Saturday, November 20, 2010

It's hunting season

(Editor's note: This is the hunting chapter from Farewell Bend the novel -- hunting and football filled the papers of The Argus Observer. Coming soon -- The Vale Game, 1954 and 1955.)

Pete’s model A plowed through a circle of light ending abruptly fifteen yards in front of the car. A soft blanket of new snow three inches deep lined the country road. A few flakes fell softly on the dark cold countryside, sticking briefly to the windshield and whirling through the cracks where the passenger door on my side bounced loosely against the frame. We had set out before daybreak for our favorite hunting ground where the Malheur River passes just south of Malheur Butte. Pete was silent as he nursed the aging car down the highway to Vale, watching for the gravel road that cut off to the butte. I wondered if he and Faye were having problems. I decided not to ask. Why spoil the hunting?
As we passed the Doran ranch, I was reminded of the hunting outings my father took me on twice each fall. Kate Doran and her husband Keith owned the place, and Dad knew them well because Kate had worked as a reporter for The Argus-Observer before she was married. The Dorans were in their thirties with a young child who had named their hunting dog Jimmy Kavanagh in honor of my father.
On our last outing that fall, as Dad and I walked down a set of pickup tracks to start working a cornfield, shotguns slung over our shoulders, my father actually strutted along, which he’d never do on Oregon Street. I strutted alongside. We talked about hunting, not work or school. And we bagged three roosters, a good result for us. My father was not a great shot, and if I scored a hit, it was mostly accidental. It was important to get five or six good chances during each outing. We usually could, working the cornfields and ditch banks on the Doran ranch. Dad had made it clear, however, that the Dorans’ was not a place I could take Pete. “Two teenagers could easily mess up a good thing,” he said.
Pete and I contented ourselves with a piece of vacant, unmarked land behind Malheur Butte and along the small, slow-moving river. We used it both for pheasant hunting and waiting for ducks to settle in one of the eddies.
As Pete urged his car through the fresh snow, I held out little hope for any success with ducks. The best we would get was a good shot or two. Even then, bringing a duck home was unlikely without a dog to fetch it out of the river.
We had planned to be waiting in a thicket before daylight, at a spot we knew the ducks liked to frequent. But it was later as we closed in on the butte. The sun was beginning to light a streak on the skyline in Pete’s rear view mirror.
He pointed at the reflection and shook his head, smiling and curling his upper lip at the same time.
“If you could get out of the house on time, Jack, we’d already be at the river,” he said.
“Don’t worry. Those ducks aren’t going anywhere. It’s too cold,” I said.
I wrapped my arms around my body. Even with a sweater and heavy coat, the wind blowing into the car worked its way down my neck and through the coat. Pete again drove in silence.
There was no excuse for being slow to get out of the house. It was a habit. I was always ten minutes late for an early morning hunting trip. Pete knew that.
“Is that the reason you’re in a foul mood?” I asked and laughed.
“Foul mood. I made a joke.”
Pete looked at me and grinned. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “You are an odd ball. Somebody in FFA class said you’re an intellectual, whatever that is.”
Without warning, he hit the brakes so hard we went into a skid. I looked forward to see the headlights pick up a line of fence posts. We came up too fast on a T intersection that we both knew was there but was hidden by a sudden flurry of snow. Despite the rough surface of the gravel road, a line of fence posts was coming at us too fast. I reached for the dash to brace myself as Pete fought the steering wheel, still hoping to make the turn.
“Ice,” Pete said.
He’d hit a slick spot. A heavy, icy rain earlier that week had left a large puddle that froze over.
The car slid forward with no bite on the steering wheel and no catch in the tires. There was nothing for Pete to do but let it drift toward the near side of the fence.
As the slow-motion action played out, the car ended up straddling the shallow ditch, with its left front fender leaning against a fence post.
Pete hopped out.
“Goddamn it, it’s dented,” he said, looking at the fender.
“What about the post?” I asked.
“It’s bent over, but the farmer will never know who ran into it.”
“Not if we can back out of here. I don’t know, with the ditch and the snow.”
“Get your ass out here and push. We’re going to need all the power we can get,” Pete said, leaning in through the window.
“I don’t mind steering. You can push harder than I can,” I volunteered, keeping a straight face.
