Hunting With Uncle Bill
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by Frank Shortt
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What could be more gratifying to a young boy than to go hunting with an uncle and actually bring home some game? Game was pretty scarce in our region when I was growing up due to the fact that folks were poor and any meat was welcome at most tables. Squirrels became so scarce that whereas dad used to be able to go just across the highway and up the hill a ways and bring back enough meat for our dinner they became harder and harder to find. This necessitated longer trips and more time away from home, sometimes a couple of days would elapse before dad would show up with game. I always wanted to be a hunter like my dad, but as I was slow in growing up, I had to just tag along and carry our lunch and any game that dad might get. This held true of hunting with my uncles. I was used to carry the sacks, the mattocks, and whatever else the uncles chose to bring along for the catching of game. You might say I was a 'gofer'!
Uncle Bill, actually Hurley Daniel, was a favorite uncle to hunt with. He wasted no time in finding the game he was going after. His favorite was 'groundhogs'. It seems that the most groundhogs abounded in the Emory Wade hollow, so we spent many a day walking the spurs and ridges in search of their familiar mounds. As we would proceed up the hollow, Emory's wife Dell would invariably greet us with the same rejoinder, "don't forget me if there are any little ones." She referred to the fact that she loved to "pet" any young animal that she could get before their eyes were open. If a young animal is 'petted' before their eyes are open, the first being they see on opening their eyes, becomes their mother. Dell would take the baby groundhogs and feed them out of a doll's bottle until they became old enough to fend for themselves, at which time she would turn them loose around the house to do whatever mischief they chose. She never seemed to get upset at one of her 'pets'. In fact, one had to be careful where one sat in her house for fear you would sit on a groundhog or some other denizen of the wild. She continued to 'pet' things until she died.
"Don't worry, Dell, Uncle Bill would reply, "we won't forget you". Dell would usually give me money for candy at Irb Altizer's store if I brought her a baby groundhog. I tried to make it a point to find her one if at all possible. "Where you huntin' today?" She asked, as we moved up the hollow.
"Probably below old man Babe's place," said uncle Bill, referring to Uncle Babe Wade who owned a spread on the ridges above Emory and Dell.
"Well, y'all have a good day, Dell admonished us as we departed. We continued slowly up the steep hill, cow like,* wending our ways with caution so that we didn't take one step up and slide back two or three. I was kept busy dodging brush that Uncle Bill had to push out of his path and let loose creating a hazard to my health if it happened to hit me in the face. I think he did this purposely sometimes to keep me on my toes and also to get a good laugh once in a while when the bush would sling me back down the hill. Of course, I didn't think it was so funny at the time.
When we would eventually find a fresh mound, Uncle Bill would first check to see if anyone else had "dug out" the groundhog family. This being affirmed, he would start digging holes at intervals in the direction the tunnel seemed to go. If no tunnel appeared in that direction, Uncle Bill would say, "Well, the old sow has took a notion to go some other way."
This necessitated digging holes at short intervals around the main tunnel to see in which direction the "sow" had decided to make her home. After the tunnel was discovered again, Uncle Bill would once again start digging holes in that direction until he hit solid ground again. This meant that the tunnel had ended and the "home" was between the last two holes, usually under a flat, sandstone that would take a bulldozer to move. If the rock she chose was a smaller variety, we would be able to dig down to it, use the mattock to pry the rock off, and proceed with our "catch". I might take this pause to explain that the groundhogs we usually hunted were hunted in the spring of the year as this was the time of having babies. The litter usually consisted of three or more piglets.
Uncle Bill would use a large stick, prepared for this business, whack the 'whistle pig' behind the neck thereby rendering her senseless so we could rob her of the young ones. If the babies already had their eyes open, this would necessitate destroying the young, as there was no further use for them. The only meat usable was in the grownup. If we were fortunate enough to find ones with their eyes still closed, I was richer in the bargain. I would be paying a visit to Irb's store on the way home. Dell Wade always made it a joyful occasion when we brought the babies home to her. She would treat them as her own children, coo to them, fondle them, and start feeding them warm milk right away. Some of these 'pets' remained around her house for sometimes three seasons. Some, being females, would treat her to new babies to 'pet'. I guess I could never understand why a grown-up woman would want to raise a wild animal. I suppose it was the inherent mother instinct that some women have.
I failed to mention the fact that sometimes Uncle Bill was able to trade up a decent 'groundhog' dog to aid us in our hunts. If the dog had training in this sport, the job of finding and digging out the prey was made considerably easier. When the nest was found, the only precaution we had to take was to insure that the dog didn't grab and kill the babies before we could get to them. After all, that was what the dog was trained to do. Our hopes were that the dog would just grab the sow behind the neck and shake her until she no longer fought to get loose saving us the job of whacking her. If she somehow evaded his approach, there ensued one of the most gadawful fights one could ever want to see. A maddened sow will bite anything that gets in her path. I have seen the time when blood would ooze out of Uncle Bill's hand because he didn't get out of her way in time. One must remember that this was not done for sport, but out of necessity for food. Grandma had no other way to feed her brood except what the boys brought in or what was given to her. Dad supplied her with a lot of food, but she was pretty resourceful in selling eggs she would find along the creek banks, sometimes questionable as to ownership. No one ever seemed to care that this was happening knowing the circumstances she had to live under.
Uncle Bill became very artful as a squirrel hunter and usually had a trained dog to help him in his endeavors. We would approach the forest as quietly as possible keeping the dog muzzled to prevent scaring the squirrels away. As soon as he would un-muzzle the dog, it would proceed to quietly circle the hickories to see if new scent was present. If the dog hit a fresh trail, he would 'tree' the squirrel in the nearest hickory, and bay the squirrel until we arrived. If the tree happened to be hollow, Uncle Bill would rub the tree with a rough stick to create enough noise inside the tree to dislodge the squirrel from its hiding place. Usually, the squirrel would run out on the nearest branch, and Uncle Bill, who was an expert shot, would bring the squirrel down to our level. He seldom missed.
