Dead Horses are the Dead Horse of This Show; or
Who Ordered a Michael Landon on the Rocks?
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: The Hunters
Airdate: December 20, 1976
Written by Harold Swanton
Directed by Michael Landon
EDITOR’S NOTE: Our family watched this episode before our interview with Melissa Gilbert, so if you haven’t read the interview already, please do check it out afterwards. – WK
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Laura kills Pa! Well, almost. She does shoot him in the chest, and she and her new Old-Man Bestie Burl Ives undertake a harrowing journey to save him.
RECAP: Oh boy, this is a favorite. All hands are on deck for it, including our daughter Amelia, who’s home for the holiday.
The timing is good, since this episode aired at Christmastime, after the show took a week off for Christmas specials by Bob Hope and Perry Como. (Which I’m sure my grandparents watched.)
It’s also a double-length episode – the first such story we’ve had since Season One. (The IMDb gets this wrong, strangely.)
The length alone suggests Landon thought “The Hunters” a jewel in Season Three’s crown; but of course we’ll judge that for ourselves.
Who am I kidding, it totally is the jewel in Season Three’s crown. Let’s begin.
We open on a night shot of the Little House.
WILL: Is that a plastic cooler on the bench?
DAGNY: Ikea bag, I thought.
As the camera pans in, we notice a Laura-like shape in the upstairs window.
And in fact, as we zoom closer, the Laura-like shape turns out to be . . . Laura.
WILL [to AMELIA]: That’s Melissa Gilbert.
AMELIA: I know which one Melissa Gilbert is.
We cut to a very Nativity-set–esquian shot of Pa working in the barn.
In the loft, Laura is putting her boots on for some reason. Mary wakes up and starts crabbing.
Mary asks Laura what the fuck she’s doing (paraphrase), and Laura says she’s stuffing her shoes full of stockings like she always does before bed so just shut it.
Laura then poofs her nightcap up quite ridiculously, and it becomes clear she’s trying to look tall.
Meanwhile, back in the barn, Charles is working.
DAGNY: Is he melting lead?
ALEXANDER: I don’t think a candle could melt lead.
AMELIA: He’s probably cooking up meth.
ROMAN: The meth lab on Breaking Bad didn’t look like this.
Laura comes out to talk to him. How she made it past the watchful eyes of Ma, I don’t know.
Laura says she wanted to catch Pa before he leaves on his hunting trip in the morning.
Pa doesn’t tell us his ultimate destination, only that he’s hitching a ride with Mr. Edwards as far as “Morgan Creek” – another heretofore unmentioned landmark.
Never concerned with accuracy for long, the show then says Morgan Creek is “in the mountains,” which it decidedly isn’t.
Laura points out Pa said she could join him on a hunting trip soon. She tries convincing him she’s grown taller, but he sees through her ruse.
Pa tells Laura she can’t come along. He blames Ma, saying she hates the idea of girls hunting.
AMELIA: Michael Landon seems pissy in this scene. He doesn’t seem as Pa-ish as usual.
OLIVE: All right, we know you’re back, Amelia. You don’t have to talk constantly to get quoted in the blog.
But in fact, Pa himself likes the idea of Laura coming along. He says he’ll see what he can do to convince Ma.
Later, in bed, he takes a sideways approach to the subject, ignoring the fact that Caroline is making sexy sleepy noises.
But when he outright asks if Laura can come on the hunting trip, Ma wakes up and says “What?”
Apparently Ma’s objection is that hunting will turn Laura into even more of a “tomboy” than she already is.
AMELIA: Talk about forcing gender roles on a child.
WILL: I know, this one’s very timely.
(Incidentally, the use of tomboy to mean “a non-feminine-presenting girl” dates back to a Sixteenth-Century play with the excellent name of Ralph Roister Doister.)
Charles’s response to this is, “That’s just the point, she’s going to be a woman the rest of her life, why don’t we let her be a tomboy a little bit longer?”
It’s a sad attitude, which suggests a woman’s experience of life is inferior to a man’s. But we are in the Nineteenth Century, and, well, truth is just truth, I suppose.
Anyways, Ma doubles down on the sexism, saying, “She’s a girl, not a boy.”
Then we hear Laura’s voice from the loft saying, “Pa, did you ask her?”
WILL: I guess this answers whether the kids can hear their “popcorn noises.”
AMELIA: “Popcorn noises”?
