I was drained. An unbraced self bow lay across my lap while warm February sunshine melted me into a pile of slack muscle and bone. Heckuva way to begin a new adventure.
Dean. Dean. Hey, Dean! You okay? Dean! Hey! Wake up, man. I got one!
Yes, that was daylight prying into my eyes, and over to my left I recognized some muddy hog wallows glistening in the red South Carolina clay. And, by golly, there sat old buddy Cliff Huntington, hissing at me from the driver's seat of his huge Chevy Suburban, which had slipped up beside me. And sure enough, this was me, Dean, zonked at the butt of a tree beside a logging road where Cliff had deposited me some time earlier in the afternoon.
What? You what? You got one?
Yeah, I killed a nice boar. Hey! You okay?
You got one, Cliff? Where is he? Down? D'you find him yet? I was coming back to life, and I couldn't imagine hearing more invigorating news than that Cliff Huntington finally became the second man to kill a hog with a Cliff Huntington self bow.
Down and flagged out! Need some help getting him out. Get in. Let's go.
The drive to Millston Plantation had been an exhausting, headlong rush, partly because I stayed behind the steering wheel for an all-night drive, and partly because I was adrenalin high the duration, heading back for another hog hunt (see Self Bows and Savannah River Swamp Rooters). Robert Packard's plantation is an archer's hog, deer, turkey and fishing paradise, and I was going there in fine company. Jerry Pierce had come straight from the Missouri bowhunter's annual February banquet dinner to hook up with Mark Viehweg in Illinois. From there, they drove to Ohio where we loaded my truck and shot down to South Carolina and our rendezvous with Cliff.
Driving and story telling non-stop with buddies I hadn't seen for a while, and the certainty of adventure at the end of the highway. Heady stuff. No one could sleep. Perhaps because I wouldn't let them. I regaled Mark and Jerry with stories of Millston's bounty. My motor was racing, mine and the truck's. Indeed, at 5:30 in the morning outside of Columbia, a patrolman caught up to us on I-77.
But officer," I protested, "I was just going with the flow of traffic."
Flow of traffic? he bellowed. You were passing everyone. You were 20 miles over the speed limit. By the way, he asked, smiling, in a sudden change of demeanor as he nodded back over his shoulder toward my Ohio vanity license plates, what's a SELF BOW?
In just a little while we were barreling toward Millston again, giddier than ever. God bless all benevolent state highway patrolmen, especially the bowhunting one in South Carolina who wrote up a warning ticket while he laughed at the thought of chasing swamp hogs with a stick and string.
I crashed after I got there.
Cliff arrived at Millston the day before us and drove around the back roads after making camp. He'd heard that for the first time in over 30 years excessive rain had prompted the opening of flood gates on the Savannah River to the north. The bad result, he discovered, was that swamp water at Millston was rising and rising fast, too rapidly for culverts to handle. Some logging roads were already under more than a foot of swift water. Places that we had hunted successfully last year would not hold pigs this year. All this in country where 5 feet in elevation can mark the difference between a swamp and an agricultural field. Moreover, the hogs had not yet ventured into wheat fields to feed. We found the reason lateran excellent water oak mast crop kept them in timber.
We looked to the up side, figuring that pigs would be more concentrated when we found them. If this proved true, we welcomed the advantage because we also learned that hog numbers were down. Hogs had become so destructive that Robert had asked his groundskeeper to reduce their numbers. The groundskeeper in turn reported to us that he'd culled over 300 of all sizes since I'd been here the February before. Maybe over a plantation this vast, 300 pigs do not amount to much, but if almost every day you dragged a new one past his predecessors and placed him ham to snout to form a continuous line, at the end of a year you'd have trouble remembering why you like fresh side pork.
In spite of these reductions, Cliff had seen over 30 pigs while scouting from the dirt road grids of the plantation. He'd even hunted the morning of our arrival, getting very close to some 50 pounders, unable to get an arrow loosed. That afternoon, however, while I slept, he became the second man to blood a Cliff Huntington self bow.
Tell me all about it, I asked while we drove back to his spot. Dont leave nothin out.
Shoot, it didn't take long. Saw sign right away, so I hunted slow. Had just waded into the swamp mebbe a hundred yards when I heard them splashing. Took me a while to get up to them. Thick. Lotsa palmettos there. I worked my way up and the wind held good. Kept easing. Got close but couldn't get a shot. Just rumps was all I seen. Two nice boars. Mighta been two of the three I saw near here yesterday. Never saw the third. Anyway, while I'm looking for a shot, one woofs and jumps off a coupla yards. The one I was close to turns toward him quartering and Shady Lady slipped one into the sweet spot. Ten yard shot. Hard to miss.
