Once on the ground, the hunter is faced with the problem of using the net. The simplest way is to tuck the end of the handle under the armpit for leverage, put both hands as far forward as possible on the handle so the net can be held high and run the final distance to the rabbit. As soon as the rabbit is overtaken, the net is snapped down fast. If everything goes right, the rabbit is trapped inside. Usually, however, the hunter winds up flat on his face.
Partly it is a question of lead. It is not enough to center the net directly over the rabbit. By the time you slam the net down, the rabbit is six feet ahead of where he was. Then there is the tricky footwork involved. If the hunter stops running in order to slam down the net, he probably will bring it down canted in such a way that the rabbit escapes under one side. On the other hand, if he does not stop running the moment it hits the ground, the weight of the net will drag him down with it.
Often during the hunt Rogers would whip out his flask and call for a coffee break. There are an unlimited number of coffee breaks on a San Juan rabbit hunt. As the night wears on and the flask wears low, the rabbits all get bigger and slower, the net gets lighter, the ground gets closer, the company gets funnier and even the ride gets smoother. But above all esthetic considerations, the San Juan coffee break has true medicinal value, particularly of a preventive nature.
"It's a real safety measure," Hal Rogers said. "You get a hunter out here who is all tense and tight and the next thing you know, we hit a little bump and he's broke an arm. You've got to relax in this sport; take it real loose and easy. Give that same man a couple of coffee breaks to relax him good, and he won't even notice if he bounces off the buggy. And let's face it," Rogers added thoughtfully, "if you are really serious about chasing rabbits, you're going to be bounced off sooner or later."
Later, I learned, is definitely preferable. By that time there had been about half a dozen coffee breaks. We had netted and stowed away 50-odd rabbits, which was about one-fifth the number we had chased, and we had each been at the net several times. Rogers' teenage daughter was spotting. Just as we turned into a new field she shouted, "There, Daddy!" Rogers stepped on the gas, and the buggy leaped forward. Suddenly there was a tremendous thud.
The next thing I knew I was shooting straight up into the air. The trip down was even brisker. Through a shower of comic-strip stars (the kind I use to credit to the artist's imagination) I surveyed the wreckage. The bunny buggy was nose down in a three-foot ditch. Its headlights sent a feeble white beam up out of the black cavity, and its rear wheels spun lopsidedly in the air. A flood of rabbits poured from a broken cage and tumbled in wild and furry confusion over me as I hung on the hunting seat.
There were bodies picking themselves up from the ground all around and hasty tooth, bone and bottle checks. The only breakage turned out to be a fifth of Old Grand-Dad.
The debacle, it seemed, was all caused by an innocent misunderstanding. When Rogers' daughter shouted, "There, Daddy!" she meant the ditch spotlighted dead ahead. To Rogers the call meant game. He responded as any good rabbit driver would. He hit the gas pedal hard and away we went. The buggy was roaring 40 mph when it hit the ditch.
Hartly Kruger, a young executive from Olympia, Wash., had been sitting in the hunting seat when the buggy and disaster struck. He was launched skyward from this precarious perch with the velocity of a Friendship VII after countdown. There was now no sign of him or the net anywhere. This was doubly remarkable because Kruger, a former University of Idaho basketball star, is 6 feet 7 inches, weighs 260 pounds and is much too big to lose sight of, especially on a moonlit night.
We spread out over the darkness, stumbling and calling his name. A muffled cry came from the depths of the ditch. Kruger was wedged into it so completely that only his long legs were visible. They projected into the sky like twin TV antennas in a prairie town. It took another coffee break and the disorganized efforts of the entire party to disengage him.