A Dixie Lady Deer Hunter
Article by Fred Messina, editor of "On Target Outdoors" from The Vicksburg Evening Post on Friday, January 19, 1990. Photo by Bob Phillips.
Bob Phillips came up the other day with a photo of his wife Marian and a deer she got on Brown's Point New Years Eve. The deer was an 8-point with 16 inches of inside spread that weighed in at 190 pounds. A nice trophy in anyone's book. However, the tale Bob told is that this was Marian's fourth deer this year and he claimed that he would have done better than he did if he had not spent so much time hauling Marian's deer out of the woods. Come off it, Bob. We all know who the hunter was.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
The Oldest Hunter On The Lease
I recently became friends with Henry L. Homrighaus, Jr., on my Facebook and he sent me a very good hunting story that I would like to share with you today called, The Oldest Hunter On The Lease. The picture above is where Henry hunts in west Texas about thirty miles north of Comstock, TX, near the Pecos River. What a gorgeous place to hunt! Enjoy the story...
Tim Reese was the newest hunter on the lease and was being introduced around by Doc Turner. Doc introduced him to Herbie Frances, the butcher, Todd Minton the barber, Larry Smith, the realtor, and finally to old Hank. Tim was explaining that he owned a hardware store and would make ammunition available to any member of the lease at cost and he proceeded to ask each member what caliber he shot. When he got to old Hank he was somewhat taken aback by his reply. “.38-55” said Hank. This brought the usual comments from the other lease members. Herbie said, “Why don’t you buy a modern gun and come in to the twentieth century”. This drew a laugh from all the members except old Hank who reminded the members and informed the newest member that as long as he always killed the biggest deer on this lease his old gun must be doing okay. Doc Turner allowed as that was the truth but added that Nolan Ryan could throw a baseball faster that Hank’s bullet. Then Hank kind of moseyed off toward the barn saying he had chores to do.
After Hank left Tim Reese was full of questions. Just what was a .38-55 anyway? How old was Hank? Had they known him long? “Whoa son”, said Larry Smith plenty of time for questions later. “Right now its time to light the pit and open a beer,” said Todd Minton. After the pit was started and the ribs and sausage had been seasoned and placed on the grill and all hands had a cool one, the conversation turned back to old Hank who hadn’t returned from the barn yet. As usual everybody deferred to Doc Turner who by now had told the story lots of times. Hank had been on the lease the longest that anyone could remember. He had been there when old man Morgan, the previous owner, had invited Doc to join over twenty five years ago. It seemed as if Hank was old then but nobody knew exactly how old? Everyone had asked and devised all sorts of schemes to find out about Hank. They even sunk to a plan to send everyone on the lease a birthday card but Hank wasn’t having none of it. All anybody really knew was that he showed up every year, paid his lease fee, did more than his share of the work, and always killed the best buck of the year. He had never built a blind, didn’t use any scent or camo, always hunted the section that no one else wanted, and talked about individual deer, on the lease, as if he had weighed, measured, and took their pulse and temperature. It was uncanny.
Ted Hines, the current owner, said that Hank’s lease payments came in the mail from a different place each year. He stated as how they had come from Mexico, South America, Alaska, and even Africa. Ted just knew that he enjoyed Old Hank, who arrived opening weekend and that over the years he had received some very astute advice on cattle, crops, and machinery. Hank never offered advice, you had to ask, but if he said it was nighttime you needed to go to bed. If it ran on diesel, gas, or oats Hank understood it and could make it work.
By now all of the lease members had loosened up considerably and had their individual stories to add to the conversation. No one notice Hank until he struck the lucifer across the seat of his Levi’s to light the hand rolled cigarette in the corner of his mouth blowing out the match. “Anyone save me a beer” he asked in a low husky voice? Now all of the members begin to ask Hank questions about the coming season. Would the hunting be good? Would it be a mild or terribly cold winter? How did the deer herd look? What areas would he recommend hunting this year? Hank waited until it got quiet and he had everyone’s attention, then he began to answer the questions is his low husky voice without any emotion. He allowed as it would be a good year and that the deer were in good shape. He indicated that from the new winter coats that the cattle were putting on they would see some really cold weather. He said there was a lot of natural feed and that the deer wouldn’t be coming into the feeders like in previous years and that the really good bucks almost never did anyway. It was obvious that they hung on every word, even failing to get new a new beer even when the previous one was empty so as to not miss a word. He seemed like an old biblical prophet dispensing wisdom. It was a magical moment until Hank shattered it with an irreverent ”Hell, when we gonna eat”? “Smells great” he said, and everyone seemed to come out from under his spell. There was an embarrassed moment of silence as the member sheepishly looked at each other before grinning and grabbing their plates. Suddenly the camaraderie, noise, and enthusiasm of a Texas deer lease was in full swing.
