by Reid Bryant
Of passing reins & the good old days
First published in Shooting Sportsman Magazine July/Aug 2012
I lowered the tailgate of Dick Coffin’s Ford, leaned my gun against the lip and shucked off my gloves. Sleeper light-footed out of the brambles with his tongue lolling and jumped up into the bed. He was a mess. Everything south of his shoulders was caked in mud and beggar’s ticks, and his nose was a patchwork of scratches. I knew it would be a hell of a time getting him clean again. He wiggled around in the bed and snuffled at my gloves, inhaling the sweat-soaked vestiges of bird blood and feathers. His orange nub of a tail spun in wild circles while he burrowed his face into the game pouch of my vest, hoping for a closer look at the real thing.
It was a glorious, golden October morning, and Whetstone Brook, off behind the popple whips, was singing an autumn-time song. It tumbled cool and gentle over its stair-step streambed, dividing and returning around boulders laid bare by low water. I pushed Sleeper back and told him to sit. He did, for a change, and looked at me closed-mouthed with his ears cocked. A lonesome gray feather had stuck to his nose. I reached into the pouch and pulled out the birds—two woodcock and a grouse. The big bird was a mature gray cock with a few years’ worth of fan. Sleeper could barely keep himself composed.
“Tell that dog to wipe his face; he’s an embarrassment to the whole damned breed!” It was Dick lumbering up behind me along the field edge. “Little Frenchman sonofabitch. But I’ll tell you this, and I won’t say it again.” He broke his 16-gauge and dropped the shells in a pocket. “He’s about the god-damndest woodcock dog I ever saw.” He harrumphed and leaned heavily on the tailgate, closing his empty gun. He reached out a knobby hand and rumpled Sleeper’s ears. “If there were any woodcock left around here, your master might be a pretty popular young fella.” Dick loved to speak to the dog instead of me. He thumped Sleeper’s head. The little Brittany, thrilled with the attention, thrust his snout into the arrangement of birds, sending a plume of woodcock feathers out into the October morning.
On the drive home I held the birds on my lap. I’d folded the vest and spread it over my knees. I kept smoothing the feathers of the big gray ruff. This bag of birds, modest by near anyone’s standards, was monumental to my eyes. Dick and I had taken all three in the Moore Farm covert, at the bottom of the horse pasture. We’d stumbled into a mess of birds the likes of which I’d never seen before. There had been a big cock pheasant right off the cart road that Dick had dumped with his tight left barrel, and then the flight of woodcock scattered through the Whetstone alder run. There must have been five or six of the beaky devils in a hundred yards of rich, moist bottomland, and Sleeper had slammed into the first point from a dead run. I swear he was balanced on his two front toes when the bird twittered up, and Sleeps stayed locked, nose to the ground, even after I fired twice. I folded the bird against the alder tops, and the little broken body tumbled down through filtered sunlight. The percussive finality of the shot had not yet cleared when the second bird got up. “Bird! Bird! Bird!” I yelled to Dick as the ’doodle swung field-ward, dodging into the open. The Parker clapped, repeated itself in echo, and Sleeper broke point and hurried off in the direction of my bird.
“Got him,” said Dick from the field edge. “Now how about teaching that dog of yours to retrieve?”
It went that way the morning through, and we kicked up the half-dozen woodcock, and I pocketed one more. Sleeper worked that bit of alders like a pendulum turned on end, painting successive strokes across the morning. It was a beautiful sight, and I appreciated my place in the thick of the action and pitied Dick’s disconnect from the heart of it. But the field edge suited him—suited his lumbering stride—and I was, after all, of an age more appropriate for an alder-whip scolding.
We crossed the brook where the pasture ended in a barricade of hemlocks and headed north into the copse of old apples. Late in the year the exposed streambed was bony enough for a scamper-across, at least for the fleet of foot. I took Dick’s gun and cradled it broken alongside my own, offering him a hand without a word. He scowled at me. “You may be a handsome young buck, my boy, but I reserve hand-holding for the likes of my dear, sweet wife and that pretty little nurse who tests my blood down to the Copley Hospital.” I shrugged and turned away but stayed close enough to assist if the need arose. Dick made it across, slipping only once to fill his boots and reaching out without remark to clamp onto my shoulder. Safely across, we reloaded, then worked our way into the overgrown orchard.
