Saturday, October 15, 2011

Huntin’ Buddies

Huntin’ Buddies
By Jane –Ann Heitmueller

“Ya know, I thought sure you’d killed old Prince that day,” remarked J.W. “You was dang lucky he survived.”

“Yep,” Ray replied. “Seems like that was the last thing I could do to get that stubborn dog to mind me. I really hated to do it, but he always worked great after that happened.”

The hot, afternoon sun wiggled down through the overhanging oak limbs and squeezed beams of light through the nail holes in the rusty tin roof on to the worn porch floor beneath. Unperturbed by the August heat and stifling humidity, the two old friends placidly rocked and reminisced. They were both seventy now and had lots of good memories to talk about.

As growth and progress crept southward it swallowed up numerous woodlands, grasslands and once isolated areas where the quail made their homes, and where the sport of hunting them was a southern tradition to many a boy and man during the decades of the fifties through the seventies. Coyotes, with few natural enemies, were introduced for fox hunting and they, as well as hawks, which were federally protected, along with fire ants and pesticides, all took their toll on the quail population at that time. Today it’s rare to spy a covey of quail rapidly scurrying across the backyard and open field, or have the joy of watching and hearing that unique fluttering sound as they quickly escape from under a brush pile when startled. The distinct musical trill of “Bob White, Bob White” has all but disappeared from our landscape. But good hunting buddies Ray and J.W. each held vivid memories of such occurrences and they loved to sit back and recall the pleasure of their many days of quail hunting together.

Both fellows realized that there were two necessary ingredients required for a successful quail hunt… a good gun and a well trained hunting dog. One final ingredient, if you didn’t hunt alone, was a good partner. Ray and J.W. had all these ingredients. Over the years of hunting together they had developed their own sense of trust and companionship and worked extremely well together. The pair had their favorite hunting spots and could pinpoint, with amazing accuracy, the various places where quail could be found.

One need not worry that every quail the pair killed was not put to good use. The birds were each deposited in a little compartment in their hunting jackets and brought home to clean, cook, eat and share with friends and family. Needless to say, along with the bird itself, the colorful stories of their acquisition was also one of the ingredients the satisfied diners knew they must be willing to digest when they sat down to eat.

A favorite quail hunting spot of the duo was an old, deserted farm place near by, owned by a fellow named Beck Peinhardt. Of course, as was usual, they had gotten permission to hunt on Mr. Peinhardt’s land that crisp November day. The two friends were eager and excited as they loaded their trusty shotguns and faithful bird dog into Ray’s rattletrap of a pick up truck and headed out to the Peinhardt farm for an afternoon of hunting.

Ray and J.W. spent most of the afternoon being successful in their quest. Partnered with Ray’s dependable Irish Setter, Prince, they methodically worked their way through the deep sage grass on the Peinhardt property and carefully eased their way on down the slight hillside to the shoreline of Lake Catoma below, striving to fulfill the daily legal quota of birds.

“Hey Ray,” hollered J.W.,” Where’s Prince? I haven’t seen him for a while.”

“Neither have I,” Ray shouted back. “Guess we better see if we can find him. It’s gonna be dark soon and we’ll need to head home.”

As the fall light rapidly escaped beyond the western horizon the two hunters diligently searched through the tall grass and woods, calling and whistling for the lost dog, but had no luck in locating Prince. With only moments of sunlight remaining J. W. said, “I remember an old well on the property. It’s up near the house. Do you reckon he could have fallen in and can’t get out?”

“Maybe he’s there,” answered an anxious Ray, “Come on, let’s hurry up that way and look.”

They could hear the frantic splashing before they reached the open well. Poor Prince was almost totally exhausted from his lengthy efforts to tread water, instinctually fighting for survival. They had arrived just in time to rescue him. The problem now was that with such little light left, and the depth of the well, they quickly had to figure out how to get the struggling animal out.

“Hurry,” said Ray, stripping off his belt. “Take off your belt. We’ll tie them together and maybe you can reach him.” Luckily, that idea worked. Ray held securely to his end of the hastily fashioned device, while his partner firmly grasped the other and cautiously eased himself over the side of the old, crumbling well. Straining and groaning, J.W. stretched down as far as he could, finally grabbing the choking dog by his collar, and pulling him to safety

“I bet you Mr. Peinhardt has forgotten all about this well,” said Ray, joyfully hugging his weary, dripping dog. “It would be terrible if some little child fell in this hole. I’ll go by his warehouse in the morning and remind him he needs to fill it with dirt. But now, let’s get old Prince back to the truck and take him home so he can get dry and warm.”

“Thinking of Prince,” remarked Ray, slowly rocking under the heat of the tin roof. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt as bad as the day I shot him.”

