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Starting after a covey of quail on the wide field of Hampton

A Sportsman to His Son
By Archibald Rutledge
A letter written from Hampton Plantation, South Carolina, in 1922 concerning the things that are nearest a boy’s heart, originally published in Forest and Stream.

When you left us after Christmas to go back to your work in the North, I promised to keep you in touch with all the doings down home here. Your mother will doubtless write you more frequently than I shall, and her letters will be of various matters; mine will concern those things that are nearest your heart, as I know it: the sport-lore and sport-craft and sport-news of the plantation. And if in my letters you smell some of the black sandy loam of Hampton, or scent the good smell of pinestraw we haul to bed the stock, or come across the beauty of the growing corn and cotton, it will be because I am a planter and you are a planter’s son.

For the first time this winter great clouds of wild ducks and geese have been coming up the Santee. They have eaten everything that is to be had on the lower reaches of the delta, and now they are moving up here; but it’s the beginning of their spring migration. Soon, now, they will be passing over you in southern Pennsylvania. It may be that their determined flight will not begin until March; but when it does, it will be a real one. You and I are just 600 miles apart: you over the old obliterated (thank God!) Mason-Dixon Line, and I down here on the delta of the Santee in South Carolina. And to think that a wild duck or a wild goose can cover the distance between sundown and sunrise! I suppose that I have often been a goose, and perhaps a wild one; but I never feel that I want to be one until I see those white triangles pointing northward, and begin to think how quickly you and I could see each other if we had such wings. But Nature evens things: it’s better to have the brains of a man than the wings of a goose.

You ought to have been here last week with that long 12-gauge gun of yours; I had need of someone who can shoot hard and fast to help me. You know, I have been losing many of my best Duroc-Jersey pigs from thieves of various kinds: wildcats mostly, and occasionally an old bald eagle from the delta will drop on one. But the other day I had the surprise and fight of my life trying to keep a flock of turkey vultures from stealing a whole litter.

Quail hunting on Hampton Plantation

The young sow, the mother of the brood, had made for herself a fine bed of pinestraw under those thick-headed bull pines on the north end of the cornfield. I saw her at work one day, making preparations; and I took a foolish notion not to pen her in the stable lot, but to let her start her little ones in natural surroundings. It was to be her first brood, and she was a little wild. But my plan was more sentimental than wise. A man should take no chances with his stock when there are varmints about, especially with bacon where it is; for nowadays every little pig has a meaning and a value of its own. A few days after I had noticed the sow, when my mind was on going down to see her again, my attention was attracted in her direction by a great cloud of buzzards sailing and circling over the edges of the cornfield. You know what we think when we have such a gathering: either that some of the stock is dead, or that, venturing too far after temptingly green grass in the muddy rice field, a cow or an ox has become so bogged that it cannot extricate itself. At such times we have to be very quick to come to the creature’s assistance; for turkey buzzards will pick out the living animal’s eyes just as soon as it is seen to be helpless. The black vulture, our other scavenger, will not touch an animal until it is dead.

Naturally, I thought that the poor young sow had not been able to bring her young into the world, or that some of them died. Anyway, I hurried across the cornfield. On coming near the pines, buzzards began to flap up from the ground, while those in the sky veered away. What was my astonishment, and anger, too, at those black robbers when I saw, backed up against the stout bole of a pine, the plucky young mother, her bristles up, her eyes narrowed and bright, and with blood running down her face — while huddled beneath her flanks palpitated nine little pink-nosed babies! She had been standing off the buzzards — the big cowards that had come in a raiding party to steal her young. And she must have been holding her own pretty well, for the little pigs were not scarred, while the ground under the pines was strewed with a goodly number of black feathers. But I had not come too soon. I drove the young mother and her brood toward the stable and got her safely in a bed of straw under a shed. Then I revisited the pine thicket with my gun, laid down a preliminary barrage, dispersed the enemy with a curtain of fire; and I can report that he retreated in great disorder and that his losses were heavy.

Just at present the hawks are very bad on our chickens. At this time of the year we get more than our share of these harriers. We have our own, whose number is large; and, in addition, many scores of migrants. That they take the same route of migration I think I can prove; for this makes the third season I have seen that extraordinary bird — the pure albino Cooper’s hawk. I have done all in my power to assassinate him so that you can have him mounted; but he is as shrewd as a city lawyer. The other day I was patching a piece of harness when there came a great outcry among the fowls.

I have always been in the habit, during the hawk season, of leaning my gun just inside the back door, with a couple of shells on the shelf above. Grabbing the gun, I slipped out quietly, to see the chickens scattering in every direction.

The old leghorn cock was loudly voicing his indignation, but when he saw me with the gun, he appeared reassured. As I came up he stopped his noise, and — now I am giving you this thing exactly as it happened — he cocked his knowing eye up toward one of the big oaks. I glanced up quickly, and there sat Mr. Hawk. My 4s greeted him just as he crouched on the limb to launch himself into flight. Down he tumbled, and all to the credit of the old rooster.

But yesterday I did something which reflects favorably on your old dad. I took my gun down toward the rice field. A big covey of quail was flushed on the ditchbank by the old pine. I got two, right and left; then three Wilson snipe on the boggy edge of the riceland. As all had been straight shots, I made a beeline back for the house, deciding to stop while my credit was good, and I had a clear chance to brag to you. I might have shot snipe all day. Rainwater was lying in the cotton and corn rows, and they were in there boring.

Good-by for this time. When I write next the spring planting will be in full swing. All the black people send their remembrances, especially those who hunt with you, and old Codjo, Will and Martha, who continues to preside in the kitchen, as she has done since you were a little fellow. When I told her I was sending you a long letter she stopped her furious wiping of plates, put her big arms akimbo, and smiled broadly. “Him?” she said, “I has done loved him eber since hatchet was a hammer.”
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