Our camp is at the base of one of those short mountain ranges that are so much a part of this part of the desert. Sky islands, they call them, where points of pine and even spruce wring snowfall from a dry Southwestern sky on a December night and a good walker can move through a quarter dozen life zones on a big day.
For the dog man, the islands offer much promise. The deep grass toe of the island—the beaches—whisper to you of scaled, or blue, quail. The catclaw-choked canyon mouths farther up the island’s flanks, speak of Gambel quail. Higher still, up in the oak savannah, that most treasured of quail—the pointing dog’s quail—Mearns, Montezuma, harlequin.
My companion on this month of adventure is a mentor, a best friend, a life-long personal legend. He’s 83 and he carries a good Belgian Browning 20 that he picked up in a Denver pawn shop more than a half century ago. Jim has one dog, a young female setter. I have three, but only the streak called Mabel is functional. The other two are old timers, males whose saddles have a lot of leather worn off the tree. They are along for the ride, and because I didn’t have the heart to leave them in wintery Montana. I pay for my softness with periodic visits to the truck in the middle of the night so they can get out to empty. I lift them down to the ground and when they are done, I lift them back up to the tailgate beneath a star-splattered sky. They groan with the miles. They have given their everything to me. A lifetime of everything and the least I can do is get up in the middle of the night to let an old dog piss.
I did all the driving and do all the driving. Often, Jim stays at camp while I climb out of the trailer, load up my water and Mabel’s, thumb shells into my vest, pack lunch, load the gun, turn on the e-collar.
Sometimes, I come down off the mountain tired, my game bag heavy with a half limit. At night, we cook quail and vegetables in a Dutch oven over mesquite coals, accompany the meal with New Mexico chilies.
In the mornings, I do it all over again. The days are as I want them to be. On some, I get in the truck and drive the two-tracks north along the island’s run, looking for new canyons and new coveys. One evening, I come back to a few fingers of good bourbon and show Jim a license plate from 1954 that I found on a rusted truck bumper out in the middle of nowhere, pinned against the thick tough trunk of a mesquite by a flash flood long dead.
It’s the same year I bought that Browning, says Jim.