Six birds is more than I usually collect in a day's hunt. Six birds will insure a warm welcome when I reach home, the hunter from the hill. My wife sends me off in the chill morning, not really understanding, because if you really want meat, the supermarket is a one mile, ten-minute trip, not 120 miles and 10 hours.
I drive nearly 300 miles and usually come home with a pound of meat. I eat in cafes that serve garbage-dump meals but charge Waldorf prices, shoot $5 worth of shells and bring home the equivalent of a buck's worth of frying chickens. Quail hunting is not a high-return investment.
The truck shimmers on the horizon, a mirage, a chimera. I try and fail to jump a ditch and grunt and clamber out to the edge of the foxtail field. The truck is 100 yards off, Mars to an astronaut.
Only those who hunt birds can know the deep fatigue of hunt's end, an exhaustion that saps the knees, depletes the hips, makes the feet throb. My neck twinges and won't turn properly, the feather of a gun has become a 105-mm howitzer. All I want is a drink of water and a place to sit down.
I break the gun open, remove the shells and stuff them in my pocket, and stumble up the hill the last few yards to the truck. The truck is an oasis on the Sahara and I am a sun-blackened survivor.
"Water!" I croak and Dave, his face filled with concern, reaches for the water jug and opens the passenger door.
And then I notice Chubbs, the little Brittany, coiled into a point about five feet from the back bumper of the truck. This is incongruous, like seeing Michelle Pfeiffer smoking a cigar at a stag party.
"You have to be kidding," I exclaim through cracked lips. The dog does not move, his eyes try to meet mine, but his head-down point won't let him and his eyes roll crazily. He is frozen. This is a point. This is a Point. This is a POINT!
"My dog is pointing," I croak to Dave, who has gotten out of the truck and is looking at the dog as if it suddenly had sprouted wings and started singing selected passages from "The Messiah." After all, he's been sitting here for half an hour and no quail have bothered him.
I grub in my pocket, find my shells, blow off the lint and chaff, and stuff them in the little double. "Got to be a rabbit," I mutter, moving forward.
I kick under the dog's nose and a glory of quail explodes into the late evening. They rise in a thunderburst that stops the setting sun and halts the planets in their orbit. I find the gun on my shoulder, pick a nice fat quail, blurred wings, sharp body, and shoot.
It clenches and falls, and I swing smoothly to a second bird. My finger slides to the back trigger and that bird, too, tumbles into the golden foxtail.
Silence returns to the afternoon.
I look at Dave. "You did see that?" I ask, because I really don't believe it myself. He nods, bemused. Chubbs brings me the first bird and I send him back for the second. He brings that one also. I look at two birds in the hand.
I have eight in the bag and a miracle has just happened.
"You did see that?" I ask Dave again.
Spence toils up the hill, sweat leaking down his dusty face, his gait that of someone a dozen yards from the summit of Everest.
His brow is furrowed by bitterness. His dogs slink along behind him, glancing apprehensively up at him, tails lowslung.
Spence leans against the hood of Dave's truck, breathing hard, his teeth clenched.
I know I should commiserate with a buddy who has had a bad day. I know I should not highlight my success at the expense of his feelings. I know this and I am silent.
For about five seconds. And then I say, "Spence, you're not going to believe this."