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Appalling Tales Sordidly Told

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I had an interesting weekend – went to my first-ever book signing on Saturday at the local bookstore. It wasn’t just me though, there were a bunch of local authors there, real ones, that is, and one of them, Don Coldsmith, is rather well known in Western circles. Sat next to a young and loquacious mystery writer named Evan McNamara who barely drew a breath from 9.30 a.m. until the soirée ended at noon. He kept apologizing for his stream of consciousness narration throughout the entire morning and repeatedly referred to himself as a “hustler,” who came from a long line of salesmen. Not wanting to be rude, I merely nodded and smiled a lot. Out of curiosity, I searched him online:

I browsed it;

So, one morning, at work, before anyone showed up, I wrote the first two pages of my novel...I showed it to my wife, and asked her what she thought. She liked it. Really liked it. Not because it was by her husband, but because it was good writing… I didn't just want to write—I wanted to write novels...
Big novels, fun novels, novels that keep you up all night long because you have to know how they end. Novels that make you gasp, close your eyes, and whisper, "Jesus."

It was like that all morning. Inwardly, I was whispering "Jesus" a lot.

But, he was a pleasant fellow, almost as good as a double espresso with an extra shot of Jolt! cola, and doubtless he will sell a great many books with or without the snappy patter. He looked rather crestfallen, however, when I told him that I didn't read much fiction at all, preferring histories.

Still it was great fun just sitting there and talking with the customers. Since I sold the rights to my story, I don't get a cut of any sales at all, not that I'm complaining. Nevertheless, I was honored to see many friends stop in to buy the book and I enjoyed myself capitally. Hopefully, this won't be the last time.
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Rich as Croesus, Matt is a cognoscenti of fine guns, good whisky, and dresses better than most of the healing profession, although that’s not saying much. Most doctors dress little better than bums. He’s an oral surgeon, by the way, and, over-achiever that he is, it follows that he is a board-certified oral surgeon, as well. He’s also a capital shot. I’ve only know him fifteen years or so, so maybe he was a slacker in high school. Since our acquaintance though, I’ve never known him to tackle a subject on which he wasn’t an authority. He’s not an expert in the female department, but then, who really is? I mean, really? Anyhow, sometimes, mired firmly in mediocrity as I am, it’s damn discouraging to associate with someone who does everything well, or perhaps more accurately, only does things which he does well, and those things happen to coincide with my own interests.

I’m terribly competitive at times. Not always, though, but enough that I would tell a shrink about it. I don’t have a shrink though. Probably should. Held back, however. The bastard would probably shoot better than me, anyhow. That would only worsen my condition, if, that is, I actually have a condition. Not sure.

Anyway, went afield with Matt on Sunday just in front of a massive storm front. The birds have been difficult to find lately, no doubt because of the weather – unseasonably warm. Figured perhaps the barometric pressure might winkle them out. Not sure whether it is a sound theory, meteorologically, but we found them.

The dog coursed over a busted pair without detecting them in the slightest and one of them popped up in front of Matt, which for a bird is the least desirable thing. The other flew out and away before I’d even realized that he was a quail, and so no shot. A few yards further in the watercourse and another arose, sharing a similar fate of the first. Again no help from the dog, or me, for that matter.

Gunshots do marvelous things to rivet the attention of a hunting dog though, and U. abandoned his carefree ways and went to work in earnest. On down a bit, the waterway gave way to a wash at the end of a bean field and we concentrated our effort on each edge of the field, with U. up the slot, pinball-like. At the end of the field, which was kidney-shaped and rather small, U. locked up at the base of a hedge tree.

I hate hedge.

Maclura pomifera, the Osage orange tree, called Bois D’arc by the French trappers, and colloquially called hedge because of the practice of planting them in hedge rows, is our version of the live oak. When mature, they are about thirty feet high with quarrellous, spreading branches, many of them low to the ground. Impermeable to insect damage, they were favored by farmers for fence material, and they rot very slowly. Like decades slow. Interestingly, hedge burns hotter than most other woods, and they are very, very dense trees; dried for firewood, hedge wood is the next best thing to uranium. They bear an inedible fruit that we call hedge apples, big green multi-segmented things the size of a softball and the deer love ‘em. But that’s not why I hate hedge. The saplings are the problem, they are thorny, pernicious damn things with the same unruly pattern to their branches as their mature forbears and they have a positive knack for nailing me in the crotch at the slightest provocation.

