I AM NOT A MEMBER OF THE National Rifle Association, nor do I collect rare firearms, attend gun shows, or subscribe to gun magazines. I am not, in other words, a “gun nut” and, in fact, can sympathize to a degree with the views of those who detest all such weapons and want them regulated. You can’t have lived in a large American city for any length of time, as I have, without seeing that such people’s opinions may have a certain amount of validity.
But I grew up in a time and a region that almost automatically sparked interest in not only guns but also the hunting of birds and beasts, in which pursuits such weapons were and still are central components. Nor did a war experienced in the U.S. Marine Corps and a functional country life during most of the past forty-odd years do anything to hamper the affinity.
This piece of writing stems from a letter I wrote to my wife Jane’s and my two daughters, who both now live far from Texas but retain an appreciation of the rural surroundings in which they mainly grew up. And both, for whatever reasons, had expressed specific curiosity about the remembered assortment of firearms accumulated by their male parent during his sojourn in this vale of sorrows, which has now lasted 86 years. Neither daughter is a gun enthusiast; they just remembered these weapons, most of which have moved along elsewhere by now, and wanted to know the stories of those that had one.
So here are the stories, with a few extras and detours thrown in as what the Mexicans call pilón, “something extra.” They are not all “nice” tales in contemporary terms. Political incorrectness, as presently defined, may be perpetrated here and there, though I hope no parts will seem like the maunderings of a Deep South redneck. But if they do, the hell with it. I am too old to fret about such matters.
My earliest pistol was a rusted and cylinderless revolver I found in the area, near where I grew up in Fort Worth, that had been the spread-out site of World War I’s Camp Bowie. And I recall a battered nickel-plated .38 of a dubious cheap foreign brand, which had been confiscated from some miscreant in Cuero, when my very casual uncle Tommy Graves had been county judge there. He reconfiscated it and gave it to me when I was quite young, but my father got rid of it as soon as he found out I had it.
COLT .32-CALIBER SEMIAUTOMATIC MODEL 1903
This was one of a couple of antiques in the collection, both deriving from that same ancestral town of Cuero. My grandfather, the first John A. Graves, was not at all interested in weapons, though two of his three sons were avid hunters, mainly of quail, doves, ducks, and such. And their brother, my father, had also hunted with enthusiasm when younger.
Grandpa’s main passions, as I remember and was told about them, were for horsemanship—at which he was very adept in a non-cowboy way, having grown up in Missouri—for the Episcopal Church, and for merchandising, in which he also excelled. But he was quite conscious too, like most white Southerners of his time, of his personal honor, which was considerable, because he tried to live up to the principles he espoused.
In accordance with a frequent post—Civil War Southern practice, rightly reprehensible by today’s standards, he would sometimes make a deal with the local sheriff to take a nonviolent black prisoner off of the county’s hands during what remained of the man’s sentence and put him to work at home or in the dry goods store, taking responsibility for his nourishment and shelter and continued local presence.
At one point not long after the turn of the twentieth century, when Grandpa was in his forties, he acquired such a servant and used him at home, chiefly in the yard, garden, and horse lot, which held a couple of high-bred geldings, one of which Grandpa would ride to town and back in the mornings (he always came home for the large midday meal, called dinner then) and the other for use in the afternoons, to and from his store. In summer he would be dressed in a white linen suit and Panama hat and in winter in black with a derby, thus emphasizing the non-cowboy motif. He continued that practice into my own lifetime, after he had sold the store but still went down to an office and back twice each day. But he did finally start using a Western saddle.
The black man’s former employer was a local gambler, who came to the house one day when Grandpa was not present and persuaded or ordered the man to return to the saloon where he plied his cards and dice. Learning what had happened, Grandpa drove his horse-drawn buggy to the saloon, and because when young he had promised his mother never to enter such an establishment, he called the gambler out onto the board sidewalk. Harsh words ensued, said gambler not being a mild fellow, and Grandpa ended by taking his horse whip from the buggy and using it until his foe was writhing prostrate on the planks. Then, with the black man aboard, he headed toward home. But the last thing he heard from the felled gambler was a squawked, “Damn you, I’m gonna kill you! You watch!”
