Appalachia

The rabbit that got away – and one that didn’t

Today’s guest post was written by Don Casada.

animal track in snow
Photo by Don Casada

The rabbit that got away – and one that didn’t

Don Casada, December 27, 2020

After raining all day on Christmas Eve, the temperature plummeted from 50 degrees to below freezing in short order, and just as it was getting dark, it set in to snowing hard. The wind was coming out of the southwest, as it normally does here in these old mountains that are the backbone of the Smokies. On a streetlight down below the house, the big flakes of snow could be seen flying past on an almost horizontal course.

It wasn’t a big snow – two to three inches – but it was a pretty, if cold (9 degrees) one to wake up to on a White Christmas morning. I take care of the grounds of the Bryson City Cemetery and like to share photos from that lovely spot with members of Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery, a non-profit organization, particularly those whose hearts are still here in the mountains, but they’re now living elsewhere. So I drove across town and up Schoolhouse Hill to the cemetery grounds and got a few photos to share.

A gravel driveway leads up into the cemetery from the paved road which encircles it. I parked near the entrance and walked down the pavement and up the gravel drive to take the pictures. As I was going back down the driveway, I saw a squirrel come bounding down the paved road. I was too slow to get a photo of the squirrel, but it occurred to me that including a photo of the prints it left might be of interest.  

I was shocked when I saw them. Instead of looking like squirrel prints in snow that I’m used to, they looked for all the world like rabbit tracks. The only thing I can think of to explain it is that the snow on the pavement was very thin – only a bit more than a dusting, and less than ½ inch – and there was some rough ice underneath. The squirrel was bounding about three feet at a jump, and my surmise was that when it landed, with the combination of very thin snow and ice underneath it skidded just a bit. Thinking back on it, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a squirrel travel like this one – just a steady, unhurried pace of three foot jumps, without pausing whatsoever.

I included the photo of the prints (see the last slide in the set at the link below) and asked for thoughts on what made them. As I expected, br’er Jim and another couple of folks said they were left by a rabbit. If I’d not seen it with my own eyes, I’d have bet the farm that it was a rabbit.

http://friendsofthebccemetery.org/files/grounds/Christmas2020.pdf

As I thought about this, memories another day, about 60 years ago, when it was about as cold (although without snow) came to mind. I thought maybe Tipper’s readers might enjoy hearing the memory.

One of the joys of winter as a boy was our regular Saturday rabbit hunts from the Saturday before Thanksgiving until the end of February, with a few extras during the holidays. 

One of the things I miss most about those days are the sounds. Sounds, like smells, embed themselves far more deeply in my memory banks than do sights. I remember what the whistle at the plant where Daddy, like many others in the county, worked sounded like when it announced that it was noon – time for dinner – or 3:30 – time for the day crew to go home. I remember the smell of the butterfly bush which stood next to the shed at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s place. Several years back, my wife and I were in England, where I was teaching a class, and made a day trip to Stratford upon Avon, Shakespeare’s home town. When we got off the train for the short walk into town the smell of a butterfly bush nearby immediately transported me back across the ocean to the place that I call home.  

God not only gave us the senses of sound and smell – He wired us so that they linger. That’s one of what Archibald Rutledge called “Life’s Extras” in a short little book by that title. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and find a copy. You can read it in a few minutes, but it’ll give you thoughts to consider for a lifetime.

But back to sounds….

When all is quiet, I can still hear the fevered melody (don’t tell me that dogs don’t know how to sing harmony) of a pack of beagles with names like Lead, Lady, Chip, Dale, Trail, Drum, Buck, Baldy and Queen taking off up the hill and getting completely out of hearing, leaving only the sound of occasional rustling of the wind through broom sedge and briers and maybe some young beech trees which can’t bear to let go of their leaves until they’re pushed off by new growth in spring.  

Then, from away off the backside of the hill, you’d faintly hear their voices; Chip’s bark, which was a little rough around the edges followed by Dale’s bugle cry, and you knew the rabbit was on his way back. I can’t explain how exciting that is to a youngster; you have to experience it to understand.

But perhaps the sound I miss most from those hunting days is something I paid too little attention to – the conversations of the men. It was good-natured banter that often was turned in a way so as to teach, without us youngsters having the first clue that we’d been enrolled in class.  There were lessons about how bad ways lead to bad ends, and vice-versa. But education came in various forms, as the following tale reveals.

