If you do only a few things right in your life, let them be the right ones.
by E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
The Colonel could always have broken the rules in the field, and those who knew him superficially found his refusal to do so remarkable. He had broken the rules in his marriage and during his business dealings. He had broken them when he went to church on Sunday and promised God he would do things he never did, or vice versa. But he had never broken the rules, written or otherwise, of quail hunting. He didn’t fire blindly into coveys on the rise or shoot birds out from under more deserving companions. He didn’t take more birds from a covey than he thought the covey could spare. And he never issued an invitation to hunt even one day earlier than the state said it was legal to.
He didn’t take more birds from a covey than he thought the covey could spare.
That would have been easy enough, for his land had been in the family for generations. The place was a farm only by virtue of its location. Had it been in Texas it would have been called a ranch, as the relatives who had migrated there reminded him when they came home to visit. Of course, he still farmed the land, or at least he oversaw the labor of those who did, but he also raised cattle and hogs, cut timber from the hardwoods along the edge of the swamp, turned the timber into boards in his mill, and supplied the railroad with fuel and water at the siding called Rutherford Springs. And so the place remained a farm by tradition, a ranch by dimension, and something even greater as defined by the busyness that took place there between dawn and dusk every season of the year.
He could have ignored the constraints of formal seasons easily enough, because the quail occupied the vast unvisited center of the property where no one other than his own people would ever have seen or heard him shoot. Even if someone else had, and even if that observer had exercised the bad judgment to report the transgression in town, the county sheriff was his dead wife’s cousin, and the sheriff would have spent more time wondering why anyone would want to make trouble for the colonel than he would have spent investigating the cause of the report. The colonel could have broken the rules on any autumn day he wanted, and yet he never did.
His friends, especially the two friends with whom he hunted regularly, wondered about this paradox, not because they were eager to break the law but because they were curious men who knew their friend and couldn’t understand why he extended to the birds or the state or its agents a degree of rectitude he had never shown his wife or family, even though both of them guessed at the truth without quite finding it.
Jefferson Green, the local banker and the only man in the county who knew as much about bird dogs as the colonel, understood that his old friend lived for the dog work even more than the shooting, and assumed he preferred to wait for better scenting conditions later in the fall. Dr. Henry Adams, who knew the colonel’s health better than the colonel did, attributed his friend’s attitude to laziness brought on by advancing age, even though this theory didn’t explain why the colonel never went afield prior to opening day in all the years he’d known him.
Neither line of reasoning was entirely correct, as each of them suspected. Col. James Rutherford treated quail and their pursuit with meticulous respect because some matters, by their very nature, deserved proper behavior, even if these weren’t necessarily the same matters others regarded as morally important. His internal list of rules and regulations in the field, seldom formally articulated, ran far longer than anyone else’s, including the state’s. He didn’t flock-shoot on covey rises, because the occasional bird so taken felt meaningless. He didn’t shoot birds out from under his partners, because everyone in the hunting party already knew who was the best shot no matter how the party was composed. And he didn’t violate the sanctity of opening day, because he enjoyed its anticipation at least as much as the event itself.
And so the colonel sat in front of the woodstove in the hunting cabin to which he retreated every November, and oiled the Parker’s barrels even though they didn’t need it. In between meticulous buffing motions with the worn oily rag, he reached down toward the floor and let his hand find the head of the nearest pointer, or the nearest pointer’s head find his hand. And when all this was done he rocked back in the chair to gather momentum, swung up and forward with his weight divided between his one good leg and his hickory cane, and shuffled off to bed with all four of his current favorite bird dogs shuffling along behind. And the most important sunrise of the year less than eight hours away.
He settled down beneath the reassuring burden of the old wool blankets and closed his eyes.
The day broke gently, neither glorious nor grim but simply bathed in the sober gray of hardwood forests that had lost their foliage and fields that were settled in for a long winter’s wait.
The dogs understood. When the colonel opened the cabin’s back door, they went boiling out into the crisp November air, full of enthusiasm because they sensed what they were about to do, full of pride because they were the four chosen from the kennel to ride the wagon to the cabin. They understood all this because they, like the colonel, enjoyed the benefit of experience, between seven and nine seasons’ worth in their case as opposed to 60-odd in his. But because of the curious mathematical relationship between the ages of dogs and men, these figures put all five on nearly equal footing.