Plans were made and remade over dinner about where everyone would hunt. It suddenly dawned on Tim Reese, the new member, that old Hank has answered every question except one. What areas would he recommend hunting this year? Looking around to ask the question and not seeing Hank anywhere, he asked “Where’s Hank”? He had simply disappeared as always, Hank never said good night. Ted was informed that although there were plenty of beds in the cabin, Hank slept in the barn in the hayloft. Said it got too hot in the cabin and who could sleep anyhow with all the goldang snoring.
The next morning Tim Reese awoke to the wonderful aroma of coffee and frying sausage. As he lay in bed he heard the sound of eggs being cracked and scrambled and shortly Hank’s voice saying “Come and get it”. Sleepy hunters begin the tedious process of donning their hunting clothes while reluctantly separating themselves from their sleeping bags and blankets. They came to the table in varying stages of repair in anticipation the hot coffee and good grub. The coffee worked its usual magic and in just a few minutes the cranky and reluctant had turned into the gabby and the enthusiastic. Energy and anticipation were at an all time high as this group of hunters got ready to face their long awaited first day of hunting season. This was a day they had dreamed about, saved for, and planned vacation for all year long. Everybody had an opinion this morning about where to hunt and Tim Reese pointedly asked Hank “where are you going to hunt”. Hank took a long look at the new member as he rolled a smoke for his second cup of coffee and replied. “I haven’t really thought about it. I figured I do the dishes, maybe put a pot of chili on for tonight and go out a little later” said Hank. Then Hank told him that he has better hurry as it was nearly 5:00 AM and everyone else was getting ready to go. He indicated that anyone of the hunters could put him in a blind until he could sort out the lease and figure out exactly where he wanted to hunt. Tim said “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll get another cup of coffee, help with the dishes and then I’d like to look at that .38-55 of yours”.
Hank didn’t say much but you could tell he was a little surprised. Hank was something of a loner and not given to idle conversation but, he figured, what the hell, he’d humor the new guy and just enjoy the rare help with the dishes. Tim was respectfully quiet for sometime waiting on Hank to start the conversation. It soon became apparent that if there was going to be a conversation he’d have to initiate it. After finishing the dishes Tim poured himself another cup of coffee and said “Good coffee”. Hank said “Yep”. Tim then asked if there was anything else that he could help with and Hank said “Nope”. “I’d really like to look at your rifle if you think it would be O.K.,” said Tim.
Hank didn’t say anything and walked out of the cabin. Tim watched him walk out to a well-used, non-descript looking Chevrolet pickup truck of undeterminable age. He unlock the truck and folding forward the seat he removed an ancient looking hand tooled Mexican leather scabbard which completely concealed the rifle it protected. Hank started slowly back toward the cabin as if not sure he wanted to return. Hank entered the cabin and laid the leather scabbard holding the rifle on the table. He slowly reached in and began to withdraw the rifle. Tim could see at a glance how well used but well cared for the rifle was. He could smell the recent application of gun oil. The stock glowed with a hand rubbed luster of many years. Hank caressed the rifle affectionately as he unconsciously checked it over, a habit of many years. He worked the lever action insuring that it was not loaded before handing it, gently, to Tim. He watched protectively as Tim examined the rifle cautioning him about cocking or dry firing the rifle. It was a little heavier that it appeared but had the feel of something really well made.
The bluing was totally gone in some areas but a patina had replaced it making it even more attractive. For no apparent reason Hank began to talk. He said “I remember the day my Uncle Bill gave me this rifle. It was June of 19 and 16 at our ranch near Sanderson and it was the last time I saw Bill. He was killed the next year in France. I still have the few letter he wrote me from overseas”. Tim didn’t know what to say so he just kept examining the rifle. Slowly he handed the rifle back to Hank and simply said, “Thanks”. Hank said “Always seemed like a matter of honor in keeping the gun and taking care of it since Bill trusted me with it. It was his favorite. He worked a whole year at riding line camp and mending fence to pay for it.” The two men, young and old, stood in kind of a silent communion for a few more minutes and unexpectedly Hank said, “Let’s go hunting”.
