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"I don't think they saw him come down," John said.
"It looked like he was hit pretty good," I said.
"When they flop like that they're usually dead."
And suddenly old Pete was there, drawn by the shot. He took off on a line down the field with his arthritic gait. I followed him at a fast walk as the old dog chugged down the field. Soon I was jogging as Pete picked up steam like a locomotive. I loved that old dog who was cold and partially deaf and stiff with arthritis and going as fast as he could down the field. All of a sudden two birds got up at the end of the field and I wanted to shoot but the voice said "No! No!" and then a rooster got up behind us and it was wonderful to finally know I had a shot and pull up on him and wait him out and touch off at perfect range. He came down hard and flopped several times and one of John's dogs had him before Pete could get stopped and turned around. The old dog walked up to us and plopped down with his sides heaving.
We worked another three fields before hitting a short draw. Coming out of it we saw some other hunters, the first we'd seen all morning. They weren't finding many birds. Someone has been hunting them already, they said. By noon the sky had cleared and the landscape was alive with the fast-moving shadows of cumulus clouds. The pickups had a two-inch layer of yellow mud inside and out. And we had only eight birds. John and I were happy because we had two apiece, a good morning by Michigan standards. The Kansans were grumbling. The worst opening morning they ever had. Damn poachers.
During the drive back to town for lunch, I kept looking at the wonderful bird cover we were passing. A good little one-man draw; a classic abandoned farmhouse with the yard full of weeds and broken-down outbuildings and a relic of a windmill; the road ditches; the fencerows. "Let me out here," I was thinking. "I'll walk back to town. I haven't known east from west all morning but I can see the water tower. I still got my breakfast sandwich in my pocket. Let me out at this draw." But I didn't say it. Kansas pheasant hunting did seem to be a social event.
One hour later we were just off Route 36 walking toward some railroad tracks in a huge wheat stubble field overgrown with sunflowers. Old Pete was so tired he stayed in the car. The other dogs were on everyone's blacklist because we had lost four cripples that morning.
The field was terraced and the sunflowers grew thicker and higher on top of the terraces. It was wonderful pheasant cover. I wanted to hunt it all myself, to zigzag from terrace to terrace. A cock rattled up in the sunlight on the other side of Clyde, in front of Terry, and he missed it three times. Another cock got up behind Terry and he wheeled around and killed it. Two more cocks and a hen jumped on the other side of us and the cocks stumbled in midair before we heard the firecracker burst of shots. We held up until the birds had been retrieved. When we started walking again a cock got up right in front of me. I shot too quickly and off to one side but the bird came down and three seconds later I was standing where he dropped looking crazily from side to side like a cartoon character with a big question mark over its head. Another cripple. John came over with his dogs and I threw my cap down to mark the spot. Just then five or six birds got squeezed too tight between the walkers and the railroad tracks and got up. The firecrackers went off again and I watched one cock angling toward us. There were other birds flying, too, but I kept my eye on just that one. When he was as close as he would get, just out of range it seemed, I shot boom boom boom and the bird rocked. Then BOOM! I looked straight up to see another cock tumbling through the sky and John let out a whoop and the bird hit the ground and bounced three feet and was dead.
John was ecstatic. "What a shot! Comin' right at us. Did you shoot him, too?" he asked me.
"No, I never saw that bird. I was shooting at one out in front of us."