked where the buck had been, gazing through the smoke, and saw nothing. The buck was gone — he had missed.
In his haste and excitement, he had pulled the gun and fired both barrels, knocked himself down, and missed a great buck. He would be mortified to tell everyone what had happened, but in his heart, deep inside, he was thrilled from the experience, and would remember it as long as he lived. He pulled himself up, his head still pounding, and peered down into the wash where the buck had been. He could see the tracks, the places the buck had moved and danced, and the tossed clods of the thick black mud where he had leaped and run.
He heard a noise, and turned. Larry Marquette was riding up. He stopped his horse beside the boy, and looked down into the bottom.
“I heard you shoot. You hit him?”
“Nossir. I don’t think so. I think I missed.”
“That’s where he was standing, down there where all the mud’s thrown up?”
“So why do you think you missed him? You know how to aim a gun, right? Was the bead on his front shoulder?”
“Yeah, but I think I shot over him. I shot both barrels at once, and it knocked me back against the tree. I didn’t even see the deer run off.”
He worked his jaw. He felt like crying. His first buck — heck, his first deer — and he had missed it, shooting like a kid.
“I was real nervous, Larry. I was shaking bad. And it was a pretty buck, too. A nice one.”
“Well, we ain’t going to give up on it quite that easy. That gun still unloaded?”
“Yessir, I ain’t reloaded it.”
“Lean it against that tree. Give me your hand, and put your left foot in this stirrup. Show you how to track a deer off horseback.”
He had swung up behind Larry, riding the skirt of the saddle behind the cantle. He had ridden enough horses to not like being the behind double, but he was too awed and excited that a grown man like this would take the time out of his hunt to carry him, and track a deer that was probably in the next county now, or across the next bayou on Jefferson Point in Louisiana.
“Now hold on tight to my coat. This fool don’t like getting his feet muddy too much.”
Larry had spurred the horse when it shied at stepping into the black goo of the wash. It had tried to whirl, and then had lunged ahead at Larry’s spurring and curses.
It was immediately apparent which way the buck had run; the tracks were easy to follow in the thick mud. The horse wallowed, his hooves not giving him the support the deer had found. He would sink, and pull himself out, making thick, sucking sounds.
They followed the trail of the buck across the muddy bottom in great anxious lunges, the boy hanging on tenacious as a tick, wrapping his hands in the loose folds of the pockets of the young man’s hunting jacket.
Rather than being afraid, the excitement of it all overcame him, and he giggled.
Marquette turned his head, smiling, sawing the reins to control the horse as he did it.
“You like riding a horse like this?”
“Naw. I like riding a horse, but not like this.”
Marquette laughed out loud at the boy’s comment, and then pointed.
“Looks like we can stop having all this fun. He left the bottom.”
The buck’s trail had turned left, crossing to the edge of the slope and the leaf-covered ground, where it disappeared.
The disappointment was apparent in the boy’s voice. Marquette grinned hugely.
“I won’t tell your Pop what you said. Don’t give up yet.”
Pulling the horse up onto solid ground, he reined it up. The boy could hear the solid plops of the mud falling off the horse’s legs and belly. He looked down, and he and Larry were covered with a shotgun pattern of mud splatters all over their legs and thighs.
Standing in the stirrups, Larry turned halfway around, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder to balance himself. In the distance, to the rear, the boy could hear the hounds belling, trailing the buck.
Looking back, Larry glanced down at him.
“Hold on now.”
Cupping his right hand to the side of his mouth, he lifted his head like a coyote baying at the moon, and called out a long wail.
The calls echoed across the bottomland, and instantly the hounds’ bugling increased in crescendo, their voices louder, more excited.
“You ever lost down in these swamps, that’s how you call for help. Or call up dogs. Or let someone locate you to bring you a sandwich. It’s called whooping. You can’t yell 200 yards in these thick-ass woods. A whoop’ll carry a half a mile. You notice how far you can hear them ol’ hounds?”
Within minutes, they were surrounded by a mixed pack of Walkers, Redbones, Black and Tans, and every cross of those breeds possible. To the boy, it looked as if 20 dogs swept by them, Larry whooping them onto the trail where the buck had left the bottom. It was probably, he later thought, more like seven or eight.
The dogs disappeared in the palmetto slash and thickets, belling loudly, now smelling the hot, sweet aroma of deer that had just run ground in front of them. Quickly they were out of sight. With that many of them trailing, and the trail so fresh, they couldn’t miss. Larry nudged the horse up into a fast walk, following the sound of the hounds.
