Sunday, March 19, 2017


By Juan Montoya

For years, when Chon and his buddies were children, they were a scourge to birds and small critters in the northside rural areas of Brownsville, on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ranging over what were then wide wooded areas armed with slingshots and the occasional BB gun, they would often return with small birds. However, the puny carcasses left over after their bright plumage was removed discouraged them from carrying the dead animals home after a while.

On the whole, they would just enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Actually, killing something –  anything – was just a plus.

This was before urbanization gobbled up the best hunting areas north of the city, and malls and theaters now stand where places were thick with chaparral and cactus. In those days, the cacophony of the wild chachalacas could be heard every morning and evening as they called out in the underbrush. The favorite places of these birds were the old riverbeds where the Rio Grande used to flow before dams upriver restricted it to the narrow channel that now exists. The locals called some of those riverbeds that still have water resacas, and they provide a pleasant change of view for residents and visitors alike, even though the local water utility company fills up these lakes instead of the river as before.

There was a stand of pecan trees in some woods near Chon’s house. Every day just after dawn, the chachalacas could be heard making their familiar cries as they welcomed the day. They would wander through the underbrush seeking out the piquin pepper plants and other small fruit in the thorny chaparral. To actually see one of these birds, let alone kill one, was a rare occurrence. No one in Chon’s circle had actually got one. But, Bennie (Benjamin), the group’s recognized sharpshooter with a slingshot, had missed one by mere inches before it disappeared into the brush.

“I think I might have nicked it,” Bennie would later say, his shot getting closer to the bird every time he retold the story as the hunters grouped under the shade of a verdant pecan tree during one of their outings.
“It was as big as a chicken.”

For the most part, however, the friends would bag sparrows and blackbirds and the occasional ground squirrel and rabbit that had the misfortune of coming within range of their weapons. They had heeded a neighbor’s warning that mockingbirds were off limits because the “pajareo,” or game warden, could impose a fine on them, or even worse, fine their parents.

“Those are the gray ones that sing real loud,” Bennie had told them. “The chicos. They don’t have much meat under their feathers anyway. “
Chon’s mother and his older sister would often chide him for killing the small animals, asking what pleasure he got from killing the small animals.

“What are you going to do with them after you kill them?,” his sister Maria would ask. “You guys are just killing those little things for nothing.”
Still, the boys would not allow such minor criticism – much less from girls – from deterring them in their daily pursuit. Each mid-morning they would gather at the corner of the alley in their barrio and start out toward the wooded areas.

Chon and his friends usually carried slingshots they made themselves. It was an art passed down from older brothers. The weapon consisted of a branch from a mesquite tree in the shape of a Y one could hold comfortably from the long single end in the left hand. The mesquite was preferred over the huisache because it was sturdy and wouldn’t splinter when it dried. The boys would attach two inner tube strips of rubber to each short fork of the Y with rubber bands they wound tightly toattach them.

A piece of oblong leather with slits on each end would serve as the receptacle for the missile – either rocks, marbles, and in some cases, ball bearings – which would be fired when it was between the Y and released.
Chon had earned his mother’s wrath when, constructing his new and improved slingshot, he was unable to find a suitable piece of leather. Rummaging through the closets in his house he found a pair of his mother’s shoes and cut the flap over which the laces were tied.

“Who cut my shoes?,” she had demanded when he returned from one of those hunting trips. With the telltale slingshot in his hands, he unable to cover up his deed.
“I thought you didn’t use them anymore,” he protested.

That weak excuse was to no avail. When his father came home from work, he took his medicine, three smacks with the belt and no supper. In retrospect, he had gotten off easy. It seemed his mother had but one pair of dress shoes, and he had taken the leather strip from one of the shoes.

Still, the challenge of the hunt lured the boys daily to the fields and brush of the wooded areas and resacas. Besides the chachalacas, one of the top trophies the boys would only dream of bagging was a white-wing dove. These high-flying birds, distinctive to every hunter by the white feathers on their wings and tails, were usually out of the range of the slingshots and BB guns. Only Bennie had actually gotten one, and he had a feather attached to the bottom of his slingshot on a leather thong to prove it.

One hot summer day, Chon found himself alone on a hunt. The others were all watching a soccer game on Bennie’s television set. Mexico was playing in the World Cup, and since most of them were recent immigrants from Mexico, they were passionate about the game.
Chon did not understand the game and preferred to watch the Dallas Cowboys, but the football season was still months away.

As he scoured the thick brush along an irrigation ditch, he noticed a raccoon hole that appeared freshly dug beside an old tree trunk . He crept toward the tree trunk and his heart fluttered because as he looked up at the branches, he detected the telltale feathers of a white-wing dove in the branches of a thorny granjeno bush next to it.
He froze.
Slipping his best rock into the tongue of his slingshot, he lifted his head slowly so as not to startle the bird. The dove didn’t move, adding to Chon’s excitement.

He shifted his weight slowly and crouched into a hunch. Everything was perfect as he pulled back on the stretched bands of rubber. He saw the bird’s eye flit nervously from side to side as he readied to fire his slingshot.
The dull thud of the rock against the bird told him he had scored a hit. Small down feathers flew in the breeze and its wings spread limply as the bird dropped through the brush, dead.
He had killed a white wing dove!

Chon scrambled toward the bird, plucking its limp body from between the branches of the thorny ebony where it had fallen. He held his limp prize and was ready to run to show it to his friends when a small sound caught his ear. It seemed to come from the tree where the white wing had been. He walked over to see.

There, to his dismay and plummeting heart, was a small nest of dried grass and twigs. Two small chicks, their feathers not fully formed stubs of cartilage and down, were in the nest. They looked naked and fragile without their plumage. Also, for some reason, they seemed cold and shivered in the torrid sun.
He had killed a mother bird as she was feeding its young.

No wonder the dove had not flown away. She was too concerned about her babies to fly away, disregarding the danger to her own safety.
Feeling sick, Chon threw down the dead bird and his prized slingshot and walked away from hunting forever.


Anonymous said...

"they was a scourge" - juan, your ESL is showing! Try "they were a scourge."

Anonymous said...