“You guys mind if I join you?” I said.
Three inmates were waiting their turn to play handball in Menard prison’s south yard. One of them broke off from a cockamamie story he was telling about shooting seven deer with six bullets.
“It’s a free country.” He glanced up at one of the yard’s gun towers. “Although this ain’t exactly the free part of it.”
“So I’m free to stand here but not to climb the fence?” I said.
“Naw, you’re free to climb the fence.” He was a wiry guy with dark hair, friendly eyes, a jaunty walk, and an air of mischief about him. I liked him immediately. “But let me place a couple bets first.”
I paused a second. “Well, I do need the exercise, but I was thinking more of handball. How’s it work here? Do you sign up, or …”
“Winner stays,” he said. “I’m third, you’re after me. Games are to seven.” He looked me over. “I’m Henry Hillenbrand,” he said. “You new here?”
“I’m David Hendricks and you’re right, I just got here a couple of days ago.”
“Mind if I give you some advice?”
“Happy to have it. This is my first time to yard.”
“I saw you carrying a color TV in from commissary yesterday. Hauling one into your cell your first week here, you’re asking for trouble.”
In Menard, you could have a TV, but only if you bought it at commissary. Most TVs were tiny, black and white, and cheap, but lately they’d started offering color TVs. They were a little bigger and a lot more expensive.
“Thanks—I’ll keep that in mind for the future.” My turn to grin. “But don’t let me interfere with your story. Seven deer with six bullets? This I’ve got to hear.”
So Henry started over for my sake.
“I was headed for old Cheese Eye’s store that day,” he said. “It was just down one hill and up another from Mac’s Salvage. So I left Mac’s and right after I walk out of the garage, Lester opens the back door and sees seven deer in the field. Buck and Lester didn’t have a gun there but they knew I’d just left, so they jump into the pickup and race up to get me.
“Now, both of them liked to joke around with me, especially about deer. They’d put signs up around my place, ‘Deer beware, Tom lives here!’—I was Tom to them—so I wasn’t about to believe them telling me they saw seven deer in their back yard!
“They pull up to the store in an all-fired hurry, slide to a stop in the loose gravel, and lean on the horn. I didn’t know what they were about, so I come on out the store.
“‘Tom!’ they said, ‘Let us use your gun! There’s seven deer in the field back of Mac’s!’
“Now, heck, if they’d of said one or even two, I’d of dashed down lickety-split. But seven?
“‘Come on, guys. How gullible you think I am?’
“‘No, really! Seven deer! Hurry up—give us your gun!’
“‘Be right there.’
“I go back in the store and tell Frankie and we’re still laughing about it when they call on the phone. ‘Tom! Come on, Tom—they’re still here!’
“Now, I know seven deer aren’t about to hang around like that but I decide to play along, and they come running up the minute I pull in at the garage. ‘Where’s your gun! Get the gun, goddammit!’ Well, heck, they’re serious. Look like they’re about to pee their pants. I grab my gun and ease around back. When I seen all them deer I was like a dog with lighter fluid up his butt.
“So I holler, ‘Run out there, you two, and watch the road!’ So here I am, sneaking between these junk cars behind Mac’s garage. Now, I don’t have an extra clip, and EF Hutton’s only got six shells in it—one of my friends nicknamed my rifle EF Hutton, said when it spoke, the animals listened. Anyhow, there are still seven deer in the field. No way I’m getting more than two of those buggers, even with a semi-automatic, ‘cause with the first shot they’ll bolt. And they’re right next to the woods.
“I’m close as I can get and still stay hidden in the junk cars. This one taillight had the red lens missing. Whoever took it just bent the chrome on either side of the screw, making a vee for me to rest EF Hutton in. I steadied it there, took aim, and BAM! I shot this one deer, and my bullet goes right through his neck and hits the one behind him in the side. So I got two deer with my first shot, but the second one didn’t drop. Ran into the woods with the other five.
“So now I got five shots and six fleeing deer, far as I knew. I go running into the woods after them, see one in a patch of trees and shoot him, which leaves me four shots. I saw one ahead of me, laying low behind brush in a ravine. I was ready to plug him but I’d have to shoot him in the back so I try to sneak up to him for a cleaner shot, but he never moved. I got right up to him and found out why. He was the deer I killed with the first bullet.
“I was coming out of the woods, and the four deer left was jumping over a fence down by the road going up to this other patch of woods. So here I went—see, you don’t ever go behind deer, ‘cause wherever they come from, they stand and look behind them to see if they’re being chased. I circled around the side of them, way around so I was ahead of them, so they’d come to me. Now, this works perfect if you got two guys. One goes up ahead, the other waits till the first one’s in position then feeds him the deer just by moving. The deer will see the guy behind them and go forward.
“Took me about two hours to track all four deer down. I got every one of them and I was on my way back to Mac’s with an empty gun when Buck and Lester spotted me walking along the road and picked me up—they’d been riding around looking for me, of course.
“‘Got all seven of them buggers,’ I said when I climbed in.
“Now it was their turn not to believe. ‘With six bullets? Uh-huh! Tell us another one, Tom!’
“‘Nope, I got something better to do. I’ll make believers of you, ‘cause you’ll be picking up seven dead deer. Here, I’ll draw you a map.’
“So I did and they did. Picked up all seven.”
In May of 1997, I traveled to Missouri seeking confirmation of this outlandish story from the owner of Mac’s Salvage, Raymond “Tudie” McAnally.
“Yeah, it happened just the way he told you,” Tudie said. “I’ll tell you, Tom was the most amazing shot you ever saw.”
Ricky Cleaver, another Missouri friend of Tom’s, said, “I’d rather have the law shooting at me than Tom.”
To this day, some thirty years later, they still tell stories about the legendary hunter Tom Elliott. They’re the same stories but now they come with a twist, for the last sentence always starts something like this: “But I never knew …”
What they never knew was that Tom Elliott had a past he was keeping to himself, a secret that, were it to leak, would cut short his career in woodsmanship. For Tom Elliott’s name wasn’t Tom Elliott. His real name was Henry Hillenbrand, and he was wanted by the law for the double murder of the woman he loved and the man he found her in bed with, and like the deer he hunted, he was constantly looking backwards over his shoulder.