Cowboy Heroes

“Chasin’ Rabbits.” 

“Yes sir, Boys, I will pay you one dollar per head for all live rabbits you can bring me.”

Tod and I heard that Mr. Wilson would pay for live rabbits to train his dogs with. Now it was confirmed.

Mr. Wilson raised Greyhound dogs, lots of them. Folks around said he was a pretty big wheel in dog racing circles, but the nearest track we knew of was over in Phoenix, a day’s drive. We had never been to, or even seen a dog race before, therefore we knew little about the sport.

Chasing rabbits however, now that sounded like fun. Hunting was right up our alley. Catching them alive though? We had never even contemplated a feat such as that before. A new challenge!

“Now boys, what you do is take a hunting rig, something without a top works best, and you go up on the Mesa where there’s a ton of rabbits and a lot of open country. You go at night and you drive around. If you’ll spotlight them lil ol’ jacks, they’ll freeze up on you and just sit there.”

Mr. Wilson then pulled out a big hoop with a net attached. It was bigger than a Hoola hoop and looked like a huge butterfly net, minus a handle.

“Now you make that ol’ jack sit there with the spot light shining in his eyes and if he moves, a shot from a .22 right in front of him will stop him in his tracks. Then another feller needs to run around, outside the spotlight in the darkness, with this here net. You can run right up on that lil jack, throwing the net on him before he knows what’s happened.

“After that, you put him in a burlap sack, be sure and keep the top tied with a wire, or they’ll escape on you.”

The way Mr. Wilson described the chase; this was sounding more and more like fun every minute. Catching live rabbits with a spotlight, a .22 and a large hoop all night long . . . and getting paid for doing it . . . now that sounded like a pretty darn good deal!

Tod and I contemplated our new job all day. We’d need some help; at least one, maybe two other guys. A driver, a couple shooters and a hoop runner; that oughta do it.

The next step was to contact Mr. Burris. Most ranchers would pay a bounty if you shot a coyote on their ranch and Mr. Burris was no exception. All that Mesa country where Mr. Wilson said was best for catching rabbits just happened to be Government and private lease land where Mr. Burris ran cattle.

If we were going to be out there all night catching rabbits, we might as well go coyote hunting at first light; that’s when they’re usually seen out and about anyhow.

Mr. Burris agreed, $5 for every coyote hide we bring him . . . just don’t get him in trouble by hunting them with that spotlight, wait till it got light enough to see. Those were his only terms.

Now we were set to make some money! A dollar for every rabbit and $5 for a coyote – we’d never see a poor day again! And the fun to be had while doing this, why if those ol’ guys knew, they would be charging us!

Chris and Larry agreed to go with us. That would be handy, Chris had several guns, could shoot well, and Larry was fleet footed.

First things, first, however: we needed to fill Tod’s jeep with gas, buy a couple boxes of shells, plenty of ice and about three . . . better make that, four cases of beer. After all, it was going to be all night. Total investment to start our new venture: $89.

About 10:00 p.m. is when we started seeing the first rabbits. During summer months, it doesn’t get good and dark till after 9:00 anyway. So the first couple of hours out were just spent sipping on ice-cold beer and watching a stellar New Mexico sunset.

“There’s one, right there!” Exclaimed Tod, who took off in hot pursuit, guiding the jeep across country like a well-trained rope horse after a steer.

The lil jack darted here and there, doubling back, cutting first right, then left. Bam! Bam! Bam! Went the shots as Chris and I tried to shoot right in front of him. Each time we did, the pursued changed directions, but didn’t slow down much.

Tod did his best to navigate the terrain and keep the spotlight trained. Bouncing along we did go, in hot pursuit! Bam! Bam! Bam! “I think the lil bugger is slowing down some.” Encouraged Larry, who sat ready with the net.

“He’s bound to wear out soon, we’ve been chasing him almost a mile it seems!” Tod hollered. (It was probably more like ¼ mile).

Bam! Bam! Bam! “He’s stopped!”

Larry hopped out of the jeep with net held high over-head. He should have waited for the vehicle to come to a stop; instead, it was still traveling about 10 miles per hour. As Larry’s front foot touched down, it happened to be on top of a big clump of Bunch Grass. His foot rolled and the ankle popped, we all heard it.

Larry, being tough as nails, jumped up and ran after the frozen jack, sitting mesmerized in the spotlight. The jack moved left. Bam! I shot just in front of him; he sat still. The jack moved right. Bam! Chris shot inches away from his front feet, stillness again.

What the heck was taking Larry so long with the net? “Larry? Hey Larry?”