One Friday night we camped in a cabin way up on Caney Fork in Jackson County. It was cold as whiz – down into the single digits. I remember laying huddled under the covers in the upper part of a bunk bed while Claude Gossett, Daddy and a Freeman fellow got the day started loading the wood stove to where it glowed a dark cherry red and began to warm the frosty air in the cabin. That was followed in short order by the smells of bacon and eggs, pancakes and coffee.

Breakfast over and the sun rising above the horizon, we set out on the business of the day. The fellow who owned the cabin had told Claude that there were an awful mess of rabbits on his place, and he wasn’t lying. We had one up within the first few minutes, but the race didn’t last long – he went into a groundhog hole. That first race was repeated over and over. There were plenty of rabbits, but there were also plenty of groundhog holes, and every single one of the rabbits we or the dogs rousted out of its bed wasted no time before finding itself a hole.  

After this had happened maybe half a dozen times, Claude got so disgusted that he decided he’d put an end to that. He broke down his double-barrel twelve gauge, laid it aside, retrieved a stick and with the combination of the stick and his hands began digging at the hole where the dogs had trailed to.

I was about nine years old and wasn’t deemed old enough to carry a shotgun, but they let me carry a BB gun. It was something akin to a training bike, I guess – it let me feel like I was part of the group while keeping me from getting hurt (or hurting someone else).  

Well, I’d never seen anything like a grown man digging for a rabbit in a groundhog hole, so went over just to watch. I had the BB gun resting in the crook of my arm, with the barrel pointing at the ground, just like I’d been taught to do, as I watched Claude digging and pawing.

After he’d pulled away a couple of wheelbarrow loads of dirt, he laid down on his side, and stuck his hand way back in the hole. In short order he said “I’ve got it!” But in far shorter order, the look on his face said he didn’t have it – it had him.

You may not believe this, but I saw a fifty year old man levitate that morning. He came back down to earth about ten feet from the hole. While in mid-flight, he let go with a couple of choice epithets that were, at that time, new words to me. That was part of the educational process, I reckon.

Claude commenced to hopping like cottontail never could. He yanked the glove from his right hand, flung it aside and after shaking his hand frantically for a spell, stopped to examine it. I retrieved the glove that he’d flung; a couple of the fingers were torn and had a little of Claude’s blood on them.  

Apparently groundhogs will accept visits from neighborhood rabbits, but if two is company in a groundhog hole, three’s a crowd, and there was no room in the inn for Claude’s hand, so the whistle pig had let him know he wasn’t welcome.

Once he’d sort of recovered his wits, Claude looked for something to vent on and I was convenient. In his gruffest, most grizzled tone he exclaimed “Don’t point that gun, son, you’re liable to shoot someone!”

I’ve got a long list of events that I want to see replayed on Heaven’s DVR; that’s one of them.

Daddy and Claude were, for decades, hunting and fishing buddies. That was one of many stories Daddy loved to recount. Br’er Jim reminded me of another one which, like the one just told, he wasn’t along on, but heard Daddy chuckle about.  

When I was first allowed to go along hunting, I guess I was around eight years old. I had no gun, and to keep myself entertained would often trail along behind the dogs. I guess I begged and pleaded enough that Daddy finally got ahold of a second hand BB gun for me to carry. I practiced shooting it at the house, and pock marked several silver dollars that my maternal grandparents had given me to save, pretty much destroying their value.

The first hunt where I carried it, Daddy made me stay with him. At the time I must have thought it was so he could help me to get a shot. In retrospect, I realize it was to keep an eye on how I handled my new weapon and teach me how to handle it in general as well as when doing things such as crossing through a barb wire fence 

We got up some rabbits, and by nine o’clock, Daddy had shot one. He wore a Duxbak hunting coat which had a capacious game pocket in the rear. Rabbits almost always have fleas, so instead of immediately sticking it in his jacket, he carried it by its feet in his left hand. This was standard practice; after a few minutes, the fleas will depart.

It wasn’t long before the dogs got another rabbit out of the bed, so Daddy found a good spot to wait and laid the rabbit down on the ground near him. I’ll let Daddy take over with the telling here.

We’d been there about five or ten minutes when all of a sudden behind me I heard “ker-plunk” – the sound of that BB gun going off.  I’d told Don not to be shooting that thing just for fun, and asked him what he was doing.  He said “I got him, Daddy – he was about to get up and run off, but I got him!”

It could be that rabbit had twitched, but more likely, I just imagined he twitched. Whatever the case, I made sure he didn’t get away.  

And Daddy made sure I never lived it down.


I hope you enjoyed Don’s post as much as I did! It is truly amazing how smells become interwoven in our memories.

