Coulee country. Threads of ash, chokecherry, wild plum in a tan landscape. Like the work-dirty khakis of a giant tossed in a crumpled heap. A creased land. Thick with ring-necks, tucked tight in the rumple–cattails and scraggly Russian olive in the wet, bramble in the bottoms, snowberry up on the rims at the edge of old corn.
The first bird is in there, pinned. It is thick and when his nerve folds under canine nose, he goes out straight up against a bank of chokecherry, the little setter right on his tail. Skyward. Shouldered gun and he hits the ground dead as stone.
The second bird is harder. A lot harder. Up a coulee too thick for passage except in a few open places where a path worn by the hooves of a million deer have kept the saplings in retreat. Hands and knees in some places, then crawling out to the relief of the edge where the cobs of the summer’s corn lie scattered. The dog disappears completely and I know she’s on point and then a rooster gets up. Right at the edge of range. Easy. Swing. Shoot. Miss. Catch up. Shoot. Miss. Fuck. Catch up. Shoot. Too far. Damnit.
And another. Straight away. Edge of range again. A plum thicket between muzzle and ringtail but I clip him. Drop a leg. Damnit. Shouldn’t have shot. Search in the general direction where he disappeared hundreds of yards away. Dragging that leg. Son of a bitch. It is a burning regret. Contrition perhaps not as sharp and haunting as doing the same to a good buck, dropping a front leg and tracking for miles, but still a wounded creature lost. Coyote food.
The second bird still eludes and we scramble across to the other side of the coulee we’re climbing. The apex of the circle I’ve vowed to hike since leaving the truck now a silver dot two miles in the rearview. Maybe I can pick up another bird here and then perhaps the last one on the far edge of the lake across from the pickup.
As if I have created it from scrambled thought in the heart of the hike, Mabel conjures. A solid, tail-high intense point that I will never get tired of seeing. That I will summon on my death bed. That moment when everything is quiet and the dog is not panting, just taking tiny gulps of breath after going ten million miles an hour. Her nose is full of it, quivering. All else is still. Safety ready for push, trigger. Still. Wait. Kick. Nothing. Dog steady. Rock solid. A breeze trembles through the feathered tail stuck straight into pale sky.
And up he goes. Right against a castle wall of thick ash and chokecherry but the bead is on him and the gun barks even though I don’t hear it somehow and he falls down out of the sky.
Right into the top of a tree. In the throat of the coulee.
I have no choice.
Strip down. Gun unloaded. Dog is romping into the timber looking for the bird. Remote control off and placed on the gun. Pack off. Sunglasses on. There are things that don’t like eyeballs in there. Cap scrunched down. The rooster is still in the tree. Dead as stone, but twenty feet off the ground. The beauty is the tree is a small one, perhaps six inches in diameter and if I can get to it, I can shake the shit out of it and the bird will drop. If I can get to it. In theory.
Crawling now, scratching my arms, making sure I don’t leave anything I treasure hanging on a sharp stick. Shutting my eyes even though I have sunglass protection. It’s instinct. A stick draws blood. Ouch. A lip cut. Free flowing. Damn. That hurts. Crawling some more, should have worn a long-sleeve despite the heat.
Finally, the base of the tree. The rooster is still there, one broken wing lodged over a branch, hanging head down. Still. I grab the trunk. One good shake should do it. Get ready. Mabel!! Where the hell is that dog? Mabel, get ready honey. I grab the trunk. Look up at the rooster. His eyes are open. It’s surreal.
And he blinks.
Then falls out of the tree and is gone. What the? Mabel, Mabel, get over here!!! Faarckgoddamnit!! I can hear her thrashing and panting somewhere. But the rooster is flat gone. Into a coulee forest thicker than Malamute fur.