My dad was a hunter, and a good one. Growing up at our small home on Lodge Grass Creek, it was our milk cow, family garden, and Dad’s rifle that saw our family through the hard, dark days of the Great Depression.
Like many another Montanan then and now, Dad lived for elk season. When winter’s first serious snows swept in over the Big Horns, elk herds moved down to lower elevations. From the town, foothills, and valleys, the hunters–our friends and our neighbors–moved up to meet them.
As a kid, I picked up on the excitement as Dad prepared for the hunt. I watched as he loaded his saddle, bedroll, and grub box into the ranch pickup. I saw him gather his long johns, his wool shirt, “California” pants, heavy coat, chopper’s mitts, black silk scarf, and Scotch cap. I saw him take his rifle out of its place in the closet and clean it by lamplight. I looked on as he counted his cartridges and sharpened his knives.
At age eight, I caught the fever. I wanted to be a hunter, too.
When Dad came home from the mountains, he always seemed different somehow. His clothes smelled of wood smoke and pine and horseflesh. Burned red by wind and sun, his face bore a tangle of whiskers. Wind-swept distance and high lonesome vistas were still in his eyes. As I remember it now, Dad’s hunts were usually successful. I knew there would be meat for the winter at our house. Dad was happy, and that made me happy, too.
Handing me his rifle, he’d give me a one-armed hug and say, “Run a patch through that old meat getter, Son…Clean her up!
And I’d fetch the solvent, tie a clean white patch to a length of sturdy string, and clean her up.
Naturally, I dreamed of having my own rifle someday. I imagined myself loading up my “meat getter” with bright brass cartridges like Dad’s and heading out for the high country in pursuit of the wily elk. But I knew that until that day came I’d have to make do with a length of broom handle for a rifle and merely pretend I was a hunter.
Until Christmas morning the year I was ten.
As the newspaper counted down the shopping days, I knew exactly what I wanted for Christmas. I knew I was still too young for a real rifle, but I’d seen the advertisements in the paper. My heart hoped, while my mind said “not a chance.” Like Ralphie Parker in Gene Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, the object of my desire was a genuine Red Ryder BB Gun!
I knew all the stats–The Red Ryder carbine was a lever action spring piston air gun with a gravity fed magazine that held 650 BBs. It had Red Ryder’s name burned into the stock. It had adjustable sights–sort of–and boasted a lanyard ring and a leather thong on the left side of its receiver. Its effective range was about the same as a thrown rock–10 yards, more or less.
It was a thing of beauty, in my eyes, and I just knew it would be a joy forever.
I wanted one. I coveted one.
I dropped hints. I showed Mom the ad in the newspaper. I did my chores without being nagged, and I tried to do them perfectly. I talked to Dad man to man about rifles in general and the Red Ryder air rifle in particular. I didn’t even pick on my sister. Well, not much, anyway. I went around, striving consciously–self consciously–to be good. It was hard work, but I believed it would be worth all that unnatural effort if only…
And then, on Christmas morning, there it was! Even before I unwrapped the gift with the tag that read “To Stanford from Mother and Dad” I knew! That long cardboard box in its bright wrapping could be nothing else! I was about to become a rifleman, and then a hunter! Oh, happy day!
And so it was. Cautions from Mom. Training from Dad. Targets only, they said. Boxes and cans and bottles. Don’t shoot at birds. Well, okay, you can shoot at magpies. Crows too. But no songbirds. No rabbits. No dogs or cats or sisters. Fair enough. I accept their terms. I swear, solemnly. My safari begins.
For the next several days, the Red Ryder BB gun hardly ever left my hands. Like an outlaw on the dodge, I even slept with my weapon. I drew targets on paper and aimed for the bull’s eye. I stalked magpies and crows, realizing how impossible it would be to get within ten yards of them with anything that even looked like a gun. I shot a grasshopper.
My self-inflicted wound
One day in the waning days of World War II, I had a moment of temporary insanity. Heedless of my dad’s strong warnings, I drew a picture of Hirohito on a matchbox and placed it on the ground before me. Cocking my trusty carbine, I took careful aim between the emperor’s eyes and pulled the trigger. FOONK! went the air rifle. SNAP! went the sound of the BB’s impact. WHACK! came the blow of the ricochet. Actually, it was more like FOONK-SNAP-WHACK, fast and together.
I staggered, stunned. I felt as if I’d been struck in the mouth, hard. Reaching my hand up to my mouth, I found I had been. The shot I’d intended for the emperor had struck flagstone beneath the target and had bounced back to break off my front tooth!
I’d like to say my first thought was, “Eureka! I’ve been struck by a ricochet! Some day I’ll create a comic strip about a cowboy turned lawman and his gunfighter friend! That’s it! I’ll call the strip Rick O’Shay!
I’d like to say that, but it wouldn’t be true. What I thought at the time was, “What an idiot I am! How am I going to explain my broken tooth to Mom and Dad? Will they disown me if I tell them what really happened?
In the end, I couldn’t think of any explanation but the humiliating truth. Expecting to have my Red Ryder BB gun confiscated and be grounded for life, I confessed and waited for the axe to fall.
Mom was concerned, pointing out (like Ralphie’s folks in A Christmas Story) that I could have lost an eye. Dad reacted in the way I dreaded most, with a bewildered shake of his head and a look of disbelief that any son of his could be so stupid.
The dentist capped my tooth, and I graduated a few years later to a single-shot .22 and the beginnings of more serious–and responsible–gun handling. I learned to hunt by practicing on magpies and prairie dogs. I moved on to the grownup version of the Red Ryder carbine, the Winchester Model 94 , hunting mule deer in the hills above the ranch and white-tailed deer in the willows and cottonwoods along the creek.
In the end, I find I’ve come full circle to where it all began, joining friends and hunting partners Jim Wempner, Roland Cheek, John Ulberg, and others in the pursuit of deer, antelope and elk. With them, I’ve tried to pass on a love and respect for the wild places and the game that inhabits them to my sons and to others.
I’ve shared my thoughts on hunting with the readers of my comic strips, Rick O’Shay and Latigo, and even though I no longer hunt I have a lifetime treasury of memories to draw on.
That Red Ryder BB gun I received on that long ago Christmas was an all-time favorite gift.
And it led me to at least a thousand more.