He bent double and pushed down the next to the bottom strand of barbed-wire. As he did so, he used his free hand to lift first one, then the other, shell pocket of his game vest over the pointed wire. Each pocket was an irregular bulge that felt of ridged plastic and brass. He experienced only minor irritation as he carefully reached behind to unsnag a barb from the limp game pocket. It was gratifying not to hear tearing fabric as the vest already possessed multiple, strategically placed safety pins.
After the crossing, he walked past two cedar fence posts to where his 20 gauge over and under shotgun lay just under the fence. He was still surprised by his choice of the Browning Citori. When he was young, he had never been much of a shot with his Dad’s Belgian-built over and under. But this gun seemed different. His new shotgun did not carry nearly as pretty a piece of wood as that old Belgian. Yet, he could hit most of the 25 clay birds in a round of skeet, even the left to right shots (he was right handed) at those atrocious middle stations. Now, however, it was time for him to try his skills on quail.
He could count on one hand, the number of quail he had killed during his 30 years as a hunter. It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried to hunt them, particularly as a young boy, but his part of West Texas never had more than the occasional covey. Because of that, he found it hard to believe that he would see, let alone collect, any on this cold December morning. However, his Dad and Mom said that this year was different. They spent most evenings watching a large covey feeding in their backyard. They had also jumped what appeared to be multiple coveys on walks in the mesquite scrub behind their house.
In spite of their reports, he wasn’t paying much attention as he weaved in and out of the clumps of Johnson grass growing among the mesquites. His gun was cradled in the crook of his left arm as he tugged at the seeds in the top of the tallest stalk of grass. They exploded while he was in mid-tug. Oddly, at that moment, he remembered being told that quail took off more slowly than Mourning Dove. These, however, seemed to be in an awful hurry. He threw his left arm forward as he grabbed the checkered pistol grip. A straggler lifted just as his cheek made contact with the polished comb and his safety slid forward. He didn’t remember slapping the trigger, but the quail puffed into an expanding ball of feathers from which the center fell to the ground.
He walked slowly, as he popped the spent shell into his hand, bent his arm behind his back to drop it into the game pocket and quickly filled the empty chamber with another shell. The bird was a female. The brownish-yellow slash mark on either side of her head reminded him of the tobacco stains at the corners of his Father-in-Law’s mouth. He felt the warmth from his first quail in more than 20 years. He knew that it would cool and stiffen, but at the moment she felt like one of the kittens from the hay in his parents’ barn. He dropped the bird into the game pocket, feeling the rounded lump settle on his tailbone.
He made his way toward the levee that acted as a dam for the large stocktank in which he had fished, gigged frogs and shot snakes as a boy. He had felt, more than seen, that a part of the covey had settled into the base of the levee. The first quail he spotted was running, but the next six were in the air as his shotgun rose. He took the furthest left, and then the one closest to it as the seven birds spread out like a southern belle’s fan on a hot summer afternoon. “A double”! He was so surprised by his first double on quail that he forgot to break and reload as he made his way to pick up the birds. They were both males. As he traced the bleached white stripe on the side of the second bird’s head, the single erupted from a spot of grass not much bigger than a quail. He dropped the dead bird, swung on the single and felt the flinch as he pulled on the empty chamber. He wasn’t sure what was more embarrassing – the flinch or the fact that he had forgotten to reload. “Oh well, maybe we won’t mention either of those things when we get back to the house”, he said out loud.
At that moment, a dazzling ray of sunlight lanced through the mesquite branches in front of him. He squinted and once again marveled at the different kind of beauty found in this parched scrubland, compared to his adopted home in the hardwoods of Georgia. He would always feel more at home in the midst of mesquites, in spite of, or maybe because of, the punctured hands, arms and legs obtained while climbing this Mexican invader.