A tale of bad friends and splintered stew.
It was Saturday evening and I couldn't have been living in Montana more than a month when the big guy I was talking to at the Korner Klub shouted over the music, “Hey, you wanna go rabbit hunting tomorrow?”
His ginger-colored hair fell to his shoulders and his frayed bib overalls featured a pair of peace symbols in red, white, and blue. Since we'd started talking, he'd made a trip outside and come back to lean against the bar, smelling of December cold and resiny marijuana.
I must have taken my time weighing his offer. Before I could answer, Gerry shouted once more “Hey! You wanna go rabbit hunting?”
Then again, from the look of his pinwheeling eyes, maybe he'd already forgotten he’d asked.
“I don’t have a gun,” was the best excuse I could come up with in my beer-buzzed condition. “That’s alright, I’ve got plenty,” he yelled. “And I make one helluva rabbit stew.”
The next afternoon Gerry picked me up in his green International Carryall and took me bouncing and banging down gravel roads paralleling snow-covered stubble fields. The big guy had permission to hunt a farmer’s land north of Belgrade, and true to his word, a pair of .22s—a bolt-action Mossberg and a Winchester pump, each equipped with an inexpensive scope—rode in the gun rack behind the seat.
As we trundled along, Gerry pounded the dash to punctuate his tales of elk kills, and reassured me that I was going to love his rabbit stew. When the road met up with a brushy creek bottom that ducked in from the north, Gerry pulled over. The temperature hovered around ten degrees, and with three or four inches of snow in the bottoms, it was hard to tell whether the creek had dried up or frozen over. An easterly wind sent ghostly currents of snow seething across the land.
“Okay,” Gerry said, “here’s what we’re gonna do. You get down there and walk along the creek. Chase the rabbits out of the brush. I’ll stay up here and we’ll have ‘em trapped between us.”
Looking hippie-sheik in yellow granny glasses and a blue down jacket patched with silver duct tape, Gerry handed me the ancient Mossberg. I slid down the bank, comfortable—although not for long—in a blanket-lined chore coat, olive drab wool pants, and a heavy sweater. I hadn’t trudged a hundred yards before Gerry called, “Are you seeing any tracks?”
“Yeah,” I hollered back. “A few. And some pellets.”
“You’re not getting much action, Bud. Better get down on your hands and knees and move farther into the brush.”
It’s embarrassing to recollect that I crawled for a good ten minutes before I realized that I was being used like a beater to drive game to the lord of the manor. I was about to bust out of there and tell the jerk that either we take turns in the bottoms or he could stuff his lousy rabbit hunt, when Gerry fired. I froze, of course, and peering under the scrub, I could see a cottontail looking confused by the thunder ahead and the Bigfoot behind. Gerry fired again and missed again and the rabbit came hopping tentatively back in my direction. I propped the Mossberg on a limb and shot the first rabbit of the day.
For the next few hours, I stayed down in the bottoms in the snow and tangle and shot three rabbits while Gerry stayed up on the bank and shot one. He told me he’d banged his scope and knocked it out of alignment.
By late afternoon, the occasional spits of snow had become a genuine storm and we called it a day. Gerry wasn’t exactly sullen as we drove back through the massing dark, but he certainly wasn’t as animated as he’d been on the ride over. Still, as I stepped out of the Carryall he managed a hearty invitation to rabbit stew. Unsure of how many rabbits would go into his concoction, I allowed him to drive off with all four.
The following evening found me in Forest Park, that trailer ranch set down among old cottonwoods out on the Gallatin. Gerry owned a small silver trailer near the end of a row of 15 or 20 others backed up above the river. The big guy threw open the door as I climbed the steps and a black Lab pushed past his legs to give me a friendly goose. The woodstove pumped out heat, the tape player pumped out John Denver, and the rabbit stew pumped out come-hither aromas. After a beer’s worth of hunting and fishing tales and a salad comprised of lettuce and onions, Gerry lugged a Dutch oven over from the stove and set it down on the center of the table.
“Dig in,” he boomed, back to his exuberant self.
Enticed by the yummy smell, I filled my bowl with a portion that would have had Emily Post rapping my knuckles. The first spoonful was excellent, but there was an exotic taste I couldn’t identify. “Prunes,” he declared, beaming like he’d discovered electricity. “Prunes and brandy.” I took another bite—and nearly lost a tooth on a chunk of bone. “Oops,” Gerry said as I placed the bone on my salad plate. I took another bite and stuck a splinter of bone into the roof of my mouth.
“Shit,” I said, “what’s with the freaking bones?” I knew it was going to be bad when Gerry wouldn't look me in the eye.
“I got caught up in the Vikings game and ran short of time. Instead of boning the rabbit, I chopped it into stew-sized chunks with a cleaver.”
“Did you at least skin the freaking thing?”
“Of course,” he said, like I was way out of line for asking.