Possibility

Click.
The truck door closes and cold, crisp sage hits the nose.

Zip.
The shotgun slides out of its case, warm and familiar.

Kathunk.
The tailgate drops and an explosion of black and white and various shades of brown erupts, bursting with yelps of excitement and unbridled instinct. For a moment, it all borders on chaos until direction is given. You watch all that energy channeled into a force that shoots across the landscape, bending vegetation in its path like the winds that continually pummel this place.

Crunch.
Boots break thin surface ice is as you leave the road and start heading up the hill. You look up to see the top of the mountain shrouded in falling snow. You aim for it, even as it descends to meet you halfway.

This moment, full of anticipation and possibility, defines it all. Does it really matter what else the day brings? Have you ever felt more in-the-moment alive than now?

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No poetry

Last hunt
Last hunt

I wanted poetry. But that’s not the way it happened.
I wanted one last spin through stem and stubble, one last sudden pivot on wobbly legs. One last point.
One last rooster.
A burst of feather and wing to slate sky. A swing of double gun, a pull and a puff and the old boy on it, smelling it, mouthing it. His last rooster.
But that’s not the way it happened.
His ass-end gave out two hundred yards from the truck before we were in the really good stuff. We had to turn back, the old man pulling himself on his front legs, fickle back legs making drag marks in the snow. I offered to carry him, but he had none of it.
One last point, one last rooster. One last shot. I wanted that for him. I wanted that for me. But that’s not the way it happened and it occurs to me that poetry is a precious thing, a whisper on the wind, a blink.
A friend’s beautiful wife dies of leukemia before she turns thirty. There is no seventy-five years of shared life, no watching children and grandchildren grow and laugh. No poetry.
Another friend whose law enforcement career had spanned two decades spangled with accolades and decorations spent his last day investigating the disappearance of a woman while standing within feet of where her corpse lay hidden beneath a pile of trash. Days after the laughter had faded from his retirement party, his former colleagues discovered her body and arrested the boyfriend. No last day heroics, no “one last bust,” no poetry.
An Olympic miler steps off a city sidewalk and shatters her tibia. No poetry.
And so. An old bird dog on his last hunt ends up pulling himself home by his front legs. Two months shy of his thirteenth birthday and there will be no final pheasant. There was, but it was placed in the game bag months before without thought that there would never be another. Forgotten. Not even realized.
He sleeps now on his bed downstairs and I know that someday soon, he won’t be able to get up and walk from it, that he will have to drag himself and then I will know it is time. And I think about moments that have passed for him and I on our journey together.
And I think about the look of him then, all tri-colored and feathered, pivoting out in brambles, pointing and casting and moving in rhythmic upland music and I realize that in fact this is why I love bird hunting. For in that motion of dog into wind, in that movement of fur and nostril, it is there: Poetry. When all else in life lacks, upland behind a setter provides.
Sometimes life is just life. Sometimes it sings and the melody is bird dog.

—Tom Reed

Luther

He was the “assistant foreman” on a ranch in West Texas. I had a gate key to that ranch and permission to hunt quail, but nothing else.

At dusk on a January afternoon, I was parked on the edge of a CRP patch when Luther came clattering up the road in his derelict Ram Charger. His two Blue Healers were standing on the toolbox and peering over the cab. I clipped my pointers to the tailgate and filled their water pans as Luther ground to a halt in a cloud of red dust. He left his truck running because it likely wouldn’t start again if he didn’t.”

“Any birds in that?”

“Three coveys.”

“Get any?”

“Five.”

When the dust and exhaust fumes cleared I caught a whiff of a sickly perfumey smell wafting from his open truck window. He was somewhat shaven and his hair was slicked back. He had on a black felt hat and one of those patchwork Garth Brooks type shirts.

“Luther, where you off to?”

“Town.”

That could have been any number of places but I assumed he was referring to Lubbock.

“What’s the occasion?”

“I got a date.”

“Are you wearing Hai Karate?”

He flashed a sheepish grin and I noticed that his scraggly mustache had been touched up with a grease pencil, a Sharpie, or something similar. It didn’t do much for me, but maybe she would like it.

“Who’s the luck lady?”

“Gal I grow’d up with. I ain’t seen her in years. She’s lately divorced and living back with her mom, and them.” He leaned over to his rearview mirror and checked his teeth; then he plucked a toothpick from his hat brim. “She’s a real looker.”

“Yeah?”

“Head twirler back in high school.”

Luther looked at me with a wink and a nod. I turned and looked at his dogs. They turned and looked mine.

“So, where you taking her?”

“Kenny Chesney concert. She won some free tickets through the radio. She answered four trivia questions about livestock and politics and all.”

“Smart gal?”

“Apparently.”

“You taking your dogs to the concert?”

