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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"


by C. F. Eckhardt
When the Burnham brothers of Marble Falls first created the varmint call, back in the '50s, the devices were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are today. The calls were the tips of cowhorns, scraped almost cellophane-thin. They had tiny mouthpieces instead of reeds. You blew one like you blew a brass wind instrument-you sputtered your lips in the mouthpiece. You didn't have to be Al Hirt or Louis Armstrong to make one work, but it would have helped.

Dad's first cousin's husband, Sherman Cottle of Briggs, got one of the very first Burnham varmint calls but he couldn't make it work. Sherman could do many things, including fly an airplane and make almost anything mechanical run, but that tiny piece of horn defeated him. He called for help.

Dad played trumpet in high school and college and I played baritone horn in junior high, so at least we had an inkling of what was needed. After an afternoon of work, we finally got to where we could both make the little cowhorn-tip holler in a reasonable semblance of a rabbit in mortal pain or terror, which was what it was supposed to sound like. Unfortunately, we could only do it for a few minutes at a time each. It didn't take long for our lips to take on the sensation you experience when the dentist's novocaine begins to wear off. Once that happened the honker had to quit honking until his lips quit buzzing, and my honking and Dad's honking on that tiny piece of cowhorn didn't seem to us to sound all that much alike. Dad might have sounded like a jackrabbit, but I sounded more like a cottontail with pernicious anemia.

All was in readiness, so when night fell we went in pursuit of fox. Bear in mind, please, that there are two sorts of foxes in Texas. One is the traditional red fox-that feller folks in the Virginia tidewater country, Kentucky's Bluegrass country, and the Green Hills of Albion chase around on horseback while hollering "Tally Ho!" and following packs of hounds in red coats. The people wear the red coats, not the dogs.

The other is the grey fox, and he's altogether a different story. Ol' Reynard, the red fox, may run from the hounds, but the grey has the temper of an annoyed circle saw. Try chasing him with hounds and you'll wind up with shredded hound. He'll circle back, hide in the brush, jump in the middle of the lead two or three hounds, whip 'em all in about as much time as it takes to tell it, and then be gone like a ghost, leaving three or four hounds shaking their heads and saying "No more foxes for me, thank you." The country south of Lampasas has both sorts of foxes, as does most of Texas.

We set up between a couple of pretty fair live oaks, backing Sherman's 1950 Ford pickup between them. The high sideboards-folks call 'em 'cattle racks' these days, but in those days they were 'sideboards'-we figured would protect us from anything that tried to sneak up from behind.

I got first turn on the call, Dad took the light, and Sherman had the gun. I blew my heart out and my lips off. I made that thing wail, squall, bleat, and whine like a blues trumpeter. Nothing happened. The light picked up only the single green spots in the grass that were spiders' eyes. My lips got numb. I handed the call to Dad and took over the light.

Dad played everything but Sugar Blues on that little piece of cowhorn. What I'd done didn't hold a paper match, let alone a candle, to what he did. He made the tone rise and fall, the bleats grow louder and softer, the squalls grow more and more frantic, the whines and wails more and more pitiful. Nothing happened. His lips got numb. He gave me the call and took over the light.

About the fourth time we switched off on the call-the spiders' eyes still glaring at us when we turned on the five-cell-Sherman put down the gun, stood up, stretched, and said "Well, I reckon we oughta just quit an' go on in. Nothin's out here tonight." At precisely that moment there was a heavy thump and something that sounded like a cross between a loud, hacking cough and the world's most blood-clabbering snarl-in the pickup bed with us!

Exactly what happened next none of us could ever describe precisely, but it took about two heartbeats for that grey fox to have the pickup all to himself. I met Dad about four limbs us the live oak on the west side of the pickup. He told me to find a limb of my own, his wasn't big enough for both of us. I remember asking him if foxes could climb trees. "They can if they take a notion to," he said, which did nothing at all for my morale at the moment. Then he said "Where's Sherman?"

Up to that time Sherman's whereabouts weren't exactly at the top of my list of concerns. My biggest concern was that thing-in the darkness it looked about the size of a market heifer-which was sniffing around the inside of the pickup bed looking for the rabbit that wasn't. I looked around and in the tree on the east side of the pickup, about at our level, I could see, silhouetted against the moon, an object I sincerely hoped was Sherman. It was. Dad said "Can you shoot that thing?"

"I've got my pistol," Sherman said, "but I don't want to shoot at it while it's in the pickup."

"Will it leave?" I asked.

"When it gets ready to," was the reply.

After what seemed like hours or maybe days but probably wasn't as much as a full minute the fox realized that whatever had been in the pickup bed making that noise, it wasn't there anymore and it probably wasn't something to eat, anyway. The animal went to the tailgate and jumped daintily to the ground. Sherman pulled an Iver-Johnson Sealed Eight out of his overall pocket, lined up the sights as best he could in the darkness, and let fly. The .22 Long Rifle made what sounded like a terrific bang to me, but the bullet didn't come close enough to bother Br'er Fox. He sauntered away-and continued his nonchalant saunter toward the dark woods as Sherman missed with the other seven. Once the fox was safely gone the three mighty hunters climbed down from their respective trees, gathered up their artifacts and what shreds of dignity they had left, and went back to the house.
Author's Note: "This piece first appeared in Texas Parks & Wildlife about 10 years ago, under the title "Outfoxed!" It's still a good story,and it's absolutely true. I'm the last survivor of the 'mighty hunters' of that night."

C. F. Eckhardt

"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" >

December 15, 2006 column

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