“A man used to be able to drive down the road and see a fire, he’d get out and stomp on it. Nowadays, he gets out with a shirt and fans it, makes sure it’s burning good.”
-John “Frog” Menard
Once the humidity drops and the mounds of thick, green grass carpeting the woods of southeast Texas dry out, a band of angry hunters set on revenge will perform their annual ritual.
They’ll wait for nightfall and a cool wind to rustle through the pines. Then they’ll hop in their old pickups and pile bundles of long, wooden matchsticks on their front seats. Taking a long drag off a fresh cigarette, they’ll wedge it in one of the bundles and toss it out the window. Every hundred yards or so, another smoldering ball will land in dead brush.
The cigarette tip will still be glowing red as they drive away. Then, the woods will burn.
By the time the fire catches, “they’ll be back at the house, drinking coffee, eating breakfast,” says John “Frog” Menard, a deer hunter who has been suspected of setting fires, but denies any involvement.
Fire is backwoods justice in these parts - and it has been every fall for 30 years. Since 1988 alone, some 50,000 acres have been torched in southeast Texas, authorities say.
And the culprits - about 20 “diehards” ranging in age from their late 30s to their 70s - are rarely caught.
Because they don’t get out of their trucks to start the fires, which are set in a variety of ways, there are no boot prints to make plaster casts from. And the rest of the evidence goes up in smoke.
“You have to catch the person in the act. It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve dealt with in the 15 years I’ve been here,” says Gary Lacox, area forester for the Texas Forest Service. “These people who are such scoundrels, there’s a fear that if I tell on them and they found out I told, they’re going to burn me out.”
Their motivation has changed with each decade.
First, it was the erection of fences. Then, it was the private hunting clubs that were given exclusive rights by the timber companies, which own most of the land around here. Now, it’s a law banning the use of their hound dogs to hunt deer - a practice that dates back to their ancestors, who settled these dense woods not far from the Louisiana border nearly 200 years ago. The law was considered a defense of private property rights, since dogs in chase will run anywhere a deer takes them - including over property leased to hunting clubs.
“You make a lot of people mad when you take their dogs away. It’s like taking our heritage away,” says Menard, 36, pulling on a cigarette as he leans against his pickup, parked next to his trailer home. He is bare-chested under a pair of cutoff denim overalls, the side metal buttons popped from their holes. As he talks, his hound dogs bark and tug on their leashes tied to trees in the backyard woods.
“If you can’t have a dog, you can’t raise no pine trees. That’s the way it is. We’ll stop burning the timber if you help get our dogs back,” he says in a challenge to the timber industry.
It’s a late September afternoon and the humidity is still heavy. Sweat drips like tree sap and you can hardly draw a breath without inhaling “love bugs” - swarms of mating insects connected in flight. Like rain, they pound windshields by the hundreds and leave yellow splotches so thick they’ve been blamed for head-on collisions. Menard’s windshield is crusted with them.
The Menard clan lives about 10 miles from the little timber town of Buna, past a sign advertising Beasley’s Smokehouse and “Mike Hawkins Tent Preaching, 7 o’clock,” beyond the signs selling okra and worms, across the railroad tracks, just past the pink house and onto a dirt road.
Menard and his buddies who live up the road, Arthur and Joe Moss, are gathered around the back of Menard’s two-tone Chevrolet truck.
They talk about life here, about how a man could get stabbed for stealing a hunting dog and a dog could be shot for killing a neighbor’s chickens. They wax on about the joy of listening to the howling of the dogs in hot pursuit of a white-tailed deer.
“It’s like listening to country-western music,” says Joe Moss, letting out a hound dog howl. His brother and Menard chime in with yelps and hollers.
“It’s the prettiest thing you ever done heard,” says Arthur Moss, 46, whose Elvis-like sideburns cover much of his red, puffy face.
“I’m fighting for my rights I had when I was born and growing up. If I want to run a deer with a dog, I’ve paid my taxes, I’ve fought in the war, I want to run my dogs.”
Timber companies that lose thousands of acres a year to arson have aligned their security guards with the local sheriff’s office and the Texas Forest Service rangers, but to no avail.
Jasper County Sheriff Roscoe Davis, a former Texas Ranger, says he’s practically given up. “We barely have time to answer our calls, much less do prolonged surveillance on these arsonists,” he says.
One old hunter in particular has out-smarted Davis for years - 76-year-old Woody Eaves, who lives in a tumbledown shack on Gist Road about five miles from the Menards. Antlers and fishing poles dangle from a tree out front and squawking chickens bustle around the yard.
When Davis was still a Texas Ranger, he would stake out the narrow road with binoculars, hoping to catch Eaves setting fires. Surveillance planes would follow Eaves when he would start up his truck.
“I was a decoy. The young bucks is the ones settin’ the fires. Everybody that hunts out here sets a fire. Everybody,” says Eaves, pronouncing “fire” as a long, drawn-out “far.”
No one has been injured in the fires, and Eaves says no structures have been burned. But the two-story log home of Clifford Woods, a former Jasper County justice of the peace who fined many illegal hunters, was torched last December. There’s nothing left on the overgrown lot but a charred safe and singed fragments of his Louis L’Amour book collection.
He suspects outlaw hunters, but can’t prove it.
“They claim to be defending their way of life, but they’re just cowards,” Woods says. “They can’t face you with an issue, so they burn you out.”
When people get mad in these parts, fire is often their weapon of choice.
“That’s always the threat,” Woods says, “I’ll burn you out or I’ll kill your cows.”
To Eaves, fire is a simple protest, “that’s all in the world it is.”
“We used to have no trouble, no trouble at all, until they started making rules,” he says. “I guess they’ll be fires from here on.”