By Reid Bryant
First published in Shooting Sportsman Magazine March/April 2011
October brought frost to the grazed-over pastures and floodplain mowings, and cold rolled off the ridges to settle palpably in the valleys, seeping into all the cracks. Before the sun had fully risen, big flocks of Snow Geese and Canadas worked their way southward, and as Ross stepped off the mud room stairs he walked looking up, his hands in his pockets. In the early mornings, high flocks were hard for him to distinguish, the pale dun belly feathers of the Canadas in flight near as luminous as the white of the Snows, at least against the rising sun. Ross walked slowly, looked up at the overlapping chevrons and wondered if the birds could see him, this far below. He wondered if, against the necessity of their passage, his aging body simply became another feature along the landscape. He walked to the passenger side of the truck and set his wool jacket and lunch bag on the passenger seat, beside the battered 16 gauge Fox that’d been his father’s and grandfather’s. Walking to the driver’s side, his boot mashed a fallen apple, soft from the freeze and thaw of the turning season. It crushed easily, pulpy against the grit of the driveway, and the delicate smell made him stop as he swung his leg beneath the steering wheel. He breathed in deep and slow, remembering soft apples and his mother, long dead, who’d laced the Lawspur Romes and Greenings generously with rum before baking them, stuffed with chopped walnuts and maple syrup. He closed the door and started the engine, turning east onto the North Craftsbury road, against the shadow of the Lowell Mountains.
Ross spent the morning in the softwood timber south of Zack Woods pond, cruising and marking a large holding for a down-country landowner. He allowed rhythms of the work to embrace him, and he stopped here and there to press a pitch blister on the bark of a mature Fir. The pop and ooze satisfied him somehow, though the pitch stained his hands and made his fingers stick together, as did the blue marking paint that dappled his hands and the black leather of his boots. He stopped midmorning to sit on the ledge that overlooked the south end of the pond. The sun had fully risen, the slab rock was warm, and Ross took out two cider donuts and placed them on the blue handkerchief that he’d spread across his lap. He watched the pond against the trees, glass-still and gunmetal blue, and noticed how the fir needles were taking on the dried out look of another autumn. Twenty yards out, a decent fish rolled. Ross guessed its direction and tracked, counting in his head, one… two… three…, and watched the fish rise and sip again. He knew he’d have been able to catch that one, a cruising brookie, sipping midges in the surface film. He and Steve had worked thousands of fish just like it, laying out fine casts to the spots that the sippers were bound to occupy next. Steve had taught him how. Steve had always said it was like slow motion grouse shooting, swinging the false casts past the fish and leaving the fly to light in its path. Steve never tired of the game.
Ross swept the crumbs from his lap and wiped his fingers on his pants, folding the handkerchief carefully. He didn’t get up. He thought about Steve, and tried to picture him in the waiting room at Copley Hospital, waiting to speak to the doctor. Ross knew Cheryl was there with him and that they’d be sitting together, not touching, not holding hands or showing anything. He pictured Steve with an outdated copy of Field and Stream on his knees, pretending to read, knowing that Cheryl knew he was working hard at pretending.
Late in August, Ross and Steve had fished below Willoughby Falls on a drizzly Saturday morning, rising early and finishing well before lunch. They’d traded pools, fishing upstream, one man watching as the other caught absurdly eager brook trout on home-tied Adams dries. It was easy and consistent enough to have been almost meditative, and in the confidence of friendship and success, the two men had barely spoken. They quit as the rain started in earnest, and poured coffee from the thermos back in Ross’s pickup. The windshield wipers were on, and the radio with the ball game out of Fenway, crossed at times with the guttural sing-song of French-Canadian newscasts. The windshield fogged with the warmth of the bodies and the coffee, and Ross turned on the fan to clear the glass. The men looked out over the King Farm, the barn listing east on its foundation, the house a depressive montage of peeling paint and split clapboards.
“Remember that day, Ross… that day we stumbled into the old man, sending his cows down the line? He’s never quite been the same since, has he?”
Ross did remember. Those years ago, the men were young and fresh, having met by chance in a town that offered more hunting and fishing in every direction than they’d ever imagined possible. Ross cruised timber and Steve maintained the buildings at the local college, and around the edges of their work, both men had started families. Together, they rode the seasons, trading fly rods for shotguns as the Maples burst with color then fell to sleeping, trading shotguns for rifles as the fire ponds froze, all the while watching each other’s children grow. In the early years, the hillside farms were failing all about them, the price of milk dropping steadily as the price of all else rose, and in the hamlets of the Northeast Kingdom, the men witnessed a way of life quietly lurch and fall. Driving to and from the coverts and the streams, they watched as the dairy cattle, Holsteins, Jerseys, and elegant Guernseys, bellowed through the slats in the auctioneer’s livestock wagon, rattling down dirt roads on the way to slaughter.
