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Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | The Secret of Shelby Forest

I started hunting on squirrels. A quiet stalk or peaceful hide in open woods was very well suited to my love of solitude and to my expertise with a .22 rimfire rifle. My Mom, and later the Love Of My Life were both very good at turning a few squirrels and assorted other ingredients into tasty stew.

In the early ‘60s we lived in Memphis. The area offered plenty of opportunities for hunting and fishing. My favorite hunting was in the area called Shelby Forest, north of Millington and bordering the Mississippi River bottomland.

My favorite time for squirrels was early fall, when the leaves were still on the hardwoods and the butternuts, hickory and other nut and mast crops were at their peak. The big red fox squirrels were fat and sassy as they gorged on their favorite forage.

Aside from the hunting, the mature hardwood forest was a wonderful, wild place to simply walk and explore. Massive hickories towered to what seemed to me like about 100’ and I could not reach around them a few feet off the ground. There was a lot of up and down where the forest fell away to the rich cotton fields of the bottomland. My favorite spot was a hillside about a mile into the forest from the dirt track where I usually left my car. From the top of the hill I could see about 40 acres and find several great trees to nestle down beside. The locale was so welcoming to my spirit that I often dozed in the warmth of early morning rays of the rising sun peeking through the canopy.

Shelby Forest was not a place to go unguided or to wander away from familiar places. I once broke my lone hunting habit and invited my neighbor to go along. Ronnie was an experienced hunter and woodsman so I had no concern about his safety.

I found him a good location, sat him down and moved on to my favorite perch. After a few hours I had a nice catch so I went to pick him up and he was gone. I called. There was no reply. I fired my rifle. I heard Ronnie’s shotgun and a very faint, “Hey, JB!!, Where are you?”

He had wandered deep into the forest and lost his bearings. It took about an hour to guide him back to known whereabouts. He did not ask to go with me again.

On other occasions I woke from a morning doze to find a chipmunk perched on my boot, a flock of wild turkeys strolling by and a magnificent whitetail buck staring at me trying to decide what I was.

Every trip to Shelby Forest was an adventure. I almost never found evidence that any human had been there before me.

Well, there was one time.

I had settled down in a new spot about a half mile from my usual perch. I just sat down in the crotch of huge roots at the base of a giant beechnut tree. I didn’t explore the area that I could watch. As usual, I dozed off.

The bark of an annoyed squirrel woke me. He was right over my head and scolding me thoroughly for being in his territory. There was no sense in being stealthy, he clearly had me in his sight, so I jumped up and shot a hole in the air he had just vacated.

What followed would be very familiar to squirrel hunters. The squirrel on one side of the tree and the hunter on the other, each making fast circuits, with the squirrel always fast enough to avoid getting shot.

It was time for strategy. I stood still and threw a sick to the other side of the tree. The squirrel darted around and met his maker.

I tried to settle back into my cosy little seat between the roots but got poked in my backside by something hard. I investigated and found a gallon jug. When I pulled it out of the hiding spot I found it was full of a clear liquid and there was another in there with it. The caps were rusty but still sealed the jugs. I decided to leave them on and take the jugs home for further study.

I explored down the hill and found a large pit that held partly buried remains of several barrels and a large copper cooker... clearly a destroyed illegal still. I sure was glad I hadn’t wandered onto it when it was in operation.

After I got the jugs home I opened one and poured a bit into a saucer. I then applied a flame and got a lovely blue flame in reply that lasted until the saucer was dry. I took a pint of it with me to work at the UT Medical School and delivered it to the Chemistry Lab for analysis. The gal in the lab told me it was 90% ethanol, and explained that it was probably the “first juice” from a still run. She said the moonshiners often captured the first juice to use in blending the later output up to 100 proof.

I don’t remember what I did with the rest of my find, except that I didn’t drink any of it. I am not a teetotaler, I just didn’t trust the other 10% of that stuff to be safe.

(JB Cornwell writes from “The Hideout” in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the iboats.com Boating Forums, where he may occasionally share a yarn of his own.)

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