by Mel Sorg, Jr.
I remember a pocket full of lint covered .22 shells, shorts, longs, long rifles, all mixed up, some older than I was. This is my first time out carrying a real gun, an old Winchester single shot that has had so many shells through it the bore is almost smooth. It gets heavy after awhile and I pause to check the chamber for the umpteenth time. Somehow upon closing the bolt my thumb gets in the way, tearing loose a hunk of skin. Sticking the injured finger in my mouth I don't say a word, afraid that it might give Pop an excuse to head back to the pickup.
We shuffle along an old back logging road as it winds up a steep hill. At the top you can see that the hill is in fact an old rail road right-of-way now grown over with brush and weeds. Dad remembers a time when tracks ran through here, how he used to hitch a ride on a push-cart out from the crossing every morning. One season he shot a grouse not far from here with an old 25/35 lever action. He points it out, how the bird sat way down there, at least a hundred yards away when he fired and knocked it clean off the rail it had been sunning on. Of course I take him seriously, as only a seven year old can.
Today we're after grey bushy-tails. I can hear a couple chattering away up in the treetops out of sight. I never do see them, but it doesn't matter, just being there is special enough. Later on in the afternoon we pause to shoot at some targets. Somehow I just can't seem to get the hang of it, everything is kind of blurry. Guess that's about when Dad figured out for sure that I needed glasses; if I couldn't shoot straight it must be serious.
... Fog, so thick you could just about taste it. Splashing noises come from in front of the blind. Just coots, mud-hens we call them, puttering around in the bullrushes. They are kind of a nuisance, always distracting your attention from important things. I won't bother them though, if I shoot one I'll have to take it home to eat later. They taste just awful, I learned that the hard way last season.
Rule number one, sit still. Even King, our old golden lab casts a baleful glare my way when I squirm trying to find a comfortable spot on a canvas camp stool. Suddenly, King's ears perk up, picking out the sound of a flight of ducks winging in unseeen over the decoys, hidden by the freezing mist. Dad and I hunker down behind the reeds and a pile of shells pop out of the webbed holders on my jacket, going plop in the muck at the bottom of the blind. As I reach down something whistles overhead, drowned out by Dad's Model 12 thundering away.
Picking up the spent shell, I sniff the last wisps of burnt powder...nothing like it to clear a kid's head and get him to settle down to business. Dad gives a nod and King rushes away to retreive a fat mallard. We don't seem to say much of anything, words just don't fit in somehow. I watch as a mouse wanders into the hole, squeezing in and out between the matted grass. Out of the corner of my eye I catch a flash of movement as a couple of teal head out over the lake. Way too late my .410 goes crack, oh well, still learning.
...It must be about 4a.m. as we pull into the parking lot of the diner at the west end of town. Dad's buddy Ed is with today, but I don't really mind, he treats me like one of the guys. Looking around the resturant I see the usual crowd, mostly late night partiers having one last cup of coffee before meandering home. A few others come dressed like us, knee high ruber boots, shell vests, crushed canvas caps. I'm proud to be displaying the same plumage, oblivious to the fact that the stained field jacket is way too large and too hot to wear inside like this. It won't come off until we reach home at the end of the day.
We make sure to order twice as much as you would eat for breakfast during the week. It's got to last--nothing but cold cheese sandwiches in the truck. Ordering, we pause to watch, amused as a couple of the late-nighters try to leave, doing a double take as they pass our vehicle. Nothing much to see, just the dog sitting with his front paws up on the steeering wheel, as usual. He watches intently as they wander past, slowly shaking their heads. It would have looked even better if we had left the engine running like we do when it gets really cold; with him there nobody would get past the door.
I've come to the conclusion that pheasant hunting is more of a social occasion than a sport. Everybody out here seems to know each other from years past and you stop momentarily as each car or pickup passes on the back roads, at least long enough to check on the day's take. Pulling into a farmyard means going through a long established ritual. The owner says you can hunt everywhere the corn has been cut, only keep away from the other fields. You hang around for awhile and spend a few extra minutes jawing, looking things over, compliment him on his new herd of beef cows, tell him it looks like a good harvest. Sooner or later he'll loosen up, say something like aw heck, try out that patch over there by the woods, just stay out of sight of the road where no-one will see you. He hasn't picked it yet so you've got to be careful not to bust down too much. On the way back out you drop off one of the birds you got, or if skunked, dig out a couple of decks of playing cards from under the seat of the truck. He protests, but you ignore him, enjoying the game.
As usual, one of the dogs you've brought with is smarter than the other. He's learned to cut back and forth between the rows of corn separating dad and me, always keeping within gun range. The puppy still has a lot to learn, every once and awhile streaking off down the rows to the end of the field even as you call for him to come back.
Reaching the end of the field you walk down towards the creek that runs through the patch of woods. You're the smallest, so you get to creep down through the hazel-brush and thorns that line the water's edge trying to spook up birds that perch up in the brush on wet days. You remember last fall, catching that old greenhead mallard sleeping in the shallows up against the bank a bit further on, but no, nothing there this time.
This is the year that you graduated to your own shotgun, a brand new 20 gauge pump that made your birthday. Twelve now, and dad says you're grown up enough to take care of it and buy your own shells. Still, it's fun to play games, like talking dad into trading off his old 12 guage for the rest of the afternoon. There's just something about that old banger, battle scarred as it is. It holds seven shots and kicks like hell, not that you ever feel it. Only later at home do you proudly display your black and blue shoulder to the rest of the family.
