Last summer, Jack Unruh, Illustrator of this column, and I, with no more sense than a couple of babies playing with steak knives, convinced ourselves to take a pheasant hunting road trip to North Dakota in October. We talked it up over the phone until we fell for our own B.S. about pheasants that had never seen a hunter and dogs leaping through the prairie grass. Then, the week before the trip, we both came clean. I admitted I had never actually hunted pheasants. Jack mentioned that his dogs were “unfinished.” “Willy Mae points when she’s in the mood but won’t hold it. Rudy is like her, only without as good a nose. Plus he pees on my leg sometimes. It’s a dominance thing.” He had also realized that he had better pack a sandwich, as the 1,300-mile drive from Dallas to Bismarck might take an entire afternoon.
To break up the trip, Jack invited his friend Richard Stucky along. Richard is an independent farmer in Pretty Prairie, Kansas, population 604. He doesn’t make much money or get off the farm often, and we sort of patted ourselves on the backs for including him, as if we had started a Take a Farmer Hunting Foundation.
Actually, Richard–a stocky, slow-talking fellow about my age who looks younger, probably because he isn’t worried all the time–hardly detracted from the trip at all. His 100-pound German shorthair mix, Dusty, was a dream dog. “Who trained that critter?” I asked Richard one day, as Dusty released a rooster into his hand. “Me,” he said. Turns out that Dusty gets almost daily practice in season on the quail that Richard raises and hunts on the farm. Depending on what he and his wife, Connie, feel like eating, he also goes after deer, ducks, geese, and rabbits. He has a bass boat and four coonhounds. I was losing sympathy for poor Richard by the minute. Jack volunteered that his friend was the only guy he’d ever known who’d worn out a shotgun. “And he did it on birds alone. No targets.”
I asked Richard about farming. “There’s no money in it, but I’d die if I had to get a desk job. I’ve got about 200 acres of my own and lease another thousand. Wheat. And I do custom harvesting to subsidize the farming. But it pretty much lets me hunt whenever I want to.”
“So you have all those big machines?”
“Aren’t you sort of screwed if one breaks down?”
“Well, you just have to fix it.”
It turns out that poor old Richard could fix just about anything: green hunting dog, combine, or clogged motel ice machine. He permanently fixed any pheasant that got up within 40 yards of his battered, no-name side-by-side. “Secondhand. Fella at the gun shop said it’s a Belgian. Little shorter stock and a lower comb. Fits me good, especially in heavy clothes.”
We soon discovered that he was also the best judge of public-land cover likely to hold birds, so Richard rode shotgun, Jack drove, and I slept in the back. Richard got his three-bird limit every day, often before lunch. Jack limited out some days. And several times I scared a bird so severely with my first two shots that it committed suicide by flying back into the third. Richard, seeing how spastic I became every time a feathered Improvised Explosive Device went off at my feet, had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. “You gotta relax, Bill,” he finally said. “They hardly ever attack people.”
One afternoon, I asked Richard about the shotgun Jack had mentioned. “Dad bought me that gun new, a Franchi, back in 1967 when I was 12. And eventually the little hook in the receiver block that pulls the empty shell just broke off. I got a ¼-inch chunk of key stock, cut it, and filed it down to about the size and shape I needed. And then I got a torch and tempered it, guessing how hard it–“
“Wait,” I said. “You tempered it?”
“Sure. That’s where you–“
“I know what tempering is, Richard.” I sat there both admiring and resenting this damn hayseed of a man, a guy who hardly ever left Kansas but knew things I would never know, who was overflowing with kindness and wisdom and vitality. I suddenly felt like a 50-year-old puppy, a bird dog not yet broken from a bad habit of chasing the wrong animals: fame, money, and stuff. I didn’t know how to explain this feeling and knew better than to try.
“Listen, Richard. Did I ever tell you about the home theater system I carved out of a pumpkin? Nine speakers, 400 watts, great big flat plasma screen…”
Richard just chuckled and shook his head, amused by how some people get themselves all worked up over the simplest things. “You’re a hoot, Bill. I swear. You really are.” Five minutes later, he told Jack to pull over. “Oughta be some birds in this one,” he said. He opened the box and Dusty hit the ground running.