Crisp and cold and windless, my breath hung about me like a spirit unsure where it should go. The colors of the autumn hardwoods were nearing Einstein brilliance and I lost myself in the kaleidoscope of greens, yellows and reds. The thin ridge stopped at the edge of a grownup field. under a stand of hickory, just above the creek and I stood motionless; listening and looking for a good seat.
Why are all the good stumps for sitting never in the right spot and why are the right spots always devoid of makeshift chairs?
I gave up the looking and knelt on one knee, rifle butt on the ground but still listening. Listening for the rustle of a leaf or for the drop of an hickory nut. After scanning my surroundings I looked down and there, inches from my knee, was an old shotgun hull; 20 gauge I was sure.
This was not a real surprise; the spot I was in had been my Mom’s favorite place to hunt. She used to bring me here; her with her shotgun and me with my .22, looking for squirrels. I never liked hunting with a shotgun. I wanted to know exactly where my bullet would go and to know that if I missed it was due to an error on my part as opposed to the squirrel’s luck at being swallowed by a hole in the pattern.
Mom always thought I’d be a lawyer or an astronaut; I doubt she ever imagined her time in the woods with me would be the training that prepared me for what I now do. She always bragged about chasing coon dogs when she was pregnant with me. Coon hunters used to take their dogs hunting when they were carrying a litter; called it marking the pups. I guess, in a way, Mom marked me.
It seemed logical to assume the empty 20 gauge shell was from Mom’s Model 12 Winchester. I’m sure she was standing right here when a big fat grey squirrel slipped out on a limb and started barking. Mom never minded the shotgun and if her model 12 had a hole in its pattern she must have known right where it was. I’ll bet this 20 gauge hull hit the ground about the time the squirrel did. It probably led to squirrel gravy and biscuits that I ate for breakfast the next morning.
Almost lost in recollection, I was startled as my eye caught movement to my left. A squirrel was running along a downed limb just 30 yards away. I shouldered the rifle and when the squirrel stopped to look at me, no doubt wondering what I was, the scope’s reticle found his head.
The safety was already off and slight pressure was on the trigger. I knew the squirrel would not stand around very long and at about what I thought was the last second I had to make the shot…I didn’t.
I lowered the rifle, looked at the squirrel looking at me, and thought about my son back at camp, who thought five o’clock was too early to get up and go squirrel hunting. Out loud I said, “I’ll leave you for another time, for another hunter.” If the squirrel heard me, he didn’t respond. He just continued down the limb looking for breakfast.
I looked back at the empty case on the forest floor and started to pick it up and put it in my pocket. But then, I thought, nope; I’ll leave you right here too. Sitting on the shelf, your story is not as good.
A few hours later, after breakfast, I was on the porch, sitting in the sun, doing mostly nothing. My son came out with his rifle and, wiping the sleep boogers from his eyes, said, “I’m going squirrel hunting. Where you think I should go?”
I didn’t even have to think about it, “Go out past the creek, walk up to your left on the ridge where it flattens out under some hickory trees.”
Seemed like good advice to me; just like Mom would have given.
Empty cases are sometimes full; full of memories.