It was time for a compromise. Few of the Eastern Shore guiding operations are as big as Vonnie's. Mostly your hunting guide was the farmer who owned the land. Like Kenny Shrader, just out of town, who had a couple of ponds on his property and 10 acres of corn left uncut. So we fixed on Shrader. The date we set turned out to be a morning perfect for the Ride of the Valkyries. Wild gray clouds scudded overhead, and the water out on the Bay whipped up white. White indeed as Jay's face when the geese came tolling into the decoys and his father and I quickly limited out. It was physically hard for the boy to bring the big pump gun up fast, but in the end he had the stage to himself, and in the end, by heaven, he brought one down.
We grabbed him in congratulation. It was a Norman Rockwell moment, as corny as the fields of Silver Queen that are the pride of the Eastern Shore. That was after we had picked him up. "I didn't see my goose go down," said Jay. "Did he go down?" We told him yes. "The gun threw me back so much," Jay said.
Which gave me the chance to tell the story I had heard growing up in Wales about the old man with his flintlock gun and its five-foot barrel and how a couple of strangers saw him fire it at a goose flock, heard the gun go off like a bomb and lay the old man flat. Twenty minutes it took them to revive him. The old man's first words were, "Did I get the goose?" They told him he had. He turned to his gun and slapped its stock. "Bless you, old beauty," he crooned to it. "You treated me extra kind this time. Mostly it takes me an hour to come round. But I always gets the goose!"
This, I told Jay, was the true spirit of goose hunting, a hard sport. And now, to celebrate this initiation, his proud father was driving, not to the Hellhole, but to Tommy Morel's house. Morel is a taxidermist; the boy's first goose would attain a limited form of immortality. That, however, was not the reason we had the party at Brayton's house at the end of goose-hunting season.
The Goosefest, in fact, celebrated the first successes we had had on the Brayton farm. We had learned the hard way, pretty much on our own, aside from our basic tutorials with Haggerty and Vonnie and at Shrader's. We had learned to call respectably, to shoot respectably. We downed our first goose, I noted, on Jan. 8, and there would be a few more before the season ended along with the month, so that Brayton's wife, Robin, could serve them up at the inaugural dinner of the Rye Hall Gun Club, named for the Braytons' home.
There is a postscript. It has always seemed to Chestertonians that for the past couple of decades the Canada goose was a limitless resource. But this year the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has shortened the season from 70 to 60 days and cut the bag limit in the opening portion of the season to one goose per day and then, after a two-week hiatus in hunting, to two geese thereafter. Since 1986, a steady reduction had been noted in the number of geese returning to Maryland, according to the DNR (a fact spotted a season earlier by Floyd Price).
And strangely, though there were odd, hysterical voices raised against the decision—and a death threat to Larry Hindman, the state program manager for migratory game birds—the reaction in Chestertown has been resignation, understanding. The town, after all, has survived for more than 300 years.
And there are ways, after all, of compensating. In the Hellhole, a voice from the depths declared, "The pickin' price will go up, that's all." And from Vonnie's, the ever-philosophical voice of Price: "All through the '50s, when I was guiding, the bag limit was one. And I didn't suffer any. I'm a farmer. I don't expect 100 bushels an acre every year."
And as for the Rye Hall Gun Club—if we bagged a single goose every time we went out, hell, we would start our own Hall of Fame.