Author Archives: Tom Reed

About Tom Reed

Four English setters tell me what to do.

Where it went

DSCN0595I will never get used to it. The suddenness of it. In human, it is difficult enough. Wake up one morning and you’re having to use one point five readers for the newspaper. The tromp through the cattails seems to go a little slower, the truck’s warmth a little more welcome. The fire for another push needs more stoking. It’s more of an erosion, a slow spin.

But in canine, the slap of years is stunning. One day you look down at her and she’s an old lady, her joints swollen by arthritis, various bumps and warts in her hide, a once-stunning feathered tail now something a rat might sport. She totters where once she used to float. She huffs and coughs at the fountain she once drank.

We drive east, across the roll of Montana, past coulee and pine, pump-jack and silo. Past corn and scrubland to the Dakotas. It has been a long span for me and for her, this leave from the Dakotas and now it is late in this season and late in her life and I wonder how it all happened.

She gets the princess perch, behind the driver, the other dogs in back in the camper shell. She rides in the warmth of the cab for after a dozen years of bringing me to all of those different birds, the least I can do is bring her into the truck where she can curl in a tight ball against that rat tail and snore.

There have been other trips. Many.  I view her mostly backward. Pups are forward, what lies ahead. Old dogs are what you have been and what they were and what it once was. Over the shoulder, behind, when she was young and the truck had one hundred thousand miles instead of twice that and she had ten thousand miles instead of twice or thrice that. I will make one trip to the Dakotas this year, one visit to the river of scent that is hundreds of pheasants in one section of CRP. This journey, I tell myself, is for the young pup who is fire and burst, an uncontrollable effervescence of puppy joy. But really it is for grandma, kinked with time, crippled by the uplands of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico. Knotted and rusted by roosters and blues, sharpies, ruffs, sprucers and sage chickens, chukar, Huns, Mearns, cottontops, Californias, mountain and Gambel. It has been one hell of a run.

So she sits behind me as the diesel growls east, through Baker and Hettinger and Lemmon and Mobridge. East. Toward. One last trip, one last bird, one last point. Please, God, just one more.

—TR

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Filed under Ditch Parrots, Dogs, Talegate

No Tell Motel

IMG_1181Anyone who has a bird dog and has taken to the road has a good motel story. These stories usually include burs, barking, poop, blood, ass gas and the midnight puking. Not all of these features are confined to the dogs.

All manners and all bets are off when the setters enter a motel room. Beds are made to be jumped on. Carpets made for dragging butt. Toilets for drinking.

I like motel rooms that are on the first floor, with doors opening to the parking area and quick access to a place for a midnight dash. The worst kind of motel is the kind that has access only through the lobby and perhaps one other door, and all the doors open to a shared hallway. If you are really screwed, your room will be up a flight of stairs on the second or third floor and the outdoor poop zone will be some gravel parking lot in the middle of town. Probably behind a bar (occupied by midnight drunks outside smoking cigarettes and making comments about how preeeetty your dog is and trying to pat him without falling over). Assuming you yourself are not in the bar because there’s an early morning of pheasant chasing to be had.

Recently, I found myself in a scenario that was worst-case, as they say. Upstairs, indoor access. Long, long hallway. Three setters one of which was my girlfriend’s, a five month-old puppy and an 11-year-old veteran. Numerous walks with the older dogs at heel, pup on the leash. A gauntlet of dog-patters and cooing admirers to run in the hallway. Early rise planned. Really early. Like five a.m. A dirt parking lot behind the drunks. Worried about the pup and her tentative housebrokeness. Finally, I hit the sack at 11 or so, setting the alarm.

Duke the veteran woke me just before dawn. Panting. Not a good sign. I hurried to get dressed, hooked the pup up to the leash and headed out into the early morning hallway. A quiet, not-a-mouse-stirring hallway long before sunup. Both of the veteran dogs sprinted past me and ran down the hallway at top speed. I did my best Lauren Bacall shout, yell-whispering: “HEEL, HEEL, HEEL. DUKE! HEEEL!!”

