I suppose every archer's dream of the ultimate in sport is to go after big game, in wild country. It was - and is - my own, at least. It is a dream that has been realized, too! It has been my privilege to spend many a day, as many as I liked, in the finest of wilderness hunting country, with bow and arrow, the objects of my quests anything from rotten logs to deer and bear. The bear are all at large yet, but I have scored on the deer, and considerable smaller game.
The day I killed the deer was epochal. It will live in my memory as the day of days. It was nothing that I could shoot straight - nothing that I was able to kill a fair number of rabbits. But to kill a deer! Now was I an Archer - a man apart.
All the thrills and excitement of big game hunting, however, do not alter the fact that the finest sport, the most pure joy, and - yes - the biggest thrills, were experienced in an old brush cow pasture, far from the haunts of deer and bear, and within sound of a half dozen factory whistles. This was the nearest vacant spot at the edge of town, and I use to go there after supper and sometimes before breakfast, to practice and experiment with bows and arrows. It was my training ground, where I drilled for the big hunts to come later. It was also my proving ground where I thrashed out my ordnance problems. Rarely was there a day when some idea in tackle was not put to the test in this back yard wilderness, for I was a lone wolf, without guide or council in the technique of the sport of my choice.
Here, with my homemade tackle - and some of it very crude, I must say - I took a new start in the field of sport. I had lost all enthusiasm over firearms as sporting weapons, and had come to regard a gun as a mere tool for the securing of necessary meat. I never was a good fisherman, and had formed a pact with a friend whereby either of us would forfeit his life to the other if he ever played golf.
But when I accepted a flat ironwood bow and some arrows from an Indian in payment of a six dollar debt, the world suddenly blossomed anew. I would sneak furtively out of town, with my tackle hidden in my car, climb the fence into the said cow pasture, and proceed to engage in an orgy exactly to my taste.
It seemed the fitting thing to chuck the hat and shoes into a clump of brush and go at the thing, as I would have done it thirty years previous. These articles of apparel seemed to cramp my style and imagination, as well as my head and feet, so into the brush they went.
My declared objective was usually the little striped gophers that always inhabit cow-pastures, from which to sally forth in fierce raids on adjacent gardens and cornfields.
It seemed a man must have an objective. It isn't enough to go out blazing at rotten stumps and bits of sod for the pure joy of the thing. The spectators want a more tangible excuse. But as it stands, the census of ground-squirrels is entirely unchanged by any efforts of mine. I've loosed many an arrow at them that went exactly where it was intended, but the alacrity of the supposed victim was easily sufficient in every case to preserve him from all personal harm beyond the loss of his dignity. I must tell of one occasion where my shooting eye was vindicated, as being good enough for gophers. It was early in the morning and none too light, when I saw a small yellow spot, which certainly looked like a gopher. To cinch the matter, it moved. It was a good thirty-five yards distant, and a difficult shot, but I drew the pet arrow and let go. To my surprise, joy, consternation and grief, I saw the victim leap up, flutter a couple of times and fall dead - a robin, whose neck, as anybody knows, is exactly the color of a gopher. I dug a little hole beside the stump, and buried him, with a mixture of emotions that any true archer will understand.
The pasture was evidently made and conditioned for my purpose. There were no rocks in the ground, and the cows had eaten the grass down and chewed the leaves off the brush till it was impossible to lose an arrow. There were rotten stumps, and tuffs of sod, rabbit in size, a couple of cans in a dry ravine, a half of an old rubber ball along a certain cow path, and a yellow ant hill as big as a deer. All these enticing targets I punished unmercifully, going from one to another, always with a weather eye out for prowling gophers. Nobody but a small boy with his first .22, or an archer, can imagine the tremendous possibilities as a game animal of these small beasts. They're bad, ornery varmints to tangle with, if you go after them in the right way.
Now believe it or not, but I discovered, one morning, that my brush patch harbored big game. Yes Sir! There was a rabbit! A live, long-eared wild rabbit, that use to come out at dusk and thrill me to my very soul by the sight of his white tail bobbing away through the brush. When I first saw him, forgotten were the gophers, forgotten were the deer and bear I proposed to slay in the future, and forgotten for the moment was the law that says no rabbits killed till later. Art Young never had a greater thrill than did I, there in the autumn dusk, as I prowled, barefooted and bareheaded, along the cow paths, peeping into the brush on all sides for another glimpse of this Nemean Lion of my existence. That rabbit was a heroic figure, and deserves a place in the sun, along with Medusa, the Sphinx, and the Dogs of Hades. No doubt a mightier pen could give him his due place with these beasts of immortal renown.
