Friday, August 13, 2010

An Old Warrior

The wallow was fresh, I could tell by the imprint of hog hair on the edges—but not so fresh that a raccoon hadn't come through afterwards to leave his little fingerprints like a child playing in the mud. It was a place where wallows were common, laying as it did on the uphill side of a cattle pond, and I had often checked the little swale of trees just beyond it. Once or twice I had surprised the hogs there and even less frequently I had taken home the bacon, so to speak.

Ranchers don't like feral hogs. They tear up pastureland and destroy fences, and a big angry boar can be dangerous. He can kill a dog and send a grown man to the hospital in a hurry. They have been known to kill and eat fawns, and nothing can kill them except the animal that first brought them to this continent—humans. I like feral hogs. I like to match my wits with them, and I like to eat the younger results of a successful hunt. From past experience I knew that after years of stewing in his own hormones an old boar may be edible, but he's not palatable unless you're really, really hungry.

This hunt had not yet been successful, but I'm a creature of habit, so more out of habit than anything I had checked the wallows. I scanned inside the trees. Thanks to the cows the underbrush was virtually non-existent, except for a ring around the edge. Since for the last three years all I had seen was bare earth littered with leaves, I took an almost cursory glance through the ring. My eyes riveted on a big black hulk sprawled under a small cedar. His legs lay extended to my left, his head was on the far end of him, and the most prominent part of him from my point of view were his sizable gonads. My hands began to tremble at the first rush of adrenaline. He wasn't 30 yards away, and apparently unaware of my presence.

I took my dark glasses off and slid up to a sapling. I leveled the 30.06 and squinted through the scope. No good. I could angle a shot under his front leg, through his neck and into his head, but it was dicey at best, and I passed. If only I could sneak around further to the left. At any moment I expected him to suddenly huff and blow out of there, leaving me trembling and double-guessing myself, but as far as I could see, he slumbered on.

5 tense minutes later I was 15 yards to the left. Another sapling presented a steadying rest, and I trained the crosshairs on his chin. I had a clear view of the underside of his jowls. The rifle spoke, and the great beast trembled as all animals do when they are head-shot. A red badge of death began to leak his life into the dirt that had been his bed from between the great jaws.

I approached, a little awed. An impressive upper tusk curled his lip into a snarl. A long, hooked snout would have daunted any ancient Sythian boar hunter. Wavy black-and brown bristles, caked with mud, gave him a royal look. His tight, hairy ears and straight tail told me his genetics came more from Sythia than the barnyard. From this close vantage point I knew better than to try to put him in my freezer. I wasn't that hungry!

I looked into his eye, but the black depths told me nothing at all. I tugged at his back leg. His final reflexes sent his legs into a kicking fit, as if to offer a token attempt at either fighting or fleeing. For an old boar hog it's one or the other—freezing like a rabbit is just not an option. I pressed his lower lip down to see how big his lower tusks were—and found instead a mostly-healed scar, I could only assume that only the root remained from some great fight. I lifted his head and checked the other side. That one was broken off in an ugly shard just at the jaw-line. The upper tusks lacked the flat side formed by the lower tusks rubbing against them, keeping them both razor sharp.

Then I stood back, more than just a little awed. Here was an old warrior, laying under his cedar at the end of life, like a knight after his final battle, standing in the mist with a broken sword and a rotting shield. But it wasn't like he was quite done. More out of curiosity than anything else I felt the top of his head between his ears. There was no corresponding badge there, at the other end of the bullet's path. The bone was solid. He had stopped 220 grains of hot lead at 20 paces.

I wondered how such a grand old one could lay there and let me send him to his eternal reward so easily. The thought hit me—perhaps he wasn't slumbering after all. Perhaps he knew his date with destiny, and accepted it with dignity. I thought about dragging him into the pasture to let the beasts of the field profit from his final remains, but I didn't. I couldn't dishonor him so. I left him where he chose to die.