Matthew Stokes: Memoir: Jan 2022

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My first cousin initially said it and has reminded me often, “You know where your roots are.” His words were in response to my living and teaching in northern China for two years. I was born in north Louisiana and ultimately moved to central Louisiana. Oddly, I didn’t gravitate toward certain traditional, expected paths. Instead of riding four wheelers and shooting squirrels, I grew up with Nintendo, G.I. Joe, and church. However, as much as I loved China, I eventually returned to Louisiana and found my “roots.” Specifically, in my late twenties, my “roots” came calling and I borrowed, begged, and stole (not really) a gun. The woods had always drawn me, but now hunting was my new passion and calling.

Years later, I now teach English Composition and Literature at a Louisiana University. By some odd fluke or act of God, I ended up writing my Master’s thesis on hunting. William Faulkner, a southern writer, had a bit to say about hunting in Go Down, Moses. I now find myself married, living in a log house on six acres in the country and trying to keep up with a donkey, a horse, eight sheep, three goats, a barn cat, and four dogs. My wife keeps me in line. When I’m not teaching or working on the farm, I’m hunting or exploring the woods every chance I get.

A Hunt Lost–A Friend Retained (Hopefully)

In early January, the year was fresh but the hunting season was quickly fading. The days were growing shorter and the bucks-only rifle season on Dewey W. Wills would soon be nothing more than a memory. This public wildlife management area consisted of over 60,000 acres of flat, poorly-drained swamp, meandering bayous, fish-filled lakes, and bottomland hardwoods. Rick had been hinting for me to take him hunting numerous times this season. Rick wasn’t a hunter. Two years ago, I took him and right at dark, he shot his rifle for no apparent reason. He had actually seen a buck earlier but didn’t have a shot. Later, he fired off two rounds—whether out of frustration or boredom, he never said. 

A few weeks ago, it finally worked out for me to take Rick out again. On a morning hunt, I ended up shooting a doe and moments later, I heard, “Pop. Pop.” When I made my way to Rick, dragging the deer, my hand aching, I asked, “Was that you who shot?”

“Yeah. I shot my pistol.” 

This is a primitive hunt. You’re not even supposed to have that.

“What did you shoot at?” I asked in disbelief. 

“Oh, nothing.” 

“What the fuck? That’ll startle deer and give our location away to other hunters.” 

Rick gave no reply. When we made it back to my house, I cracked open a Michelob Ultra and offered him one—he refused—said he’d quit. Rick didn’t even stick around to help me skin the deer but said something about having to go to Lowe’s. As he walked to his car, he mumbled something that sounded like “I want a beer.” 

“You want a beer?” I said. 

“No.” Rick’s voice was certainly not at its strongest but straining through some emotion I couldn’t quite put my finger on. “I said I want a deer.” 

There was a lot I wanted to say to Rick in that moment about patience and persistence, but I just let it be and watched him drive off. As his car disappeared down the country road, I felt a tinge of pity for the poor guy, but swore I wouldn’t take him out again—he was too irresponsible and didn’t have the right attitude.

As the weeks passed, Rick again broached the subject of me taking him hunting. I suspected that more than anything, he really just wanted an excuse to try out his new Israeli tactical rifle. Though not a hunter, Rick had long been into guns and he’d made it more than clear he was itching to shoot at a live target. “Yeah, I hope we run into a whole pack of hogs,” he’d say. 

When the late afternoon arrived, we parked the truck on the dusty, gravel road that ran almost forever between two walls of thick, wet woods. The night before, I’d sent Rick several texts explaining the details of what should and should not be done. As I unloaded and cranked up the four-wheeler, anxious to set off, Rick announced that he needed to zero in his rifle. Annoyed, I told him he could set up a paper target in the woods. I just hoped his fire wouldn’t draw unwanted attention from other hunters or even perchance, a game warden. 

After several nerve-wracking minutes, the now slightly more confident Rick and I set off on my ATV down the trail of mud, grass, and pot holes. When I came to a bayou, I told Rick to get off. I went on across the bayou and parked the four-wheeler, finally crossing back on foot. This was intentional. I told Rick it was to throw off other hunters from my location. His reply was, “They probably wouldn’t want to hunt back here anyway.” 

