It is not long. Not long until we settle into the routine of men who have spent a lifetime in the outdoors together. A camp routine.
We have known each other long enough that he knew me when I was a punk kid in my 20s all full of bullshit and bluster. Knew my wife before she became my wife and long before she became my ex-wife. I have known him since he was the age I am at this moment. Known him when he was a bachelor two-times divorced with a couple of good horses and two fine setters. When I hunted with a mutt and a piss-poor side-by-side that I bought with ranch-work money. Before he was an old man with no horses, a sweet wife, a nice cat and one fine setter that usually hunts by herself around the farm. And now we move around each other with the ease of time and the comfort of knowing one another and each others’ quirks. Hearing each others’ stories so many times we’ve lost count. It is almost father-son, except perhaps expectations and approvals are not as clearly defined. But they are there, without denial. He is my mentor in almost all things life.
On our first hunting adventure, he handed me his .35 Whelen and I laid across a carpet of aspen leaves and felled a large buck mule deer with one shot. My own rifle was back at home, left because we were packing out a cow elk I had shot the day before. No need to carry my rifle. But then we rounded the bend and the buck was there, broadside. Elk in panniers on the horses and my own rifle at home. “Take my rifle,” he whispered. “Thumb the safety forward when you’re ready to fire.” Two hundred and twenty one paces out.
That night we ate fresh elk steak, smothered in gravy from the drippings. The next day we packed out the buck on tired horses.
Now we are in quail country. Again. We have been in quail country many times. During the highs and the lows and the mediums. On years when you had to walk four hours or even all day to see one small covey and when you found them, you felt guilty for splitting them up late in the day and for shooting even one. You didn’t hunt up the singles.
This year is a high water mark. I never walk more than a half hour to game. To a point. I never return to camp without at least a handful of quail and a pocketof spent 20s.
We’ve seen the changes to the land, changes less subtle that the ebbs and flows of annual quail populations. There was a time we didn’t worry if we accidentally dipped down into Sonora in the great follow that is a setter leading a man. When the land seemed pristine and wild and raw and never trodden by man-track. When you did not fret about camp when you were not there. That was thirty years ago.
It was the trash, more than anything. Discards of a people on the move. Empty plastic jugs. Fuel cans. Pop cans worded only in Spanish. A shoe. Plastic sheeting. A tattered jacket, stuffing flying everywhere. You half expected to walk up on someone sitting in the shade of an oak as you followed your dog. Your heart beat a little more frantically than it does as a mere aficionado of the hunt and the canine. It felt dangerous. Still does sometimes.
But the fresh trash stopped and dust and dirt coated the old stuff. Maybe it was the economy crapping out or maybe it was something else. The drug trade. The fences. The patrols. Those are questions for other people and for the government. Detritus washed down arroyos, got covered in sand and duff. Plastic sheeting slowly disintegrated and blew to the wind, clung to mesquite thorn. Agave grew up through the leavings. Border patrol everywhere, just sitting in fancy government vehicles at intersections. All. Day. Long. Never waving hello.
We have seen the country change and each other age and we are back here. And we move around each other in the camp trailer and we hunt separately, me for half days, whole days. Jim for an hour or two. Some days. He is not feeling well. Complains of dizziness and weakness. I cook breakfast and dinner and he washes dishes and pours Kentucky over ice. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we read without saying much. It is another hunt in the desert and somehow, for the first time, it feels like our last.