I thought I could hear grunting. At first I thought it was me, but it wasn’t my heart and it wasn’t my gut. I often get excited on a hunt, sometimes real noisy, but the real excitement hadn’t started yet. I looked at my hunting buddies scattered about in the grass of an Ozark hillside, and none of them looked like they were grunting. Maybe it was just gas. The sound came again, distinctly a grunt, then a distant squeal.. The others heard it too, and a murmur of male voices started up. Tom shushed everyone, Shhhhh’, he said, ‘Those pigs can hear every bit as good as you if not better, If you can hear them, they can hear you’. We all quieted down and watched where Tom had pointed out that the pigs would cross the fence.
I got to go on this hunt for a couple of reasons. Tom had way too many pigs on his place, and they had broken through his fence. It was bad enough having to put up with the critters on a busy ranch as it was, but with the break in the fence they were getting out every day and raiding the neighbors. Tom didn’t like mad neighbors.
He needed some help to get rid of them so Doc White volunteered to help him solve the problem. Doc admitted to having jumped at the chance. Doc, who designs guns and stuff for White, had showed up with a whole bunch of hunters, including me. There was David Gumucio, who everyone called Gumby, probably because he was the exact opposite of the skinny little doll of the same name. Gumby was an immense man, all 400 lbs of him. Gumby was the PR guy at the time for White. He had brought along a writer, Hank, to introduce him to hunting with the White Muzzleloading System.
I had hunted turkey with Doc a few springs before, getting an introduction to his Tominator muzzleloading turkey killing shotgun. and had lucked into this hunt only because I happened to call at just the right time and begged to go when I found out about it. I have found that begging is a good way to horn in on a free hunt. I pretend to write, too. Maybe even as good as Hank. Sometimes I can even get an article published. I wondered if Hank ever did?
So we had two old hands with White rifles and two White System hunter trainees. I had never shot a White rifle in my life at that point, though I love the White Tominator shotgun I begged off Doc. Hank claimed to be an ex-military man with tons of experience with all kinds of guns, including muzzleloaders. He looked like he had been around the block, but I doubted that he was old enough to have been at Valley Forge or Gettysburg. He was the garrulous type and always had something to say no matter what the subject. I decided to keep my mouth shut and see what I could learn. At least it would provide a little counterpoint to Hank
Doc later said that Hank reminded him of the veteran Hollywood actor who used to come to Rendezvous in the 70’s. He was a well known older actor often seen in John Wayne movies and the like. He had a classic Artisan Performer personality. You couldn’t get the man to shut up. He always had a story to tell, no matter what the subject, and didn’t mind a bit horning in on a conversation started by others, drowning everyone else out. It was like he had to be acting 24 hours a day. Every minute an act. It made Doc wonder if his whole life wasn’t just an act. It got so bad that folks would leave a tipi once this guy got started. Despite that he was immensely amusing and a real character. It was obvious that Doc was enjoying Hank. I felt a burn of jealousy in my belly.
Certainly I had learned that Tom was none too happy that Doc had brought muzzle loaders instead of modern repeaters. He wasn’t too happy about the bigger group either, especially with two newcomers along. He obviously wanted shooters, not learners, for this expedition. He was a good sport, though, and welcomed us with graciousness and a tactful wish that we would be very, very successful. He needed those pigs out of there.
As it turned out, the pigs had broken down only one part of the fence, unfortunately in a low place that was almost impossible to fix well enough that they couldn’t do it again. Tom would repair the fence, only to have it broken down again a few days later. He had been around pigs enough by then to know that once a generation of pigs learned how to keep the fence down, the only thing he could do was destroy the whole generation.
He explained what he wanted us to do. Those hogs, he said, he almost snarled when he said the word ‘hogs’, it sounded like a cuss word in his Ozark drawl, ‘Go out the fence every morning, raid the neighbors fields, then come back through every evenin, We aren’t going to get but a couple chances at em’, He sounded truly regretful. ‘They too smart to come back through too many times if we kill a bunch.’ Best then,’ he opined,’ that we bust them going out and not coming in.’ ‘That way, they’ll always think this place is their refuge.’ Obviously, we would hunt them in the mornings, and leave them alone in the afternoons.
