Woman in Levi's

Eulalia Bourne

Chapter 10

They'll Never Be Missed

Civilization, with all its achievements, ought to provide some better excuse than a hunting season to get townfolk out in the open-if for no other reason than their inability to distinguish between the wilderness (which presumably belongs to everybody) and somebody's back yard.

American heritage includes the tenet of English common law that everyman's house is his castle, where he can be private and secure. He can, that is, if his house is in a well-policed city or town. A rural house is a magnet, drawing in a great many more than invited guests and friends. Some of the urbanized public--cooped-up during the week in office, factory, shop, limited home quarters, the maze of streets and utility alleys--take to the open country when they get a chance and go overboard about what they think is primitive adventure.

A stranger rouses you out at dawn, and when you call off the dogs he asks permission to go through your yard fence and down the canyon by your private road (such as it is) to your spring to try to surprise a deer that innocently may be getting a drink before the day's run for its life. Some do not even ask for permission.

Another stranger, searching the premises until he finds you down at the corral milking your cow, asks where he can find a wild pig to shoot. He has come all the way from California to get his javelina (peccary). This, he expects, will touch your cold heart, and you'll be happy to stop your chores and direct him to a victim.

Still another brings his wife and child down to the house at your siesta hour because he has read your "No Hunting" sign, and wants special dispensation for Johnny, who is already eleven years old and has never killed a deer, so this year he must get one. In deference to Johnny, who looks more embarrassed than bloodthirsty, you smile when you search for polite words that mean no.

Not all uninvited visitors come to kill. A retired man and his wife, winter visitors with time on their hands and the big outdoors to put to some purpose, are driving around for pastime. They see your house and turn in at the forks of the road to have a look at what, to them, seems to be a real ranch far out in the wilds. (Ten miles! ) They want to find out who lives on it and how prosperous it is; above all, how many cattle it will run. No escape. There it is--the intrusive disconcerting point-blank question: How many cattle do you have? (One way of asking how much money you have.) A dude-wrangler, with more knowledge of humans than bovines, taught me the answer to that presumptuous question: "Two Jersey cows and a borrowed bull." But, to innocent greenhorns?

For us who live in remote places, there will always be unknown and uninvited callers: the numberless multitudes who, having nothing better to do, see a road and follow it; see a house and--especially if it has a tree growing out of the middle of it--stop because--well, because it is there.

A well-to-do well-dressed and, if it can be said, well-automobiled couple who live in a new town nearby, drove up the canyon one Sunday afternoon and stopped for a surprise call. I was in dirty Levi's and a beat-up hat, breathless from a battle with the pump engine, which gets no Sundays off. They sat in the patio and drank lemonade and looked at the clutter and the junky furniture, found they were slumming, and gently departed.

How about turning the tables? If on a summer day I am driving through their landscaped town and see their beautiful lawn, bright flowers, and attractive residence, suppose I park my dirty old pickup against their curb and walk up the curving path to ring their doorbell and say I'd like to look their place over!

In my situation, remote as it is from modern standards of living, whenever the "Public" puts on a red hunting hat and arms himself to invade the domain of my unsuspecting range cows in the name of sport, I am inclined to believe that a first-class damning is what he needs. To one out in the sticks he appears as a dangerous vandal with blood in his eye and pillage in his wake.

The damage he does in rural areas throughout the West is not the less for being in many cases unintentional. In an issue of Cattle Growers' Newsletter a rancher wrote that a part of his range had dried up, so he opened a gate to let the seventy head of cattle in that pasture go to water in the next one. Along came a "crazy hunter" and closed the gate. (No doubt he was thinking of all the publicity about hunters leaving gates open.) Before the rancher discovered this mistake, all except ten hardy cows had died of thirst.

My losses from weapon-carrying invaders seem small by this scale, but they prorate, and they have seldom been unintentional. Riding up the canyon less than a mile from the house, I found a dead cow, still warm, lying close to the road. Evidence showed that she had been eating on a bush a few yards up the slope when hit over the left eye by a bullet fired, probably, from a moving vehicle, and had plunged headlong through brush and cactus to die near the killer's path. She was a good young cow I called Despiada (Tenderfoot) and was soon to calve. Farther up the road lay a snake with the head shot off. This Sport was a crack shot, an accomplishment not common among amateur hunters.

I once stood beside my excited horse and heard a hunter firing across the great canyon, perhaps, as the crow flies, about a mile away-too far, at least, through impassable country, for me to do anything about it-and counted sixteen shots, bang-bang-bang, in rapid-fire succession; a pause; then four more shots dwindling in sound as the rifleman moved over the ridge. What kind of gunner was it that couldn't hit a cornered deer--these canyons and gullies are nothing but corners-with all those chances?

The neighbors were gathering cattle, but they had trouble on the roundup because of the volleys and charges of deer-missing hunters. Trying to drive down one canyon toward their home pasture, they encountered thirty-seven hunters in less than three miles; each encounter made a scatterment of Brahmas. When Joyce-the owner-went into the village and called the Game and Fish Commission, they told her that because of a shortage of tax money the state could not afford to hire wardens for this area.

When I hear shots after dark, sometimes late at night (flashlight or spotlight hunters?) I go out and blow the horn on the pickup, longing to blow up the hoodlum night-sports, for whoever they are, they're not serious hunters. No true hunters are that meat-hungry any more.