Ever realistic, my grandsire went to a hardware store owned by a friend and purchased this pistol, a novelty and something of an anomaly in a time when most personal weaponry in Texas still consisted of large-bore single-action revolvers. He practiced firing it in the horse lot until he could hit more or less what he was aiming at and then carried it in a coat pocket for a couple of months or so until he learned that his gambler had left town for good without making any move toward fulfilling his threat.
When Grandpa died in a car wreck at eighty, this pistol, along with other personal items, passed to my father in Fort Worth, who never fired it except on one unfortunate occasion in 1947, when I was in graduate school at Columbia University, in New York.
A family of south European origins had moved into the house next door to Mama and Papa’s. They had seemed quite decent the one time I had been around them, though they were a bit messy and raucous, and Papa was not happy about this. As it turned out, he had been drinking rather heavily for years, though without ever seeming even tipsy (“Drink all you want to,” he had once told me, “but never let it show”), and when our family doctor put him on a newfangled antihistamine for a respiratory problem, its reaction with alcohol set his mind ablaze. One night he took the old .32 out into the front yard and started shooting it into the upper branches of a hackberry tree, saying to my mother when she came out and protested, “There are Greeks up there and they’re laughing at me!”
My father was a man of low-keyed presence and no flamboyance at all, so this was a startling event. I flew home, and Papa experienced some hospital time, but he said he would quit drinking and he did, cold turkey. The pistol, however, he wanted nothing further to do with, and its ownership passed to me. It must not have been cleaned since Grandpa had fired old-style cartridges in it, with corrosive primers, for its barrel was badly pitted. I had a gunsmith order a new one, which stuck out of the housing a bit farther than the old one had.
Except for a little practice shooting, I’ve never had occasion to employ this weapon, though I remember one time when I thought I might have to do so. My first wife and I were driving back home from Albuquerque one early fall across the empty plains of eastern New Mexico (very empty, back then) when we came up out of a dip and saw to our right an old black sedan, upside down in a cloud of dust and with its wheels still turning. This looked improbable enough to have been staged, so I drove a little past it, took the .32 from the glove compartment, told my wife to drive on if there was trouble, and walked back to the dusty scene, which turned out to be quite genuine. The topsy-turvy jalopy was full of drunken sheep-shearers who were so crammed together that only a couple of them had some bruises and scrapes and cuts. We dropped those two off at a doctor’s place in the next town—I forget what town that was—and tooled on homeward with the small weapon that still hadn’t claimed any victims.
COLT .45-CALIBER SEMIAUTOMATIC
Our military developed this potent sidearm for use in the Philippines against homicidal Muslim Moros, shades of the present. In the armed forces it had been issued to officers and higher NCOs, though mine was a civilian model. I won it in a poker game aboard a troopship during World War II, at some point had it adorned with staghorn grips, and lost it after the war when a thief found and took it from beneath the front seat of my car, where I had unwisely stashed it.
During my brief combat time in the Pacific, I carried this .45, as well as an issue .30-caliber carbine, but I remember only once when I used the pistol out there. During our first night on the beach at Saipan, in June 1944, a very dark night, individual Japanese infiltrators seemed to be everywhere, dropping grenades into foxholes, knifing people, or otherwise playing such merry hell that we were all on edge. At one point, in the dimness I saw a form skulking along in the salt shallows just off the beach, challenged it and received no reply, and cut loose with the .45. What I shot holes in turned out to be not a Japanese soldier but a small metal barrel propelled bobbingly by a light breeze, a discovery that made me feel foolish indeed. But it was that kind of night, and several lost or blundering Americans got killed or wounded by nervous fellow countrymen.
COLT FRONTIER SCOUT .22-CALIBER SINGLE-ACTION REVOLVER
This one had the shape and longish barrel of the old gunfighters’ heavier weapon, but it disappeared long ago, either stolen or, more likely, hidden by me in some secret niche that is now secret from myself also. I had bought it at the instigation of a ranching friend, Tommy Harrison, a rough-hewn ruralist and backward looker. I liked it very much—simple, safe, comfortable in the hand, and extremely accurate.
