Sleet stung the faces of the man and the boy as they silently walked the slate-gray fields of late winter. Ice rattled like grape-shot among the tall prairie grasses that stood drab and solemn in the corners of long slumbering crop fields, rimmed with barbed wire. The only other sounds heard were the muted boot-steps of the pair as they scuffed along in the brush.
The man was lost in thought. He did not feel the cold. His mind was far away from the chill that tugged at his collar causing the tips of his nose and fingers to burn. The weight of the world pressed on his shoulders. At home there were bills to pay, mouths to feed, and a career to manage. There was always more work to be done, his boss being the demanding sort. It was a stolen luxury to not be in the office on the weekend. He barely noticed the old pump shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm. It was comfortable there, an extension of himself from many days afield.
It had not always been this way. A few short years ago the man had been a boy, with few responsibilities beyond filling the wood box for the kitchen stove, and turning the cows out to pasture. Fall was for football and bird hunting. Winters were spent running traplines to earn spending money, saved toward a new rifle. Warmer months found him chasing bass and bullfrogs on local ponds. He vaguely remembered sleepless nights before the opening day of hunting season; his restless dreams filled with birds on the wing. In those dreams he made perfect shots on crossing targets and came home to a hero’s welcome with a full game bag. The birds were a welcome addition when war ration stamps limited meat to a once a week possibility from the grocer.
Now most of his nights were sleepless, disturbed by the worries of providing for a family on a meager salary. Even the purchase of a hunting license and box of shells had to be carefully budgeted, for money was always tight.
It had happened gradually, this loss of youth and exuberance, slowly replaced by duty and responsibility. Duty and responsibility gradually gave way to numbness and resignation of a life lived paycheck to paycheck, with more month than money.
The boy was lost in youth. He did not feel the cold. He had no worries about his final exams, nor if he would have a girlfriend that year. He wasn’t worried about college yet. He had a singular focus…that of bird hunting. He was concerned about the future, but the thoughts were more immediate than those of the man. The boy only thought of the whirring of wings that would signal the rapid departure of a pheasant or quail with his next step; or the next.
It had not always been this way. Only a few months ago the boy was more interested in baseball than hunting. With the passing of the seasons, his limbs had grown longer and stronger His frame was finally up to the task of absorbing the recoil of a 16 gauge handed-down shotgun. He had grown up in a hunting family, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the field. Oddly it had been a friend that had introduced him to skeet at the age of eleven that fueled the fire that burned in him this day, turning back the cold. The man had intended to introduce the boy to hunting himself, but he had been consumed with weightier matters. The boy was bitten hard by lure of the shotgun and hunting bugs, seldom thinking of anything else. Each season was a one of practice, preparation, or participation, chasing of birds made of feather or clay.
Now the boy only knew sleepless nights on the eve of a promised day afield, when hours lasted an eternity and the promise of what would be was limitless. Stories in outdoor magazines fanned the flames of his hope. Each account read over and over until every line was unintentionally committed to memory.
They walked alone together, each in his own world of thought. The weather continued to worsen, the sky filled with frozen pellets of ice. The man thought of the difficult drive home, the boy thought only of wings.
The man chose a birdy-looking slough and quietly gave instructions to the boy. They moved slowly through the cover. Chaos with feathers erupted at their feet. Shotguns flew to shoulders, and shots fired almost automatically at small buff brown targets. Three quail fell, the boy taking his first double with a shotgun that had belonged to the man in more carefree days.
Neither of the pair felt the cold. Both only thought of the whirring of wings that would signal the rapid departure of a pheasant or quail.
They hunted on, chasing singles from the broken covey through the worsening storm. They had not the advantage of a dog; those were for wealthier hunters.
Shots were taken, some connecting. The weight of the game bag grew slightly.
The man took a final quail on a long shot. The little bird laid with closed eyes and a limp neck in the man’s hand as it was inspected, and then slipped into the game pouch of his hunting coat. The man’s watch told them that noon was upon them. They both felt hunger, and the cold. They began a return march to the farmhouse.
When they arrived the man opened the trunk of the car and neatly laid his hunting jacket inside, promising to return after the noon meal to clean the birds.
Following the mid-day repast, they returned to the car, wishing to get the chore over with. Keys rattled, the trunk opened. The whirring of wings signaled the rapid departure of a single quail from the depths of the trunk. The man and the boy stood together transfixed, watching the last bird that had been placed in the game bag and presumed dead, climb furiously out of sight against gray skies.
None of the three felt the cold…