A butter-gold October sun melted through the canopy, and the smell of rotting apples was winey and good. So close to the brook, the understory was a red-hued lattice of osier that redoubled itself, enmeshed with its neighbors, and clung to our legs and boot tops. I knew some birds were sitting tight somewhere in the tangle. I’d never been good at connecting with ruffs and hadn’t gotten into enough of them to make a grouse dog out of little Sleeper, though we both considered the thundering speedsters the cleanest expression of a New England fall.
Dick never ventured much one way or the other when it came to grouse hunting, other than to say it was nothing near what he’d known as a boy. With the passing years, it had gotten harder to drag him into the coverts at all where the thorns ripped his pants and the requisite burrowing through tunnels of briers was too much for his stiffening back. “The state puts pheasants out in the corn for a reason” he’d remind me. “To make aging some easier for crusty old sunsabitches like me.” He was right in a sense. The pheasants we kicked from the corn stubble and hedgerows flew straight into wide-open spaces where Dick dumped them easily. “I’ve shot enough grouse for a lifetime of scratched-bloody hands and torn cheeks. I’ll leave you whatever’s left of the p’atridge hunting in this neck of the woods.”
But I could always get him out a time or two, and Sleeper and I could bust the brush well enough, hoping to push whatever was in there out into the line of Dick’s Parker. I figured in the end that he just couldn’t resist the apple smell, and a golden carpet of popple leaves, and a bell-wearing Brittany hunting close.
By the time we’d worked up to the last ancient apple tree, Sleeper’s nose was in tatters and I’d twice lost my hat. That old elegant winesap was a beauty. Swallowed up by the forest, she’d aged quickly. My wife always says that old apple trees remind her of stationary dancers, with trunks like arching backs and boughs raised high in arabesque. The winesap was the matriarch of that Moore Farm covert, and she’d gone gray and twisted without losing her poise. We pushed our way close to her, Sleeper and I, and leaned into the phalanx of raspberry cane that halted the progress of inquisitive woodsmen.
From the edge of the forest where the orchard darkened into hemlocks, a high, tart chip, chip, chip sounded. I stopped my push and wriggled upright, noticing that Sleeper’s bell had gone silent. As the bird thunder started, I shouted some sort of hail in Dick’s direction and fired at a tilting streak through hemlock needles. As always, I saw the bird clearly only after I’d shot, and somehow I managed to finish mounting the gun and get my cheek in the vicinity of the comb. I touched off a second shot, and my grandpa’s sweet Elsie roared far louder than seemed possible. I saw the bird no more. I looked over at Dick, who was ejecting a shell, and realized that we’d shot in tandem at the same bird. “You got him,” said Dick, replacing the spent shell with a fresh one. “Now release that dog before he ruptures something.”
I tripped my way out of the briers and saw Sleeper locked rigid and shaking. He was looking in the direction the grouse had flown, and when I patted his head he lunged away, disappearing into the weave of underbrush. I heard the bell go and the thrash of brush, and then nothing. I followed the sound, and then saw my handsome little dog bowed down as in prayer, his front legs splayed to envelop a beautiful, dusky gray bird. I pulled him back by the collar and lifted the dead grouse. Sleeper spun in circles in the place where the bird had lain. Dick shuffled up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Not bad, you sly old buck. We’ll make a bird hunter out of you yet.”
Back in the truck, I arranged the birds on my lap, spreading their stiffening wings. Dick looked down from the driver’s seat to my birds and back to the road again, and then fumbled around in his pocket for a pipe. We took a disconcerting detour onto the gravel shoulder while he flicked his Zippo. A cloud of pipe smoke engulfed the cab. Captain Black. Dick regained the road grade, cracked a window, and made mention of the birds for the first time.
“Not a bad morning’s work,” he said, pausing to draw on his pipe. “It’s a sad thing, though. When I was your age, we’d shoot a limit of p’ats in a covert half as big, and after a while the dog would be choking on woodcock feathers. Back then I had a dog, old Rex, big block-headed Llewellin, and that dog wouldn’t leave the woods till we’d taken a limit of birds. A regular Ivy Leaguer was that dog—could hold a rock-steady point and count up to 10 as well. Sunday night was bird-pie night in the Coffin house, and I can’t say that I remember a time that we didn’t have enough left over for Monday breakfast.”