COLT .357 MAGNUM REVOLVER
I bought this pistol (why?) in the late sixties but fell out of love with it quite soon, for it was horridly loud and kicked like a mule. So I traded it in on the next item below.
SMITH & WESSON .38-CALIBER REVOLVER, MODEL 36 (SHORT-BARRELED CHIEFS SPECIAL)
Acquired (again why?) in the swap mentioned above. I used this cylinder .38 very little except for occasional practice shooting and maybe a rattlesnake or two.
BROWNING .25-CALIBER SEMIAUTOMATIC
In 1964 I was invited along on a canoe float down the Conchos River in northern Mexico by the trip’s organizer, Rodman Saville, of Houston. No one seemed to know much about that river and there were no decent maps, nor any records we could find of previous voyages on it, but we headed out. Six of us put our three canoes and our gear and ourselves onto a freight train at Ojinaga, where the Conchos flows into the Rio Grande, and unloaded about a hundred miles upstream at a river town called Falomir. And from Falomir we ran downstream for a few days through deserts and canyons to Ojinaga again.
Heading into any remote part of Mexico was and still is a bit iffy in terms of what sorts of human beings one might encounter, so Rodman and I each brought along one of these tiny Brownings, an easily concealed if, in Mexico, illegal means of self-defense. Both of us were military veterans and knew that such miniature armament would not stop any villains in their tracks unless they were hit in the head. But the things could be hidden in our smallest pockets and could if produced, we hoped, cause said villains to think twice before initiating violence.
As it turned out, we got along fine with the sparse and primitive population along the river’s shores, in part because my Spanish was still fairly decent from living in Spain in the fifties. This was true at least until we reached the always restless and, yes, dangerous zone near the Rio Grande, where smiles and waved hands became less prevalent than scowls as six unshaven, trip-soiled gringos paddled past in their chalupas.
There was no actual trouble, though I think we once came close to it in a canyon near the journey’s end, where three unprepossessing characters in a wooden skiff paddled out to intercept us. They had a Winchester lever-action deer rifle propped against the boat’s gunwale. Not one was smiling, and the mustachioed largest one of them, sitting beside the rifle, asked what we were doing there. I told him. He was briefly silent, then said they were fishing and needed bait, and I told him that we had none. He studied us for a time, but if he had any action in mind, he apparently decided there were too many of us. In silence he signaled the others to paddle back toward shore, and with relief we watched them go.
Later, Rodman and I compared notes, and neither of us had had his little Browning where it could be reached in a hurry. So much for self-defense.
This diminutive weapon has been called “the lady’s pistol,” and I’m sure it has been utilized in a few serious marital scraps and murders, perhaps in the nickel-plated, pearl-handled version.
RUGER .22-CALIBER SEMIAUTOMATIC, MARK II
I BOUGHT THIS ONE in the eighties when Jane and I were driving to Key West each spring to fish with her brother John Cole, who was living there with his wife, Jean. We had our own skiff that I had fixed up for such fishing and would tow it down there on its trailer. The Lower Keys were not as heavily frequented at that time as they would be within only a few years, and we were often alone among the many mangrove islets of the “backcountry” on the Gulf side, where there was much beauty and good fishing but also where dubious-looking Cubans or uncongenial poor-white Conch types sometimes turned up in boats. We never had any bad experiences there except once when our pickup was ransacked at an isolated boat ramp, but I believe in being prepared, and this pistol, made of stainless steel, was my instrument of preparedness.
