“Are ya ready to go scare up some pa’tridge, old Red?” Otis scratched the English setter behind his mottled ears. Red opened one eye, stood on the bed, circled three times and dropped back down, his head resting on Otis’s pillow.
When Otis pulled the whistle from the bureau, it was enough to rouse Red and he moped behind him as he clomped into the kitchen. “I’m goin’ ta hunt for a bit.”
His daughter Rosie, shoving the monstrous turkey back in the oven, straightened up and turned toward Otis. She said nothing for a long moment, eying him with contempt or confusion, he couldn’t be certain.
“Goin’ by the way of Sanford Ridge, down to York Pond and then you pick me an’ Red up at the old Smith farm.”
Rosie looked just like her mother when she became miffed—one eyebrow that arched supernaturally above her green eye. He still missed his wife’s shortness with him after all these years, though his daughter did a pretty good impersonation.
“Pop, did ya forget it’s Christmas Day and we got your brother and family, including your grandson coming today? ” She pointed the turkey baster at him. “Should I pick you up between the cranberry pureeing and potato peeling? Or after I load the stuffin’ in the oven? Anyway, we don’t need grouse—we got turkey.”
“Rosie, you’ll have all them relatives to help you here while you go fetch me.” Otis laughed, sliding one arm through his canvas coat. “Or, have Will pick me up.”
“Will doesn’t have his license, Pop. He’s fourteen year old!” Rosie said referring to her nephew Will.
“Of course. That’s why he likes to drive. It won’t hurt nobody for him to drive down the road. Think ol’ Sheriff Barnes be out there pinchin’ people today?”
Rosie let out a heavy sigh and tossed the baster into the overloaded sink. “Take my cell phone and call when you’re ready to be picked up.”
“Don’t need it. Never works. Like I said, pick me up at 1:15 sharp.”
“Sheesh! You can be stubborn!” She turned her back to scrub potatoes.
Red, like Otis, was slow to work out the kinks in his bones, but by the time they crossed the stubbled field toward the swampy alders, he held his head high in the air sifting the light breeze for scent. A good bird dog, he didn’t range too far and knew where to look if his nose didn’t find something of promise.
Still, Otis wasn’t expecting a pa’tridge to roar out of the brush not even twenty minutes into the hunt while Red was upwind working a cover of briars and thorn apple. Otis shouldered and swung the gun and fired, but he was no match for the bird’s erratic flight. He knew it was a clean miss before he lowered the barrel. “Doggone it,” he exclaimed.
His attention turned toward Red thirty yards down a hillock with his nose to the ground, cantering in an ever-tightening circle. Otis did his best to run to his dog but his trick knee buckled and flailed so his gait was more of a lunge and hop. And then Red froze into a statuesque point of such beauty that Otis had to stifle the urge to weep. His heart pounding from the thrill and exertion, he sized up the possible exit routes the bird might fly.
When the pa’tridge flushed, Otis raised his gun and fired and the bird somersaulted to the ground. He was about to command Otis to “fetch him up” when a second and third bird rocketed up. Relying on nothing more than honed instinct, he fired at the first grouse and then swung his gun ninety degrees to the left, downing the two game birds. Good Lord! A triple! A feat grouse hunters dream of but rarely achieve and that in his waning years he suspected would remain a dream.
Red pranced to retrieve one pa’tridge after another, proudly dropping them at Otis’s feet. The birds were beauties—two were dappled gray and the third reddish brown. After several praises of “atta boy” and pats to Red’s flanks, Otis stuffed the birds in his jacket game pouch and glanced at his watch. They still had plenty of time. He sat down on a fallen log to consider his good fortune and plan the remainder of the hunt while taking a load off his achy knees and back. He decided to hunt a wide circle, skirting the creek, back to the house and thereby avoid bothering the folks at home with having to pick him up. His revised route would be better habitat, albeit harder walking.
Otis and Red set out into the deep woods where they wound around the fallen pines, but after an hour Red found no birds. It was time to hurry home before Rosie or someone left to meet him at the Smith farm. He rested his old A-5 Browning shot gun over his shoulder so it pointed backwards and started walking. Red quartered back and forth ahead of him, his collar bell ringing with the same steady cadence as his gait.
A mile from the house, just on the other side of the hill, Red picked up the pace, trotting to a large fallen tree along an old stone wall that ran parallel to the creek. Otis—daydreaming about sitting next to the wood stove with a glass of scotch—almost didn’t notice when Red slammed on point. He whipped the gun from his shoulder when a pair of pa’tridges roared from a pile of rocks. Otis shot the first and it tumbled. He gambled on a long shot at the second bird guessing where it was headed as it disappeared behind a pine tree. He picked up the first bird, laughing at his poor second shot, when he saw Red earnestly tracking.
“Here boy. I’ve got the bird!”
Old Red pulled his nose from the ground, turned toward Otis with the look that said, “Trust me boss. You got the second one.” The dog wound his way downstream to find their wounded grouse. Otis hobbled the best he could, following Red’s lead as he crisscrossed from one side of the stream to the other.
As they made their way Otis kept reminding himself of the old hunting adage to trust your dog. Mostly, he doubted his knees’ ability to climb back up the steep creek ravine. When Red pointed a tree root hanging over a deep pool, Otis lay down on his belly and hung over the bank’s edge. Reaching under the gnarly tree roots he felt a soft warmth and gently pulled out the grouse. The bird had a broken wing and he quickly ended its suffering and then placed it in his full game pouch.
By the time Otis and Red arrived home, he knew without checking his watch they were very late. What surprised Otis was the parked Vermont Fish and Wildlife truck and his family huddled together with the warden organizing a search party. Though alarmed, he figured that when they heard about his triple, then double, and Red’s stunning retrieve of the wounded pa’tridge, all would be forgotten.
As he pulled the grouse from his jacket and placed them on the picnic table, something seemed amiss. He glanced at the game warden, Josh Crenshaw, whose jaw had dropped before clearing his throat.
“That’s quite a hunt you had, Mr. Willoughby.” Josh, in spite of his uniform and side arm, appeared timid and taken aback. Otis had known Josh since he was a kid. He and Josh’s dad started taking him on hunts when he was five years old.
Otis looked down at the grouse and suddenly understood Josh’s dismay. The daily limit on ruffed grouse was four and in that remarkably lucky day, the triple plus the double added up to five.
It was a terrible mistake—he’d always respected game laws. “Never spent a day in jail.” He shook his head. “Here, I was looking forward to a bit of whiskey next to the fire and tellin’ you all about my hunt.”
Josh kicked the dirt and scratched his head. “Let’s go inside and do just that. I want to hear the whole story. Then we can decide about haulin’ you in.”
Otis smiled in spite of himself. This was the best Christmas since the one where his dad had given him the same shotgun that he just shot his first triple of pa’tridge some seventy years later. He looked to his grandson.
“Next time I’ll bring Will along. He won’t lose track and he’s a fine hunter himself,” Otis announced. He put his arm around his grandson’s shoulder and whispered, “And you can do the driving.”