It never failed. Every time I went to the pen to get Bell, she knew exactly what was in store for her. Anticipating a morning of quail hunting was almost too much for her. Our well trained pointer knew that for the rest of the morning her sole purpose on this earth would be to explore fence rows, hedge apples, buckbrush and wild rose to locate small, well hidden game birds.
Bringing Bell from her pen to the dog box in the back of Dad's truck was more a matter of her dragging me the entire distance. I didn't need to give her the command to jump up, because I barely had time to let go of her collar before she had leapt onto the truck's lowered tailgate. I kept telling Bell to settle down, but it was no use. She was a hunting dog going afield.
She was almost as excited about our hunt for Thanksgiving quail as I was.
I'd gone to bed early the night before, after laying out all my hunting clothes. I knew that once the alarm rang in the morning, it wouldn't be long before Dad would be ready to go.
My favorite piece of clothing was the hunting coat my dad had worn as a boy. The coat's shell holders had lost their elasticity, and the game bag had been ripped by briars and patched by Grandma. The coat was actually a little too big, because Dad had worn it when he was a teenager, and I was only 7 then. But it was heavy and warm, and when I rolled the sleeves up it seemed to fit me perfectly.
The McNabb farm, where we hunted, was just a little south and west of our home in the small town of Brookline in southwest Missouri. Covering a couple hundred acres, it was an upland game hunting paradise. Fence rows of Osage-orange trees provided ample cover near the crops of corn and milo. Small pockets of hardwoods, containing oaks and hickories, also dotted the property. Rabbits and squirrels flourished in these pockets. Several small ponds furnished water for both livestock and wildlife.
We planned to start hunting on the south end of the property, along a fence row next to the corn. There was a little lespedeza along the edge between the hedge apples and corn that we figured would hold a covey.
Dad hunted quail with dedication, and he often talked to me about what made good quail habitat. He told me wildlife depended on cover, food and water. He told me we'd find quail near a food source close to cover that was open enough along the ground to allow the birds to move. We didn't necessarily look for water sources, because he knew the birds could obtain water from dew droplets that developed on vegetation.
As we drove onto the McNabb farm, Bell's tail thumped loudly against the sides of the wooden dog box in the back of the truck. I believed she was listening to Dad and I talk about hunting and was getting more and more excited.
Dad always began a hunt with the same ritual. He would kneel down next to Bell and place her feet in a position that might remind you of an American Kennel Club confirmation stance. Then he placed one hand under her lower jaw and lifted her head so that her nose pointed slightly upward. With his other hand he would raise her tail until it pointed straight out. Remarkably, Bell would calm down. Only after she had remained in this position for a minute or so would Dad give the command, "find birds!"
Dad always hunted with a 20 gauge. His shotgun was an over-and-under, a beautiful gun brought home from Italy by one of his friends who was stationed there in the military. Dad had the stock customized to fit him perfectly and the barrel shortened. He could bring the lightweight gun up faster on flushing quail than anyone I have ever seen. Most quail he pointed at ended up on our dinner table.
A few years later, I would be armed with a pellet gun and, when I was 11, a single shot .410 gauge shotgun. Finally I would hunt with my grandfather's 20-gauge, but because I was only 7 years old, I was armed only with my eyes. However, they provided me with more satisfaction and memorable images than any successful hunt I have experienced since.
Watching Bell work a field was like watching an artist at a canvas. She followed the covey's path through the field, showing us everywhere they had traveled. Some hunting dogs work hard to please their masters, but I believed Bell enjoyed hunting so much that we came second.
When Bell crouched low to the ground and made frequent stops to search methodically with her nose, my spine tingled. This movement told us that she was close to birds. When she came to a screeching halt, Dad would order her to "Whoa," to keep her from busting the covey.
My job was to kick the brush in front of Bell. As Dad continued to keep the dog on point, I stepped forward to flush the quail hiding in the brush. My first kick produced nothing, but when I turned to kick another spot, a rush of wing beats exploded as 20 or more birds took to the air.
Dad fired both barrels and downed two birds. I kept an eye on the rest of the birds and watched them fly toward the end of the fence row and land near some hedge trees. Dad told me to mark the spot, so we could follow them after Bell retrieved the dead birds.
Dad took two more quail from that covey and another two from another covey later that afternoon. He always told me never to overpursue one covey and to try to shoot roosters, because killing hens was like killing a clutch. Dad said he always tried to pick out the black and white striped heads of roosters as a covey rose. At my age and ever since, this has made all the sense in the world.
My dad and I watched the setting sun paint the sky over the McNabb farm with shades of red, orange, pink and purple. We sat and listened to the quail calling out to others who had been separated from the covey. The lost birds would return a call of "bob-white" as they regrouped.
"Quail need each other," Dad said. "They depend on one another to survive." He told me how the warmth of several quail together kept the covey from freezing overnight in cold temperatures. "That's teamwork, Son," he said. "It's like family taking care of family."
Bell sat next to us, licking her paws, which the miles of ground she had covered had made tender. Later we would feed her well and tend to her scratches and cuts.
I looked closely at one of the birds Dad had shot and was amazed by the colors that allowed it to blend perfectly with its natural surroundings. Dad would clean and dress the birds when we got home, and I would have bet my piggybank that these quail would be on the family dinner table Thanksgiving Day.
Bell died before I was old enough to hunt quail behind her, but my dad and I shared many other hunts behind other bird dogs. That special day, however, stands out. Whatever else happened in the world in 1974, my memories of that year will always be of our Thanksgiving quail hunt.
I thank that hunt and similar ones for instilling values in me that would shape my future. The days spent with my father and Bell in the field and the early exposure to hunting and conservation launched me into a career as a conservation agent. I now believe that in the performance of my duties I am helping ensure that other families can grow closer together and build their own treasure of outdoor memories.