Wolfe Publishing Group

    The First Bird After

    It had been a lazy but satisfying Indian summer until my house burned down.

    Watermelons and tomatoes were ripening, the freezer was full of salmon and walleye, and with the consistently pleasant weather, the hammock on the deck had beckoned often. Gone from that lazy respite where but two hours earlier I had been relaxing with the dogs as I reread Spiller’s Grouse Feathers, I was returning from town with groceries when I saw the spiral of smoke from five miles away.

    That looks pretty close to Pease Mountain, I remember thinking. The little valley below was where my two-story log home had stood for 27 years on 11 acres of mixed forest and grassland — the dream home my late wife Marie, four kids and I had built with trees cut from her mother’s land — two years of cutting, hauling, peeling and milling.  Lots of sweat, lots of laughter, lots of love and even a few memorable “disasters” as we built a home and a future for a young family and a widowed mother-in-law.

    There had been much joy but also much sorrow at that house to be sure. Both Marie and her mother had passed away many years before their time, and I had buried three good hunting dogs on a sandy knoll near the house. More recently, though, life had treated me well. Although the now-grown kids had moved on, they were usually available to lend a hand, and the boys, Evan and Matt, had purchased land within sight of mine. Evan had been remodeling an old house on his acreage.

    The smoke became thicker and darker as I continued the drive home. Damn! That IS Pease Mountain!  Increasing my speed, I turned left onto the country road. Hopefully, Evan was merely burning a small slash pile. But as I approached his mailbox, I could see fire engines in my driveway and flames clawing the sky.

    My dogs! I’d put the old Lab, Jill, and the young Brittany, Lucy, in the kennel across from the house when I left. Speeding around

    the sheriff’s car parked at the top of the driveway to turn back the gawkers, I raced to the line of fire engines blocking my path, then parked and ran down the long driveway. Jill and Lucy were hunkered against the back of the kennel, leaves on nearby trees had wilted, and flames were creeping across the lawn. The firemen had been so engaged that they hadn’t noticed the dogs. Releasing them, we moved away from the blistering hot wall of flame 40 feet away. “You the owner?” asked an official looking man with a badge.

    I nodded.

    “Can’t save the house,” he said. “Just tryin’ to keep the fire out of the fields.”

    I nodded again, numbly, and the dogs and I then stood and watched 27 years of memories collapse into the basement in a charred tangle of pick-up sticks. I saw the “fireproof” safe that wasn’t fireproof fall through the floor, taking the 14 shotguns and rifles inside with it. Art by wildlife artists like Brender, Bateman and McGee turned to ash. I had joked with a friend just a few days before that my home was beginning to look like a museum. There had been hundreds of outdoor-oriented books, many autographed by icons in the outdoor field — hunters and fishermen like Ed Zern, Pat McManus, Charlie Dickey, Norman Strung, Ed Parks, Charley Waterman. And the birds! I had over 40 mounted in various habitat scenes, many protected in glass cases — some from Africa, some from South America or Alaska. But the ones I appreciated the most, the quail and chukars and pheasants and grouse, had been taken much closer to home. These weren’t trophies; they were memories of fine days afield with good dogs and good friends. Like my dogs, they provided both joy and comfort.

    In the weeks to follow, I would become angry with apathetic insurance adjustors — men and women doing their jobs but people who had probably never witnessed the glorious miracle of a Brittany on point or a Labrador on a successful long retrieve in rough water, people who couldn’t possibly appreciate fine taxidermy and fine books by iconic authors. They were trying to put monetary values on my memories and then adjust them for depreciation. Depreciation? What value now the Gambel’s quail reminder of the Arizona hunt with my wife a few months before she died? Or the third place dock dog ribbon earned by the long gone yellow Lab Sis the day we competed so incompetently at the county fair?

     I wondered if I would ever even hunt again, but on the fourth week after the fire, I felt the incipient stirrings, a draw to what I had always known and loved. The Department of Fish and Wildlife was offering a five-day September pheasant season for hunters over 65 — the “prune season” I had always called it.

    With a borrowed 20-gauge and borrowed boots and clothes, Lucy, Jill and I drove to a familiar pheasant draw 60 miles from home. My self-care plan was to walk good bird habitat with my dogs. I hoped the sun and sky would overpower the darkness; I needed to be me again.

    Four hours later, I was tired to the bone, but the wind and water and the smell of damp wheat stubble had purified me, and there was the satisfying warm heft of a rooster pheasant in my game vest. He wasn’t a mature bird with long tail feathers — certainly not a mounter. But he was the first bird after the fire. Another memory — a start.

    I would be all right.

    Wolfe Publishing Group