I got my first twenty-two rifle when I was twelve. This was the normal age for any prairie boy to have his own gun, but long before that the hunting instinct had come to the fore and following in the footsteps of my early ancestors I was fashioning weapons. The first good one was the sling shot.
After carefully selecting the right crotched branch, cutting it to size, and peeling the green bark I then went in search of an inner tube from which two strips of rubber one half inch wide and twelve inches long would be cut. Because Dad owned the garage, this was no problem, and in those days all tires and tubes were made of pure rubber. The second Second World War had not even been dreamed of (except perhaps by Hitler) and synthetic was not yet a word as far as tires went.
Next a soft leather pocket to hold the ammunition (small stones) was needed. The tongue of old work boots was perfect. After shaping the work boot tongue and slotting both sides, the rubber strips were fed through the slots and carefully tied with string. Next the other ends of rubber were tied to the branch and a weapon was born.
Ammunition was always a problem on the prairie, but again the railway served well. The rail bed was a mass of rock and gravel, much of it just the right size. Since gopher hunting was great out on the grassy fields and poor on the railway tracks, we were forced to first load all our pockets with stones, then head for gopher country. I can almost feel the red welts that developed on my thighs and legs from those pockets full of rocks digging into me, step after step.
June was the very best month for gopher hunting. The young gophers are born in May, and by June they are out of their burrows and running all over the place. The best killing range was obviously as close as possible, but a fairly effective distance was between fifty and one hundred feet. I'm not sure why the killing instinct is so strong in young boys, but it sure is. Ffrom the first of my memories, if an insect or wild animal moved you should try to catch it, examine it, and eventually kill the poor thing.
Over time I learned to appreciate and admire nature, and to this day I greatly admire the weasel's courage, and the coyote's wily abilities that allow it to survive and prosper despite man the enemy. This learning process was fueled by my curiosity of the many prairie animal and bird species. We boys caught and tried to raise young crows, magpies, gophers, and rabbits. Most of the time this process ended in death, but once in a while the poor victim that we were tryuing to tame would escape by digging or learning to fly, thus setting back the program for another year, since by that time the young in the wild had left the nest or were by now too smart to be caught.
Money from Hunting
Now I don't want you to think that our young killer instinct was without reason. There was a considerable monetary incentive as well. Yes indeed, there was big money to be made in hunting. The county paid one cent for each gopher tail, and four cents for each pair of crow or magpie legs turned in (two cents if it was a one legged bird).
After a big day of gopher hunting we boys would come and empty our pockets onto the dining room table ready to do the official count before storing them away in our big Eddie's matches box for safe keeping. Mother was very understanding, but I remember that she made us cover the table with an old flannel sheet before the count. We thought this was a good idea since the oak table top was too slippery anyway.
Once in a while after a day of gopher hunting we would forget about the pockets full of gopher tails and Mother would find them as she went through our pockets prior to washing. We always got a real lecture when we got home from school on a day she found gopher tails, but Mother never threw the tails away. She knew the value of a dollar, and she loved her boys dearly.
Now once the summer was near to an end and we had pulled the tails off every gopher we could trap, snare, drown out, or sling shot, it was time to cash in our booty. Crows and magpies although worth four gopher tails were not big money makers. Tthey were just too smart and too fast for us. Hunting them was always exciting and we loved it, but there were very few trees on our prairie and those birds built in the very highest trees they could find. Most often the day would be spent trying to find the nest as the adult birds squawked and dove at us.
When we did manage to locate the nest the challenge of climbing to it was awesome, so by the end of a hard day, few legs were in our pockets. Remember the trees were only found at farm sites which were at least a quarter of a mile apart. This meant much cycling between hunts, and often resulted in being turned away by the farmer's wife who would rather have young crows than young boys and broken trees. Ah! Yes bird hunting was exciting but the big money was in gopher tails. Much easier to come by and not nearly as hazardous to hunt.
Now when the day had come and the decision was made to sell our summer's bounty, the Eddie's match boxes bulging with counted and recounted gopher tails, were taken to the post office where Mister Warren (our Post Master) counted them (at least he said he did) and paid us cash money on the spot. Upon reflection I'm sure old Warren wouldn't touch a gopher tail or a crow's leg with a ten foot pole. In fact I'll bet he took them right to the kitchen stove as soon as we left. Yes the post office was part of the postmaster's house, or vice versa. That's the way it was in all the little towns on the Goose Lake Line as far as I know.
