Afternoon Covey

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

As I write, the little dog is curled behind the chair, chin on paws, breathing regularly. He begins to twitch and his breath comes quicker and his nose flares. He is dreaming and, because he is a bird dog, I know he is dreaming about hunting birds.

In fact, I even know what hunt he is dreaming about, because I was there and we both will dream about it until our dreams themselves become a dream.

In his dream, he again is curled into an awkward point on the afternoon covey. The impossible covey. The covey stranger than fiction. The covey that defied logic.

No matter how many days afield a hunter makes, only a handful stick in memory, unalterably etched and endlessly rehashed. The rest fade and become a running together of experience, like the melting of a graceful ice sculpture into a puddle of water.

The little dog is dreaming of the exception. His mind is filled with the sights and sounds of an afternoon sky full of quail and the sharp bark of a shotgun behind him.

Mid-November, a north Missouri farm gone to the Conservation Reserve program, with foxtail and lespedeza. Quail are everywhere.

I am shooting a 28-gauge side-by double, a straight-stocked gun that tantalized me the first time I saw her. I have bragged about her grace, her ability to reach out and touch something. I have made her sound like a magic wand.

So my hunting buddy, Spence Turner, wants to try her and we swap guns. I hand her to him with a twinge of regret. It is like relinquishing the love of your life to some pizza-faced lout who has cut in on the dance floor.

I take Spence's 20-gauge and smoke three birds while he misses at least that many with my baby. Spence blames it on the gun. Like me, he is a flawless wingshooter who is undone only by faulty equipment, the phase of the moon and evil spells.

"Give me back my gun!" he snarls, thrusting my 28-gauge at me, the way the Army inspector slapped an M-1 rifle at me, half hoping I'd drop it so he could chew on me a while.

Spence continues to miss with his own gun and this does not improve his mood, which now resembles that of a badger with an impacted incisor. I hear him in a gully shouting threats at birds that don't stop to listen. He is invoking great powers, but they apparently are on vacation, for there is another flush, another shot, another hoarse imprecation.

It is not Spence's day.

On the other hand, it is Dave Mackey's day. Most days belong to Dave, the third member of the party. He is not plagued by the ancient curses that beleaguer the rest of us great wingshots because he doesn't believe in devils and black magic.

He believes that if he points his gun at a quail and pulls the trigger, the quail will drop amid a spray of feathers and so it happens. Simple faith is wondrous.

He pockets bird after bird and by noon he has a limit of eight and is finished. "I'll just walk around with you fellows this afternoon," he says, and I have the uncharitable suspicion that he is seeking cheap entertainment, that he is following to hear me rant at the dogs and Spence curse the gods of gunnery.

Dave once saw me empty my gun at a quail, throw the gun on the ground and stomp on it. He has been interested in watching me quail hunt ever since. "It's better than those funny home videos," he says.

But as it grows late, he says he will get his truck and meet us on the far ridge. There is a birdhunting axiom: the car always is uphill when you come back to it at the end of the day.

And so it is. I see Dave's truck across a steep hollow and up a long slope, parked in the foxtail, and I sigh, for the sun is low and the shadows long and I am leaden with fatigue and drymouthed with thirst.

I have six birds in the bag and at least a dozen good reasons why I don't have the other two to fill a limit. Spence, with several less, is fuming through the grabbushes, swearing and invoking evil on the quail he has missed.

A long day that began at chilly dawn is finishing as the first cold breath of evening dries the sweat on my face.

The truck is Chimney Rock, glimpsed a hundred miles off by dead weary pioneers. It is a landmark so far away as to be discouraging, yet tantalizingly visible.

I take off my cap and let the breeze cool my wet head. Chubbs, the Brittany, lopes down the hill and patrols the ditch edge, hunter to the end, but I am so tired I've quit.

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."

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