I didn’t answer, scoffing at Rick’s ignorance concerning the competitive nature of public land hunting. I didn’t know if he remembered me mentioning seeing over twenty hogs the day before, and I certainly didn’t mention the deer I’d seen back here nor the fresh buck rub on a mature tree forty yards from my stand. 

As we walked along a little bayou, a gradual depression in this semi-open, wooded tract of land, we came to a small drainage crossing. Rick, not having any rubber boots, had asked to borrow my extra pair. Knowing they leaked, I offered for him to wear mine to cross the ditch, then we’d switch back. Rick refused, and as he crossed, his “shit’s” and “goddamnit’s” confirmed my suspicion about the leaky boots.  

Walking a few hundred yards further along the little bayou accented here and there by cypress knees, I dropped Rick off at an old ladder stand someone had built and abandoned long ago. The stand was probably only fifty yards from my spot. I told Rick that although we wouldn’t be able to see each other, I’d be very close. Better yet, he would be only steps away from where I had seen the more than twenty hogs the day before. Rick began fiddling with his gun, appearing to have some difficulty—every bang and beat echoing through the woods, announcing our presence to game. 

As I started off, Rick asked, “Have you climbed this stand?” 

I simply responded, “Yes,” and kept walking, stopping only to say, “If you get in a bind, just call out to me and I’ll be able to hear you. I’ll be hunting ‘till dark and I’ll pick you up here shortly after.” 

“’Till dark?” Rick doubtfully asked. 

“Yep.”

“OK,” he said in reluctant confirmation.  

Around two o’clock in the overcast, winter afternoon, I was sitting about fifteen feet up in a tree and looked to my right and saw something that did not belong in the tranquil, forest scene: the dreaded color of hunter’s orange bobbing through the thinly wooded area overlooking the bayou from where I had walked in. Of course, it was Rick—it could only have been Rick. He was walking along the bayou, albeit quietly, but in the exact direction I had told him not to walk. He couldn’t be more than thirty yards from me. When I had dropped him off, I said, “You are welcome to walk around, but don’t go that direction; that’s where I’ll be. You can walk that direction—back where we came from.  

I whistled. No reaction. I whistled a second, third, even fourth time but nothing. 

Is he deaf?

Rick stopped behind some brush and I couldn’t see him but knew he was there. The other evening, I was exactly where Rick was now when, making less noise than him, I startled deer. After a full two minutes, I had had enough. 

“Rick!” I hollered with at least half of the angry energy in my being, disturbing the peaceful quiet of the afternoon woods and interrupting the fox squirrel’s meal. 

“Yeah?” He sheepishly replied from behind his cover. 

“Go the other way!” I yelled out, exasperated and lost for words. 

“OK . . . Where are you?” He offered in response as he began walking back in the direction from which he had come. Rick didn’t get that I had only spoken out of necessity—indeed, one should not speak out loud when hunting. The smallest snap of a twig can put a nearby deer on high alert. I knew this. I’d done it. 

Next, Rick said something I couldn’t make out. It was either, “I haven’t seen shit” or “I can’t see shit.” Either way, I didn’t care. I just wanted him out of my sight and far from my hunt. My silence was his answer. 

After another hour and a half had passed without incident, my shaky faith in Rick was more stable. I felt that maybe this hunt could still be redeemed. Dusk had begun descending on the woods. The sun had set beyond the tree line. Wood ducks were flying and calling out. The smell of stale sweat mixed with decaying leaves and damp mud lingered in the air. Though I could still clearly see plenty well enough to shoot a deer, darkness wasn’t far around the corner. However, my hopes were at their highest, as I had recently spooked or seen deer at this location around this time—twice and recently. 

“Woo.” The frail, almost human whistle pierced the near silence of the encroaching evening. 

Fuck!

I ignored it, hoping to God that would be the end of it. If all day had been a waste, now was the most precious time of the hunt. I resolved to wait these deer out, but Rick was making that impossible.  