He went about 50 yards. I watched him die. Well, I watched him shaking some vines and palmettos where he dropped. He went quick. The other boar stayed around, poppin' tusks and woofin' for a while, so I had an arrow nocked in case he wanted one, but he stayed over by his buddy and then finally left.
So now Robert's got nothing on you, right?
Well, replied Cliff, not exactly true. Hes about seven or eight self bow pigs up on me with the bow I made him. So I don't figure the needling to quit anytime soon. But I'm one now and counting. I feel good!
Cliff's boar wasn't much more than 200 yards into ankle deep swamp. After hearty congratulations and some photos, Cliff took his prize back to camp while I stayed to hunt the other side of the swamp.
We were off to a great start, and I was energized again.
A trio of small pigs came splashing past me from the north almost as soon as I left the sandy loam road bed. Their behavior fell to a pattern over the next several dayshogs seemed to be seeking higher ground down river, in a hurry.
They took me far into the swamp, but I couldn't catch up. Instead, the swamp caught up with me, scraping from me civilization's burdensome crusts the deeper I went. Ears accustomed to screening out noises, eyes trained to look straight down sidewalks and highways, a divided mind occupied in the workaday world with one thing while I went through the motions of anotherall my fractured parts got left behind like useless sloughs of skin. Soon enough a slight wind found my face and guided my course. Each movement became purposeful, each one determined by quick senses. I found myself sliding through the budding spring timber, alert for supper, on the prowl again and loving it, reclaimed, with a quiver full of keen savage teeth.
A gentle breeze held steady from the west, just enough to manage my scent, but not so much to muffle sounds or to ruffle the undergrowth. Palmettos and slender stalks of switch cane stood as straight as army sentinels, ready to telegraph animal movement, like newly emerged cattails do when they signal carp roiling in flooded spawning beds.
I was to one purpose, and, finally, in late evening, when palmettos wriggled nearby, I closed on them like a wraith, screened by the very same fronds that betrayed the pig's presence.
A large sow rooted about in the soft muck, not really going anywhere. There were no piglets with her, no other hogs in sight. She was shielded from a clean shot sometimes by fronds and sometimes because she changed positions. I got close.
The first clean opportunity came as she wandered off. An arrow flashed and caught her broadside, in the very middle, front to back, top to bottom. A pass through from a short, powerful hickory-backed osage bow, not the best hit, but lethal; at the worst, a solid liver hit. She jumped and barely ran from sight before settling down to eating again.
I snuck up for a second shot. She stood framed by underbrush so that the arrow had to travel through a narrow chute. I take such shots with confidence because they channel concentration and guide the arrow. My arrows are tillered to recover from paradox quickly, so if I need to shoot through the eyes of 27 axe heads aligned, the arrows, at least, are up to the task. But I missed the hog completely. The arrow flew exactly where I misdirected it, though how it got through that tunnel missing her and not deflecting off brush I could not tell. She held her ground nearby and returned to chomping vegetation. I was angry with myself for blowing the coup de grace and worried that maneuvering for another try might spook her deeper into the swamp. She appeared calm, so my best counsel suggested backing out and returning later. I flagged my way quietly to the road bed.
So much for caution and best counsel. When we returned with lights after supper, the spoor ended near the spot where the second arrow stuck from the ground, search as we might. To make matters more glum, Jerry told of shooting a boar that ran from him unfazed, his arrow bouncing back harmlessly, although broken behind the broadhead.
We needed Cliff's success to buoy us.
Come morning, Jerry, Mark and I each headed back to our respective areas. Cliff stayed behind to fish and search for antler sheds.
I had an uneasy feeling. The sow was dead, for sure, but I feared losing her, even though I knew she should be lying near the last traces of spoor. These nagging fears were heightened when I found a large swamp turtle's shell lying empty near the spot where my first arrow struck her. It's resident had vanished, cored out as cleanly as a polished brass whistle.
The heavy ash arrow, mounted with its 190 grain Ribtek, lay off the spoor trail, soaked to the nock with thick blood, showing a solid liver hit. Morning light revealed that the hog made a u-turn sometime after my second shot, retracing its steps and then walking the edge of broad swamp water.
There the spoor gave out and my tracking skills failed me. I couldn't determine if or where the hog entered the water, look as I might for clues of any kind. A grid search of swamp turned up nothing. There were simply too many pools of swamp water, too few hillocks of ground to hold evidence. And no body anywhere. Skirting the edges of broad water for any distance in any direction proved daunting. I tried, but the situation required a hit and miss approach.
