The next time the puppy stopped Art and Fred left the Doc in the trail and went in to the dog. Soon Art yelled, “Coming out.”
He looked up at the top of trees where he thought he could hear the whistling wings. As a woodcock appeared he raised the shotgun and fired twice as the bird flew directly over his head. It turned and flew down the skidder road in the wide open for almost as long as it would have taken to reload and shoot again – had he thought of that.
Fred called from the woods, “Doc, did you get the bird?”
Fred had the dog in hand as they came back out to the path, “At least I was able to get a hold of him before the bird flushed.”
The next time the puppy stopped on the left side and he and Art stayed in the trail. This time, when the bird topped the trees almost directly over his head, he waited for it to fly down the trail and it did. He pulled the trigger once, then twice, and the bird was still flying. Art stepped around him as he lowered the now empty gun, raised the side-by-side and fired when his cheek hit wood. The little bird dropped well down the road.
Fred called, “Did you get it?”
“Did I shoot?”
“Hell, you don’t hit them all. Dead bird, dead bird.” Fred yelled and the setter came flying out of the thick cover and up the lane at a dead run. It almost flipped in a somersault as it winded the dead bird and scooped it up. Art got down on one knee and called to the dog that brought it halfway back before dropping it and charging back into the cover.
Fred looked at them and said, “Don’t take it too hard, Doc, the ones in the wide open are the hardest ones to hit. They give you too much time to think.”
As they continued on he began to wonder if he’d ever get the hang of this and kill a bird. Fred and Art made it look simple, but obviously it wasn’t. They continued on with the puppy for about a half hour when they again arrived at the truck. It was Art’s turn with another puppy who pointed both grouse and woodcock which he continued to miss. He was already into his second box of shells when Fred said, “I admire your spunk, Doc. A lot of young guys nowadays would be sitting in the truck playing with their smart phone by this point.”
The fourth dog out of the truck was one of Fred’s broke dogs who pointed more grouse and woodcock. He actually thought he hit one bird but neither the dog nor the three of them could find it. It was after 1:00 when they put that dog back in the truck and Fred began spreading out food on the tailgate. There was bread, cold cuts, cheese, mustard, chips, cookies, and a bag of candy. It seemed to him that the huge breakfast had been days, not hours, ago.
After lunch he felt more like taking a nap than getting back into the woods. He was scratched, bruised, and his legs were getting rubbery. After the food was back in the cooler, the truck rolled a few more miles down the road to the next cover. Art’s best dog was up next. This was the dog his fiancée had picked out of a litter of pointers that had been born in Art’s office. The dog had gone on to win a bunch of big deal trials that he couldn’t name, although he’d been told. In fact, he could hardly remember his own name at this point in the day. When the dog was turned loose, Fred told him of the last championship the dog had won earlier in the fall. It really didn’t make a lot of sense to him but he nodded and acted impressed. He realized he hadn’t heard the bell in a few minutes when Art stopped and pulled the GPS receiver out of his pocket, “The little bugger’s feeling good today. He’s 250 yards away down on the edge of the cut.”
Once again they began a forced march through the cover. The first hundred yards were easy as they walked through fairly mature woods, then it got harder. They cut through a fir thicket and this time when he felt something grab his leg he could hear his high tech pants rip. When they came out of the thicket they could see the dog standing high and tight on the other side of a small swale of grassy hummocks that Art and Fred walked across as if it was someone’s mowed lawn. Halfway across he slipped and went into the water over his left hiking boot. Now he understood why Fred had calf high rubber boots and Art had eight inch tall hunting boots. Art directed him to a spot of dry ground to the left of the dog. At this point he didn’t really care if he ever killed a bird. Fred went to the right and stepped into the alders in front of the dog. The wings whistled and the bird seemed to struggle up through the thick alders. His gun came up just as the bird seemed to pause as it cleared the cover. He pulled the trigger and there was a puff of feathers and the bird dropped out of the sky.
Fred whooped, “God damn, Doc, you finally got one.”
Art walked over picked up the bird and tossed it to him with a smile on his face, “Good shot.”
He caught the bird and looked down at it. He had never imagined that killing something would feel this good. On an almost visceral level he now understood what this was all about. The exertion, the dog, the skill or in his case luck of the shot, the panorama of rising mountains in the distance with their hillsides a blaze in red and yellow, the bright blue sky with a brilliant sun that really didn’t seem to be generating much heat on this cool October day all brought on an epiphany of pleasure and satisfaction. It wasn’t the green hills of Africa but it was probably closer than most people ever get. He finally put the bird in his game pouch in the back of his vest with the many shell hulls that he had emptied during the day. The euphoria of the moment was broken when Art tapped the dog on the head and said, “Now we have to get you a grouse.”
