White Oak Mountain Ranger: Fox Squirrel Stew

  • Saturday, May 4, 2024

“Refrigerators are good for keeping moonshine less gross. Freezers are good for keeping rattlesnakes less angry. Garages are good to hide in when your wife finds either.” - Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things

The whole thing started with some strange, off centered kind of an itch. Not an itch similar to the nasty kind of itch you get from a chigger dug deeply in your navel, or a tick burrowed in between your legs. Neither was this sort of thing the seemingly terminal kind of itch from say, poison oak, or the after effects of stumbling blindly over a mound of fire ants. This particular itch that somehow, suddenly materializes, and then refuses to fade finally away, with the slow passage of days and weeks.

Then again, this sort of thing could be more like some kind of weird craving. More similar to a craving experienced for a smoke, or a dip. The sort of craving that magically surfaces out of nowhere after some errant, long ago plea you abruptly made to yourself, that you needed to suddenly quit such malignantly addictive substances.

Maybe it’s really closer to some weird and unexplained genetic disposition to deadly substances. Drugs that can malevolently overcome and destroy your last bastion of willpower while spiraling you into depths make you suddenly, sometimes far too late, confront the sad specter of near death. Odd substances that suck on your will to the point that there’s little you can actually do to extract your very soul back from the impending darkness.

It’s somewhat similar, but really nothing like, overly excited anticipation. The anticipation of some long in the future event that looms off in the distance like the opening day of deer or duck season, a wedding, or your first born’s new day of arrival on planet earth.

No, it’s not that kind of thing at all. If this peculiar feeling isn’t really an itch, or a craving, overly excited anticipation, or some unexplainable genetic disposition to deadly addictive substances; then what exactly can it be called? How can you quite succinctly describe this phenomenon that builds and cascades until it literally overcomes your being?

But, it happens. Time and time again, it happens. But this one time, why does it involve squirrels in the month of May?

Some ‘sharp pencil’ in Nashville, some time back, oddly declared we all suddenly needed to kill more squirrels. This new squirrel killing opportunity sounds for all the world like a “let’s get together and save the planet” sort of gimmick. After years, no decades and decades, of shooting squirrels in the spring was considered illegal, suddenly this is a good idea to the small game managers that ride the desks in Nashville.

Exactly why this was decided, I’m not sure. You can bet it might have been easier to increase the limit on squirrels from whatever it is now, to say, setting the fall and winter limit of dead squirrels by the bushel basket instead of the present bag limit. That simple concept may have been too easy for the ‘sharp pencils’ in Nashville.

So, apparently, what the Nashville squirrel biologists determined to be a more environmentally or biologically sound population control technique of squirrel over-population management, became a spring squirrel hunting season. Go figure!

Brilliant maybe? More opportunity for your hunting license dollar maybe? Maybe, the sharp pencils just caved to pressure from the radical rabble of squirrel hating protesters who suddenly encamped on the TWRA campus in Nashville. Protesters with loud chants and threatening banners that screamed;

WE WANT MORE SQUIRRELS TO DIE!!!

WE WANT MORE SQUIRRELS TO DIE!!!

DEATH TO THE SQUIRRELS!!!

GIVE US A SPRING SQUIRREL SEASON OR WE WILL NEVER LEAVE!!”

I steadfastly boycotted this relatively new thing called squirrel hunting in May and June for years. Call me old fashioned.

Fall and winter were, for time immemorial, the only really decent seasons for eliminating the environment of overabundant nut eaters. Besides that, it was a right of passage of every fall. Saving up all summer from mowing lawns, for a box of two of 22 long rifle hollow points, scouting for tall hickory trees where nuts were cut, laying, littering the base of the most promising trees became an August pastime. Agonizing through the anticipation growing with the daily review of “X marks for legal”opening day penciled in on the feed store calendar, was a right of passage for me and the rest of my tribe in the “North Chattanooga Expeditionary and Squirrel Killing Society.”

May and June were dedicated to fishing in those days. Apparently back in the day, the sharp pencils in Nashville didn’t realize just how environmentally dangerous the overabundance of tree rats really were. Either that or, maybe there weren’t really any “sharp pencils” over in Nashville until here recently.

I still boycotted/protested hunting squirrels in the spring for quite sometime. It just didn’t seem right somehow. Not sure why, but it just seems weirdly off kilter for some strange reason.

Then, during a recent slow turkey season, the Fox squirrels suddenly showed up. They simply sprang forth in mass. Seems like they were wildly overabundant and just about everywhere. Black faces, white muzzles, white tipped ears, some were as large as small cats, with huge, fluffy, extra long tails; creeping around both stealthily and loudly, every where I thought a turkey ought to have been.