It was a beauty, but I have a sometimes ill-advised habit of tinkering with new acquisitions, and I tinkered a bit too much with this one. It was shooting consistently lower than the points at which I aimed it, so I took a file and worked the front sight down to rectify this. I filed it a bit overmuch, though, and afterward the pistol shot too high. I became fully aware of this one weekend when we had a group of friends down here at our country place, with several children among them. Our creek was running nicely, so much of the activity was down by its little waterfall and the pool below. However, two separate good-sized rattlesnakes liked it there too. I don’t usually kill them unless they are where people are, but these most certainly were. I dispatched the first one with a stick, then brought this .22 from the pickup, whereupon the kids found another rattler far back under some bushes. I crouched down and started shooting at its head but kept missing before I remembered the filed-down sight. One boy, the grandson of an old friend, then seven or eight years old, was right behind me as I fired, and with every shot he would yell, “Kill him! Kill him!” until I finally did.
I had intended to replace that front sight, but as with many other things these days, I never got around to it.
WINCHESTER MODEL 97 PUMP (SLIDE-ACTION), 12-GAUGE
THE OTHER ANTIQUE from Cuero, older I think than Grandpa’s little .32 semiautomatic. “Model 97” means the type was first made in 1897, I’m sure, and this must have been an early specimen. According to the story Papa told me, in the days before there were many game laws, the gun had first belonged to a market duck hunter. Those people were not sportsmen but ambushed their quarry on the water, preferably when they were flocked up and a single cartridge could harvest a good number of dead birds to sell. He in turn, probably after game laws got stiffer, sold or traded it to my father’s brother Will, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, after which I assume it passed to Papa, though at some point it was used by Will and Papa’s younger brother, Tommy. Tommy was the most avid hunter in the family, an excellent shot who also had great skill in blowing off the ends of shotgun barrels when they had been carelessly poked into dirt or mud. And he did this to the Model 97.
Parenthetically though without parentheses, I will note that along the way I inherited two other shotguns that Uncle Tommy had shortened in this fashion, both with double barrels of old-fashioned laminated Damascus steel, a handsome metal but intended for black-powder shells and too tender for safe use with modern smokeless ammunition, which Tommy may well have tried to fire in them. One of these Damascus doubles was a Baker 16-gauge with a single trigger, automatic extractors, and handsome woodwork, a real old beauty. For some odd reason, this Baker, which I never fired, called to my mind the antiquated English muzzle loader used by Caroline Gordon’s title figure in her wonderful Aleck Maury, Sportsman, who is modeled on her own father.
At any rate, after Uncle Tommy had thus reduced the old Model 97, Papa—I think it was he—had a new thirty-inch, full-choke, proof-steel barrel put on it, and this was the only shotgun he owned or fired for the rest of his less and less active hunting career. He used it even on quail, whose explosive flight when flushed from the grass is best dealt with by shorter barrels and more-open chokes that give the small pellets required in that hunting a much wider pattern. But he was still a good shot and didn’t do badly with it.
Not ever having been much of a duck hunter, I have only rarely fired this weapon, though it’s still in good shape, and at times during my family’s latter-day rural life in relative isolation, it has been a comfort to own, leaning in a closet corner and loaded with double-ought buckshot shells against the possibility of evil intruders. It would just about blow a man in half. And it has occasionally been handy against predators, as I will note farther along.
REMINGTON MODEL 870 PUMP, 20-GAUGE
MY UNCLE-BY-MARRIAGE Shelley Tarkington, an Aggie and a First World War aviator, then a cotton broker till the 1929 crash, and finally the longtime postmaster in Cuero, was a passionately active hunter and bird-dog man who like most of his contemporaries had always used a 12-gauge gun. But as he aged and developed heart problems, his doctor persuaded him to change to a lighter piece, so he bought this one, which had interchangeable choke tubes that could be attached to its muzzle and was thus adaptable to several sorts of hunting. He was an even better shot than Uncle Tommy. I remember an occasion late in Shelley’s life when he and I went out after doves that were watering in the evenings at a cattle pond, a “tank.” He had been warned against excessive exercise, so he took shots only at incoming birds, which, if hit, would fall close by. And with this gun he hardly missed a one, dropping them within a few feet of where he stood, so that he reached the legal limit of fifteen while I was still trying to kill my seventh or eighth bird.