Tim and Hank returned well after dark and caused considerable concern over Tim’s whereabouts. While it wasn’t unusual for Hank to return late, if at all, the new guy was another matter entirely. They slowly pulled up in Hank’s elderly truck, backing up to the hanging rack. Everyone on the lease knew what this meant and they all rushed to surround the truck and start the barrage of questions. Before they had a chance to ask anything Hank said “Tim why don’t you tell the boys how you killed this huge buck”, winking at Tim as he walked away to the cabin for coffee. Herbie and Larry grabbed the deer and putting the gambrel through the hocks in the rear legs, they hoisted it high for all to see. It was a humongous deer. They weighed it and it field dressed at 147 pounds. It had two dogcatchers off the main beams, which were about 5 inches in diameter and 10 points. The rack was well spread at 23 and ½ inches and was the best deer, by far, that Tim had ever taken. They skinned the deer and wrapped it in a cheesecloth body bag to protect it leaving it to hang in the 40-degree weather for the trip to the processor in the morning. This head was destined for a place of honor in the new den that Tim had just added to the old house he was remodeling. Everyone had examined the deer and now they turn the same attention on the hunter. Tim was proud but quiet. Well said Todd Minton “where on this lease did you find that deer”? Larry and Herbie chimed in “yah, where”? Tim told them how after breakfast chores were done he had asked Hank where he should hunt. Hank had taken him to the site of what he said was a summer lightening storm, which had caused a fire in a large brush area. Tim said, “Hank told me that the brush and forbs here were very lush because of the recent fire”. He placed me on a rise and with my back to some brush and facing into a slight breeze. He instructed me to watch several trails coming out of some oak motes and not to move before dark. He said he would be nearby and would come if I shot. He also told me to not approach the deer after I shot but to watch and if it got up to shoot again. “This old boy came out just at dark, where Hank said he would, and I anchored him with one shot. I watched him but he didn’t move. I was glad that I was by myself. I was shaking hard and had forgotten to breathe. I started coughing and just set there too weak to get up. I finally got on my feet just about the time Hank came pulling up and that the God’s truth of it all,” said Tim.
They all congratulated Tim, the novice no longer, on a fine deer. Tim was silently proud of himself. He had followed instructions and had made a fine heart shot. He had resisted the temptation to relocate himself and now realized that he had probably been unsuccessful in the past from continually moving around to each “better place”. Todd, Larry, and Herbie insisted on pouring the young season’s most successful hunter a drink and they headed for the cabin.
Doc had followed Hank into the cabin and got the whiskey adding a dollop to each cup as Hank poured them coffee. Neither spoke for a moment. Hank said softly “I like that boy. He reminds me of my Uncle Bill, even looks a little like him”. Doc Turner didn’t reply just yet. He took a healthy swing from the coffee royal and drawled “He sure likes you.” Hank said, “Got any kids Doc”? Doc said “Nope, you”? Hank allowed, as he didn’t have any children that he knew about. They both said at the same time and almost under their breaths “Too bad”.
Now the cabin got crowded and loud. Larry, Todd, and Herbie were alternately toasting Tim, great young hunter, Hank, greater old hunter, and the deer, the great hunted one. There was praise heaped up on all and much repeating of the story many times. Suddenly they remembered Hank’s pot of chili on the stove and all hand set to with a vengeance. Tim turned to publicly thank Hank for his assistance but Hank was gone. Tim made a promise to himself that he would do it first thing in the morning over coffee and excused himself and turned in, he was exhausted.
The cabin was strangely quiet the next morning and it was light when Doc finally got up and put on the coffee. One by one the hunter began to arise. All had overslept. Hank had always made the coffee, breakfast, and awoken the hunters. Tim looked outside for Hank and noticed that his pickup truck was gone. He headed for the barn only to find it empty and no Hank. Larry said “Maybe he’s out hunting”? Tim and Herbie advanced the theory that he just went to town and would be right back. Doc didn’t add anything but privately doubted if they would see Hank again. Hank had looked all right but there was something that Doc just couldn’t put his finger on, something sinister and cold that caused him to shiver momentarily. He shook it off and started breakfast. After breakfast Tim took his deer in to the processing plant and the rest of the lease went hunting, appetites wetted by the vision of Tim’s deer in each mind.