As soon as spring squirrel season opened, the old, odd itch was flung upon me again. Maybe it was a craving. Most likely, this alien sensation, was more like some overly strange obsession. The whole thing about hunting squirrels in May felt strangely illegal, even when it was oddly now legal; but there I was, snakes, chiggers, ticks and all.

The Fox squirrels didn’t seem to be present on the top of White Oak Mountain on this particular late spring morning. After about three miles of ridge running, I decided to drop off the eastern slope and hunt the big trees below the first shelf of the steep rock band. The East side of this mountain is steep, so steep in many places, that it’s steeper than many black diamond ski slopes in the Rocky Mountains.

It’s so steep that you find yourself holding onto anything you can grab ahold of to ease your way down to the first shelf of near horizontal dirt and rock. This small plateau is where the big trees were sparred by the loggers of old. The mountain is so steep that apparently the long gone timber cutters were justifiable in their fear of dying from their feeble attempts to denude the ancient mountain of huge trees back on these narrow and rock strewn shelfs.

Easing along, looking for the least dramatic descent over the edge or ridge crest, a rather dim path emerged out of the lush vegetation. This vague path wasn’t here during turkey season. I had been here many mornings. This dim trail somehow looked fresh and it didn’t quite look like the worn path of deer or bears, but it was obviously being used by something bigger than that.

I eased down the slope quietly as the faint trail gradually worked its way though the steep band of slippery moss and wet sandstone. This side of the mountain is littered with springs, seeps and freshets that ultimately provide water falls and rivulets that trickle down into Wolfteever Creek, or Long Savanah Creeks, as they gradually slide their way to the river.

The trail ended in freshly cut brush. Expertly camouflaged brush. I could hear a mule nervously pacing about in the brush but I couldn’t put eyes on it. I had stumbled on a carefully hidden moonshiner’s factory, being guarded by a tied up mule.

The hair on my neck slammed to attention. This unexpected event was suddenly super spooky. Not a sound could be heard other than the nervous pacing of the mule. This was suddenly a seriously bad move on my part, to be sure. Where was the mule’s owner? How many were there? How did they plan on defending this operation? I was carrying a 410/22 mag over and under and a handgun stuffed with snake shot. I figured most moonshiners were vastly more over equipped with serious firepower than I, and I didn’t relish the thought of running down the steep mountain in a gun battle.

I should have quietly backed out! Put the whole morning in reverse! Common sense told me to get the $%@# out! The hair on my arms were screaming at me to get back up to the top of the mountain, #$% immediately, right now!

I could smell the mule and the still, but I still couldn’t see any of it. It was that well hidden. Who would build such a thing in this location here? Who would haul homemade liquor this far? Who would put this much work into this sort of illegal endeavor?

Common sense suddenly achieved escape velocity. I eased forward slowly like some snake on the hunt, looking for an opening in the brushy hide. The copper pot came into view. Mason jars were scattered randomly. They appeared to all be full. The excited mule calmed a little. There was a barefoot body near the stack of mason jars. Easing closer, the old man appeared like he had had his last shave the year Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur. He had vomited all down the front of his Liberty overalls and there was a pretty sizable swarm of yellow jackets feasting in the puke on his grey beard.

I figured the old shoeless man, flat on his back, covered in vomit and yellow jackets, was stone dead. This was another better than terrific opportunity to get the #$%^ out. Just forget the whole thing ever happened. Just let nature take her course. Maybe just cut the mule loose and read about the whole thing in the paper someday soon. The mule had burlap sacks tied to its feet and it had finally settled down.

Turning my full attention to the body, it became slowly evident that the old man was still breathing. This presented another strong bit of a sticky situation. Do I chance sneaking out and potentially getting shot in the back? Or, do I wake the old man up and chance getting shot in the face? I was dead certain the old man had a pocket pistol or maybe two, somewhere in his nasty, stained, bug infested overalls.

I disconnected the water hose from the spring to the still, and placed the supply of cold water gently on the old man’s face, letting it pour on his forehead. Then I hid behind the mule, thinking that if the old timer came out of his coma, he just might not shoot at both me and the mule.

Anxiously waiting to see what was about to unfold, I somehow incongruently conjured up memories of a young lady named Beverly. Funny how the mind drifts once you’re behind a mule.

Beverly claimed she was a one quarter Cherokee as I chased her around the educated side of Putnam County. After some mild but short courtship, she announced that she’d like to take me home with her to meet her mother and grandfather.

It was early spring and she said her grandfather was always in need of “ground hog control” help. She said her grandfather, a full blood Cherokee, tended a large patch of corn in a hollow two counties over. This was the time of year when he and Beverly shot the wary little corn eating varmints and on Sundays, they roasted the fat ones with sweet potatoes. If he didn’t get rid of the woodchucks before they devoured his young corn crop, his business was ruined. His cash crop came from his corn crop, in the form of the best known moonshine ever cooked in Middle Tennessee.