And on that summer day, all those years before, Ross remembered how he’d tried to avert his eyes as the dust and pollen settled over the corduroy road, and Caleb King stared straight at him, lips pursed tight, a check smudged and crumpled in fingers stained iodine brown from the teat dip. Ross remembered the sting of guilt, standing there with Steve against the cedars, the piercing embarrassment of stumbling, joyful from the stream, into the demise of another man’s birthright. The bellow of King’s cattle echoed gently off the hills as the meat wagon rattle receded, and Ross bowed his head, even as Caleb King stared straight at him. Caleb’s stare was neither defiant nor angry, but it was a gaze that Ross could not bear hold. In Caleb’s eyes, in the set of his jaw and the sun-browned tightness beneath the stubble, there was simply nothing left. He stared straight at Ross with nothing to turn back to, and nowhere else to go.
That day in the truck, coffee steaming the windshield, Ross remembered the humiliation of looking away, how the enormity of King’s despair had frightened him. He wondered too at the resolve of Caleb King, now alone in the house, married to the pint bottle he kept in his hip pocket. In the years between, Ross had not forgotten the dread he’d felt at the mere proximity of a man’s departure, and in those years he’d tried hard to sit with pain. But how far, he wondered, had he really come.
The coffee gone, Ross drove Steve home, still thinking of old Caleb King. Steve chatted carelessly about the morning, and the missed fish, and how much the corn needed this blessed rain, but Ross barely heard him. Stopping in Steve’s dooryard, Ross idled the truck, and helped his friend sort out the rod tubes and gear.
Then in September, things changed starkly, as swiftly as the hillside maples bloomed blood red. Steve had fallen ill, unsure why, and with indefinable symptoms. Paddling after cruising trout one evening, he told Ross how he felt the life was simply draining out of him. His energy gone, he said he’d been heading to bed early, where he’d lie against the flannel sheets and hold his stomach, which he felt had turned to mush.
“Something’s just not right…” he’d said to Ross in September, and Ross had dismissed it, even as he watched his friend grow hollow in the cheeks. Finally, Steve had made the appointment down at Copley, and had been warned that the symptoms looked dubious.
“They’re worried about cancer” Steve had told Ross in the post office one morning. “Seems some of my levels are up, and they want to take some more tests.”
Ross had changed the subject, commenting on the coming bird season, and joking Steve about his tendency to miss the young p’atridge that stayed bunched till the leaves dropped in October. But Steve had not smiled, shuffling off towards the college with steps that seemed, to Ross anyway, to be those of a much older man.
Up at Zack Woods pond, Ross finished marking the section shortly after one, and looked at the map spread on the hood of the pickup. There was more to do for the down-country landowner, many days more in fact, but Ross’s heart wasn’t in it. Images of Steve in the waiting room, of Caleb King’s empty stare, were washing about too quickly in his head, and the silence of the work couldn’t keep up any longer. He wiped his hands on the blue handkerchief and returned the paint can to the truck’s toolbox, driving slowly back towards Craftsbury in the full bloom of an October afternoon.
Ross drove across the Common and down into the valley below, up the Creek road that wound its way North towards Canada, into the cedar swamps that obscured the borderlands. He slowed as the road bent to the river, by the bridge that had washed out in the floods in ’88, the bridge that the town had never found the money to replace. Afternoon sun dappled the water where it bowed and broke into riffle, dancing there against a backdrop of autumnal blush. Across the river, Steve’s house was set against the maples, his dooryard tidy. Two pumpkins sat on the sill, no doubt from the patch up by Linck’s place, the orange a full and earthy tribute to the color of the hillside behind. Both vehicles were in the drive, Steve’s battered pickup and the smaller car that made the trips to town. Steve had returned from his appointment.
Ross sat there in his car and turned off the engine. He sat for a long while, remembering. He remembered the shame that day at Caleb King’s, remembered vividly what it was he didn’t dare look at. He started the car again and continued North along the river, along a river that itself flowed north, draining at length into the St. Lawrence. He turned east at the Popple corner, and followed the washboard gravel to the top of Ketchum Hill.