“Thank goodness you didn’t kill him,” said J.W. “He must have learned his lesson. He never ran off with another bird again after that happened.”

“Yeah, I’d done everything I could think of to get that dog to retrieve the birds and bring them straight back to me. I don’t think it hurt him as much as it scared him. After all, he was pretty far away when he got peppered. To tell you the truth, J.W., it scared the heck out of me too. Guess maybe we were both just too young and stubborn for our own good back then. We sure learned our lesson that day!”

For several moments the only sound to be heard was the slow, methodical creaking of the two cane rockers and the chirping of the redbirds in the nearby trees. Not a word was spoken between the two men, each quietly escaping into his own personal thoughts, deeply absorbing the recollections of their many special times of pleasure and camaraderie as huntin’ buddies.

“Sure is hot, ain’t it.”

“Yep, too bad we didn’t have some of this heat the day snow was on the ground and you went swimmin’ in Lake Catoma in February,” said Ray with a slight chuckle.

“ You’re right. I just about froze that day, but had no other choice. Our poor dogs worked too hard in the cold all day. I just couldn’t leave there without those birds.”

Ray and J.W. would never have dreamed of letting the last days of quail season end that frigid February day without getting in one final day of hunting. As they had done so many times before, they loaded up the dogs and gear and headed out early that frosty morning, full of their normal eagerness and anticipation. Snow was on the ground, but they knew the birds would be feeding, due to the slight amount of sunshine overhead.

Though continuously shivering for hours, it seemed the two fellows just couldn’t bring themselves to end their successful day of hunting. This might be their last chance of the season. Finally, the lateness of the hour and the pitiful sight of the shaking dogs, their coats laden with ice crystals, brought them to the realization that they really must head for home. However, there was just one little problem. Their last shots of the day had been successful, but the two birds had landed about fifty feet out in the icy lake, where they now bobbed and floated, driven farther and farther from shore by each bone chilling gust of wind. There was no way the quivering, tired dogs could be enticed to swim out and retrieve them. A task they would have eagerly relished under warmer conditions.

Finally, realizing that they couldn’t, nor shouldn’t, make the dogs go into the cold water, but eager to save their trophy, J.W. gave in and said, “O.K. Ray, I’ll go in and get ‘em.” Stripping down to his underwear, the shaking, determined hunter dared to face those icy waters and bravely waded forward, inch by inch, to reach the floating birds. It seemed to Ray that his huntin’ buddy had once and for all lost his senses.

“You’re crazy, man. Leave the darn birds. You’re gonna catch pneumonia!” After three valiant attempts, now trembling uncontrollably, his teeth chattering like a nervous tap dancer, J.W. finally gave up. He decided instead to go to the home of a near by friend, borrow his small aluminum boat and row out to get the birds….which he did… just as darkness enveloped the weary, frozen clan.

“What are you laughing about Ray?”

“Just can’t help it, J.W., I was thinking about the time we went hunting and you stopped by Dad’s place to pick up Prince before coming down here to get me.”

“Oh, yeah,” said J.W. “He wouldn’t get in the dog box on the back of the truck, so I just let him ride on top. I figured he’d be alright since we didn’t have far to go.”

“I’ll never forget the look on your face when I asked you where he was,” grinned Ray, slapping his pal on the back. “Turns out, you had rounded a curve and slung my poor pooch right out of the truck into the muddy ditch and you didn’t even know it. Boy,

that red Alabama clay had really messed him up and the two of us had a good laugh when we saw him finally staggering into my yard like he’d gotten into grandpa’s homebrew. Poor, confused dog didn’t know what had hit him, but he quickly recovered. I had to bathe that nasty mongrel three times to get him clean! No wonder he was always the first of the dogs to get in the box after that.”

“Both of us are still in trouble with my wife,” said Ray grinning broadly. “She sure did love those prize hens of hers and could have skinned you the day you forgot they were in the old dog pen.”

“I know,” sheepishly answered J.W. “It was so cold that day when we quit huntin’, all I was thinkin’ about was puttin’ the dogs in the pen and gettin’ home to my nice warm bed. I plum forgot she’d made the old pen into a new home for her flock of speckled chickens. Boy, she really let me have it on the phone the next mornin’ after she went out to feed them and found nothin’ but a bunch of feathers scattered all over the place….and three well fed, sleepin’ bird dogs. Nope, she’ll never let me live down that little caper. Can’t say as I blame her though.”

The ebbing afternoon sun began casting shadows and the sounds of nature announced approaching nightfall. Soon J. W. eased forward, yawned and slowly rose from his rocker. “Reckon I’d better head toward the house. It’s gettin’ late and Linda’ll have supper waitin’.”

“Glad ya dropped by, J.W. Ya’ll have a good evenin’. I’ll talk to ya later.”