Tom took us out to the location the afternoon we arrived. It was springtime, leaves were already out, gobble season was just over. He took us to a hill overlooking the break in the fence down below us. We were surrounded by thickets of oak, most of it quite mature old trees, with few openings in the green jungle. It was no wonder there were so many hogs on this place, with all the mast from the oaks. Fortunately, we had about a 70-80 yard shot to the fence, the north side of the hill, where we would sit, being more open than the south. With any luck, we would catch the hogs lining out on the way to the fence.
I looked at the distance. Eighty yards downhill wasn’t much for a modern rifle, especially a repeater, but 80 yards was a bunch for the muzzleloaders I knew about. I owned an old Thompson Center Side-lock in 54 caliber. Eighty yards with it was stretching it a bit, what with open sights and Maxie balls. Those things were hard to load, with a capital H, and the gun had to be cleaned in between shots or you never got the next bullet down. I had to thump the bullet down one time by banging the ramrod on a tree. Getting a shot every two minutes was doing pretty good.
Tom insisted we go to the range for a sighting-in session. Doc suggested that we sight in our rifles at 75 yards, since the shooting would be just about exactly that. Doc had his own White rifle, a Model 98 Elite Hunter, he called it, in 451 caliber, looked an awful lot like a scoped M70 Winchester without the bolt. Gumby had a Whitetail rifle, it looked a little shorter than Doc’s, in 504 caliber. Gumby handed both Hank and me a Model 97 Whitetail, both .504 caliber. Both had fiber composite stocks and Leuopold scopes. They weighed about 6 lbs. He also handed out some blue lubricated bullets, big long things weighing 480 grains. I stared at the bullets, dumbfounded. I wondered how in the world I was going to get that overlong thing down the barrel when I could hardly get my T/C’s much shorter bullet to do it.
To my slack jawed surprise, the bullet slid down the barrel with a single finger on the ramrod, even with the barrel grimy from the small squib priming load Gumby insisted we fire before loading primer and bullet for real. Now I wondered how the big bullet would shoot, fitting that loose. I didn’t want to see the White guys embarrassed. I stepped back from the bench a little to give the others room to shoot first. I didn’t want to be the first to send a loose bullet key-holing down range.
Doc was already loaded and ready. He stepped up to the bench, threw his rifle up to his face and slammed the trigger, offhand. At least, I thing he must have slammed it, there was sure no hesitation. The rifle must have had a trigger set too light and went off before he was ready. I wasn’t prepared for his grin. ‘Centers’, he said, pointing downrange with his chin. I couldn’t see the bullet hole, but Tom, who was managing the spotting scope , said, ‘ Centers’, in a bored voice.
Oh Oh, I thought, Tom has seen this before. Now I got really shaky, even more so than before. Maybe that hat that Doc wore, he said he wore it so the shine wouldn’t scare off the pigs, covered more than just shine. He could sure shoot or he was sure lucky. I’d heard him say that he enjoyed a lot of luck, more so than most men. I’d also heard him say that his ‘luck’ sure related to how much he practiced. Maybe I was seeing the results of all that practice.
Finally, it was my turn. I had deliberately wiggled into last place. The others had shot their rifles from the bench, using the rest Tom supplied. They had shot pretty well. I had been surprised by the small groups. Even Hank, who I half expected to be as bad a shot as he was loud, did well. I was also surprised when nobody cleaned their rifles between shots. The White boys claimed that these were off the shelf guns, but after seeing how well they performed, I figured that they had to have tuned the rifles before they came, maybe did something special to make them shoot better than normal. Gun companies were always pulling stuff like that, sending a carefully tuned gun to a writer instead of a run of the mill one. After all, you don’t want to disappoint a writer. He might actually tell the truth for a change
I was relieved when my Whitetail rifle shot every bit as well as the others. I knew then, that despite Gumby’s protests, the White guys had tuned these rifles up before turning them over to us. I’m no great shot, and the rifle kicked pretty hard with its 100 grain load, but the bullets would have all gone into a cup at 80 yards. That was just too good for factory performance, especially shooting with a dirty barrel every shot.