To digress a bit, as seems to be getting usual in this document, Uncle Tommy also had to adjust his weaponry when older, though he didn’t last nearly as long as Shelley did. One evening when he was in his late thirties or early forties, he was driving along a country road with his left elbow poking out of the car’s open window. A large truck going in the opposite direction swerved as it passed (or maybe Tommy swerved—he sometimes drank a bit much) and sideswiped the car, shearing his arm off not far below the shoulder. After it had healed to a stub, he refused to give up hunting and got a beautiful light 28-gauge double that he could handle with only his remaining arm, shooting nearly as well as he had with a 12-gauge and two arms.
Somehow, appropriately, when he died of a massive heart attack at, I think, 47, it followed a strenuous afternoon spent following his dogs after quail.
Another Tommy tale: Once when he and I and Papa and Shelley were hunting together, Tommy brought along a setter named Chiefie, which had a fine nose and held firmly still on a point but also had a bad habit of jumping into the air after birds when they were flushed. He never caught one that I know of, but he kept on doing this despite scoldings and castigation. On this day he found and pointed a covey in a patch of live oak brush and was backed up by Shelley’s dog. They held beautifully as we moved in with guns at the ready, then flushed the covey when given the word. The quail exploded and all four of us started shooting, but the bird Tommy chose was in midflock, and just as he fired, a leaping black head rose into line with the bird and the shotgun’s pellets.
Without even a yelp, Chiefie fell limp to the ground. Shelley was the closest hunter and went over to look at the dog and feel various spots on its skull and throat.
He shook his head and said, “Gone!”
Tommy came up and did his own examining and concurred. He said, “Nita’s going to kill me. He was her favorite one of my dogs.”
We put the corpse into our nearby car and kept on hunting with Shelley’s pooch and another dog, a spare, released from its box in the car’s trunk. We found more coveys and did well with them, but there was not great joy among us.
Two or three hours later the dogs led us back near the area of the accident and found some scattered single birds and pairs. One of us shot, and a muffled frantic barking came from the car, where Chiefie was springing up and down and clawing at the window glass, eager to be back out in the action. When set free, he ran in circles with joy, blood-flecked as he was, and hunted avidly for the rest of the day and the rest of his life. But Uncle Tommy told me later that Chiefie never again jumped up at a covey rise.
Shelley’s Remington pump was given to me by Aunt Sally after he died, in 1962, and I have used it for my own infrequent hunting ever since. The shotgun I had grown up with, an inexpensive double-barreled 20-gauge Springfield that had been a present on my twelfth Christmas, I gave to my nephew Robert Wynne, who was having trouble with rabbits in his vineyard in New Zealand.
In fact, I have now given away most of the guns on this list to younger relatives and friends, retaining only three or four for practical or sentimental reasons. These survivors include Shelley’s pump, despite the fact that I still like doubles best and for a good many years hoped I would end up with a really nice one—not a costly “bespoke” English Purdey or Holland and Holland, built to order after elaborate personal measurings and test firings, but possibly an old but sound Parker, Ithaca, Fox, or L. C. Smith.
However, doubles, old or new, grew steadily more pricey during an era when marriage and fatherhood and other expenses were chewing up my spending money. I do, however, still regret not buying a premium 16-gauge Winchester Model 21 with two sets of barrels, which a broke Air Force pilot once offered to me for $350. Regret it, even though at this point I’m not physically up to any more hunting at all.
WINCHESTER MODEL 06 PUMP .22 CALIBER
A HOLDOVER from childhood, given to me on my tenth birthday. This model, when chambered only for .22 shorts, the least powerful cartridges in that caliber, was the standard at shooting galleries and carnival booths in those times, but a good many, like this one, were made for kids, short-stocked and chambered to accept all three types of .22 cartridges—shorts, longs, and long rifles. I have cherished it all my life, and after World War II, I went to a bit of trouble carving an adult-size cherrywood stock and forearm for it, a pretty good job except for some bobbles in the checkering.
