One Lost Bird

There were four men. Three of them wore vests and mustaches. Two of the vests were orange. Blaze orange and unsoiled. The men walked slowly. Occasionally, one of them kicked at one of the whispy barren bushes. Always, one of the men was shouting at the dogs. The dogs were his, carried in padded crates in the leather-lined interior of his Land Cruiser for the six-hour drive from Dallas. The man with the dogs was Wallace McComb’s nephew. The man who knew Wallace McComb and had hunted with him on the day he died was wearing a black felt hat. The men were walking on his farm. In the summer, he had taken sixteen thousand bushels of wheat out of the field to their left. The milo on their right hadn’t fared as well. The men walked a strip of unbroken sage, pampas and tumbleweed in between the two fields. The farmer had left it fallow knowing that the grain fields and irrigation ditch to the south would attract birds. In a few years, the birds might do as well as the milo.

The dogs’ names were Luke and Leah. The farmer’s son liked this fact very much. The farmer’s son did not wear a vest. The dogs were much too far ahead. They were fresh. The farmer thought that Wallace McComb’s nephew should have run them first. They were much too fresh. Wallace McComb’s nephew shouted at the dogs to heel and to hunt. The dogs didn’t obey.

The farmer shot a glance toward his son, walking in waist-high grass to his left. The other two men were on the farmer’s right. The farmer’s son knew. The men walked steadily north, but the farmer knew this was a mistake. The dogs were much too far ahead.

The friend of Wallace McComb’s nephew was a stumpy, bald police officer. He wore navy blue cargo pants and walked the edge of the fallow strip closest to the milo. He was left handed and carried a camouflaged semiautomatic 12-guage in the cradle of his right arm. His cargo pants were thinner than the other men’s pants and collected more thistles. He stopped to remove the most painful thistles. The other men stopped too. They were in an almost perfect line, perpendicular to the fallow strip. The dogs were crisscrossing the same perpendicular line one hundred yards ahead.

While they were stopped, a single rose less than six inches from the cop’s feet. The cop started at the sound and nearly dropped his gun. The bird’s wings padded the air in an accelerating sweep to the west. Wallace McComb’s nephew raised his gun, both eyes wide open, and fired. The cop cussed. The bird continued to accelerate. The farmer and his son fired in almost perfect unison, and the bird formed a ball and dropped into a sage bush.

“Good shot, Dad.”

“I think that was you. You see it down?”

“Yep. That tallest sage right there.”

“Let’s see if the dogs can help.”

The dogs couldn’t help. The farmer’s son stood over the bird and whistled and snapped his fingers. Wallace McComb’s nephew did the same. Luke stepped on the bird while sniffing the farmer’s pants. Leah found the bird, picked it up, dropped it, looked at Wallace McComb’s nephew, picked it up again, and trotted away with it. Wallace McComb’s nephew called her back and took the bird. He praised her highly. He twisted the head off the bird and gave it to the dog. She snapped and chomped the head between wide jaws.

“They’re sticking tight,” the farmer said. “That one waited until we had been stopped a good three minutes. We’ve probably walked over a covey.”

Wallace McComb’s nephew furrowed his brow. He looked back the way they had come.

“The dogs are fresh,” the farmer said.

“S’pose they got tired of being cooped up on the drive,” Wallace McComb’s nephew said.

“S’pose so,” the farmer said. The farmer knew that this was no excuse though. He knew that many men from Dallas had the idea that they could drive west and harvest quail every year without any more connection to this land than they had to the their twelve-lane highways. He knew these men hadn’t nursed quail with cracked corn and cattle panels. He knew they had never paid Mexicans to drive the dirt roads around their land at night with spotlight and varmint gun, and hang as many coyotes as they could kill on the fence posts. He knew these men were in their shiny Dallas office buildings on the day in September when he sat in an idling tractor looking over this strip of sagebrush and pondered for several minutes before deciding to forego the income a crop might have produced here. The farmer knew these men would always come west, and their dogs would always be fresh.

“Leah’s got the scent now,” Wallace McComb’s nephew said. He nodded toward Leah who was licking the mangled remains of the quail head. “She’ll sniff ‘em out.”