DAGNY: That’s sex.
AMELIA: . . . You guys call sex “popcorn noises”?
Well, without actually saying anything, Ma caves to the pressure.
Cut to Mr. Edwards driving his wagon (an Edsmobile?) across a field with Pa and Laura as passengers. Since their destination is on the way to Mankato, I don’t know why they’re off-roading it.
“I hope you know what you’re doin’,” says Edwards. “Risky thing takin’ a woman along on a huntin’ trip.”
AMELIA: Okay, I hate him in this one.
Pa reassures Mr. Ed that “Half-Pint’s hardly a full-grown woman yet,” so there’s no need to fret about such things.
WILL: What are they saying? Does menstruation attract wolves or something?
DAGNY: There’s no logical explanation for their opinion. Besides, she’s not menstruating yet. She has to put apples in her shirt for boobs.
AMELIA: How old is Laura supposed to be in this one, anyway?
WILL: Somewhere between nine and twenty-seven, based on how I’ve been counting.
Mr. Edwards says he just meant generally that women and girls are “bad luck.”
AMELIA: What a bitch!
Of course, he adds, there are exceptions. Using some offensive slang I won’t repeat, he says he knew a Cheyenne Indian who brought his wife along to clean, dress and skin the animals he shot.
Interestingly, there were once Cheyenne people in Minnesota, but by the Nineteenth Century they had mostly been driven away.
Edwards drops them off in the woods, saying he’ll come back Sunday. Oh, and he leaves them a horse, by the way. Looks a lot like the Season Two model of Bunny.
If you recall, it’s a two-or-three-day journey to the Greater Mankato Area from Walnut Grove. Since no one’s mentioned Laura missing school, we can assume this one’s set in the summer (of 1880-C).
Meanly, Mr. Ed sneaks a rock into Laura’s backpack as a joke.
He then performs “Old Dan Tucker” as a sort of encore and departs.
It actually looks like this is maybe Charles’s wagon, and Edwards is borrowing it? Or borrowing the Chonkies, at least.
After a commercial break, Pa and Laura are climbing the mountain. Laura finds the rock in her pack, haw haw. (Much like that rock, this scene is filler.)
Pa sees and gives us his crazy giggle, which we haven’t had in a while.
AMELIA: Whoa! Does he always laugh like that?
The sun sets.
DAGNY: That’s beautiful.
WILL: Yeah. The beautiful mountains of Minnesota.
OLIVE: It could be Lutsen.
WILL: Oh, it isn’t Lutsen! That’s hundreds of miles away!
Sorry to shout at a child, but we have been over this before.
Over a campfire, Laura and Pa have a little conversation about how well they’re bonding.
Then Laura asks him not to laugh at what she’s about to say, and he responds, “As long as it’s not one of your cherry-tree jokes!”
(I have no idea what this means. I did find a list of jokes about George Washington and the cherry tree, so maybe it’s that? The jokes might be AI-generated, though, if how funny they are is any indication.)
Laura talks about how she’s growing up wanting to be a boy.
“Well,” grunts Pa noncommittally – perhaps remembering where Laura wanting to be a boy led to in “The Lord is My Shepherd.”
Laura says making this trip is like having both father/daughter AND father/son relationships.
Pa starts reminiscing about his own insane parents, whom we only recently met ourselves.
He goes on to remember meeting Caroline for the first time “in the Big Woods.” (In reality they met in Concord, Wisconsin – nowhere near the Big Woods.)
He talks for a while about how pretty Caroline was/is. Banal dialogue, for him.
Eventually, Laura escapes his droning by falling asleep.
AMELIA: I didn’t even notice she fell asleep.
WILL: I know, it looked so natural. Melissa Gilbert is that good.
Maybe it’s just me, but at this moment, Melissa Gilbert really looks like she and Melissa Sue Anderson could be sisters.
The next day, Pa and Laura come upon a cabin in a clearing.
OLIVE: That’s a lot of ferns.
The cabin’s attended by a young white man in buckskins who introduces himself as Ben Shelby.
OLIVE: Who’s the cutie-patootie?
DAGNY: I know, look at his fur. And that hat!
WILL: You know who he looks like? I’ll give you a hint. . . . “Be FUCKED!!!”
ROMAN: Yeah, it’s JANE!
He was an original Mouseketeer, too.
