I was on my way home from work, fighting the usual Philadelphia rush hour traffic, when it occurred to me that I still had my single shot Ithaca with my vest and license in the trunk of the car. A short detour, and in minutes I pulled up to my folks’ house to pick up Heidi, dad’s German Shorthair. By four o’clock I was parked at the edge of an overgrown apple orchard behind the Parkwood Youth Organization’s soccer fields.
Now you don’t usually associate Philadelphia with good ringneck hunting, but this patch of real estate, no more than a mile on each side, had once been part of the state prison farm system and the fields were still planted with soybeans and horse corn. Years of farming and unkempt hedgerows made for textbook pheasant habitat. Bordered by the rowhomes of Parkwood on one side, and Route 1 on the other, I’d been wandering these fields and woodlots my whole life.
With the first of my four children soon to be born, I had no idea that this hunt, on this sunny November afternoon would be my last here.
I let Heidi out of the car, and as usual, she tore off like mad, turning hundred-yard circles in the manicured grass of the soccer fields as fast as her legs could churn. This was her routine. You see, for all her ability in the field, Heidi was a house dog who didn’t get nearly enough chances to run. Three or four circles and she was back to the car for a quick drink while I slipped into my boots and fished around in the pocket of my vest to find only four shells.
“Well, girl, I guess I’m gonna have to shoot straight today.” I thought out loud in her direction as we headed across the field. Peeking back over my shoulder at the dropping afternoon sun, I figured we had about an hour of legal shooting time.
As far back as I could remember, this orchard had lain fallow. When I was a kid during the Vietnam war there was still enough room between the trees to gather apples, but almost twenty years had passed since then, and thickets had taken over all but one path that split the orchard right up the middle. Not quite wide enough to allow a tractor passage, it was the only way for a person to traverse the orchard’s length.
I paused at the foot of this trail to load a shell when the first bird flushed somewhere off to my right…
I’d lost sight of Heidi for a few minutes figuring she’d headed up the path in front of me, while I surveyed the area to take in the changes since my last walk through. Someone had managed to get a car in there down by the creek and burned it out good, leaving a rusted, silent skeleton. I wondered if I could enlist the local Boy Scout troop to help me get it out of here as my friends and I had done years before and remembered the many times we’d come back here to fill bags of trash while we hunted for frogs and scouted out muskrat holes in the creek bank for winter trapping. We looked forward to the bonfire the scoutmasters would build, and we’d sit for hours into the night telling blood-curdling tales and laughing at things that only seem funny to ten-year-old boys…
The cackle of the rising cockbird brought me back to the present and I snapped shut the breech of my 20 gauge. I still didn’t see the bird through the trees but I could hear him hollering, and his powerful wings beating back the thick, cool air as he busted up through the thicket. Then, there he was, breaking out into the open, crossing right to left about twenty-five yards ahead of me. I had time to decide if I wanted to take this bird.
Thinking back on it hundreds, maybe more than a thousand times since, it seemed like an awfully long time passed between the moment I saw him, and the puff of feathers as he came down, but in reality, it was over in a few seconds, and I slowed my racing heart with deep, long breaths.
The smells of burnt gunpowder and sour apple mash mingled in my nostrils while Heidi brought the heavy bird out of the thicket and laid it at my feet. That familiar mixture of emotions washed over me…the satisfaction of success and the melancholy one feels.
The sun was dropping quickly through the trees behind us, and I still had about an hour’s walk to make my circuit back to the car. I tucked the bird away after fussing over Heidi and stood to walk up the hill along the path.
Heidi had other plans.
She cut left through the thicket to a piece of bottomland that ran along the creek below the orchard. There was a woodlot on the other side of this small creek, and while it held lots of squirrel, I’d hoped to take two pheasant on this hunt so I could leave a bird with my dad, and only had three shells left. While I was absorbed with these thoughts, and with picking my way through the thick underbrush, the first woodcock flushed right out from under my feet and disappeared into the apple trees before I could finish shouldering my gun.
I hadn’t even taken my cheek off the stock when the second one launched itself right along the path of the first, and I took it, too easily, sending it tumbling end over end until it rested high in the thicket. Too high for Heidi to retrieve, so I waded in. Two steps in, and timberdoodles three, four and five were airborne. I swung my unloaded gun on the first bird out of habit, but the sight of the other two woodcocks corkscrewing off, and Heidi bouncing back and forth trying to decide which to chase just had me shaking my head in amusement and disbelief.
Another bird in the bag and we turned to head back toward the trail. Only a handful of steps back through the thicket and doodles six and seven launched themselves toward the orchard. This time I was ready and took the bigger of the two just as it crossed back over the trail.
The sun was gone now and late November chill cloaked this piece of bottomland. Mist was rising off the still creek pools and I was wondering if I’d just better call it a day and be thankful when off to my left I heard a ringneck flush. Not a loud, cackling flush, but the soft, smooth flush of a hen. She glided right over my head and into the woodlot, and I realized, Heidi hadn’t even pushed her out, it was roosting time. So, I broke my gun and whistled for her.
Nothing. I called her name.
Thinking she’d gone up over the hill, I started up the path and made it all the way to the top where I found her, locked on point, body bent in mid-turn, tail straight, and bloody nose quivering. She could see the bird, I was sure of it. I took a step toward her but didn’t close the gun, straining to make the bird out in the tangle of raspberry thicket. I looked for the white ring, the eye, the iridescent head, anything at all, but I could see nothing in the fading light.
All of us who hunt can recall perfect memories of perfect times spent in the field, of perfect shots made and missed, of perfect sunrises and sunsets. Good cups of morning coffee shared with good friends on crisp autumn and cold winter days. It’s the reason we keep going back. It’s the allure of these feelings and the kinship that links generation to generation and stranger to stranger, with an understanding that is so difficult to explain, that it’s often better left unsaid.
I took another step forward and snapped the breech shut.
The bird burst cackling through the tangle of thickets and Heidi surrendered her point. I waited before raising my gun. I’d heard stories about points like this and wanted to enjoy it. There was plenty of time to take this bird. But just then, another, and another, and a fourth, fifth, and a sixth pheasant took flight. One after the other they kept rising, some at the same time until I could no longer keep track of them!
When it was over I think twelve birds, maybe more, flushed off of that point. I watched the last of them glide in straggled formation out of sight, into the misty dusk of the apple orchard below. I broke open my gun and pocketed that last shell, gave Heidi a good patting down for her hard work, and turned to head back down the path.
It was almost full dark. I could see Christmas lights outlining the neat rows of brick houses back in my old neighborhood. Heidi and I started back down the path side by side.
My son, our first, was born the following spring, and as often happens, life turned in other directions. The city sold the fields around the apple orchard to developers, and by the next fall, that one square mile had been reduced to a plot too small to hunt.
Heidi is gone now too. Fit and firm, she hunts like all good bird dogs, in a far better place, waiting patiently for us to hunt over her again.
All these years have passed since that hunt for Heidi and me. A spur of the moment, late afternoon stroll through an apple orchard planted when my great-grandparents were babies.
And every now and then, my wife asks me to remind her why I keep a single, unspent shotgun shell in the top drawer of my dresser, and I can offer no answer that makes sense to her, but you know.