he grouse came off the roost in the morning. He had waited until the sun was high enough to warm him, in the tangled crabapple branches where he had spent the night; and when its rays shone on his breast and glinted in his eye, he launched himself from his perch, set his wings, and glided down into the hollow, past the broken apple trees, past the hillside yellow with maples, past the copse of fiery sumac, to the stream that trickled out of the fallen rotting boards that had been a farmer’s springhouse a hundred grouse-generations past.
There he lit. He drank from the stream, filling his beak and throwing back his head. He ruffled and preened his feathers, and when he was finished he gave a kind of shudder that made his plumage lie back down, browns of all imaginable and subtle earthen hues, rust and umber, chestnut and sepia, ocher and bronze. His breast was cream-colored, barred with cinnamon; his black shoulder ruffs reflected highlights of purple, green, and blue; and from his crown rose a spiky cowlicky feather-crest.
Suddenly he hunched. The hawk was a speck circling slowly against the blue, and because it grew no larger as time passes, the grouse ceased to fear it.
Robins flew past to land beneath the maples, joining a flock feeding on grapes that had fallen from vines in the trees’ crowns.
The grouse checked the hawk again: still small and distant and unthreatening, locked in its lazy circle. The grouse straightened and walked in his curiously syncopate gait - head bobbing, chicken like, a heartbeat behind the advancing body - to the grape-strewn ground beneath the maples.
In a few minutes he had stuffed his crop with a hundred tart grapes; then he left the place and, in consideration of the hawk, took a circuitous, less-exposed route back to the stream, where, for the sake of variety, he plucked and ate a few still-green cinquefoil leaves. He crossed the stream with a hop and a flutter, entered the brush, and hid in the fastness of the thorn apples.
He had been resting but a few minutes when he heard the robins scolding - then shrieking - then flapping out of the trees. He stood, raising the crest on his head. Twigs snapped. A splashing through the springhouse stream. Soft sucking footfalls on mucky ground, thumps on solid soil; footfalls of two sorts, a heavy, ponderous sort and a lighter, fleeter, infinitely more predatory one. The fleet footfalls changed direction, veering towards his hiding place.
He rose and ran, ducking his head and stretching out his legs, twisting between the thorn apples’ spiny trunks.
The fleet footfalls drew nearer, accompanied by a snuffling and a panting of breath. He glimpsed the sudden white body: the open jaws, the pink tongue, the white fangs. The eyes - pale, obsessive, fascinating - fixed upon him. He tore his own gaze away, leaped into the air, and flew.
The ragged patch of sky spread and admitted him, his wings whacking branches as he broke out of the thicket. He leveled off and turned up the hollow, away from the heavier footfalls, whose presence he had kept in mind. He flew as hard as he could for the ridge.
It was correct, it was abandonment, it spent all her senses. She went before her master beating the brush, eyes and ears alert, nose questing.
She barged through high weeds, shouldered past blackberry canes, hurtled the stream. She had never been in this patch of cover before; she had smelled the heady essence of grouse only a few times, but even had she never once caught a noseful of that particular scent (warm, musky, dusty, dun) she would instantly have known it as game in every fiber of her being.
She plowed down an inkberry stalk, snap. Briars nicked her in the face and flanks. She wagged her tail furiously. She heard the whistle and turned, driving back across. As she ran, she drew in great boggy clouds of scent, of vole and spider and leaf and mud and dung and deer and toad and apple and robin and grape and even her own rank, excited self, and rejected these in favor of that one clanging essence, which, when she met it on the edge of the stream, became a focus for all her instinct and all of her senses, drawing her onward in a great unruly rush.
Under the bushes - windless, damp - the scent lay like fog. Head low and eyes bulging, she drove in on the cloud of it, which coalesced into an object, a lump of leaf-duff that detached itself from the earth. Her mouth gaped to catch the fleeing form. Her ears thrilled as the thundering wings propelled the bird upward, the grouse darting swiftly through a hole in the roof of brush.