“Where did he go?”

No answer.

Finally, Tod searched the darkness with the spotlight. There stood Larry frozen in place, well off to the side. As it turned out, he was out there in the darkness, not taking a step closer to a jack . . . who was being shot at!

“Get in there and get him!” I yelled, “We won’t hit you . . . promise.”

“Tod, get that spot back on the jack,” hollered Chris.

When Tod swung the light back around, we discovered the jack was headed out once again! He floored it!

Luckily, that poor ol’ rabbit was pretty tuckered out and the second chase didn’t last as long. Bam! Bam! Bam! He stopped once again in the spotlight. But now, what about Larry?

In the excitement of chasing the jack, we’d left Larry behind. “Larry!” we yelled.

Tod turned off the motor so we could hear better. “Larry!”

Then we heard the distinct sound of cussing and someone running through the pasture. Within a few moments, Larry came running through the darkness towards the jack, he lunged forward and pounced! Caught!

We all bailed out for a closer look at our new trophy. With the pride of accomplishment of a bunch of kids, like toddlers on a bike, we examined our first victim. Chris stuffed him down into a burlap sack and proudly announced, “One!”

Larry, huffing and puffing for breath, suggested a beer break and told us not to leave him stranded any more. “After all, this pasture is forty-four sections. What if you all took off and couldn’t find me again in the dark? I’d sure hate to be you guys if that was to happen!” (This was back in the day before cell phones, if we’d have lost him in the dark, it very well could have been daylight before finding him again.)

So that’s how the night went, it was a wild time chasing jack rabbits, shooting all around them and hoping they would stop in the spotlight long enough for Larry to get the net over them. Poor guy, remember when his ankle went “Pop?” He must have sprained it pretty badly because it began to swell quite large. We put duct tape around it and told him to put ice from the cooler on it . . . just not too much; we don’t want the beer getting warm!

That night we learned cottontails are easier to catch than jacks; they don’t have near the stamina. We also learned that very few rabbits freeze immediately when the light went on them without a chase first. This made for a whole lot of bumpy; wild rides across the pasture that night. A few times, Tod turned on a dime or ran across small arroyos in such a manner as to unseat us passengers, but only once did a guy fall completely out of the moving jeep. Chris had a nasty lump and road rash on his shoulder from that one.

Come daylight, we saw a few coyotes and although our success rate wasn’t near as good, we managed to get four shot, which stood by curiously in the distance, watching what we were up to. (Chris had brought a 30 ought 6 with a scope for this part of the hunt.)

About 8:00 a.m., we headed back to Mr. Wilson’s place.

“You boys have a good night?” Mr. Wilson grinned, “Y’all smell like a brewery.”

“Well most of the beer spilled in the jeep due to the bumpy chase . . . ” I plead our case.

I don’t think he bought it much, but it sounded good. “Let’s count what you got.” Mr. Wilson unloaded burlap sacks into wire cages.

“Thirty jacks and 40 cottontails. Let’s see here, that would be fifty dollars,” calculated Mr. Wilson.

“Fifty dollars! I exclaimed, “You said one dollar per head, that would be seventy dollars!”

“Now, Boys. I told you a dollar per head on jack rabbits, these lil ol’ cottontails ain’t hardly worth nothing, you’re lucky I am goin’ to give you fifty cents apiece for them. They don’t last long around here.”

I thought to myself, as hundreds of greyhounds yapped in the background, “I bet no rabbit last long around here.” But I kept my mouth shut; wouldn’t do to argue with your employer anyway.

I looked at Tod, “Well, fifty bucks worth of live rabbits and we got twenty coming from Mr. Burris for the coyotes. That leaves us nineteen dollars in the hole for our first night.”

“Yeah, guess we’ll just have to make it up in volume,” he chuckled. “We’d better plan on going out every night or we’re liable to go broke at this new venture!”

“Well, if we cut out the beer, we might have made a few dollars apiece.”

“Naw,” we both said in unison, that wouldn’t do.

“If we only had three guys, that might help,” I said.

Tod, the wise one, said, “Nineteen divided by four is less to lose than nineteen divided by three.”

“You got a point there.”

“Besides that, Jim,” he said, “You’ve got this all wrong. It ain’t always about the profit and loss . . . just where the heck do you think four guys like us could have that much fun on under twenty dollars! I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, I would have paid a heck of a lot more than that!”

He always did know how to make sense out of a situation.

“You’re right, Partner. Let’s do it again tonight. We sure as heck wouldn’t want to lose this job over a measly twenty bucks!”