So when Utah went down at the base of a six foot hedge tree, I figured I’d take the easy way out and let him flush the bird instead of picking up a score of half inch thorns in the essentials. I tapped him on the head to release him, he moved about half a millimeter, and locked up again.

Nothing for it but to take one for the team, I strode in wishing I had a cup or at least a chain mail hauberk. Right about the time the whip-like branch smacked me in the eye, the pair broke to my rear and Matt’s gun barked and the bird tumbled over into bare ground, which I thought was rather decent of him. Although I contorted enough to get off a shot at the other bird, it was a Hippocratic shot, as a board- certified oral surgeon might say might say;

“First, do no harm.”

At least the dog did well in the end.
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It’s opening week here and I was almost the quarry on Saturday: literally. Ute took off and blazed down an old forest road with a long ridge on the left and hardwoods on the right, making the road nearly a tunnel. I’d never hunted this ground before – some land that just went public, but it looked promising, so we got in at first light. My companions stayed beyond the hardwoods, to the right of the road by thirty yards, while I continued along the track. A logging road, probably, I thought, long disused, only a faint trace of wheel ruts sparsely covered with grass seeking a difficult sun. The dog wasn’t doing his job. I know this because he ran over the covey of quail without stopping, but they spooked and blew when I approached about twenty yards into the tunnel. Two birds tore down the road and five more or so exploded out the right side and a fusillade echoed, but with no result. I had sent two shots after the trailing bird, but he laughed them off and continued over the ridge to my left. Of course, this brought the dog up short and he tore back to me wondering that the hell was going on.

“Nice work,” I snarled to him.

He didn’t look at me. After milling around a bit where the birds were, he tore up the hill, and I followed him. It was a steep climb, a good 40 feet up, so I broke my gun, and levered my ascent by grabbing and hauling on the slim hickories and oaks toward a relatively bare patch near the top where Ute had stopped.

“Go on, damn you,” I said to him, as I hurried up the hill, breaking into a run as I neared the summit to see if the birds would flush again. What had looked like a meadow just at the top of the ridge, however, completely vanished into an enormous rock quarry at least fifty feet deep and strewn with old boulders. That fact only became clear to me at the last instant, where sliding in a bit of scree, I went down on one leg to keep from pitching over the sheer precipice with a muttered oath.

You go on, damn you,” Utah said as he turned around, and headed back up the road at top speed.
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I have tried to refrain from posting other's thoughts, particulary political thoughts, in my space. This article, however, is well done.

On a personal note, it is good to see that M. de Villepin has things so well in hand in Paris.

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Word that a cruise ship off the horn of Africa was attacked by pirates this weekend.

I think the notion of actual piracy on the high seas has become so quaint in our eyes, we of the West, at any rate, that the occasion of this headline prompted a flood of bad pirate jokes. But these dudes were actually shooting at an ocean liner with RPG’s.

Time was, pirates were hunted down without mercy. Somehow I doubt that will be the case here.

Still, from an historian's perspective, I would have loved to be aboard just to get a sense of what it was like in 1760. Of course, I would have wanted a crew-served weapon alongside me.

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One of my stories is included in this recent release by Willow Creek Press.

I'm tickled pink.

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There must have been a sale on Browning A5’s. I stepped out of the truck with my AyA No. 4/53 and everyone else, to a man, had a hump-back, loading them click, click, click, like a slot machine junkies on a double espresso. Belgian guns, most of them, a few Japanese, but all Light Twelve’s with the exception of a very nice Sweet Sixteen. Finally, my buddy Matt appeared with a Model 21, and all the auto-loading guys are looking at us and grinning. Oh, look, double guns, how quaint.

I don’t know anyone who swings a Model 21 who is prepared to be received in this manner -- like he showed up to hunt in a white sports coat and a pink carnation. It was damn disconcerting for a lone AyA, as well.

“I hope you brought a lot of shells,” Don said.

I told him I had a box in my vest. Matt patted his bag affirmatively.

He smiled, “I’d bring a couple more if I were you.”

I wasn’t sure I believed all the hype about Opening Day in South Dakota, but apparently I was the only guy who didn’t. There are many great migrations in the natural world; the caribou to the calving grounds on the barren Arctic tundra, the wildebeest on the African savannah, whooping cranes along the Platte river, but almost as awe-inspiring are the teeming thousands of Minnesotans, Iowans, Missourians and Kansans, who make their way to the high plains for the second weekend in October. Like football fans, every Suburban on the road had five guys in orange hats, bumper stickers shouting out hunting shibboleths, and the ubiquitous dog boxes, running west from Sioux Falls at precisely the speed limit.

