Farewell to quail, with a presentment of ghosts.
[by O. Victor Miller]
“SON OF A BITCH! That was the luckiest shot I ever saw!” Karen, my editor and significant other, drives me behind the hunters in Clyde’s new truck. Clyde, Jimmy, and Polly walk. I’m riding shotgun since I’ve gotten too lame to keep up with the dogs. Whenever there’s a point near the wagon trail, they ask me to come up, but I don’t want their charity.
The Browning sweet 16 that Clyde totes he inherited from his uncle Bob, who taught him to hunt quail about the same time my uncle Thad taught me. Uncle Thad sent a little Model 12 20-gauge back to Winchester to have the stock cut down for a growing boy. It had belonged to his only son, who was killed in England the year I was born. When either Clyde or I make a shot beyond the reckoned ability of the shooter, it’s ascribed to the ghost of the previous owner, a gift from a higher power, which everybody who’s ever quit drinking whiskey knows all about.
“Nice shot, Uncle Bob!” I bray.
“Be a good sport,” Karen scolds.
I’ve been hunting with these guys for 25 years, I tell her. A quarter century is long enough to know what’s luck and what ain’t. That bird was flat gettin’ it, corkscrewing through longleaf pines like a bat. Clyde’s lucky shot folded it into an enchilada.
I used to outwalk everybody. Now I can’t even keep up to my own dog, a gray mouth Boykin deaf and cripple as I am. He obeys hand signals when he wants to, pretending not to see me when he don’t. I should’ve brought him along, but he’d bust a covey just to embarrass me. Plus, I’m not sure how Clyde would take to a dog in the cab of his new truck, which must’ve cost more than my first house.
This is my last hunt. I’m only 75, but my friends are in better shape than I am, and more famous. Still, I think this new truck is a little too much, a double cab with automatic four-wheel drive. When it’s parked next to mine, it’s a lot too much. Infuriating bells chime reminding you to buckle your seat belt from one point to the next. When there’s a point, I get out just in case a stray single comes my way.
When you can’t keep up with the dogs, it’s time to hang up your hat. I don’t have a bit of trouble walking short distances, but once the gimp leg drags through blackberry briars, a collapsed disk in the small of my back cranks down on the sciatic nerve, dumping me on my ass like a puppet with cut strings, not a good thing on a quail hunt. Sometimes I get excited and think I can walk better than I actually can. If endorphins get to cracking, I can walk better than I did a few moments before. The smell of gunpowder and the company of old friends can make me move quicker than I ought to.
I killed my first quail with the 20 gauge in the seat beside me, and my son did, too. He once shot three wild birds with it on a covey rise, and I should’ve passed the gun on to him right then.
Ike, the chestnut-and-white piebald Brittany spaniel, is busy finding Clyde’s bird, its bobbed tail blurred. Jimmy calls Jake, the black-and-white English setter over to look for one he thinks he hit but didn’t. Jake isn’t as enthusiastic as Jimmy about it. Ike loves to hunt so much, he sometimes gets carried away and goes off on his own. Jimmy keeps a shock collar on him. If he’s gone too long, it usually means he’s off pointed somewhere. When Jimmy can’t find him, he has to jazz him and listen for the yelp. More often than not, the yelp flushes birds.
His shooting eye blinded by a briar, Uncle Thad didn’t actually show me how to shoot. He just told me when I was old enough to listen, and had me dry firing around the house. I’d throw up on a picture or an antique vase and the gun would click as I shouldered it. All my practice made my high-strung mother more highly strung, but it was tolerated, even encouraged, because around our house, Uncle Thad and Aunt Maudelle were much revered.
Thad arranged my first quail. We rode the wagon behind hunters on horseback. At sundown he chose the single to put me on, sent me up to the point alone with his son’s 20 gauge, my heartbeat sizzling in my ears. Of course, I remember every detail to this day some 65 years later.
Clyde’s uncle Bob started him out in the Florida Panhandle about the same time. Our first hunting trip together was born of a mutual nostalgia sometime after Clyde’s first or second novel. Now he has something like nine and a couple of nonfiction titles on flying and fatherhood. Over the years we’ve discovered our lives have run eerily parallel. He flew sorties over Cold War Korea while I was a grunt in a DMZ below. We were both jailed at different times for youthful excess in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and we both had beloved uncles who taught us to hunt quail and bequeathed us haunted shotguns. Now Clyde holds a creative writing chair at a big university, which trumps the hell out of my career as a freshman comp teacher at a community college.
Jimmy, Polly, and Karen are better writers than I am, too. I’m pretty sure our mutual friendship developed because I live slap in the middle of the bobwhite capital of Dixie—Albany, Georgia. Over the years I suspect my friends have grown to like each other better than they like me, and it chaps my ass, especially in light of the fact that I’ve become progressively less likable. They keep me around like a bad habit, trailing them in a garish truck. Clyde, Jimmy, and I are old enough to be curmudgeons, but I’m the only one who is. More than anything I envy their ability to walk.
This year Catherine, mistress of Blue Springs Plantation, has put us up on the second floor of the big house, where we’re guests, not clients. We’ve been coming here long before there were clients. Collin and Margie, dog trainers from Wisconsin, are staying up on the third floor. Margie brought newborn Brittany puppies down for us to see. She tried to hand me one, but I turned her down. I’m done raising bird dog pups, though the mama bitch has the prettiest face I reckon I’ve ever seen on a dog.
My mother and I rode horseback on Blue Springs for the field trials back in the ’50s when Eisenhower came here to hunt. It’s the plantation most like the quail plantations of my youth. I scattered her ashes with flower petals beneath a bluff where the sun sets on a wide slow bend on the Flint River. Catherine arranged for the choir from the black church on the place to sing spirituals. A few months later we put my father’s ashes in a few miles upriver, where my sister and I were raised. I never hunt on Blue Springs without a presentment of ghosts.
“Those puppies were cute,” Karen says.
To women, baby rattlesnakes are cute. But I’m too old to train a puppy. When you quit hunting, the last thing you want is a bird dog pup around to remind you of what you used to do and don’t anymore—almost as bad being surrounded by friends who outdistance you in every way and have laurels to prove it. Jimmy and Polly walked over 500 miles of Georgia wilderness trails to cowrite a book about it. With his novel, that makes two books this year for Jimmy. Karen is editor of a regional magazine that publishes me only once in a while. I’m the lame duck on this bird hunt with the sparsest laurels under my butt. I might’ve spent too much time hunting when I should’ve been learning to write.
I killed my first quail with the 20 gauge in the seat beside me, and my son did, too. He once shot three wild birds with it on a covey rise, and I should’ve passed the gun on to him right then. But I wait too late to do the things I ought to do, and to him it’s just a gun.
About the time I retired, Clyde remarried. Now he has a son old enough to hunt, but the boy elected at the last minute to stay home in North Carolina, which about crushed Clyde and me both. My grandson is way too young to appreciate a shotgun. By the time he’s ready, Wild Bobwhites will be the name of a video game and my ashes will be in the Flint River with his great-grandparents’. These days it’s hard to find a kid to inherit your guns. Over the generations, passed down guns stockpile in attics—the ghosts of previous owners fading away among Christmas decorations.