But the moment was spoiled, worse than spoiled. This time Bill said, "Do you see where you're shooting?" I shouldn't have shot at all. Out of sight beyond the balsams he had moved further ahead than I since I last heard his voice, and when I shot he was only about 30 degrees to the side. "That's too close, much too close," he said. I agreed.
For a while I felt that this was simply too difficult. We hunted on, but I was just going through the paces with my mouth shut. We seemed too much, too many hunters for the old overgrown hillside, too much flying lead for these three-teaspoon dinners.
The bell interfered with the dog's knees, and it had begun to chip the fluff off them, down to the red. Still, he ran or trotted indefatigably all day while we marched up the once-tidy pastures, three abreast, pivoted, marched across, pivoted, marched down.
I was still looking for form, still having trouble with the gun and missing the easy shot. We hunted one large hillside farm, above the homestead, where a Polish veteran of wars and POW camps now kept Shetlands, beef, dairy cattle, ducks, geese, pigeons, chickens and goats; not many of each. And, apparently, daughters, one of whom appeared on top of the hill above and came down to us all quilted up in scarlet, saying she'd been "lookin' around." She had a big deer rifle with her.
From anywhere except the thickest covers we could see the widest, loveliest mountain-rimmed valley, a view 75 miles long and 50 deep; the evergreens and occasional poplars on the hillsides were the only trees left with leaves, greens and golds brilliant among the ruddy grays of bare twigs and leaf-covered ground. The dog pointed probably a dozen birds. We jumped as many others, yet came back down to the farm again with only two woodcock. Nobody shot too well.
On the second of these woodcock we killed, after Bill's wife missed with her quick first shot, we all let loose following shots together and I felt a change inside. The bird was at long range, going away to my left. I believe that I followed it, led it, had the proper spirit toward it, and until I realized that Bill and Ginny had both shot too, I supposed that I had killed it. Nobody else mentioned this possibility, but I privately entertained it. Reiteration was going to make my shooting deadly, no doubt at some much later date, for which I saw no reason to hurry. But I wished to experience such vacant efficiency again, just once before the end of the day.
We drove again, to a third cover, as the sun was sinking into clouds along the mountain horizon and giving a cast of apricot to the world. Darkness and storm are the only things that will drive Bill away from a hunt. Ginny and Craig, Bill's son, went to the car to wait for us. We had 15 minutes until sunset.
The woodcock were in this place. The dog pointed and flushed and Bill filled his limit of five and started filling out mine. Now and again I produced that almost unconscious quick sequence of moves that culminates in a shot or two shots that, once finished, seem to have occurred on their own—the birds flying on none the worse for my Zen practice. One time again, Bill and I shot simultaneously and the bird fell and (reasonably, I admit) my friend did not seem to imagine that I might have helped.
And then, on the way back to the car, it happened, the thing to give a modern sort of ending to a day of intense, absorbing mindlessness, a better day certainly than one would have been likely to experience among the slews of people hunting the scarce whitetail deer.
We are walking in the dimming light through clumped gray birches, easy, fairly open going, with the dog running circle out in front and left and right, his little cowbell tinkling incessantly, when one of those clattering window shades of a ruffled grouse blows out ahead of Bill, invisible to me.