The pup went one way while I yanked the other, chasing Duke, who was in the lead. Suddenly, NOOOOOO!! I couldn’t believe my eyes, for there was good old Duke, every bit of 11, squatting and deploying a schooner right in the middle of the hall. The door was shut behind me and the GF’s dog running past Duke while he was in full quiver and the pup jerking the leash one way and probably likely to make Mr. Grumpy herself. And a fresh steaming turd in the hallway. What to do? What, indeed, to do?

I figured I had no choice. I bare-handed the turd. That’s right. Bare hand and a steamer.  My left, because the pup’s leash was in my right.

All of this before even a hint of coffee.

We ran down the hallway, down the stairs. HEEEL. DAMMIT. HEEL. At the bottom of the stairs, first floor, a quick Duke detour to deposit another goodie in front of room 105. Bare-handed that one too.

Finally, door to the outside and there stood a fellow just coming in from his early morning cig break. Duke was jumping up and down at the door that this guy was holding shut. “Hey, I didn’t want to let him out until you were here.”

“Yeah, good idea.” Please, please don’t look at my left hand. I’m carrying dog shit in it. Please.

Out into the morning air, sun a long, long way from rise. I scrambled to the parking lot, putting yards behind me and the guy in the lit doorway. The guy just stood there while I held the pup on a leash and Duke sprinted out to do his third act of the play. The pup peed, then pooped. The guy stood there looking at me. Okay, man, go in and shut the door. I need to get rid of this thing. I have a wet, hot turd in my hand. Two of them. Finally, he went in and I pitched Duke’s little gifts behind the dumpster and loaded the dogs into the truck. Ran upstairs as fast as I could to wash my hands.

It was opening day of pheasant. God, I love bird hunting with dogs.

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The Possible

Right now, it is basics. Come. Down. Mabel. Fetch. More fetch.

Never too much fetch with a setter. 

I think I can see it burning there. But then she doesn’t listen, turns the other way, does not even raise her head from a pile of fresh horseshit when I double-tap the whistle. Could she possibly be deaf? No, here she comes running like a bat of out hell right into my shins. 

So we play fetch and play-fetch. Dabble around the water. Follow the older dogs into the field. Kennel up. Remove socks and sandals and shoes from the clamp of needle-tooth. Play fetch some more. A routine of walking. Kennel time. Leash time. Fetch. More fetch. Crate. Meet other dogs. Puppies. Children. Picnics. People. Socialize. And play fetch some more.

There’s a new bird dog in the making and a new season out in front of her nose. Welcome to my world, Mabel. 

—TR

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No poetry

Last hunt

Last hunt

I wanted poetry. But that’s not the way it happened.
I wanted one last spin through stem and stubble, one last sudden pivot on wobbly legs. One last point.
One last rooster.
A burst of feather and wing to slate sky. A swing of double gun, a pull and a puff and the old boy on it, smelling it, mouthing it. His last rooster.
But that’s not the way it happened.
His ass-end gave out two hundred yards from the truck before we were in the really good stuff. We had to turn back, the old man pulling himself on his front legs, fickle back legs making drag marks in the snow. I offered to carry him, but he had none of it.
One last point, one last rooster. One last shot. I wanted that for him. I wanted that for me. But that’s not the way it happened and it occurs to me that poetry is a precious thing, a whisper on the wind, a blink.
A friend’s beautiful wife dies of leukemia before she turns thirty. There is no seventy-five years of shared life, no watching children and grandchildren grow and laugh. No poetry.
Another friend whose law enforcement career had spanned two decades spangled with accolades and decorations spent his last day investigating the disappearance of a woman while standing within feet of where her corpse lay hidden beneath a pile of trash. Days after the laughter had faded from his retirement party, his former colleagues discovered her body and arrested the boyfriend. No last day heroics, no “one last bust,” no poetry.
An Olympic miler steps off a city sidewalk and shatters her tibia. No poetry.
And so. An old bird dog on his last hunt ends up pulling himself home by his front legs. Two months shy of his thirteenth birthday and there will be no final pheasant. There was, but it was placed in the game bag months before without thought that there would never be another. Forgotten. Not even realized.
He sleeps now on his bed downstairs and I know that someday soon, he won’t be able to get up and walk from it, that he will have to drag himself and then I will know it is time. And I think about moments that have passed for him and I on our journey together.
And I think about the look of him then, all tri-colored and feathered, pivoting out in brambles, pointing and casting and moving in rhythmic upland music and I realize that in fact this is why I love bird hunting. For in that motion of dog into wind, in that movement of fur and nostril, it is there: Poetry. When all else in life lacks, upland behind a setter provides.
Sometimes life is just life. Sometimes it sings and the melody is bird dog.