By the time the colonel rose and dressed and poked the stove’s coals to life, he could hear horses nickering outside followed by the not-quite-intelligible murmur of his friends’ voices. They took their time as they always did, talking to Sam beside the wagon and boosting their own dogs up into the boxes in back, and by the time they finally knocked and entered, the coffee water was boiling.
“Morning, Colonel,” Jeff Green said as he ceremoniously placed a large, lidded basket on the table. “Look what Stella packed us for breakfast. Eggs laid yesterday, fresh cream, ham from Grainger’s, biscuits she got up this morning and baked just for you!”
“Well, that’s fine, Jeff,” the colonel replied, “and you be sure to thank her for me. But that food will be dinner instead of breakfast unless we have trouble finding birds, in which case it will be supper. I reckon you already knew that.”
All three men laughed together, because they did already know that. The colonel appreciated the pleasures of a long, hearty country breakfast as much as any of them when time allowed, but this was the opening day of bird season. For over 20 consecutive Novembers, breakfast at the cabin had consisted of a single cup of side-boiled coffee and nothing more. Jefferson and Henry never argued, no matter how hungry they were or how long the day ahead promised to be, partly because the colonel was their host but mostly because he was the colonel.
“It’s a nippy morning, Colonel,” the doctor pointed out when they finally pushed the three tin cups aside and headed for the door. “You might want some wool under your shooting coat, at least when youstart out on the wagon.”
“Damn it, Henry!” the colonel replied as he led the way through the door. “You may be my doctor, but you’re not my mother.”
“Morning, sir.” Sam nodded from the wagon seat. The greeting sounded perfunctory, devoid of meaning other than to remind those who heard it that Sam was the black man who ran the kennel and oversaw the mules while the colonel remained the colonel. Those who knew the pair well, as Jefferson and Henry did, might recognize a muted respect between them even upon such simple occasions as this, but it had never been the kind of respect that invited open acknowledgment.
The wagon and the mules were no longer a necessity, but the colonel had been hunting quail long enough to remember when it had been otherwise. The farm had a Ford truck now, and Sam, with great distaste, had fashioned a trailer and a hitch so they could pull the dog boxes behind it. At this time of year, when the ground was hard and dry, the truck could make slow but steady progress down the logging tracks and across the fields while Jefferson and Henry and whoever else might have received a coveted invitation kept track of the working pointers on horseback. They had tried hunting this way several seasons back, but the colonel objected to the noise of the truck and the absence of the wagon’s rhythm and the gentle creak of its traces. He also missed the opportunity to visit with Sam about the mules and the dogs and Sam’s nine children, although he expressed these objections to no one including himself. And so on opening morning of the following season, Jeff and Henry arrived at the cabin to find Sam waiting with the mules and the wagon, and no one ever said another word about the truck.
They were off in no time, with Jefferson and the doctor—both capable horsemen—walking their mounts easily on either side of the mules while Sam and the colonel discussed where they should set down the first brace of dogs. The colonel suggested the edge of the swamp, where the timber cutters had left some slash piles next to a fallow field. Sam told the colonel he’d recently seen two coveys in some cut sorghum next to the river. He didn’t tell the colonel that the footing there would be far easier for an old man dragging one leg. When they reached the next fork in the track, the wagon turned toward the river without further discussion.
The mules slowed to a halt at the edge of the field, as if they’d understood their destination all along.
“Tink and Sadie,” the colonel said quietly.
“Yessir,” Sam replied.
“Harry!” the colonel cried. “Would you care to set that young bitch of yours down with my pair?”
“Thank you, Colonel,” the doctor replied, for an invitation to run a visiting dog with the best in the county was as much an honor as an invitation to hunt the colonel’s farm. Sam was already at the rear of the wagon tugging on the latches, and then the trio of pointers was away.