Back then youngsters were mainly introduced to firearms much earlier in life than I think most are today. You went from a BB air gun to a .22 more or less routinely, though a good bit of supervision was usually exercised. When he gave me this little rifle, my father went out with me to try it on some targets and tin cans, and he told me, “You must never, never point this gun at any person!” And I said, “No, Papa, I won’t.”
But two or three weeks later I was lying on my bed by a window, cherishing and polishing my new acquisition, when a particular neighborhood enemy of mine came walking down a driveway next door. The rifle was not loaded, and I swung it to fix the sights on his head as he moved along, at which moment Papa walked into the room.
I didn’t get the little .22 back for months, and even then it was with stern restrictions that involved getting permission to even touch it where it reposed in my parents’ closet. Three or four years later, however, an ingenious neighbor boy evolved a method of replacing lead .22 bullets with candle wax, which we would then shoot at each other, and I don’t remember Papa’s objecting to this. Or maybe he didn’t know about it. At any rate, since that wax-bullet phase, I have remained aware of his instructions all my life and have never pointed a firearm purposely at any human being except during the Pacific war.
This rifle, which has reaped a large harvest of rabbits and squirrels and varmints through the years, has also figured in certain small human dramas, a couple of which may be worth setting down here.
In the seventies on our country property, a two-story east addition to our house was going up, and during one summer I was being helped in its construction by Jane’s nephew Charlie Cole, from Connecticut, and a couple of friends’ sons, Suter Dubose and Jim McBride, of Fort Worth. Charlie and Suter were alone in the living room one day after lunch. Through my stupidity the little .22, loaded but without a shell in the chamber, was leaning in a corner, and Charlie, who knew nothing at all about guns, picked it up and aimed it at various points in the room, including Suter, while saying, “Pow! Pow!” to emulate shots. Then he pumped the slide handle and pulled the trigger, and the resulting explosion sent a small hunk of lead through the polished front drawer of a handsome vintage secretary that Jane prized.
At least, I reflected afterward, it hadn’t been Suter . . .
That hole is still with us, at Jane’s insistence, as a part of family lore.
I seem, however, to have only partly learned what I should have learned about modern youngsters and guns. Not long after that incident, when the addition had been framed and roofed but not finished inside and my helpers were back at their desks in school, we had a weekend visit from Bob and Laura Wilson, of Dallas, with two of their young sons, who are both now well-known Hollywood actors. We adults were sitting in lawn chairs on the porch while the small Wilsons, eight or nine years old, were loudly exploring their environs and the unfinished construction.
Before they came I had put the little rifle, still loaded for possible snakes and varmints but with an empty chamber, athwart the ceiling beams of what was to be our master bedroom, nearly nine feet above the floor. I was certain this would keep it out of the small Wilsons’ reach, but I was dead wrong. It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes before one of the little devils raced past us on the porch, brandishing the rifle and emitting cowboy yells. He was furious when I chased him down and grabbed it away from him.
I still have the old .22, but it stays empty these days, with its ammunition stowed elsewhere.
REMINGTON MODEL 660 BOLT-ACTION, .243 WINCHESTER CALIBER
DURING A LONG SPELL of years I put much work and energy into this country place where Jane and I still live, developing it as a stock farm. Its primary livestock were Angus or crossbred cattle, but we also needed goats to eat brush and keep it from reinfesting cleared land. At one time, in addition to a few pet Nubians kept in pens near our house, we had a herd of ninety or more Spanish, or common, goats, which roamed widely.
Small kid goats are easy meat for almost all wild carnivores and need to be guarded against predation. But the schedule of goat reproduction usually means that kids are nearly all born at about the same time, so with care you can pen them for protection until they’re larger and more agile, letting the nannies in from time to time to give the little ones milk and attention.
I guess I’d better put most of this into the past tense, since we no longer have any goats or the troubles associated with them. But those troubles are still fresh in my mind.
Mature goats and half-grown kids had only two main enemies in our region, and these were dogs and coyotes. The latter killed only what they could eat and were so smart and cautious that after you had shot one or two of them they either moved elsewhere or stopped bothering your flock.
