From the Pen of Carter P. Smith
The old Gonzales County deer camp never was much to look at, but that wasn’t really the point. For the three fathers and three sons who occupied the deer camp, its great value was simply in its existence.
Our camp’s first incarnation was carved out of an unused space in the ranch tack room, just off the hay barn. Amid the old saddles and blankets and bits and bridles and musty sacks of range cubes, we kept our cots and gear. We did our cooking and visiting and such outside around a campfire, beneath an old bull mesquite, where we spent most of our time listening off and on to the yip and yap of the coyotes and to the stories of the camp elders.
I don’t remember exactly the year we moved the camp, but I do remember the evening. We all awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of gunfire. Apparently either Lance or Cito, I don’t remember which, lost his patience with the barn rats, which had a bad habit of raiding our camp goods. On that particular night, a rat was caught red-handed rolling a potato across the floor, and one of the two men opened up on it with a .22 pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other.
My father and uncle decided they didn’t want them shooting up the tack room anymore, so we got “bumped up” to the old Duderstadt house, an old 1900-era ranch headquarters that made up for its lack of comfort — no running water, bathrooms, A/C or heat — with an abundance of character. My dad swore up and down it was one of the hiding places for the outlaw John Wesley Hardin when he was running from the law. As a kid, I relished the idea of sleeping under the same roof where one of Texas’ most notorious gunslingers allegedly laid his head.
We shared the old dog-run house with one of our more eccentric and colorful ranch hands, a cowboy from Zacatecas, who taught me as a kid, among other things, Spanish words and phrases that gave me instantaneous honorific status among my peers, but made my junior high Spanish teacher (and mother) cringe with horror.
I had the distinction of being the youngest member of our deer camp, and spent most of my time simply absorbing the abundant wisdom possessed by the camp “grownups.” Dad and Mr. Tompkins were the camp’s two senior members, which meant they were mostly off-limits for the unending practical jokes. Neither one really hunted, although they dispensed plenty of hunting advice. Mostly, they would sit on the front porch, “read” the shots across the countryside and speculate if it was a hit or miss and whether it was one of us and, if so, who. As I learned later in life, the many virtues of deer camp for those two had nothing at all to do with hunting deer.
Cito was the next senior member of deer camp. He was an old Highway Department man and used to tell uproarious stories about border towns, crazy politicians and successful deer hunts from long ago. Candidly, I don’t remember Cito ever shooting many deer. Lance and Keith, Cito’s son, always claimed that Cito’s cologne had something to do with it.
Besides me, Keith and Lance were the other sons in deer camp. They were business partners at the time and 15 years or so my senior. They took me under their wing and always made sure I got to camp even when Dad couldn’t come. They taught me about the woods and game and guns and other stuff I needed to know. Lance was there to help me field dress my first deer and to track and retrieve my first wounded buck. When I got stuck in the pasture, he always pulled me out. And, ever so occasionally they even allowed me to accompany them into town on Saturday nights to witness the goings-on at the White Leghorn and other area dance halls.
I learned a lot about hunting, and even more about life, from all those men in deer camp.
I hope you make time this fall to share your deer camp with someone young and interested in the outdoors. I can assure you that you’ll be forever glad you did.