They seemed like strangers when they bounded out of the truck in separate directions. Despite living together in the same house and same yard day after day, their enthusiasm in the field was at different frequencies. Winchester’s single-purpose intensity broadcast from deep space while Hugo took in a whole range of signals. He lit on song birds and flying insects. He ranged the mountainside in wild abandon. To watch them was like watching two different flight plans precluded from intersection. The older and wiser Winchester and the new pup Hugo were each in their own world with a thin line of trust running back toward us.
Winchester ran at full speed to the farthest range of the slope and just inside the curve of our view. He knew it was the furthest he could go before we would call him back. He worked his way through willow patches, weaving so that he covered them all in figure eights before floating in defiance of gravity back down to us. Hugo ran one way and then another, up the mountainside to the rocks and back down. Hugo played loose while Winchester worked with intent.
Hugo had pointed his first ptarmigan earlier in the fall. He had also seen a spruce grouse fall to my partner’s gun in the woods. Those two experiences weren’t enough to impress on him exactly what it was we were doing. The whole of a hunt did not occur to him as much as its parts were all equal wonders in a vast array of possibility. Winchester and Hugo were in two different worlds when Winchester went on point at the top of the hill. We could see just his tail over the rise.
The birds were a hundred yards away when we put Hugo on a check cord. He bucked and pulled as we moved closer. They were a young group of whitetail ptarmigan more likely to run than fly. I walked past Winchester to flush the nearest bird. The bird did not move even as the rest of the covey wavered at the periphery. I looked back to Winchester. He stood solid in a petrifying stare. In the distance Hugo strained to break the tension against a tight rope.
I walked closer to the bird and caused the rest of the covey to flush. The single bird held. It seemed incapable of moving no matter how close I got. I looked back to Hugo again, and the bird ran. Winchester hadn’t moved. My partner hadn’t moved. Only Hugo and I were frantic. I followed the bird. It flew a short distance – not far enough for a shot. I should have picked out another bird when the covey flushed, I thought. I should have shot already.
All I could do was chase this bird that wouldn’t fly. At what point would I let it go, I wondered. The sounds and smells of the morning were all gone, and all I had was a jam of thoughts slowing my action. Just then, without seeing the rock-colored bird lift off the ground, its white wings opened in the gap of the rocks above me, and I shot.
Hugo, let loose, ran toward the fallen bird. He was wild with the scent in the air and ran all around the bird. His senses were hot, and my voice was lost in static. “It’s right there, Hugo,” I said. His tail wagged in circles as he ran one way and then another, up the rocky slope past the bird and back down. I remembered the first time I had seen a ptarmigan. The bird stood still in the rocks on the bank of a mountain stream. I’d looked at the exact place many times and didn’t see it. It’s hard to see something you’ve never seen. But that moment, when your focus adjusts and you attune, the image strikes you.
Hugo grabbed the bird with the fierceness of that discovery. Winchester let him in a rare act of grace. Their worlds had finally come together in an unlikely harmony. It reminded me of something the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery had said about practice, “I never practice my guitar… from time to time I just open the case and throw in a piece of raw meat.” There are plenty of interpretations on what he could have meant, but I like to think he meant that his guitar was a living thing. Likewise, the hunt is a living thing that we do not play as much as feed.