To add to the generally festive air, the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader had been running stories all week about the influx of out-of-staters and issuing glowing field reports about bazillions of birds, perfect conditions, and the mythical connotations of a third hatch this year. If you have a jaundiced eye like me, that sounds like boosterism, pure and simple. Still, on the general rule that hunting birds on the surface of Mercury is better than pushing a mouse around on my desk at work, I jumped at the opportunity to go.

More civilized than my home state of Kansas, South Dakota prohibits hunting in the morning, presumably under the theory that if you’ve limited out early and finished up the afternoon drinking a nice single malt, you’ll be fresh as a daisy come high twelve. And since everyone can make a noon tip off, unlike hunting at the crack of dawn, people start arriving at their chosen covers and lining up like a land grant rush in the 1800’s; hundreds of them, easily discernable orange against the golden brown grasslands as far as you can see. And in South Dakota, that is quite far.

I retrieved another box of shells, albeit somewhat furtively, and started into a milo field bordered on each edge by weedy cover.

“There they go!” Joe shouted over the wind, as a score of cock birds flushed from the Kosha weed forty yards ahead, quickly followed by another thirty. And another; many hens, but mostly roosters. Along the line, muffled by the south wind, the reports echoed and individual birds dropped out of the massive flush, but not before prompting even more pheasants to take wing. As the blockers opened up, a general rush: two hundred birds left the weeds, bounding up and catching the strong breeze to glide into the adjoining milo. Three birds are the limit in South Dakota, and two of the blockers got theirs in the initial mad flush.

Half way through the milo field I had my limit; one a long crossing shot in full choke territory, another single from a two bird flush off to my right, and the third up my pant leg that nearly stopped my heart dead. It was 12.45 p.m., by 1.30 every one had their bag of birds and we set up shop on the prairie to clean the birds and compare notes.

Without question, the bird forecast was right on the money, comparable with the stories you hear from the old timers about pheasant hunting in the 1950’s. The birds were abundant to the point of hyperbole, in numbers that you know your friends back home will never quite believe. Until they experience it themselves. While we rested in the shade of the vehicles, the reports from neighboring sections continued unabated. By evening, every group we met claimed their limit in time spans counted in minutes, and credulously so.

As we walked back to the truck, Matt and I broke our guns and cased them for the ride back to Murdo. Not shy about telling us, Matt turned in two unopened boxes. I put my few unfired shells away quietly and didn’t say a word.
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In August of 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr. Jefferson was in Paris at the time, serving as ambassador, and Carr was a young student back home in Virginia.

“A strong body makes the mind strong,” he wrote. “As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walk.”

Peter Carr grew up during the Revolutionary War, but let’s face it, he had things fairly easy. Sure, the British occupied Boston, New York and Philly, but Carr could walk anywhere he liked with a fowling piece under his arm, he didn’t have to worry about his buddy’s cell phone going off right in the middle of a covey bust; and they hadn’t even heard of rap music yet. Oh, the joy.

But times have changed, and no longer is hunting the default position for millions of American youth. Even in families where hunting has been a tradition for generations, kids are spending their time elsewhere. Mom and Dad both work, and soccer takes the lion’s share of the weekend. What little spare time a child has is quickly eaten away by chat rooms, video games, and maybe cleaning their room, albeit on a good day. Ipods, mpegs, Playstations and handheld DVD players are the things that captivate kids these days; a Model 12 might as well be a jack handle.

To make matters worse, hunting has become almost a pariah pastime, particularly in suburbia. Hunters are commonly portrayed as redneck idiots, little better than common criminals and there are damn few positive images to rebut that presumption. In pre-Columbine times, hunter safety programs were once staples in mid-Western schools, but no longer. Federal legislation and an army of lawyers have taken it off the curriculum for good. Thirty five years ago, in Smalltown, USA, the rural kids would leave their .410’s with the bus driver who would let them off, guns and all, at a convenient hedgerow after school to hunt rabbits or quail. Today? The bus driver would be in federal court, the school district administrator would be forced to resign in disgrace and the children would all be placed in foster homes.

How then do we promote the sport beyond our generation? I mean, look around, will you? More than half of the young adults you see are plugged into some electronic device that either blares music by direct neural feed into their cerebellum, or beams invisible X-box code into their optic nerves, creating some sort of man-machine hybrid that is resistant to most outside stimuli.

My advice, therefore, is to start young.

