Oh, you didn't think that happy ending in Part I of this story was it, did you? Hunter gets his pig, his buddies high five him, blah blah blah?
No, after Jim found his pig in the barley fields of California's Central Coast, we had to get it back to Petunia, Phillip's Suzuki Samurai, and considering the pig was at the bottom of a ravine and Petunia was at the top of a hill, that was quite a task.
First, I had to hike something like the Matterhorn to go back and get Petunia (have I mentioned that I'm out of shape? Pathetic...). Then Jim had to tie one end of a really, really long rope to the hog's mouth at the bottom of the ravine, and Phillip had to pull the other end of that rope with Petunia, drawing the pig ever so carefully up a 35-degree slope. And then Jim had to field dress the pig.
Point is, the kill isn't the end of the story; there can be hours more work before you start pouring tequila.
That's why I was filled with dread when we went out again that afternoon to try to get me a pig.
We went back to the same place. We remembered the pig that eluded us first thing that morning, and we wanted to park ourselves in the path he'd taken in hopes that he'd come back that way at nightfall. I'd have until half an hour after sunset - about 8:45 p.m. - to take a shot at a pig.
When we arrived back on top of that hill, I surveyed the scenery. The pig trails were all close to the edge of that ravine. I turned to Phillip.
"There's a 99.9 percent chance if I shoot a pig that he's going to go down that ravine, right?"
"Right," Phillip said.
Crap. I was already feeling wiped out from hiking up and down the hills of Cholame - exercise that's way more strenuous than grading papers and blogging, which is what had dominated my life for the past four months.
And I was getting seriously dehydrated, because while I try to drink enough water out in the field, I never succeed. I'm hyperconscious of the fact that peeing is a production for me - not the simple task it is for guys - so I end up drinking less water than I would sitting at home blogging, where there is always a glass of water at my desk. And remember, I'm in California, where the air is already extremely dry, and the wind and heat just vacuum moisture out of your body.
And I know hunters do it all the time, but I really wasn't excited about trying to pull a pig out of a ravine in total darkness. Especially considering that, whether I got a pig or not, we'd be pulling out of camp that night to head up to T. Michael Riddle's Native Hunt game ranch, where we'd been invited to help cull some undesirable elements.
Everyone wanted me to get a pig that evening, but I'm pretty sure we were all equally relieved when shoot time ended without having seen a single porker. Now we could hit the road for Riddle's place.
Riddle had invited Phillip to come hunt there because some of his Eurasian blonde pigs were developing physical traits that made them less valuable, and he wanted to cull them from the herd. When Phillip said he'd have an entourage with him that weekend, Riddle said, "The more the merrier!"
Now, I'd be lying if I didn't say I've had some questions about high-fence ranches, because they change the odds of hunting, pretty much ensuring that you'll have the opportunity to shoot game. At Cholame, there was no guarantee we'd see a pig on any of our outings. At Native Hunt, if I didn't leave with a pig, it would be a reflection of my skill as a shooter and nothing else.
But as much as the high-fence-hating Humane Society would like to convince us otherwise, there is no single set of rules on what is and isn't sportsmanlike (as if HSUS really cares about that when it opposes all but subsistence hunting). Challenge is a spectrum. Hunting Cholame was challenging because the pigs were spread out, and not fenced in. But we were hunting barley fields, which are a huge pig attractant. If we wanted to be really sporty, we'd hunt them in wild country where their only food sources were naturally occurring ones. With longbows instead of powerful rifles. And homemade stone-tip arrows, like Tred Barta. See what I mean? It's a matter of degrees.
So, I was fine with this hunt. Finding pigs would not be a challenge. But for me, the whole challenge going into this weekend was this: Could I make the shot? Would I miss a pig or would I hit one? If I hit it, would I hit it well?
We arrived somewhere around midnight Saturday to find Riddle and all his guides waiting up for us at his lodge - a beautiful place with a covered outdoor kitchen and bar, an open air campfire and bunkhouse.
