What I miss is hunting with my father.
April 11, 2014
A VG Serial: Hills of Eden
Early morning. Arkansas. Just south of Alpena. It’s quiet, like a battlefield just before the guns open up. Just before the men move into their fighting positions.
Eerie out there on the road. We come to the barbed wire fence.
We pull the wire hoop off the post and open the gate. Duke, the German short-haired bird dog, has already crawled under the fence, leaving behind tufts of hair, like trout flies, gray and brown hackles stuck to the barbs. We close the gate together. Then we jack shells into our shotguns. The morning sun spills through the trees, into the field like running honey.
Dennis and I put some short yardage between us, stalk toward the gully, flow into it. It is overgrown, thick with cover. Looks good. We talk with our eyes, watch Duke as he sniffs the grass. The dew has been mostly burned off, but underneath, the gouts hold scent. We take hunters’ positions. Our shotguns gleam dark blue in the sun. We wear camouflage outfits, shooting vests.
We might have been Special Forces troops on patrol, sneaking through the jungles of Nam, or wading up a ravine in Korea that looks amazingly like Camp Pendleton, California.
Shotgun shells weigh down our vests. Duke sniffs the ground ahead, ranges wide, like a wind-up toy, tail high, flickering. Quick as a ferret, he drifts far out, then back in, following invisible lines through the sheared remnants of alfalfa.
We walk on a path, come to a clump of weeds and denuded berry tangles. Duke goes to point. He hunches forward, lifts his right paw, cocks it backward, nose into the brush.
On point, Duke is rigid, a tan and white sculpture anchored to the earth. His tail is cocked high, his body slanted forward like some eternal 3-D photograph.
We circle the brush, shotguns at the ready, safeties eased off. Behind me, the rest of the squad waits with nervous stomachs, M-16s oiled and gleaming. The patrol is fanned out slightly, the men’s faces smudged with camo paint, black and olive and green smears that wipe out their identities.
The thicket produces no birds. We encircle it, infiltrate it, stomp it impatiently. Duke sniffs out a new trail, disappears in the brush. We become ourselves again, just a pair of hunters out to bag some quail during the waning days of the season.
A few minutes later, Duke goes into a point again. His tail juts high, crooks slightly into the bent arrow of a weather vane. His right foot cocks backward. A classic hunting dog pose. Currier & Ives, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life.
Dennis and I step forward, flank the dog.
“Easy, Duke,” says Dennis as the dog begins to lean forward, his coat rippling over bone and muscle.
Quail burst out of the thicket in a rattle of fluttering wings. They sound like stirred-up rattlesnakes. Dennis’ 20-gauge double barrel coughs once. A bird crumples in mid-air. I sweep the 12-gauge pump over a bird’s silhouette, spray him out of the air with a squeeze of the trigger. I pump a new shell into the chamber, angle on another bird. Too late, too far, but I fire anyway, caught up in the thrill of the moment.
Dennis picks up my bird. He can’t find his. Duke points it, but the quail is invisible on the ground. Finally, Dennis reaches down, picks up the dead bird, drops it into a jacket pocket.
The hills roll on before us. Duke ranges in a circle. We step after him to pick up the singles.
It is a long morning, full of blood and smoke and feathers. It is a twenty-mile day and my forty-odd years drop from my shoulders like layers of shed skin. My cocker spaniel, Lady Kay, dead for more than twenty-five of those years, barks down the long halls of my memory.
But that was back in Colorado, and there are no pheasants here in this northwest corner of Arkansas. There are no fields of wheat-stubble stretching to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
There are just barely audible whispers of these old forgotten things as Duke pauses before another thicket, pointing at birds we cannot see.
The silence, just before we flush the quail, is full of these whispers, a distant sussurance heard only in the mind.
The boom of shotguns, feathers flying from shot quail, floating down to earth. This time the quail stay up a long time, the singles scattering wide, zooming clear to the bordering woods.
We cross the ends of the earth tracking down the singles.
A young brown face pops up beyond the rusted tangle of concertina wire. I cover his face with the muzzle of my M-1 carbine, take him out with a short squeeze of the trigger. He falls in the Korean ditch like a broken wing, lies there like a doll. Something clawed grabs my stomach. Something tightens around my chest, shutting off my breathing.
Sweat drips into my eyes. My vision blurs. I see everything through a petroleumed camera lens, everything in soft focus.
Dennis stops, looks back at me. He looks very young. He is young.
“You all right?” Soft Arkansas drawl.
I look around. It’s late morning on the Williams farm. Plenty of game cover here. Fence rows. Thick clumps of brush in the gullies. We move in, Dennis and I, at angles.
I wipe thick sweat from my forehead.
We wear the morning away, break for lunch under a shady oak. Duke gets his share of sandwich.
Late in the day, we are still hunting. A single jumps in front of us, peels off like a fighter plane. Dennis swings on the whirring bird. Parooms a shot. Behind a foot. The quail jerks, corrects its course. I clock him, swinging from behind as he passes at the near end of my range. I blot him out in the sight picture, keep swinging on past him at the same speed, squeeze the trigger while the barrel is in motion. I dump him out of space with thwacks of shot that shear off a pinch of feathers. Caught him right at the tail end of the string, forty yards away, with number 7 chilled shot.
We picked up two more singles, got into another covey. Four birds dropped out of that one.
There was a whirring in my ears all the way home to Osage in Dennis’ pickup. I thought back on the day.
I’ve got almost twenty years on Dennis. He’s a fine shot, doesn’t talk much. A good hunting partner in my book. He was polite enough not to ask me about a couple of episodes I had out there. He didn’t say anything about the sweating, the times I drifted off, back to Lady Kay and the Colorado wheat fields, back to Korea on patrol, back to….
Hunting with my father. I had blocked that out. But it was there. I had sons, some not much younger than Dennis. I had never hunted with them, not pheasants, not quail, not dove, deer. I missed my father, and maybe I missed what I never had with my oldest sons, that rare companionship you find out in the field, under the sky, in the woods.
“You shot well today,” Dennis said. “Real good.”
“You, too.” I almost called him “son.”
“I missed that last one,” he laughed. “Way behind him.”
“A few inches.”
“You got him. Clean and nice.”
“He flew right into it. The Remington throws a good pattern at forty yards.”
“Yah, it does.”
I remembered something Dennis had told me earlier.
His father had never hunted with him as my father had hunted with me.
“Want to go again?” he asked when we pulled up at my place.
“Anytime, son. Anytime.”
Hills of Eden will be published every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Please click the title, Hills of Eden, to read more about Jory Sherman and his books.