The hunter who is not blessed with his own gamelands has two choices when he goes afield, neither of which if very good.
He can hunt public lands, where he won't know who else is on the ground and what sort of people they are. There are not nearly so many slobs and idiots in the woods as is generally supposed, but one is too many if you are within a mile of him.
Or the landless Nimrod may, if he is lucky, be permitted to hunt on a friend's property, in which case he may find himself embroiled in a relationship that can be as frustrating and foredoomed as an office romance.
The guest hunter labors under the severe handicap of being, well, a guest. He is there at the sufferance of the owner who, no matter how generous, is and should be in the commanding position. One hunts when, where and how the owner desires. This can be awful is his style is not your style, but it can be worse when it is.
My first hunting host was the Squire of Bull Run Mountain, as thoughtful and hospitable a gentleman as any who breathes. He cherishes and guards his vast tract of land with an admirable passion. Throughout the year he protects and studies his deer; as the hunting season approaches he decides how many must be taken to keep the herd balanced and who shall kill them.
It was a great privilege to be invited to "hunt on him," and so it was all the more unforgivable when I wounded, and we could not find, the buck that appeared when and where the Squire had said he would. There was no hint of reproach from the Squire, who did his best to make me understand that buck fever is almost universal among novice hunters.
He invited me back several times, and usually I saw deer it would have been hard to miss, but I could not bring myself to shoot for fear of maiming another of the animals the Squire and I love. I had not met my own standards, much less his, and the cloud remained; after a while I stopped going to Bull Run Mountain.
Now and then, after a lot of asking around, I was given grudging permission to hunt on one man or another, a day or two at a time. I was gratful, because only if you have lived in the country can you appreciate what a trial it is to deal with the poachers, timber rustlers, arrogant picnickers, half-drunk lovers, trash-dumping sonsabitches and all the other trespassers who bedevil people trying to quietly enjoy the land they tend and pay taxes on. An ounce of courtesy often yields a pound of new problems, and after being fooled by a few nice-looking strangers most of them just say the hell with it, everybody out.
Later, as a friend of a friend, I was invited to hunt on Bastard Mountain, a spur of the Blue Ridge whose owner orginially bought it as a place to run and hide with his family when World War III comes. He is a laconic Westerner with whom I have a little in common, and I was uncertain just how welcome I really was. But the land was so beautiful and rich in game that I suppressed my doubts, and after being invited back for several seasons, forgot I had ever had any.
How much he cares for the land I do not know, but I grew to love it. It is demanding ground, easy to read but hard to hunt. Half of whatever I know about stalking I learned there, although -- or because -- for the first couple of years I never fired a shot. Legal deer I saw aplenty but, always remembering the Squire's wounded buck, always found some excuse not to shoot. Finally a day came when it was right, and I became a hunter again. Meantime I worked at being a good guest, helping cook and keep the cabin clean, trying to leave more food and firewood than I found.
Gradually I developed a proprietary feeling toward Bastard Mountain, as though what little services I had performed for the owner -- and myself -- somehow gave me a vested interest. Thoughtlessly, because he does care for venison, I neglected to make sure he got a fair share not only of the deer I killed but more or less appropriated one he shot that I had cleaned and taken to be butchered. It's more complicated than that, but not much.
Incredibly, I continued imposing on him until at length his resentment broke through his reserve and he told me in simple English what any other fool would have plainly seen. Fortunately I had enought other venison in the freezer to make good what he had been shorted.
But there will be no more trips to Bastard Mountain. My favorite vixen will have to raise her kits without my interference, the turkey droppings on "my" sentinel rock will stain some else's jeans, the does will pose beneath other eyes.
Perhaps I have learned enough from my former hosts not to spoil things if and when another man who owns a happing hunting ground bids me welcome. I hope so, because I'm running out of mountains.