The Famous Bull Shooting Contest at Thronateeska Farms


"I've heard old sunning stagers

Say, fools for arguments use wager."óButler

(To Ann, Tricia, Pricilla, Vickie, Jeannie, Elaine, Kay--the wives)

They're still drinking Crown Royal arguing, poker rules first then ballistics. When the betting starts, I throw down a nightcap of orange Metamucil and creep up the misty stairwell to the bunk room. I'm about asphyxiated by secondhand smoke, experiencing mild tachycardia. By tomorrow I'll be addicted. I don't have a stake for the card game, and I know I don't have $500, the penalty for shooting an undersized buck, so I turn in early. I want to wake up with a clear head. I can't afford to be projecting trophy status on any immature deer.

I've never seen so much smoke. I wonder if their wives let them smoke at home. They're puffing with a vengeance, overcompensating some spiritual deficiency or premature weaning. Rebelling against a society that legislates damn near everything, including health. Russell Martin, decked out in $1500 worth of Orvis safari garb, chews an Outlaw Crook as his son Alan sucks Camels. Henry Hart has his Marlboro Lights, John Popwell, his Advantages. David and Paul Harden Paul have brought a carton of Carltons. Clyde Popwell and, Lee Mullins, builder of swimming pools, smoke whatever they can bum, and Joe Arnett drags his Newports. The ashtrays are piled high as fire ant beds. White smoke fills the stairwell and upstairs there's a gossamer veil I can't get above even in a top bunk. I open a window. Even the gale force winds outside can't suck out the smoke, which sets off the smoke alarm about the time I get to sleep. Southeastern Indians smoked dozens of herbs and spices. The bloodthirsty Europeans got addicted only to nicotine, with a recreational proclivity for a couple of others.

We are gathered at the annual weekend deer hunt at John and Clyde Popwell's Thronateeska Farms. I'm ten years older and decades wiser than all these guys. I can therefore judge them objectively. What we've got here is a bunch of middle age Yuppies letting off steam. I guage the degree of their domesticity by their contrived sloppiness and the way they putter around the kitchen, making sure everything is just so. "Which side's the salad fork go on?" yells John, who knows. The first night, they watch naughty videos and give bawdy advice to their sons. The second night they declare with misty-eyed affection the virtues of their second wives, trying unsuccessfully to locate them on cellular telephones. "Oh brother," moans Paul Harden as his sleepy-eyed father, the longest married to one woman, imparts marital wisdom to anybody who'll listen.

More for fellowship than sport, we bivouac at the hunting camp to ingest men's food, full of cholesterol and saturated fat. We eat deer ham, smoked turkey, sausage and doves wrapped in bacon, collard greens cooked in hog fat. Saturday supper John grills a 400-lb calf, fatted of course, to welcome his brother Clyde from Panama City, just retired from the Navy. The meal includes asparagus, cream corn, potatoes, cabbage, and fried hoe cakes, a down home break from the elegant cuisine served at his Cafe Adeline. If we ate this communion of lipids every day, we'd all be dead in a month--rebelling also against the nutritional fastidiousness of serial wives.

Around 2:00 a.m., after the rest of the hunters have turned in, the wind rattles the cabin, and the windows I've raised crash down. The sleeping men whimper like guilty things or combat soldiers, tossing on favorite pillows brought from home. I cry out once when Henry's snoring prompts me to dream I've fallen through the ground into a den of bears. The Native Americans who lived on this lofty bluff believed that the soul escaped through the anus during sleep, returning before morning.

At breakfast Clyde Popwell is still pouting over his fine last year. He shot an 8-point whose beam tines didn't span the ears and it cost him $500. Clyde claimed he shouldn't have to pay since he's half owner of Thronateeska. John, his older brother, said he damn sure did, for the sake of example.

"You ought to scope your buck out," squints Lee Mullins, before you squeeze the trigger." Lee stabs a butt into the butter dish.

"Hey!" yells John, who's put himself out for the meals, "that's real butter.

"Sorry," says Mullins with a boyish lisp that's sometimes ironic. "Pass me an ashtray and another cigarette."

