AN YOU GO HUNTING tomorrow?" an unfamiliar voice asked.
The hour was late, but it wasn't unusual for Hal's phone to ring at such an hour. He had no idea what an unusual hunt would result from this 'phone call.
"Maybe," Hal quickly responded. "What are we hunting — and where?"
He didn't recognize the voice, but he was not about to pass-up a hunt without knowing more about it. The caller was Dr Joe Burkett, the founder and developer of Burkett Trophy Game Records of the World. Dr Joe had given-up a lucrative veterinary practice to devote all his time to his scoring system, which is not only a record of the world's trophy game animals but also — through the data obtained as the trophies are scored — a bank of information on the best places to go for a particular species.
The whys of his call to Hal were a bit gory — the animal that had to be hunted and killed was an exotic that had just killed a man.
Exotic animals (those not indigenous to this country) are popular on ranches in Texas and in many other parts of the United States. Some of them are hunted. Most of them are not. Since it is illegal to import any of them directly to a ranch, for hunting or just as live scenery, only the offspring of imported animals can be on these ranches. And most of the time, only their offspring are hunted — usually where the numbers of the animals become a problem and have to be reduced.
Hunting is as good a method as any of cropping an over-abundance of any wild animal. The species involved here was the oryx — a beisa oryx, to be specific. Four species of oryx are imported into the United States: gemsbok, beisa, fringe-eared, and scimitar-horned. All can be dangerous. The book African Antelope (Winchester Press) says that the oryx is "pugnacious and will not hesitate to use its long sharp horns effectively." The ranch oryx that Hal was to hunt had shown the truth of those words in a particularly horrible way.
These are said to be the only animals of their type in Africa that can successfully defend themselves from lions. Their long horns are slender and sharp. The animals are exceptionally quick. Their weights — from four to five hundred pounds — add heft to their thrusts. These are not animals to play around with!
This killer oryx was on a Texas ranch that was not open to hunting. The animals were there for only their esthetic value — for visitors, friends, and family to see, but not in corrals or cages. This bull and his harem of three females were the only oryx among the dozens of exotic animals on the ranch.
He had been a bit of a problem for the past few months. One visitor had had an arm ripped open as the bull tried to get at him through a gate. The bull had raced the man to the gate as he was trying to leave the pasture and had caught him as he opened the gate. The man was able to get through the gate all right, but he had to hold the gate against the lunges of the bull oryx. As he reached through the gate to put the chain in place, a horn tore his arm. It made a nasty wound.
The other incident involved a photographer who had been warned to keep a careful eye on the bull oryx but got careless. The bull caught him as he came around a bush — and hooked him in the chest and the abdomen. The photographer survived — and will undoubtedly do what he's told from now on when someone warns him to keep a wary eye on a particular animal.
The ranch hand that the oryx had killed had been afraid of the bull, so it's hard to believe that he got careless — yet the bull had caught him away from his pick-up and had nearly torn him to bits. No one will ever know whether he was on his way back to the tractor shed to get the tractor for some work or was headed back to his pick-up. The ranch hand, a black man in his sixties, had worked on the ranch for four years.
The oryx had thrown him around over what appeared to be about a fifty-yard circle. There was blood on every bush and shrub in that immediate area, and many of them were uprooted or broken off. Deep gouges in the ground showed where the bull had pushed its horns underneath its victim to toss him around some more.
The incident apparently occurred late in the afternoon. The ranch owner came in a little before dark. The ranch hand's wallet was on a table in his room, and his radio was on, but he was nowhere to be found. A bit perturbed with the man, the rancher used a few choice terms about him, thinking that he had gone off with friends, maybe even to town, without telling anyone — though that somehow didn't reason-out, because the man's radio was on, and his wallet was still there on the table in his room.
Shortly after dawn the next morning, someone saw the ranch hand's pick-up near a stock tank. Realizing then that the man hadn't come in the day before, the rancher and others searched for him and found his grisly remains. The rancher immediately called Dr Burkett, who deals in exotic animals along with operating his scoring system and a hunting outfit known as Expedition Outfitters International. Doctor Joe went directly to the ranch.
It was obvious what had killed the man. That bull oryx was the only animal on the ranch with the equipment that could wreak the havoc that the visible evidence showed. Dr Burkett looked for the bull and found the still frantic and frenzied animal with part of the man's shirt hanging from one horn, down over one eye, with blood all over its head and horns.
He tried to get a shot with his tranquilizer gun but couldn't get close enough to the bull. After spending the entire day trying, he finally told the rancher that the only way to get that oryx off the place was to kill it.
