I drew my bulky piece of weathered steel from its leather scabbard. It had been 5 months since I oiled the shotgun and put it away, the last I laid eyes on my reliable hunting partner. As I ran my hands the length of the old double-barrel, stories began to proliferate from somewhere beyond my conscious. The first thing that caught my attention was the tarnished buttstock. A nickel-sized chunk of wood was missing since the day I tumbled down a southern Arizona hillside, startled by an erupting covey of Mearns quail.
Further down the firearm, I fixated on two small pits of rust near the tip of the top barrel. Previously scarred by rugged terrain, the barrel had begun to rust after a week-long outing in the dead of an Idaho winter. Despite best efforts, the combination of environmental conditions from the past years had got the best of my steel companion.
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My bird bag was next on the list of preseason preparations. Latched on tight, I dragged the strap vest across 10 states the previous season, from the dry heat of the Sonoran Desert to the oppressive humidity of the southeastern United States. The bird pouch, littered with bent feathers and crumbled vegetation, adequately expressed the diversity of its previous destinations. The vest’s fabric and stitches had remained resilient through numerous hardships, sometimes used to push through thickets of unfriendly vegetation.
Each pocket had additional stories to contribute to the collection of essays the bag provided. In the left side pocket, where I kept duct tape, gauze, and dog boots, was a story from the high Uinta Mountains of Utah. Holding the dog boots in hand, I thought back to the last time they were used. I had booted my French Brittany, Cash, on the seventh day of a month-long excursion through the uplands. His trip, however, would be cut short after a tragedy, the worst of my life, in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana
From the boot, a feather floated down to the floor. The feather somehow made its way into the pocket after a half-day hunt chasing prairie-chickens in the Nebraska sandhills. I had traveled there in September from Wyoming to purchase a new bird dog, Ranger. The trainer and I spent time hunting together to observe Ranger’s skill in the field. With 30 chickens moved, 3 in the bag, I announced, “SOLD.”
Rotating the vest, I opened the side pocket. There was a lighter, emergency blanket, paracord, sutures, bandages, and a portable phone charger. Thankfully, of those items, I only ever had to use the phone charger. I had buried a UTV in a sandy drainage in the Chihuahuan Desert a few years back while I was hunting Gambel’s quail. To exacerbate the situation, my cell phone had died, I was hours from help, and 10 miles from the nearest paved road. I was able to charge my phone, hike to a high point, and call the local United States Border Patrol office for support. It was a last-ditch effort but a resource worth being aware of.
The shell pockets contained a myriad of loads. Twelve-gauge steel 7 ½’s from a central Florida snipe hunt, copper-plated steel 6’s I had used on everything from quail, forest grouse, sage-grouse, and partridge, steel 4’s for the occasional jump-shot duck, and a few 20-gauge shells from a South Texas bobwhite hunt. The stories went on and on.
Lastly, I pulled out two pairs of my weather-worn hunting boots. I always pack an extra pair in the truck just in case. While applying leather conditioner to each of them, I thought back to the hundreds of miles we had shared together. They had been of pinnacle importance during the ascents and descents over rocky terrain while chasing chukar and penetrating the dense, thorny quail woods of Florida. After the conditioner had been applied, I sat there in silence for a bit and then turned in for the night. When I woke the next morning, I collected all of my old friends, loaded them into the truck, smiled, and wondered what stories we would write today.