Next morning saw us up in the dark and headed for the hillside overlooking the hole in the fence. We walked in quietly in the waning dark. Tom warned us, “watch out for snakes, it’s warm enough now that they come out evenings. Make sure you don’t sit on one.” I found that really reassuring, now I was the target, or rather my butt was, instead of the pigs. Once Tom had assigned us our positions, I poked around in the grass a bunch just to make sure before I sat down. I wondered what Tom was grinning about. He looked like a damn fool, eyes alight and grinning like that while I was poking through the grass. The other guys were grinning too. Even Hank. That made me mad. They knew something that I didn’t. I wondered what it was.
Tom also told us to look out for the hogs, there were some big old boars in the bunch and they could get mighty mean if riled. That made my eyes bug out. There was Tom grinning again, like the cat that just ate the canary. Damn! I wished I knew what he did!
We settled down in a line along the top of the hill in the early morning dark, on what Hank would have called the ‘military crest;’ just a little off the top, hiding in the grass, which was about half calf deep. Tom put Hank furthest to the left, which meant closest to the trail, with me next and Doc furthest off to the right. I guess Tom figured me for the nest to worst shot. Gumby plopped down with Tom, right behind me and Hank. Looked like Hank and I were going to get some personal attention. Like any good platoon leader, Tom had placed himself where he expected the most problems. I felt a little like I was back in boy scouts. Never did get past Tenderfoot.
We had squibbed and loaded our White rifles before leaving Tom’s house. Mine was loaded with 100 grains of Pyrodex P and one of those huge 480 grain Power Punch bullets, same load as I shot at the bench yesterday. The scope was equipped with stepped crosshairs, easy to see in the early morning light. And it was getting light, the coolness of the night fading into the heat of the day. The last star shining brightly before winking out, the moon long gone. Birds were chirping. A hen turkey called in the distance, with no answering gobble, and big wings beat the air as the big birds left their nearby roost. This is where the story started.
The grunting was getting louder from down below. There was a burst of squealing and rapid fire grunting as a couple of hogs jockeyed for position. I though I could hear the click of teeth amongst all the squeals. If a hogs teeth are big enough to click, does that mean that they are big enough to rip up a man’s leg.? I got my rifle into position, determined to make sure that no pig got close enough to answer that question for me.
Suddenly I could see a flicker of movement down in the bottom, then a huge black hog popped into view, chugging up the trail. It was the size of a steer!. Good Heavens!!. That was no farm pig. I had expected something with spots, feral critters, bacon on the hoof. This thing was a monster. Huge head, tall shoulders sloping to small hips, you could see the teeth as big as my finger sticking out of his mouth even at 80 yards. He was bigger than Gumby! And look! Another one popped out of the brush right behind him, then several more. Suddenly a dozen were in sight.
Something came up in my mouth. I think it was my heart, thumping hard. I felt transfixed, eyes bugged out. Something wet drooled down my chin. Something sharp poked me in the ribs. I saw Hank flinch, too, as he caught a forefinger from Tom. ‘Shoot, shoot’, Tom whispered, ‘Hank left, you right’ The words were accentuated by another poke in the ribs. There was a decided urgency in his voice. He was afraid the hogs were going to get away.
Hanks rifle boomed, a cloud of smoke drifting aside. I glimpsed a splash of color blowing off the lead hogs rump. The huge hog squealed in rage and whirled around, looking for whoever had bit him in the backside. Around and around he went, blocking the trail for all the other hogs. There were about a half dozen of them all bunched up now. The lead hog decided that the second hog was the culprit and piled into him. Blood flew. Now it was a free-for-all as they hooked and butted one another. About a ton of hogs looking like a WWF tag team match and everybody in the ring.