"Do it — and the quicker the better!" the rancher said.
Doctor Joe went into town, ate a late supper, and called Hal from the restaurant. He said that if Hal wanted a bull oryx, he could have that one — and a built-in story to boot. Then he told Hal what had happened.
Hal met him and his working compadre, Alan Griffin, at that same restaurant long before daylight the next morning. Over hotcakes, ham, and eggs, he told Hal the story in more detail than he had given him the night before.
The bull had not only killed the ranch hand — it had stripped him completely, had even torn his socks off his feet. It had strewn bits of his clothing over a wide area — also his pocket change, pieces of his belt, and the belt buckle. That must have been a long and brutal fight.
No one will ever know how much of a fight the man put up, how long he lived, or any detail other than those that Hal, Dr Joe, and the rancher could read in the sign that they found scattered all over the ground and brush where the fight had taken place. The body had been found pushed under a small shrub — and from the signs that they could see, it is hardly likely that he could have crawled there. For some reason, the bull had pushed him underneath something before it finally left him there.
The man's large belt buckle had a deep dent near the center, so the bull had aimed at least one of its horn thrusts at his abdomen.
Why tell all this? Why is this story more significant than just another adventure yarn? Because some hunters say that hunting exotic game is a farce — that "pen-raised" animals offer hunters no challenge — "like shooting fish in a barrel." And these allegations are all too true in some instances. In the hunting business, as in any other business, there are some who find it expedient to turn animals loose as the hunter drives through the gate — often into tiny pastures with nowhere else for them to go.
But then there are also unscrupulous business and professional men in every walk of life — lawyers, storekeepers, doctors, publishers. In any of these, someone, somewhere, operates in a manner that isn't becoming to that particular field. The fact that a few "hunters" unworthy of the name hunt exotic game gives the rest of us no cause to belittle the sport itself.
Many ranches that have exotic game animals are huge. The animals that are on them roam freely, breed, grow, and spend their lives never inside a little pen, let alone in a shed or in a larger building. Many of these animals are exactly the same in all ways as they would be in their native habitats — even the same in their temperament. They are wild, are often hard to find, and can be dangerous if they're not watched closely. This particular ranch wasn't hunted. But it needed a hunter to get a dangerous animal off the place.
Never, when you're around animals, trust them completely. Whether they're exotic or indigenous, always watch them. Never turn your back on a mature male. There's no such thing as a "tame" wild animal. Even an animal that's "tame" for days, months, or even years can turn on man under certain conditions and situations.
Hal's hunt for that killer bull oryx was nothing like shooting fish in a barrel. Doctor Joe told Hal that the probable range for a shot would be at least seventy yards and maybe even a hundred yards or more. Whenever he could, Hal preferred to hunt with a handgun. He was then sixty years old and had been blind with cataracts in both eyes before a fine ophthalmologist had restored his vision to 20/20 in one eye and 20/15 in the other.
He preferred open-sighted handguns for shooting at fifty yards or closer. For this hunt, he took along a custom Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum with a 4-5/8-inch barrel — but anticipating the possibility of a longer shot, he also took along a custom Thompson/Center Contender .45-70 with a twelve-inch barrel and a 2x Leupold M8 scope in the excellent Maxi-mount.
He filled the .44 Magnum with five rounds of Remington 240-grain jacketed soft-points. (To Hal, five rounds was "a full cylinder," since he was a long-time shooter of single-action revolvers from the era when that was the maximum safe number of rounds to load into the cylinder of a single-action, and he was still shooting Colt single-actions, so he never loaded any single-action in a manner that wasn't safe for all of them.) His pancake holster for this .44 had six cartridge loops, so he always had an extra cylinderful close at hand.
For the .45-70 Contender, he had Federal's great three-hundred-grain hollow-points — one round in the chamber and three extra rounds in his right vest pocket. He also had two extra .45-70 rounds in his left vest pocket — he'd hold those two rounds ready between his fingers when he was shooting the Contender.
A heavy fog covered the pasture. Hal held the .45-70 ready, with the .44 beside him on the seat of the pick-up. He suggested that they walk around looking for the oryx.
"No way!" Doctor Joe wouldn't let him out of the pick-up.
The bull was hard to find. The two men drove all over the pasture, criss-crossing back and forth, concentrating on places where he was known to hang out. But no oryx — except the females that they kept finding. They had almost decided to go in for coffee when they spotted the killer bull in some very heavy south-Texas flora, all of it decked-out with thorns in a variety of lengths. The bull wouldn't come out of it, and it was too thick to shoot through.