About ten minutes had gone by when at a distant, fateful, thirty yards away, I heard, “Matthew?” 

I could still see. I could still hunt. But now, I couldn’t. Rick had taken that from me. 

Losing nearly all self-control, I screamed in the loudest, angriest, most guttural and primitive voice I could muster—louder than when I scream at my dogs for eating food off my plate when I am not watching. 

“Whaaaat!?” 

With that, nearly all five hours of silence and minimal movement I’d given the forest became void and lost.  

Meanwhile, Rick’s response was simply a deflated, “Okay.” 

I screamed even louder in response, “God damn it!” 

If my first scream hadn’t shattered the serene wooded landscape, my second one violated it beyond description. 

I was done with this hunt. More accurately, this hunt had likely never even begun. Rick had made sure of that. I wasted no time climbing down my tree in the precious and still unused available light. I couldn’t help but think about those deer that would soon show up—or wouldn’t because I had screamed. Even if they did, I wouldn’t be there to see them because Rick had requested my presence. 

Despite my boiling blood, the temperature was steadily dropping, and as I marched directly towards Rick, vapor signifying my quickened breathing rate, I soon saw his orange—the same orange I had told to go in the other direction a couple of hours ago. The only thing I could say was, “Does it look dark to you? I said I was hunting ‘till dark.” 

Rick’s startled reply was, “I didn’t know where you were.”

“You knew where I was! We talked earlier! Never mind—it’s all over now. It’s done,” I retorted as I stormed past a shocked Rick without throwing even a glance his way. He was on his own to keep up or be left behind.

Walking much more quickly than usual—especially for the fading light, I huffed and puffed my way back in the direction of the four-wheeler along the very obvious bayou. After more than five minutes of leaving Rick’s ass in the mud, crossing creeks deeper than my boots, letting them fill up with water, not giving a shit, and watching Rick struggle to cross those same creeks as he cursed, the sound of four wheelers coming down the trail ahead stopped me cold. I paused, half in an effort to let Rick catch up, but mostly to let the ATV’s pass. At all costs, I didn’t want other hunters to know where I was hunting. Rick finally caught up with me. 

“Who’s that?” Rick asked. “Game Wardens?”

“No; probably hunters. Turn off your light. I don’t want them to know where I’m hunting. Public land is very competitive,” I said, more out of breath over my anger than my forced hike. 

Rick addressed the elephant in the forest and finally stumbled, “Dude, You’re more experienced than me. I’m sorry I fucked it up. I got lost and didn’t know where you were.” 

How the fuck did you get lost? There’s an obvious bayou to follow. You have a map with GPS. We were only 30 yards apart! 

I thought all of these things but instead simply said, “Hunting is very important to me.” This was an understatement, but in the rawness of the moment, I couldn’t adequately express my feelings, or at least didn’t feel that I could say what I really thought. 

“I know,” Rick said, his voice almost trembling. 

“Rick, you couldn’t come with me before when I invited you scouting. I’ve put in hours upon hours, hiking all through these woods and sitting and waiting. Right now, is the prime time for deer movement. The past two hunts, I’ve had deer come out at my stand at dark.”

“Dude, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” 

“Look. I’m sorry I got so angry.”

“No man—I’m glad you did. I’ve never seen that side of you.” 

Silence and steam from both of our breaths steadily filled the evening air. The roar and headlights of four-wheelers on the trail were now passing us about a hundred yards up ahead. 

“I don’t hate you, Rick.”

“I know.”

“But it’s very frustrating to put in so much time to have it all be for nothing.”

“Man, I’m sorry I fucked it up. I went walking and then I didn’t know where I was, and I guess I panicked.” 

“It’s all right,” I said, extending my hand in the near darkness. 

We shook a man’s handshake, and I said, “I apologize for yelling at you, but next time, trust me. If I say I’ll pick you up at dark, I’ll pick you up at dark.” 

The hunters on four wheelers on the trail were now out of sight, so we pressed on—back to the four-wheeler, back to the truck, back to my house, back to our lives, and hopefully, back to our friendship.