Dogs, though, were neither as bright nor as frugal in their depredations. Mainly these canines were referred to in rural regions as “wild” dogs so that dealing with them as they needed to be dealt with would not seem to involve killing people’s pets, as it often did. For domestic dogs in the country, allowed to run free at night after perhaps playing with a family’s children all day, would often gang up and traverse the landscape, slaughtering poultry, goats, sheep, and even small calves whose cow mothers were not pretty tough. All of this just for fun, not food. And when you had heard those dogs barking and baying and snarling at midnight, and you’d gone up a hill in the morning to find seven or eight or more goats dead, or dying with their guts hanging out, you tended to come back down with a much less sentimental view of dogs as a species, despite the excellent, controlled ones you had at home.
That was why I bought this flat-shooting .243 and put a scope sight on it. With the old Model 97 12-gauge and its buckshot, the rifle saw good use on occasion, which I will not detail here except to note that it involved a bit of vengeful mayhem.
The .243 was also an efficient weapon for medium-large game, and when we were all living here as a family, I used it to harvest some venison each year, even though I’ve never been a dedicated deer hunter and in fact didn’t much like to kill them.
SAVAGE OVER-AND-UNDER COMBINATION .22 RIFLE AND .410 SHOTGUN
A PIECE OF JUNK really, with no serial number and the two barrels poorly aligned so that their loads hit in different places. I bought this one for Jane before our family moved down to our present property southwest of Dallas and Fort Worth. We were living then on a rented piece of land just outside the second city, with a honky-tonk stretch of highway nearby, and I was often away. I told Jane, “If you hear anybody outside at night, just go out on the porch and shoot the shotgun barrel in the air and yell, ‘I know you’re there!’”
But she hates guns and I doubt she ever did this.
I didn’t give up trying to interest her, however, not for a while. In the late sixties, down at our own country place with its then-minimal living quarters, she and I were sitting in the main room one day when I brought out this ugly but very simple weapon to try once more to teach her how it worked.
“You get that?” I asked after putting a .22 cartridge into its chamber and snapping the barrels down into position. She said yes, and I handed it to her. “Now unload it,” I told her.
I did have the sense to give it to her pointed upward. She took it, pulled the hammer back, yanked the trigger, and shot a hole in the ceiling that is still there, unfilled for the same reason the hole in her heirloom secretary remains open. Family history.
That was about the end of my efforts to make Jane like guns.
SHERIDAN 5 MM PELLET AIR RIFLE
IN THE LATE SIXTIES or early seventies, when we still had horses here that ate oats and scattered a lot of them around, we attracted a large infestation of English sparrows, a species that had burgeoned in its homeland when horses were primary in farming, commerce, and travel. Our line of old, large live oaks in front of the house had not yet been devastated by the blight that would kill them all a few years later, and those trees became a primary nesting and roosting area for the small invaders, which chased away more-desirable birds and kept up an incessant chatter and a rain of droppings. I asked an ornithological acquaintance what to do about this. He said that unfortunately the only way he knew to control them was to kill as many as possible, which sooner or later would cause the survivors to go somewhere else. So on the advice of a gun-wise friend, I bought this compact and accurate rifle and had it equipped with a peep sight.
The gun was not a repeater and had to be pumped up after each shot to restore air pressure, but it worked extremely well. I would sit in a lawn chair beneath one of the oaks with my Australian heeler Blue beside me, and whenever a sparrow exposed itself in the foliage, I would raise the pellet rifle and shoot. My eyesight was much better back then than it is now, so with the peep sight I only occasionally missed. As each victim fell to the ground, Blue would dash over and eat it, never seeming to get sick from the feathers.
With a hunting dog this would have been a very poor procedure, for those dogs are supposed to deliver downed quarry intact to the shooter. But Blue was purely a herder, not a hunter, and I fear we both came to enjoy the game, deadly as it was for the sparrows. It lasted for only a few weeks, though, before my ornithological friend was proved right and every single English sparrow on the place departed for realms unknown.