For children in grade school, the hunting bug should not be hard to catch. My daughter is five, and she’s still a bit young to go with me in the field. But she has made it very clear to me that if I bring home any birds, she is the one who gets to bring them inside. As simple as it sounds, it’s a big deal for her to ceremoniously carry in the quail or pheasant I bring home, and she is very interested in how to dress them and prepare them for dinner.

Shotgun cleaning is also a father-daughter outing in my house. I dislike cleaning guns, but it gives me time to spend with her one-on-one, and a sparkling Red Label to boot – which I guess is similar to her marrying the heir to Holland & Holland. Sure, he’s still the snot-nosed little jerk that my daughter married, but at least he swings a nice shotgun. But those days are in the distant future (I hope) and at least now, I’m fortunate in that my daughter is not a stranger to hunting ways. She derives a great deal of satisfaction sitting next to her old man at the reloading bench, complete with her own set of safety glasses. She’s in charge of Empty Hull Distribution as well as Completed Case Packaging. I’m sure I’ll get a letter from the local board of education when she starts telling her friends at school how to load 100 shotgun shells in under 20 minutes, but I’m willing to take the heat on that one.

Even with these simple activities, I can tell she is curious about hunting. When she’s a bit older and has a longer attention span, we’ll head out to the field with our Brittany. Just me and her. She won’t carry a gun, but I bet she’ll argue with the dog on who gets to carry the birds. Later, I plan on finding a Rutledge bore .22 – a Remington Model 572 or an old Winchester 61. These smoothbore rifles fire .22 shotshells loaded with a fraction of an ounce of #12 shot. Originally intended as garden guns, snake charmers and mouse-smackers, they are also perfect for wingshooting grasshoppers and dragonflies, two insects we have in abundance. Starting a 10 year old out on bugs with a Rutledge .22 loaded with dust may eliminate the frustrations of many young shooters who start with a .410 on birds. It’s worth a try, at any rate.
Even if your gradeschooler doesn’t like to reload like a pint-sized B & P foreman, chances are they will enjoy time spent training the pup, or tagging along in the field if their legs hold out and they don’t get too cold. I couldn’t wait until I could go out with the “big boys” and carry my own shotgun in the field, and chances are your child is just the same.

I haven’t given my daughter Thomas Jefferson’s advice about the gun being her constant companion. But when she is old enough, I will. These days, though, Jefferson might be forced to write something quite different.

“Of the Happy Meal, you should avoid, for it hath far too much cholesterol. The Ipod is a great Scourge -- it annoyeth everyone else on the Flight, and makes you Deafe in the meantime. Hunting, you should try, but remember well, it is actual, not virtual, and it allows no replays or slow-mo. Remember well to buy a hunting license first.”
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My daughter dances everywhere, and frankly it's exhausting.

“Honey, go to the bathroom and brush your teeth.”

“Ok, Daddy,” she says, doing a beautiful arabesque with sweeping arms before catching her partner, Sparkle the stuffed unicorn, for a stirring rendition of the Black Swan pas de deux smack dab in the middle of the living room carpet.

“Maura, I’d like you to do it now, not tomorrow.”

“Ok, Daddy, just a minute.” She said, playing it very, very safe. Hardly the sultry seductress, Sparkle beamed happily about the stage and declined most technical risks, except for taking a stab at the big balance in an arabesque near the adagio's end, which went for naught as Maura, who'd put her on her leg perfectly, moved in almost immediately after Sparkle released hoof, robbing Maura of the attempt for which she'd been poised. Maura recovered well though, with perfect composure.

“Maura, I want you to brush your teeth now – we need to leave soon to visit Grandma.”

“I will, Daddy,” she said in a perfectly compliant tone, with only a hint of preoccupation.

“Don’t you want to see Grandma today?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said absently, perhaps because she was aware of the coda's 32 fouettés approaching like a hangman. At least I imagine that's why she turned double pirouettes into singles, and pared down the beginning and end of her swinging à la second turns till they were more half-turns than even singles.

With a barely perceptible nod, and a sweeping curtsy to Sparkle at stage left, Maura made short work of the hallway to the bathroom and particularly shone in the concluding polonaise, playing wittily with the music in a flurry of tendus, rond de jambes and bourrees. Once in the bathroom in she stood in front of the mirror in the third position and began brushing her teeth in 4:4 time.

It makes you feel under-dressed in your own goddamn house.
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I finally vanquished my writer's block which has been plaguing me for months, and this is the product. I'm fortunate in that my editor has already committed to buying it...