He pointed into the bed of his truck with his thumb. “They’ll be fine back yonder. Anybody tries to steal em will thank better of it when he has to pry some teeth off his boys.”

He waited for me to reply to that but I didn’t. He watched me unclip my pointers and open their boxes. It was getting dark and I had an hour on the road back to my motel.

“Whatta you give for a bird dog like them?”

“A lot; depends on their breeding and their finish.”

He studied the dogs as they spun and jumped into their boxes. “You gonna hunt again tomorrow?”

“Not sure; sounds like we’ve got some bad weather coming.”

“Well, if you do, I seen a big covey at that wire gap going into the croton pasture this morning. Least I thank they was quail—mighta been doves—do they run along the ground?”

“Doves?”

“Yeah.”

“No, not as a rule.”

With that, he let off the clutch and his trucked lurched and sputtered down the road. After about fifty yards he stopped and hung his head out the window.

“Hey—if you come by the house in the morning and see my truck but I don’t answer the door….”

“Yeah?”

“…don’t keep on knockin, cause I might be doin some good?”

It was 22-degrees and spitting snow when I turned out my dogs the next morning. I hunted for a couple of hours before the wind picked up and it started dumping. On the way out of the ranch I drove past Luther’s house. His truck was out front with the driver-side door standing wide open. The snow was blowing sideways into the cab. His two Healers were sitting on the porch.

Two weeks later the paper said that Luther had been arrested for public intoxication and assault on a gal that was once a head twirler. I hunted that ranch one more time on the last weekend of the season and Luther’s house was locked up and dark. I never heard what happened to his dogs, and I never found that covey by the wire gap leading into the croton pasture.

– TB

Color

This year there was no vibrancy to the slow fade of summer. A norther came down out of the high arctic and froze everything in early October, dropping temps down to singles, dropping a foot of snow on the backs of surprised baby partridge. The leaves on the aspens, the alders, the cottonwoods, turned black and fell off overnight.

Now deep winter.

Any hint of summer is long gone, drained from the grasses like blood from a corpse, the horizon sprawling out and the light as flat as the land. Petrified and pale. Along  the empty and benumbed ditches are the stems of red willow, but even they have no verve, no splash, no elan. A man could get despondent in such a landscape with its off-tones and nothingness. When your partner compares the coming day to the soft pastels and dim light a Russell Chatham watercolor, you realize why you’ve never found the man’s art all that appealing. Why hang “Depression” in one’s living room?

Twenty below. Weather for fools and cattle feeders. The fools carry shotguns in refrigerated fingers. The cattle feeders feed from the heated cabs of tractors because they have to. You want to. Dolt.

Out into that drab vista with the only real vibrancy at your feet, panting and wiggling and dancing and wagging. Hell’s bells. It’s 20 below.

The sun splashes a little bit of yellow across the snow carpet, but still, nothing much more colorful than a hard-water stain in a commode. You crunch on in complaining squeak-snow and blow on the plastic whistle only once. Only once because the damned thing freezes to your lips and the end of your nose hurts and the lobes of your ears remind you of the last time they were frost nipped. Skiing a January or two ago. Skiing. Activity that makes sense. Or ice fishing. In a hut. With whiskey or schnapps or hot buttered rum. Not this idiot’s plod with a shotgun so cold the receiver glues  to your glove and when you stop to get rid of some coffee, you worry about frost nipping the business end of your business. Jesus H. Jack London.

The path is a canal that in summer probably runs bank to bank with silt water but now is as empty as the land itself, its banks lined by brown brush and black weeds and reddish stems and here and there an acre or two of bled-out cattail. The dog charges into it and tufts of hair from the cattails drift and blend into the frost and you push on, coagulated limbs working, pulled only by the dog and his vivacity. In those thick cattails. Now quiet. Silence. A point, you think, and you pound into them, pushing through the floating cattail dust and the 20-below crystals and find him there, iced-over himself, and yet absolutely on fire at the same time and you kick about and hear a frantic beating at your feet and up she goes. Brown and black and a little white and flying. Hen! Dingy bitch.

A mile like this, along that canal, through blankness, your toes cold, your lobes slowly going from ‘nip to ‘bite, the whistle tucked away and forgotten, the dog stopping now and then to bite out chunks of ice between his pads, but bursting on, still giving it all. Would have liked to have that kind of drive and no-quit on your college football team. Who is playing probably right now while you are out here freezing your junk right the hell off. A simpleton’s trudge, yours. The farmer out there in his growling tractor, feeding faded green hay to his black cattle. Even that sounds more appealing.

You near the end of the canal where a big gray cottonwood presses into the sky and a ferruginous sits fixed on a limb, puffed out and gray and brown and black and reluctant to move. Does finally, launching silent into the freeze. The dog doesn’t see the hawk, though. Occupied and animated. When he stops again, solid again for the fifth or sixth time, you think: Probably another damned hen but you wade in anyway.