—Tom Reed

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Filed under Reloading, Talegate

Treed

A friend of mine has a golden that barks “treed” on forest grouse. At first, I found this annoying, the high-pitched yelps of the kind that only goldens can produce and usually only when the owner is cocking an arm to rocket a tennis ball across a lawn in Suburbia, USA. I asked myself, briefly, if it were the bias I have for tennis ball dogs or just bald-ugly jealousy. Briefly.

I was hunting with one of my setters, feeling the kind of sophisticated snootiness that occasionally plagues us setter owners, the kind reserved for pipe-smokers, smoking-jacket donners, double-gun only-ies. From the dark woods to my left came the yelp. Frantic. Ear-drum-stabbing. Frequent. Fucking goldens, I stewed.  At first, I thought she had been caught in a trap or hurt herself somehow and I chided my early thoughts of prejudice. Goldens are friendly, lovely dogs and certainly do not deserve pain.

Then, I heard Tim instruct one of his hunters to get in position. Northwestern Montana grouse are not known for their intellect, particularly spruce grouse which commonly fly up into the nearest tree and await the well-thrown stick before flushing for real. The end of this story goes like this: Tim threw the stick, the grouse launched out of the tree and the hunter had his first spruce grouse and the dog stopped barking because she had her mouth full of feathers.

We walked on, listening to the tinkle of the bell on my setter, sniffing the air like some snobbish cartoon character. Grudging. A few hundred more yards and the annoying golden barking came again and now Tim’s hunter had two grouse. My hunter had none. We were guiding three gentlemen from the South who wanted to experience a grouse triple: blue, spruce and ruffed. I felt a competitive ire which, when it washes over my tortured soul, makes me feel ashamed. Tim’s guys had two grouse. Sure they were spruce grouse that flew stupidly into a tree and waited like feathered statue until a stick preceded a wad of six shot. But still, he had two grouse. I had zero.

Thick woods are not my home cover. I’m a hunter of high crag where sagebrush is the tallest plant. Not a denizen of thick fern, tall larch, staggering cedar. I am of light, not darkness. Except, of course, my thoughts when I’m getting my ass kicked in the hunting game. Competition is something that sneaks into our hunting lore, no matter how we purists think it doesn’t belong there. But there it was. I was losing. Damnit.

Here in the pheasant fields of South Dakota, I had no clue that I was in the presence of a talented “tree” dog.

I was jealous. No way around it. Indeed, very jealous. My setter got some good points and grouse flushed, but they bent around trees, stooping and ducking and diving and in a forest, I had little clue where the went. My hunter had not one chance to even mount gun to shoulder. Sitting incredibly still on a spruce branch, you quickly learn just how invisible a spruce grouse can be. Which is pretty damned cloaked, frankly. As a survival tactic, very effective, actually. Perhaps these birds aren’t so bird-brained, I thought. A blind troll through the timber, grouse gone and not to be found. Unless one has a dog that barks “treed.” I didn’t.

The next day, I pulled my big male, Echo, out of the kennel instead of my veteran female from the day before. I had two hunters on this day and we headed into a cover known for ruffed grouse. I belled the dog and released him. He worked close and I watched and listened for the bell. It stopped. From somewhere off in the dark timber. Then I heard a whir of grouse wing. Followed, strangely, by panicky, high-octave yelping. In fact, an annoying yipping from deep in the woods. I thought, split-secondly, that he might have hurt himself, but there he was, looking up into a tree at a mature ruffed grouse. Holy crap, I have a pointing dog that barks treed! I told myself.

The hunter shot the grouse when I shook him out of his roost, and we pressed on. Then, hark! Another yelp from woodland interior. No fluke this. There’s a grouse in that tree. Two grouse for my hunters. Two in the bag. And ruffed grouse, I told myself, not these sesame-seed brained sprucers. Ruffed! A gentleman’s bird. Yeah, right. Whatever.

