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.
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.