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|14 February 2005|
[Look here for part one of this story.]
Jim Downey and the Amazing HoopiePart two: Hunting Saturday
Rich and I woke well before dawn, dressed quietly, and slipped out of the tent with our gear. I half expected to see the old man, still in his chair, coffee cup in hand. But he was gone. Next to the fire was Billy, the guy with the Army surplus jeep, rolled up in a tattered blanket, back to one of the sittin' logs, snoring loudly. And he wasn't the only one in that chorus, as snores of many varieties sounded throughout the camp. There was only one other person up and moving: Stalking Charlie (for such I had designated him in my own mind). Charlie squatted near the fire, one corner of which he had brought back to life. The enamel coffee pot was there in the coals, steaming away. He had his rifle still cradled in his arms.
He looked at me across the distance, pointed to the coffee pot. I turned to Rich, spoke low, "Want some coffee?"
Rich, who was busy getting out the topo map of the area and spreading it on the hood of Jerry's pickup, brightened. "Yeah, sure."
I fetched a couple of cups out of our gear, went up to the fire. Charlie watched me warily, said nothing as I approached. I nodded. "Morning."
Charlie said nothing, just ducked his head in what I took for a greeting. Billy gave a loud snort, shifted position, but didn't wake. I poured the two cups of coffee. "Thanks."
A sharp, quick nod. I turned to leave, could feel his eyes on me the whole way back to the tent.
I handed Rich his cup. "That guy makes me nervous."
"Yeah, me too," said Rich, sipping coffee. "Asked Jerry about him last night, he said he'd been in Nam, came back like that. But he don't hurt nobody, and the hoosiers are smart enough to leave him be."
"Yeah, really." Rich had a small flashlight out, looked down at the map. "Well, I'd hoped we'd get some direction from these guys about good places to set up this morning. But I don't think any of 'em are gonna be going out anytime soon. So I've been looking for someplace we can walk to from here."
I leaned against the cold metal of the truck. "Where we at?"
Rich tapped the map. "Here. There's a draw just a ways further up this fire road, and that goes down to this creek. We'll walk down together, I'll leave you on this hill looking down the draw, and I'll go around the hill to this other side."
"Ain't much, but I figure it's about the best we can do without knowing the land."
"OK," I said again. "Uh, you want some breakfast before we go?"
"Let's just take some sandwiches." He quietly folded up the map, so that the relevant portion was still on the outside, easy to consult.
We got the sandwiches, our canteens, and the guns. As we left our tent, I noticed that Charlie was nowhere to be seen. Which didn't mean too much, since once you got outside of the immediate vicinity of the fire, anyone in full camo would be practically invisible. Rich and I both had on hunter-orange vests over our coats, but in the dim light even that would be hard to see at any real distance. We passed the bus and headed down the road, leaves crunching underfoot.
It didn't take too long, and Rich only had to consult the map once, before we left the road and went straight into the woods. There was some light to the east, but it was still dark enough that after Rich parked me on the hillside between a couple of scrub oaks, it only took moments for me to lose track of him in the dark. Before he left, he told me "Stay here, I'll pick you up when I come back. If you shoot anything, I'll hear it and come to help."
I settled in as best I could, waited. As it became more light, I saw that I was in a pretty good location, at least for visibility. The trees were mostly bare, and I could look down the draw a good 50 yards, up the draw about half that much. In the pre-dawn, the squirrels came out to romp through the leaves, chasing one another up and down the hillside, making a racket. I was happy, since I figured their noise hid my own as I got out a sandwich, unwrapped it, ate it, all the while shifting back and forth on my feet, nervous. My rifle was close at hand, tucked into a V in one of the trees.
As I finished my sandwich, watched some squirrels at play a dozen yards ahead of me, I suddenly froze as I realized that I heard something just around the tree behind me. Slowly I turned, to see Stalking Charlie standing there, watching me. I nodded. He nodded. He looked around, then gestured with one hand for me to come with him. I shook my head. I said quietly: "Sorry, I gotta stay here."
He looked at me for a moment, shrugged, and then headed off down the hill and towards the creek, in a somewhat different direction than Rich had gone.
After that, nothing much happened for about two hours or so. Distant gunfire echoed through the hills, the squirrels played and foraged, I ate another sandwich and tried not to fidget much. Then I heard a single gunshot down the way that Stalking Charlie went, close enough that it stopped the squirrels in their tracks. A moment later they all scattered to safety, disappearing up the trees. In the relative quiet I could hear something moving up the draw.
