The old man lay in his bed. He was dying and knew it. So did we. Grandfather and the man talked. Us youngsters were silent. My eyes explored the bedroom trying to avoid those of the dying man. There were some photos on the wall. Framed without glass. Photos of the farmer, his rifle, and bear he had taken over the years. The rifle in the photos was leaning in the corner of the bedroom next to the door.
My Grandfather had a way with folks. A good listener, he knew when to speak and when not to. He made it a point to visit the farmers that owned land around our hunting camp. During these visits conversation was general with no mention of permission to hunt. They usually offered that freely as Grandpa was leaving: “Ya’ll are welcome to hunt anywhere on the place.” They would say. I have my Grandfather’s love for hunting and the outdoors. I wish I had his way with people.
Cancer had the farmer confined to bed. He and grandfather talked of green beans, ornery steers, and the neighbors. I was interested in the rifle in the corner. I glanced at my cousin and he nodded his head toward the rifle. He wanted me to ask about it. He was old enough to know my youth would allow the curiosity.
“That your bear rifle Mr. Saville?” I sheepishly inquired.
“Yes sir.” He replied. “Took allot of deer with it too.”
“How may bear you killed with it? I asked.
“Thirteen, I believe. Got the first bear killed in the county.” He paused and Grandpa took up the conversation where it was before I interrupted.
The rifle was an old Savage 99. I wondered why it was standing in the corner of the dying man’s bedroom. He for sure was not apt to use it. But there it stood. Collecting dust and the interest of two young boys.
“What caliber is it?” My enthusiasm was overriding my manners but Grandpa, as usual, was patient with us kids.
“It’s a 300.” The farmer replied like there was only one 300. They continued to talk.
During the rest of the visit my cousin and I traded looks at each other and the old rifle. I mustered enough courage to walk closer and stare at the photographs on the wall but not the gun. Kids just didn’t get near guns back then without permission. I knew that. Youngsters today should but don’t.
That was a long time ago but I remember that visit and the rifle like it was last week. The gun is not a mystery anymore. Since then several 99s and many other rifles have cycled through my hands. Searching for that perfect rifle I’ve managed to find shortcomings in them all. Often we look to blame our guns for lack of success afield. Rifles that won’t cluster three shots in quarter size groups we consider inadequate.
I doubt the farmer ever fired a three-shot group with the old 300. He knew where it hit. Keeping groundhogs out of the garden and shooting an occasional chicken stealing fox kept the rifle and him acquainted. I can picture the old man standing in the back door of the farm house telling his wife to go get his rifle as he watched a woodchuck munch on a lettuce head. If I told my wife the to go get my rifle there’s no telling which one she would bring and it would undoubtedly be the one I didn’t want. I have been told many times, to beware the man with one gun.
Deer and black bear haven’t changed over the years. But, today’s hunters need brush guns, super scoped beanfield rifles, and the newest hot cartridge to feel equipped. We order up guns for specific hunts like we do supper at Outback. Options are nice but tend to confuse the issue. I remember Grandpa telling us boys “You need to know your gun.”
A rifle is a tool. The old farmer knew that. No different than his tractor or his fence pliers. Never did he consider buying another rifle when the one he had worked. Still yet, that rifle was special to him. Special enough to be close to him when he died. As we left I stole an extra long glance at the Savage. It was decorated in gouges and nicks and the bluing was long gone at the rifle’s balance point. I thought to myself I would never let a rifle get like that and 30 years later only a few have. Those rifles are the ones I shoot best.
That one good gun is hard to come by. The farmer found his. Many of us haven’t. His may have come out of necessity. Or maybe he nonchalantly knew what many hunters never learn. It’s the man behind the gun that matters most.