The delicate and the dangerous meet in the ranch lands of South Texas. In the winter, quail gather in the soft gold of prairie sedge, but snakes, scorpions and wild-boar-like javelina lurk too. In 1999 a fourth-generation South Texas rancher named Tobin Armstrong testified before Congress that he sometimes found illegal immigrants dead of dehydration in the unforgiving brush of his 49,300-acre ranch. It was there that Vice President Dick Cheney, out with a hunting party that included Tobin's daughter Katharine, accidentally sprayed attorney Harry Whittington with birdshot. What took place in the hours before and after the Feb. 11 shooting is a largely mundane tale that became extraordinary when, for days, Cheney seemed unwilling to tell it. The Internet is still excreting rumors.
So, what did happen?
Gentility and blood sport are old friends, but the mix of the wealthy and the rustic at Armstrong Ranch that weekend was exceptional. Tobin's grandfather started the ranch on family land in 1882, after he won a $4,000 bounty for capturing outlaw John Wesley Hardin. The Vice President was hunting with not only his friend Whittington, who has advised Texas Governors and plays a monthly card game with the likes of a retired state supreme court justice, but also Pamela Pitzer Willeford, the ambassador to Switzerland. Tobin died in October, so his wife Anne Legendre Armstrong, a former ambassador to Britain and a longtime Cheney friend, played host. For all that, Armstrong Ranch is countrified rather than ostentatious. At the entrance is a utilitarian "bumper" gate, so named because you nudge it open with your vehicle. Guests usually stay in wooden ranch dwellings near the main house, which are furnished with antiques but few frills.
Katharine Armstrong initially told a Texas reporter that there had been "zero, zippo" drinking that Saturday. But Cheney later said on Fox News that he had had "a beer" at lunch. The meal had been served under an old oak, and the hunt--which had begun that morning--didn't resume until midafternoon. In addition to the grandees with their guns--Cheney's an elegant, Italian-made 28-gauge shotgun, Whittington's a 20-gauge--the party included several guides and dogs. Because of the breadth of the terrain, they got around in old jeeps and other vehicles. According to the local sheriff's report, it was about 5:30 p.m., as the sun was giving way to the gloaming, when the dogs located a covey of quail. Moments later, a guide named Oscar Medellin found another covey. When the dogs flushed the first covey, Whittington fired a lucky shot that hit two birds. As he went to find the downed birds, the report says, Cheney and Willeford moved toward Medellin's covey.