Riddle broke out the scotch, but I was exhausted and working on a headache, so I asked for a beer and having downed that, promptly went to bed.
Now, back at Cholame, it was camping. Phillip was in his camper, Jim and John were in their tent and I was in mine (sorta mine - it was Phillip's). Here, we had amenities - bunkbeds, a kitchenette and a bathroom with shower, but the hitch was the sleeping accommodations: It was all one room. Me and the boys, all snug as a bug in a rug.
And at that hour, I couldn't care less. I crawled into my bunk and drifted off to sleep as the scotch-drinking and BSing continued outside.
No one woke me up. At one point, I just looked at my watch and saw it was 5 a.m. and thought, Holy crap, I'd better get up!
I dressed in the bathroom, donning the foul-smelling, foxtail-infested outfit I'd been wearing in the field for the past two days. Of course, someone walked in on me while I was half-naked, prompting me to snarl, "Ya gotta knock first when there's a girl in camp!"
Fully clothed, I came out and asked, "Is there coffee?"
"No time for coffee," one of the silhouetted males answered.
No time for coffee? Blasphemy!
"I've got Red Bull," Phillip volunteered.
I downed it in two gulps. That would be sure to keep me calm and steady when I had a pig in my sights - not!
Riddle was there giving marching orders. All I heard was something like, "Holly, you'll go with Sam and Mike."
Sam and Mike? Strangers? No Phillip?
We walked out of camp wordlessly, trudging down a chalky dirt road while the Red Bull soaked into my brain, putting me in that transitional state of groggy-nauseated-hyper.
These guys don't know me. They don't know this is my first big game hunt. They don't know how terrified I am of shooting badly. They don't know I'm having a hard time holding the gun steady. They don't...
STOP! Stop psyching yourself out...
But ... but ... but...
This is why Holly requires lots of wake-up time.
We rounded a corner and spotted pigs off at a distance, and Sam instructed us to approach quietly, then started forward.
I reached out and stopped him. "Wait. Here's what you need to know about me. This is my first big game hunt. I've never shot an animal with a rifle before. I have a shooting stick, but it's awkward - I have a hard time holding the gun still."
"Don't worry," he said. "We'll take care of you."
Whew. At least they knew now that they were with a neurotic newby.
We approached a rather large group of pigs milling around and got me set up.
"See the ones with the silver face?" Sam said. "Don't shoot them."
There were some Eurasians mixed in with this batch of ferals, and with me not being a paying customer, I needed to keep my sights off them. And I was a little worried about that, because the distinctions weren't really obvious to me in the early morning light.
"Try to shoot that spotted one if you can," he said. That one was obviously not Eurasian.
I pulled the trigger and missed. Dammit.
I had so wanted my first shot to be good. I began beating myself up over it. Then I consoled myself. At least I didn't cripple and lose it. Better to miss cleanly than hit badly.
So we left that spot to go check out another known pig haunt: a barley field. Finding nothing there, we headed back, and there up a hillside, I spotted a group of pigs. A few ferals, followed by some blonde pigs.
Sam whispered in my ear clearly and emphatically. "Do ... not ... shoot ... the blonde ... pigs!"
I wanted to giggle. Ever watch "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" The way Sam said it reminded me of that scene with John Turturro in prison garb in the movie theater whispering in George Clooney's ear: "DO ... NOT ... SEEK ... THE TREASURE!"
We angled for a shot, but the herd had spotted us, and they bolted over one of the many 45-degree hills at Native Hunt. Chasing them up that hill would be absurd. But when they went over that hill, they'd be back in the neighborhood where I took my first shot, so we headed up that road.
We found them high on that hillside in a small opening in the brush, and began looking for a place for me to set up.
"Do you mind getting your clothes dirty?" Sam asked.
Apparently, he couldn't smell me.
"No problem," I whispered.
