Bill speaks English to the dog. I didn't know dog men did that, I thought they had a code of whistles and arm signals. "Bad dog. Why'd you go right by that one? Get back here. Hunt close, dad-blame you." The dog's behavior borders on disobedience, but he finds birds all over the place. It is much too warm. It threatens to rain. The country is delightfully good-for-nothing.
The dog points. Bill shouts, "Bird!" I am getting the safety off and raising my weapon and the bird is hovering to its cruising altitude, and about the time Bill gets to the letter "d" of his announcement his Winchester goes block! unresonantly and the scintillating flier becomes a misshapen bag, dropping earthward without forward motion.
"What happened to you?" Bill asks. "I waited about as long as I could, and then I thought, well, I better shoot. Hunt dead, boy, hunt dead."
I didn't want to say I was waiting for the bird to get farther away, because that isn't quite true, but really the nearness, in this form of hunting, is at first pretty freaky. You want a short-barreled gun with an improved cylinder over a modified one, so the pattern fans out quickly, and tiny shot like 9s, because you put up woodcock from almost underfoot. Then you pull a switch that makes a noise that de-alives them instantly when they are no farther away than a basketball hoop is from a sixth-grader underneath. Intimate.
Not at all easy, however. There is a lot of missing even on the part of my guide and teacher, who is as far beyond being a deliberate, conscious shooter as I am short of it. For one thing, the dog misses some of the birds, which flush without warning, same as with no dog. Or the dog accidentally flushes birds too far ahead. Or there isn't time. Or there isn't a clear view. Or the direction of the bird's flight is completely unexpected and difficult. Before we get rained out this first afternoon, Bill has four woodcock and a grouse and I have missed three shots and failed to get off several others, sometimes because of that wrong-handed safety and sometimes because I thought, and worse, thought negative thoughts, about the shots and the range and the general prospects of filling one of those little featherballs full of lead.
The following morning was clear and colder. I needed a second act to my initiation to woodcock hunting and said yes again. One part had been accomplished, I thought. The safety was getting pushed off and the gun up and the shot fired, sometimes. There remained to imprint this procedure with a few more repetitions, and then, possibly, give attention to aiming. I was already going rather too fast in spiritual terms and was as embarrassed internally about that as I was externally, vis-�-vis Bill, for learning so slowly. Spiritually, I should not even have had shells in the gun. But Bill was beginning to say things like, "I thought sure you would have gotten that one," and "You will never get an easier shot than that one." I didn't think he would understand the way I was trying to allow myself to learn purposelessly. I did not think he would even like me if I told him how little I cared to kill the woodcock, or how little angry with myself I was for each miss.
How could I be angry? For one thing, I didn't have any idea, when I missed, why I had missed. And thinking about it, concentrating, gritting my teeth, making threatening resolutions to myself, did not seem proper to such a sport. I have never believed in hurrying my education, as a wing shot or a lover or anything else. All I wanted of this second day was a sense of form.
I parked at the edge of a lake and waited. He was late again, taking 12 muskrat from his traps. I listened to some taped conversations with the late Evelyn Waugh on CBC radio in my truck. Waugh said the only thing that had improved in his lifetime was penmanship. He must not have been corresponding with the same people I was.
Bill brought his family. We drove much further this time, not out of the mountains into the flatlands but along one of the wide remote valleys within the range to a few well-separated, unprofitable but apparently unalarmed old farmsteads well back up from the river-following road.
I couldn't pull the trigger on my first opportunity, a grouse. The dog had pointed it under the balsams along a split-rail fence. It flushed straight ahead and low, but my finger slid the safety back on going into the trigger guard. Missed my second, too, an easy going-away shot at a woodcock that held under the dog's point until we practically kicked it. In short, I seemed to have backslid, if that was possible. Third chance: a bird lying tightly in some balsams. A miserable place to shoot, no room, no time, Bill and I approaching one another on either side of the dense cover. The bird, a woodcock, suddenly whirred up, not climbing to the treetops as usual but obliquely slanting away on the rise. I didn't do anything consciously but the bird was blown away, accelerated, by my shot, and tumbled ahead into the alders and leaves. The dog fetched it and brought it to Bill.