I looked down sadly at my birds. All of a sudden the ’doodles looked rumpled and wet, and the tail of the grouse, fanned out on my lap, seemed to shrink a full inch. It wasn’t that Dick was belittling me, or the birds, or the morning we’d shared. He was relishing all of it, savoring the fact that he’d reached another autumn on two gimpy knees and a back shorn up with steel. But some of the pleasure was gone for me, and I smoothed the birds, tucked them back in the game pouch and turned my head to the passing roadside. In fighting trim and full ready to tackle the brier patches, alder bottoms and thornapple thickets, I knew I’d never see a day as good as those that Dick had known. Hell, I thought, breathing in the Captain’s smoke, I might never see another day as good as this one . . . .
Dick dropped me off in front of the barn, and my daughters came trundling out and tugged open Sleeper’s crate. “Afternoon, ladies” said Dick, offering each a hard lemon candy from his pocket. “My, but you two are getting some freckles.” He tousled their hair, watched me hitch down the dog crate, and made sure I had my gun. “Tell your dad to remember to clean his birds.” He stopped at the truck bed and reached in. “Here,” he said, tossing his pheasant to me. “Take this one, too, so’s I don’t have to clean it.”
He played deaf to my opposition and saddled back up, pulling well onto the grass to turn around. “Don’t be a stranger,” he called before driving off. The dust of his departure and the smell of the pipe hung over the road long after the world had again grown silent.
Later, out behind the woodpile, I cleaned the birds. I plucked the woodcock carefully while my older daughter watched, and put the limp feathers from the nape into a paper bag. Willa’s little hands pinched the bag shut so the feathers wouldn’t escape, and we talked about the trout flies we planned to tie. Both woodcock, free of feathers, looked obscenely small. I watched my daughter closely to see if I could tell whether she, like her father, ever wondered how something as complicated as dying could be dealt upon something so tiny and fragile. If she felt it, she never said, and we moved on to the grouse, pulling the skin back like a jacket to reveal firm pink flesh. “Can I have the fan, Papa?” Willa asked, and of course I said she could. We would spread it and salt it and dry it wide open, and then hang it on the wall above her bed. If we were lucky and the bugs didn’t come, it might hang together there for a year or more.
“Run along now and get those woodcock feathers to my desk before they fly away,” I said. Willa liked an important job, and she held the bag with both hands as she made her way around the woodpile and back toward the house.
I opened the birds carefully and worked a finger inside to pull out the innards. There was the heavy, earthy organ smell, and the coils of intestines steamed in the cool afternoon. I thought about Dick. I thought about the two tiny woodcock and the one big grouse and the gift of a pheasant raised on hatchery grain. I laid the clean birds on a stump and reached for a fistful of grass. I wiped my hands clean. I could see my little girl inside through the window carefully spreading the fan of the grouse, and I knew, sure as the turning leaves, that Dick had been right. He’d been right all the times he’d said how it would never be as good again as it had been when he was a boy. In a manner more honest than sad, I knew that his assertion was as much a part of the hunter’s passage as any grandpa’s double, or tattered vest or knife sharpened down to a sliver. He’d taken his turn to remember days that could never be bettered and to remember them sweeter for the distance of years.
Sitting there, I realized something I’d long understood: that one day it would be me tottering along the field edge, telling some young companion of the days when the alder bottoms erupted with woodcock and the grouse launched like summer skyrockets from beneath aging apple trees. Down the line, perhaps my own daughter would hold a small handful of fall’s most exquisite gifts and think to herself, If only I’d been born 30 years sooner . . . .
I sat back on my stump and remembered the roar of that grouse—the way I’d seen it perfectly for only a second and fired at the same moment Dick had. I understood then just how gracious he’d been, sharing with me that flush, that shot and the confidence that somehow, in the swarm of lead and flesh and October sunshine, it had been my pellets that tumbled the bird. The old coot. He’d given me more than his deference, more than his pheasant, more than a lovely fall morning. He’d let me be part of something continuing—cycling like the seasons themselves, a lineage of birds and bird hunters. He’d escorted me in, handing me tenderly the role he’d long ago grown out of.
I picked up the birds and brushed them free of stray feathers. Tonight it will be bird-pie night in the Bryant household, too, I said to myself. And there won’t be any leftovers.