Crawford was a fantastic musician, who led a band that performed Twenties and Thirties jazz (which I love).
(When we chatted with her, Melissa Gilbert told us Crawford’s band once played at her ex-husband’s birthday party!)
Anyways, moving forward, Ben says he’s a trapper who needs to take off and set his traps, or somethin’.
A cracked old man’s voice yells out from the cabin, saying, “Hey, is that Glover out there?” (Throughout this story, everyone pronounces “Glover” to rhyme with Rover rather than with lover.)
One of the huge-est of the Huge Old Men we’ve had on this show appears at the door.
He’s complaining loudly and talking about smoked meat. (Clearly Harold Swanton researched the interests and habits of Huge Old Men in real life.)
This HOM is played by the legendary Burl Ives, a folksinger who also acted.
Ives was reviled in some circles for naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee during its hunt for Communists in the 1950s. He continued to be a big star in music and movies, though. In 1959, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Big Country.
He also was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Many readers will know him best, though, as the snowman narrator in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
If you turn on your radio during the holiday season, you will be certain to hear his hit “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” probably within minutes.
But I remember him for Burl Ives Sings Little White Duck, a record of weird songs for children. (Seriously weird. The album begins with not one but TWO songs about snakes eating cute little animals. Then it moves on to topics including geese that won’t die when you stab them, a plague-infected pig that gets made into pickles, a whale that wants to swallow your dog or grandmother or something, and other such disturbing subjects. I loved it as a child, as you might imagine.)
WILL: Amelia, pay attention to the old man’s voice through the rest of it and see if you recognize it from a song you know.
Back to our story. Burl Ives goes on bitching how there’s no damn sugar for his coffee, but gives Charles and Laura a rudimentary greeting before slamming the door.
Ben, who’s a friendly young man, chats with the Ingallses for a little while before they move on.
When they’ve gone, Ben goes inside to Burl Ives.
WILL [as BEN]: “I told you, NEVER COME OUT WHEN SOMEONE’S HERE!!!”
But no, really he offers to heat Burl Ives up some lunch. But Ives just sits in his chair and says he “don’t want none.” The banter between these two (revealed to be father and son) is reminiscent of Charles and his dad – right down to a refused invitation for Burl to come and live with Ben.
Then Ben mentions a “Cedar Creek,” which he implies runs between here and his home. Interestingly, we’ve heard that name before. In “The Runaway Caboose,” it’s said to be located between Springfield and Sleepy Eye – forty miles away from where they are now. (It’s a fictional place, though.)
Anyways, Ben and Burl Ives bicker for a while. Ben gets so pissed off, he abandons the smoked meat he’s been a-carvin’ and says he’s leaving.
He mentions he’ll get home by following Cedar Creek past “North Fork.” Since North Fork, Minnesota, is 125 miles north of where Cedar Creek is supposed to be . . . well, I’ll just say that must be some fucking creek.
Ben says the trip will take “about a week.” If that’s his route, I don’t doubt it will!
[UPDATE: Actually, helpful reader phony bigcharles points out this is a clever reference to North Fork, New Mexico Territory, the setting of The Rifleman! Thanks, phony bigcharles.]
Elsewhere, Pa and Laura wander the forest. Laura asks some logical questions about how the hell they’ll ever find their way back.
Charles says, “Well, you get to remembering a piece of country . . . like a woman remembers a recipe.”
DAGNY [as CHARLES]: “Or a man remembers a woman’s body!”
Pa points out some memorable landmarks along the way, including a split-trunk pine he calls “a schoolmarm tree.”
WILL: Do you know why it’s called a schoolmarm tree?
WILL: Because schoolteachers never spread their legs.
AMELIA: Oh my God, Dad.
Hey, I didn’t make it up!
Pa and Laura start to set up camp.
DAGNY: There’s a lot of busywork in this one. Makin’ camp, smokin’ meat. . . .
But before they’re through, they hear rustling from the woods. Pa thinks it’s a deer, loads his gun, and steps into the brush.
WILL: Fizzgig should jump out.
In fact, it is a deer, but for some reason Pa declines to shoot it.
If the deer looks familiar, that’s because they’re reusing the same footage from “His Father’s Son” last season. (Another good story about a hunting trip that goes disastrously wrong.)
Pa returns to camp, explaining to Laura he didn’t shoot the deer because it was a doe.
AMELIA: Why wouldn’t he shoot a doe?