Tipper

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Gina Smith
    January 7, 2021 at 8:30 pm

    Enjoyed very much the story and beautiful photos…..and just ordered Life’s Extras on Amazon. Can’t wait to read it!
    I get happily lost on the rabbit trails of Blind Pig and the Acorn.

  • Reply
    Linda Ainsworth
    January 7, 2021 at 3:49 pm

    My husband’s great uncle was Mark Cathey who is buried in the Bryson City Cemetery so we saw Don’s post about the tracks in the snow. Neither of us could really identify them so it’s good that Don told what made those unusual tracks.
    We enjoy your Appalachian Mountains when we are able to travel. Mean while we enjoy reading about them via Tipper, Don and Jim Casada. Thanks

  • Reply
    dee
    January 7, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Thank you, Don Casada, for that wonderful story!! Being the daughter of a bird hunter and following that hunter through the woods when I was a young girl created many absolutely beautiful memories that come flooding back in old age. Also, I have mentioned before how soothing a train whistle at night coming faintly through a window screen takes me instantly back to my teenage years. By the way, when I first looked at the tracks, I thought for sure Rabbit Tracks:}

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    January 7, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    I have never hunted rabbits, but I have skinned them and I have cooked them. Thank you, Don, for your stories. I am not certain I have ever read a story that shows such a close connection of the author to nature. That is hard to capture in the written word. I understand totally your explanation of hearing and smells lingering long past exposure. I can still hear church bells giving such a comforting sound. Honeysuckle always made my trip to the mailbox so pleasant, and to unexpectedly catch that fragrance makes the entire day better. I always look forward to your writings,
    I always had the pleasure of driving my grandson to school in his early years. Even though the school was less than a quarter of a mile, I always took him the longer, safer, scenic route on a back road. Along the way we could see Mallards swimming on the huge pond, the first robins, and an occasional groundhog or rabbit. I once kept my niece, offering to take her, and she found it very very funny that we took this out of the way route. She missed the main point which was enjoying nature for a bit, and she still thinks it was strictly for safety to avoid heavy traffic at a 4 way. I did get her to dig potatoes once, and plant some flowers at the church. It is hard to get these young ones to get tuned into nature like we were. I feel bad for what they miss.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    January 7, 2021 at 10:36 am

    I’ve seen squirrels hopping like that in a heavier snow but they leave marks where they bottom out and telltail brush marks when their bushy tails slap the snow.

    No, spellcheck! I meant to say telltail!

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    January 7, 2021 at 10:07 am

    Those were great stories!

  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    January 7, 2021 at 10:00 am

    I finally figured out Don’s tracks puzzle: The squirrel was wearing snowshoes.

  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    January 7, 2021 at 9:56 am

    Don’s stories reminded me of some of my own rabbit-hunting experiences, of course. I was 12, I think, when I was allowed to carry a shotgun, an old 12-gauge W. H. Hamilton “rabbit ear” double made for black powder loads. I was shooting Federal’s Monarch low-brass loads of bird shot, the only shotshells I could buy loose at the country store. Our lone beagle, Sport, pushed a rabbit across a country lane, at top speed, and I shot behind it, breaking a hind leg. I chased it down, dispatched it with a sturdy stick, and shoved it, fleas and all, into my coat pocket. I had become a member of the fraternity.

    As for Rutledge’s little book, “Life’s Extras”, my copy was a graduation gift from the dean of my junior college, in 1954. I can’t say how many times I’ve reread it.

  • Reply
    Mary Anne Johnson
    January 7, 2021 at 8:53 am

    As a kid I remember a bunch of us hunting . so werabbits with a club. None of our parents had money eniugh to buy us a BB gun, much less a shotgun. So we used what we had at hand. We scoured the fields in the cold looking for rabbits and saw quite a few but they were always quicker than us. I don’t think our clubs ever got near.

  • Reply
    Randy
    January 7, 2021 at 8:43 am

    There is nothing I enjoy more when hunting than listening to a good pack of beagles running a rabbit except watching a well train pair of bird dogs hunting WILD quail. In today’s world, most young people will never experience any of this when almost all of the emphasis by the game departments and landowners is on deer and turkeys. I enjoyed many good times and have many good memories of rabbit hunting with my father in law and some good friends.

    The last time someone hunted on my property, a new neighbor called the law and said the noise of the dogs was bothering them. The officer apologized but said he had to come and check it out. Nothing was done because he was doing nothing wrong.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    January 7, 2021 at 8:30 am

    I trying to figure out how to teach our grandson to make memories with intention. But I wonder if that is not backwards. Are the best memories made of things that delight unexpectedly? And will trying too hard ruin the delight? One thing for sure, kids will make memories so we just try to have them be good ones. Easy to see Don and Jim have lots of those.