We rush here and there all day, covering more miles than Mom will ever believe. No matter how tired you are you just keep going and sleep in the back of the truck on the way home. Dad never seems to tire or get disappointed on bad days; come on he says, let's just try one more little patch up ahead.
...I stare as the white tail disappears, hidden by the thick brush, still hearing the missed first shot followed by a dull click. Opening the bolt of dad's Springfield I see that the chamber is empty. Odd, I remember the casing flying off as I opened the bolt, hurriedly trying to jack another shell into the chamber before the grey shadow of a deer bounded from sight. Pulling the bolt a bit further open you feel an unfamilliar hesitation, not like before. Looking closer, geez how dumb could I get, the bolt had never fully retracted, hanging up on the base of the top shell. I pull it another half an inch and the round pops free and slides into the chamber. Chalk one down to buck fever.
Dad laughs when you get back to camp. Don't feel bad he says, it's happened to him so many times he quit counting. It takes me a while, but I finally notice that there is another deer hanging out in front of the cabin. Yeah, he got it a few minutes afterlight, taking it on the run with a slug from his shotgun. Sure, that's why you're using the rifle, he never does. After all these years he's comfortable with the shotgun, shooting instinctively.
Somehow it's different, being here a couple of hundred miles from home, not going back every night to Mom and the kids, feeling like they are outsiders. Here, it's a bunch of guys together, sharing the work, passing on secrets over dinner, griping over who has to get up early to start the fire and fix breakfast.
We sit on stands in the morning, getting together to drive the woods each afternoon till the light fades. Dad usually posts on the drives, one of the better shots in camp, getting up there in years. All the kids including me are drivers, getting lost, coming out of the woods at different times rather than all together as planned. Evenings the two of you drive back by the swamp and take stands about a quarter mile apart, just able to pick out each others red clothes till darkness falls.
...Springs groan and sag, the bumper almost scraping the ground as we ease the massive buck onto the back end of my battered '65 Mustang. It was just yesterday that you spent all morning shivering, perched high up in the branches of a dead oak, watching as the sleet froze on contact with your clothes. After what had seemed ages a doe crossed the edge of the overgrown field at the base of the tree, following a trail you can just barely see. A single shot rang out and it turns tail, running off into the swamp, lost from sight. I sat, waiting, not sure if I hit it, but remembering dad's admonition to wait at least a half an hour before trying to track anything.
Suddenly, I had heard a twig crack. There, following the trail the doe had taken is a buck, head down, sniffing the ground, head almost hidden by a huge rack. Shaking so bad you can hardly get the safety off, trying to figure out the mechanics of aiming.
At the shot the buck spun and headed back the way he came. Somehow I had managed to work the bolt, another shot and he turned again, cutting across the open field. Once more you got him in the crosshairs before he finally dropped, kicking weakly. All I could do was sit and stare for the longest time, then half fall out of the stand to the ground. Walking over with the gun held at the ready it all seems a little bit unreal.
Dad walks up as you're trying to spread the legs to start dressing it, attracted by all the shooting. You talk for a couple of minutes and he turns to follow the trail you pointed out where the doe had disappeared. A little later he's back, motioning you to follow him. There, not a hundred yards away lies the doe. Between the both of you both are dressed out and dragged to the carryall. He let me work on the buck all by myself, messy, but the only way to learn.
My first deer, and dad's the one who isn't going to let anyone forget it. Funny, it seems to mean more to him then it does to you. Carefully, he helped as you tie it down on the car, you have to leave tonight to make it back to school, he'll stay till the end of the season. This year he helped you buy the clunker since you had a job and classes that kept you from travelling together like you used to. At least this way you can be together some weekends.
... A couple of years ago I moved up here, tired of that apartment in the big city. It's only a couple mile walk to the spot where you have a productive bow stand, easy to make it out every afternoon after work as long as the weather holds. Only, today I don't feel like making the trip even though it a beautiful crisp afternoon outside. Thinking for a moment I realize why. I got a phone call last night from dad, seems that he isn't sure if his doctor is going to let him travel this fall.
I try to put myself into his shoes. This would be the first time he's missed the opening of deer season since WWII got in the way. Even last year he made the 200 mile trip just to spend the week with you. Sure, he spent most of the time around camp doing chores and making sure that I got fed, but early mornings and late evenings he would drive the truck down to a spot where he could use a walker to make it a few yards to a woodpile where he made his stand. On colder days he'd sit inside the truck with the shotgun hanging out the window, making use of the special license the DNR gave him the same year he got the hand controls for the pickup.
He knew it had been coming for the past 30 years, ever since that Army doctor had told him that the numbness in his legs was caused by Multiple Sclerosis. Still, he just made up his mind to live life while he could, never let on to anyone but the family until it got so bad that he had to quit work, unable to stand on legs that had seen more miles then could be imagined. I had lived much of my life with him, only lately understanding his haste in filling out each day.
I reflected back on that while sitting in my own den, out of the corner of my eye catching a glimpse of a battered old shotgun that now rested in my gunrack. It had been a present from him at the end of last season, one I didn't really understand until now. Maybe that is why I'm writing this, thinking back and hoping to pass along some of his courage, along with a few memories...
Note: Mel wrote this story as a freshman in college at the University of North Dakota. His family wanted it published for his Internet friends and acquaintances to enjoy. --WK