He would have me lie on the ground, with my gun propped up on his backpack.
"How's that?" he whispered.
"OK, but I'm wobbling up and down."
He took off his jacket, balled it up and put it under the stock.
"How's that?" he whispered.
"Perfect," I said as I found my pig. He was quartering forward. I put my sights on the moving bulls eye.
"Oh my God, I didn't shoot the wrong one, did I?" I asked, frantic, as we watched the pigs run away, one running far more slowly than the rest.
"Did I hit him?"
"Yeah, I saw it," said Mike, who'd been reticent all morning.
It turned out the "whoa" was Sam. Having watched me take my time in Round One this morning, he wasn't expecting the shot so fast. Poor guy's probably deaf now. But I don't mess around. If I'm steady and I see the shot, I'm taking it.
We all scrambled up the brushy hillside to look for the pig.
Please be dead, please be dead.
I crawled under bushes behind Sam.
"Found him! And he's still up!"
Shit. If it'd been a good shot, he'd be dead by now.
Sam came back to me and told me the plan. I should remove the chambered round in my gun while he went ahead of me to check out the situation up close.
He clambered up and yanked on the pig's leg. It exploded into the air, whirling around with a snort, sending Sam pressed back into a bush, no place to go. Terrifying.
But the pig was up on its front legs - he clearly couldn't move his hind legs. Dear God, what have I done?
"Do you want to do the finishing shot?" Sam asked.
"Yes," I said. Half the reason I hunt is taking personal responsibility for the meat I eat. I wasn't going to shy away from the business that had to be done. The business necessitated by my obviously bad shot.
Eight yards from the pig, I put a bullet in his head, and he dropped instantly. It was over. I was shaking, from exertion, from fear and from the harsh reality of what I was doing.
Unlike the Cholame hunt, our job was pretty easy after this. We dragged and rolled the pig to the bottom of the hill and radioed for someone to come in with a Polaris to take him back to the lodge, where we could dress him in a nice concrete-floor shed.
While we waited, I examined the pig. Probably 85 pounds - nice eating size. The shot had gone in at a nice height on the pig's body, but five or six inches too far back. We rolled him over and I saw a red stain on his back leg.
Oh my God. To get from the entry wound to that ham could mean only one thing: That bullet had torn through a lot of guts. Oh my God.
"My Boyfriend's gonna be so mad I messed up that ham!" I said, knowing full well Boyfriend wouldn't care. We both know that bullets destroy some of the meat no matter how you shoot.
"Man, that was a terrible shot," I said.
But Sam and Mike were generous. They told me, "Good shot" over and over again. I know that's what guides are paid to do - make the client feel good about the hunt - but I was consoled by it nonetheless. I'd take what I could get.
Back at the lodge, we began dressing the pig. Normally, the folks at Native Hunt do all the work, but I wanted to help. Part of it was that "responsibility" thing, but part of it goes back to my childhood, when my family raised pigs for slaughter, but because I was the youngest, I was never asked to do any essential work.
I was starting to get a big fat headache, but I pulled out the Buck knife Boyfriend had gotten me for Christmas and got to work.
"Do you want to do the gutting?" Sam asked.
"Yes," I said, steeling myself.
But when he cut a slit down the pig's belly, opening it up, it became clear: My bullet had torn through the stomach. It was ugly.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Sam asked.
"Uh..... No, you can go ahead."
I wanted to learn how to gut properly, but with guts torn up like that, you don't really learn the art of avoiding breaking the wrong thing, because it's already broken. That's my excuse, anyway. That and the pounding headache that would cast a gray veil over the rest of my day.
On the way home with Phillip, I lamented my horrible shot. I will hate myself for that shot probably for the rest of my life. But like I'd told John on Saturday morning: You know your first time out isn't going to be picture perfect, but you have to accept that and move on.
Now I'm thinking about more regular target practice and my next big game hunt, which will probably be during California's deer season in September. I'll do better next time.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008