When Tim arrived at Smitty’s deer processing and his deer was hung, it drew a crowd. Smitty talked him into paying $20.00 to enter the biggest buck contest, much to the other hunter’s dismay. Smitty said it was a very good deer but there were some really good hunters in the area and mentioned Hank. All of the older hunters knew Hank because he won the contest with regularity, not every year but often enough. Tim stated that he was hunting with Hank when he took this deer. All eyes turned to Tim and he felt like he had just grown two inches.
There was new respect and deference as they questioned him about the deer and Hank. A murmur ran through the crowd, this guy must be something special, everybody knew that old Hank hunted alone.
The season rolled on with Tim hunting a couple of more weekends but it just didn’t seem the same without Hank. Funny, he had barely known Hank but he felt somehow connected and began looking forward to next year. No one else heard from Hank and with hunting season past everyone returned to their daily grind, earning a living and raising their families. Tim was trying to finish his den in time to receive his trophy deer head from the taxidermist. He had decided on a shoulder mount with the head turn slightly. Hank had shown him how to cape out the hide and head for the mount. He was sure that whenever he saw it he would be reminded of Hank.
In September Tim received a call from Doc Turner that there was a meeting of all of the lease members at the Commercial in Sonora. Now the Commercial was well known to all the deer hunters, cowboys, and truck drivers in this part of Texas. The food was plentiful, hot, spicy, and fairly priced. They all agreed to meet on the 17th and Tim asked Doc if Hank would attend. Doc laughed saying “Hank ain’t never attended a meeting one and don’t forget to bring your check”. Tim couldn’t wait for the meeting to see all the guys again, as they had become good friends sharing the chores, chow, and camaraderie of the deer camp.
Finally the evening of the meeting had arrived. They would meet at the restaurant to eat, drink, and plan this year hunt. All hands would then spend the night at the ranch to start this years chores. This was an important meeting at which work weekends would be designated to cut firewood, repair hunting blinds, cut senderos, and arrange many other details.
Tim arrived to find Doc Turner, Todd Minton, and Larry Smith deeply engrossed in conversation and cerveza. He was told Herbie would be late while being offered a seat and a beer. Everyone asked how he was doing and how the house was coming. Tim said fine and that he had brought photographs of his mounted deer, if anyone was interested. Of course they all wanted to see and spent some time looking, admiring, and congratulating Tim again. They all said that it had turned out really good. Just as they were settling into look at the menu Herbie Frances arrived. Well that called for another beer and renewed conversation about Tim’s deer. Herbie said, “I’ve hunted near twenty years and don’t have a head near that good. Now I’m not envious of your head but I am wondering why I was never bright enough to help old Hank with the dishes”. This broke up the group with laughter and everyone admitting that since last year they had wondered about the same thing.
As they quieted down waiting on their dinner, the conversation turned to Hank. Had anyone heard from him? Doc Turner said “I talked to Ted, referring to ranch owner Ted Hines, several times and he didn’t mention if he did. We will all see him tomorrow and can get the info firsthand.” With that statement the enchiladas arrived and they dug into them with gusto. Larry said, “They are just as good as I remember” with a mouth full and a wide grin.
Saturday dawned with coffee, aspirin, and hangovers. There was work to do so after breakfast tacos of charizo, eggs, and tortillas all hands got to the chores. Doc was kind of in charge and suggested that Tim and himself get the chain saws and head for the oak motes to cut wood. Herbie, Larry, and Todd would start checking and repairing the blinds. They needed to run off the denning coons, owls, and possums that had found a way in during their absence. As always there was a supply of wasp spray. Climbing into a blind before daylight unaware of the yellow jacket wasps’ occupants was exciting. As daybreak occurred they got real active and annoyed that you were in there with them. It was a very ungraceful exit you performed unmindful of the fact that you were 15 feet off the ground.
Ted Hines, ranch owner, arrived at about 3:00 PM. Everyone began to gravitate to the cabin for a well-deserved break and a cold beer. Ted greeted each man individually and welcomed him back for another year of hunting. They all stood around asking Ted the usual questions. What kind of year had it been? Dry? Had he seen any unusual or very large bucks? Doc Turner, sensing something wasn’t right, said, “What’s the problem Ted”? Ted looked around at each of them and then begins to speak “I got the annual letter from old Hank last week, thought it was his lease money but it wasn’t”. He didn’t go on for a minute and everybody seemed on the verge of asking what it was but nobody spoke. Then he pulled a letter out of his top pockets, put on his reading glasses and started to read the letter. It was hand written in a delicate but practiced hand. It was neat and well spaced. The stationary was feminine and here is what it said.
To all of Hank’s deer hunting friends, Hi, my name is Mary Cochran and I had the privilege of being Hank’s wife for over fifty years. I am writing to explain a few things and to tell you that Hank died of cancer this July. He told me all about all of you including you, Tim. He so enjoyed the time he spent at the deer lease. It is my sincere hope that you will miss him as much as I will. He was a great man, a good friend and a loving husband. Hank was illiterate but very intelligent. We were a team traveling all over Mexico, South America, and Africa. Hank made a very good living managing large ranching operations. He had a real gift for it. I swear he could ride through a troubled operation and in a day or two knew more that the owners. I believe that he could communicate with the animals. I didn’t take him long to sort out the problems. He’d recommend agricultural changes, find water, and produce a smoothly running operation and in a short while we would be enroute to our next assignment.
I handled all of the record keeping, taxes, legal affairs, and of course the annual lease check. I also took his dictation of his last will and testament. I will be returning to our home in South Texas where I will be shipping his beloved .38-55 rifle to Mr. Ted Hines for deliver to the person that he wanted to have it, Tim Reese. You must be a very special person. Hank told me of your first and only meeting and of hunting with you. He was very sick at the time and was on pain medication. He really regretted that he couldn’t spend more time with you as he saw something in you that was unique. Hank didn’t have to look up to any man but he liked what he saw in your quiet manner, your offering to help with the chores, and your willingness to listen and learn. We never were blessed with children, something we always regretted, but couldn’t help. We couldn’t adopt because of our constant travel and I couldn’t stay home in the states because I was a working part of the team. I am retiring with the other team members, Toby, Hank’s horse, Willie and Ethyl, our cattle dogs, and Paco, our cook of thirty years. There has been a succession of horses, dogs, and cooks over the years. I guess I was lucky. We will be on our little ranch near Freer, Texas. Among familiar things and in the house that Hank built. Mi casa es su casa.
Well by now there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd and no one knew exactly what to say. Finally Ted went to his pick up truck returning with the familiar hand tooled Mexican leather scabbard, which protected the venerable old rifle. He carefully handed the case to Tim; all eye turning to him. “Well I guess Hank is passing on his gun to a hunter worthy of it. A hunter who finally took a bigger deer than he did.” said Todd Minton. Tim waited a minute as if making a decision and then started to explain. “That’s not exactly true,” said Tim. After Hank showed me his rifle, I got mine from the truck and, in showing it to him; he noticed that my scope mount was broken. I don’t know how I did it but we both realized that I couldn't hunt with it in that condition. Hank let me use his rifle but swore me to secrecy, saying I would be the butt of a lot of jokes if the truth were known. So you see I hunted in his place, with his rifle and shot his deer. I felt honored and respected his wishes about his gun. Everyone said that they were happy for Tim but you couldn’t help noticing a change in the way we all looked at Tim as if searching for something so obvious to Hank and so hidden from us.
After awhile Ted asked if any of us had anyone that we wanted to recommend filling the empty spot on the lease. No one spoke immediately, and then Tim asked if he could just pay for Hank’s spot this year and leave it vacant. Doc Turner called for a resolution from all the member that they share the cost of Hank’s spot until they felt ready to add someone new. After all they wanted one more year to share Hank privately and to let him linger pleasantly in their memories.
That year was a strange year on the lease. There seemed to be a new appreciation for the simpler things. Everyone felt closer than before and more appreciative of the special relationship that this isolated enclave of a hunting camp provided. No huge deer were seen, recorded, or taken that year. They talked a lot about Hank and about themselves to each other in an attempt to deepen their relationship and they talked about the future. They talked about life, death, and religion. It was as if the death of Hank had a profound effect that was difficult to explain, melancholy but not sorrowful. The final weekend they gathered around their old table in the cabin for the last time this year. Tim told Doc, Larry, Todd, and Herbie that he had been writing to Mary and was planning to visit her with his family this spring.
Tim Reese, his wife Nancy and the two children made a trip that next spring to a little ranch near a small town called Freer in South Texas to visit Mary, Paco, Toby, and Willie & Ethyl, but that’s another story.
Henry Homrighaus, Jr. CHS-V, DABCHS, PSNA