This story, “Sun, Sand, and Thirst,” first appeared in the February 1947 issue of Outdoor Life.
THE EXPERIENCE on which I base my conclusions stems from a deer hunt shortly after my arrival in southern California in 1930.
My hunting having been confined to the well-watered states of Iowa and Minnesota, thirst, as a factor to be taken into consideration, never entered my mind. I walked into the situation blind mentally, and came out of it blind physically—though luckily I soon recovered.
The deer season in the southern district of California opens in August—a season invariably without rain and, away from the coast, almost unbearably hot in any place except the high mountainous regions. I had been invited to accompany my friend Chuck to a cabin on the edge of the foothills, where an arm of the San Bernardino National Forest, in the form of a high ridge, juts into the desert. Chuck—Charles R. Hummel of Los Angeles—was also a newcomer and knew no more than I did of the country in which we were to have a try for deer.
THE CABIN, where we were to meet several other hunters, I was built on the boundary of the forest a mile or so below a clear, cold spring that ran from the side of the mountain only to end in the dry sand of the desert below. A small concrete reservoir had been constructed near the cabin to retain as much water as possible for the use of the occupants. It was, at this time of the year, nearly dry—and no water other than the spring and the reservoir was available for many miles in any direction.
A winding fire road had been built by the U. S. Forest Service up the side of the mountain, through clumps of creosote bush and cactus, past the spring, and on to the pine woods on top. However, this road was closed to automobilists and blocked by a solidly padlocked iron gate. As the hunting territory was all above the spring, it was necessary to walk some three miles up the road, climbing all the way, before the fun could begin. A number of deer used the spring for water year after year; but the place was not generally known and the hunting was invariably good.
Leaving Los Angeles about midnight, Chuck and I arrived at the cabin at 3 in the morning and found four other men already at breakfast. A doctor from Hollywood was yet to arrive but, after waiting for thirty minutes, we decided to leave a note for him to follow us—we wanted to reach the mountaintop at daylight.
Four of the party—the cabin owner and three friends—were to proceed to the top of the road above the spring. Chuck and I would pick likely stands on opposite sides of the road while the others descended the mountainsides, driving the deer toward us. It was a system used year after year with great success. The slopes of the mountain were cut by deep, brush-filled arroyos with overhanging banks which offered shade to the deer in the hottest hours of the day.
AS WE LEFT the cabin I noticed that Chuck and I were the only ones who weren’t carrying gallon canteens—a fact which I remarked upon. We were told that since we’d be near the spring we could get a drink there if necessary. No more canteens were available and, in our ignorance, we had not provided any for ourselves.
A mild breeze, warm from the hot sands of the desert, greeted us as we left the cabin, and just over our heads hung the stars, clear and bright with a brilliance seen only in the desert. They looked almost within reach.
Skirting the gate, we climbed slowly up the winding fire road and, wet with perspiration, arrived at the spring. We had a drink of water, and a cigarette. Smoking was taboo from here on. Then leaving the spring, we continued up the narrow road. Finally in the gray light of dawn we arrived at the point where Chuck and I were to leave the road. It was perhaps 200 yards down a steep cliff to the head of the canyon, and I had been instructed to follow along the rim until well away from the road. I was then to find a vantage point overlooking the bottom of the canyon and the opposite sides, as two of the party would drive down toward me from the top of the ridge.
Since there was no canyon on the other side of the road, Chuck was to watch the slopes near the mountaintop as the remaining two members drove down toward him. The doctor was to stay on the road (assuming that he arrived in time) and watch both sides.
After looking over the terrain, I slid and skidded down the steep cliff to the head of the arroyo. There I turned and looked back. Chuck had waited until I was down. We exchanged a salute, and turned to the business at hand. The others in the party were already beyond my sight around a turn in the road.
I stood for a moment making a survey of the canyon and the mountainside. Far in the distance, at the foot of the canyon, appeared a white expanse, perfectly flat and without a vestige of plant life. This faded into the brown of the surrounding desert which, in turn, faded into the misty blue of the early-morning sky along a horizon so distant as to be breath-taking to one used to the rolling hills and forest lands of the Midwest. The white expanse was really the bed of a dry lake and composed mostly of salt and alkali.
About halfway down the rim of the canyon an outcropping of white stone stood out boldly in the dark green of the creosote bushes. It seemed a good vantage point from which to watch the canyon floor and the canyon side opposite, so I began moving slowly down the rim, idly speculating how long it would take for the others in the party to reach the top and start the drive toward me.
