I could not sleep. A thousand thoughts insinuated themselves into my head like a stampede of miniature horses. I misread my watch, turned on the light and rushed to dress. Realizing my mistake I lay back on top of the bed covers in my clothes and tried to close my eyes. The November wind blew through an open window, carrying an electric charge, as if it knew what would begin shortly after sunrise. My Labrador Dandy, hovered by the door, long before her usual breakfast time. Outside the sky was still black with clouds like icebergs in an unknown sea. I carried my shotgun to the car. Up and down our street the porch lights of civilians squinted into the darkness.
As we headed towards the interstate, we drove along a seam of time, like the place in a tidal estuary where fresh water gives way to a salt marsh. Along this edge, the occasional person emerged from an all-night bar. A man and woman stood together in a doorway, saying good night. Another man, drunk and angry, pounded on a door, shouting. Floating into the evening’s closing moments, a car emerged from a driveway, its occupant, in a gleaming white shirt and tie, on his way to an early trading desk. A jogger in a glow vest stretched her hamstrings against a telephone pole. A bus passed, with an admixture of working souls, some coming home from the third shift and others off to begin the first.
Route 80 flowed in a steady stream of truckers and travelers. in which philanderers were slinking home to their Penelope’s, covered in cigar smoke the way dogs roll in excrement to mask their scent. I reached State Highway 15 and headed north again as I had so many times on road trips in search of country air, and to find that odd mining museum that was, in the end, closed. The unending row of stores and malls lining both sides of the highway were ablaze in light, as if electricity was to be gotten rid of at all cost.
Gradually the temperature dropped into the high 30’s – perfect for hunting.
Route 15 turned into a two-lane road. We passed a chain of lakes and ponds as the rising sun began to send its advance guard in uniforms of glowing red. My pulse quickened and I shifted in my seat. I was running late.
I always shut off the radio and open the windows when I turn off onto the local road leading to the hunting fields. At the top of our state there is a crown of corn and milo, thorn bushes, marsh and woodlands. A fine, freestone trout stream threads through these state game lands, marked only by small white diamonds with green lettering on the occasional tree.
A sign announces:
“Road closed, bridge out.”
I turn onto this broken blacktop and immediately see that I am too late. The air rings with shotgun blasts. Dozens of men stand around in orange vests and hats, pheasant tails protruding from game pouches. The road is lined with SUVs’, pickups and even the occasional passenger car. Two game wardens drive by like security guards at a sporting event.
I find a spot and park. Dandy gets up and looks anxiously at me as I don my briar proof camo chaps, orange vest and shooting gloves. I put on the lanyard with her whistle, consider at least a dummy shock collar but decide against it since she freaked out the last time I had to use it. Out comes the twelve gauge and I dump a fresh box of cartridges into my right vest pocket and load up. Out Dandy comes like a bull charging into the ring, head high, surveying the ground and testing the air. Off we go along a hedge already picked over by many hunters and immediately see a cock pheasant, dead and lying under a thorn bush. Dandy refuses to pick it up and I crawl in after it, scolding her. It is freshly killed, and someone has removed the breast meat and tossed the carcass back into the bushes. What disrespect for this beautiful bird? What a waste of half the meat? I always skin my birds; pheasants come so nicely out of their pajamas. A piece of apple and onion in the cavity, bacon over the breast, and they roast up like a feast. Dandy won’t pick up a bird that has been dead for a while and ignores the piles of feathers left by foxes and owls. She is only interested in the living.
Two men ahead of us on the path are speaking Italian. They have no dog and ask if Dandy will find their bird. She enters the hedge and after a brief search, says it isn’t where they claim it is. She looks at me sideways as if to say we are wasting time. They admit it was a cripple and might be a runner and disagree about which way it might have gone.
We move on as she works back and forth through the hedge and into the cornfield. She ambles along like an unwilling kid on a hike, barely interested. At last she picks up a scent and the fun begins. Her tail starts wagging furiously. She races along the ground making a noise that is a cross between grunting and biting, as if she hopes to grab the very air by the scruff of the neck. She twists and turns on the trail of an itinerant cock bird, as it sneaks through the undergrowth. Then the scent trail stops. The bird is not here anymore she says as we reach the end of the field. I consult with some hunters on their way back to their vehicle. They have limited out and are gloating. They suggest we try the marshy field, where they saw a lot of birds fly. Into the field we go and immediately Dandy decides to go into business for herself. She races far out of range and ignores my whistle, disappearing in the tall switch grass. Occasionally she jumps high enough to see me, bounding along as if on a pogo stick. When she is more than 100 yards out I hear the bird flush, the annoyed cackle of a cock pheasant, as it sails into the next field. At last Dandy returns panting. See, I can find these birds she says. Oh for that Tri-tronics collar, I think.
We cross a small stream on the way into the next field and she goes for a long swim and drinks deeply. I sit down on a log and survey the swamp that lies ahead. She sits beside me, her head erect, eyes fiercely alert. More gun shots from all directions, some distant, some hauntingly near. Just as we are ready to move again I hear a pheasant cackling deep in the swamp. There is a path along the stream, a deer trail, and I lead an unconvinced Dandy to this prize. The path snakes through some nasty brambles that catch my vest and make going difficult. Several times a branch knocks my hat off. I stop and wait; the bird calls again. It knows that it is cornered, surrounded by a militia of skirmishing hunters. The path suddenly dries up. My foot goes into a hole and my leg is wet with muck up to the knee. Dandy sniffs the breeze and rushes into a thicket next to a huge tree looming ahead. I struggle to disentangle my sleeve from another thornbush when the bird flushes, squawking its head off in the other direction and I hear the inevitable “bang bang.”
The sun is now bright and it is fully morning. The temperature has risen back into the forties and I remove a few layers and let the dog rest. Groups of hunters pass me laden with birds like Robin Hood’s merry men off to a feast with King Richard. I hear one of them say the place has been shot out. An army of hunters with packs of dogs had been at it an hour before I arrived. I decide to head back to our SUV. Walking at the edge of some harvested corn I see a hen pheasant sail into the field twenty yards in front of us. I try to hurry Dandy forward but she balks and wants to go the other way. I call her back and she stubbornly heads in a different direction saying, don’t tell me, my nose knows, not your sorry *** schnozz. At last I get her to where I thought the bird came down. She sniffs half heartedly and squats to leave a text message. Then 30 yards behind me, I see the hen flush and it is shot by a hunter that doesn’t even have a dog. Disgusted I head back to the truck. I am stopped by a warden who picks through my licenses, wants to see the pheasant stamp and checks me for birds. While my paperwork is in order, it is not the best way to end a hunt. “Is your dog a beginner? Doesn’t look like he has hunted much before.” So much for her years of training.
Once at the Jumboland diner I feel shamefaced. Hunters all around me are whispering conspiratorially about their dogs and birds. For once I do not chat up the waitress and eat in silence. When I get home, there is a splinter in the bottom of Dandy’s right paw and an odd blister on the top of it. A trip to the vet leads to an overnight stay and minor surgery – she needs anesthesia to have an imbedded piece of the splinter removed. It will be expensive. At home the house feels empty without her. The cat rubs against my leg and cries even though there is food in her dish. I walk out onto our porch overlooking the Passaic River. A small group of mallards set their wings into the wind and land just out of sight; one of the hen’s gives off a greedy feeding chuckle. Immediately a neighboring group of Canada geese commence their irritated, shrill honking. The commotion is enough for a great blue heron to lift his ungainly form into the air and depart. The sun is beginning to set and the horsemen, in their brilliant red uniforms, canter back to their beds beyond the Haledon hills.
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