Her grandfather and the local county Sheriff previously had reached an ingenious and lucrative business arrangement many decades ago. It was a simple and smart little arrangement. Her Grandfather sold most all of his product exclusively to the local Sheriff. Beverly said that both old men were drinking buddies from as far back as she could remember. Nobody else in the county was allowed to buy product from her grandfather. The Sheriff in turn, busted up every other still in the county and left her grandfather alone to practice his mastery of a distillery degree. Grandfather graduated with a back hollow, Middle Tennessee PH.D in distilling peach brandy, with Summa Cum Laude honors.

I was a little nervous about retrieving the first groundhog that I witnessed Grandpa splatter. He handled the old 22/250 with amazing skill at well over what I figured to be a little outside of 200 yard shots. As I walked out in the spring corn, I tried not to imagine the time Beverly and I had fought and I had stupidly called her some derogatory word that her grandfather would be put off about if Beverly told the old Indian what a jerk I had been that day.

It was a good day. The old Cherokee taught me the fine art of long distance shooting and wind drift analysis as it applied to 22/250s. The corn crop survived the onslaught of spring woodchucks and we soon returned to Putnam County full of roasted ground hog and sweet potatoes, accompanied by a case of fine homemade brandy, crafted by a full blood native. Beverly never did tell her grandfather about our fight, or what a jerk I had been.

Recovery from the puke covered moonshiner at hand was slow. Maybe an hour passed, probably more than two hours passed. Gagging and spitting, the old shoeless body arose slowly from the swarm of yellow jackets. The memory of Beverly drifted off into the mist of the morning.

He wobbled about looking for his boots when I let out a low and slow whistle from behind the old mule. I could tell by the way he quickly filled his hand with his pistol that he still was having trouble focusing on where the sound had come from. The gun in his hand appeared to be a well worn 1911.

I held the 410 squarely on his gun hand when I said as calmly and gently was possible; “Don’t shoot! I’m not here to cause any trouble friend.”

“Who are you and how’d you find me?” He still hadn’t figured out where I was hiding.

“Put that pistol away and we’ll talk.” It was the third or fourth lapse in common sense on my part. I was gambling here for high stakes again.

He slid the 1911 in his back pocket and swatted a wad of yellow jackets off of his vomit dried and stained stomach.

“I’m stepping out now. You keep that hand off that pistol. I don’t want no problems here mister.”

He turned slowly and sucked the spring water out of the hose as I eased around the mule, still ready with the 410.

“Who the hell are you?” He asked again.

“I’m just squirrel hunting and I found your trail and I’m afraid my curiosity got the best of me. Who the hell are you?” This response, I realized, came back as rather an impertinent question. I guess I was still feeling somewhat uneasy at the time.

“None of your damn business who I am mister. What exactly do you plan to do about it about now?”

He had recovered rather quickly. Maybe it was the cold spring water he was using to wash the crusty puke of his front side and his bare feet. He still hadn’t located his worn out boots.

“You know I turkey hunt these woods all the time and I don’t think this still, or this mule, was here back during turkey season was it?” I inquired, trying not to sound too terribly nosey.

“Well, that’s ‘cause I wait ‘till after turkey season is out. I like my privacy.” The old man spit a yellow jacket out of his beard as he located one boot.

“I gotta’ ask, how come you tie burlap sacks on your mules feet?” I considered that there was some legitimacy in the question. This was the first mule I’d ever witnessed shod with what looked like burlap house slippers.

The old man chuckled at what he must have considered a stupid question, “Them ‘tater sacks make the track powerful hard for the sheriff to ‘foller. I soak ‘em in skunk scent just in case he borrows somebody’s trackin’ dog. Hit works both ways. The sheriff, he’s a city boy, and he’s about as bright as a box of hammers.”

“You sure know how to hide a still.” I said

“Yeh, I done learnt that there skill in Korea one cold winter on something the Army called a parallel.”

“How do you get all this in and out of here?” The logistics of this homemade liquor operation was simply astounding to me.

He put his one found boot on the right foot and slowly answered, “Well, I take my time. Many trips, slow and easy, only at night; me and old Bob. Old Bob should have done woke me up when you slipped in here. I guess old Bob’s gettin’ a little long in the tooth, like me.”

He went on, “I reckon I done made this batch a little stronger proof than planned. I got to tastin’ and, I ‘recon I done got carried away again. It happens, from time to time. You want you a taste? It’s plumb fine.”

The jar was passed and I handed the old man his missing boot. He thanked me.

It was indeed, ‘plumb fine.’

I vowed to keep the old man’s and Bob’s location a deep secret and wobbled up the trail with a jar in hand. On the long hike back to the Jeep, I quietly thanked the sharp pencils over in Nashville for allowing us to legally kill squirrels in May.

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