Checks and Balances

WSDG13 copy

The pointer named William breaks stride and pauses to investigate a small patch of wilted ragweed. He then continues on track along a sidehill and into the gusting wind that determines his course. It was enough scent to prickle his bird-senses, a scant whiff of something besides dust, but not enough to stop him from running full out across a parched and featureless pasture.

The federal judge sitting alone on the seat atop the dog box pounds with his fist on the cab roof, “That might’ve been birds, right there, Captain!”

It’s the fourth time this hour he’s done that and the quail guide behind the wheel imagines landing a roundhouse punch to a gin-swollen nose for each amount of unbearable racket that his client has caused inside the truck.

The guide glances in his side mirror and finds the judge’s stodgy red portrait filling up the view. “That bird-dog of yours couldn’t smell a polecat in a peat bog,” the judge nags.

The guide looks at his watch and then stomps the brake pedal while slamming the shifter hard left. A half-second after the reflected scowl disappears from the mirror the guide feels a doughy thud against the rear windshield and hears a clattering of shotgun shells in the bed of the truck. Glancing back again he sees only blue sky and the top of a bare mesquite. OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE LARGER THAN THEY APPEAR, it states along the bottom of the frame. That must also apply to bastards, he decides.

As the guide steps from the cab, the wind catches the door of the truck and rips it past the limit of its hinges with a grinding squawk. He heaves it back shut with an accompanying amount of noise, internally invoicing his client for the damage, and then walks to the tailgate for a better view of his dog. Cupping his hands around his whistle, he blows two sharp blasts into the wind and the pointer named William slams to a halt a quarter mile away. The dust billows up from the skid marks on the bare ground and then wisps away downwind as the dog stands, confused, and stares back at the truck. The judge hasn’t spoken since his topple from the seat. He sits with a scowl on his face and rubs his shoulder as the pointer lopes back to the truck.

“Guess you haven’t much faith in the ole boy, either,” smirks the judge.

The guide flips a tin pan to the ground and then rights it with the toe of his boot.  The pointer lunges at the pan and removes the water as fast as it’s poured from the cooler spigot. “He’s eight-years-old and I trained him myself,” huffs the guide as he lifts the pointer spraddle-legged back into his cell. The others stare through the mesh windows as he stands and studies each of their faces. Bright eyes, wet noses, shifting stances, and tails thumping against aluminum.

“Which fine running and pissing specimen do you intend to deploy next?” asks the judge, reclaiming his perch on the padded seat atop the dog boxes.

“Uh, that would be none of ‘em.”

The judge looks down and squints, “Excuse me, Captain?”

The guide turns toward the cab and then stops. He looks southeast, into the wind, and then wipes the dust and sweat away from his eyes with a shirt sleeve. The top layer comes off on his cuff but the creases and cracks on his forehead are still etched with fine particles of wayward panhandle topsoil. “I think we’re done,” he says without making eye contact.

The judge looks at his watch, “We’re quitting at 9:15?”

“I wouldn’t actually call it quitting,” answers the guide. “We never really got started.”

Pausing for effect, the judge shifts his shiny orange and canvas vest around his middle, then stands from the rear seat and taps on the cab with his knuckle. His forehead tightens, and his teeth appear, and the dewlap between his chin and collar quivers like ham gelatin, “Now see here, Captain, I booked this trip nine months ago. I cleared a very busy docket for these dates and flew here—four connections—all the way from Virginia for three days of shooting with the, so-called, best quail guide in Oklahoma. I fully intend—”

“I don’t care if you sold your Chiclet stand and rode five days on a Honduran donkey cart to get here,” the guide turns and shrugs. “I realized, just now, that there’s a fundamental disparity of vernacular that has doomed our client/guide relationship from the start. And because it’s dry, and because this weather isn’t going to change while you’re here, and because you have no knowledge or patience for this type of hunting, I’m pulling the plug, and you’ll be getting a full refund.”

The judge stares down at the guide, and then clears his throat while adjusting the neat little row of shot shells in his front vest loops. “Vernacular is too knotty a word for a man of your employment, Captain—and I look forward to learning your theory of disparity.”

“First off,” the guide motions right and left with his hands, “do you see a pushpole, or a dingy lashed anywhere on this truck?”