Pete did not bother to stifle a laugh.
“You push first,” he said and jumped back behind the wheel, waving his arm at me to hop on out.
The traction of the tires on the snow and dirt where we had come to a stop worked better than we expected. The car started moving backwards with just a little push, scraped its front bumper on the ditch bank but stayed in motion through the dip. The back tires found some solid road. Within minutes, we were once again headed toward the butte.
“So did you hear the one about the ugly farmer’s daughter who was showing the traveling salesmen her dad’s prize bulls,” Pete asked, turning to me and laughing as if he’d just remembered the joke.
“I’m sure I have. Where do you get these things anyway, in FFA class?”
“You got a better one?”
“Not this morning,” I said. I was too cold from pushing the car out of a snow pile to remember any jokes.
“You never know any jokes.”
“What about your foul mood?”
Pete sneered and was quiet for a moment.
“So you going with Joyce to the Christmas dance?” he asked.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Word gets around,” he said, focusing his full attention on the road as he followed a turn to the right to head directly toward the outline of Malheur Butte beginning to take shape against the gradually lightening sky.
Despite going out with Faye Peterson, Pete still carried around a longing for Joyce Earns. It went back to the time, five years earlier, that they rode horses at the same stable. I also knew Pete wouldn’t do anything about his crush. Joyce was the prettiest girl in my class, really kind of Hollywood pretty, a perfect complexion, flawless features, no strand of her out of place. She struck most boys as unapproachable. But we were getting to be friends, beginning to joke around about our lousy history teacher whose idea of instruction was reading out of the text. And with Joyce’s boyfriend out of town, she had talked to me about looking for a friend to take her to the Christmas dance. I didn’t have much luck with the girls I liked, but I was beginning to think I could make something happen with Joyce.
“I doubt it, but it’s up to her,” I said.
“So you were just bullshitting me about having trouble finding dates?”
“With her boyfriend living in Portland, we’re getting to be friends. At least we talk. She might need somebody to take her to the dance, but she isn’t interested in a real date.”
I watched Pete’s jaw muscles work a bit and then relax. He knew she could go out with any of the top jocks, even the Mormons who usually didn’t date anyone but the girls who went to their church. As pretty as she was, and smart, she did not need a guy to help her get out of town.
Pete said nothing more as he guided the Model A across a bridge over the Malheur River. He turned right onto a narrow dirt road that circled away from the river, behind the northern side of the butte, into our usual parking spot. The road’s end there defined the northern border of a pocket of wild land leading to the river.
We pulled our shotguns out of the back, loaded them, and walked in silence, wandering through sagebrush and weed thickets toward a backwater pond. The field was fertile bottomland that had not been claimed for alfalfa. It wasn’t exactly level ground, and it could be difficult to get equipment into.
With pheasant season over, we were stuck scouting the area for ducks. Those sleek birds were difficult to get close to and hard to knock down, at least for me. Pete always insisted it was not that difficult a shot for him. I never saw much evidence of that. We often went home skunked from one of these duck outings. If he hit a duck, it was usually because the bird’s wings were set gliding into a landing. I could knock one down under those circumstances. And I often did.
Pete’s advantage came in the form of a three-shot semi- automatic twelve gauge, and he was sometimes lucky with his third shot. With my double-barreled twelve gauge, I got off just one effective shot. By the time I got my finger on the back trigger, my second shot was slow, an afterthought.
. This morning as the light began to glint off the red thistles peeking out of the snow, we had to search to find our usual path to the river. Tall clumps of slender willows, blanketed in white, were everywhere and almost indistinguishable.
Without warning, Pete’s shotgun went off immediately behind me. Hot air from the barrel blasted my left ear and neck before I could duck.
“What the hell?”
Pete sidled past me through the weeds, grinning slightly.
“Goddamn it, Pete, don’t pull that kind of shit.”
“Scared you, did I?”
“Not funny. What if I moved sideways? Or turned around?”
“It wasn’t even close. The barrel was over your head.”
“It didn’t sound like it. Didn’t feel like it.”
I watched Pete move on ahead, his gun dangling at his side, chuckling to himself, and I thought about bringing up his dad’s death. It felt strange that he could mess around with guns. Could he be taking out his father’s bad luck on me? I didn’t think he would do that. I decided the thing with Joyce pissed him off.