I have a dog that barks treed at treed grouse.  A gentleman’s setter? Perhaps not. But we are back on level ground with the tennis ball dog. Let the competition commence.

–TR

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Filed under Fool Hens, Grouses, Keeping it Real, Talegate, Thunder Chicken

Making the time

Willing grouse for the taking.

I’ve been kicking my own butt these past few days.
Seems as if I know exactly where a few blue grouse are and they are only about 15 minutes from my house, and somehow, I haven’t found the time to go up there with a shotgun.
This past weekend, I found the grouse while horseback helping a neighbor rancher round up some recalcitrant cows and calves that were refusing to leave the high country. Stumbled right into a couple of young grouse in the Doug fir, and just at the time that I was thinking: This looks like good grouse habitat.
Spent the whole day looking at guacamole-assed cows. The next day, I started to get nervous about the coming snowfall and gathered more firewood out of the hills. The next day–and yes, it was a three-day-weekend for me–I spent another whole day at the neighboring ranch helping sort cows for preg-testing.
Then work. Here I am. At work. It’s sunny outside. Damn my hide. Sometimes, I guess, life has difficult choices.
–TR

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Filed under Blues, Fodder, Talegate

Geezers

Like the surprise that is autumn—the suddenness of things that happen while you are living it instead of watching it—I’ve found myself with a herd of old dogs. I have a college friend whose oldest child is a freshman at the university. I wonder, how did this happen? Weren’t we just drinking pitchers in our dorm room and hunting quail in the desert? How is it that time marches yet the human brain does not recognize the beat of its feet upon the tarmac?

The first dog to go was the oldest and it was his back-end. One spring morning I was out on a horseback ride with the crew, limbering up for summer coming, un-kinking winter’s sloth. We noticed old Ike was missing and rode back to find him panting beside the trail, unable to go farther. He got to ride home on the saddle. Late in the season two years ago, he hunted his last chukar cliff. We didn’t kill any birds. I felt bad for him. He’s eleven now and he totters about on pencil legs and wheezes and barks at nothing much. But he is happy. Perhaps there will be one more pheasant. He was always best at pheasants. Just yesterday, he was a pup before the gun in a Nebraska CRP field with my brother at my side . . . .

I’ve noticed it in Duke too. Duane’s dog. I got Duke when Duane left this world too early and he fit right into the mix. He runs flat out and points tail-high. He’s a good one. I remember hunting with Duane in Arizona whenever I take Duke for a zip. He spins happy circles a lot: feeding time, walking time, shotgun time. Duke is a happy dog. He sprints with the pedal-to-the-metal and can be out of your sight in a moment. Yet, if you are not careful, this nine-year-old dog that acts like he’s two will be completely gassed and gone for the day. I love old Duke, but he’s old too. Good for maybe a half-day on the chukar crags of Nevada. A half-day in the hot rising September grouse tangles.

And now Sage. She has turned a decade old. And then some. Just like my college drinking buddy’s daughter going from an infant to a college entrant, this happened overnight while I wasn’t paying attention. A little female setter with a world of drive, energy and talent. A cargo-hold full of zest and zip and blast. She’s now an old lady.

We were in the Tobacco Roots this past summer when it happened. Hiking to a lake up a steep trail, far back in the country, heading to a high mountain lake, and then even higher. Perhaps we’d do a loop trip. In a dry summer, the mountains were baked to powder and Sage faded quickly, running one moment in grouse whortleberry and winded the next minute in the August heat. Mission aborted, trip truncated. I carried her over my shoulders part of the way back to the truck. Sage is by far the most talented bird dog I have ever been around and now she’s an old lady with only half-days ahead.

Years back, I had a bird dog that ruled the skyline. I was a younger man then and I let him drink the wind. We tore it up together and I probably will never have another one quite like him, nor another moment like that. I can see him now in a North Dakota pheasant field chasing a crippled rooster. The rooster rises against the setting sun and the hard-charging male setter leaps off the ground and pulls it by its tail to the turf. After a long retrieve, the bird is at hand. That dog died tragically young; he didn’t get to be an old dog.