And anyways, I must point out, it isn’t any fucking doe. Even I know that! You can see its antlers, if you look closely.
Pa suggests they have something to eat, then “hunt out the rest of the day.”
Laura is delighted to learn she can join in the actual hunting, and isn’t expected just to fetch water, make flapjacks, and the like.
She asks if this means she isn’t really bad luck, and Pa says Mr. Ed was only joking about that.
He adds, “I think you’re the best luck I ever had.”
And that’s when Laura knocks his gun over and shoots him in the chest.
The rest of us, who had all seen this one before, watched Amelia’s face for her reaction. Which was pretty much like one of those cat memes.
And for my money, it is one of the most shocking moments in Little House history.
Also, among the funniest. As I noted somewhere, this show isn’t really known for its irony. But in this case, the warm-fuzzy feel of Pa and Laura’s conversation – chitchat we’ve been trained by this show to find comforting – leaves us completely unprepared for the horror of the accident.
And it happens so suddenly! It’s all just fantastically done. Beautifully composed shot, too.
Well, quite understandably, Laura freaks out. So does Bunny 2.
Pa has fallen on some rocks (ow). He lies next to Cedar Creek, looking just awful.
(There totally should be a cocktail called a Michael Landon. What would it be, though? Straight vodka with a splash of lemon verbena?)
Apparently Pa was hit more in the belly than in the chest. Pinky’s gonna have to be retired even if he survives, I’m afraid. And they’ve been through a lot together!
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I don’t know much about guns or hunting, so I invite anybody who does to send us a postcard or something giving more information.
But while rear-loading weapons not too different from the hunting rifles of today did exist by the 1880s – the gun Mr. Edwards gave John was a Winchester 73, for example – we see Charles load this gun from the front, suggesting it’s an older type.
In case you didn’t know, the difference between a rifle and a shotgun – at least, one obvious difference – is that a rifle shoots a single projectile or bullet, whereas a shotgun shoots smaller pellets in a wider spray. Maybe you knew that already; I have no idea what sort of people are reading this, so please forgive me if I seem to be talking down to you about something simple. For all I know, the readers of this blog may all be bullet-heads in bunkers waiting for World War III to begin.
We can deduce Pa’s gun is a rifle, since that would be a better choice for killing a large animal like a deer from a distance, and since Pa seems to have only one wound instead of the several he would have if struck by pellets.
Anyways, Laura cries, “Oh, Pa, what did I do?”
Breathing hard, Pa says, “You didn’t do anything. . . . It was my fault. . . . I . . . left the gun loaded. . . .”
Terrified, Laura starts to argue with him. But though he’s in obvious pain, Pa won’t have her taking the blame.
Gritting his teeth and thinking, Pa tells Laura to go find Bunny 2 so they can get back to the Shelby Shack.
Michael Landon is terrific at this sort of acting – you can tell Charles is trying not to panic despite being very frightened about the situation.
At first Laura is paralyzed, but Pa shouts at her and she runs.
And when she goes, Pa whispers in agony, “Dear God, don’t let her see me die.”
Anyways, Tear-Schmear Laura quickly finds Bunny 2.
ALEXANDER: Shoot it, Laura!
She approaches cautiously, but the horse startles and runs. Laura grabs a rope it’s conveniently trailing and is dragged through the forest.
WILL: I bet this isn’t as fun as it looks.
OLIVE: It doesn’t look fun!
Now, one thing that struck me as odd is Laura screams “Please, please stop!” and “Nobody’s going to hurt you!” at Bunny 2 as if it’s a person.
WILL: She’s a very experienced rider by this point. Wouldn’t she use horse commands? Gee, haw, and all that jazz?
OLIVE: Not necessarily.
Well, Olive does know a thing or two about horses, so I’ll defer to her judgment. I think I mentioned she once had a joke published in Blaze: The Magazine for Horse-Crazy Kids.
Well, whatever Laura says seems to work.
Back at Cedar Creek, Charles lowers his face for a drink. The dripping water highlights his wavy hair and handsome features – quite accidentally, I’m sure.
Laura returns with the horse. Pa tries to touch her face comfortingly, but manages only to tug on one of her braids. He’s in bad shape.
Pa tells Laura to help him get on the horse. Good Lord, how is that going to work?
Well, you’ll have to wait to find out, because we fade to a commercial.