Years ago, when ranchers were country-dwellers, I had some neighbors who were real frontier hunters. They used guns to get something to eat; if they got nothing, they went without meat with their beans and biscuits. The master hunter of the clan was a lean, lanky, ruddy-faced blond who was the freest human being I ever met. He wanted very little from the world, so he gave it no hostages and few compromises. He lived in a shack apart from his brother, who was tied down by a family so that he had to take $30-a-month jobs and sometimes ask for flour from the Relief. The Hunter, being a bachelor and capable of supplying most of his wants except tobacco and matches, had avoided such traps and chains. I'm sure he never saw Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, but his way of life proved him a believer in its definition of Labor: "one of the processes by which A acquires property for B." Free of the desire for things most people feel are necessities, he would not take a permanent job, and very few temporary ones. If you were in a fix because your well had to be deepened, or the flood had torn out your pipeline, he would obligingly help you a few days. Okay whatever you paid him.

Ordinarily the Hunter's time was spent in the open. He knew how many quail were in the vicinity, and where they nested. He knew where the deer and wild pigs were, and just how to bring in their flesh with the least effort and ammunition. He wasn't shooting for fun; so he didn't bother about the red tape of licenses. Of course, when wild animals were scarce he killed a beef-most likely one of mine since they were handiest. I vaguely knew this, but I forgave him because he was so darn good at it that it was months before the animal was missed, if ever: there was no chance of coming upon worrisome evidence. Also, he did it purely and simply to have meat for his brother's children as well as for himself. You can understand the call of need. It is the neighbors who are clumsy and careless and money-greedy-saving their own to sell-who get your dander up when they eat your cattle.

Hunters like these old boys-the brother was no slouch-are seldom pests. In their way they are experts, and deserve a certain acclaim. They belong to a time that has passed. Both men are dead now. But their skill with guns has been passed on. The brother's wife, still my friend, is the feminine equivalent of a good hunter. She came this way with two young sons the first day of last hunting season, from their place down on the river. I don't know how early they went up the canyon, but at ten that morning they had their deer and were headed home when I met them. With them it was not sport, but a job to be done.

It is on account of the unqualified amateurs that ranchers post their ranges and lock their gates. Sports demand skill in handling paraphernalia; but you need not know much about a gun to be allowed to go out and kill. Society has not yet devised sufficient target-shooting tests and other qualifications for the applicants who want permission to make themselves at home all over the countryside while applying themselves to the killing of defenseless creatures. So far, all you need in order to enjoy the brutal pleasure of seeing a living thing fall when you pull the trigger are a firearm, ammunition, and the license fee.

Death is acceptable in this pain-racked universe, and can also accept wisecracks or sanguine wit such as "kicked the bucket," and "turned up his toes" that are sometimes used to describe the final exit of one's fellow man. But nothing humorous can be thought or said about the dumb slow agonies of suffering creatures casually wounded and left to die by inches.

There is a place high up on a steep ridge, in plain sight of the house, that I have tried never to pass since I saw there the remains of a buck that had been shot but not killed and had tried unsuccessfully to jump the barbed wire fence. Coming upon the bodies of what once were respectable, even beautiful, animals that had been eaten alive by screwworms after being wounded brings to mind the observation of the dejected old rabbit: "People are no damn good."

Over in what would be a meadow if chollas were tall grass instead of cactus, not half a mile from the house, lived a mother doe and her two pretty fawns. When I rode there I waited on my ridge until she and her young ones had clambered gracefully over the opposite one. Sometimes they stopped and gazed at me as I moved slowly in and out of the brush and cactus. I liked to see how close I could get. Now I wish that every time I saw them I had yelled and whooped and tried to chase them, in order to give them a deadly fear of people. On Saturday before the season closed on Sunday, I went to hunt a steer yearling and rode up on the dead body of one of my little fawns. It had been shot in the breast, but not by accident. Its throat had been cut-proof that it had been killed just for the hell of it.

It is not always the dumb, under-gifted delinquents who make the inhumane errors. One Sunday, during deer season, I started out from the homestead to ride over to the Big Tank. To sustain myself during the sixteen-mile round trip I put an orange in my chaps pocket. Over the high ridge from the house, miles from any road, I came upon an armed and red-hatted Sport, all tuckered-out. He was one of a group of college boys who had left their car up on the mountain highway several miles away, and he now found himself alone and lost in this deep narrow canyon. I gave him directions to the highway and, since he was thirsty, my orange. I'd gone barely a quarter of a mile around a couple of bends when I heard him rattle off a fusillade of rifle shots. Surely, if there had been a deer near we would have alerted it! I was right to feel apprehensive. A few days later the milk cow's yearling, a brindled steer that I had passed grazing on the hillside a little way above where I met the college boy, showed up at the corral with worms on both sides of his neck. The bullet had passed through the flesh without touching bone or artery.

And I had given the scoundrel my orange!

A heifer we found shot through the neck down at the windmill had died immediately. Apparently she had been lying in the shade of a thick bush several yards from the water, and never knew what hit her. There was no evidence of a struggle. Probably she made no attempt to get up.

From the evidence, we deduced that a group of hunters had stopped to get water, and had looked around long enough to pick up a good wrench and a gallon of engine oil. Then, finding themselves still in possession of the lonely station, perhaps without bovicidal intent but merely to test their prized guns, they had shot a few rounds of cartridges. My heifer happened to stop one. They may never have known that she was there.

If I had a voice in making regulations, I would confine roving gunmen to areas not populated by country folks and their livestock. And I would confine the ownership of guns to those able to prove their responsibility and, above all, their skill.

Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.

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The University of Arizona Press, 2/2/97 2:07PM