On my way out for lunch, I came upon the hollow shell again and studied it before stuffing it into my day pack. It proved prophetic, as capable of divining the future as blind Tiresius' chicken bones. After lunch and until dark, search as I might, I came up empty. There is no better word to describe the feeling of mortally wounding an animal and losing it. Empty.
Sure, nothing goes to waste in the natural world. Scavengers of one sort and another fall to their mission, and Mother Earth welcomes us back without a hiccup. But these realizations are no solace to the hunter who accepts the solemn responsibility for another life and then fails to uphold his end of the bargain.
Camp was all excitement when I returned for lunch. Jerry had found his boar, and quite a boar it was. Indeed, it proved to be the largest Millston has ever yielded to archery tackle. The father of all mothers. As dark and black as the Earth's center and brutish Russian. A long, straight, hairy tail and the profile of a hyena. No neck, but rather a head that sloped to the ground off mountainous front shoulders one way and then fell off the other way to small hams shielding testicles the size of grapefruits. A body of appetites for wrecking its way through life, a retrograde body, a knot of muscle and animal essence, a taunting, coarse bully to its effete, pink barnyard counterpartprosperous, unapologetic, self-reliant. No such creature as could emerge from a vegetable diet except through sanctions from a world less refined than ours.
He come straight toward me, following a sow and piglets. Waited til he got close. I thought he was big, but didn't want to say nothing last night," J.P. noted with his trademark wry grin. "I was lucky. Lucky to find him. Just lucky.
I'm sure there are more self-effacing men in this world than Jerry Pierce. I don't know any. I like calling him J.P. for the irony of it, because it conjures up images of uppity 19th century tycoons and moguls who relaxed at the end of a day by counting business receipts. But I'm not misled by his burly exterior, eitherby his huge arms and sledge hammer hands, his stooped posture, or by the slow, unflappable cadence of his speech and its hint of folksy, southern origins. Because sometimes a flash in the eyes or a twist to the grin gives a glimpse of a man living below the surface, of someone who sparkles and shines in hidden dimensions.
His bow is a metaphor for the man himself, and you will see his reflection in its craftsmanship sooner than you will know Jerry Pierce. Subscribers to TBM have seen his Choctaw Recurves on the magazine's cover. He carries such handiwork with him to the swamp and timber, except that his bow is covered nock to nock with a coat of flat black spray paint from a 98-cent can. The palm swell and part of the thumb area have paint worn off the riser, providing just enough window to reveal a stratum of carefully matched tropical hardwoods, polished and joined seamlessly. Just enough to provide a glimpse of a hidden dimension, of splendor living below a plain surface.
J.P., I figured you broke off in the paddle bone or gristle plate. I didn't know you killed him.
You know, when I picked up the shaft last night and looked it over, I just doubted my senses. I thought I hit him right, but there was the shaft, and almost nothing on it. So here's the strange part, " he continued. "After looking it over, I nocked it and launched it high and deep into the swamp. This morning, I'm walking sorta in that direction, and I see my fletching way up ahead. So I mosey over towards it, turn off to my left a few yards and can't believe my eyes. There he lays. Dead as can be. Proved out I shot him through the heart. Arrow hit the opposite foreleg, broke and bounced out when he ran, best I can figure. I was lucky. Just plain lucky.
He believed it.
Robert arrived late Tuesday night for a Wednesday hunt. I think he must have been lured from work by sounds of laughter from Cliff and J.P., who traded their bows for rods and proceeded to have a raucous good time bank casting spinner baits for crappies. In their first afternoon, they jerked some 70 slabs from one of Millston's lakes, not one under 11 inches in length.
Stanley Anderson, the last of our party, must have heard J.P. and Cliff whooping it up, too. He pulled into Millston late Wednesday in a cloud of dust, towing a jon boat and smiling like he'd left his district truant officer searching in the wrong direction. I knew right away that we'd added a major player. Stanley is imposing, tall and athletic, but his grin betrays him, informing you of his intentions to be in on the next bit of merriment or devilment that occurs, whichever happens first.
Robert's boyhood chum and Cliff's longtime friend, Stanley is a four season Millston regular. He is a dentist by vocation, a traditionalist at heart, and a camp chef to rival the best, especially when he has a mess of Cliff's meticulously filleted fish, the fixings for hush puppies, hot peanut oil in the fryer, and Cajun pepper sauce on the table. With one spontaneous gesture of generosity after another, ushered by his desire to show us a sportsman's good time, he cooked food, guided for pigs, and in his jon boat showed us where hawg bass hid near weed beds and under lily pads. All with constant good humor. His addition gave new meaning to the phrase hunting party.