And now, oddly, I have three old bird dogs in my fleet, dogs with years and miles behind them. Veterans of cap rock and corn-row. They sleep now, curled in tight knots, dreaming pheasant dreams or chukar nightmares.  They deserve that—a warmth of woodstove heat, a dream, a good meal and just one more hunt.

—T.R.

This story is excerpted from the author’s regular Up the Crick column which appeared in the September/October edition of Wyoming Wildlife News.

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Sweet calm cool

August falls away now, slowly, browned to crunch, fading, dying. A long hot summer clings but this morning, cool and smelling of hay put up and chlorophyll draining from leaf. Too cool for coffee on the front deck before sunrise. Even in a sweatshirt. Too chilly, but you sit out there for a bit anyway, forcing yourself to toughen up, newspaper at hand, coffee steaming and warming your mitts and all four bird dogs squirming, panting. One probably is too old for this season, now only three weeks away. He lies on the deck now licking balls that are no longer there. He barks at nothing and dreams pheasant dreams.

Anxious.

August fades and slips. The next-to-best-month next to the best month. The month you want to go and stay. The month of 31 days too long and too short. Hoppers and hot afternoons, fish with lock-jaw and deep in the last holes that have been left to them. Cool mornings and PMDs scattered. Baby everything coming on, growing. Whitetail bucks with velveted antlers so large you think they are trophies . . . until you think of the mass of velvet. Frantic bow shooting, tuning. Pinching fat at your flanks, wondering if you are in shape to heft a hindquarter onto your back or at least onto a horse’s. And the dogs, barking, bored, ready. The old boy will stay home but there’ are three others. The youngest is lame, a sprain of some sort. Fine time. Wood lies in long blocks at the mouth of the wood shed, ready for saw and axe. Ten tons of hay in the barn. A list of chores too long and a vow to have them done before September One. Won’t happen.
Cool this morning and your thoughts . . . . A week ago, a young herd of pheasants on the road to Willow Creek Cafe. Reports of baby Huns barely able to fly up on the bench road. Yesterday’s grouse on the trail up Specimen. Cool this morning. Cool.
Get here already.

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One More Pup

“Properly trained, a man can be dog’s best friend.” -Corey Ford

Spring brings promise to the land, a newness to things—a freshness carried in sleeping schools of young beeves, a sharpness in green hues of new grass and popping leaf, a cleanness that washes out of the high country and purges the rivers of driftwood and winter’s flotsam. But this spring carried something else, another kind of hope, the hope that floats the hunter’s heart: a new bird dog pup. A setter.
He turned 77 in May and he is hard on himself. Too hard, I think, for I know of no other 77 year olds who can still fork a horse and take the high country. He kicks himself for not riding his young red horse much, and he laments the aches and pains of a man in his eighth decade on this Earth. But he is still going and he still goes. Last fall we drove to the end of a road and set up an elk camp in his travel trailer. In the darkness of pre-dawn, he rose and he walked slowly with a rifle in one hand and a walking stick in another down a snow-clad trail. This spring, he rode a horse on the winter ranges, looking for sheds, watching redtails wheel in the sky overhead. When he got tired he said, Let’s turn back. But he still goes.

