Thicker Than Blood

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Outside magazine, August 1999

Thicker Than Blood
It takes some good old boys to show you the primo secret woods

By Larry Brown

Two years before my father died, when I was 14, my great-uncle Dave Hallman gave me a 12-gauge single-barrel shotgun that was rusted to a smooth brown, the stock patched together. The yellow veins of glue still show as it rests
in my gun cabinet today. It would blow open with the shot because the breechblock was so worn, but it was what I had and I used it gladly. To be able to take that ancient piece that had already been in so many other hands and go out into the fall woods and sit against a hickory tree and shoot two or three squirrels of an evening after school, and take them home just
past dark and skin them for Mother’s black iron skillet was a fine thing to be able to do.

Daddy didn’t hunt, and I wonder if four years of World War II had something to do with it, the killing of men with guns. But there were other people to show me the Mississippi woods and the ways of them.

Ont Mize had chickens in his yard and herds of cows and goats, and he kept hunting dogs. His hounds were all breeds, bluetick or redbone mixed in with black-and-tan or treeing walker to produce enormous coon dogs with specks and spots and velvet throats. He gave them good names like Lisa or Nimrod or Naman. We drove through the hot summer nights to stands of timber
or corn patches in his pickup, the open bed filled with hounds. Ont must have been in his sixties, but sometimes we stayed out almost all night, and Mother never once failed to roll me out for school the next morning.

My friend Robert Fulton Jones was almost as old as Ont. He was named for the man who invented the steamboat but he went by Sam. He showed me secret, primo squirrel woods and we rode to them in his 1958 Impala, two-tone blue, guns on the backseat, tobacco out the window. Or we combed the edges of creek-bottom fields with his pointer after the cotton had been picked
and flushed coveys of birds while our shotguns spoke on January afternoons. I took 30 days’ leave from the Marines in 1971 to hunt squirrels each day I was home. Sam was still alive then and he lived to see my two little boys with fishing rods in their hands.

I was lucky enough to spend my youth in a place called Tula. There were only about 150 people there. We had a small store, two churches. And back then, with the energy and strength of a young man’s legs, I could walk to plenty of places to hunt.

My brother Knox had a beautiful hound named Sheila. She had a great yodel voice that quavered when she was trailing and all I had to do was get her and find my flashlight and boots and walk out of the front yard into the black woods and down to the Yocona River bottom, the big wild one with leaf-strewn sloughs and fresh beaver dams. The tall cypresses with their
knees in standing water were hollow coon castles, the bark worn slick on one side only from the steady traffic of coons scrambling up in the morning and down at night, regular as dairymen. One day my married friend Harold Keel and I were poking around down there and climbed a snag to look quietly into a den and see masked babies mewling and sucking at the fat gray
nipples of their sleeping mother, a small nest of life in the drowsing summer woods, safe from us on this day. Those times seem like dreams now. But I was just a boy.

I don’t think the men who let me hunt with them ever put their heads together after my father died suddenly in 1968 and came up with a plan to educate me in the fine points of guns and dogs. They knew my parents because they had all grown up together, and it just happened naturally in that little place, me going with them.

They’re all dead and gone now, have been for years. I can walk in the cemetery in Tula and see their headstones, stand and read their names chiseled in granite. I think often of the great gift they gave me—this common act of sharing their dogs and their carbide lanterns and their secret places to hunt—which in its many forms boiled down to just one
thing: their time. Maybe in some unspoken way they took care of me because of us losing Daddy so early. Probably I would have hunted with them even if he had lived. But in the vast reserves of good memories we all hold, those times are special and seem magical to me, those nights in the woods and those days in the fields. And those lessons in the wild.

My boys’ guns are beside mine in the cabinet now, next to the old one Uncle Dave gave me. They bring in ducks and squirrels and deer and doves, and I cook for them as my mother did for me, and they tell me their hunting stories, and I listen to catch their words.

Larry Brown is the author of On Fire and Fathers and Sons. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.