Six men spread in a line across the field, wary and still, shotguns at the ready. The sun had barely sunk below the tree line, but the few moments of the peach and pink of evening had faded, leaving the sky clear, cloudless, and the color of new cream. In the woods behind him, Shaw Tucker could hear the discordant gabble of birds gathering in the trees, settling down for night and making their plans for the following day. Grackles, sounded like. It was late in the season and any birds who were going to fly south for the winter were gone.
Shaw flexed the fingers of his free hand, trying to ease the stiffness out of them. It was getting cold. He had to resist the temptation to stamp his feet. A sigh of a breeze briefly ruffled the tall grass, making a shushing sound that faded quickly back into stillness. Nothing moved.
They were in there, he knew it. It was a test of nerves, now. To his left, Shaw could just see his brother James and James’ two teenaged sons out of the corner of his eye, arrayed across the clearing at twenty yard intervals. He turned his head to the right to look at his own two sons. Gee Dub and Charlie were standing tensely, watching the brushy field, unmoving as stone, only the fog of their breath in the sharp November air betraying the fact that they were alive.
It had taken the six of them a quarter of an hour to ease themselves out of the woods and into the clearing far enough to be able to get a clean shot, but Shaw figured that any further would be pushing their luck. Two black, tan, and white hounds were sitting close to his feet, one on either side, obedient but quivering with excitement. He could tell by their riveted attention that they had marked their quarry.
A speckled bird dog was working the field, back and forth in a zig-zag pattern, his nose to the ground. As the dog moved further into the field, only his back and feathery tail protruded above the tall, dried grasses.
The dog slowed and took a tentative step or two before his head popped into sight and his tail dropped, creating a straight line from nose to tail-tip as he froze on point.
Shaw emitted a tiny whistle between his teeth and his dogs shot forward into the grass like a couple of bullets, one to the left and one to the right, approaching the pointer in a wide circle. As they neared, James signaled the pointer with a piercing whistle of his own and the dog leaped forward. Faced with a three-sided assault and no escape route, the entire covey of quail flushed.
Shaw was peripherally aware that his companions raised their shotguns at the same time he did, aiming into the air above the dogs’ trajectory. He barely had time to seat the stock on his shoulder before the half-dozen quail took to the air in a panic. He chose his prey and sighted it along the barrel of his gun as it rose above the treetops. A shot rang out to his right and one of the birds nosedived, but Shaw didn’t allow himself to be distracted. He pulled the trigger and his target spun in the air, flapped a couple of times, then managed a crazy, zig-zag landing at the far edge of the field.
Shaw barely heard the blasts of the guns on either side of him. He had more than likely only winged his quarry. He huffed, torn between feeling disappointed that he hadn’t killed the creature outright and pleased that he had hit it at all.
The dogs were still crashing around through the tall grass, each heading for dead or wounded birds to retrieve. Shaw had never seen his brother’s bird dog hunt before. He was impressed. He had only had the opportunity to see Happy at family gatherings and hadn’t thought much of the pup’s brainpower. He was aptly named, though, as goofy and good-natured as a creature could be.
Shaw had owned his two hounds for years. He had trained them himself and he had to admit that Crook and Buttercup were two of the best hunters he had ever run. They were ’coon hounds, natural stalkers, and unusually smart. They seemed to know automatically what kind of game their master was after and exactly which skills were required of them on each hunt. They could tree raccoons, trail foxes, keep a bear at bay, flush birds, and were good retrievers on land or water. Their only defect was that they were both terrible watchdogs since they were friends with everyone they met. But Shaw couldn’t fault them for it. They loved children, and for a man with ten of his own, that was a good trait for a dog to have.
James and the boys all descended on him, laughing and excited and talking at once.
“I didn’t hit nothing, Uncle Shaw, but I think Daddy did.” “I don’t know, Jerry, I think mine got away, too.”
“Gee Dub sure got his, Daddy. Blowed his head clean off!” “I saw two more go down, Dad. One looked to be still alive.” Shaw put his arm around his oldest son’s shoulders. “That was mine, Gee Dub. I just nicked him, looked like. When the dog fetches him back, I’ll have to wring his neck, I reckon.”
As he said the words, Crook emerged from the grass with a headless quail in his mouth. Shaw praised the dog before he took the bird by the feet and held it up with a laugh. “Well, I’ll be switched! I guess Gee did blow his head clean off! Go on, Crook, bring me another one.”
Crook disappeared and Shaw handed the bird to Gee Dub, who put it in the satchel slung over his shoulder.
James nodded toward a wave of moving grass. “Here comes Buttercup yonder with another bird.”
The hound trotted out of the field with something in her mouth, her head high and her tail awag, obviously pleased with herself, and sat down at Shaw’s feet.
Charlie leaned over to inspect her treasure. “What do you got, girl? This ain’t no bird. Why, it’s an old boot!”
“Thanks, Buttercup.” Shaw sounded more amused than unhappy about it. “I believe I’ve got plenty of footwear.”
Shaw’s nephew Jimmy moved up to take a better look. “That old thing has sure seen better days! Looks like it’s been lying out in the woods for a spell. There’s something inside it.”
“Probably a dead critter or some such,” Gee Dub said. “I bet that’s what interested her.”
Amid the sounds of disgust at this suggestion, Charlie turned the boot upside down and gave it a shake. Dirt and leaf litter fell out onto the ground with a plop. The boy stirred it around with his toe before peering back down the boot top. “There’s something still in here. Looks like a couple of sticks.” He shook it again, but his only reward was a rattling noise.
Shaw was suddenly struck by foreboding. He extended his hand. “Let me have that, son.”
A glimpse of two jagged, grey protrusions confirmed his fear. “What is it, Uncle Shaw?”
“Nothing, Jerry. Some furry little thing built a nest in an old boot, is all. You children check the field for more downed birds. Charlie, you find Crook.”
The boys scattered but James didn’t move. “Shaw?”
“It’s bones, James. Seems we got us a boot complete with its own leg and foot.”
An expression of dread passed over James’ face. “Old?” “Yes, right old, no worry about that. Stick with the boys a spell and I’ll see what Buttercup has dug up.” Shaw knelt down in front of the dog and held the boot under her nose. “Where’d you get this, gal? Show me!”
He gave a short warbling whistle and Buttercup took off through the grass, heading toward the curve of woods bordering the clearing to the north with Shaw hot on her heels.
# # #
The dog put her head down and sniffed around in a little circle right at the edge of the woods. Because of the grass, Shaw was practically on top of her before he could see what had momentarily distracted her. Another small piece of grey bone with a finger-thick vine wrapped around it was lying on top of a flat rock that was half embedded in the dirt.
Shaw’s first thought was that this shard of bone had fallen out of the boot when Buttercup was carrying it. He reached for it, but jerked his hand back when the vine moved.
A small, greenish brown snake lifted its head and regarded him. Shaw backed up a step. What on earth was a snake doing out at this time of year? The earlier part of the day had been mild and obviously the snake was soaking up whatever warmth remained in the rock. But still…
It was November and the evening was frosty! That critter should have been curled up in a hole with his kinfolks for the past month.
Yet there it was. A snake wrapped around a bone, giving him the eye. Shaw fought off a flood of superstitious dread.
Buttercup reappeared from the woods and emitted a wuff. Are you coming? Shaw looked at her, then back at the rock. The bone was still there but the snake had gone.
Shaw blinked. Had he actually seen what he thought he saw, or had it been a trick of the shadows? He shook himself.
“Come on, Buttercup. Let’s see what you’ve found.”