The air was redolent with the smell of fallen leaves, wet earth and the goodness of the land around me. I could smell the undercurrents of hickory and pork from my wood burning stove in the distance and see the glint of the sunset over my left shoulder on the New River, hundreds of feet below me. The faintest echoes of the target load I’d just fired from my shotgun reached my ears, but I mostly ignored everything as I instinctively chambered another load, slipped the empty cartridge into my pocket and stared in disbelief.
If my wife had not pointed it out to me I would have never seen the Ruffed Grouse, so cunningly hidden in the leaves and downfall from this season’s fall weather. Early winter was upon us, with numerous snows at higher elevations and two weeks out from Christmas we had not let the fire go out since Mid-October. Wood stoves are such blessings in weather like this, warming not only the house but the soul as well. I shrank to one knee and carefully surveyed my surroundings, as if awakening from a dream, as I had been so intent on my shot and the behavior of the bird that everything else had melted into the background.
You’re always supposed to stay aware while hunting, not only of your intended harvest, but to all your surroundings as well, particularly in the vicinity of where your shot is supposed to go. Today was a rare exception, although I had never dropped my peripheral vision or senses while puzzling over the beautiful grouse. Laura had been asking me to harvest a few off our property for dinner, but I had been reluctant. Wild grouse aren’t that abundant and they are so beautiful to watch and just stalk that I really didn’t have much of a desire to take one out the environment, despite of how much I like to eat them.
My shot was perfect, catching the animal just below the head, nearly severing it from the body. I had not been particularly quiet in my approach, and was puzzled why a bird so difficult to hunt had been so easy to take. They are as fragile as they are delicious and beautiful, which makes them even more precious to hunt and eat – my conscious usually gets in the way. Today, dinner won and I took the shot.
The bird never moved. I studied the area even more carefully, wondering why it had remained so hidden with the impending encroachment of my clumsy footsteps and blundering about. No matter how quiet or excellent at woodcraft, compared to a wild animal a human being is an ungainly and ponderous creature.
With the gun safely checked and over my shoulder, I approached the grouse and knelt beside it just as the last of its life thrummed through its body. Its eyes shielded over and I carefully picked it up for inspection wondering at the perfection of such a creature. Not one pellet had passed through the little guy’s body and I marveled at the beauty of the evening with the sun setting majestically over the river, casting a beautiful red light on the clouds. I wondered again why it had not fled.
As I picked it up from the ground, a hint of movement caught my eye a few feet away. It took a moment, but I realized what I was looking at. Just as cunningly hidden as the bird had been was my cat, Stubbs! He had been stalking the pheasant and was angrily baring his teeth at me! No wonder the bird hadn’t moved – he was intent on the cat! Stubbs turned and melted into the gathering dusk as I rose to make my way back to the fire. A hunting cat, indeed. He turned up on the stoop a few hours later as we were cutting pizza on the wooden board in our kitchen as if nothing had happened performing his nightly show for snacks.
I think that cat may eat better than we do. At least I did until I cooked the grouse.