Author Archives: Tom Reed

About Tom Reed

Four English setters tell me what to do.

Six Months

 

A blue grouse is in trouble.

A blue grouse is in trouble.

In my stronger moments, I tell myself it’s going to be okay. That it has been a good run and she has been loved. That she’s been my bird dog and I’d like to think, somehow, that this life I lead is a kind of version of canine heaven. Especially for gun dogs.

But I have weaker moments. Sometimes, they come in daylight while she lies in her dog bed beside my desk. Sometimes they come in darkness when I lie awake and listen to the sound of her breathing, a sound not unlike the crackling of plastic wrap in a fist.

I’m home this week early, a trip to Oregon’s coastal rivers of steelhead cut short. I don’t mind. I want to be here, not there.

It started a month or so ago, the huffing cough like a throat-tickle that can’t be cleared, and in a thirteen year old dog, I didn’t think much of it. But the kennel where I boarded her when we went on holiday vacation is owned by my veterinarian, and she, being an alert practitioner of the medical arts, asked. Have you noticed a cough?

So we shot a film and drew some blood and tried a dose of antibiotics, thinking, perhaps, that the shadow in her chest was an abscess from an inhaled grass seed, a common affliction of dogs who drink the wind that brushes bird. A month later, the coughing still there—sounding wetter—and another film. This time a gloom in her lungs like boiled smoke from a slash pile that had jumped the dozer line, metastasized and blown up into a wild fire. Even before a layman’s eyes.

There will be no chemotherapy. I will not make her final months any sicker than an old bird dog at thirteen can stand.

Six months. In six months, it will be bird season again. Another September.

There have been other old dogs. But this one has owned my heart more than any other. This is the one that inspired my friends to buy their own pointing dogs. She has been a spectacular finder of wild birds, a retriever whose retrieves are as memorable as the vision of the Comet Hale Bopp (and only slightly less rare), and never-fail backer of other dogs’ points. She has made so many stunning bird finds that they are lost to my memory just like living at the base of the Tetons makes one forget about the staggering scenery on the horizon.

The other old dogs went out of my life without a clock ticking. One day they were old and I could see the dwindle  in them and then they were gone. There was no egg timer to the whole thing. So we have six months until bird season. Maybe longer, maybe shorter. Six months of riding in the pickup cab with me, six months of jerky treats, six months of canned dog food and pretty much any damned thing she wants. Six months when I will try to be here rather than somewhere else.

Six months and one day, perhaps with September painting the grouse woods and grasshoppers rattling along North Willow Creek where I will do the sad work with sharp spade, I will know.

I will know that the countdown to the end of the dog has ended.

—TR

 

Two for the pot.

Two for the pot.

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Filed under Dogs, Keeping it Real, Talegate, Upland Hunting

On getting even

DSCN0634It would be, by all measures including wallet width and vacation time, the last hunt.

As if to commemorate the occasion, a blue storm swept out of Saskatchewan, carrying that thin, cruel snow that comes only with subzero weather. Too cold for big flakes. Mean little ones.

Six hours on the road turned into seven and then we were finally there, at the bar, beers before us. Minus twelve outside. Tomorrow, into it. Minus twelve boosted down to minus thirty-two courtesy of our northern wind. Thank you.

I looked at her, sipped my beer, and grinned. “Tomorrow,” I said, “we get even.”
She looked at me as if I were crazy. No, check that. Not as if.

At seven the next morning, coffeed-up, cafed-up, we were at the first cover, snow screaming beneath our boots. The dog paddled out into it, stopping to chew clumps of snow from his toes, but pushing on, collecting burrs as he went, but eager. Minus thirty two with the wind. What the hell? I couldn’t stop grinning and then a rooster went up. Close, cackling and the auto loader was at my shoulder, barking once, twice, and the bird was down and the dog on him and then the bird in hand. Getting even.

Getting even for all of those wild flushes two hundred yards from the gun even after you’ve been careful with the truck doors. Even after you’ve whispered to the dog, heeled him tight until ready. There they go, a whole fucking field full of those bastards, all at once all in the air, all gone before you even have time to piss, zip up, and load the gun. Motherfuckers. I do not apologize for foul language and feral fowl. Pheasants. Or chukar, too, for that matter. Neither are a gentleman’s bird.

The blood in our veins flows like a slow river of lava into a cold ocean. We turn, move back to the truck a mile away, frozen, fingers tight. The dog chews more chunks of ice. Thank god for wool everything. Fingers and toes cold. The tip of the nose. But we are getting even with the bastards.

Drive to a new cover, trying to warm in the old Dodge, the heater going full blast and the temp gauge still not up to normal, despite an hour of idling. Dog out again and then we are in the chokecherries and another big gaudy sonofabitch gets up and swings out overhead and the gun barks and then jams solidly in the cold, doesn’t feed the second shell, but no matter because the bird is down and and the bird is dead.

We move on. The dog makes birds again and another big rooster gets up tight and close and I swing and shoot and the gun jams again. Too damned cold. But the bird is dead and by the time we get back to the truck and gut both of them out, they are cool and stiff and going frozen. But we’ve gotten even. For one day. A limit of roosters. Makes the vengeful heart happy.

Coffee handed out from the gal at the kiosk, a big smile and a shake of the head for anyone out hunting pheasants in twelve below. No one understands. It’s late season. It’s pheasants. It’s revenge.

The next day, out in it again. Up to minus twenty-two now. Wind chill. Still air, if there were such a thing, minus ten. A heat wave. Plugged the truck in at the motel last night. Good move.

Different dog this time. Same technique. Close, quiet, slow but before we’ve had to a chance to enter the good stuff, birds start going out, threes and fours and fives, some cackling. One hundred yards away. Not our fault. The doors were shut quietly, the dog close. Different day. More out wild and I get one quick shot, freezing and slow and a miss. Hit well yesterday. Missed first shot today. That’s all. We try to hunt up the singles, the pairs, but they go out wild before we can even crunch over there, frost in my beard, frost in my lady’s long hair, making her look prematurely gray. It’s a good look, I’ve got to say. A harbinger.

Different cover, another dog and the same result, birds out wild before we’ve even straddled the barbwire. Not the dog’s fault. Not the doors. Cursing.

We move up and even the hens are wild, going out in twos and threes, the dog working close and well, a veteran dog. Chewing snow and ice from pads. Too cold for more than one good run with one dog and then trade off. Finally, at the end of the quarter section, he goes on point, fairly close, a solid-something-is-right-here point and a big old gaudy cockbastard goes up and I swing up. And fumble the safety with my gloves in the subzero. That’s my excuse. And the bird is off and away and I shoot little more than a send off shot. A wide miss that I know is a whiff before the sound even comes to my ear. The day is an empty bag.

Not getting even at all.

—TR

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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

IMG_9979

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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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