Squirrel Hunting” is an excerpt of an unpublished manuscript, Me and Mr. Lincoln, by Robert L. Crowe, 2009. The story is told by a man who as a young boy lived in New Salem, Illinois, in the 1830’s.
I went hunting with Pa a lot of times. Mostly, I just watch while he hunted. There was plentiful small game in the area and we counted on it for food, year round. My favorite hunting was for squirrels. I liked going in the early mornings because everything was peaceful … and the squirrels were always smart. Pa and I got up before dawn and sat quietly in a place near a stand of timber. When the sun quietly released a few rays of light, the only sounds were of small birds and the scratching of claws on tree bark as the squirrels began their day. Soon, the sun rays danced off fluttering leaves that looked like a ripple of green water. Squirrels notice any sound or movement. If we had anything to say, we would do it before we got in place, because the squirrels recognized anything out of the ordinary. If they heard a sound they would freeze in place and stay there, not moving, for a long time. If they saw movement they would scamper to the far side of the tree. If I walked around the tree, the squirrel would keep moving to the far side. Then, they would take off running across the tree tops like it was a flat road. The small gray squirrels were the fastest. When the sun would hit them just right, it looked like a lightening streak through the tree limbs.
One day, Pa figured that I was ready to shoot a gun. The night before we were to go looking for squirrels, he sat me down with the long flint-lock musket.
“Let me explain how this thing works,” he began. “This is the hammer. It holds a small piece of flint, wrapped by this small piece of leather. That’s to help hold the flint in place. This thing underneath is the “frizzen.”
“Why is it called a frizzen?”
“Cause the person who named it wanted to call it that.”
“When you pull the trigger, the hammer falls against the frizzen and makes sparks. Underneath the frizzen is the pan. You put a small bit of powder in the pan. The sparks flash the powder and the flame goes through this little hole into the barrel. The powder in the barrel explodes and drives the ball out the barrel. Got it?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll tell you how to do it and you load the gun. Here you go.” He handed me the musket and stood watching as I lifted it clumsily.
“What do I do first?” I asked.
“The first thing is not to point it at me!”
“It ain’t loaded,” I said.
“Don’t make any difference. Don’t point it at anybody, even when you think it isn’t loaded. Put the stock on the floor and keep the muzzle away from your face … and my face.”
“This little cup is the powder measure. You pour the black powder from the horn into the cup. You never … you listening, boy?”
“Yes, sir. I never ….”
“You never pour the powder directly into the barrel. There’s lots of reason but the main one is that you can’t tell how much powder you put in unless you measure it. Hold it!”
“Before you put the powder in the barrel, take the ramrod and put it down the barrel.”
I did it.
“Look at the ramrod. See that mark I put on it?”
“That’s the empty mark. If the ramrod goes in that far, you know there’s nothing in there. Now, pour the cup of powder into the barrel. Be careful not to spill any. It ain’t cheap.”
I carefully poured black powder from the cup into the barrel of the gun. Pa bounced the stock on the floor to set the powder.
“Now, put the ramrod in the barrel again. See the next mark? That’s the powder mark, so you know that’s what’s in the barrel. Put the ball on top of the patch and push it in the barrel with this.”
I put the round musket ball on a small piece of cloth and, cloth first, pushed them both into the end of the barrel with a short rod called the short bullet starter. Pa handed me the ramrod.
“Push it down the barrel until it is up against the powder. Don’t jam it, just push it firmly. Look again at the ramrod. That mark is the ‘loaded’ mark. When you put a ramrod in and it is at that mark, you know you got powder and a mini-ball ready to go.”
“How do I make it flash?”
“Before you do anything else, you take the hammer of the musket and you pull it back until the first click. That means that it is half-cocked. When it is like that, it won’t shoot, so it is safe to do the next part. When we get ready to shoot, you pour a small bit of black powder into the ‘pan.’ Not now! I don’t want to shoot this in the house. It scares your mother.” He smiled. So did I. “You pull the hammer back all the way until it is cocked. You aim and fire. We’ll try it in the morning.”
I was afraid I’d never go to sleep, wondering how it would feel to shoot a gun for the very first time. After that I would be able to talk with the men about hunting.
The September air was heavy with wet heat even before the sun came up. We went to a grassy hillside where we could see 4 or 5 large oak and hickory trees. As first light arrived I prepared the musket for my first shot. Under the watchful eye of my father, I loaded the powder and mini-ball. I half-cocked the hammer and put a small charge into the powder pan. Careful not to spill it, I sat with the gun across my lap. Before long, in a tree directly in front, a large squirrel sat on a limb, chattering in the early morn. Pa nodded to me. I slowly stood, cocked the hammer and raised the musket to my shoulder. It seemed heavier than it ever did when I was practicing. I knew I’d better shoot quick or I’d drop the musket, either that or the squirrel would be gone. As I pulled the trigger I made the mistake of closing my eyes to avoid the small flash in the pan. The musket “boomed.” The min-ball went one way and I went the other, knocking me to the ground.
“Did I get ‘im?”
“Well, you didn’t hit the squirrel but you did get something.”
“What? What, Pa? What did I get?”
“You killed a tree,” he said, without a smile. “And it wasn’t the one the squirrel was in.”