Henry Hart, generally recognized as a sharpshooter, bristles his hackles when his ballistic expertise is questioned. Over a dubiously received testimonial of marksmanship, he challenges Clyde and Lee to a shooting contest following the morning hunt. The contestants slap twenty dollar bills on the poker table for Joe to hold until a winner is declared.

A rifle is like a bird, Henry once explained to David Hardin, who relays the simile with reverence.

A bird?

Yes grasshopper, if you hold it too tight, you choke it. If you hold it too loosely, it flies from your hand. Henry demonstrated his dictum by delicately squeezing off a round, the recoil of which punched the scope into his eye, leaving a crescent gash over his orbital ridge and zygomatic arch.

"Show me what happens when you choke it," Hardin asked as blood spattered Henry's action.

After breakfast everybody goes hunting except Russell, who doesn't want to mess up his safari clothes. The deerslayers leave before daylight, leaning against tumultuous wind as Joe drops them off to stagger to their stands. We sit in elaborate towers with bench seats and tin roofs. I watch the gray horizon through binoculars, listening to wood ducks squall through the cypress bottom as they leave Lime Creek to fly over Lake Blackshear. The stand sways and creaks in the morning wind. As the sun rises, I watch the red flair of maples, the antique gold of hickory, and burnished brass of autumn catalpa materialize against the evergreen of live oak and cypress. The leaves will rust to lacy dissication or blow away by Christmas.

The Creeks had a settlement here, on the high bluff between the Flint River and Lime Creek. According to John, they buried their dead among mussel shells to infuse the graves with lime. I climb down to look for artifacts in some planted pines, finding a Woodland point and some pottery shards for Maisy's stocking, some blackened by ancient fires. These modern hunters complain of putrid morning breath, which I tell them evidences their souls' flatulent escape during the night and its return into their mouths. I tell them I could hear them snoring and backfiring like flooded Husqvarnas as souls transpired and bunkmates swaped spirits.

Only two shots are fired on the morning hunt. Joe misses a doe with his 7mm-08. And somebody shoots a brown dust devil mistaken for a deer. Alan Martin passes up a marginal 9-point he's afraid of because he hasn't made his car payment. When we come back in to warm our Gokeys, David Hardin says his father told him wind is caused by swaying tree that fan the air. The more they sway the more wind they generate.

"Well, I was in the Primum Mobile," says Henry Hart, the intellectual veterinarian, who hunted from a climbing stand in a longleaf pine.

"What's that?" Russell asks, brushing spiked hair.

"The one that got the others started."

After brunch of sausage, eggs, fried potatoes, and Tricia Popwell's wonderful persimmon preserves, Clyde and Lee, protesting wc hangovers, try to crawfish out of the shooting contest, but Henry stands firm and Joe won't return 20's. We caravan across a cultivated field and circle a shooting table normally used for zeroing rifles. A REMAX sign is placed out 200 yards, beyond a burial mound. Joe removes the metal facing from the angle-iron frame, replacing it with a paper target with an orange bulls eye the size of an egg yolk. The contestants are to fire one round, the closest bullet to the bulls eye will take the pot.

Mullins and Hart fill Zip Lock plastic bags with fine field dirt for a rifle rest. Clyde fires first, his bullet zipping and hissing over dead Indians, puffing a high cloud of dust that's quickly dissipated by the howling wind. The entire entourage jumps on 4-wheelers, Honda Mules, Explorers, Blazers and extended cab pick-up trucks. speeding to the target, each shooter afraid the other will aim high and punch the bulls eye with a bullet from his pocket. The bystanders (several have side bets) don't trust each other either. Henry alone remains at the shooting bench.

"Aw right!" screams Clyde as he sees his hole at five O'clock three inches out from the orange. He slaps palms with Joe. "Don't waste your powder," Clyde tells Lee, who's up next. "It's downhill for you boys from here on."

Lee props on the sandbags and I flash a photo as he squeezes off a high powered round. Again dead Indians roll in their mounds. Lee springs from the bench, "You made me miss!" he cries. "You spoiled my aim."

Again we rush down range. Another hole is in the target, this one zygotically puncturing the orange a centimeter from absolute center. "You want to call a fowl for another shot?" I ask.

"Naw, I guess not. I thought about it, but we're all friends here. I don't want to be unsporting just because you made me jerk a hair up from center. May the best man win."