The mention of Blue’s unsporting consumption of sparrows brings to mind a couple of shaggy Old English sheepdogs named Hup and Hodge, sire and son, that we owned in succession after Blue’s abrupt disappearance one night—killed by mistake and then guiltily hauled away, I came to believe, by spotlighting fur hunters who simply fired at the glowing eyes of creatures attracted by their rabbit calls, for fox and coyote and bobcat pelts were at a premium just then.
Old English Hup was given to us as a pup by a friend after we lost Blue and was a delightful dog, quick to learn and eager to please. When accompanying us on long walks through pastures and cedar brush he was wont to disappear at times, following various scents, but always came back without having gotten into mischief.
His breed are headers rather than heelers, and a header’s instinct is to get on the far side of livestock being worked and bring them back toward its master. Before I figured this out, it led to some comical situations when I was trying to drive cows or goats or a neighbor’s trespassing hogs into a corral or through a gate and Hup would race out in front of them and try to drive them back.
But, unexpectedly for a herding dog, he had a good nose and turned out to be an excellent and dedicated retriever of the doves, quail, and ducks I was still hunting at that time. He was “soft-mouthed” and brought shot birds back to drop them at my feet in perfect shape.
One fall I had an eight- or ten-acre field of ripe wheat that I hadn’t been able to get harvested, so that by October it was a disorderly mess full of crisscrossed grain-bearing stalks. But it was also a magnet for doves, which came there in hundreds, day after day. This was too much of a bonanza for one lone occasional sportsman, so I called a city friend, who brought six or seven other friends down to our place. One of these I had been close to since our first grade in school. He was not a happy hunter, maybe because of wartime experiences, so he and I stayed talking on high ground from which we could watch the melee in the field below.
The shooting there was constant and so, quite soon, were the shouts of “Hup! Hup! Over here, Hup!” because the shot birds that fell into the tangled wheat or the brush bordering the field were very hard for human eyes to discern. But every shooter “limited out” and lost not a bird, all because of the nose, skill, and eagerness of a dog that was not supposed to be a retriever at all.
However, Hup was out of dog-show stock (his sire had been a champion), with systemic defects engendered by inbreeding. He lasted only to the age of six before collapsing miserably with a combination of dysplasia, pancreatitis, and constant diarrhea, so that I had to have the vet “put him to sleep,” as the euphemism has it.
Not long before Hup broke down, however, I had bred him to a far less patrician Old En-glish bitch belonging to a local lady and later had given the breeding fee—my choice among the resulting pups—to a friend. When the friend heard that I had lost Hup, he insisted that I take the pup back, and this was Hodge.
Hodge was much like his sire in a number of ways, though not as anxious to please or as amenable to training. He too was a header, but a fierce and noisy one that could panic livestock and wreck a drive. So I had to put him on a leash or leave him at the house when engaging in such work. And he had Hup’s good nose and loved retrieving shot birds but often dashed out when doves, say, were flying in and scared them out of range. When I did shoot one, he would find it and bring it in but would usually chomp on it all the way, so that what he presented me with was a gory bunch of feathers.
For these reasons I seldom took him along when I was hunting with friends, but he gentled a bit with time and we came to be quite close, as men and their dogs usually do. With his plebeian genes, he lasted thirteen years, and during the last three or four of them, having been bawled out and punished time and again for that chomping, he gave it up, but without developing a soft mouth. Instead of bringing a downed bird back to me, he would go out and stand with his nose pointing down at it, finding every one, and would wait for me to limp out on arthritic legs to pick it up. Once, when a dove was only winged and fluttered a few yards farther out each time Hodge moved up and stood over it again, he finally put his paw on it, holding it in place till I came.
I SEEM TO HAVE strayed a bit far from guns in these observations, but so be it. Although firearms and working dogs and hunting and so on are increasingly old-fashioned in a time when a heavily urban public is exhilarated through electronics and seeks “virtual” experience, I myself remain pretty much of an unrepentant anachronism. But there are still a good many of us around, and I hope this piece will speak to such folks.
Therefore, so long, all you fellow anachronisms.