And we’re back. They really sort of cheat on this one because they just cut back to Charles already sitting up on the horse. Annie Wilkes wouldn’t like it.
This is neither here nor there, but Annie Wilkes really understood how important it is to think critically about entertainment, didn’t she? Annie, you’re welcome on the Walnut Groovy couch anytime.
Anyways, then Laura, Pa and Bunny 2 begin to ascend a very steep hill. To this point in the episode, we’ve only seen them going UP the mountain, so I don’t know why they’re continuing to go uphill to get back to Ives Manor.
Well, only then they do head downhill after a fashion, when Bunny 2 trips on a boulder, and he and Pa roll horrifically down the mountain.
OLIVE: Oh my God!
WILL: Now that is a brave horse.
DAGNY: Yeah, the stunts in this one are really good.
Interestingly, you can also see on Charles’s back that the gunshot has an exit wound.
You’d think Laura might have fallen as well, you know, the way they say lifeboats can get sucked down after a big ship sinks, but she doesn’t. She clambers down, and Pa weakly inquires after the horse.
But at the bottom of the slope, she finds Bunny 2 dead!
ROMAN: Yet another dead horse.
Laura scampers back up the hill.
WILL: Why is she not all upset like she was with Bunny?
OLIVE: ’Cause she’s more worried about her dad.
WILL: Oh, whatever. Continuity error!
Pa tells Laura she’s going to have to get help alone. Laura says she can’t remember the way back, but Pa says she just has to follow the points of interest they passed when they came, like the schoolmarm tree.
WILL: Dirty-minded Landon, that would be the first example he thought of.
Spewing aphorisms even from the jaws of death, Pa says, “Sometimes, it takes something like this in our lives to show us what we’re made of.”
And David Rose cranks up the urgency as Laura takes off.
WILL: Now this is like the music from the beginning of Airplane!
Laura dashes madly through the forest. The music morphs into something suggestive of evil clowns.
She spots the schoolmarm tree, David bringing in the Oscillating Slide Whistle of Evil.
And then . . .
OLIVE: Look, the ferns! She found it!
Yes, she’s found it.
DAGNY: It’s like that Sesame Street cartoon where the girl remembers a loaf of bread, a stick of butter, a gallon of milk. The schoolmarm tree, the ferns. . . .
Laura bursts through the door screaming, and Burl Ives jumps out of bed.
WILL: Is that a hat, or his hair?
DAGNY: His hat.
ROMAN: Why’s he wearing it in bed?
Laura gives Ives a quick summary. Strangely, he demands to know precisely how the accident occurred. He doesn’t hassle her about it when she tells him, though. (He’s probably sorry he asked!)
Laura tells Burl Ives he has to help, but he says he can’t because he’s blind – a fact which hasn’t been mentioned to this point but which we could deduce from his blank stare. (Ives was an Oscar winner, remember.)
DAGNY: Little House is obsessed with blind people. They’re the dead horse of this show.
ROMAN: I think dead horses are the dead horse of this show.
Staring furiously rather than blankly, Laura demands he come. He points out he hasn’t left the house in five years . . . but Laura reveals her terrifying teeth, and even though he can’t see them, he seems to sense the danger and acquiesces.
WILL: Melissa Gilbert’s gonna give you a hard time about all the tooth jokes, Olive.
OLIVE: I know, that’s why I’m not saying anything today.
On his way out the door, he grabs a sort of Gandalf stick.
Rather implausibly for a man of his size, he makes it down the mountain to Pa without pulling a Bunny 2.
DAGNY: Kicks dirt in Pa’s face, that’s nice.
Well, long story short, they get Pa back to the cabin, where we see Ives has put a stretched bearskin in the yard. Whether it’s a scarecrow or merely a decoration is anyone’s guess.
WILL: It’s Midsommar.
They get Charles into bed, and needless to say they also get his shirt off.
OLIVE: I was out of the room, how did they get him back?
DAGNY: They supported him up the hill.
OLIVE: All two hundred pounds of him?
WILL: Probably not two hundred. Michael Landon was pretty short.
OLIVE: Well, and I guess who cares, he looks great.
Laura covers him up and tends him.
OLIVE: He’s like me the day I had my wisdom teeth out.
Burl Ives says this being the Nineteenth Century, he has no idea when his son will return to the cabin.
