Rabbit hunting is dangerous, what with bunnies racing around in thick cover among people armed with shotguns.
Wherever a group hunts rabbits, the gunners stand a chance of absorbing stray pellets. But nowhere are the perils more acute than in southern Spain, where the crowds are bigger, the tactics more aggressive, the rabbits faster and more numerous and the enthusiasm feverish.
Rabbit shoots are to southern Spain as goose hunts are to Maryland's Eastern Shore. Crowds of city-dwellers make the trek every August to private clubs in Andalusia where wild rabbits are thick. It's nothing for a one-day hunt at one of these cotos privados to include 30 or 40 gunners, and hundreds of rabbits may be taken.
For their shooting pleasure, Spaniards favor double-barrel, 12-gauge shotguns. You never see an American-style pump gun or semiautomatic, so it always created a stir when my hunting partner, Manuel Munoz-Carrasco, and I turned out with our U.S.-made Remington 1100 semiautomatics.
Since Munoz was host for these hunts on his 200-acre farm in the little town of Alosno in Huelva Province, no guests voiced objection to the funny guns, though there were rumblings over why anyone would need five shots to kill a rabbit, when everyone else needed just two.
We would gather at dawn on the hillside next to the farmhouse to plan the morning hunt. Among the regulars were Jose, who works in a shipyard in Huelva; Juan, who runs a bar in Alosno; Juan's son, Jesus; Pedro, in his slick, citified leather jacket, and a handful of boys from the village who were said to be great shots.
Americans hunt rabbits by sending dogs into thick cover to flush the game out. Spaniards often don't use dogs, sending men into the thickets to do the dirty work instead.
In this dry, hot country, the bunnies would hole up during the day in little rock outcroppings deep in the manchas, which are thickets of low-growing brush. We would divide our group of 10 or so in half, send five men into a mancha to flush the game and station the other five at the first clearing to shoot as the rabbits ran out.
The men in the mancha carried their guns, of course, and they would shoot whatever they could. They moved through the thick brush whistling, shouting, whooping and stamping to push the rabbits ahead, and where they found a high rock they would climb it to scan the ground. If they saw rabbits running in a clear place they shot, or if they had no shot they shouted, "Alli va uno!" -- "There goes one!" -- the magical phrase that meant rabbit on the run.
We had many close calls during two weeks of daily hunting of this sort, but only once did anyone actually get hit, when Jose shot Juan. They were across from each other in a low, dry, sandy clearing. A rabbit scooted from the brush and raced across the clearing. Jose, a fine shot, drew down on the rabbit and followed it with his gun as it ran. When he shot, the rabbit tumbled and Juan let out a yelp.
Complicated recriminations followed as Juan hurried across the clearing, raising his shirt to show Jose the welt the pellet had raised. But it hadn't broken the skin. Jose apologized and all was soon forgiven.
That incident sobered everyone but Pedro, who was from the city and didn't get to hunt much. He always was excited, and he'd take a shot at any rabbit he saw, regardless of the danger to others. Everyone saw this, and everyone was a little nervous about Pedro, but in Spain you don't offend a man's honor unnecessarily.
So no one had said anything to Pedro when a rabbit came shooting out of a bush down by the river and ran straight toward Manuel, Juan and me. Pedro was 40 yards away, and we watched in horror as he shouldered the gun and swung the two barrels toward us.
The shot kicked up a cloud of dust just ahead of Manuel's feet, and his face went white with anger.
"What are you doing?" he demanded of Pedro in Spanish.
Pedro shrugged and said it was a good shot and he did not want to pass it up. No harm done, he said. No one was hit.
Manuel was enraged. No one was hurt, he said, but a little bit to the left and he himself could have been killed.
But Pedro refused to admit the mistake. I saw the fire in Manuel's eyes and saw that he was not going to continue until he had Pedro's promise of better caution.
"All right," said Manuel, marching to where Pedro stood, "you go ahead and shoot. But if you shoot me," he said, pulling the Remington off his shoulder and shaking it in Pedro's eyes, "I am going to shoot you back.
Pedro's eyes went big, and that was the last trouble we had from him.