    I guess the childhood smell that would take me back in a flash more than any other is a whiff of coal smoke. It isn’t the coal. It’s the sulfur in the coal. Always makes me think of a cold gray November sky when the wind is sinking and bringing the smoke down on the ground. The runner up smell is probably rich pine. Maybe that’s why I just like to break off a piece in the woods and smell it – takes me time traveling.

  • Reply
    Roger Greene
    January 7, 2021 at 8:20 am

    I remember back in the late 1950’s / early 60’s when a rabbit hunt was the closest to thing to “big game hunting” I knew, and a highlite of the year when Uncle Carl would bring his (expensive/ high class) beagles down from his home above High Point for a big rabbit hunt on our farm near Farmer, NC the day after Thanksgiving every year. As a 6 or 7 year old I tagged along and my job was to get in the black berry thickets with the dogs and kick up a rabbit.

    Dad would always carry his only gun, a Remington model 33 singel shot .22 rifle. Invariably Dad would kill the first two or three rabbits of the day. Everyone was always amazed of his “skill” with the single shot, and I was very proud.

    When I was about 9, Dad had been given a 20 guage shotgun as a promotion gift from some of his workers when he was promoted to Overseeer in the cotton mill. The rifle was passed down to me. (I never had a BB gun, but still have this rifle.) It was that year Dad reveled his secret to me.

    We had a dog. A very strange looking dog my oldest sister who taught school in upstate New York had rescued from a breeder of pure breed collies in NY. The dog looked like some type of mix with the face and coat of a wire haired terrier, although the rest of the litter were registered collies. (I’m sure there is another story there. ) We called the dog Folly. (The definition of folly includes “a lack of good sense” and “lewd behavior”. Hence the name.) That dog was pretty loyal to my Dad, and usually followed along with him on these hunts, not joining the beagles on the chase.

    Dad told me to stay with him that year. As the rabit race commenced, Dad told me to watch Folly. Sure enough as the beagles begain to circle the rabbit back toward us, Folly perked up. In a few minutes he begain to creep away from us, and suddenly came to to a natural, untrained point. Dad pointed to a little black orb frozen in the weeds a few feet in front of Folly’s nose. He told me “You don’t look for a whole rabbit. Just look for an eye.”

    We never did tell Uncle Carl about Folly’s remarkable ability.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    January 7, 2021 at 8:00 am

    Always enjoy his stories. Keep them coming. There is always a memory I can relate to.

  • Reply
    JimK
    January 7, 2021 at 7:43 am

    Mr Casada’s story rekindled some good memories this morning. Growing up where textile mills were where people found employment I remember hearing the plant whistle blow at shift change (our farm was a good 6 miles away and you stillheard it). My best memories are following a pack of beagles chasing a cottontail, we usually had from 10 to 15 most times. It was pure joy to here them,run. Sometimes if the rabbit was game we would forego shooting at it just to let the dogs run. I remember one trip to a minoring community (Bowmantown) where my friend assured us he could gain hunting permission. He spied a light on in a farm house and told us to stop. After waiting on him to return to the truck for 30 minutes he appears. We asked if he had gained permission, to which he replied no, but they sure fed him a good breakfast.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    January 7, 2021 at 7:26 am

    Tipper–As you and readers might rightly conclude from Don’s rabbit hunting tales, the sport was not far removed from a religion in our family. There were wonderful hunts with tales aplenty over the years. Maybe sometime down the road I can share one about milk for hunters’ coffee, a pig beneath the stove in the house where a buddy and I went to get that milk, and another tale involving that same buddy (who became an internationally famous researcher and one of the discoverers/developers of Viagra) turning a complete flip in a dewberry patch while in pursuit of a wounded cottontail. As the writer Don mentions, Archibald Rutledge, said in the title of another of his many books, “Those Were the Days.”
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    January 7, 2021 at 6:57 am

    Thank you, Don, your story is wonderful as always. When I see your name at the top of a post I know it’s gonna be a good story and you never disappoint!
    Thanks for being a constant supporter of the Blind Pig!

  • Reply
    Glenna Smith
    January 7, 2021 at 6:47 am

    I used to go rabbit hunting with my daddy in what is now the city of Cape Coral, Florida, and before that on our farm in Clemons ,North Carolina. Thanks for the great story and bringing back my childhood memories as I’m now 70 years old and tend to forget how amazing my childhood was.

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