Meanwhile, out in the wilderness, Ben tells his horses, one of whom has the exceptionally creative name of “Brown,” it’s time to head home. (Horses are useful things to have in dramas when the human characters are alone and need to give the audience information.)
OLIVE: HE looks good too.
Ben hears a noise and crosses the river to investigate.
OLIVE: Oh my God, that horse is pooping!
WILL: Now that is a true first for this show.
AMELIA: They should have called this one “Shit in the River.”
The noises were made by a grizzled Tom Waits type who’s rummaging through a bag of cookware under a shoddy little tent.
Ben recognizes him as the mysterious Glover and the two greet each other.
Glover is apparently an itinerant metal-goods merchant or “tinker.” I suppose we should have guessed that, given our familiarity with tinkers by this point.
Glover says he got so bored with his usual sales route he did it backwards this time. I used to do distance running in my younger days, and I would use the same technique, actually.
Glover says he just came from the home of someone with the marvelous name of “Tater Johnson.” (We don’t meet this person, sadly.)
Oblivious to Charles’s plight, Ben and Glover chew the fat, both figuratively and literally.
DANGY: Look at the paws on his hat!
WILL: What kind, do you think? Bobcat?
Ben asks Glover to alter his course and stop by to check on Burl Ives.
Burl Ives sits sadly as the melody is taken over by the fake bagpipe-thing they sometimes use.
DAGNY: He kind of looks like Logan Roy.
Meanwhile, Laura prays for Pa’s recovery.
DAGNY: You need to start tracking how many times Pa has been mortally wounded.
After a commercial break, Pa lies in bed sweating and panting. Not in a good way.
DAGNY: This is what the woman who I saw faint while she was donating blood looked like.
ROMAN: . . . Stubbly?
Pa, whose bleeding has stopped, says he’s thirsty, and Burl Ives pours him some whiskey from a jug.
DAGNY: That was really good blind pouring!
“My pa doesn’t take spirits,” says Laura.
DAGNY: Pa doesn’t drink at all? Have we ever seen him have a drink?
Burl Ives says in this case the liquor is strictly medicinal; and Charles takes some.
Laura tells Pa she’s decided to begin walking back towards the place they said they’d meet Mr. Edwards.
DAGNY: God, his nipples always look perfect, don’t they.
Pa objects at first, but quickly he changes his mind and starts drawing Laura an invisible map on her hand.
Pa tells her she’ll face the Pythonesque task of choosing from amongst three canyons: Bear, Avalanche, and Morgan.
I don’t even have to look those up, since Minnesota doesn’t have canyons.
But Pa’s a little delirious, and Burl Ives points out some of his directions are wrong. Specifically, he says you need to take a different direction at what sounds like “Marman Rock.” So apparently he hasn’t always been blind.
Then Pa asks Ives to accompany Laura and talk her through the correct directions.
Shocked at this proposal, Burl Ives says he can’t and staggers out of the cabin.
At this point Olive, who’d stepped out of the room again, returned.
DAGNY: You missed closeups of Pa’s nipples.
Anyways, Ives seizes his Gandalf stick and starts pounding it in an impotent rage.
Then he splashes water on his face and blames their current predicament on his no-good son.
It quickly becomes clear he really blames himself, however, because he’s the one who angered Ben into leaving.
Laura comes out and tells the old man to snap out of it, they’ve gotta get going.
WILL: How did he lose his eyesight? In an explosion, like Adam?
ROMAN: No, explosions only RESTORE eyesight on this show.
Ives breaks down crying and screams, “There’s twists and turns and ups and downs, and cliffs and hollers, and slides and creeks and . . . well, every kind of country God ever made ’twixt here and the roadhead! I’m afeard, child!”
WILL: I tell ya, he’s givin’ Johnny Cash a run for his money as best guest star of the season.
(A quick poll of the household gave Ives the edge, actually.)
Laura looks at Burl Ives for a moment, then takes his hand and says, “Then we’ll be afraid together.”
DAGNY: This is Laura at her best.
WILL: I know, that’s why I wanted to do this one just before we talked to Melissa Gilbert.
Laura brings Pa a big bucket of water to tide him over till they get back, which is nice.
Weakly, Pa jokes that he’ll be waiting, “fat and sassy,” when they come back. (Fat Joke #12.)
Then we get some scenes of Laura and Burl Ives hustling over the mountain and through the forest.
Ives gets frustrated because things don’t always match his memory.