Twenty yards from the truck my Brittany, Utah, went on point, head up, tail at 11 o’ clock. He was on the edge of a bean field, pointing into the long grass of a hedgerow. It was Opening Day. It was his first wild point, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

It was just Utah and me that morning. After six months of yardwork, of petting, cajoling, retrieving dummies, pigeons and blank .22’s, pen-raised quail and pheasant wings chewed threadbare, we loaded up to hunt for real, heading out to a sweet spot I know just up the road.

Opening weekend in Northeastern Kansas is a great time to hunt quail because you have the place to yourself. Almost without exception, every other hunter in the state is out in Western Kansas, running full sprint after pheasants. I figured Utah ought to start out on quail, so we bypassed a invite out West and decided to try our luck here at home. Besides, pheasants just love making a fool out of you and your dog, and I figured we could do all right in that department without any outsiders. I was pretty nervous. Not Utah, however. When I put on his collar, he looked at me as if to say, “Relax, Boss. It’ll be fine.”

This particular bean field was just shy of 80 acres, bordered on all four sides by good loafing cover. At the clang of the endgate, Utah sprang from the dog box, quickly peed on my truck tire, and headed into the wind like an F-18 dusting crops. I figured he’d run a bit and clown around like usual, but he was all business. I was still stuffing shells into my pocket and generally fiddling around when I saw him on point.

I guess I didn’t take him that seriously – after all, he was just over a year old – a pup really. Once a real covey got up, it was anyone’s guess what he’d do. So despite what everyone always tells you about trusting your dog, I wasn’t sure I trusted him.

Turns out I should have trusted him.

As it was, I sashayed my way into the cover looking at Utah with one eyebrow up, instead of focusing on where the birds might be. One step into the dry grass and the covey burst in all directions, twenty-five birds as quick as lightning. I fired twice, hit nothing but air, and Utah vanished. He came back after much hallooing and whistling and a tap on his collar, and you could see the frenzied look in his eyes.

“What in God’s Name are you doing, Man? The birds went that way.”

We hunted every weekend but one that first season, and only got skunked once. Before long I noticed some patterns emerging. For starters, Utah loved mice. He gave deer and rabbits short shrift, and meadowlarks and sparrows only a cursory glance. But a field mouse was more than his training and patience could endure and invariably he would lock up on a mouse hole in an old stump, absolutely quivering, sometimes with the mouse looking back at him in flagrante delicto. I expressed my frustration to a friend of mine, an old-time Brittany man, who told me to relax.

“Mice and quail smell an awful lot alike to a young dog,” he told me. “And besides, he’s still a pup. Just release him when he points a mouse the next time, and move on – he’ll get the idea.”

It was sage advice, and soon the mouse problem was cured. Before long, though, another problem arose, this one more serious. For all his willingness to find live birds, Utah absolutely refused to hunt for dead ones, the argument being that he’d found them once already, and if I couldn’t be decent enough to shoot them over bare ground, that was my problem. And of course wild quail aren’t obliging when they make their quietus. If they fall in snow, they will land belly up; if in grass, belly down. Either way, they’re invisible. And after losing a series of graveyard-dead birds to long grass or snow drifts, I began to get frustrated.

I tried everything to interest him in dead birds, following arcane advice from every source.

Get out of the way, some folks said, dogs turn off their noses when near their owners and they’ll just ignore any scent in your vicinity. So I moved off…and Utah moved off with me. Other guys told me to make a game of it, and poke around in the grass on all fours like an Easter egg hunt. It’s rare that you’ll ever see a dog laugh, but I swear I caught him laughing out of the corner of my eye….not that I blame him. Another buddy told me to mark the spot, hunt past it and then swing back in twenty minutes or so to see if he would re-acquire the scent. This sounded like good sense to me, and I tried it, but it only yielded results on a handful of occasions.

The advice I finally settled on came again from my old Brittany hand,

“Relax,” he said, “and hunt your dog.”

On the last day of the season, my wife and I took Utah back to the bean field. It was the same field he started with three months before, and he hunted well, quartering down wind, seeking, objective to objective. He had certainly matured in just a few months, and although he has always been all business in the field, he appeared much more confident now. In the south-east corner, he went on point in heavy snow, and the birds held tight, finally busting underfoot. M swung and tapped a male, but not hard enough; it dropped one leg but flew a long slow glide down the hedgerow to the south 75 yards out. We hunted back that direction, Utah out front a ways, M & I walking and talking as we went, until we saw Utah coming back our direction, wagging his tail bashfully, with something in his mouth.

He sauntered up to me with a saucy little tail wag, and dropped the dead bird at my feet.

“Ok, now will you relax?” he said.

I did.
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