"She had never been in this patch of cover before; she had smelled the heady essence of grouse only a few times, but even had she never once caught a noseful of that particular scent (warm, musky, dusty, dun) she would instantly have known it as game in every fiber of her being."
She heard the first shot, the second.
Impulsively she raced ahead. She strained to smell an addition to the theme game, of blood and shattered bone and sheared feathers, a scent learned well on the training ground.
Instead she heard the whistle, pipping thinly.
I wanted badly - too badly - to kill the first grouse she flushed. A kill would augur a great season - a season that now lay before us, full of promise.
We were hunting the Jay Place. We had worked the hollow above the old shale pit and found it innocent of game. We had topped the ridge and zigzagged through the green-barked aspens, failing to dislodge a bird. We had crossed the field of frost-burned goldenrod, sopping with dew. Now we picked our way through tangled blackberries, the green leaves tinged with scarlet, and entered the choicest part of the covert, the Steep Gut. Jenny worked the brush industriously. I slowed for a moment and took a look around. Steam rose from the goldenrod, backlit by the sun. The sumac was a bright, almost fluorescent orange; the maples looked like candle flame. The broad green valley was patched with yellow, orange, and red. The sky was a deep cloudless blue, and in it, a red-tailed hawk drifted like a fleck of pale ash.
Pip-pip. The whistle turned her back towards the center. Her feet drummed, branches scraped, rocks grated above the hard panting of her breath.
To spring the game is to flush it. Centuries ago, a continent removed, the flush would have been for that high, watchful hawk.
I tucked the shotgun’s buttstock between my elbow and side. Emptied my mind and blurred my senses, eyes ready to latch onto any motion, ears alert for the pert-pert of a nervous grouse or the tumultuous rush of its wings.
"I had trained her, had come to love her, and admired her for the many things she could do that I could not."
Robins fled giddily from the maples: They annoyed me, a distraction that wasn’t grouse. Jenny seemed oblivious to the robins, nose to the ground, her white-tipped tail lashing. I had trained her, had come to love her, and admired her for the many things she could do that I could not. I had asked for her help.
She clued me by a quick bound up from the stream bank, by the fur ruffled across her shoulders and the tail going double-time. I had barely gotten my feet set when the grouse flushed. The bird blurred past the hawthorns and went winging off between the tops of the crabs. I cheeked the gun, the right barrel roared, the buttstock slammed my shoulder - the shot was behind, I swung faster to catch up, tugged the trigger again, willed the pellets to intercept him (behind again) - felt my heart sink when they did not.
The grouse, without a hitch in flight, powered up the hollow and cleared the ridge.
I broke the gun and closed a hand around the smoking empties.
I pipped on the whistle, my heart slowly subsiding. I called to her: "Gone away, girl, gone away." She left off seeking the now-vanished frouse, turned, and trotted back.
The man was an orange-capped speck. The stream winked in the clear light. The field was tan, the brush a mix of green and red and black and tan. The hawk was not hungry; she had killed a squirrel two hollows to the north, and, as she rode the thermal higher in the strengthening light, she watched with her idle glaring eye the orange-capped man following the brown-and-white dog, perceptible as a faint white flickering, as of flames, beneath the brush.
The grouse, when it rose, caused the hawk to dip momentarily out of the thermal as her instinct directed her to seize the bird - an order swiftly countermanded by her full crop and by the presence of man. The hawk noted the black band on the tail feathers of the fleeing grouse. She watched the grouse yaw slightly in flight, in the characteristic manner of grouse. She saw the man raise the gun; heard the popping shots; saw the grouse gain the ridge and disappear beneath the leafy oaks.
After a while, the dog rejoined the man. The man crouched and rubbed the dog’s ears and head, pulling the beast’s shoulder against his leg, the dog’s tail flashing in the light.
The hawk, wings outspread, talons against her breast, found the heart of the thermal and let it lift her. The man and the dog receded.
The hawk looked away, down the long broad valley tinged with color, the little hollows furrowing up towards the plateau to the north, where the leaves were brighter and onto which she could now just see, and, banking out of the thermal, rode the ridge southward on the combing wave of the wind.