Now I was the one who was seriously pissed. It was stupid to be best friends with a guy who could pull a stunt like that. I liked hunting, but I didn’t like messing with guns. Pete was too sure of his ability to back off at the right time, too willing to take big risks. I made a promise to myself then and there that I’d get away from him if he ever again even looked like he was going to mess with a loaded gun. I’d watch him. The next time anything like that happened, I’d call it the end of our friendship.
He must have been reading my mind.
“Don’t worry. I won’t do it again. You might shit your pants,” he said, just loud enough for me to hear over the sound of our feet crunching on the snow.
“You bet you won’t. I won’t give you a chance to get behind me where I can’t see you.”
“Shhhh. We’re almost at the pool.”
We cut to the left, down river toward where it backed up behind a bend in the bank and a small island. During pheasant season, we had seen ducks land and take off at this spot. We approached through trees at the water’s edge, moving quietly, picking out the trail that led us most directly to a place to peer over the edge of the bank at the target section of slow water. Even with snow on the trees, we knew this place. Its taller willows were more distinctive than the clumps of brush we had just walked through.
I hung back, and Pete took the lead moving to the riverbank, the sound of the flowing water becoming audible above the crunch of our boots on the frozen ground.
“Look!” Pete mouthed the warning hoarsely. “To your right.”
I heard the birds swoosh as he spoke. They coasted in with their wings set, coming over the river in a flying V from the west, fifty feet above the water. Pete pulled up to take a bead on one as I slid to his left and down the bank a yard to get room for a shot. Pete got his off first. The nearest duck flipped over and fell into the river. I pulled the trigger as the ducks began to beat their wings to pull up, veering away to the south. Pete took a second shot. Nothing. We both let go with another round, hoping our shot patterns could still reach the fleeing tail of the last duck. No luck. Four birds still in the sky, returning to formation, darted behind the tree line on the other side of the river.
“Follow me down river. I may need some help getting that duck out,” Pete said, beginning to run along the bank, his feet slipping a bit in the snow and ice.
“You’ve got the good wading boots,” he shouted.
“I’ll get a long branch,” I said as I leaned my spent double barrel against one of the sturdier willows, making sure the shotgun wouldn’t slip into the snow. I searched for a dead branch long enough to help snake the duck out of the current, sturdy enough not to break, and slim enough I could get a good hold on it. The best stick was only about five feet long. And the search took a couple of minutes.
“Over here,” Pete yelled from twenty-five yards downstream.
I struggled through the underbrush to where he stood at the water’s edge and laughed out loud at what I saw.
Pete was ejecting an unspent shell from his automatic while the duck, which had waddled up onto a bit of mud bank, staggered around in front of him.
“I don’t want to shoot it again at this range. It’ll ruin the meat,” Pete shouted, breathing loudly as he worked the action on his automatic.
“Hit him with this before he gets back in the water and swims away,” I said, getting ready to toss my stick down the embankment to where the wounded, staggering bird was about to stumble back into the river.
“I’m gonna use the shotgun,” Pete said and swung it like a bat so it clipped the duck in the head. It toppled over. He then picked up the bird and swung it around, as my grandmother would do with a chicken to break its neck before she chopped its head off.
“One of us needs to get a retriever if we’re going to keep doing this,” I offered as he stuffed the duck into his hunting vest.
We returned to a spot near the backwater pool and found a place to sit on a log behind some willows, so that we were situated in a natural blind.
“You think they’ll come back after we shot at one group of them,” I asked after we had waited quietly for ten or twelve minutes.
“Who knows? You want to walk upriver?”
“Let’s wait a bit longer. But I’m getting cold. I can’t sit here forever,” I said.
After another five minutes of quiet, Pete shifted his feet and, without looking at me, asked: “So when you take Joyce home after school, do you go park someplace?”
“I’ve only taken her home once. Hey, we talk about you, how you had horses in the same stable and used to go riding every weekend,” I lied.
“What does she say about me?”
“You used to have a lot of fun,” I lied some more. We had never talked about Pete. “I don’t think she knows you have a crush on her.”