Slowly, I picked up my rifle, keeping one of the oaks between me and the source of the sound so my motion wouldn't betray me. I eased back the bolt to check that there was a round in the chamber, then closed it again. Index finger against the safety, I slowly looked around the oak, to see if I could see what was coming up the draw.
It was Rich, moving slowly and fairly quietly through the leaves. I relaxed. Seeing me, he picked up his pace some, and came over to me.
"Was that you?" he asked.
"Well, I didn't think so, since it sounded like it came from down the creek from me. But I figured I better come check." "I bet it was that Charlie guy. He stopped by here just a little before it really got light, then went down that way where the shot came from." I looked at Rich. "Think we should go see if he needs any help?"
Rich frowned. Normally, that'd be just neighborly, and I knew it was his instinct. But he shook his head. "Nah, better not. We don't know these fellas well enough to know how they usually do things."
"Best just head back to camp, maybe tell someone there, if there's anyone up yet." He looked around. "It's late enough that I don't expect we’d have much luck here anyways."
I nodded. We headed back to camp.
As we came into the clearing, I saw signs of life. Someone had tossed back the sheet that covered the food, and a couple of men were standing there, grazing on the leftovers from the night before. Uncle Clem was back in his chair, and the fire had been built back up. Even Billy was awake, still sitting there on the ground with the blanket wrapped around him, leaning against the log he had been sleeping next to, a coffee cup steaming in his hands. Our friend Jerry was sitting on the tailgate of his pickup, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and looking a little worse for wear.
From around the side of the bus came Matt, red-eyed and unshaven, but not looking too bad considering. "That you shootin?"
Rich shook his head. "Nope. Mighta been Charlie. He was down that first big draw down towards the creek."
He nodded, took off his ballcap and pushed his thick black hair back, putting the cap on again. He looked over to Billy. "Billy, I'm gonna take yer jeep."
Matt hadn't waited for an answer, was already headed over to the jeep. He got in, started it, pulled around us and went up the fireroad.
One of the guys standing by the table on the side of the bus asked: "Want sumthin' t' eat?"
About noon we were standing around watching Charlie and Matt string up and skin the doe Charlie had shot, and then butcher it on the same tables which previously held the food. I heard a funny little sound coming up the road. Others heard it too, and a small crowd was standing at the entrance to the clearing to greet the Conservation Officer who rode in on a struggling, street-legal little Honda 90. It was a fairly ridiculous sight, since the bike was barely bigger than a moped, and the ranger was a good hundred pounds overweight.
He stopped the bike, but didn't shut off the engine, which continued to sputter and cough. "Howdy boys."
There was a muttering of greetings, nothing too friendly.
"Boys had any luck?" asked the officer, looking around. He made note of the fact that a number of the "boys" were holding guns they had picked up when they heard him coming.
"Ain't been out t'day," said Uncle Clem, standing there. "Goin' out later."
The officer glanced over at a nearby tree, the rope & tackle for hanging the doe still there, blood on the ground below it. "Well, uh, remember, season ends at sundown."
"Oh, we won’t fergit," said someone, and there were laughs.
The ranger looked around, a little nervous. "You, um, you boys all got your licenses and tags, I suppose?"
"Oh yeah, we got everything we need," said Clem. More laughter.
The officer flushed, licked his lips nervously. "Well, uh, OK. I guess I'll be goin', then."
"You do that." Clem smiled. "Be careful, th' woods's full o' hunters what ain't ver' careful 'bout what they shoot."
"Uh, yeah." The officer took one more look around, then took off on the little Honda back the way he came, bouncing along. A volley of half a dozen shots rang out, urging him on. Wisely, he didn't look back.
We all started back to where Charlie and Matt were finishing up carving the doe. While they were in full sight of the ranger, they hadn't bothered to stop what they were doing.
"Heh, that'll teach th' dumb bastard t' be askin' questions," said someone.
"Yeah, he did kinda look like Kenny, didn' he?"
The excess bones they just tossed off into the woods, the hunks of meat were put in plastic bags, tied off and dropped into coolers without any ice. Matt looked up from his work, and said to no one in particular: "We gotta send these coolers back wit' th' wimmen tonight."
"Speak f' yerself," said Joe. "My girlfriend ain't goin' back tonight."
Matt dropped the last plastic bag in the cooler, kicked the lid shut. Sticking his hands into a pot of water to rinse them off, he looked a little wistful, nodded. "Yup. Diff'rence 'tween wives & girlfriends."