By the time Sam climbed back into the wagon, the colonel sat transfixed, as if observing the final round of a tense boxing match, a masterful production of Hamlet, perhaps even a miracle in progress. His hands lay softly on the woolen blanket Sam had spread across his lap. He didn’t speak, and he didn’t move anything but his eyes, which tracked the intricate interlacing circuits the three dogs ran down the field and in and out of the tall grass and brush on either side. He followed the dogs’ progress with precision and appreciation. His two companions had eased away from the wagon, and each horse broke into a trot as the banker began to work down the north side of the field while the doctor took the south.
And then Jefferson’s mare jerked to a halt as if she had come up against an invisible rope, and her rider’s hand was in the air holding his hat as high as he could reach. “Can we get the wagon over there across the field?” the colonel asked.
“Yessir, we can,” Sam replied. “We can and we will.”
And they did. The doctor had cantered across the field and pulled up behind them at a walk by the time Sam set the wagon’s brake next to Jefferson’s mare. The two riders dropped their horses’ reins and dismounted, although neither reached for the shotgun in his scabbard. They all waited for the colonel, without moving to help him down, not because he couldn’t have used a steady hand and not because they didn’t want to offer one, but because none dared to suggest the need, not even Sam.
All three dogs stood locked up just behind the thin strip of brush that lined the north side of the field, quivering with tails erect and no purpose on earth other than to do exactly what they were doing. Tink found the covey first, and Sadie and the doctor’s dog had moved in behind him to honor his point as if the entire production had been choreographed and rehearsed countless times before. “My Lord, Harry,” the colonel observed. “I do believe that young lady of yours has turned into a bird dog!”
Sam walked quietly up beside the colonel with the Parker broken over his arm. “No, Sam,” the colonel said after a glance at the shotgun. “Let’s see if our guests can still remember how to shoot birds after these long painful months of abstinence.”
“Colonel,” the doctor said, “Jefferson and I would be much obliged if you’d—”
“Damn it, Harry. This is my farm and my quail hunt, and you two will damn well shoot when I tell you. Now, go walk up this covey.”
The two men exchanged a look, a nod, and a smile, and then they removed their shotguns from their scabbards, stepped in front of their patient horses, and chambered a pair of shells apiece. “All right, Sam?” Jefferson called back across his shoulder.
“All right, sir. You two go on now. You walk up those birds while me and the colonel watch and make sure none of them dogs breaks.”
The two moved forward with practiced steps, each mindful of the other even as they concentrated upon the absolute silence in the cover ahead. When the grass exploded in a whirr of wings, the two men brought shotguns to shoulders while all three pointers remained as still as statues. The colonel watched, and listened for the first shots of the new season.
The colonel’s eyes opened suddenly, leaving him baffled and uncertain, first of where he was and then of what he was. The quail were gone, but then the woods and the field were gone, too, transformed and replaced by the early-morning gloom inside the cabin. He thought of sitting up in bed, but nothing happened when he did, and then he thought of speaking if only to hear the sound of his voice, but no words came. He heard something, dogs perhaps, although he couldn’t say the word. But the dogs weren’t casting or pointing or honoring. His eyes fluttered shut, and nothing that he saw changed when they did.
Time passed and then they opened again, and Jefferson and Harry were there, but they weren’t watching the dogs or shooting or trying to make him eat more breakfast than he wanted on opening day. They were doing something, although he couldn’t describe it. They were talking.
“My Lord, Jeff. He’s had another stroke.” It was Harry, bending over him, looking into his eyes and feeling his pulse and doing what doctors do, only the colonel was his friend, and because of this the calm and reassuring manner known to everyone in the county, no matter how bad things were, wasn’t calm and reassuring at all. For once, the doctor sounded frightened and small, and the colonel sensed the fear in the room even though he couldn’t name it.
“Sam!” the doctor yelled. “We need your help. We need to get him in the damned wagon.”
Then dogs were barking and Sam was lifting him from the bed and sobbing, and the colonel closed his eyes again and returned to the world of quail and dogs and mules and friends, and the few things he knew he’d always done right with his life. n
Don Thomas and his wife, Lori, divide their time between homes in rural Montana and coastal Alaska. Don spends more time these days with his shotgun and fly rod than with his longbow. He has written enough outdoors books and he knows it, but he’s thinking about a cookbook, or a biography of his late father. Or a novel.