Finally, with Doctor Joe frantically commenting on the merits of Hal's risky actions, Hal opened the door of the pick-up and stepped out. (Don't worry — Mildred Swiggett didn't raise any full-fledged idiots. Hal wasn't about to get beyond jumping distance of the pick-up.) As he went around to the front of the pick-up, the oryx moved.
He was maybe thirty yards inside the cover and probably twenty yards from the end of it, the way the men were both facing. As Hal neared the front of the vehicle, the bull started toward the end of the cover that he was in. Hal thought that he knew what the bull had in mind — he was going to get outside the brushy cover, then see how fast he could get around the corner at Hal. At least, that was the impression that Hal got from the look in the bull's eye. And Hal, being no fool, was easily impressed by (and wary of) any animal that had recently killed a man.
Hal stepped quickly to the front of the pick-up and was ready when the bull cleared his cover. Doctor Joe had lectured Hal long and loud, throughout the search, that if he got a broadside shot, he was to put the vertical cross-hair up and down the bull's foreleg and the horizontal cross-hair half-way up its body. That wasn't where Hal would have preferred to place the shot, but he'd learned long before that it was best to do just whatever the guide said that he should do — that way, if something went wrong, at least he wouldn't be blamed for not following instructions.
As the big oryx stepped out from the cover, he stopped for a moment with both eyes on Hal and almost broadside, with his head turned toward Hal and Dr Joe. Hal's and the bull's eyes were in direct contact. When the bull stopped, Hal let the hammer of the Contender fall. He lost sight of the bull in the recoil from the .45-70. The bull appeared to lunge in a twisting motion back into that heavy cover. Witnesses agreed that that was what happened.
Hal was sure that the bullet had gone right where he'd aimed it — or at least he felt that it should have, because the sight picture was exactly what Doctor Joe had asked for when he squeezed the trigger. And the range was no more than forty yards.
Circling the dense thicket of thorny things, Hal and Dr Joe spotted the bull lying under a small tree maybe fifteen yards inside the thicket. His head was up. Hal had to back-up ten steps or so to see through the scope. His second shot broke the bull's neck.
The horns were still covered with the ranch hand's blood. It was of course dry. The tip of one horn was broken about three or four inches from the tip. Not broken off — the fibers of the horn had been broken so the tip could be bent. Hal figured that this injury had occurred during the bull's murderous attack, so he later asked the taxidermist not to repair it.
Yes, Hal admitted that he was hunting from a vehicle. (Most African game is taken from in or near vehicles.) He was outside the vehicle for the shot, using his five-foot-seven-inch body as a lure to entice the bull out of the cover for that shot. (In Africa, the hunter is not always outside the vehicle, on the ground with his quarry. Also, in Africa, the animal being hunted is not always mad at the man and itching to do something about it, as this beisa bull was.)
The fact that an animal is from another country — and on a ranch, inside a fence — doesn't have to mean that it is tame, not dangerous, or not capable of being an appropriate subject of a truly sporting hunt.
Dr Joe Burkett's scoring system deserves more mention here than this account has given it. He built it on the basis of each trophy's volume. Whatever the animal grew (Dr Burkett felt), he should get credit for all of it. His system includes no kind of deduction, therefore it's a positive scoring system. If one side varies from the other by more than five percent, the trophy automatically belongs to the extra-typical category.
The system began with placing antlers, horns, and femurs in a tank of water. From this basis, Dr Burkett developed a method of measuring the trophy (with calipers and a tiny, very flexible cable) to derive the same score that he'd derived by his earlier method of measuring the water that the animal's body parts displaced.
Another point in favor of his system is that it scores trophies first against other trophies that have been taken in the same year. Trophies from years of bad growth don't have to compete with those from years of good growth. Then those scores are entered into the over-all picture. This is an exact, very precise system. Several scorers can score a trophy, and their individual totals will be so nearly the same that there's no real difference in the outcome. To find out more about hunting exotic big game (animals not indigenous to this country) or Burkett Trophy Game Records of the World, write to Chick Rives; Exotic Wildlife Association; 216 Highway 27 West; Ingram, Texas 78025 — or call him at (512) 367-4997.
The shoulder mount of this killer beisa oryx, along with a photograph of Hal with his .45-70 Contender and the bull, hangs in the Handgun Hunters Museum and Hall of Fame at 41302 Executive Drive; Mount Clemens, Michigan.