The Last Point
By Jason Dunn
So there I was….. All good southern stories should start with the phrase “So there I was.” I began teaching my daughter that when she was in preschool. She never conformed to my teaching and much more preferred starting her stories with “It all started when I woke up,” yet those are tales for another day.
So, there I was. A 17-year-old kid with no meat on his bones, a bad haircut and wearing an old T-shirt and faded pair of 501 button-fly Levi’s standing beside one of the prettiest F-150s around. I can still see it today with its two-tone black and gray paint, red pin stripe, mag wheels and Warn winch on the front. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. Papa and I had been quail hunting for most of the afternoon with no success. While we had another 45 minutes to an hour before dusk, my old setter Ben was exhausted. The atypical warm November day had worn him down. The same could be said for Papa.
No man I’ve ever known was tougher, yet how long can an overworked and former prisoner of war walk on bad knees? He once could walk for days. He proved that on a death march after being captured by communists during the Korean War. With a bullet in his leg, prodded by enemy soldiers with bayonets and taunted with the words “you soon die,” he walked to what was supposed to be certain death, yet it wasn’t. Every day his captors bet he’d die, and every day they’d lose. The war did all it could do to take that leg and his life, yet the war underestimated his toughness That would have been 40 years ago or so and a lot of cartilage deterioration before the last point. Papa was a common man with uncommon tenacity. I wish I could be more like him.
We were hunting a fine farm in Ben Hill County commonly known as the Fletcher Farm and owned by one of the finest south Georgians I’ve ever known. The farm was well known for holding coveys of quail. These weren’t the liberated birds that people shoot today on game preserves. We hunted wild birds and hunted them carrying humpback automatic shotguns with bird dogs that ran so fast and covered so much ground that you had to follow them in pickup trucks. We hunted coveys that were hard to find, quick to flee, flew quicker than mad yellow jackets and harder to hit than a major league fastball.
I’ll never remember everything we talked about as we followed that setter, yet I’d bet we discussed days in the past when he’d killed more birds than he could tote, and how great of bird dogs he used to have, and if we could only kill four or five today, he’d have Granny fry ’em up with biscuits and gravy. “There ain’t no meal be finer than quail birds and gravy,” Papa would say, and he meant it. Papa wasn’t an educated man. He gave that up to sharecrop and volunteer to go fight in Korea, yet he was a good teacher and taught me the importance of owning a good bird dog, having a shotgun that you can trust, and more than anything when you find a good woman, hold on to her and love her to death. Especially if she bakes good biscuits, and Granny’s biscuits never came from a can.
So there we were, all of us tired, not a point or a covey to be found, nor a shot fired. Back then I would have thought we’d wasted a day. Now, I’d give most anything to see him limping through cut corn stalks again. With me thinking the day was over, I loaded Ben up into the dog box, petted him and praised him for his efforts. Maybe he had more in him, and I was just a teenager ready to call it a day, go grab a shower, and head to town in hopes that one of Fitzgerald High School’s prettiest young ladies would want to ride around. Maybe Papa still had a few more steps in those tired legs. Maybe he had a few more minutes to spend with his oldest grandson and maybe I was just an impatient 17-year-old with a tendency to give up too soon. Regardless, we were calling it a day with nothing to show.
So, we were driving off. If Papa was disappointed, he didn’t show it. For him there was no such thing as a bad day quail hunting. For him, there was never a bad minute when we were spending time together. I’d never known him to complain about a thing. When asked how he was doing, he’d always answer, “pretty good.” A good answer for a man who survived 33 months in a communist prisoner of war camp. When you’ve had nearly three years of torture, starvation and facing death, every day in the United States of America is pretty good. So, that was it. The hunt was over, Ben was in the dog box, the guns were unloaded, and Papa was saying something such as “Well Jake. We’ll get ’em another day. Them birds be scared of us.” In a way, he was right. No one else has ever called me Jake. At times though, I’ll look at my son Jacob and call him Jake. I do so with a smile and thinking of Papa.
And then it happened. As we eased into the final curve of that red dirt road bordering the farm, a covey of 10 to 12 birds crossed the road in front of us. A covey from nowhere. The Old Testament teaches us that as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt on a pilgrimage to the Promised Land that God sent quail from Heaven to feed his people as they wandered through the wilderness. Had God done the same for us? There was no time to ponder. I immediately stopped the truck and threw it into the park. In the rush to escape, about half of the bobwhites flushed, flew about 15 yards and lit into a fence row. The rest of the covey never left the ground, choosing to run into the fenced row haven covered in briars and bordered to their north by cut stalks of corn. The birds were feeding late that day or we’d just caught them heading to their roost. Maybe we’d started the hunt too soon. Maybe we’d ended it too soon, yet one thing is for sure, we were quick to restart it.
Jumping from the truck, we loaded those humpbacks and sprung into action. Dropping the tailgate and opening the dog box, I released Ben. If he was exhausted, he didn’t show it, and Papa wasn’t walking like a man with knees worn down by war and years of hard work. Old Ben approached the fence row and immediately locked down in a point. I can still see him today, nose toward the bird and tail to the air, slowly creeping forward laying his front foot to the ground in an ever so gentle fashion. For all the dogs that can’t point, you should be envious of the gift that God gave pointers and setters for I’ve never seen a sporting dog do anything more magnificent. Retrievers retrieve and are wonderful dogs I’ve owned two, yet their work comes after the decoys have been set out and the hunter has fired his shots. All this happens after the fact, the bird dog finds the birds, nothing happens until the point. The entire quail hunt depends on the dog.