Mark arrowed a piglet Wednesday night but did not recover it until Thursday morning. The hit was a little far back. He watched it bed, stayed with it until he felt assured that it would remain there, and then came back for it at first light.
Mark is in his vigor as an archeryoung, robust, and focused on the hunt. A muffed opportunity at hogs earlier in the week focused him more earnestly. On Thursday, Mark and Stanley lit out together for Indian Ridge. They came back without a hog, but Stanley's camera got behind Mark's shoulder during a stalk and recorded a classic sequence of an archer coming to anguish. Ah, the humiliation of missing before an audience, and the ignominy of having it captured on film. Mark laughed with the rest of us, but you could see that he became even more earnest.
Robert and I hunted Indian Ridge the day before Mark and Stanley hunted it. It's a three hundred acre hogback, and Robert's favorite area. Bordered by the Savannah River along one side and surrounded by flood water elsewhere, it had become an island. Along the river bank side, the artesian spring we drank from last year still spouted pure water, and the surrounding grounds of the old Indian encampment where we poked about for arrowheads were still littered with mussel shells and shards of flint and pottery. But this time the ridge was full of game, both because it was high ground and because its abundance of water oaks had cropped after a spare preceding year, and were even then dropping their tiny mast to the sandy ground. Almost every water oak was ringed with fresh sign. My thoughts this visit were less with spirits past than with game present. Turkey, deer and hogs had come to Indian Ridge for sanctuary and stayed for supper. We had a wild time.
My first miss came at the end of an abandoned, overgrown road bed that jutted into the swamp for about 100 yards, forming a narrow peninsula with a hard worn game trail down its middle and fresh rootings in its flood-saturated berms. We got near the end and heard hogs quarreling. When they came barreling past me, I loosed too high on a close shot. They almost ran over Robert, who had moved to the opposite berm behind me.
That seemed to set the theme for the day. Plenty of game, close situations and everything breaking for the hogs. I missed again on another opportunity when a bedded hog jumped up, gained its feet and scooted, all in one motion, after I maneuvered and readied for a clear shot.
Typical, Robert observed. When they leave a bed, they're gone. You shoot them in it or you don't have much chance.
Robert's heart lies with the bow and arrow pursuit of deer and turkey on Millston. At best, hogs provide him a bowhunting diversion when deer and turkey are not in season. At worst, hogs are fecund, averaging three litters a year, and compete for resources with "desirable" game. When you add up this information and then cipher in the destruction they cause in the timber swamps and forests and in the agriculture fields of Millston, you will understand why Robert does not regard hogs with much reverence.
You will understand also why Robert would never dignify hog presence on Millston with a furtive stalk. Nothing on hands and knees for these varmints. No belly crawling. No subterfuge. Not much in the way of tactical maneuvering, either. Figure out where they are. See them. Get within range silently but quickly, in full human glory, and then issue the feathered terms of surrender, honorably and without pretense. Reminds me a little of St. George riding in after dragons. He's practiced and good at it.
Me, I like sneaking. Always have. Even when it extended to stalking barnyard chickens as a small boy. Even when my older brother called it "pussyfooting," I couldn't be dissuaded from it.
I tried Robert's method a few times, but it fit me poorly and translated into fumbled opportunities. At other times, circumstances broke to favor the hogs. We saw an abundance of game, more hogs in a day than I have heretofore seen at Millston. At the end of it, Robert gave his appraisal with an incredulous shake of his head.
If somebody would've said we'd see that many hogs on Indian Ridge and not kill one," he said, "why, I wouldn't have believed them.
I didn't want to believe it either. And back at camp that evening, I think my friends understood that my focus became more earnest, too.
Thursday night, while everyone else busied themselves with filleting fish and readying tackle, Stanley and I sat at the kitchen table over coffee and began a remarkable conversation. One observation led to another and soon we were asking each other serious questions about core beliefs. Stanley gauged the depth of my passion for archery and wanted to understand its particulars and implications. I probed into his missionary work and learned about his regular trips to the impoverished reaches of the world where, among other services, he provides free dental care. We never got to the place where I regretted violating my personal prohibition regarding camp discussions of politics or religion.
It was a remarkable conversation, not for what we said, but for its effect upon each of us. I came away with a very different notion of missionary work than the stereotypical one I grew up with, and Stanley came away with a different view of hunting to kill animals than the one he grew up with.
I would not mention this conversation except for its influence upon me and the outcome of the hunt. Stanley's optimism regarding the possibilities of a better life for everyone, and his personal efforts toward that goal, caused me to reappraise my own feeble efforts in that direction. And my words to Stanley hung about my own ears, too, reminding me what mattered most to me as a hunter. I needed to hear myself think these thoughts out loud again.
