Wyoming Wildlife magazine - 47

A late-season
chukar hunter's chant
Story by Tom Reed | Illustration by L. Eslick

I

t is not the knee, tender occasionally at just the wrong
angle, like stooping to pick
up my son or bending to feed
pine into a hungry fire. It is not the
ankle, which I never noticed was
swollen twice the other's size, an
ankle I laced tight in good boots
for days, ignoring the pain. It is still
not painful enough to stop lacing
and cease climbing. Up, always up.
It is the depth-of-darkness night awakenings when I replay the points and misses,
lie there and lament checking my swing on
that beautiful point, write a mental dirge for
a slip on mud at the edge of the world and a
shot gone awry while the dog launches into
the wind of the next one. For her, the hunt
is the thing. At least I tell myself she forgives
me and carpe diem is all for an animal that
lives only a baker's-dozen years. It is not the
elbow, banged sharply on sandstone. It is the
gumbo on the boots spanked together in a
fruitless attempt to clean lugs. It is the Big
Horn Basin mud washed into the laundry
drain. The fresh scratch on the stock of a gun
that has seen two decades of cliff damage and
still keeps shooting, a gun I frequently tell
myself to clean but rarely do.
It is the scent of sage on a setter's coat.
Long gone now, but somehow still there. It is
the flake of green chert I find in the pocket of
hunting pants about to go into the washer. It
is the feather on the floor of the driver's side,
mashed into boot mud, but somehow sharply

beautiful in its harlequin way. It is another
memory sift - this one perfect - the dog
solid, the birds out in simultaneous bursts
and the first bird dropping and the second
a whiff, but 50 percent is good enough. Flat
ground for a change and 50 percent. Cut it
down to 25 on the tilt. Heck, maybe even 15.
Why don't I practice those down-and-aways
in the off season instead of huffing through
25,000 calories for five seconds of bang and
blast and cuss?
It is the raw wind coming down off the
fresh snow and the raw wind coming down
off the melting snow days later. It is the tint
of rose light on the far mountains across the
basin, heading down to the pickup and the
vest half full, but the heart all full and the
dog still working because she always works.
It is my hunting pals there, munching chips
and drinking beer, and the note comparing
we do. It is reminding myself to stay in some
semblance of physical shape because this hunt
will go first, this slanted, glorious, frustrating,
love-hated wonderment of a hunt at the edge
of a wind-lashed world. It is the camper's
warm woodstove as the predicted rain comes
in from the west and a hot buttered rum that
reminds me of another hot buttered rum in
the same camp 20 years earlier, with an old
friend who does not climb these cliffs anymore. The gossamer, decades-old memory
of a brilliant chukar setter, and a covey of
chukar rising before the gun. Now this one
little dog of mine, an apex predator distantly
related to that predator two decades gone and
buried beneath these same chukar cliffs, apex
prey in laughing, running coveys of frustration distantly related to the same birds that
baffled the gun in decades past. Which, bird

or dog, is predator and which is prey? But
here I am on this unrefined, untamed land,
20 years on, hunting with a dog that traces
her code to that first dog, hunting chukar
with DNA tendrils to those birds long past.
A lucky man.
All of this brings me here as the light of
another year gone squeezes out of the sky
and winter takes a tight grip on greasewood
and rabbitbrush, juniper and sage. On the
sagebrush steppe of high desert winter, spring
is conceptual at best. Far warmer, more real,
are the memories of the beginning of the
season. How it was instead of how it will be.
Finally, as I head down the slope to the
distant pickup on the very last day, it is
reminding myself to write a letter to my old
mother still living in her mountain home,
clinging to her known world. A thank-you
letter, forgiving her for not backing my longgone high school football dreams. At long
last I understand she was instead supporting aspiration yet unborn, protecting young
knees so they could become functioning old
knees, joints to climb a cliff again and again
and again. A mother's wisdom and worry
pays off handsomely in this long game called
life, a life spent behind a good gun dog in
pursuit of a damnable, wonderful bird of the
desert uplands.
- Tom Reed is the author of several books including
Give Me Mountains For My Horses, Skyhorse Publishing,
New York. He is an avid upland bird hunter whose family
includes a pack of setters.
- Lori Eslick is an illustrator, artist, presenter, children's
picture book illustrator, author and workshop leader.
She regularly creates illustrations for Wyoming Wildlife
magazine's Wild Country Dispatch column. More of her
work can be seen at eslickart.com.

		 Wyoming Wildlife | 47


http://www.eslickart.com

Wyoming Wildlife magazine

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