“What do you know about pheasants?” That’s how it started. A challenge I lobbed at a guy in a bar. My target had folded his 6’5” frame onto a barstool at the local watering hole. From there he was pontificating about bird hunting. James had a particular way of speaking. Not quite southern drawl. More like a stern traveling preacher minus any hint of piety. Voice slow and booming. Occasional Canadian twinges mixed with colloquialisms of his own making. A style bordering precariously between off-color, authoritative and hilarious.
Here he was holding court to a couple of fellow beer drinkers about a recent pheasant trip. He held peanuts in one hand and beer in the other. Waving both around as if in a pulpit. Booming again, he let fly a beauty; “They were flying around like goddamned bees. Everywhere! We were shooting the hell out of things. The dogs were crazy as shithouse rats and the birds were piling up like cordwood”. Even above the hum in the bar it was like the guy had a megaphone. I did not know a soul in the place and had yet to make a friend in this new town. That left me to focus on a sermon about birds. Jim’s verse got my attention and I had nothing better to do. So, I butted in with my challenge not knowing what might come of it.
Standing now he wasted not a second and shot back, “Well, quite a bit and who the hell are you?”. He looked down his nose, eyebrow cocked. If I did not know better, I would swear I was at home plate with Randy Johnson on the mound staring me down as he took a sign. James bore a strong resemblance to the iconic Seattle pitcher and I felt like the Big Unit himself was about ready to throw hard and inside with a 98mph fastball.
I had grown up on a ranch. Pheasants galore. So, I was ready for the pitch with my retort, “You guys think you know what pheasant hunting is, well you ought to see where I grew up.” Smack. I hit it out of the park. That was all he needed. A hint of wild birds in big country. A few months later, James was strolling across the grasslands of our ranch in the biting cold. Never mind the 1200 miles or the uncertainty of an unknown place. He took me up on the challenge of “real” pheasant hunting. Just the sort of gamble I would have taken.
Our hunting styles were a match. I loved to cover miles and James was a born walker. Like a moose at a long distance he first seemed slow and gangly. But up close he moved across the bird country with stretched effortless strides. So long and flowing that almost no one could keep up. He’d swing and shoot and walk all in the same motion. He hunted with purpose. We could rack up impressive daily distance totals that others came to call death marches.
Our shared a passion for birds soon drove us to range over huge swaths of bird country together. In the ensuing decades we strode across untold acres from Montana to Kansas. Between hunting days finding small towns, dingy hotels and greasy spoons. We explored it all. Always on the lookout for a new territory to hunt.
During our hunts I came to know Jim as a master story teller and our adventures became parts of new tales. He picked out the interesting places and people then wove them in the loom of his mind. Spinning until the fine fabric poured out. I mostly just listened and then cajoled him to repeat. His stories would usually arrive at unexpected hilarious places. “Did I ever tell you about the time I took out an entire motel in a runaway grain truck?” Turns out he had done just that. Nearly killing the last person in the place which was thankfully almost empty due to the late morning timing. He too had barely made it out alive.
In classic Jim fashion a few years after the wreck he randomly met the survivor on the same barstool where he and I had first discussed pheasants. Of course, he started holding court and drinking beer with her too. They ended up laughing over another of Jim’s stories even though she was minus a few key internal organs from the accident. Like me, Jim was always focused on procuring more hunting spots. Even though he had almost killed the gal with a Peterbilt he did not fail to ask if she had any good hunting property.
Jim wove this and scores of other tales with the magnetic pull of the finest novels. He came to be in high demand by my friends and family. Inquiries about upcoming hunting trips from them now focused on whether Jim was coming along as if I was an afterthought. His attendance would make or break the trip. Random strangers he hunted with over the years still ask me about him today.
The truth is that James was the kind of guy who you just wanted to have along for the ride. At least partially because he prided himself on being silver tongued when it came to prying permission from even the prickliest ranchers. I have to admit he might be the best I have ever seen. After a hard “no” through the screen door he would begin a booming sermonette and find a way to remember a distant cousin that maybe went to school with a friend, or a last name that sounded about right and then he’d throw in a good story and a slight exaggeration. The door would open, and he was inside, drinking coffee and eating cookies. Drawing maps on paper towels. He’d swagger back to the truck with his wool hat tipped just so and then bellar out; “hope you got some goddamned ammo Busse, ‘cause we can hunt ‘er all!”. Off we would go, striding across another swath of prairie.
You could always depend on Jim to be true and authentic. He became a corner post in the wobbly fence of life. Something steady and predictable, always to be relied upon. Following birds was the catalyst for it all.
Over time things got busier and I traveled more. Life happened. We hunted together less. On one of my work trips Sara called me to explain that our beloved Shorthair with whom I had hunted nearly 16 years was on her last leg. Our vet advised we put her down that same day. I could not return for nearly a week and in tears on the phone I blubbered, “I’ll call James.” And of course, he dropped everything and was at Sara’s side within the hour as we lost a bird dog. A very hard day for any hunter. He cried in the waiting room just as I would have and thought nothing of doing it. By now It’s probably woven into another of his stories.
Nearly 25 years has passed since our first bullshitting session. We’ve walked a thousand miles together and apart. New dogs have come and gone. Birds have indeed been piled up like cordwood. Family has passed, and a son has been named in his honor. And yet despite the march of time it is as if nothing at all has changed. We are just a couple of bird hunting buddies looking for the next ridge to hunt and tale to weave. Kidding each other about missed shots and permissions gained. A friendship between men based on the most elementary components first brought together from a random encounter. All we have ever really done is follow our dogs and tell stories. Simple things that are enough for us.