This is an excerpt from the upcoming book, Under Orion – Hunting Stories from Appalachia to Africa
Small patches of fog drifted above the treetops like lost spirits. Sunrise was an hour gone but the morning was cool and overcast. The world seemed dim and for hunting, he was late. Robert stepped from the car with his coffee. Ignored during the drive, the coffee was cold. He poured it out and tossed the cup in the vehicle. Taking the hunting vest from the back seat he slid it over his shoulders. 16 gauge shot-shells rattled in the pockets. It had the aroma of must but there was another smell, one he remembered.
Pulling the shotgun from the well-worn canvas case he noticed rust on the receiver at the balance point. That bothered him. Like it would make it go away, he covered the rust with his hand and started toward the old gate and past posted sign. His keys were still in the ignition.
On the old haul road just past the gate a wide hollow opened and rose gradually to the left and into the rising sun. Covered by a canopy of giant hardwoods, a trickle of a creek meandered down the draw. The path was there just as he remembered. It would follow the creek up to a point where the water disappeared into the ground under a stand of hickory. He started up the path. As the timber swallowed him he felt alone. He had been here many times. But, that was long ago and this time, he was alone.
When he reached the hickory trees he was surprised to find the same stunted oak with the bent trunk. His mind wandered but after a while he could almost see his father beside him. Hat pushed back on his head and whispering instructions as a big fox squirrel fed closer. He could remember shouldering his little 410 while wishing it was his father’s 16. The 16 now rested in his lap. He could clearly see the smile on the old man’s face when he took that first squirrel. He could almost feel the pat on the back.
He remembered the other times he saw that smile. When he graduated. When he came back from overseas with the Purple Heart, and the crutches. And the last time, when little Bobby was born and the old man picked him up in those bear paw hands. His father had been a serious man, smiles with him were like respect; they had to be earned. Those hunting trips were always special because Robert never had to compete with his father’s job, his sister or chores around the house.
He also thought about the only tear he ever saw come from those deep dark eyes, when Dad had to tell him that Mom was gone. When Robert looked at his watch for the first time that day he wiped his own tear. It was past noon and the sky had cleared. He stood, took a deep breath and long look into the tops of the same old hickory trees that stood over him when he was growing up. When he was learning.
As he approached the mouth of the hollow he noticed a pickup truck parked beside his car. When he stepped into the road a man about his age dressed in overalls, white t-shirt and a John Deere ball cap got out of the truck and started toward him. He was embarrassed. He knew better. Had been taught better.
Taking his ball cap off and shoving it toward the posted sign the man said, “I’m a guessing you didn’t see the sign.”
Robert nodded, “No sir, I saw it and I…I’m sorry.”
“Maybe you thought it wasn’t meant for you. I’ve had so much trouble with fellers coming in here trashing up the place, poaching…I don’t allow hunting anymore.” The man replaced his hat, obviously annoyed.
“I do apologize and understand…it’s just, well, my Dad used to take me squirrel hunting up here…I wanted to…”
The man cut Robert off and pointedly asked, “What’s your name?”
“It’s Walton, Robert Walton.”
“Are you Bob Walton’s boy?”
“I’ll be damned! I’m Allen, Allen Wise. I remember when y’all used to camp down by the river. Roland Wise was my Pa. Y’all used to come by every fall. I remember Bob would always bring Pa a pair of them boots he sold back in the city. He always had some chocolate for me. Pa really liked him. He always said your dad was one of a kind, put together the way a man ought to be. How is your dad?”
Robert looked away, back toward the hollow. “Dad’s gone. Two months. Cancer.”
“Damn. I’m sorry.”
Still uncomfortable that he had went onto another man’s land without permission Robert continued, “That’s why I was here…I wanted to…There’s no excuse for trespassing. Especially to hunt…I just…”
Allen cut him off again, “It’s OK. It’s been a long time hasn’t it?”
Silent, Robert walked over to the car, opened the door and reached for the gun case.
“Well look there, is that a Model 12 Winchester?” Allen asked in an effort to change the subject.
Robert looked down at the old gun. It was his now. His eyes and fingers felt the nicks, gouges and the bright shiny steel long void of bluing. It looked rough but each imperfection had been earned honest. It was a finish that couldn’t be bought.
The sun was high and bright now, warm on Robert’s shoulders and it made the fall colors surrounding the men all that much more alive. Smiling, Robert slid the old pump gun back into the case.
“Yes sir, that’s a Model 12 Winchester. Put together just the way a gun ought to be. Leastwise that’s what Dad used to tell me.”
To learn more about the book, Under Orion, click the cover image below: