Their eyes glowed crimson red - tiny, shining beacons from the underbrush that flickered brightly in the dancing shadows beneath a thick motte of moss-draped post oaks about 100 feet away. Altogether, there were probably a half-dozen of them.
"Coyotes," my father told me. "The moon's dark. They could probably see our campfire from all the way down to Sandy's Creek."
"Will they bother us?"
"Nope," he answered. "And we won't bother them."
Fast-forward 10 years to the arid, rock-rimmed plateaus of the Rocker B Ranch near Ozona. It was the night before opening day of deer season, and Bill Carter, Ken Grissom and I had just returned from scouting a high and ragged ridge that in the fading light had revealed the long and curving lance-like tines of a regal 10-point buck.
A punishing drought had lingered for several months, so when the West Texas wind surged past us cold and dry it carried with it a heavy, swirling load of rust-colored prairie dust. In the fire pit before us, a small pyramid of dry mesquite limbs spit yellow and red tongues of leaping flame into the western sky. Next to it, Grissom was carefully tending to the blue quail and beans that quietly sizzled over the small metal barbecue pit.
I'd never before been to West Texas. Nor had I ever shot a blue quail. Turned out it wasn't anywhere near easy. Exhausting, in fact, not to mention a bit brutal.
My shins were bruised and my face and arms rudely scratched from crashing wildly through huge clumps of prickly pear in pursuit of the fast-running game birds. Everything in this part of the state, I suddenly realized, is attached to either a thorn, burr or pair of fangs. I joked to Carter that next year I would return with a pair of snake-proof Tony Lama tennis shoes.
We all laughed, and the fire felt even warmer.
Then the faint sound, the snap of a twig and rustle in the brush.
No. A mere 10 feet away, an old and weathered white-tailed doe emerged from the scrub with two spindly yearlings in tow. They didn't pay us the slightest attention.
"What's the deal?" I asked Carter.
"The drought," he answered. "They're so thirsty they'd probably walk past a mountain lion to get to water."
We had pitched camp next to a tall steel windmill with a round concrete cistern at its base. In retrospect I suspect that Carter, a prominent Texas gun dealer, chose this place on purpose so that we could witness the animal parade passing in the night. Whitetails, antelope, coyotes, javelinas and others that were too small or too cautious to be seen passed by our fire that evening while we ate an incredible meal - one that we'd gathered with our own hands and weapons - then stretched out on the old wood-and-canvas Army cots and watched a continuous flurry of falling stars streak into the atmosphere only to burn out like dying sparklers. God had thrown in the meteor shower as a bonus.
The conversation around the campfire was something else that night. Carter told us of a lifetime of safaris to Africa, of wild-eyed, charging cape buffalo and roaring long-maned lions, howling packs of hyenas, terrifying stalks in the gently waving long grass and 8-foot-long black mambas built more like dragons than snakes that packed enough venom in a single fang to kill a half-ton bull with ease. Grissom had just returned from his own safari, and commented about how much the West Texas terrain resembled the African savanna.
I'd never been to Africa. Still haven't. That November night was as close as I have ever come to seeing and feeling the Dark Continent.
And, never before had I seen a buck of such proportions.
The next morning, I put him on the ground with a lucky shot from a long way out. The mount, along with a framed velox copy of the subsequent story which appeared in the long-deceased Houston Post, now hangs in the front office at Texas Fish & Game's world headquarters in northwest Houston. I read the page now and then, and can still feel the campfire's flames warming cold-numbed toes through thick leather hunting boots.
Most of all, I remember that fire.
Campfires have comforted men's souls and cooked their meals since the beginning of human history, when Neanderthals roamed the plains armed with nothing more than wooden spears and clubs to down their prey. Several millennia later, so much has changed. But we still hunt and consume our quarry, and when the hunt is over we still return to the campfire.
Scoffing at the passage of time, the fire and its effects remain the same. Men young and old sit at its fringe with their children and talk of heaven and infinity until their eyelids become heavy and sleep overrules. Subjects never before broached are somehow drawn into the open by the sharp crackling of limbs. History is preserved with stories of relatives and friends past, as it has been since time immemorial. Minds and hearts open. Secrets are revealed.
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