Your toes hurt from kicking the cattails and then a chaotic splashing at your feet and a cackle. A cry that is in reality probably one of fright, but you’ve imagined it a scold, an angry, cursing, pissed-off mean-ass sumbitch.

And there he is. A  flying box of Crayons: Purple! Red! Green! Russet! Rouge! White! Black! Yellow! Chartreuse!

Color!!!                                                                                                              –TR

The Borderline

Pour me a drink from the bottle
And one for you
’cause we’re empty as the desert
As we drift from west to east
On the borderline everything is empty, even you and I…”

– “Borderline,” by Camper van Beethoven

We hunt the fringes, the transitions, the anomalies. We gravitate to this without much conscious thought; pulled to these points at the extremity of an amorphous compass by the lodestone of experience. You could say we’re merely following the dog, but there is more to it than that. The dog is pulled to these places as the birds are pulled as we are pulled – the collision of impulse and instinct between three separate species.

Why will we repeatedly cross an otherwise featureless field, drawn to a small rise that hosts a few sage, dragged along primarily by hope? There are the obvious reasons, of course – the fact that this negligible bump on the landscape gives a vantage point for the birds and possibly a slightly greater variety of feed, would be sound reasoning, but doesn’t account for all of it. Then there are the old hedgerows, the messy perimeter of the errant orchard, the sweeping line of scrub oak, the rocky edge of the bluff; all of them places that hold birds, all of them liminal zones of portent, possessed with a deeper significance if we care to stop and think about it.

These peripheries have an irresistible, innate pull, something hardwired into the collective limbic network we tap into when we take a shotgun and a dog in the field. It is something that gets at our soul and provides a glimpse of insight into this odd thing we love. Our pursuit, after all, doesn’t really stand up to much logic. From a simple, meat-gathering point of view, it is a net loss – we expend a great deal more energy than we ever hope to take in at the end of the day. But we do it anyway, and we have all sorts of other reasons that we tell ourselves; to simply get out in the great outdoors, to watch the dogs work, to keep one foot in the door of what it means to kill and procure your own food; all of them undeniably true.

Yet we’re fooling ourselves if we aren’t also aware that as an upland clan, we are a fringe unto ourselves, occupying but a small sub-group of an already minor segment in our society, comprised of those that still hunt. And thus, as much as we are drawn to these fringe places for the obvious, we also go there for reasons that reflect who we ultimately are. We are of the peripheral, stalking the transitional, drifting west to east along the borderline…

– Smithhammer

The End of Days

You could count the number of days remaining in the Idaho sharpie season on one hand. It had been a tough year, with a bird or two here and there, but the coveys were few and far between. Still, with the help of an up-and-coming first-season pup we managed to put one in the bag now and then.

Yet with the days waning in a season that always feels too short, time spent in the field was becoming less and less productive. We’d go to formerly fruitful areas, cover them thoroughly, and find nothing. I began to question if I knew what I was doing – truth be told, a state of mind as familiar to me as my favorite old Browning boots.

In such vast country, you try to cling to informed opinions about where the birds may be, and sometimes that works, but too often they simply burst skyward from places that hold no distinguishing characteristics. We’d been walking for hours, working our way through the subtle highs and lows of the landscape, hoping to stumble across the one indistinct anomaly that, for reasons I may never fully understand, just happens to hold birds on this particular day, at this particular hour. Nothing.

It was becoming downright frigid, and I was beyond spent. We headed back to the car, with Hank valiantly still trying to find birds right up till I opened the door. We got inside and sat there for what I think were a few moments but could have been much more, listening to the wind range southbound, shaking the truck, watching the light fade. I started the truck and drove slowly out on the gravel road. Looking up from starting the radio I watched the sharpie fly across the road, right in front of us, and disappear over the horizon.

Ultimately, the birds are not particularly fond of being shot, and they owe you nothing. You better be able to laugh or this pursuit will drive you crazy.

Checks and Balances

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The pointer named William breaks stride and pauses to investigate a small patch of wilted ragweed. He then continues on track along a sidehill and into the gusting wind that determines his course. It was enough scent to prickle his bird-senses, a scant whiff of something besides dust, but not enough to stop him from running full out across a parched and featureless pasture.

The federal judge sitting alone on the seat atop the dog box pounds with his fist on the cab roof, “That might’ve been birds, right there, Captain!”

It’s the fourth time this hour he’s done that and the quail guide behind the wheel imagines landing a roundhouse punch to a gin-swollen nose for each amount of unbearable racket that his client has caused inside the truck.

The guide glances in his side mirror and finds the judge’s stodgy red portrait filling up the view. “That bird-dog of yours couldn’t smell a polecat in a peat bog,” the judge nags.

Continue reading “Checks and Balances”