RUFFIN IT: MR. PATE AND THE NIGHTURNAL REMNANT, PART I
It’s been a long while since I last ventured out to Segovia and visited with Mr. Pate, my old friend who owns a ranch in the valley of the Johnson Fork of the Llano River, but I think about him often.
When possums came up in a conversation I was having with Amber the other day, I got to thinking about the time the old man caught a really odd creature in one of his traps. I’ll share the story with you.
We’re standing before a little mesh-wire trap-cage that Mr. Pate bought at the hardware store. It’s the kind in which you put bait in the rear of and cock open a metal flap at the front for entry. When the animal goes in for the bait, he steps on a trip plate and the flap clangs down behind him. It’s good for possums or coons or cats or small dogs, anything that can fit through the opening. The way you catch what you’re after is by putting the right kind of bait in there. Sometimes that’s the real tricky part, Mr. Pate has explained, since something like a possum or an armadillo will eat almost anything under the sun or stars.
The bait this time was a clutch of alfalfa, which might sound rather odd, since most animals that eat alfalfa couldn’t get much more than a leg into the trap and wouldn’t try even that. I mean, how could they scoop it up? The hoof isn’t particularly good for grasping; never was meant to be, even with an opposable, uh, hoofette.
He has caught what he was after: a possum. But not just any possum. This is the strangest creature you might ever encounter amongst all of God’s chirren.
A little background is necessary here. Back last fall Mr. Pate was in one of his deer blinds scoping out a particular feeder, which had gone off at five o’clock, as it was set to do. A little click and whir and corn is slung in a broad band around the base of the feeder, and any deer in the neighborhood recognizes that as the sound of a dinner bell and will ease up and nibble away.
While he is so engaged, whoever’s in the stand has a nice, easy shot. (I remarked one time that it didn’t sound very sporting, but Mr. Pate pointed out that running deer with dogs in Mississippi and shooting them with buckshot when they broke out of cover all worn out from running didn’t sound all that sporting either, so I shut up. I pointed out further that deer hunters rarely follow John Wesley Hardin’s assertion that there’s no sport in any kind of hunting when the hunted can’t shoot back.
At any rate, half an hour or so after the feeder went off, some kind of animal came waddling out of the brush and started having supper, so the old man laid his rifle across the sill of the blind and put the crosshairs on the critter and discovered it to be a possum. He watched it eat along a few seconds, and then it did something really strange.
The possum raised his head and looked directly toward the blind and flashed the biggest grin that Mr. Pate said he’d ever beheld on anything other than a human being. Looked like a mule might look grinning, he said. He picked up his binoculars, which he always carries with him hunting, and brought the beast into focus and discovered that the possum was indeed grinning and that his teeth looked like cow teeth. Then it went back to feeding.
Well, the old man was truly stumped. First of all, possums are not known for eating corn, though they will eat almost anything; second, this one had something other than regular possum teeth. His initial impulse was to shoot it so that he could examine it up close, but he couldn’t do it, much as he hates possums. I mean, you can’t shoot something that’s smiling at you. So he just watched it a little longer while he waited for a deer to show.
After it had finished the entree, the possum shambled over to the edge of the brush and began nibbling at some curly mesquite, which grows low and all over the place out there, like he was having salad. Now, the old man could understand a possum eating corn, but not curly mesquite.
And then it started in on a clump of oats that had sprouted from stray seeds errantly flung during spring planting and ate them down to ground level. Mr. Pate wiped his eyes and the binocular lenses, but when he brought the glasses back up, the creature was gone.
He told Bob Winship, a friend of mine and neighbor of his, about the experience, and Winship told me, but neither of us put a whole lot of credence in the old man’s observation. A possum with teeth like a cow, eating corn and curly mesquite and oats? We couldn’t find anything in any book or on the Internet that would suggest any possum would behave that way. So every time the subject came up, we just humored him and let the matter pass. But he knew that skepticism was running pretty high in both of us, and nothing would suit him but to take a picture of the thing or trap it so that we could see it for ourselves.
[Next week I meet the beast.]