I stalked him and studied his methods and laid a plan for his undoing, till I leaned at last I was no match for him. He was a crafty one, and I think he came to despise me, as an unworthy foeman. He seemed, at times, to laugh and sneer at me and my prowess. Once, on coming out of a dark path where I sometimes saw him, I was dumbfounded to see him sitting there in the open, not twenty feet away, right in front of me. I froze instantly to shooting position, stealthily drew my bow, and loosed an arrow that I knew would not miss. If that had been an ordinary rabbit, I swear his heart would have been split wide open, but he just flattened himself down and let the arrow part the hair on his back, then coolly crawled from under it, as it stuck in the ground, and hopped away. Another evening I saw the gray shape of him moving on the opposite side of a small ravine. When he stopped, strain my eyes as I would, I couldn't distinguish him from the ground around. But I took careful aim at the spot where I supposed him to be, and loosed. That shot certainly started something. A white streak flashed, and looped and barrel-rolled in a most terrific manner for a few seconds, then suddenly the mixture of arrow and rabbit dissolved - the arrow to lie on the hillside amidst much hair and the rabbit to dash past my feet like the devil was after him. I noted carefully that there was no trace of blood on the arrow.
After that episode, I got no sight of the quarry for several evenings, so decided to the early morning. Several before breakfast trips failed to reveal him, and I began to despair in the belief that I might have given him a mortal wound on the occasion of our last engagement.
On the morning of the first Sunday of the rabbit season, at an hour so early that the dogs and shotguns were still abed, I prowled once more through all his old haunts, with blood in my eye. It was a cinch if he still lived he'd be in some hunter's bag within the hour, full of filthy shot. But it is written that the mighty shall prevail, and rule the earth. In the middle of the thickest brush patch, I found him. He was surrounded with such a hopeless maze of brush, that I almost despaired of finding an opening big enough for an arrow. But after moving back and forth a few times, I discovered a hole, about two inches across, and I had to kneel down to line up on it. But line up I did, and I shot at the hole, disregarding the person of my ancient enemy entirely. Well the arrow centered the hole, and the rabbit was at the end of it. He died the death of a hero, spitted on my arrow, with never a kick nor a squeal. I didn't put my foot on his dead body and roar defiance at the jungle, but that's the way I felt.
There was a banquet that day at which one fried rabbit was first course, piece-de-resistance, last course, and dessert.
I could easily have bagged this rabbit with a shotgun the first time I saw him and could have killed him a dozen times with a rifle, without exercising any particular skill, and the incident would have been closed. Enough said when addressing a body of sportsmen like the readers of "Ye Sylvan Archer".
With the passing of the Cottontail, I turned my attention to insensate targets, and I believe it was a change for the better. I set to work to perfect my aim, so I could really hit things. I chose mostly small targets, at ranges from a few feet to thirty-five or forty yards, or what I consider practical hunting range. I used regular broadhead hunting arrows, and bows of sixty-five pound pull. I started entirely clear of point of aim, sights, and estimating range. My idea was to develop the instinct of aim to the highest possible degree, with no artificial assistance whatever. I do not presume to say I held the right theory, but I at least succeeded to a fair degree in what I attempted. I made so many lucky shots I decided it was a little more than luck. There were the two tomato cans in the ravine, that I ventilated one after the other, at thirty or thirty-five yards. There was the piece of old rubber ball that had an uncanny attraction for my arrows. I couldn't miss it. There was a half-gallon pail that I spent two arrows on at about forty yards, and stuck the two of them squarely through it.
Sometimes, of course, I got into a slump, but usually managed to fight it off. Whenever I start to get conceited, I only have to remind myself of the time I shot fifteen arrows at a big fallen leaf at about thirty feet, and failed to get closer than six inches to it. But there is consolation in the memory of an arrow I shot at a jaybird later the same day, at about fifty yards, which split the limb he was sitting on squarely under his feet. I rather think he had had hot feet.
A very fine feature of these little impromptu hunts was the faithful gang of three schoolboys that appeared every night. The weather might come and go, and my luck was good or worse, and the business depression could swell and shrink, but those boys didn't vary. They were there. They came from sundry directions, at various hours, but they came. Sometimes they would come down out of a tree, and oftentimes they seemed to rise up out of the ground. If they were not in sight, I used discretion in my long shots, for I knew not what thicket might conceal them. Unwelcome spectators to my efforts at first, they finally became necessary and indispensable adjuncts to my sport. It was a thrill to all of us when they proved they could pull my heavy bows, and hit the mark. It goes without saying that these boys all became archers, and at the last count were all making credible tackle. When I later succeeded in getting a deer with the bow and arrow, my real triumph lay in breaking the news to these boys.
