It seemed easy enough; at least the way his soon to be father-in-law, Art, described it. They would let the dogs go one at a time and then follow them through the woods. When the dog stopped they would walk to the dog, flush the bird, and then shoot it. It seemed important to his fiancée that he make a good impression on the old man and he had read Hemingway and Faulkner while preparing for his orals for his PhD in American Literature. Besides, he thought, he was in great shape and had just set a personal record in a marathon. How hard would it be to keep up with Art who was pushing 60 and his chain smoking hunting partner, Fred, who was a couple years older and looked like he already had at least a toe, if not a foot, in the grave.
It was still dark in the morning when he could smell the bacon and soon heard the barking dogs in the kennel signaling that Fred had arrived. He kissed his fiancée goodbye, who mumbled something about not embarrassing himself before she rolled over and went back to sleep. He slipped into his high-tech hiking clothes and headed downstairs where Fred was complaining about Art’s coffee and Art exclaimed, “I really don’t care, I don’t drink it. All I do is turn on the damn thing.”
There would be a lot of that during the day. He would soon be happy when they were sniping at each other rather then directing their laser-bright attention and wits on him. Eggs, bacon, toast, home fries, juice, and coffee seemed like a lot to someone who was seriously in training but he ate it all because he couldn’t tell whether Fred was serious or not when he said, “We don’t stop to eat until it’s dark again.”
As soon as they stepped out the door Fred lit up a Winston and puffed away while three dogs were transferred from his truck to Art’s and then three more were released from the kennel to give them six for the day’s hunt. Art surveyed the dog crate and turned to Fred, “Do you think that’s enough dog-power?”
“If not we can always come back for a few more.”
Fred made small talk quizzing him about his degree and his current research grant. Art didn’t say a word but he was sure that the laconic man with the weathered face and the penetrating blue eyes was interested in his answers. He was sure there was more to this day than just killing some birds. It took them about fifteen minutes to get to the first cover or was it covert? They seemed interchangeable in the literature but he wasn’t sure if there was some subtle difference that he had yet to discern. Art offered him a pair of chaps and a hunting vest. He took the vest but decided to forego the chaps as he had climbed many mountains in these pants with no visible wear. Art pulled one of his dogs out of the back and put one collar on that had what he had been told was a GPS tracking device and a shock collar on it. Then Art replaced the dog’s leather collar with a two inch wide bright reflective orange collar with a bell attached. Art pulled out his spare shotgun and went over how it worked again as he had last night. It was a 20 gauge over and under with a smooth and shiny receiver from being carried so much. Art handed him a box of shells and said to stuff a bunch of them in his vest pockets. He put five in each pocket and started to hand the box back, “You know, if you run out shells in the cover, the ones you get from Fred are going to be really expensive.”
He stuffed another five in each pocket. It had gotten light as they were driving out to the cover and now they were ready to go. Art lifted the dog down from the tailgate and stood him up on the side of the road headed for the woods. Art looked at him and then Fred to be sure they were ready then tapped the dog on the head and he was gone. They listened as the bell streaked out to the front. Art led the way into the woods with Fred following. He fell in behind. The bell faded in and out as they made their way down the hill. Three or four minutes later the bell stopped as did Art and Fred. They listened intently until Art’s GPS buzzed. He pulled it from his pocket, pointed in the direction they had last heard the bell and said. “153 yards.”
Without further discussion the two old men fanned out and headed towards the dog. They had been walking on an old skidder road but now were busting through the thick cover with apparent ease. He found everything was either trying to slap him in the face or grab a hold of his legs. He barely kept up. Fortunately, Art and Fred soon stopped. Art pointed to the dog and then motioned him to the right side while Fred slipped down on the dog’s left.
Art spoke in a normal tone as he stood right behind him, “Put two shells in the gun and move up into that little opening. Fred will try to flush the bird to you.”
He moved up looking down at the ground for the bird. When he reached the opening Fred took two steps forward and there was a whistling of wings. He tried to aim the gun. He heard Fred’s gun bark and the bird was already falling out of the sky when he pulled the trigger. Art turned to his hunting partner, “You could have let the kid have a chance.”
“I thought the dog should have a bird killed for him after a nice piece of work like that.”
“How many birds have you shot over this dog? Do you really think that after a truckload of birds this dog cares whether you kill one more woodcock?”
“Of course he does.”
“All he’s ever cared about is finding them.” Art walked out and pick up the bird and threw it to Fred, then turned to him, “Take the shells out of the gun and make sure you put the empty in your game bag in back. They only fire once.”
He did as he was told and then realized the dog had yet to move although he was not as intense as he’d been before the bird flushed. Art went over and gently tapped the dog on the head and he was gone again. They got on another skidder road and followed along in the general direction of the bell.
Fred gave him a full critique of his first attempt at shooting a live bird on the wing, “First thing is don’t look down at the ground – by the time you get your head up the bird’s going to be either dead or gone. Look out in front and listen for the wings. Pick them up with your eyes then follow with your head as you raise the gun. When the gun hits your cheek slap the trigger. Don’t aim. Keep both eyes open.”
Art almost smiled, “Don’t overload the kid with too much advice or he’ll never shoot a bird. You sound like frigging Obi Wan Kenobi or that little Yoda character.”
They bantered back and forth as they walked pausing often to listen to the bell until it fell silent again. Art looked at the GPS and said, “175.”
They headed out again with the raspberry and blackberry canes seemingly growing up in his path. Mud sucked at his boots and he almost fell in a brook that Art and Fred seemed to cross with ease. Fred once again slipped down below the dog and he waited for Art to direct him to a spot. He loaded his gun and this time when Fred stepped forward all hell broke loose as a whole brood of grouse blew out of the cover and darted every which way. He fired twice in their general direction and heard Fred fire twice as well. He could see Fred walking out to pick up a bird and then stuff it into his vest.
He turned to Art, “What did I do wrong?”
“You need to pick a single bird not just shoot into the bunch of them. But at least you pulled the trigger twice. You can’t kill them if you don’t shoot.” Art stepped over to the dog and tapped him again.