With autumn, when the world is brown and the season hesitates between smoky Indian summer and leaden November, there comes to proper hunting men an urge to scuff their feet among the curling sweet fern and poke a load or two at pa’tridge.
Anyway, he’s pa’tridge here in Wisconsin. No badger hillbilly would waste time wrapping his tongue around “ruffed grouse.” And if you said “Bonasa umbellus,” your man of the pa’tridge woods, from the blue Baraboo hills 300 miles north to Lake Superior’s shore, would think you were swearing at him. No, your better class of pa’tridge hunters in Wisconsin refer to our gallant fantail as just plain old pa’tridge—“an’ dang it, neighbor, if you c’n ketch one toppin’ the hardwood, you’ve earned ’im.”
The will to go to a place where there are pa’tridge comes upon a man suddenly, inexplicably. It may happen in the midst of dense traffic. It may happen in the thick of a business conference. Your proper hunting man may have been quite complacent with the world and its things. And then, without a word of warning, as the cub reporter wrote when the cornice fell off the Masonic Temple, your proper hunting man becomes a mercuric creature of moods, soured on everything, especially hateful toward sweety old ladies and spaniel puppies.
Moneyed people in that frame of mind often make the mistake of winding up in one of those chromium offices where their unconscious selves are explored. Other kinds of people—pa’tridge hunters, for instance—people with a strong leaning toward sulphur and molasses and red-flannel underwear in season, know the remedy.
The remedy is walnut and steel, oiled leather, baggy canvas jacket, and the stinging smell of nitro hanging in the hazel brush.
Your proper hunting man standeth not upon the order of his going. And it makes no difference how far it is to The Place. He’ll get there, and never gives a hoot about the consequences. The only thing to do is to go, and let someone else worry about the storm windows, the World Series, or the state of the nation. The going is a very great part of it. It is the delicious prelude to the prime adventure of letting go with the right barrel on the first flushed bird.
I want you to know I had a nice day for it.
The country was exactly fine. Up through the fat, black-soil counties of southern Wisconsin I drove. Up through the country of the vase-shaped elms and the oaks like upturned bunches of grapes. Up and up—into the places north where the somber Puritan pines spotted the landscape, grew thicker and thicker and thicker, until finally the country was black with pines and the elms and oaks were patchy interlopers.
I’d been tired for days, and that made it easier to loll back with a heavy foot and just panoram’ right through Wisconsin from one end to the other. North up one long concrete carpet, west along another, then north once more onto the crooked fire lane—a highway in fact, a fire lane now only in name. The startled buck in his autumn sleekness leaping off the road. The lone, sinister cormorant on the rampike at the edge of the Chippewa flowage. The bounding snowshoe rabbits, still brown. Up through the north of Wisconsin, in a warm, mellow world of gold and yellow and brown and red.
Toward the last of that drive I shifted often behind the wheel. A man has got to have a backbone to drive 360 miles fast, and how can you have a backbone after the auto-to-office and auto-to-home that we city folks go through day after day? You can’t.
The fire lane ends, and the course is west again; west into the red, round setting sun, with a silty wake of sand and dust behind. West down the skinny, familiar road from the mailbox, dodging the trees, and there is The Place.
The Place is in piny woods with a lemon-yellow log cabin in its center, a blue lake behind it for a backdrop, a wisp of smoke from a cobblestone chimney, and a brown man in khaki trousers and a sagging, gray woolen vest waiting on the stoop for me.
The brown man was the President of the Old Duck Hunters Association, Inc., a symbolic figure to all proper hunting men, with the quizzical, challenging gleam in the eye and the much-chewed cigar and the traditional raiment, right down to the khaki pants tucked into ten-inch boots, smooth on the bottoms from contact with pine needles.
“So you got here.” He shook hands. “Where’s the dog?”
Blazes! I’d forgotton it—him. The dog was to have been a shouldery setter with a black mask and a mantelpiece of trophies whose owner had decided a day or two on pa’tridge was just what he needed, what with another field trial coming along.
“It’s just like it always was,” said Mister President. “I’ve got to do all the thinking for the Association. Well, I’ll show you pa’tridge without a dog. I’m glad you didn’t bring him. It’d be too easy. Come on in. Sit down. Take off your shoes. Supper’s almost ready. Shut up!”
He fiddled with things on a kitchen range that smelled of burning jack-pine. He dropped one match on yellow birch bark beneath oaken logs, and the varnished lemon-color logs of the big room gave back the fireplace light. He relit his cigar, pushed back his chair from the spreading heat, and began:
“Boy, you’ve got no idea of what has been happening in your old stamping ground. Let’s see, you’ve missed four pa’tridge seasons, and the last one was at the low point in the cycle. Since then your square-tailed friends have gone on a housekeeping rampage. There’s pa’tridge in every hardwood clump I can find in southern Bayfield. Enough to prove to me that you are still a poorer wingshot than me.
“Pa’tridge? It’s a good thing the birds around here have had me to keep ’em stirred up. When the season opened two weeks ago they were so tame they wouldn’t get out of the way of a car. But I learned ’em. Now I’ve got ’em trained so they get up thirty yards ahead of you and duck behind the first tree.
“Let’s eat. What’s that on your plate, did you say? God bless us, the boy has forgotten what roast pa’tridge tastes like!”
So it went. Until the owls began their lonely cries across the lake somewhere and the stars were bright and there was a rough woolen blanket under my chin and the waves on the lake shore went lap, lap, lap . . .
Mister President was alive next morning at heaven knows what hour. It seemed only a moment before that I had closed my eyes. But there he was, yanking at the scarlet blanket and repeating such abysmal sounds as “Daylight in the swamps!”—the consequences of a well-spent youth in the logging camps of the North.
There was then a thing called breakfast, but which deserves a better name when it is eaten before a fireplace beating back the early morning chill. The Hon. President even had pancakes. Did you ever eat sour cream pancakes, made by a master hand?
There was a beginning to pa’tridge hunting. The president of the Old Duck Hunters makes a rite of such a privilege. Everything must be just so—the season, the day, the company. He laced his boots a bit tighter, pulled on a baggy, stained hunting jacket, lit the familiar little crooked pipe and stood on the cabin stoop, 16 gauge under his arm—a full and proper and capable pa’tridge hunter if I ever saw one.
Now, this is not a bad pa’tridge country when the cycle is up. It’s a sandy piney country, with some surprising patches of hardwood here and there. And best of all for the pa’tridge hunter, it is interlaced with dozens and scores of trails—old tote roads and rights-of-way of lumbering days.
Mister President sniffed the air. It was good air to sniff, bracing fragrant with pine and sweet fern and the honest, dewy smell of a bright October morning. He relit his pipe and mapped the plan of action.
“We can get into the car and drive down the Hayward road. Or we can push back in from Andy’s and skirt that pothole lake. Or we can mooch down the back road and turn right into the Cathedral.”
The Cathedral is a grove of stately Norway pines growing in a natural amphitheater perhaps a mile from the cabin. I have seldom walked into this enchanting place in autumn without flushing pa’tridge. The President knew my weakness for this place, so it was by a sort of mutual, unspoken meeting of minds that we started for it . . .
The rest of this exciting, poetic tale can be found in Sporting Classics’ November/December 2017 issue. Pick up a copy on newsstands today or order it online, and be sure to subscribe to the magazine to get future issues delivered directly to your door.
Photo: Lawrence Sawyer/iStock