It takes nothing more than a little suggestion to hatch out the instincts of true sportsmanship in the minds of the young. Personally I never pass up an opportunity to do what I can along these lines, provided the candidate has not already assimilated the idea of wholesale slaughter as being the measure of a good hunter. It is a lamentable and strange fact, that in all the good game country I've been in - some being considerable - the idea of sportsmanship in hunting, is notably absent in both old and young. After the game is gone from a locality, it is easy to find men and boys receptive to the gospel of the sportsman.
This opens a subject so vast that I must leave off short if I am to pursue my text further. I will, however, risk stirring up a large hornet's nest, by a remark or two versus Maurice Thompson. I do not hold with him, that anything that lives is fair game for the archer. Any bird or animal that is harmless alive and useless dead is not fair game for anybody. If he had called his book, "The Butchery of Archery", or "The Witchery of Butchery", the title would be less misleading.
Having now duly poked a stick in the hornets' nest, I will reveal how near I came to ridding the world of a certain game hog that came along one evening while I was on one of my practice hunts. After some conversation, in the course of which he boasted of having killed three hundred ducks during the last open season, he asked me to shoot an arrow straight up. Nothing loath to kill him, I complied. It was late in the evening, and a little dusky, so of course the arrow disappeared in the blue. I yelled, "Beat it!", and fled into the wind. The brave duck hunter stood rooted in his tracks for a moment, then started in the opposite direction down-wind! I stopped and watched him, horrified but hopeful! The arrow came down exactly in front of him, about one pace distant. It was a hickory shaft, with broadhead. The duck hunter turned a pale green.
Oh well! A fellow is bound to miss sometimes. I did the best I could, and consider it a very fair shot for this particular style of clout shooting.
I discovered a certain complex in my system - one, I imagine common to all archers. This was a tendency to undershoot badly when shooting across ravines. I set about to correct this by cultivating an instinct for ravines. I mixed up my shots - ravine shots, level ground, uphill and downhill shots, ranges, anything that offered. This was a hard fought campaign, but the Red Gods looked with favor on my cause. One evening when I had gathered up my tackle and started home on account of the darkness, I noticed a white spot on the opposite side of an open ravine. I promptly opened fire, and noticed a small "Thut!" as each arrow landed. I shot six arrows and went to investigate. I found the six arrows sticking through a small plastic bag. Distance about twenty-five yards; size of bag, same as a rabbit. I pulled the arrows reverently out, and pronounced it the end of a perfect day.
Second in magnificence only to the campaign against the rabbit was the episode of a farmer and his hickory hat. He was somewhat nonplussed by the spectacle of an apparently sane civil engineer without hat or shoes, armed to the teeth with two bows and a great sheaf of arrows. It took some explaining, and suggestion - not to say a whole lot of propaganda, to convince him that proceedings were regular. At last he seemed to sort of gel the idea, or see the point, in a general way, to the extent that he asked to see me shoot. A look around failed to disclose any suitable targets, so he laid his old straw hat on the ground, some fifty feet from me, and stepped back, with a huge grin. That grin was a challenge. I felt a little bit like William Tell, as I selected and arrow and collected my faculties for the test. I thought of him, and I thought of Ulysses and his home-coming, as I drew and shot. The big broadhead sped true, and slipped nicely through the center of the target cutting a fine big gash through each side of the ground.
The poor chap picked up his hat, and stood for a while, dumbly contemplating the same, then put it on and walked slowly away, with never a word or look back.
I met him many times after that, but there was no recognition; no animosity - nothing but a glassy stare. He could easily have chased me out of his pasture, but he seemed to consider me as something inevitable and a matter of course, but entirely outside of his conception of the scheme of things.
I do not envy the chaps who have the advantage of skilled advice and example when taking up archery. They miss the fun of inventing their own bows and arrows, and figuring out the correct shooting form, that was mine. In my early experience, I was the only archer on that particular piece of horizon. It was a long time before I even knew that there were books to be had on archery. When I tracked down and secured a copy of, "Hunting With Bow and Arrow", I was wildly elated to find that many of my ideas were more or less correct. I read this book one night without stopping, and again the next night. Later I met experienced archers who were able to teach me many things, and expect to meet a lot more of the same. But a thing I do not expect, is better sport than I had out in the old cow pasture, where I pioneered with crude and curious tackle, and learned to shoot.