“Well, I never said anything. Now I can’t. It would screw things up with Faye.”
“Are things getting serious with Faye?”
He nodded.
“So you doing it?”
“No,” he said, looking away so it was clear he was lying. “Just heavy petting.”
“I don’t believe that. You’ve been heavy petting for a long time.”
“She’d kill me if she knew I told you.”
“You using rubbers?”
“Most of the time.”
“When you don’t, do you worry?”
“Yeah. So does she. Mostly we say we’re not going to do it. Then we just get carried away.”
“Be careful Pete, unless you want to be stuck in Farewell Bend the rest of your life.”
“You don’t think I know that.”
He looked at me and smiled as if he was about ready to tell a joke. This time he stopped himself.
We sat quietly another twenty minutes. Sitting still was getting easier because the sun had finally climbed high enough to be slightly warming.
“Let’s walk upriver some. Maybe cross over. See if we can find a few birds,” Pete suggested.
“What about the no-hunting signs over there?”
The farmers with land along the south bank posted their fences right across the trail along the river’s edge. During pheasant season, we had honored those for the most part — making just one or two treks along that side of the river, hoping to scare any pheasants we encountered across onto our favored triangle of land. Late in the season, one of the farmers caught us on his posted land and chewed us out, shouting from atop his tractor, which we hadn’t noticed as it headed our direction.
“Ah, ain’t none of these farmers will be out on a cold Sunday morning,” Pete said.
“Yeah. What the hell.”
Driving in, we had crossed the river on a bridge a half mile upstream. On foot, there was another alternative. An elevated silver irrigation pipe, six feet in diameter, spanned the water with the help of suspension wires that gave us something to hold onto as we worked our way along.
During pheasant season, it usually stayed dry and the crossing proved easy, even carrying our shotguns. This morning, with four inches of snow beginning to melt off the top of the tube, the footing looked treacherous.
“I don’t know about that thing,” I said as we reached the point where we had to climb the chain link fence that protected the irrigation pipe’s mounts at both ends. Climbing was made easier because of wood posts close to the chain link. The posts formed part of a barbed wire fence stretching off to the west, keeping a dozen cows contained in a pasture.
“You going to let a little snow stop us? Just hold on tight,” Pete said.
“It’s my shotgun I’m worried about. I’m going to need both hands to hold onto the cable,” I said. “Same for you.”
“Just move slow. Carry the shotgun in your left hand and lean against the cable if you have to. I’ll go first.”
Pete heaved himself up and started across, keeping one boot well planted against the tube at all times while pushing the snow aside with the other.
“The water’s only four or five feet deep here. Just be a little cold to fall into,” he shouted back as he started across.
“I think I’ll let you have that side, and I’ll walk the road down to the bridge. Meet up with you there,” I said.
Pete proceeded to cross and clamber over the chain link fence at the other end, making it look easy despite his weight. I reconsidered and pulled myself to the top of the fence post, where I could step onto the end supports for the tube and slide easily onto the top of the tube itself.
“Come on. Don’t be a pussy,” Pete shouted.
As I stepped onto the huge pipe with both feet, I let go of my shotgun, catching it as it bounced back at me. Fortunately, I had unloaded it. I stood for a minute thinking how lucky that had been. I did not want to have to climb down after the gun and then back up again.
Once I got my balance atop the tube, sliding across proved fairly easy. Pete had the right idea.
That was until a flight of ducks came in low overhead, gliding into the backwater pool we had abandoned earlier.
Pete swung his gun across an arc that included where I stood exposed atop the tube.
“No,” I shouted.
He held his fire until the ducks were well down river before he let go with a round.
But the sound startled me. My feet started slipping inexorably down the side of the tube. I dropped my shotgun and tried to grab the cable with both hands, reaching across my body with my left arm. I acted too late. I dangled above the water holding onto the cable with one hand.
I couldn’t pull myself back up. My fingers were too cold. They just wouldn’t grip with any strength. I let go, trying to lurch atop of the tube to balance myself there.
That didn’t work either. Over a few seconds, I slowly slid down the shining silver side of the water conveyor, finally dropping in a rush, splashing into the murky, cold water.