Then, their calling died. There were yelps, and barks, an occasional howl, but the belling had stopped.
“Uh oh,” Larry said, spurring the horse into a faster walk.
“What’s the matter?” asked the boy. “Why’d they quit?”
“I don’t know, he might’ve hit water. They might’ve lost the trail.”
The boy screwed his face up, gripped Larry’s coat tighter. It had been too much to hope for. Larry was just being nice to the kid for his father’s sake. And for his uncle, who was close to everyone up here. Just playing along to get him excited. He knew all along he’d missed that buck.
And again, deep inside, he didn’t care that much. He treasured the whole experience. He knew how unusual it was for a kid his age to even see a buck like that, let alone be lucky enough to get a shot at it. He’d have great tales for the kids in school, back in Baton Rouge.
The horse broke out of the thickness into a sort of clearing in the woods, a small sunlit arena defined by the palmetto sabers thrusting up in it. The dogs were standing and laying around, resting. Some were down with their heads across the flanks of a huge buck, its rack of antlers standing liked a branched sentinel over the head of the deer. Its white belly glinted in the morning sunlight like the flash of a camera.
“Well, would you looka there.” Marquette turned his head and grinned at him. “Guess you didn’t miss him after all.”
Larry walked the horse to the buck, and dropped the boy off. The boy walked around the rear of the horse to his first deer and kneeled beside it, running his hand over its smooth flanks, wondering at the softness of the fur, awed at its beauty.
“HOOOOO-OUUEEEEEE.” Larry cupped his hands and called toward the fields, a few hundred yards away through the woods. There was an answering whoop.
“That’s Petey and Jere,” he said, referring to his two younger brothers. “We’ll get them to help drag your deer out of here to the field. Then you and your dad can pick him up with the jeep.”
As the two brothers and two of their friends broke into the clearing on horseback, Larry and the boy were hunkered over the deer. Larry had the reins of his horse draped over his shoulder, holding them with his hand, his horse standing quietly behind him, still steaming from the exertions of the mud.
“Nice buck,” Petey said. “Who shot ’im?”
“This deerslayer right here,” Larry said. “He let him have both barrels from about 40 yards. Peppered his whole side here with single-aught buck.”
“Damnation,” said Petey. “Good shooting, boy.”
Jere Marquette grinned and swung his horse by them, holding his hand down flat, palm up. He was the youngest brother, and just a few years older than the boy. “Put ’er there, man. Good shooting!”
The boy slapped his palm, grinning so hard, he thought he’d bust. Then all the other men had to congratulate him, tell him he’d killed a hell of a deer.
They threw a rope over the buck and dragged it through the woods to the edge of the field, and rode him down the field to his dad. The men all had to tell his dad what a fine shot the boy had made, and what a good deer it was. His dad and him loaded the heavy buck in the back of the jeep and took it back to the camp where they weighed it, and took his picture with the deer. It was a heavy-beamed eight-point, a “mountable” deer, they all called it, and they slapped his back and congratulated him. He noticed a couple of the men passing around a pint bottle with an amber liquid in it, but they didn’t offer him any.
His was the only buck killed that morning. Of course, they blooded him good, and took more pictures, and told him he couldn’t wash it off the rest of the day. And his dad took a swig of the bottle, something he never saw him do, and he was walking around fit to bust, he was so proud.
They divvied up the meat amongst the group, and he and his dad each got an equal share, him just like any adult hunter, and they all told him he was a chip off his uncle’s block, because he’d been hunting with them for years, and they all knew and respected him, and he really got proud at that. He loved his dad, but he hero-worshiped his mother’s brother, who was a hunter, and a shooter, and a gunsmith, and always had time to answer the dumb questions of a kid who loved all that and knew practically nothing about any of it.
They made a big to-do about him and the buck, and told his daddy he had to spend the money now and get it mounted. And they told him to be sure and come back and hunt with them again, and maybe he’d get another one. All-in-all, it was an experience that fulfilled all the dreams a hunt-struck boy could have. He was hooked like an opium addict, the sweet cravings of the hunt now coursing through his veins.
He would never forget his first weekend of deer hunting and his first buck. And he would be addicted for life even though his dad would only bring him one more time before he grew into a young man and went to college, and then the Army.
And he had been only 12 years old at the time.
Excerpted from Gordon Hutchinson’s “The Quest and the Quarry.” To order, call (800) 538-4355 or visit www.thequestandthequarry.com.
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