Ross was careful to never slam the doors at the Ketchum Hill cover. The birds were often just off the road, roaring up out of the roadside apple trees at the solid tunk of engaging metal. He left the passenger door slightly ajar as he slipped the old Fox from its sleeve, breaking the action as it emerged from the canvas. The old gun had known the passage of many autumns, in and out of Ross’s lifetime, and the action was largely gone to silver. Ross cherished the idea of his fingers wearing the metal atomically through the passage of seasons, wearing deeper the grooves that his grandfather’s hands had begun at the start of the century. He slid two bright shells in the chambers and closed the gun silently, easing the top-lever back to center once the action was closed. He looked off to the south and west, and saw Steve’s house far below, and the serpentine silver blue of the river. He hadn’t hunted Ketchum Hill alone in years. It had always been a pet covert to share with Steve, to the point that one would let it rest if the other weren’t present. It was easier to hunt as a pair anyway. The hill dropped in stages to the river bottom road, confined on the north side by midsize poplar. At the crest of the hill, above the covert, the whole thing opened into cornfield, the corn cut to a bristly stubble. In between was the most glorious parade of ancient apple trees, long abandoned and praying for release, yet of an age that the dishevelment seemed almost audacious. Amidst these trees, in the browning grass and rotting apples, the partridge found their Shangri-la.
Ross and Steve had worn paths through the covert in their years of hunting, Steve always holding just outside the popples, Ross on the sidehill above the apples trees. Hunting alone, Ross tried to piece out his best path down. Without much to go on, he walked quietly amidst the apple trees, crushing fruit beneath his feet for the second time that day. He stopped again to smell that trace of autumn, breathing in the still air of the afternoon. A bird erupted just feet to his left and dodged at once to the north, putting brush and October sunlight between Ross and itself. Ross barely saw the ruddering fan, snapping the gun to his shoulder even as he pulled the front trigger. The roar of the shot echoed out around him, rebounding through the cover, ringing out across the valley and the river. He was unsure if he’d hit the bird. As the shot played itself out in widening rings across the Northeast Kingdom, the silence of the afternoon returned, and Ross took a step downhill. He cast to the north gently, covering the receding memory of the bird’s flight, the moment sketched into memory. Halfway down the hill, beside the popples, he found it, on its back. Ross opened the gun and slid the live cartridge and the spent hull into his pant’s pocket.
He knelt beside the bird and laid his gun on the ground. The bird had fallen and rolled, stopping breast up and wings wide to the sides. It’s breast was a glorious wave of grey-browns and reds, the tail feathers rusty against the grass. The bird was dead. A tiny spot of blood showed scarlet on the tip of its beak. Without lifting the bird, Ross spread the fan. A broad stripe of uninterrupted brown aligned the feathers, and Ross held the tail open there for a while. He let the feathers go and they pulled back together, and he smoothed them as one, pinched flat between his thumb and stained palm. He lifted the bird, and the wings tucked in, and he cradled the head in one hand. Rolling to the side, the bird’s head fell to profile there in Ross’ palm, and one eye stared up at him. The tiny eye was liquid black, still bright enough to make Ross wonder if the bird was indeed dead. He held the head there for a long time, an aging man kneeling amidst the apple trees. He wondered at the bird’s dying stare, wondered if an image was trapped there somewhere in the black depths of the tiny eye. He wondered about Caleb King. He looked out over Ketchum Hill and stood up creakily, bird in one hand, gun in the other. He did not tuck the bird in his game pocket, and he kept the gun broken. He walked downhill slowly through the rest of the covert, stopping once to purposefully crush a rotting apple beneath his boot heel.
At the tail of the covert it was nothing much to cross the Creek road and teeter across the rotting timbers of the washed-out bridge. Ross walked up the gravel road and stopped in Steve’s dooryard. The sun had dipped behind the Lowell’s, bathing the valley in dusky shadow, and the lights were on inside Steve’s house. He and Cheryl were sitting at the kitchen table. Ross saw that Steve’s large left hand lay on the white tablecloth, palm up, firmly holding onto Cheryl’s hand. Ross saw that Steve had laid his glasses down on the table, and that he kept his other hand, his right, in his lap. Ross looked away. He looked out towards the place where the sun had set behind the Lowell’s, and a ream of radiant light was just kissing the skyline hills. It was beautiful. A raven croaked, far off, and Ross walked toward Steve’s door. He stepped up onto the wooden stairs, kicking one toe then the other against the sill, knocking dirt and apple pulp from the cleats of his boots. He didn’t knock. He opened the mudroom door and stepped into the house, looking straight ahead.