Best Shot I Ever Made
September 1978. Best shot I ever made. Absolutely without question the best shot I ever made. And the last shot I ever fired in Arizona.
A lot of things happened between rifle javelina season and the September dove opener when I made the shot. A woman named Raquel Capestany, a Washington State Liquor Control Board personnel officer, tracked me down by phone in Phoenix. I had almost forgotten I was on a civil-service register for Public Information Officer in Olympia; apparently with the highest score.
The Board’s PIO was retiring and they wanted to talk to me, but my home phone of course had been disconnected. So Raquel contacted F&H News and they passed her along to the Game and Fish Department; she reached me at Ed Dulin’s print shop, where I was working on that month’s Wildlife Views. I flew up for an interview. Before long I was offered the job. Meantime the people who had been renting our house in Buckley said they were moving; perfect timing.
Before it was certain I had the new job, Frances drove her boyfriend Danny and Mama to Phoenix from Georgia in her new 1978 Monte Carlo, her first long road trip. I rented a station wagon to take us all to the Grand Canyon, since we wouldn’t fit in the truck, the VW or her new car and we had a high old time.
Danny said to me: You have here a job where you can go hunting and fishing as part of your work-day, right? Yep. And then when you get back, you can put in for comp time for the time you spent fishing and hunting on the job — so you can go hunting on your own; right? Yep.
“And yet you’re thinking about leaving to sit in an office,” he said. “You must be crazy.”
I admit he gave me second thoughts. When Bob Jantzen, the director, came by to say goodbye my last day at work, he said there’s still time to change your mind you know; we wish you would. That gave me even more second thoughts: the people I worked with there were among the best people I’ve ever been around.
Cody Skeleton was dismayed that I was leaving. I met Cody through Ed Dulin, whose company printed my newspaper and Cody’s newspaper. Cody was the most amazing salesmen and genuine characters I ever met. He created a monthly publication in California called Bowling Beat, circulated among bowling lanes for all league participants; he was expanding into Arizona and needed a local editor. He liked me and we made a deal that I never would have imagined; no salary, just a stepped commission on every dollar of advertising revenue the paper pulled in. If I sold the ads myself, I got a much higher percentage. Wanda was amazed I agreed to what sounded like a scam, but I made money.
Cody learned his moves on the road, selling reflective aluminum road signs throughout impoverished small Southern towns. His primary sign warned: Children Crossing.
He would locate and count a town’s schools, then look up the local mortuary and ask them to buy signs for all the school crossings. He always explained he was giving them first dibs — would move on to the PTA, service clubs and others if he was turned down — but would have to tell them he gave the mortuary first dibs. Not for him to suggest, but some good citizens might think the mortician liked child funerals. He sold a lot of signs — a lot of them.
When he got a fat commission check he drove to Atlanta, parked, flew to Vegas and gambled. Win or lose he flew back and went to work — until a serious heart attack; doctors said he had to take it easy. Bowling Beat was his idea of taking it easy; he drove a Lincoln Continental and dressed well. His new gimmick was to offer advertising to all the bowling alleys in a city; if they bought an ad, all league news from that bowling alley went in the paper.
He guaranteed free delivery to all bowling establishments whether they bought an ad or not. Sharp operators said why buy an ad if they got free newspapers? He would shrug and move on.
Within a couple of months, leagues at non-advertising alleys were unhappy their news wasn’t in the paper when every other league’s was. Some threatened to move their patronage to get news coverage. Didn’t take long for the sharp operators to fall in line. Leagues were their bread and butter, and their leagues wanted the same publicity in Bowling Beat the other leagues had.
I came in just in time to graciously accept ads from holdouts, and received fifteen percent for every ad, every month. Editing the league news copy was laughably simple. I shot a few photographs, wrote a few feature stories (blind bowlers; the first smoke-free bowling night), got free bowling on tournament-class lanes, and rolled my first 300 in practice. When I developed new business I got fifty percent off the top. Wanda got into the act, selling new ads over the phone. Cody said he should have hired her — but he got two-for-one! The extra income was useful and the upside tempting as we expanded to Tucson and Flagstaff. But Washington was home.