The way led steadily downward but so gently that the slope was hardly noticeable. I strolled slowly, faintly conscious of the increasing heat as the sun crawled higher in the sky, but so intent on the hunt that I paid no heed to the rising temperature. At one point a doe, followed by two fawns, broke from under the rim and made for the bottom of the canyon. I waited in the hope a buck had been with them, but none appeared. I continued on toward the rocks I had picked for my stand.
Reaching them, I settled myself on the ground, rifle across my knees, and glanced at my watch, very much surprised to find it was already 7:30 on the dot.
I looked back toward the road; in the clear air it seemed very close. Incredible that it had required so long for me to reach the outcropping! I had taken about two hours and a half to get to the rocks from the road, covering, as I found out later, a distance of about four miles. I had been totally unconscious of the passage of time. Surely the rest of the party must be on the way down now, but as I scanned the upper reaches of the mountaintop I could see no movement of any kind. I decided to watch and wait.
THE SUN was very warm, and I became keenly aware of the fact that I had had no sleep at all the night before. I had no intention of sleeping now, so it was with complete surprise that I suddenly awoke with a start—and found myself acutely uncomfortable. I was dripping with perspiration and felt warmer than I had ever been before in my life. However, at that moment I noticed a movement on the other side of the canyon, and promptly forgot all else. The cause of the movement was soon apparent.
Down a slide of shale came a band of deer, five does led by a buck, their coats gleaming red in the sun and a cloud of dust rising behind them. The antlers of the buck looked like a rocking chair; at the sight my breath quickened and I began to tremble slightly, as I invariably do at sight of game. The deer had evidently been started from the pines and had made a break for the canyon. The big buck continually swung his head around and glanced back up his trail, as if trying to see if he was being pursued.
I judged the distance to the other rim of the canyon to be about 200 yards. This would be a long shot with the .32 Special carbine I carried, but I decided to aim just over his back as he reached the rim. Once into the canyon, he could find cover in the brush and, alone as I was, there’d be no way to force him into the open again. If I was to get him, I’d have to take the chance.
I moved the rifle slowly into position, an inch at a time. I was still shaking but, breathing deeply, I gradually steadied myself for the shot.
On he came at a slow trot. As he reached the rim he stopped. Turning broadside to me, he looked up the mountainside as the does spilled one by one over the rim of the canyon behind him. I pulled the rifle to a point at the top of his shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger.
At the instant of the report I distinctly saw his forelegs buckle as though he had at that moment decided to lie down on the spot. Instead, he pitched over the rim and slid from sight. Barely breathing I hurriedly pumped another cartridge into the chamber and waited nervously. The seconds ticked by, each one seeming like an hour.
The does had disappeared without my even being aware of it, and the only movement visible now was a cloud of dust rising slowly in the still air. Perhaps it was the utter finality of those folding forelegs; but whatever it was, I realized after a short time that that buck was done.
Realizing this, I felt the tension leave me and I began to want—even need—a drink. I was very thirsty. But finally I forced myself to dismiss the thought of a drink, believing that the boys doing the driving would hear my shot and very shortly arrive on the scene.
So I sat down by the rock and looked at my watch. It was 9:45. I decided to go down and dress the buck so it would be ready to move when the other men showed up.
The canyon wall was steep but, sliding on my heels, I finally came to the bottom. After a short search I found my buck at the foot of the shale slide on the opposite side. He was very dead indeed. The bullet had apparently cut the spinal cord, and I still remember feeling somewhat surprised that it had struck so high up.
The head was even better than I had thought-four points on the right side and five on the left. It’s the best head I ever got on a Pacific buck. Chuck has it hanging in his shop today, a constant reminder of what I went through to get it.
By this time I realized only too well that the hot sun was beating down steadily on my head, and that my mouth and tongue were dry and raspy. I tried to work up some saliva, but couldn’t. It had been more than five hours since I had had any water.
Expecting someone with a canteen to show up soon, I started to clean out the buck. Swinging him around on the bank of shale so he could drain some, I finished the job in just about record time.
I felt a sudden urge to hurry—a sort of warning from some deep-rooted instinct, unexplained and certainly not stemming from any knowledge of my danger. I was only aware of a horrible thirst and a desperate wish that some other member of the party would show up. Following hard on the wish came the thought that perhaps the boys had been unable to locate me.