Rabbit hunting was done in one of two ways. The most effective way, of course, was to have a good 'rabbit' dog to plough thorough the brush piles and underbrush and commence to stir up the hidden game. Once he had 'raised the rabbit, he would commence circling the prey, all the time bringing the rabbit closer and closer to his owner. His reward was the entrails.
The other way to hunt rabbits was to take along a 'not so smart' nephew who would run through the underbrush in order to stir up whatever game might be hiding in the bushes. The only drawback being that the nephew hoped that the uncle was as expert shot and would refrain from sprinkling him with number three shot. I must say that I have 'raised' quite a few rabbits for my uncles and supplied the necessary food for my Grandma's table. The older boys hogged most of the better pieces. This must have been a rule at Grandma's house. Sometimes, the only way the uncles had to 'raise' game was to roll rocks down through the briar patches in hopes of stirring up an unwary rabbit. When this method was used, the hunter had to really be on their toes as there was no way to predict which direction the cottontail would choose to run. This required a special type of hunter. Uncle Bill usually brought home some game!
Now that hunting methods have evolved into more modern ways to outsmart the game, I am of the opinion that a lot of fun has been taken out of the sport. Better rifles and shotguns have replaced the old 'breakdown', singe shot types. Sports Utility Vehicles have replaced the need to walk up the old trails and we have become a generation of fat and lazy 'Ishmaelites' that no manner of coaxing will pry us from our safe and comfortable perches. My uncle Bill and I used to walk almost ten miles a day trying to find that better hunting ground or better ginseng patch. It isn't easy trying to keep up with a strapping six footer, muscles honed to perfection, and a determination to find what he set out to find. Wouldn't the old methods be much more gratifying and a means to much better health?
I shall never forget the last time I hunted with Uncle Bill. I was to leave for the Air Force the next day, and Uncle Bill and his then wife, Geneva, lived near town which would make it easier to catch the Greyhound to take me to Roanoke for my induction. That evening, following supper Uncle Bill announced, "Gen, Frankie and I are goin' huntin' tonight." He had trained a passel of coonhounds and was aching to try them out. Our destination was the area along the Clinch River, known to be the habitat of hundreds of raccoons. Had I known the outcome of that excursion, I would have declined gracefully and let it go at that.
We arrived at the area just about dark and Uncle Bill let the hounds loose. It being summer, I had only worn a thin cotton shirt and my shoes were unfit for this rough terrain. For a short time we ambled along waiting for the hounds to sound the alarm that a raccoon had been scented. Pretty soon, you would have thought a grizzly bear had been treed. Hounds started running in all directions and we had little enough sense than to plough through every briar patch on the banks of the Clinch trying to keep within hearing distance of the running pack. Eventually, old Brownie, the lead hound bayed the raccoon. I have never encountered such underbrush that we had to plow our way through in order to get to this 'treed' raccoon. Every time Uncle Bill would let a briar loose it invariably hit me right between the eyes. My shirt was becoming a torn and shredded mess. My shoes, the only pair I had, were sloshing with each step as the ground we were on was the shallow part of a swamp. These were the 'Hushpuppies' I had spent all my savings on in order to have a decent pair of shoes to visit my sweetheart. It would take considerable drying out in order to make these shoes worthy to be worn to my induction into the Air Force.
We must have run at least five miles each step becoming harder and harder to command. By this time my shirt was nothing but a rag. I was glad I had brought my only spare along to wear to Roanoke. Finally, we arrived at the tree where all the commotion was going on. All the hounds were gathered around the base of the tree, each baying in turn, you would have thought they had a lion treed. Uncle Bill trained his battery lamp up through the branches of the tree and, eventually, a pair of green eyes was spotted peering down at us. Uncle Bill loved a fracas, so he shot the raccoon just in the right spot to dislodge him from the tree, knowing that when he hit the ground there would ensue one of the worst battles a human ever saw. Sure enough, when the raccoon hit the earth, every hound in unison was on top of it, trying his best to gain the fatal bite. That raccoon was no amateur. He fought like a wildcat, spitting and doling out wounds with every bite. There was blood flying everywhere, even on our clothing as Uncle Bill kept grabbing hounds by the tail trying to get to the coon to inflict the ending blow. After a horrendous fight, Uncle Bill was able to slay the raccoon and as soon as this happened, you wouldn't believe what these hounds did. Each one went off to the side, lay down and started licking itswounds and you would have thought they were playful little kittens. The challenge was removed.
We must have arrived home about midnight, tired, sleepy, hungry, and with scratches on most parts of our bodies. Uncle Bill never complained, and I suppose I was too proud to admit that I had just encountered one of the worst nights of my young life. Had I gone to Vietnam, I don't think the terrain could have been worse. Luckily, Aunt Geneva was already in bed and didn't have to see me in this awful condition. We just washed up, and went straight to bed. At the time, I felt very fortunate to be alive. I must have slept like a log, because seven o'clock rolled around all too quickly. I had to be at the bus station by nine o'clock, so I was up and dressed before Aunt Geneva had to call me again. I was used to being up early as I was the one who always got up at four-thirty every morning to make sure mom's cook stove was hot by the time she got up.
Uncle Bill saw me off at the Greyhound Station, and I'm not sure, but I believe I saw a small tear glistening in his eye. He was not a man given to crying, but I think he was sad to see his hunting partner leaving for who knew how long and for parts unknown.
*refers to cows climbing a hill in zigzag fashion for ease of climbing.