The judge glances around.

“This is not a touring yacht. I don’t coil my dog leads up like little anally arranged cinnamon rolls, and there’s no navigable water within a two-day drive of here. If you continue calling me Captain, I’ll use the heel of my boot to pack your pompous hide into that empty dog box for the ride home.”

The wind continues to gust, the dogs turn and settle, and the guide eventually tires of waiting for a response. When he turns and reaches for the door latch, the judge finally speaks. “Agreed, Sir . . . but I’m still waiting for the dog fancier who confuses blowing dirt with bobwhites to enlighten me on this goddamned matter of ver-nac-u-lar?”

The guide turns and stares toward a derelict pumpjack on the horizon. He then cuts his glance a few degrees right and meets the haughty smirk of the most intolerable bloke he’s met in twenty-three years of running bird dogs and guiding quail hunters. “It’s that word you used a moment ago—and several dozen times at dinner last night—the word shooting. You seem to confuse it with what we’re doing out here—which is actually called hunting.”

“Oh, is that it?” the judge points his chin skyward and laughs aloud while raising his right hand as if he’s toasting a snappy punch line at a gun-club gathering of over-served pricks.

“Yes, that’s most definitely it,” says the guide. “When you stood below a tower in Scotland and sky-blasted at hand-thrown pheasants, that’s called shooting. And when you hid next to a corn-fed water hole in Denmark and slaughtered baited mallards, that was also shooting. And when you rode on a mule-drawn wagon sipping brandy and then used a whip to flush a pre-marinated quail that was released from a gunnysack that same morning, then, Captain, you were most definitely shoo-ting. But out here, where the land is life-size, and the dogs do piss in plain sight, and the quail actually have to forage for food and constantly watch their backsides for hawks, bobcats, and lack of rain—out here, on this ranch, in my truck, it’s called hunting.”

The judge stares for a moment, slack-jawed, and then he uses an index finger to slide his glasses down to the tip of his nose so that he can glare contemptuously over the frames. “Now, see here, Sir,” he says pointing a sausage-shaped finger at the guide. “I have paid too much money per diem to stand on this godforsaken scorpion farm and listen to your perverted notion of fair chase, and your pithy accusation that I’m less a sportsman than you.”

“Actually, judge, there’s no charge, this morning, for perverted or pithy—I promised you a refund and I intend to deliver.”

With a pageantry of pouting and passive tantrum, the judge removes his shooting gloves, one finger at a time, stuffs them in his vest pocket, and steps down from the bed of the hunting truck. “I’ll have you hand me that leather sleeve from the back seat, so I can case my Purdey,” he commands.

“I’ll have you hand it to yourself,” the guide laughs.

Rather than risk further unpleasant exchange with his client, the guide turns on the truck radio and dials it to the morning livestock report for their thirty-minute drive back to the lodge. On the way in they pass the ragweed draw where William pointed seven coveys two mornings prior, and then they skirt the sunflower field that the judge would’ve gotten to hunt on his last afternoon had he not turned out to be a toddler with a ten-thousand-dollar shotgun.

Within a mile of the lodge, the judge finally clears his throat and speaks. “So how is it that you can run a seasonal sporting business by picking and choosing your clientele in such a divine manner?”

“Because I’m booked up with a waiting list—for the whole season,” answers the guide. “I learned years ago that life’s way too short to spend time with people who treat others like second-class citizens, and I’ve gotten pretty darn good at making sure that assholes never hunt with me more than once. When I get back to the lodge I’ll call a couple of regulars, and there’s a good chance I’ll be right back out here first thing in the morning with a hunter that appreciates pointing dogs and wild birds. If not, I’ll have a day or two off—and that ain’t so bad either.”

The judge stares straight ahead through the windshield as the dust and the grasshoppers billow up from the dry grass along the bar ditches. “I’ve shot birds on five continents, and I’ve been invited to many of the finest private shooting estates and lodges in the world,” he dourly declares. “I’m known as a fair wing-shot among my traveling circle, and given their collective degrees of experience on that matter, I believe I’ve earned a bit more respect than you’ve shown me this morning.”

