Death in the Long Grass (and Elderberries)


Seems hunting stories always begin with, "No kidding, there I was..."

So, there I was.  I had spent the morning working my way up a mountain slope in the northern Rockies.  A slow, deliberate search for the elusive Mountain Grouse.  Despite my best efforts, or perhaps due to them, I hadn't seen, much less shot at, a single Ninja bird.  I call them Ninja birds because they possess supreme stealth and blend into their surroundings so well.  I've almost stepped on them at various times.  If you've ever hunted them, you know the score.  So far, I hadn't detected any, and none had been stupid enough to reveal their position.  Let's be honest, unless they do something stupid, there is a low probability you'll get one.  I like the stupid ones.

So, there I was.  I stalked up the decommissioned logging road, one careful step at a time, to arrive at a spot I'd taken grouse before over several seasons.  No Ninjas present, no stupid ones, at least.  Time for a break and some water.  Or so I thought.

So, there I was.  Just a few steps from my intended rest spot, a shape caught my attention.  Next to the long grass on the trail's edge stood a cottontail rabbit.  I froze right there.  My mind went through the usual checklist honed over decades as a hunter.  Range: twenty yards, well inside my 12 gauge Mossberg's envelope.  Animal's behavior: stone still, it may not have detected me, yet.  Legalities: no permit required, shoot on sight.  Safety: solid backstop, low ricochet potential.  Tactical Decision: move slow, acquire target, and fire when able.

I inched the shotgun toward my shoulder, but Mr. Cottontail had brought his A-game.  He saw the small movement (they're quite good at such things) and bolted off the trail into the brush.

Well played, Mr. Bunny, I thought.  He would live a bit longer today.  I moved forward one careful step at a time with the hope the critter hadn't gone far, or perhaps had stopped a few yards away next to a log as they do sometimes.  I had covered about three yards when it happened.  You know those moments when everything you thought and planned goes up the spout in a heartbeat?  The rabbit did the unbelievable.

No kidding, there I was.  The rabbit burst from the verge and charged for me.  An angry Cape buffalo couldn't have done it with more fury and elan.  Death in the long grass, indeed.  Anyone who's ever been in a life threatening encounter will tell you action is faster than reaction.  Since the bull rabbit had made the first move, he had the initiative.  It takes the mind a split second to comprehend such an event's full nature and portent.  The bull rabbit had decided, for whatever reason, either he or I would not walk away from this moment.  Mano e Rabitto, the die is cast.

No kidding, there I was.  In the time it took my cerebral cortex to sort things out and contact the more primitive medulla oblongata for a solution, the bull rabbit had already covered two yards.  Perhaps five yards remained between him and me.  Take another second, maybe two, for the medulla to order a triple espresso from the adrenal glands, and the bull rabbit covered another two yards.  Three to go, then he's on me and my day would get too exciting.

It's these moments when you have no time to rise to the occasion, you sink, darn fast I might add, to your training.  The medulla takes command, muscles receive orders your cerebellum doesn't even know were sent and they respond with what is either the right move or the wrong one.

No kidding, there I was.  The shotgun came up to my shoulder from low-ready, just as any African PH would advise.  The Mossberg's front bead lay below the fierce, homicidal bunny's blurred, gray form.  You sight a bit low to allow for the time the beast will cover as you press the trigger, the gun's lock-work fires the round, and the projectile flies through the air.  I leaned into the gun and lit the fire.  Time itself stopped.  BOOM!

The No. 6 shot column took the frothing killer straight on and he skidded to a halt mere feet from my boots.  Dust hung around us.  I racked a fresh round into the Mossberg's chamber, again on instinct, ready to pay the insurance if needed.

It takes a few minutes for the overcharged neural electricity to dissipate from your muscles.  Once it's gone, it leaves you a shaking mess as you work yourself back to real-time.  I gave the bull rabbit a cautious glance over the shotgun's barrel.  I had prevailed, my opponent had not.  Life and death in the long grass--and elderberries.  I collected the bull up and put him in a game bag--thanked him, as well--and laid him gently into a parka pocket for the trip home and the freezer.

As Jimmy Doolittle might put it, I could never be so lucky again.  No kidding, there I was...