Last night I had a dream about killing rabbits. Trails of coyote scat loaded with desiccated mesquite beans and the small bones of rabbits. Now that I try to recall the dream’s details, maybe we were hunting coyotes. The mood of the dream—you know how dreams have moods even when you don’t know what the dream was about? When dreams like that arrive I often wake up with the mood on my back like a western saddle, all day, maybe into the next night for a repetition of the dream, or some sequel that drifts off to some other surreal moment. Often it’s war dreams that come like that, but this isn’t a blog about war dreams, or maybe it is; all my dreams could be version of war dreams.
Anyway, my dream last night owned the mood of something a la Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing or Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men. Harsh stories about wolf murder and freedom and the angel of death and the angel of retribution. Last night’s dream was populated with companions who I don’t think I even know, all chambering rounds in weapons; rifles, shotguns, pistolas. We dug around in stringy coyote scat with big-bladed knives we pulled out of leather scabbards that hung off cowboy belts with our names etched in the back of them, but right now I don’t recall any names.
And I don’t recall how the dream ended, or maybe it didn’t, maybe it just segued into another dream, something about my mother and her long-gone-ness or about my father spitting verbal rebukes and fireworks at anyone who crossed him. He and I used to hunt a lot when I was a kid but he wouldn’t let me shoot the rabbits. Not that he was averse to killing, we hammered dove—back in those days, the early 60’s, I recall you could kill ten mourning dove and fifteen white winged dove—twice a day over the Labor Day weekend and we shot quail and once or twice we chased desert mule deer through the stab-spined thorns of ocotillo cacti that guarded the slopes that led to the scrub oak groves below the caprock where the big bucks with the nice sets of horns liked to hide.
But we never killed rabbits. He claimed, as a kid, that dove and quail kept all sixteen of them alive in the thirties, the sixteen who lived in the little board and battened, tarpapered shack my grandfather called a home. I wonder if they tried to eat rabbits, too, but couldn’t overcome fears of tularemia, a bacteriological disease one can get from uncooked or undercooked rabbit meat in the months that have no “r” in their name. May. June. July. August. That was the rule of thumb for my friends who did shoot and eat rabbits. No May, June, July, August.
They wouldn’t hunt in the months with no “r” in the name, but come fall winter and spring, they’d stuff their pockets with boxes of .22 longs and holster their .22 rifles in makeshift holsters and ride their bikes, and take me with my BB gun out into the flats north and west of town where big chunks of desert still allowed plenty of jackrabbits (which are really hares) and cottontails (which are really rabbits) for us to shoot at. I say shoot at, not kill, because when they moved it was fast, and when we shot (I don’t believe I could have killed a rabbit with a BB gun, I needed a .22, too, but had none; father didn’t like them), we were bad, standing, firing offhand, as rapid-fire as we could while the jackrabbits bounded and veered and the cottontails darted and veered. We could see the dust fly above and below them as we followed them along, stitching up the desert with our poor aim. Rarely did we kill anything and if we did, one of the others who was not afraid to eat them, would gut them and skin them and oftentimes we could spot the places where the flesh looked sick and malignant and those rabbits and hares got left for the carrion eaters.
Sometimes we went into town lucky enough to have a hare or rabbit or two tied to the handlebars of a Schwinn or a Huffy. Whoever it was who did the killing usually liked to find someone, usually a crowd of girls, and show off the kill. It was never me and I went home while they tried to style the gals about how cool they were because they killed and gutted a rabbit or two. Only a few of the girls showed any interest. Usually they turned up their noses and shooed the hunters off.
Over the years, I hunted and occasionally someone would shoot a cottontail and it would end up in the pot with dove or quail and lots of jalapeños. It was a leap of faith for me to eat it though, I guess because I could hear my father back in the recesses of my memory rebuking me for taking the risk. While I was masticating the meat, everyone would ooh and aah over the sharp flavor of wild cottontail, but to be honest with you, I never thought it that good. It may have been damned good, but the onus of taking the risk with tularemia probably made it taste like it needed to be upchucked out in the pink eye weeds.
My father never was a risk taker, so of course, I tended to take risks. Early on I wanted to get into the sheep business. It was pretty high risk and I hung around with all my sheepherder friends and built fence, and moved sheep on foot, and tore down fence and vaccinated and drenched sheep. One of my friends managed some of his family’s herds down in the desert between Phoenix and Yuma, at a place called Welton. Once he called me to come help him kill rabbits.
I said, “Why?”
He said, “They are eating all my alfalfa and I need it for the sheep.”
I said, “You have hundreds of acres of alfalfa.”
He said, “I got thousands and thousands of rabbits.
Visions of rabbit herds like sheep herds came into mind. Like a dream, I saw myself shooting them as they ran by me, as if I was plinking targets at the carnival. I told him I was in. We loaded two Dodge Chargers full of beer and boys and shotguns and rifles. He made us put the weapons in the trunk as he chuckled and mumbled things about overkill.
We got to the fields at night and parked. Instead of lush green, the pastures were buff colored like rabbits. We piled out of the cars with their head lights left on and our host handed us bats and clubs and laughing said, “These are all you will need.”
There was no sport in it, at least for me. But he had bought us beer and hamburgers and said he’d give us each twenty dollars, so I waded in. The hares and rabbits didn’t even run, just looked at us with alarm as we dispatched them….thunk, bonk, whack, thump, thunk; further into the fields we charged, the rabbit carcasses, tularemia or not, left to spoil in the desert heat. The great horned owls who showed up flapped over our heads as if they were chagrined. And why not? They’d had easy pickings. And so did we.
I am not sure we saved any pasturage for my friend. We did get drunk and we crowned a lot of rabbits and hares. Maybe there is a reason they keep showing up in my dreams. Like war dreams.
4 Replies to “Dreaming of Tularemia”
This contains a bunch of things I’ve wondered about for years: Were my Dad’s warnings against eating rabbits because they had tularemia real? How could coyotes eats them if they were dangerous? Am I a good enough shot to actually hit an animal? And what drives the jackrabbit populations in the U.S. West?
Hope I can sleep tonight with all these questions in my head.
I think the answers to your questions can be found at the Headquarters Bar.
If you meet me there I’ll buy the first round!