DAGNY: Who directed this one?
DAGNY: It’s Landon. You can tell. Laura has been so nicely framed throughout.
She’s right, of course.
Ives asks if Laura can spot a “little fir tree” that “sticks up like a feather in a hatband.”
DAGNY: Well, I wouldn’t have framed this one that way. Too much nose hair.
Fair enough. Laura says she doesn’t, and Burl Ives starts sputtering and screaming.
WILL: Well, yelling at her isn’t going to make it magically appear.
DAGNY: He’s a man. It’s believable.
I’m not sure how Ives can expect things to be exactly the same anyways. Would it really be so extraordinary if that tree got chopped down by some woodsman, or struck by lightning or something?
Well, Burl Ives must have read my mind, because then he says, “Maybe a flood took it away.” And as they pick up the journey again, the camera pans back and you see a dead tree at the bottom of a little waterfall.
The vegetation gets thicker.
ALEXANDER: Is this where they harvest their weed? Is this Marijuana Grove?
Burl Ives asks Laura if she can see a ridge with “rocks along the spine . . . like the roached mane of a horse?”
OLIVE: Maybe if you’d stop talking in freakin’ riddles, Grandpa. . . .
WILL: Amelia, did you recognize his voice yet?
AMELIA: Oh, Roman told me.
AMELIA: He texted me the answer while we were sitting here.
I am surrounded by traitors.
Well, Laura can’t see any ridge. She leads Ives up to a fallen tree so they can get their bearings.
DAGNY: He should poke his eye out on a stick.
Burl Ives starts screaming about how he’s a failure and they need to go back.
But Laura, who’s quite sick of his tantrums by this point, refuses . . . and then she clams up and lets him see just how much fun he’ll have if she decides to go on alone and leave him behind.
She even lets him fall down.
WILL: She’s heartless!
DAGNY: She’s a cold-hearted snake!
She lets him panic for a good long moment, then lets him off the hook. Commercial.
Back at the cabin, Charles’s wound has started bleeding again.
OLIVE: God, it IS like my wisdom teeth. Probably a dry socket.
He stretches out a gory hand to the water bucket, but only manages to knock it over.
WILL: Oh, Charles, you imbecile!
AMELIA: Gee, kick him while he’s down, Dad.
Charles manages to rise and stagger his way out of the cabin.
WILL: He’s smearing sweat and blood all over the pelts.
ALEXANDER: That’s truly disgusting.
DAGNY: Well, it was before COVID.
Delirious, Charles wanders the yard. David gives us a very scary version of the theme tune.
Strangely, despite moaning “water, water” the whole time, Charles walks right past the water barrel.
AMELIA: Oh, is HE blind now?
ROMAN: He caught it from the old man.
Charles walks over to the creek and falls face-first into it.
AMELIA: He should really boil that water before submerging himself in it.
Back on the mountain, Laura and Burl Ives find a creek – suggesting they’re on the right path. Ives is so happy, he goes berserk and runs straight into a log, also falling down face-first.
AMELIA [as BURL IVES, screaming]: “HAVE A HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS!”
And then, back at the cabin, Glover arrives!
WILL: Look, mules! You rarely see a mule on this show.
Glover enters the cabin, shouting for Burl Ives, whose first name apparently is Sam.
DAGNY: I think that guy’s handsome. You can tell he was really good-looking when he was young.
I will say, Glover is a funny and memorable character. Finding the house unoccupied, he yells out to ask if Ives fell down the privy hole.
Then he sees the bloodstain on the bed.
OLIVE [as GLOVER]: “A woman has been here!”
Clearly distressed, Glover rushes outside. But rather than investigate, he hops on his horse, Belle, and takes off to find Ben.
WILL: This is the one where Charles dies, Mimi.
DAGNY: Yeah, it’s his last episode.
Meanwhile, Laura and Burl Ives continue their quest.
ROMAN: This is pretty jokey music if Charles is dead.
But then Ives stops and says the forest “don’t sound right.”
He sticks his hand into the creek and says they’re in the wrong place.
WILL: He can tell where they are by FEELING the WATER?
Ives declares they’re someplace called “McGee.” He doesn’t clarify if that’s the name of the creek, mountain, canyon, rock, or whatever. (There is a wilderness area in Minnesota called McGee, but it’s about thirty miles from Walnut Grove in the wrong direction.)
Exhausted, Laura puts her head down and cries.