The wind blowing up his pant leg and the squishing of the water in his boot didn’t seem to matter as he listened to the bell chiming into the woods. He had walked through Hell or was it Heaven to shoot his first bird and was ready to go forward.
Fred patted him on the back, “Welcome to the club, Doc.” And then gave the full replay of the march through the firs, the swamp crossing, the dog, the flight of the bird, and the shot.
Despite his rising confidence, he missed a grouse and two woodcock on the next three finds. It really didn’t seem to matter to Art and Fred anymore, now that he had gotten his first one they assured him more would come.
They came out on the road a few hundred yards from the truck. The dog crossed the road and made a big cast up the hill. He popped out about halfway to the truck and suddenly stopped as if he’d hit a wall just before he went back into the woods. He didn’t move as they approached. Fred went beyond the dog and Art stopped him just before the dog where there was a clear lane going down into the cover. Fred stepped off the road and half a dozen grouse exploded out from in front of the dog. Most of the birds just disappeared into the thick poplar whips below the road. He watched as one bird burst out and then sailed down the lane. He didn’t rush, but he was quick getting the gun up, and pulled the trigger as he concentrated on the bird. He kept his head down on the stock and pulled the trigger. The grouse folded up and dropped from the sky just as a second appeared in the lane. He snapped off his second shot throwing pellets in the general direction of the second bird to no avail.
“We may make a grouse hunter of you yet, Andy.” It was the first time all day that Art had called him or referred to him by his name. Art tapped the dog on the head and called, “Dead bird.” The dog came over and quickly found the grouse which he retrieved to Art’s hand. Art handed the bird to Andy and he held it in his hand thinking that this was something he could come to care about. Art put the dog in heel and walked off towards the truck. Fred came over and held his hand out for the bird. He looked at it carefully examining the tail feathers, measuring the central one against his hand, “The males have longer tails by about an inch, and this is a mature male bird.”
He handed the bird back and Andy carried it in his hand back to the truck, where he put it on the tailgate. Art had put the dog up on the tailgate and handed the bird back to Andy. “Dig out the woodcock and hold them both up. I’ll get a picture of you and the dog.”
Andy posed with the gun in one hand and the birds in the other. The dog posed up on the tailgate as he had done many times before. Andy would never need to see the picture to recall the vivid memories of the day. Art rummaged around in the back seat and pulled out a battered pair of chaps, a dry pair of socks, and some rubber boots that looked like they were older than he was. “These may help you make it through the last cover.”
He had forgotten that they weren’t done yet. Fred had one more dog in the truck. He changed socks and put the chaps on before slipping into the dry rubber boots. Fred looked him over and said, “Now you look like a grouse hunter.”
He knew he was still a neophyte and would never be able to gain the experience that the two men had earned over the years of hunting together, but he felt he’d made a start. The last dog of the day was another puppy. It barely stopped to point before ripping out a number of woodcock on different occasions. Art and Fred just laughed as the puppy raced from bird to bird putting them to wing with gusto. After about 15 minutes of this the puppy ran past them and then the bell stopped – and stayed silent. Fred took a step towards the dog and a grouse thundered out with the puppy in hot pursuit. Art waited for the bird to gain altitude and the pup was out of danger of being shot and pulled the trigger. The pup pounced on the bird that was still alive and shook it hard until its wings stopped beating. There were feathers everywhere as Fred knelt down and gently took the bird from the pup. “That’s his first bird. I was beginning to wonder if he’d ever stand one long enough for us to get a shot.”
He tried to hand the bird to Art who turned away to follow the puppy, “I don’t carry them, I just kill them.”
Fred stuck the bird in his vest and they went on, returning to the truck shortly. The cooler came out as well as a box of crackers and cheese, some large plastic cups, and a bottle of Jack Daniels from the back seat that seemed to magically hold everything one could need. Art threw some ice into the cups and then poured three liberal portions of “Old No. 7.” He topped them off with Coke or in his case Diet Coke. “Black Jack and Coke – not the finest whiskey you’ll ever drink but for a sundowner on the tailgate it can’t be beat.”
After the exertion of the day and the proportions of Art’s liberal mixology, he had a nice buzz as they drove back along the gravel roads that led out of the woods and to the house. When the dogs were back in the kennel and Fred had headed down the driveway, they walked into the house. His fiancée took one look at his battered and filthy face and hands and his tattered clothes, she turned to her father, “Daddy, what did you do to him?”
“We just showed him how to become a grouse hunter.”