One of the hogs stepped back for a moment, I guess to catch his breath. Doc’s gun boomed, scared me damn near to death. The hog was knocked over on his side, blood behind his shoulder. The other pigs paid no attention, sticking to the fight. Gumby had crowded forward and his rifle crashed. The second pig whirled and dashed up hill only to pile up and come skidding back down, mortally hit. Pigs were running all over the place, squealing and frantic to get away and not sure of the direction to take. Tom was squealing too, frantic to get more pigs down. “Shoot, shoot, he shouted, wild eyed and froth at the mouth. He was on his feet , jumping up and down in his excitement.
Tom was punching me in the back with one hand and waving the other fist at Hank. He was hollering, ‘Kill ’em’, at me and, ‘Load, load’ at Hank all at the same time. He was sweaty and red faced in his excitement.
Doc’s gun boomed again, my goodness, could he have reloaded that fast? Another big pig bit the dust, didn’t go two feet. Gumby had reloaded too, slapping powder and bullet out of his stock mounted quick charger into the barrel and ramming it home with a quick swoop of his ramrod. And I hadn’t even fired a shot yet. I was having a hard time finding a target. Too many pigs running around too much to pin one in the crosshairs.
The hogs suddenly realized that somebody was shooting at them and scattered, Two dashed uphill. The third hog, the big one Hank had hit in the butt, had disappeared. I got to my knees so I could see better. Great good Heavens! Here came that first huge hog, coming straight up hill towards us. I screamed at Hank, ‘Hank! Here comes your hog.’ Look out!’ Hank was pouring powder down the barrel of his rifle. He whirled to spot the pig and most of the powder went flying. The giant hog was close enough now that we could see the open mouth, hear the chuffing grunts, and see him snapping his tusks in anticipation of getting them into Hanks butt. He was squealing like a train whistle coming at you and you’re stuck on the tracks. Hank wasn’t going to make it!
“Look out”, yelled Tom, ” He’s mad” :”Don’t let him get close” “Shoot, shoot” He headed for the nearest tree. I’d seem him do that in a video he showed us, swinging around a tree as a huge hog dashed by, snapping his tusks at him as he passed.
My attention snapped back to the hog. He was getting real close, eyes ablaze and jaws snapping, his big tusks making a popping sound that turned my stomach sick, a bileous taste in my mouth. Hank was still trying to reload, fingers fumbling at the unaccustomed procedure, mouth agape as the hog charged on. “Hank” yelled Gumby, “Take this”, and a rifle came flying. It was in Gumby’s hand, but it was flying. Never saw such a huge man move so fast. He snatched the partially loaded rifle out of Hank’s hands and thrust his own into them. ‘Shoot’, he cried, ‘It’s loaded’. The hog was only 10 yards away, arrowing in on Hank.
Hank was up, nearly everyone was on foot by then except me, and he whirled and fired as the tusk-popping hog topped the hill. I saw a big gob of fat and a shower of blood burst off the the hogs butt. Hank had shot high over the hog’s back and hit him twice in exactly the same place, square in the fanny. The hog staggered and fell, broken down in the hindquarters. He came back up on his front feet, squealing like a bass banshee in a continuous scream of anger and agony, trying to get his back legs under him. Doc was bellowing, ‘He’s getting up! Shoot him! Here he comes!’
Ever notice how your peripheral vision widens when you are in a tight spot. Mine did. I became aware of Tom and Hank trying to get behind the same oak. Gumby behind another, ramrod pumping a bullet down the barrel of Hank’s rifle. Doc was a few yards off to the right, kneeling in the grass, rifle up to his face. Mr. Hog was 5 yards to my front, staggering on his back legs but again coming on. His mouth was flecked with froth, jaws wide open, tusks glinting, his little piggy eyes fixed on me. Yipes, I was the only one left. Now I was the target. I could see it in his eyes. He blamed me for all the pain and agony that Hank had caused and he intended to set things straight.
