Growing up in the 1930s and 40s with an old man who was addicted to hunting and fishing left a small residue on the family. Fishing was fine if the fish were biting, but serious hunting never struck any form of harmonious chord. I was more like the English gentlemen on horseback who surround a solitary fox with no chance of survival. I was mostly interested in the sure thing. It didn’t always work out that way!
While courting Lois Steeples, a farmer’s daughter in Western Kansas during the winter of 1952-53, it seemed appropriate and timely to plan a hunting expedition. Given my modest hunting ambitions, the plan was for us to load-up a rifle and stalk big game in the prairie. At the time I had never hunted any four-legged creatures in Western Kansas, but I had achieved a fair level of success with rabbits in the eastern half of the state. To this day, I have no way of knowing if the rabbits in the east and the west are part of the same species, but my experience suggests they are totally different creatures.
Having targeted the prey, about all that remained was selecting the proper time for the safari. It happened one evening. Around dusk it started a slow, but steady dusting of snow. By mid-evening there was a perfectly white snow covering on the ground. The moon was full, and was high in the night sky, providing enough visibility for driving along the country roads without any lights. I had never hunted after dark before, but the snow cover and the full moon was about all the encouragement needed to give it a shot.
The plan was simple, and depended upon whether rabbits in Western Kansas share the same characteristics as their Eastern Kansas cousins. In Eastern Kansas there is far more vegetation, and many of the country roads are lined with hedge rows on one or both sides. These hedges provide perfect shelter from wind, rain, pestilence, and danger from predators who might otherwise capture and eat a small rabbit. In the case of hunters, the rabbits are often seen sitting placidly among the hedges. During daylight hours they may be seen by the dozens. Except for the wily hunter, hedge rows are the perfect place to hide, and the rabbit knows that from experience. Hedge rows are a security blanket for rabbits.
In Western Kansas there are few hedge rows, and precious few places to hide. The hope was that the Western Kansas rabbits would choose to sit along the grader ditches for the limited shelter they provide. Driving slowly along the roads with our lights on would surely provide enough light to spot rabbits sitting in the snow. With this planning and theorizing in mind, we jumped into the car and began our safari.
After a very few minutes, we were driving south along one section-line road with an open field on the west side. We had not driven far when we spotted a rabbit in the shelter of the grader ditch next to the field. He was sitting still, and as we approached in the car, he didn’t move, or even appear to be awake. At this point stealth is the key to any success, knowing that the rabbit must not be alarmed. I slowed the car to a stop almost adjacent to the rabbit, but still within the illumination of the headlights. I turned the engine off, but left the headlights on for their illumination. I grabbed the rifle, and opened the driver’s side door with such caution that even the rabbit could not hear it.
I slithered out of the car and moved toward the front with the rifle in hand. Still the rabbit had not moved. I attempted to get a bead on the rabbit over the hood of the car, but the moon did not provide enough illumination to see the sights of the rifle. With that discovery, my only option was to move into the headlights in front of the car, and use that illumination to see the gun’s sights. Continuing in stealth mode, I moved with extreme caution into the headlights, and crouched down so as to see the sights directly in front of the headlamps.
Being illuminated as I was, I was able to see not only the rear and forward sights on the rifle, but also the silhouette of the rabbit in the grader ditch. Knowing that the rabbit could jump at any moment, I squeezed the trigger. The sound was crisp and startling. On occasion when a rabbit is startled in this manner, he jumps a foot or two into the air before whatever comes next. I was reasonably certain I had landed a clean hit, but from the rabbit’s reaction I was not sure.
The rabbit turned around and jumped over a small ridge to the west away from the road, and ran into the field. At that point I was quite sure I would never see the rabbit again. I stood up in front of the car in order to get a clearer view of the field, and see if he was anywhere in the vicinity. I could see nothing at all from what illumination was available. The only clear lighting was the road immediately in front of the car.
I moved back toward the car, and Lois asked me what happened. I said I thought I had hit it, but it jumped over a small ridge and ran into the field. After that I moved back into the headlights again for one last look. Suddenly I saw what appeared to be an angry rabbit running straight toward me from the grader ditch. When he reached the edge of the road, I was illuminated like a deer in the headlights. Never before had I confronted such a puzzling circumstance.
There was no way I was about to confront a wounded Western Kansas rabbit after dark. I made a desperate dash for the car, opened the door, and slammed it shut behind me. At this point, it was my opportunity, if not my duty, to explain what, exactly, I was running from. There were no suitable answers.
“Just exactly what is going on?” Lois asked her fearless suitor.
“I thought the rabbit was up in the field, but as soon as I crouched down into the headlights, the rabbit started running straight toward me.” I replied.
“So you are running back to the safety of the car because a rabbit was chasing you. Is that right?” she asked.
“Not exactly,” I replied. “It was not just any rabbit. It was a wounded, angry, and vengeful rabbit who appeared to be totally crazed out of his mind,” I added.
At the time I was hoping that this might be the end of the story. Unfortunately this particular story has a habit of reappearing at the least opportune moments.
The revealing fallout from this story is that I would probably repeat the experience again exactly as it happened the first time around.
There was no doubt in my mind that this rabbit was wounded. From his conduct, the likes of which I had never experienced before, there was no doubt that he was also very angry. As I had never before stalked the wily rabbits of Western Kansas, I had no understanding of their usual methods and manners. What I observed was a creature so crazed, and having no shelter in which to hide, he chose to attack the hunter. No way was I going to confront a rabbit in the open, in the dark, where he held all the advantages. My retreat to the safety of the car, given these bizarre circumstances, was a foregone conclusion.
And I have been suffering the associated indignities of this humiliating experience with that wicked rabbit for over 50 years.