His old dog died last summer, just shy of the thirteenth year. His younger dog blew out a tendon, then had another health problem and another. He did not heft his shotgun much. He could have hunted behind my dogs, but it’s different when your own can’t go. You don’t have to explain that concept to the hunter.
This winter, we talked about a new pup. He did not say much, but I wondered if he thought about those times he had called me and begged off of a hunting or fishing trip because he was wasn’t up to it. There had been a few. Not many. I wondered if he thought about not hearing a grouse thunder up from behind a nearby Doug fir, or sometimes being not quick enough to track and fell a speeding Hun. If he had those kinds of thoughts—whispers of doubt from an old outdoorsman with miles behind, they did not surface.
He sent his deposit in when the snows were deep on the flanks of the mountains around his home. He wanted a female. His life had been spent in the company of big rangy affectionate male setters. This time, he wanted a female.
Spring finally came and we drove across the sweep of it, alongside those rivers swollen and thick with a winter’s worth of snowmelt, past tender brilliant aspen leaves bursting into warm sunlight, around snowdrifts making mud in their wake.
There were four females to choose from and his wife and I had our preferences—dogs that one or the other of us would have chosen. But speaking those words would have been wrong. This dog—this dog in the 77th year in the company of canines—was to be his, perhaps more than any other dog before her. The pups romped in the yard, chasing each other, grabbing sticks, rolling over each other, bounding awkwardly and eagerly at a whistle. Twice he asked us for help in the choice and both times, we refused. This belonged to him, not to us. Perhaps only a half dozen years ago, I might have made a remark about the eagerness or the feistiness of one pup over another, but this time, I sat back and I watched him make his rounds through them until he finally bent to one and put his hand on her head and said This one.
She is a small and fine boned bird dog with a bright orange patch over one eye and a sharpness to her look. She is as clean and promising as spring on the land.
She is growing now and learning about horses and alfalfa thick in the fields and the rhythmic music of wheel-lines spreading water under the summer sky. She is learning about smells and bugs and mice and the occasional river of scent that is a hen pheasant and her chicks scattering through the field.
He watches her interact with the older veteran dog and speaks sternly when the big male growls at the precocious pup. And he talks. He talks of places he wants to go this fall with his young new bird dog. He talks of trails he wants to ride, and places he wants to fish. I like that about him. There are trails left to ride. Bird dog pups to watch grow up.

–TR

This story first appeared in Wyoming Wildlife News, a publication of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and is also posted on the author’s website: http://www.tomreedbooks.com

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Awash

Nearly half a year of memories wash over me. Five months of following a fleet of setters across the hills and fields. Five long months of birds before the gun on some days, and no birds anywhere on others. These memories will keep my blood pumping in the months ahead and now the thoughts turn to other things, mountains to climb, rivers to float, fish to catch, horses to ride. But at this moment, there is memory.

Awaiting the burst.

Opening day in the rain and snow of September, following all four bird dogs onto a wet carpet at the foot of the Madison Range. Pushing up through tall wet grass and soaked only a few hundred yards from the truck. Slogging through the foliage still green in summer’s last gasp, chilled but thrilled. And a flurry of grouse before the gun, off points and backs that are etched deeply into recollection.

Windblown days on high Montana prairie and rooster pheasants peeling across the sky with a jet-stream tail wind and the shotgun barking. A rattlesnake in mid-October buzzing up out of the grass and hitting Duke only inches from his eye and then a frantic rush to the vet’s office. Ruffed grouse from the home coulee. Blue grouse from the high ridge down by Idaho where a slap of October snow has turned the high peaks ivory. Eating lunch on a high rock in the Nevada desert. And a last hunt in young February with an old friend whose best dog drew her last breath after one last hunt. A hot springs soak after a long day of hunting.

And there are the shots too, the sight picture good, the chukar mask at your bead and the pull of the trigger and crumple of feather. Same sight picture, a miss, leaving you wondering if you are getting feeble. Other times connecting well and never seeming to miss, but then back to missing. Streaky. It’s part of it. Part of the memory of the months behind.

I do an inventory of these days past and take stock of what lies ahead. A shotgun that needs cleaning badly. A right knee–hyper-extended in a badger hole in early September–that needs a good long rest but belongs to an impatient leg. A truck that needs to have a transfusion of all liquids and a tail-light bulb replaced. A dog herd that is aging too quickly; Ike, 11, has hunted his last chukar cliff. Sage will be 10 in May and Duke 9. Even Echo is 6. How does this happen? How can it happen that such a flock is suddenly so old? I’ve got a deposit down on a 2013 female, but the anticipation of that event is hardly solace to a batch of veteran pals who are past their best days and who I will some day have to bury at the base of some lonely cliff somewhere. Too soon. Five months can fly by, but ten years somehow go even faster. But I will not think of that now, for there are four great bird dogs and another season up ahead before a recalcitrant pup joins the gang.

Ahead now is spring and summer and then another fall. I will pray for rains at the right time, for snakes that go into hibernation early, for cooperative pheasants for the old dog, for good hunting companions and for a shotgun that swings as smoothly as the prettiest girl in the dancehalll. Until then, we wait.

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