There was a hearty laugh all around. A couple of the others pitched in and helped rinse off the knives and table, then Charlie brought out a stiff brush and some soap powder, gave everything a scrub. Just as more water was being brought for a final rinse, I heard the sound of an engine in the distance, coming up the firetrail. And this wasn't the tinny sound of a small two-stroke; it was the deep thrumming of a large diesel engine.
"Sounds like the Hoopie," said Joe.
"Yup, that's it." We all started looking down the fireroad.
I looked to Rich. Quietly, I asked him, "What's a Hoopie?"
Someone nearby heard my question. He pointed to the entrance of the clearing. "That, boy, is a Hoopie."
From the front, the way I first saw it, it looked like a big deuce truck, the sort of Army truck used for moving troops or equipment, with two rear axles supporting a long cargo bed. Of course, like everything else these guys had, it had been 'altered,' with brush bars and whatnot added to the front end.
Then it pulled off to the side of the bus, and I saw that the alterations on the front weren't even the beginning to what they had done to this truck. The cab of the truck, which probably wasn't very deep to start with, had mostly been cut away. That was to allow room for the cargo bed, or what was left of it, to clear the cab . . . because there were about ten or fifteen feet missing from the center of the truck, and it was articulated in such a way that it could bend almost 90 degrees in the center. What was left of the cargo bed was just a couple of benches, long enough for four or five guys on a side, and a backless bench down the center. There were no sides or roof, just a kinda roll-cage to keep passing brush from knocking people off the truck too easily.
And whatever color it had been originally had been lost along the way. Instead, it had been painted in what only can be described as a drunk redneck attempt to capture the psychedelic aesthetic of the late sixties. It was, in a word, hideous. Hideous beyond belief. I stood there, stunned by what I saw.
Rich looked like someone had hit him with a club. "Goddam," was all he said, over and over.
A short man, thin, crew cut and clean-shaven, somewhere in his 20s, jumped out of the cab. "Here's lunch."
They unloaded a couple of beat-up coolers from the back of the Hoopie. One was full of cold beer, the other sandwiches and whatnot. Plopping these on the still-wet table, Matt said: "Eat up boys, then well go huntin'."
"Hey Ross," said Joe to the man who just hopped out of the Hoopie, "you see a fat-ass'd ranger onna toy motorsickle?"
"Yup. Almos' run th' fool over," answered Ross, going over and grabbing a beer. "Whadid he want?"
"Nuthin'. Jus' come to say howdy," laughed Matt. Everyone chuckled as they got into the sandwiches and beer.
Some time later, as everyone was getting ready to go, Rich and Jerry took the map and went to consult with Matt. The plan was that we were going to do a "drive." This meant that about a third of us were going to be positioned in a natural bottleneck created by a small river and thicket of tough brambles, waiting. The rest of us were going to start about two miles up from there, fanned out but converging on the bottleneck. This would tend to push any deer in the area towards the bottleneck, where they would be easy targets. It's a hunting strategy about as old as the human race, and works. But it requires an intimate knowledge of the terrain; a knowledge me and Rich didn't have (Jerry either, for that matter, though he knew the general layout). But using the map, it was easy to at least get an idea of where we were going to be, and where we needed to be headed.
Those of us who were going to be doing the "driving" loaded up onto the Hoopie. I sat on the center bench, knees crowded with those of the others on the Hoopie, our rifles butt against the floor, barrels pointing up to the sky. Most of the guys had simple lever-action 30-30s with iron sites. The perfect kind of rifle for close game in the forest. Joe looked at my rifle. "What's that you shootin'?"
He nodded. "Scope won' do much good in these woods."
"I can still use the iron sights under it."
He nodded again. The engine of the Hoopie roared to life. We all braced ourselves as we started moving.
The Hoopie may have been a mechanical monstrosity, but it did what it was built for. It could easily go anyplace that a 4-wheel drive jeep could go, with the tight turning radius and power it had. And the large truck tires gave a ground clearance that meant that any fallen trees or stumps leftover from logging would pass safely under the axles. (It was common practice for logging companies in the '40s and '50s to cut trees off about 18" high, thereby saving their chainsaws from having to cut through grit kicked up by rain in the rocky Ozark soil.) But they hadn't bothered to do anything about the suspension, so with every rut, log, or boulder we encountered, we all bounced off the hard wooden benches, reflexively grabbing our rifles as our guts were turned to mush. I think I pissed blood for a week after that.
