Dogs sleep, friends leave, and stars turn in the desert sky.

by Ron Dungan

THE RAIN HAS STOPPED. The gray, drizzly winters have turned blue, warm, and bright. Walls of dust arise out of the south in the summer—all thunder and flash and warm, gusting wind. New subdivisions keep coming; roads shoot out to meet them. There is talk of changing climate, and the quail are nearly gone.

We didn’t expect much when we started our hunt that January afternoon. But things started to happen quickly for Dave and me. We were just a few hundred yards from the truck, near the junction of two dry creeks, and had everything we needed—a sunny day, the dogs on point, a couple of shotguns, vests heavy with water bottles and shells, with miles of ground before us.

The creeks fingered across a rocky plateau of yellow grass slashed by red canyons, a big and timeless landscape where hawks soar and coyotes roam and quail live on edge. Mesquite trees stab deep roots into cobble banks. Cholla and prickly pear cactus fan out across the valley. Rough juniper hills and mountains push up along the horizon. A few deer and herds of javelina roam the creases and folds, as they always have, since before anyone can remember.

A narrow asphalt road cuts across these flats, as if someone had the idea that it is important to cross timeless landscapes quickly. Quail or javelina hunters race over the blacktop each weekend, lumber across the desert on foot, and then race home again. Years pass, the land more or less unchanged, the hunters coming and going until their knees and hips give out. Then they sit around camp and talk about how it used to be, when average years were good and good years were outstanding and they walked without complaint. Maybe there is talk of the weather, or maybe the talk is not necessary, maybe an unspoken fact just hangs in the air: The rain has stopped.

Quail in this part of the country need rain, and so we haven’t had a decent bird crop in years. When the sun goes down and the dogs sleep by the fire, you think about this, like a farmer watching his fields wither, a rancher watching the range go to dust.

This, too, is part of the ancient landscape. We know this because researchers have cut down trees to look back in time, have drilled into kiva beams and roof timbers from ancient Indian villages, have peered into the past, analyzed the data and reported their findings. Drought comes and goes. People come and go. Cultures change—languages, too— but the land stays the same. Drought has always been here, but this one may be different—longer and deeper, without much respite. We see flashes of hope. A season heavy with promise, a few birds in the south. A winter storm, the cloudy days that follow. Then spring comes early, you move on, wait for the next dust storm, which rides in on dry lightning and clouds of dirt.

When the dogs went on point, we moved in close, kicked around, watching for cactus and waiting for the flush. The birds broke and we shot. I can hear the buzz of flight, see their tilted wings, see the two birds that flushed as I broke my gun to reload, the sound of Dave shooting and the swearing that followed. We called the dogs and regrouped. Morning jitters. Surely, if there were more birds out there, we would do better. There were, and we didn’t.

We had Sage, a steady 12-year-old shorthair with a good nose, and a couple of pups—another shorthair named Luke, and Dave’s Weimaraner, Flirt. Luke’s bell came and went, the other two dogs made their way through the bramble, and a hawk soared above. The creek bottom was thick with desert broom, clumps of prickly pear and catclaw. My old shorthair, Gambel, was somewhere in the ground out there, at rest in the flats, some of Blue’s ashes sprinkled in the ground with her, the juniper hills and mountains for a view. We were heading that way when the dogs found more birds. Dave dropped one and we lost it, then found it after Sage went on point, about 100 yards from where it dropped. The pups backed and we eventually got the bird out of a big patch of prickly pear.

We turned up one of the washes, more birds rising, our path paved with quail as we moved ungracefully through moments that demanded more of us. Sage pointed a single, I finally hit a bird, and she made the retrieve while Luke ran amok. A single flushed wild and I missed. I made my way through the scrub beside the wash, turned toward the grassy expanse. There was a cool breeze and catclaw raked my knee.

Another covey flushed, 20 or 30 birds on open ground. Dave shot and missed, and we marked where they flew. They could wait. There were quail scattered all the way back to the truck. They all could wait. We turned our attention to a pile of stones laid in the shape of a rough cross. Gambel. Down in the ground as far as a camp shovel could dig in hard desert ground before breaking. Memories in the desert air, memories that took us back to other hunts, to our friends back in the Midwest even.

YEARS AGO, I PUT GAMBEL IN A KENNEL we flew to Omaha. Mark picked us up and we hunted for three days, across corn stubble and tree lines, each day a whirlwind of faded barns, plowed fields, pheasants, and quail.

Friends joined us along the way. College buds. Mike and Bruce. Jamie put us up when the expedition passed through Des Moines, then joined us the following day. On our last field, Gambel made her way across a frozen creek and fell through the ice, her front legs holding her tight to the edge. I went in after her, pulled her clear as the ice broke, and my leg post-holed into the water. Cold in there.