The last of our party to score, I risked being drawn into some proud and consuming determination to bag a pig, as though a second animal could redeem an unrecovered sow, as though a valiant effort in that direction might save face or ease her from my memory. I had to make peace with myself for myself, and for my companions as well, who cheered me on, but who would be affected by my empty bag only if I were.
So, before Stanley had to return home, I opted to fish from the jon boat Friday, to find out where big fish slept in the afternoon. If that meant cutting short the morning hunt and starting later for the evening one, so be it. Here we were almost within a day of leaving Millston and I had not laughed loud enough or long enough with Cliff and J.P. I knew what I needed to take back with me to Ohio.
Friday dawned with a high, deep overcast sky, the kind that threatens without raining to block the sun for a long time. Good, I thought, we'll have some sport in the lake, even during mid-afternoon.
My mind turned often to fishing, even as I eased through the swamp. Janus, my taut little hickory-backed osage bow, found employment more for parting switch cane than for threatening pigs. Reflecting too much, paying half attention, and moving too fast, I was lucky to see a bedded hog before spooking him. But I hunkered down and thrilled to the accomplishment of sneaking to a clear lane, which put me within several spitting distances of him.
Just at the moment of truth, he rose up and stood posed, quartering away, like he wasn't supposed to unless he wanted to come home with me. I didn't even curse when my redirected focus looked through a one inch sapling halfway between us, perhaps because I'm not altogether sure it was there when I loosed. Seemed as though the arrow barely cleared the bow when the earth gods reached up to snare it.
On my way back to the truck, I center punched every tuft of grass, every broken limb, every gobbit of red clay that I shot at, some as far off as 40 yards, in a display of shooting prowess that would have made Howard Hill laugh.
That last evening, Mark came in with a nice sow from Indian Ridge. He'd worked hard and long for his trophy, and success brought a palpable relief to his manner. I came in from my evening hunt without having seen a pig, until the end when darkness prohibited a stalk. But I had cleansed myself of the last traces of any obligation to bring a pig home, either for myself or for the relief of my friends. Stanley had showed Mark and me where big fish lurked in the afternoon. (I can still hear him advising us in his languid Southern accent, Hit him again, son.) I'd forgotten about winter back home, about a tarp over a roof skylight that kept rain and snow melt off the living room floor, about a foot valve down the well pump casing that wasn't always holding pressure, about all the cares and dispositions that attend living in the modern world. Instead, framed by the natural beauty of Millston, I thrilled to another solitary evening hunting the hard way, pussyfooting down a long, narrow hummock of second growth timber, swamp to either side, completely alive to the ancient world around me. And grateful for it.
Saturday morning, Mark, Jerry and Cliff busied themselves with packing and closing up camp. I took Janus and went back to Indian Ridge for a goodbye hunt.
It's never easy leaving a hunting grounds. Never. I remembered coming out of the Alaskan bush and watching my buddy Lew head straight for a newspaper and the Help Wanted section of the classifieds, this before we showered, even before we ate a decent meal. I thought back also to the first time I climbed down off a western mountain after two weeks of living in the moment, getting clobbered by the realization that it was time to go home. Many hunts crowded in on me and they all seemed to end the same. So I went back to Indian Ridge not to change my luck, as it may have appeared to my friends, but to continue my streak of good fortune, to stretch out my stay at Millston as long as I possibly could.
During the ride home, I could not quit thinking about the symmetry of our adventure, and how it unfolded. Each of us came with different needs, hopes and expectations. I cannot say that all of us found exactly what we wanted, but, at least through my lens, each of us got exactly what he needed. Me, Stanley, Cliff, Mark, J.P.each came away uniquely unburdened. Millston welcomed us, fed and housed us, spurred our laughter, cemented our bonds, renewed our love of this sport, and buried what each man cast off behind him with barely a ripple to her timeless surface.
In the fading last moments of the hunt, I snuck up on two bedded sows with piglets and waited my chance. Oh, she was a tempting target, the larger sow, with her soft underbelly exposed. Her piglets were plenty big enough to orphan, too, but that also made them plenty big enough to eat. So I waited until one from the older litter cleared for a shot and then, while I crouched, hunkered up close, Janus sent an arrow through his vitals and somewhere down Indian Ridge, skipping once in a spray like a stone across smooth water before it hid in the scrub brush and sand alongside artifacts from the nation before mine.
It was a quiet and a slower ride home.
This story is dedicated in the name of Jerry Pierce to the memory of his friend, Fred Miller, lost to cancer, February, 1998.