Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rabbits of the Purple Sage

My father loved hunting Jack Rabbits.

He worked (variously) as a welder, a mechanic, a Millright ... and worked hard all of his life. And in his free time, he was a Stock Maker. He made beautiful stocks for a lot of rifles, and (with his brother "Shorty" built a lot of beautiful rifles to go with them. I still have a couple of those excellent rifles, and when I die my son will get them; I will never sell them.

These rifles were for hunting: sometimes, deer and elk, later in his life Antelope, and always Varmint Hunting.

He hunted Jack Rabbits because, according to him, they were excellent practice for hunting Deer and Antelope. And he was right; if you can hit a running Jack with a deer rifle, the smaller game animals were not that much of a challenge.

The difference is, except for rare occasions, we didn't hunt deer in Sage Brush.

Sage Brush is a whole different thing.

I recall the occasion, when I was about 10 years old, when my father, a friend of his, my mother and the friends wife took me on a Jack Hunt. Pop found a butte, or a mesa (a flat-topped butte?) in the Umatilla County area of Oregon where he most liked to hunt. It was less than an hour's drive along the Columbia River valley, and there was non-arable land in plenty full of sage brush and Jack.

Where you find Sage, there be Jacks!

On this occasion, I tired early. Pop realized I was too small and weak for the climb, so he pointed to me the direction to the car, and sent me back, while the two adult males climbed the mesa and sat down to watch the surrounding area.

Although we were only 200 yards from the car, I soon discovered that I was lost. Although at the time I was probably within 100 yards of either the mesa or the car, the sagebrush was over my head and all I could see was ... sometimes ... the mesa. I recall distinctly the impression of the two sitting men, with their rifles propped up against their knees, looking like two capital A's and I stopped to shout back at them, asking for directions. My father made a dismissive pushing-away gesture, as if to say "keep going the same way, away from here".

I tried, but I was entirely disoriented and had no idea of the distance required to the car, and I was unsure of the direction. The brush grew thicker, I felt a sense of vertigo. I was lost, and nobody would come and find me?

Ten year old me started crying, then sobbing, and it took a bit of serious wailing before my mother became aware of my predicament and followed the whiney-noises back to her whiney son. I felt no shame at the time; I was so grateful that I had been rescued from the Sea of Sage.

Damn! I really hated the sage!


After a couple of years, I grew much taller and learned not to fear the disorientation; indeed, there came a point where I always knew the way back to the car! (This was a talent, or gift, which served me well in Viet Nam some years later. I always knew my way back to the nearest point of the Red-Line, although the promised trucks/choppers were not always where we had been lead to expect.)

Hunting Jack Rabbits with full-power hunting rifles turned out to be excellent training for fast-moving deer and antelope. I may not have got a clean kill on all the deer and antelope I shot, because I had learned to take the challenging shots ... but I always put them down, and they weren't often difficult to find DRT (Dead Right There).

In fact, the most awkward kills were those at less than 100 yards ... which is why I no longer hunt. Right after I got back from Viet Nam, I shot an antelope standing still LOOKING at me at a range of 88 yards ... and missed him. He disappeared into the Eastern Oregon Sage, through which I chased him; then when he ran through a clearing in the sage I took an ill-advised shot at him quartering away, and broke his right rear leg. After I followed the trail and found him down and panting in fear and panic, I finished him off. And then I wept again, for I had made such an egregiously bad shot and caused such pain.

I would have taken an earlier follow up shot, but for the Sage, which instantly obscured him. It took me 20 minutes to track him, and finish him off.

My father watched me as I had watched the fine buck antelope die, and he said only: "That's all right; I have no use for a man who can't weep over a wounded animal". This was one of the most shameful moments of my life; I went on ONE more hunt, when my father was too old to hunt; I took the only antelope ... it was doe season, and I took my only doe ... and then I quit forever. There was no sage brush on that Wyoming hillside, and when I hit her she was dead before she hit the ground. I field dressed her, carried her 85 pound back to the truck and back to camp. We loaded up and went back to Oregon .. and stayed there.


Somewhere in the middle of all this (rather earlier, probably closer to one of my first "armed" Jack Rabbit hunts) my father dug out a sage brush and took it home, where he planted it along the white picket fence which delimited the Southern border of our suburban lot. Mom thought it was ugly .. so did I, by now ... but my father was adamant. He loved the Sage, and in fact it grew to be an impressive five feet tall. Healthy and bushy, if nothing else it served to block the view from my eyes to my neighbors (who didn't like it either).

There were times when I would walk by the Sage just to inhale its powerfully pungent aroma. At least it never attracted any of the Killer Hummingbirds, who loved the Sage as a base for their nests, and would attack any intruder (read: "Jack Hunter") who inadvertently ventured near.

And I never neared that particular sage only to jump backwards in fear ["two feet up, six feet back" as my father described one of my formidable encounters with a Western RattleSnake curled at the base of a Sage Brush"].

Yes, I killed every rattler I met in the Purple Sage. And it's true, if you point the barrel of a rifle or a shotgun at them, they WILL align themselves with the muzzle. Note: You will never find more than a bit of spine of a Rattler hit with a 12 gauge shotgun; and you will not find that much of a Rattler hit with a .25-06.

There came a time when my parents moved away from their home in Pendleton; they had sold the Old Home Place to a guy who probably couldn't afford it anyway, and one of the first things the new owner did was to rip out that Sage Brush.

My father was slightly heartbroken; I guess he had hoped that the new owner would appreciate this taste of the wild.

I thought: "Good riddance to the damned old thing"; I need never feel "lost" again.

And I have never hunted Jack, or Antelope again.

Now, if they just moved the Jacks and the Antelope onto golf courses, I would consider it a good use of otherwise wasted terrain.

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