AMELIA: Oh, climb off it, Marsha.
OLIVE: Dad, I’d be this upset if you were dying in the creek.
WILL: Thank you, honey.
Burl Ives gives her a taste of her own medicine and yells that they must carry on with their search.
WILL: They’ve come full circle.
DAGNY: Yeah. Because ultimately she needs a man to tell her what to do.
So on they stumble.
AMELIA: The music’s good.
ROMAN: Yeah. There’s one good music episode per season, when David gets tired of arranging “Old Dan Tucker” five hundred ways.
Burl Ives gets more and more confident, saying he recognizes the sounds and smells of the forest after all.
And then they find Mr. Edwards! He’s lying on the back of his wagon.
OLIVE: Watch, he’s drunk.
Laura quickly explains, and Mr. Ed takes off to form a rescue party.
Then we cut to Mr. Edwards, Laura and Ives all arriving at the cabin together.
OLIVE: Is the blind man riding a horse?
WILL: Yes. The horse knows the way/To carry the sleigh.
They’re accompanied by a new character.
WILL: Who’s this fancy-pants?
AMELIA: The doctor.
DAGNY: He’s handsome, too.
They begin searching the premises.
WILL: They should find Charles’s skeleton.
Mr. Ed eventually finds Charles and they bundle him inside.
DAGNY: What’s that blanket for?
WILL: Privacy screen. You know, like Doc’s curtain.
DAGNY: I suppose. Also keeps the germs out.
Behind the blanket, the doctor appears to be examining Charles’s crotch.
In the other room, Laura and Burl Ives bicker about whether it’s all her fault or not.
DAGNY: Now he knows what it’s like to deal with a self-absorbed fool like himself.
Eventually, Burl Ives goes out to some little secondary shack filled with antlers and bear traps.
DAGNY: Is this his sex dungeon?
WILL: That’d be a good band name. “Burl Ives Sex Dungeon.”
Ives offers a reluctant prayer to God for Charles’s recovery.
BURL IVES [to GOD]: Bet you can’t guess who it is talkin’.
AMELIA [as GOD]: “The snowman!”
He says he can’t bear to think of his new friend Laura blaming herself for her father’s death the rest of her days.
DAGNY: Another Old-Man Bestie for Laura.
He says with all due respect God owes it to him, since “I did get off my butt and try today.”
ROMAN: Could you say butt on a 7-plus TV show in those days?
The next morning, Pa wakes up. He’s feeling better.
WILL: They haven’t cut back to Walnut Grove at all. Ma’s probably frantic. And can you imagine what she’ll say when she finds out what happened?
DAGNY: I don’t know, have they actually been there longer than they expected?
It took us a bit of talking to work it out, but since Laura and Mr. Edwards actually did connect at the appointed time, that puts them one day behind schedule. Probably not overdue enough for Ma to panic. (It is the Nineteenth Century after all.)
Then Ben arrives.
DAGNY [as Elaine in The Graduate]: “BEN!!!!!”
He’s received word of his father’s adventure and is very worried. Burl Ives reassures him he’s just fine.
Voiceover Laura sums things up, then non-Voiceover Laura has an emotional goodbye scene with Ives. The music swells.
DAGNY: Do you think David Rose had an intern? Or did he do it all himself?
WILL: Ask Melissa Gilbert that.
At the end, Ives surprises Ben by saying they’ll be doing their next trapping trip together. Right now!
DAGNY: His beard looks good. Better than that guy with the tobacco stains.
WILL: E.J. André.
STYLE WATCH: Charles seems to be wearing just ordinary white athletic socks. I’ve noticed them before – I’m not sure how historically accurate that is.
Dagny noticed something about Laura’s appearance.
DAGNY: Her hair is weird in this one. Look at the bottom of the braids – are they extensions? They’re not like they usually are.
Charles appears to go commando again.
THE VERDICT: A moving and memorable story, “The Hunters” is elevated by the wonderful performances of Gilbert, Ives and Landon. Very cinematically shot, too. Some people consider it poor-man’s “The Lord is My Shepherd,” but I prefer it, because in this one Laura gets to rescue Pa and save the old man instead of the other way round.
And here, for those of you who have stuck it out this far, is Burl Ives singing “Old Dan Tucker”:
UP NEXT: Blizzard (Probably not before Christmas, though – sorry. Happy holidays!)