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Breaktime

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

You wouldn't build a house without mortar between the bricks...

And you shouldn't charge through the outdoors without taking a break, smelling the roses (or the wet dogs). Breaks are the mortar that hold a quail hunt together.

This is break time after a difficult march through a sprout-tangled covert on the back side of a north Missouri farm.

It's an old farm with a once-stately house gone to creepers and squirrels and groundhogs. No one has lived here for decades. The pump handle is disconnected and flops like a broken arm. A shutter hangs disconsolately by one rusty hinge.

It's a place to take a breather, reflect on what once was.

I'm at the edge of a green field of close-cropped grass. The sun shoves aside the early morning chill. I choose a soft-looking stump for a pillow and sprawl. The dogs putter around, finally realize it is break time and curl up for a quick nap.

I call them over and check for burrs in their armpits and weed shards in their eyes. No fence rips,

so everything is good. I serve each a packet of dog food and peel a granola bar for myself.

I clean my shooting glasses of sweat streaks and dust. Down the hill, a quail from a broken covey whistles to round up his flustered covey mates. The countryside is golden with dried grasses and fallen leaves.

I feel the looseness of my body after two hours of exercise. It's easier to call a break when you're by yourself; tougher when in a hunting party. No one wants to confess fatigue, but it isn't being wimpy to call a halt. It's an important part of the hunt.

I once had a poster which read, "Sometimes I sits and thinks ... and sometimes I just sits." That could have been designed for bird hunters.

Sometimes during a break, the landowner shows up to see how we're doing, and we get to hear about the health of his livestock and how well the crops did.

Breaks are always a good time to trot out stories. One hunter recalled being host to a church school group. "Took all those little kids to a neighbor's dairy barn," he says.

"They went running down the center aisle screaming and shouting and about halfway down, a cow lifted her tail and just coated one little kid from head to foot. You ever try to tell a five-year-old covered with cow manure that it'll be all right?

"The kid's mother said the kid didn't quit crying for two weeks."

Breaks are also a good time to tend to birds. I gut pheasants and hang the innards high in a tree so the dogs can't get at them. As much as they cherish such delicacies, they can survive without them and inaccessibility eliminates epic fights over property rights.

I remember a break where someone dropped bird guts on the ground. Instantly there was a battle over snack rights between my Brittany and a usually amiable setter belonging to my hunting partner.

The dogs, locked in combat, tumbled into a deep waterhole and surfaced snorting and choking, the fight gone out of them. But you can't always count on a cold water bath when a fight starts.

The break comes to an end, as they all do, and I groan and pick up the tools of the trade: gloves, cap, shooting glasses, shell vest and gun. The day has been sanctified by ceremony.

Some breaks stick in memory as vividly as those rare ones when the shot flies true. Once I fought through a thicket on a grouse hunt. The day was sunny and crisp and the ground was strewn with yellow leaves, like gold coins flung by a prodigal tycoon.

Guff, my French Brittany, pointed and when I got to him a magnificent grouse flushed, its fan shim shot and th1Prd tumbled. I hefted the heavy body both with appreciation and regret.

There was a log nearby, perhaps his drumming log, and I sat on it and ate an apple and admired the bird. Guff was content to lie quietly and wait for me to end my nature study and get on with the game.

I held the bird out to him, but he wasn't interested. A young dog would have snuffled that wonderful scent with endless curiosity, but Guff was an old dog and had seen many birds like this. Yesterday's news. I put the grouse in my game vest and handed the apple core to Guff, who took it daintily and ate it.

I remember those few moments with the drummer and the dog and always will.

I also remember sitting on a high creek bank in mid-Missouri in late November. The sun was thin and the light itself chilly. But I was warm because I'd struggled up a steep hill through thick switchgrass after a quail covey that thought it was safe.

The dogs pointed a couple of singles on the ridgetop and I shot one of them. Now I was taking a break with the dogs and they were sprawled next to me, waiting for the old man to get his act together. Age? A concept not accepted by a bird dog. There is only go and no-go with nothing in between.

The dogs reluctantly stopped hunting while I sliced the inevitable apple and contemplated the stream, them and my life in general (rating: good, good and excellent).

I called the older dog over, knowing that he was older, knowing that our time together was slipping away. I hugged him up to me and he squirmed impatiently, eager to be off to do what a bird dog does.

Now that dog is gone and that break is just a memory, but it is the only memory still sharp from the entire hunt. I don't remember who pointed what birds or how many times I shot.

I don't even remember what year it was-the seasons blur and blend.

But I do remember the contentment of being on that grassy bank above the stream, far from my car, far from routine, just me and a couple of furry friends, taking a break from life.

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