The men reformed their line and walked North again. The dogs stayed closer and the men walked slower. Leah pointed. Twenty yards in front of the farmer, her tail went stiff into the air and she raised her right rear paw. Her eyes were fixed on a waist-high clump of tumbleweeds. Her jaw was shut. Her ears perked.

“Leah’s down!” Wallace McComb’s nephew shouted. “Hold, girl. Hoooooold!”

The men walked ahead. The cop and the farmer’s son pinched in toward Leah. Luke stood stock still far to the right and stared at Leah.

Leah didn’t break. She held like a stone. Wallace McComb’s nephew repeated, “Hoooold. Hooold,” until he stood right beside her. He carried a Winchester pump-action 20-guage already half-mounted to his shoulder. The farmer cut a glance at him as they approached. The late afternoon sun cut through the thin hair along the back of Leah’s tail. Together with the man standing at her flank, they looked like a photo from one of the magazines the farmer used to take.

There was a faint rustle and then four quail rose in unison and scattered in different directions. Wallace McComb’s nephew drew down on the closest bird and swung with it to his left. The bird flew directly between the farmer and Wallace McComb’s nephew. Wallace McComb’s nephew drew up the muzzle of his Winchester a second too late. He stood facing the farmer with his gun pointed skyward and he met the farmer’s eyes for an instant. Then he lifted his gun in another direction toward another bird.

The farmer’s son fired and dropped a bird. The cop fired twice. His target wobbled like an airliner in a windstorm and coasted downward. The cop walked forward quickly. He called to Leah, “Hunt dead! C’mon girl, hunt deaaaaaad.”

The farmer’s son broke open his Rossi over-and-under and loaded a new shell. He retrieved his quarry without any help from a dog.

The four men meandered in the area where the cop’s bird had landed.

“You sure you got him?” Wallace McComb’s nephew asked.

“Just winged him. He could have run.”

The men called to the dogs and walked in slow zigzags around the brush. Two paces in front of the farmer there was a flapping burst and another bird rose heavy and huge-looking. “Hen!” Three of the men shouted in unison. No one raised a gun. They watched her pad north toward the dirt road. Five minutes later they abandoned the search for the cop’s quail and reformed their line.

“It’s dry,” the farmer’s son offered. “Hard for them to get the scent.”

The men walked north.

“Too bad we don’t have one more guy to block,” Wallace McComb’s nephew said.

“I think they’ll rise when they get to the road,” the farmer said. “The pheasant might run for it, but the quail won’t.”

Thirty yards from the road the men slowed their pace. The dogs scurried with their noses near the ground. Leah stopped and pointed. She broke and scurried around a bush and then pointed again. She seemed lifted by the tail and ears, all three up as high as they would go and her right rear paw lifted under her belly. She stood stock still. Luke watched her closely from his own pose.

The men took halting steps with guns half-mounted, safeties off. The line of men came to within five feet of the bush where Leah was pointing. “Somebody want to throw a rock in there?” the cop asked. Then they saw the covey. It rose in a disorienting flourish, twenty birds at once. Most of the birds flew straight away across the dirt road, a few peeling off quickly to the east. Shots were fired. Many shots. Birds fell in a soundless thump. The cop was the last to stop shooting, aiming across the road at targets well out of range.

Wallace McComb’s nephew whooped his pleasure.

“That was one hell of a covey,” the cop said.

“Probably two covey,” the farmer said.

The men and dogs set about finding their victims. Five quail were put into vest pockets. Backs were slapped. Wallace McComb’s nephew thanked the farmer. The farmer’s son called the dogs. He hadn’t found his bird.

“I watched him drop right here,” he said, pointing to a tumbleweed. The men walked in slow circles, heads down, muzzles up. They looked for several minutes. The dogs bounded from bush to bush following their noses.

“They smell them all over the place now,” Wallace McComb’s nephew said. “Luke keeps sniffing that place where mine fell.”

The men looked for several more minutes. The farmer’s brow furrowed. The farmer abandoned the hunt and stepped onto the road. The cop and Wallace McComb’s nephew followed him. They unloaded. Finally, the farmer’s son came onto the road. He apologized for losing the bird and volunteered to retrieve the truck.

Wallace McComb’s nephew thanked the farmer again. The men shook hands. Then the farmer watched his son walk toward the pickup they had parked in the corner of the milo. When they got home, he would call the Mexicans.

Ryan SandersComment