It occurred to me, a drifting thought that flitted through my mind, that I was about to pay the price of my jealousy. How ironic! I should not have let Hank get to me like that. Funny how clear the mind can become in a moment of crisis. Here I was, sitting in snake infested grass with a Missouri Hog bigger than Gumby coming like a freight train, eyes on fire, tusks popping, about to rip a chunk out of my precious anatomy and I’m contemplating personal relationships? I took in Tom, one foot in a tree crotch, ready to jump out of the way. Great big Gumby, mouth open, making soundless noises as he finished reloading Hank’s rifle. Hank, off to the side, looking for a tree to climb. I couldn’t see Doc, he was probably laughing his head off, probably somewhere behind me. The hog, about 5 feet away now, tusks glinting in the early morning light, coming fast, anxious for blood.
I tried to get my rifle up, but it weighed about 500 lbs and just would not come up to my shoulder. It was at my hip when it went off. I don’t know who pulled the trigger. The noise was deafening. The hog disappeared in a huge blast of smoke. He fell on his face, rolling off to the right, tusks digging into the dirt, squeal changing to sob, feet kicking furiously. I scrambled backwards, hoarse sounds jerking from my throat. Couldn’t help it. Damn near pee’d my pants as it was!
Somebody grabbed me and hauled me to my feet, it was that huge Gumby, picked me up like a rag doll. He had me in one hand and Hank in the other. He thrust Hank’s reloaded rifle into his hands. ‘Spine him, Hank’, he yelled’, ‘Keep him down’. Hank’s rifle boomed, once more washing the giant pig with smoke, The hogs back legs fell motionless and he gasped his last. My feet almost touched his nose.
Somebody slapped me on the shoulder, it was Doc, There were shouts of delight and whoops of joy from all around. The hog lay dead at my feet. I noticed two bullet holes in his front in addition to the two in his butt. Hands were all over me, congratulations coming from all sides. Congratulations for a fine shot? Or congratulations for surviving? I wasn’t sure. I was seeing my guts scattered through the leaves there for a minute. I noticed Doc reloading his rifle, an amused grin on his face. I didn’t hear him shoot, When did he shoot? And where did that second bullet come from? Damn!
I touched the hog with my toe. Respectfully. Well, didn’t matter. Hog was down and dead and I was still in one piece, guts still in my belly. Bileous taste still in my mouth, too. That’s a decent end to any story.
It really ended even better than that. Over the next several days we put down quite a number of hogs. They finally figured out what was going on and then the hunting dried up. Tom ended up getting the rest by moonlight and spotlight. By then, we were long gone, coolers full of pork, cameras full of pictures and diaries full of stories and brags.
Well, anyway, I got through the ordeal without being bitten by snake or hog. I did end up bitten by the muzzleloading rifle bug. Now I’m going to have to beg a rifle off Doc to match the Tominator I already have. We ended up with enough pork apiece to keep us eating for a good while and adventures enough to thrill the grandkids for years of storytelling.
Isn’t it interesting that we sometimes forget the bugs, the heat, the sweat breaking out on the face, the guide shouting in your ear, the heart thumping in the throat, the bileous taste of fear in the mouth, the shakes and glassy eyed, slack jawed paralysis that come when the critter is almost on top of you? The joyful dismay when you discover that someone else just saved your butt. Not me! Still makes my stomach turn over and the bile come up in my throat to think about it.
Or is it those things that are the salt on the meat of the hunt, that we carefully store in our private cupboard of memories, that we savor just for ourselves, and that flavor the remainder of our days.
Of course, I wouldn’t dare stretch the truth of this story a bit, being as thoroughly professional as I am. A good writer doesn’t do that. Does he?
TO TELL THE TRUTH- This hunt really happened in Missouri just as it is told, except that George Grey is a figment of my imagination and of course was not present. But the rest of us and hogs were, and the shooting happened just as described, with that first big 400 plus pounder going down with two hits in the butt and two in the chest right in our collective face. No-one will admit to who hit where, although we all suspect it was someone else. Poor Hank gets the blame only because he’s such a nice guy that I don’t have to worry about him getting back at me. I’m the hero because- well, I wrote the story. Duh.