Grabbing my rifle, I fired three shots into the air and listened carefully. In the stillness the buzzing of the flies around the deer was the only sound. Deep in the canyon, where I was, not a breath of air stirred. Waiting a few moments more, I signaled again. Still no answer. Actually, I hardly waited for one, knowing somehow that none would come.
My tongue seemed to fill my mouth to overflowing. A slight worriedness, still undefined, began to form in the back of my mind. Rapidly tying the legs of the deer together and wrapping a red bandanna, carried for the purpose, around his antlers, I hoisted him on my back. I certainly had no intention of leaving that beautiful buck to the swarm of flies and gnats buzzing around him. And it was right here that I made my big mistake.
Perhaps I wasn’t thinking very straight—maybe not at all—but in any case I fought desperately to get the deer up the steep side of that canyon. With flies and yellowjackets swarming around me I tried to drag the buck and my rifle up to the rim.
I began to weaken fast but, digging into the sand and pulling myself up by bushes and rocks, I climbed a little at a time, pausing every few feet to rest myself.
Then the deer slipped from my shoulders, and I no longer had the strength to hoist him back, although I tried again and again. Without consciously making up my mind to do so, I left him and crawled up to the outcropping with only my rifle in tow.
Lying beside the rocks, winded and al most dazed, I at last realized that I was really up against something. My tongue was protruding from my mouth; it had swollen so much that there was no longer space for it within. The whole area of my face seemed to be on fire, the lids of my eyes were so puffed that they interfered with my sight, and everything appeared surrounded with a red haze.
I was afraid—horribly afraid. It was this fear that got me to my feet. Still clutching the rifle, I started up the canyon rim toward the road. Dazed, tired, and so weak that I seemed to be floating part of the time, I staggered on. I felt no thirst, no pain of any sort; just an utter weariness, a desire to stop and rest.
What it is that drives a man I do not know. I could no longer even see the bushes, and so I fell over them time and again, only to fight my way to my feet and weave on and up toward the road. How I even kept the direction of travel right, I can’t tell to this day.
Somewhere I lost track of the rifle. I took off and threw away my shirt. From my trail it was later ascertained that I had fallen many times, had even crawled for long distances, but I have no remembrance of these things. I wanted only to rest, the very air seemed to weigh me down; these things I remember, and that is all.
Out on my feet, almost totally unconscious, I moved toward the road, much as a hard-hit fighter in the ring, on his feet but fighting by instinct alone, carries on. Then …
I struggled back to a dim consciousness. I knew someone was with me, and I tried to open my eyes. I couldn’t do it! Panic-stricken, I attempted to rise.
A hand was placed on my chest and I was pushed down. It was the sound of Chuck’s voice that brought back sanity.
“Take it easy,” he said. “Just take it easy. You’re all right.”
Then a strange voice came. “We’ll get you down to the cabin, son. There’s nothing to worry about now.”
Cold water was sloshed over my face and chest. I went to sleep again; just drifted away.
When I came around the second time I could open my eyes. I saw Chuck and a stranger—the doctor from Hollywood, it proved to be who was sitting beside me, letting water drip over my tongue and into my mouth. Water! I wanted water, gallons of it—but I didn’t get it. If I hadn’t been so weak I’d have fought for it. The doctor finally gave me an orange from his pocket; I sucked on that and gradually came back to some semblance of normal. It was then 5 o’clock in the evening and I was lying at the foot of the last steep rise up to the road I had slept like a child for three hours.
It was Chuck who had come down the road and seen me trying to crawl up the rise. The doctor who had a canteen and an orange, had come by as Chuck was trying to carry me. No one had heard my shooting. It seems I had been miles farther down the canyon than I should have been.
So that is the story—as vivid in my mind today as it was that evening when I lay in the concrete reservoir and tried to soak into my system the water the dry air had sucked out. I was fit again in a week but my heart was broken. No wonder; when the boys got to my buck the morning after my ordeal, the deer was ruined. The flies and the heat had taken care of that.
The fellows did bring out the head and, as I said before, it still hangs on the wall of Chuck’s shop. I never see it without getting dry. However, there is a filling station on the corner which specializes in tall, cool drinks—
I think I’ll go stop by there right now. Just thinking about those burning hours in the desert makes me thirsty!
This text has been minimally edited to meet contemporary standards.
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