A lot happens to a man when his bird dog points. His breathing slows, his pulse quickens, and his body begins racing with the anticipation that he is walking into nature’s greatest eruptions of flesh and feathers. Any man who says he isn’t a bit nervous over a point is lying. I’ll say that to his face. His favorite word quickly becomes a whispered “whoa.” The partnership between man and bird dog tightens.
So there we were. It was late afternoon. Papa took the left side of the fence row. He was standing in those knee-high corn stalks. I took the right side of the fence. I was standing in what was the yard of an old home site. Neither of us had an obstruction. Ben stood pointed between us. For those who have never quail hunted, we couldn’t have planned the point any better. A covey on a fence row is a bird hunter’s dream. The birds can go left, right or straight. Regardless of the direction they chose, we’d have clean shots. “God, just let us kill a couple,” I thought. Two for supper would be a good day.
Easing up the fence row, Papa and I were ready to shoulder our shotguns and fire. Ben was still on point and inching up ahead of us. Then it happened. Just like clockwork the bobwhites could huddle no more. There was nowhere to run. With fury and a sound only quail hunters know the quail sprang from the ground and into the air. From zero to full speed in a few rapid flaps of the wings met with a bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Six shots from automatic shotguns, fired as fast as the action on that old Savage and Belgium made Browning would shoot. And as fast as it started, it ended that quickly. The guns silenced, spent shotgun shell on the ground and brown and white feathers floating in the breeze.
“Papa, I got two,” I yelled. It was the first time I’d ever killed two quail on the rise.
Papa replied, “I got three.”
He’d killed three on the rise before, yet only God could remember when that was. So there we were, an old man, a skinny 17-year-old boy and a fine bird dog who had just gone from bust to killing five bobwhite quail on one covey rise. Five on the rise is a great feat. Quail hunters with last names such as Hopkins, Dunn, Dorminy, and Hancock will attest to it. No one will ever debate them attesting to that.
I look down and Ben comes running up to me with one of my birds in his mouth. It only takes me a few more minutes and I find the second one that I shot down. About as soon as I find the second, Papa shouts, “Jake, I can’t find my gun!”
“What do you mean you can’t find your gun?”
“I be laid it down to mark these feathers where one of those birds went down, and now I can’t find it.”
Laid his gun down in knee-high corn stalks with dusk quickly approaching. Are you kidding me? And we still had two more birds to find. The outdoors with Papa was always an adventure. Today was no different. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I couldn’t help but laugh and hope I could find the gun before darkness claimed what little light we had left.
Maybe Ben found the fourth bird or maybe Papa found it. I can’t remember as I was walking back and forth in the cornrows looking for an old Savage automatic 12 gauge.
“Papa, I found your gun, and here is the other quail,” I exclaimed.
“Oohwee, we got five, that’ll be just right for supper,” said Papa with a smile and his ever-present limp.
“Load up Ben, let’s go home,” I shouted.
So, there we were. Smiles on our faces, gun barrels cooling off, the sun setting far in the distance and five bobwhites in our hunting vests. An unforgettable life event had just occurred in a matter of minutes. From barren to fruitful with five shots in 10 seconds. We’d hunted together since I was 10 and had never killed more than two. Today, we’d had our best moment as sportsmen and finished the drive down that dirt road laughing and not believing how our fortune had turned. We also found a way to bust out the passenger side window of that F-150. That’s a whole other story and a darn good laugh to be shared at another time. As I said, outdoors with Papa was always an adventure.
Despite the cold ride home, the talk quickly turned to Granny cooking those birds up and how good they’d be. He was going to eat one fried and two in gravy he said. He’d end the meal up splitting one of those biscuits up and covering it in gravy as well. It was Saturday afternoon, Granny would gladly cook them Sunday night, and she did, giving him a fine meal before bedtime and ensuring he’d be well fed before heading off to spread hot asphalt on a Georgia highway early Monday morning.
That was the last time we quail hunted. Now, I’m 47. We’re 30 years since that last point. I’ve seen many bird dogs point many quail, yet none measure close to the point I witnessed that day. Who’d thought that would have been our last point? You’re always planning the next hunt, yet soon I’d go off to college.
With me not having time to hunt anymore, Ben lived his final days well-loved, yet far from the cornfields. I haven’t had a bird dog since. It’s questionable to whether Papa ever fired his shotgun again. If so, it certainly wasn’t to the roar of flushing quail. Papa’s knees finally gave out and his mobility became highly limited. Late in his life dementia stripped him of his memory yet failed to encumber his toughness or erase his infectious smile. I can only hope the memory of the last point was somehow never taken from him. Likewise, I hope I never live long enough so that it is stripped from me.
We buried Papa at a small graveside funeral beside Granny in Fitzgerald’s Evergreen Cemetery. I keep a folded American flag in my office that was flown in his honor over the U.S. Capital that reminds me of him daily.
Was our last quail hunt the perfect quail hunt? Probably not. Was it the greatest? For the unlikely trio of an over-the-hill setter, a 17-year-old kid and a rugged old quail hunter, there’s no doubt it was.
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