The fall didn’t hurt. I covered the distance of ten feet from the top of the tube to the surface still upright, making only a small splash as I went in. The river proved to be only four feet deep as my boots touched bottom, but the mud gave way for another six inches. The bitter cold shocked me as the water penetrated my clothes. That wasn’t the worst part. The mud sucked at my wadding boots. The current pulled at me with more strength than I expected
I leaned into the water, holding my breath, feeling around in the mud at the bottom. On a second try, I located the gun before I came up for air.
“I can’t wade out,” I shouted to Pete. “The mud is too deep.”
“Hold on. I’ll get a branch to reach you. Try to work your way to this side.”
“God it’s cold!”
“I know,” Pete said.
He disappeared and took forever to find a branch to reach me with. It flashed through my mind that he really was pissed about Joyce. Or he thought I wasn’t working hard enough to get him a job as a photog at the paper.
“C’mon Pete, where the hell are you?” I shouted.
“I’m going to try to swim,” I yelled and flung my shotgun to the shore, falling on my back under the surface a third time.
When I came back up, I still didn’t see Pete.
“I got to get out of here,” I told myself.
Standing again, I bent forward to work my legs out of the boots that had me anchored. After a frighteningly long struggle, I freed myself. Then I lunged toward the shoreline, ineffectively beating my arms and legs inside my waterlogged wool coat and pants. It took another five minutes while I was pushed by the current fifteen yards downstream to finally make it close to shore.
Suddenly, I saw Pete alongside me. He’d waded in to help the last ten feet.
“Where you been, man?” I sputtered, shaking from the cold and exertion.
“Couldn’t find a branch,” he said.
After I climbed dripping over the side of the bank, he stripped off my wet coat and wrapped me in his dry one, which he had thought to shed before wading in. But there was nothing to do for my bootless feet.
We were in trouble. We were both soaked, and I was so tired and cold I felt unable to move. Without his coat, and with his pants wet now, Pete was freezing as well.
“It will take me an hour to walk around by the bridge. I got to try to cross the tube again, then drive around,” Pete said. “That’s quickest.”
I doubted I could hold out that long.
“We’ve got to find a farm house close by,” I said.
Pete agreed and started up the trail along the riverside, toward the road and some houses we remembered there.
I followed but very soon he was out of sight in the riverside thicket.
My feet were numb. They quit aching, but I could not feel them and I wanted to sit down, though I knew I had to keep moving. I could only feel my hands by rubbing them together. They ached. I trudged slowly up the trail.
I was beginning to get confused and stumble when I heard a shout.
“What the hell do you kids think you are doing?”
It was the farmer we’d seen weeks before on his tractor.
“You are both stupid, stupid assholes,” he said and scooped me up. Pete carried my legs and the farmer held me by my armpits as they staggered a hundred yards across a snow-covered pasture to his pickup, left where he’d been throwing hay bales to his heifers. He raced to his house where he called an ambulance and, I was told later, stripped me and wrapped me in a blanket.
Pete went home, crawled into bed for the rest of the day, and returned to school on Monday.
I spent Sunday night being monitored for hypothermia at St. Mary’s Hospital. I thought the aching in my feet would never go away.
Monday was better. Two duty nuns stopped by my bed with soup and woke me for lunch. They clucked away and tried to sympathize. I tried to imagine what they wore underneath those black and white robes. My mother brought in the latest issues of Time and Life and a radio, and I forgot where I was for a few hours, listening to “One Life to Live” and “Queen for a Day.” I was eight again, staying home from school with the flu. I thought for a while I would be happy to be kept there another night, until I asked the nurse what was for dinner.
“Boiled fish,” she answered.
Late that afternoon, my doctor took my pulse, leaned over the bed, listened to my heart, and said he was happy to let me go home.
“Get some exercise. Play some basketball. But keep those feet out of the cold for awhile,” he warned as he hustled from the hospital room.
That settled, I tried to think what to do about Pete. I wasn’t sure he’d been intentionally slow pulling me from the water. But I was going to make him explain.
That lasted a week. He called to offer me a ride to school. I accepted and neither one of us talked about duck hunting. Pete had a few jokes ready, and it was easy to put the whole thing behind us.
After all, I decided, he had waded in. He could have been in trouble himself from the cold water if that farmer hadn’t come along.

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