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The needle is of course relative to the haystack. This particularly dense area stretched acres each way. I locked my eyes on that specific cluster of cattails and crashed forward, checking the safety by feel, fumbling blind in my shell bag for rounds.
I got to the markers and shoved dead stalks aside, saying, “Dead bird, dead bird,” like a skipping record, hoping to teach my young etudiants something they might carry forward. Chief was beside me, Hubert rustling invisibly a few feet away. Then the rustling quit. I gave it five seconds and pushed ahead. He’d frozen on point above the dead bird.
I made sure Chief got a good noseful of his brother’s trophy and told him he’d better look alive. And he did. With the breeze in his face he worked the tall grass, nose to the ground, tail like a metronome cranked to some speed-metal setting. In no time Hubert got into the act as well. Both dogs engaged in that crisscrossing charge usually reserved for galloping pheasant.
I jogged to keep up and huffed onto a knapweed-corrupted rise. The dogs kept on, running rings around each other. They climbed another bench and disappeared from sight. I heard Chief’s unmistakable barking frenzy and was thinking Either he’s put up the bird or he’s jumped a deer, when a mature rooster shot over like a Chinese rocket and removed all doubt.
I was stupidly congratulating myself on shooting a limit when the pin clanked on the most deafening empty chamber in the world. Disaster. The rocket shrank. Evidently I’d never reloaded after dropping the first bird in the river, which left me with two shells in the magazine and none in the barrel.
The dogs charged back off the shelf after the bird and it was my turn to feel like an amateur. Then again, maybe that’s what this trip was about.
I woke the next morning to utter calm and drove to a pump station chosen by Huck Hutson as our meeting place. I knew he’d be another hour, and knew as well how to kill the time: I’d cut the motor and listen for a sound like barbed wire stretching and scraping through a rusting staple. The sound wouldn’t come from barbed wire, of course, and not from a chukar either, but from Montana’s other imported partridge: Huns.
I turned both dogs loose along that same no-man’s salt cedar along the creek. They busted the covey in minutes, the birds invisible through the warren save one, streaking like a comet through a clearing. I swung and missed with the first barrel, swung harder and connected with the second. There was a drift of feathers where all the furious momentum had just been.
Both dogs looped back. Hubert again fetched the bird and I tried, really tried, not to revel. Five minutes out of the truck and the first bird fetched to hand. It had the makings of a jinx.
A little later I saw dust roil off the roadway and heard the pop of gravel under truck tires. By the time I’d made my way out of the creek bottom, Huck had already uncased his shotgun and uncrated his Labrador. He towered over the salt cedar, or “rabbit brush,” as he called it.
“I shot my first chukar partridge at the head of that little wash, right about 42 years ago,” he said, pointing to the gash in the earth I’d just clambered from. Forty-two years ago, I’d barely clambered into the world at all.