So my hunting buddy Jeane Floyd put a For Sale sign in the front yard and drove to Department headquarters for coffee. By the time he got to my office Wanda was on the phone; an eager buyer saw the sign driving by and was ready to make an offer. It was that kind of real estate market in Phoenix. They would have bid our price up to get in quicker. As it was, they were unloading while we were still loading our U-Haul truck. Jeane said he couldn’t recall an easier sale.
My last hunting day in Arizona I made the best shot I ever made.
It involved Pirate, the black pup I kept from Paka’s second litter as Harry’s heir apparent. Poor old Pirate was a hard-luck pup almost from birth; a black Lab born in Arizona, a winter dog where summer ruled. He was sweetest natured of the pups; a little shy, a little goofy. As a puppy he learned quickly he fell at the bottom of the pack structure beneath dad and then mom. If he could talk, he might have called that bad luck too, not to have a family all his own, like his litter mates did.
Snake-bit as a term has come to mean hard luck. Poor old Pirate had his share of bad luck his too-short life. But I console myself with the memory that when he was seven months old and almost got snake-bit for real, I made the best shot of my life.
I loaded the three dogs in the pickup to let them have a final desert romp before they had to sit in their kennels for the long haul home. I left Wanda and the kids enjoying the air conditioning and pool at the motel we moved to after the U-Haul was loaded. The dogs panted in the heat. Harry sneezed incessantly in the dust, trying to pick up the trail of a dove I winged. Paka gave up trying and came to heel. Pirate romped with the exuberance of puppy-hood, poking his nose into everything. An errant worry crossed my mind. But here came reliable Harry, the dove precisely and gently centered beneath his graying muzzle.
Paka swiped it right out of his mouth. Harry was so soft-mouthed he would never clamp down to fight for possession. Paka dropped it, spitting out pinfeathers. Pirate pranced in, scooped it up and delivered it to hand. I was so proud of him. I consoled Harry about Paka’s thievery and grumbled at her. Pirate wandered off to my left, busily nosing a majestic saguaro cactus as if he might find something else to bring me. I heard him yelp. I caught a peripheral glimpse of him springing backwards on stiff legs…
The rest is etched in my brain.
The rattler was already in mid-strike, sunlight flashing off its scales, launching at Pirate’s throat. Pirate’s lunge had not carried him beyond reach.
My Browning went off.
A tight burst of dust exploded between the snake and the dog.
I have no memory of aiming, or releasing the safety, or firing. John M. Browning’s Automatic Five, the legendary humpbacked autoloader, is my favorite shotgun; it fit me the first day I picked one up as if tailor-made. It earned its keep that day. The long sinewy length of reptile thrashed convulsively, beating up a hanging cloud of dust. Pirate stood rooted, trembling, ears at half-mast as if he had done something bad. I approached cautiously in the face of that reptilian thrashing, gun still shouldered.
The snake’s head was gone. Just gone.
Its gore damped the dust stirred by the body’s throes. At that range, the load of Number 9 shot couldn’t have been much bigger than my fist.
I examined Pirate carefully, gentling his tremors. I was afraid I’d find wounds from stray pellets. I didn’t. Then I searched carefully through his dense neck fur for fang punctures. My logical brain told me it is impossible to outdraw a rattlesnake that has already launched. My mind’s eye replayed the sequence: I saw the snake in mid-strike — the gun went off. The actions seemed simultaneous.
The rattler had been coiled in deep shadow at the base of the saguaro. The flash of its moving body in the sun when it went after Pirate must have triggered my neural fire control array. The result was beyond reason.
But the snake was dead. Pirate was untouched.
I noticed a faint after-tremor in my hands. The day was heating up. Doves still were flitting above a dry watercourse among the crowns of mesquite trees. But there was no way I could top that shot. I headed back to the truck with the mature dogs contentedly at heel. They both probably had visions of the big canteen and the hubcap drinking dish in the truck. Pirate, puppy spirits recovered, explored again, perhaps more carefully.
When I dropped the tailgate, he was gone.
I watered the adult dogs, kenneled Paka and sent Harry along our back trail to find his wayward offspring. We were halfway back to the dry wash where I killed the snake when the most heart-rending howl I’d ever heard wavered mournfully through the heat mirage.
My immediate horrified thought was I missed puncture wounds, and the pup was dying.
But no; Pirate was sitting in a clearing, nose pointed soulfully at the blazing sky — and a wicked cholla cactus was imbedded in his forepaw. I sighed and dug my pliers out of my old canvas shooting vest.