It didn't take long for us to get to the drop-off point. Rich and I were going to be on one end of the drive, so we got out first. My kidneys appreciated this. As we watched the Hoopie disappear into the woods to drop off the rest of the hunting party, Rich turned to me and said, "Damn, James, these guys are half nuts. You OK?"
He shook his head. "I'm sorry. Jerry never told me how redneck . . ." His voice trailed off.
"Hey, you didn't know. It's alright."
Rich looked around, and said, "Well, I guess we oughta get going. Look, just keep me in sight, and don't be afraid to make a little noise. Even though we've got vests on, I don't want one of these idiots to take a shot at us."
We started off at a steady pace, spreading out so that there was about 50 yards between us. Off on my other side, I occasionally caught glimpses of one of the other hunters, about the same distance away. We hiked through the woods this way for the better part of two hours until Rich came over to me. "We're about up to those brambles, will start to head down to the river bottom. If we've been pushing any deer in front of us, they'll soon hit the guys who are waiting for 'em. So don't be surprised if you hear shooting up ahead. And if someone fires, get down or behind a tree or something, 'cause that could send any other deer headed back this way, and one of these guys driving with us might open up. This could become a fuckin' free-fire zone."
He paused. "Oh, and uh, probably best not to take any shots yourself, unless a deer gets behind you."
"That's what I figured."
Nodding, he separated from me again, and we proceeded down the hillside until we were coming to the river bottom, flat and heavily overgrown. Up ahead I heard shots, and following Rich's instruction, I stepped behind a large oak and waited a moment. Sure enough, another series of shots cut loose off on the far end of the line from us, rifle fire which echoed through the hills.
After a couple more minutes Rich called out to me. "James? Let's go on in."
"OK," I shouted back. He couldn't have been more than twenty or thirty yards away, judging by his voice, but I couldn't see him through the thick undergrowth. Up ahead I heard voices, and I headed that way.
Rich and I came together, just as I heard the guy on my left emerge from the brush and looked up to see him. He nodded, asked "see anything?"
"Nope," said Rich. "You?"
He shook his head. "Nah."
The three of us continued towards the voices. The guy with us hollered, "Kenny! Don' shoot, it's us."
Some ways away, Kenny's deep voice boomed. "OK."
We came out of the dense brush to a more open wood, could see the big man and one of the others field dressing a large buck. Kenny looked up from what he was doing, said "I didn' hear shootin' your direction."
"Nah. Didn' see nuthin'."
Kenny nodded, went back to work. "I think Jeb got one, and th' fellas coming up along th' river got one, too."
Another voice came out of the woods that direction. It was Matt. "Yeah, two. Small buck an' a doe."
"Four ain' bad."
"Shoulda been six," said Kenny. "Ol' Mike was takin' a dump when two does come runnin' past him. Damn near shit all over hisself trying t' grab his gun an' get off a shot."
We all laughed. Matt pointed off up the hill, turned to us. "Hoopie's up yonder. Go have a beer, we'll head back soon 'nuff."
Rich asked "need any help with the deer?"
"Nah, we got 'em. Just go have a rest. You boys been doin' all the work."
The ride back was much the same as the ride in. We went with the second group; the first took back the deer so that they could be strung up, skinned, then butchered. By the time we got back it was almost full dark, but the fire was going good and dinner was waiting. A number of the wives and girlfriends had made up a big spread of food and brought it out to the campsite: fresh bread, slabs of country ham with a thick redeye gravy, deer steaks, hunks of fried bologna, tubs of mashed potatoes, greens, corn on the cob, cobblers, and more. It was set out on the tailgates of the trucks they drove out, as the two tables on the side of the bus were still being used to butcher the deer. Putting away our gear, Rich and I got in line and filled our plates, sat beside the fire and just listened to the others swap lies about the day's hunting as we stuffed ourselves.
Sure enough, by the time the eating was done, most of the women had packed up and left camp. The ones who stayed behind were nowhere to be seen, and neither were their boyfriends, though moans and the occasional scream from some of the distant pickups indicated where they were.
Then the serious drinkin' began, but I was too tired from hiking through the woods to be much interested in watching what happened, just toddled off to the tent and crashed. Rich woke me when he stumbled into bed, having had a few beers himself. Sometime in the middle of the night I was startled awake by what sounded like a dozen rifle shots, but as they were accompanied by lots of cheering and laughter, I figured it was nothing much to worry about, rolled over and tried to go back to sleep to the sound of Rich snoring.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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