Well, it's done, Tom.
Your wife was waiting for me after church last summer and asked me to stop by the farm on the following Saturday. She was, as she has always been to me, cordial... but distant and cool. I always wondered if she resented me because of all the time you and I spent together. Or was she resentful because she felt I was trying to replace your son?
I stopped by on Saturday about mid-morning and, as always, went around back to the kitchen door. When no one answered my knock, I leaned in and called out, "Hello? Mrs. McGuire? Anybody home?" Then I saw the package on the table with the note propped up against it by the salt shaker that said only: Paddy, he said you would know what to do. MM. I took the package and left without another word.
October was a long time coming this year but I knew you wouldn't want it any other way. So I waited for the dwindling days of the woodcock season, keeping an eye on the weather up New Brunswick way so I'd know when the flights were coming down.
I drove the ancient CJ to our Valhalla cover this bright October morning and turned onto the old skid trail. I parked with the pines between the Jeep and the road, like we always did. You'll be happy to know the old Jeep runs as well as it ever did when you drove it. I have continued the maintenance routine you taught me all those years ago before you put her in my care. I drive it only for hunting trips and the occasional errand - and trust me, the oil gets changed every three thousand miles on the dot!
My little springer spaniel, Sunny, had grown restless about a half-hour back and was happy to be released. "She's a pretty little thing, Tom, you'd like her. She's not yet two, but already broke to hand, voice and whistle commands. After nearly fifty years of hunting with pointing dogs, it took me longer to replace "whoa" with "hup" than it did for her to learn it!"
"Heh, heh! Have to tell you that while she is retrieving everything to hand, she seems less than enthusiastic about retrieving woodcock. I've known a few bird hunters with dogs that would refuse to retrieve them but never owned one myself. Certainly none of your dogs had this affliction. Oh, she'll do it all right, but it takes some coaxing and I don't see the smile she always seems to have... or the wagging tail when she brings me a grouse, duck or pheasant. She dropped one ten feet from me last year and like you, I corrected that on the spot! She's better now, but the enthusiasm is still lacking. What is it about those birds that make some dogs reluctant to fetch 'em?"
I whistled her in and hupped her while I got the old sixteen bore out of the oak gun box we built, all those years ago. I dropped the barrels into the receiver and slapped on the splinter forend. I had sanded and refinished the box and the oak dog crate that sits atop it awhile back. Had to replace the worn, old tattersall lining in the gun box and it turned out pretty well. Hope ya don't mind. I haven't carried a dog in that crate since I put my aging shorthair down two years back. Sunny rides up front with me in the passenger seat with a dog harness to keep her safe and out of mischief.
I put on your tattered old gunning coat, slipped a handful of reloaded # 8s in one pocket and some 7-1/2s in the other, then chambered one of each in the double barrel. I admired the sleek lines of the old gun a moment longer before putting the package in the game bag with my apple and sandwich... peanut butter and jelly, as always.
I released Sunny and we started up the hill through the gray dogwood with the pines on my left. We weren't fifteen minutes into the hunt when a grouse flushed wild back through the pines. Never saw it - but it got our attention.
I remembered how, when I had found an empty shell casing right about here and had felt angry that another hunter would dare to violate our beloved "Valhalla" and leave a shell on the ground to boot, you said, "'Tis a free country, lad. Best to change that what needs changin', if you can, and not fret o'er the rest." It pleases me that I've never found another there in all the years that followed.
Sunny flushed a woodcock, not long after, but I couldn't swing fast enough for a decent shot. That'll happen when one gets caught up in thought instead of paying attention to the task at hand. A few minutes later she put another up and I folded it cleanly just before it disappeared in the alder canopy. I could hear the dog in the underbrush and was starting to think I should have belled her when she came out with the bird, but no smile or wagging tail. "Good girl! Bring it here, Sundog!" I gave her some water before moving on. It was warming quickly and we had nearly a mile to go before we reached the rock cairn we assembled nearly 40 years ago and the place I knew you'd want to be.
We angled south for about a hundred yards so we could work through the overgrown apple orchard to see if there wasn't a partridge or two on the feed there. Wouldn't be the first time now, would it?
We got to the dead oak at the end of the orchard, as quietly as possible, and I sent the dog on a right cast while I went slowly up the left side. About halfway up she became like a vacuum cleaner on steroids and less than a minute later she pushed a grouse straight across and in front of me. I felt good about the shot but didn't know for sure if I connected until I saw the feathers drifting back. "Sunny, over here. Hunt dead!" She was gone less than a minute before coming back with the young male grouse. She had the happy look again as she ran at me with her head high and her tail wagging. Sunny was quick to go again after dropping the bird in my hand, but I whistled her in. I hydrated her once more and took a drink of the still cool water, myself. I hadn't expected it to get this warm this soon.
Sunny and myself with my now 90 year old friend,
mentor and hunting companion, Bill Lowe.