My First Gun
Now that I think about it, it is difficult to describe the utter wild and buoyant emotion that bubbled up inside me when my folks gave their OK for my first real gun. A single shot Cooey 22 caliber rifle. Dad was able to get it wholesale from Marshall Wells who wholesaled out of Calgary to all the dealers on the Goose Lake Line. In fact Marshall Wells was one of the biggest wholesalers in western Canada. They supplied Cooley Brothers Garage with a catalogue so thick it was hard to lift and in this big book were page after page of GUNS of all kinds.
It took a lot of careful consideration on my part before I decided on that Cooey. A lever action would have been great, but it was too much money, and automatics weren't heard of in those days. My final choice was a bolt action with a 26 inch barrel, genuine hardwood stock and open vee sights. The catalogue said this model had genuine bluing on the barrel and a side ejector on the bolt action.
As in most of my purchasing decisions, price was the main motivating factor in the early days of my youth, but come to think of it I'm not sure that has changed much over the years, although even then I had plenty of cash, saved from my many ways of developing income. i.e. sheep herding, bottle picking, weasel trapping, etc.
Let me try to describe the long week of waiting from the time I picked out that Cooey until it was at last in my trembling hands.
I remember well, it was in the spring when I first started longing in earnest for my first real GUN. August Rosenau and Henry Schmidt each had their own guns and over and over each school day they related to us town boys their shooting skill feats. They even produced match boxes full of gopher tails as proof of their marksmanship, although we town boys all knew they kept showing the same tails over and over again. No one could shoot that many gophers every day, and besides where could they get all that money to buy shells? Shells cost one half a cent each (twenty five cents a box) and that kind of money didn't grow on trees as Dad always said. Besides that even if money did grow on trees, there were no trees on the prairie.
Anyway those country boys sure laid it on heavy and it made Bill Lee and I dream of guns most school nights. It was worse on the week end when we trudged forth Saturday with our old sling shots, pockets full of rocks and rubbing our thighs raw. Knowing that if we just had a gun we would probably hardly ever miss. Worse still, on Monday those country boys would brag about their kill and we couldn't say we had even been hunting. After all we only had sling shots. Yes I remember it well. It was a long spring of longing for a gun of my own.
My very own, brand new Cooey, bolt action, single shot, twenty two rifle, arrived and was delivered by Dad on a Friday afternoon in late June. It was a beautiful gun, complete with gleaming blue barrel post and vee sights and genuine hardwood stocalk.
Now to buy the right ammunition. Twenty two shorts were the cheapest, but they didn't carry very far and besides they were not good for the barrel rifling grooves. (I had been reading all the literature I could find). Twenty two longs were a good clean shell but cost more. The best shell available was the twenty two long rifle. All of these shells came in boxes of fifty, priced at 25 cents for shorts, 40 cents for longs and 50 cents for long rifle. I chose the longs and headed out east of town to a field owned by Albert Carlson, (the man whose's sheep I herded) to see how effective this weapon was on the gopher population.
Now I had owned a B.B. gun when I was ten (the one I shot Brian Target with and almost put his eye out, but that's another story). Because of this I expected a gopher to drop dead every time I took aim and pulled the trigger. Not so. Most of those gophers if hit, ran quickly down their holes to die, leaving me with an empty shell box, and forty cents lighter.
The next day I reluctantly bought the twenty five cent shorts and put up a cardboard target in an attempt to improve my aim, without having to declare bankruptcy. Now the twenty two short ammunition was pretty effective (so much for what the book says) and a lot cheaper, so this became my standard ammunition.
Have you ever enjoyed hearing the sound of shattering glass as a big wine bottle is hit and blows off the fence post? It is an awesome sound and sight when you get your first gun. The town dump was a mile east of town, full of empty bottles, and partly surrounded by a fence. What an ideal situation.
The shattering explosions were great, but even a good thing can get tiresome, and besides the catsup and rotten fruit that flew out of some bottles didn't help the smell of us when we came home from the dump. Also bottles were getting hard to find and digging for them was taking it's toll on our clean clothes. I don't remember being told not to frequent the dump any more, so I think the decision was ours alone. Mother may not have suggested it but I'm sure she breathed a sigh of relief when we moved on to new target areas.
It was now the fall of the year 1939. I had had all summer to become a good marksman, and was now ready to hunt the big game. The only big game in the country were antelope. Deer were far too smart to try to live on our Godforsaken bald headed prairie, and were found only in the Red Deer River valleys forty five miles south of Chinook.
H. D. Connor (Hubert Dudley) was called Barney for short. To this day I don't know why he was called Barney, but that was what he was called. Barney and Billy Lee were my two best friends, but since Billy didn't like guns, Barney was my number one hunting buddy. Barney lived on a farm with his sister Nancy, father Barney senior, uncle Neil, and hired remittance man Scotty. The farm was three and one half miles north and a mile east of Chinook.
Hunting with Barney at about 12 years old
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