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We had had a timber cruise, naturally, and had spent some little time poring over stand types and acres and volumes and all the other things that constitute value. But it was decided that a careful appraisal of the property, section by section, by a man who had been relieved of all other duties could best put together an objective opinion of the relative values of the five parts.
I began the job on Thanksgiving Day and finished the first of March. Every morning I would wait in the woods for daylight, and when it got too dark to see I quit and drove home. With the exception of Christmas Day, when I rested, I spent the entire time, with no distractions whatsoever, in a careful and conscientious examination of a block of land with an excellent network of roads. At just about the 200,000-acre mark I made a discovery. Until then I could take the map and put my finger on a section at random, shut my eyes and picture the area in my head with a high degree of accuracy. After that point, old sections passed out of my mind as fast as new ones were added. Obviously, then, I have a 200,000-acre head.
I have not offered these senile maunderings in an attempt to be impressive, but rather to establish that I do have a basis for judgment, that I do have a head full of timber, that my esteem for Forty Crook Branch is not the opinion of a necktie salesman with grandmother's eight acres for comparison.
Forty Crook Branch and its environs are something special. If you draw a line from the upper end of Mobile Bay to the northeast corner of Alabama and go partway up the line and a little to the right, you'll locate it, and that is as complete a description as you'll get from me.
The name of the branch itself no longer appears on the map, and I have no idea who named it originally. Most of the place names in my part of the world, except along the coast itself, are either Indian or Scotch-Irish in origin. Whatever other abilities the Celts may have, they have a marvelous flair for pungent and distinctive place names and they have left the mark of this descriptive poetry on natural landmarks all over the Southeast. Names like Burnt Corn Creek and Oven Bluff and Gin House Branch and Goat Hobble Bald. The Indian names may be even more pungent, but I cannot tell because I speak neither Creek nor Choctaw.
I suspect that Forty Crook Branch was named for the number of curves in it rather than as an allusion to the companions of Ali Baba, but you never know. At any rate, it is remarkably crooked, and the terrain on both sides of the branch and its tiny feeder streams is as steep as any we have. The most pronounced feature of the area is a single central ridge that runs northwest and has a hollow on each side of it that is distinctly different from its matching hollow on the other side.
The hollow on your left—west—is a mixed stand of pine and hardwood and is almost an even mixture of each. I killed a turkey there one fall, early in the morning, that had the unique distinction of being the only flying bird I have ever shot from above. I had missed them on the roost and they were down in the hollow, fighting and squalling at one another to work off the ill humors of early morning, when I heard the racket. I was able to stay under the crest of the ridge on the east side until I got abreast of all the noise and then run across the top and shoot down into the hole. They were all the way down in the bottom of the hollow, a hundred and twenty yards away, and as they came up, one of them flew up the hill to my right, turned and crossed along the slope of the ridge, right to left, and 30 yards below me.
The lead is identical and the swing is exactly the same but the feeling is decidedly peculiar. Shooting downhill is, I suppose, appropriate for hunters of mountain goats and bighorn sheep but it is not all that common for bird hunters. Bird hunters get awfully used to looking up when they shoot. Every time I go along that ridge now I stop, and go over to the west side, and in my mind's eye, watch that bird cross below me. I usually take a practice swing or two there, in the highly unlikely event that the situation will come up again. I hope it never does. I am batting a thousand in such instances and there is never two of anything.
This remarkable event notwithstanding, the west hollow is not my favorite side. My choice is the one on the east, and its choicest point is at its head, just as you walk onto the central ridge.
The central ridge begins as a nonentity. It breaks off from a perfectly ordinary looking hill, with some scrubby looking old field loblolly pine thinly mixed among a stand of ratty-looking post oak, and falls gently away to a pile of lime rock in a thicket of mountain laurel. There is an abrupt right-hand turn in the gap between two lime rocks the size of elephants and an equally abrupt left-hand turn behind the rocks. Once you step beyond the screen of laurel, you are in an open area the size of a small room.