Back at the firing line Henry sits on the ground in a lotus position humming his mantra. His eyes are closed, his nostrils dilated. His palms are nestled together beneath thumbs that lightly touch the top of a circle as though holding an invisible salome. "TM," says David Hardin. "Henry has been working on his concentration for years. He can focus 100 % into a single moment, but after that he's shot his wad and won't be worth a damn until his battery charges back up.

We hold our breath as Henry rises from the ground and approaches the bench. With hooded eyelids, he seats himself at the table and props his rifle, spreads his hands, shaking his fingertips to discharge static karma. Then he snuggles himself behind the butt plate, his left hand holding his right shoulder, his aristocratic nose resting on his elbow. He measures the distance to the eyepiece and peeks through the scope, arranging sand bags into a pyramid. No human flesh touches Henry's rifle except the distal joint of an index finger upon the hair trigger. The other fingers of his trigger hand are splayed, his pinkie crooked as though holding an eggshell china tea cup. With palms pressed against the sides of our heads we wait.

CLICK!

Henry blinks, gazing down range as though visualizing a perfect hole in the bulls eye. He unravels the coil he has made of himself and stretches his neck, his nose elevated and his nostrils flared as though winding the target. He snatches open the bolt to reveal an empty chamber, and we all know, as well as we knew that Henry's misfired shot was true, that he's finished. He'll never re-muster the squandered charge he brought to that aborted act. The latent puissance he focused into the empty barrel is gone with the Indians. David, Henry's protege, testifies the target fluttered with Henry's psychokinetic click, but the transcendental blast isn't enough to puncture the bulls eye, and Lee's is the only hole in the orange.

"I need a little more time to refocus," Henry tries.

"Shoot! You've screwed around long enough!" we shout. He loads his rifle and fires, but we know it's over. Henry's second shot is a doomed, academic exercise in futility, his wad wasted on a dry run.

Even before we have time to verify the results, Lee rams his hand in Joe's pocket and snatches out the twenties, leaving the lining hanging out like a white tongue. Joe's widened eyes evidence that Lee's hand accidentally sounds past the money.

After Sunday morning's hunt, I return to the cabin to find the hunters gathered around a spike in the bed of a pickup truck. "I was sure it was a doe," says Lee Mullins sheepishly, "until I walked up on him. My contact lens shifted just as he stepped out, but It's probably a good thing I culled him. Look at that screwed up rack."

"It's a normal spike, eighteen months old," says Dr. Hart, the vet.

"Well, it looks to me like an old buck in decline. Look at those hooves. Look at those teeth. He was shivering too."

"Was that before or after you shot his young ass," somebody says.

"See how chipped up the hooves are on the poor old fellow."

"It's a young buck that's been trotting down Highway 195," says Hart.

"Well, a car would have killed him if I hadn't."

"The point is, you're the one did," Clyde reminds him.

John is thumbing through a hunting catalog, picking out two $25O tripod deer stands he's been wanting for the farm.

"Wait a minute, guys. Everybody makes mistakes." The Creeks customarily apologized to the slain animal, not the hunting party.

"That's right," grins Clyde. "That's why we have the $500 rule in the first place."

So the shadows grow longer and excuses shrink. Nobody wants to hang around to clean the cabin or the deer either. I get the idea that they're homesick. David has paperwork. Russell needs to show a house. Henry, still lip serving a double-or-nothing rematch, mumbles he's going back to Albany to spay a cat. Alan and Paul have dates. They scratch the ground with the toes and heels of expensive snakeboots and mumble.

The spike hangs on the singletree, swaying in the desultory gusts from the general direction of the burial mound. "If the deer hadn't been retarded," snaps Mullins, "he wouldn't have been out in this wind." Mullins finally opens the checkbook he's been tapping against his thigh.

"Just make it out for $440," John Popwell says. "We'll take match money for the rest."

There's an audible scratch as Mullins fills in the amount, as though even his frugal pen resists the extravagance wc. I halfway expect it to ooze red ink. Then I notice that the bragging, bullshitting, and cigarette smoking have nearly stopped. Even the wind is dying. The men hose off their luxury 4X4's. It's getting time to go back to town.

(end)

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