We angled back to the north so we could work our way through the wrist-thick alders before reaching our destination. Ten steps in and she popped another 'doodle' into the air that stayed low before hanging a hard right and rising across a small opening in the canopy. I saw him fold at the shot and sent the little springer in to find it. I watched her pick it up, drop it and look at me. "Sunny, fetch!" I said in the harshest tone I could muster. I got a 'do I have to' look before she picked it up and practically walked back to me. We may be headed for the force-fetching bench when we get home.
As always, I spotted the rock cairn before we got to the small clearing. I broke the gun open, pocketed the shells and stood it in the crook of the maple tree... like we always did. I set the package beside it and figured this would be as good a time as any to field dress the birds, but I first checked Sunny for burrs and thorns. Finding only a few, I removed them and walked to the nearby creek to take care of that bit of bird business before lunch. "You'd be pleased to know that I have never deviated from your post hunt rule of tending to the dogs first, the birds and then the gun before seeing to myself."
I pitched the entrails across the creek hoping a hungry fox might find them a good substitute meal for one of our grouse. I washed my hands in the cool creek and walked back to where I could look at the gun and package as I sat with the dog curled up at my side and ate my sandwich. The memories didn't so much come flooding back as just surface, probably because they have never gone away.
I found myself wondering if I thanked you enough. Oh, I don't mean for the material things so much. I was thinking more about all the intangibles you gave me over the years. About all the time you spent sharing your hard earned wisdom in that gentle manner of yours. What it meant to be an honorable hunter of birds. How we never shot our limits on any game bird because as you often said, "'Tis better to leave some for seed, laddie!" I probably would have been a poorer student in school if I hadn't lived in fear of failing a subject and losing the privilege of shooting clays or going hunting with you. When I asked how you would know you said, "Because there will always be nothing but the truth spoken between us, lad."
I thought back to my first encounter with you. You were the last customer on my paper route and your small farm was a half of a mile bike ride to the south of the village. I still remember the big red dog lying on the porch and the rooster and the two partridge hanging from the railing as I came up the drive. You stepped out just as I was trying to decide if I was brave enough to pet your dog and said, "Top o' the day to ya, lad. D'ya fancy a glass o' lemonade?" in your heavy Irish accent. I cannot recall you ever greeting me in any other manner. We talked for what seemed like hours about guns, dogs and birds with the twelve year old me hanging on your every word. My hunting experience back then began and ended with the stalking and shooting of pigeons, starlings and sparrows at local farms with my BB gun, but I longed for the day when I would own a 'real gun' and my own bird dog. It was you that I first shared the secret of where my paper route money would go.
As I rode my bike home later, I remember hoping that you were serious when you offered to throw some clay birds for me someday. I believe I dreamed of Irish setters and cackling rooster pheasants bursting out of tall grassy fields that night.
Did I thank you enough, my friend? Did I thank you for being my teacher, my mentor, and my friend? Did I thank you for letting me walk my own road thru life? Letting me make mistakes while urging me to learn from them? Did you know I often pretended you were my dad? Not because I didn't love my own dad, it was just that he had no interest in hunting and probably because he worked so much, he never seemed to have much time for me. The ethics I learned from you about hunting carried over easily to every day life and I carry the lessons with me still.
I thought of the only time I ever saw you angry. It happened when I asked about your son. Your brogue became thicker than usual and you said, "He died in an unjust and unnecessary war and we'll not speak of it again! Do ya understand me, lad?"
I remembered the mixed emotions I felt the day you handed me the Sterlingworth and said to be good to her. You told me your dad bought it shortly after returning from the 'war to end all wars' and passed it down to you when you came home from the European theater in '45. I suspect your own son would be carrying it today had things not gone badly for him. You explained to me that your eyes were growing dim and your knees were unwilling to carry you to all the places we hunted for all those years and it was time to hang up the guns. My own knees clarify the painful sacrifice you must have made as you limped thru those last years of our hunts together. "The spirit is willing but the flesh is not," you chuckled as you handed the little 16-bore to me. The receiver is shiny with most of the color gone from carry wear but the barrels are holding their blue. I had her restocked a while back as you know, and the rear trigger needed some adjustment but she still shoots where she's pointed!
I finished the sandwich and gave the last of the crust to Sundog. I rose slowly knowing I had to do what had to be done. I stayed the dog and walked slowly to the package, took out the heavy gauge plastic bag and cut it open with your old Uncle Henry then proceeded to pour the ashes out... slowly at first, whispering, "Top o' the mornin' to ya, Sir!" I had promised myself I would be stoic about this, but as I shook the bag harder and ever more furiously, the tears I had hoped would not come filled my eyes and I shouted, "Top o' the mornin' to ya, Tom!" I watched the last of the ashes drift in the warm breeze, most of them settling on and around the cairn.
When it was done, I collected everything I came with and called for my dog. I walked back to the Jeep with the broke open empty gun on my shoulder and the dog at heel.
"Best to leave some for seed, laddie."
Thank you, Tom. Thank you for everything!