The guide is about to remind the judge that respect flows in two directions when he glances out the window and spots a single bobwhite scurrying for cover beneath a patch of shinoak. Braking carefully after easing down the road another twenty yards, he quietly slips the truck into park and turns off the ignition.

“Why are we stopping?” the judge snorts.

“Because you’re about to get a chance to demonstrate your celebrated prowess with a shotgun.” The guide steps out of the truck and looks back at the judge, “There’s a covey of birds under that shinnery, back there. Get out, load your gun, and don’t slam the door.”

The judge looks over his shoulder in the direction the guide is pointing and then struggles out of the front seat. After spending too much time un-sleeving his gun and fumbling most of his shells into the dirt, he adjusts his glasses and begins digging in his vest for his shooting gloves.

“No time for accessorizing,” the guide hisses under his breath. “Load up and start walking toward that clump.”

“What about the dogs?”

“You don’t like my dogs, remember?”

They hear a few tail thumps and muffled whimpers when they pass the tailgate, and the judge looks plaintively back at the guide as he trails behind his right flank. “The hunting part’s over, now, judge—shooting is what you’re good at—isn’t that right?”

When they’ve halved the distance to the shinnery patch, the judge stops and whispers over his shoulder to the guide, “Are you certain those were quail that you—”

“Just be ready,” the guide snaps under his breath.

When the judge lifts his right foot to step forward, a single laggard that didn’t make it to cover with the others rockets out from between his hand-sewn chukkas and screams straight away across a broad, treeless flat. The judge panics and flails like a little girl with bees in her hair and eventually attempts a proper gun mount, but the bob is much faster than anything he’s previously seen on five continents.

“JESUS Christ!” brays the judge.

And that’s all the rest of the covey needed to hear. When they break from cover in a thunderous roar, they offer a perfect crossing shot over the same patch of bare ground the single had used a moment earlier. The judge mounts his gun, off balance and out of sorts, and then empties both barrels into the meat of the airborne covey. No birds fall dead, but one flutters skyward, briefly, and then trails off behind the others with mangled landing gear flopping uselessly beneath its belly.

Neither man speaks for a moment, and then the judge turns to his guide and breaks the silence. “Well, it looks like I got one of them.”

The guide stares off in the direction the covey flew with a look on his face like he’s just seen a horrible car crash or an incessantly televised replay of a basketball player rolling his ankle. “Nope, Judge . . . you actually got about half of them, but you didn’t kill any of them.”

“What about that cripple—the one dragging a leg?”

The guide turns and walks back to the truck. “He’ll crawl around out there for awhile and eventually die.”

“Why don’t we turn out a dog and go find him?”

“In due time.”

The judge mopes back to the truck and when he approaches the tailgate he finds the guide standing and looking from box to box with his thumbs hooked in the front pocket of his jeans. All of the dogs on the side of the truck facing the covey rise—downwind from the shinnery clump—are standing at various degrees of attention. Three are crouched low in their trademark pointing stances, and two more are standing tall and proud with a raised forefoot. William’s eyes are locked on the shinnery patch, and his nose and ears are twitching erratically.

“Looky here, judge,” the guide points toward his favorite dog, “I think this one might’ve smelled a polecat.”

After ten more minutes of silent driving, the guide pulls through the lodge gate and stops the truck next to the judge’s rent car. “Just leave the bed un-maid,” he says to his former client. “If you need a phone to call the airline, you can use the one in the kitchen. I’ll cut you a check and put it in the mail tomorrow.”

The judge stares for a moment, obviously still burdened with the notion that he’s actually being fired by a hunting guide. “Will I see you again before I leave?” he snivels.

“Probably not. I’m gonna grab my shotgun, and a pup that needs some playing time, and then I’m going back to the crime scene to tidy up your mess.”

After packing away his Purdey and his shooting effects, the judge looks out the window of his cabin and sees the guide emerge from the kennel with a dusty pump-gun and a handsome young pointer spinning excitedly on the end of a check cord. He loads the pup, places his shotgun on the seat beside him and cranks the engine. As he drives away from the kennel toward the pasture they hunted that morning, the judge notices writing on the tailgate of the truck.

Freshly scribed in red dust by the index finger of the best quail guide in Oklahoma, the message reads:

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Find out what it means to me . . .

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