Saturday, January 25, 2020

Some Pheasants

Copyright 2020 Erik Helm

John Phillipson motioned to the waiter at the Fox and Hounds to pour the wine first for his guest. He had chosen the vintage carefully to accompany the lunch he was giving for his young employee Ed, who had been a key team member in the successful conclusion of a major project for his firm. Ed was a software engineer of rare talent. Slim and dark haired with thick glasses, Ed was someone one would pass on the street and not remember seeing, even if the street were otherwise empty. He had worked long hours for the past six months and even took work home with him to his small bachelor’s house. John thought perhaps Ed had worked a bit too hard at times. He needed to get out in the sun more, thus the lunch at his favorite restaurant, and further invitations to participate in activities that would take Ed away from his screen and keyboard.

What made John rather unique, he thought to himself, was that he got to know each and every one of his 92 employees on a personal level. Like a good general, he reasoned, a good manager and CEO should know his assets and how best to keep them active, happy, and even more… know what drove them in life. That last question was one that eluded him with Ed. He couldn’t believe that Ed’s work was his only reward or joy.

“What should I order?” asked Ed, who habitually had a brown bag lunch of a sandwich and a piece of fruit at his desk while he worked.
“I recommend the pheasant’” Phillipson replied. “I have it every time it is on offering, and it is very fresh and well prepared. They serve it with asparagus, wild rice, and a nice herb white-sauce.”

It was agreed, and John toasted Ed’s health, and after the wine was sampled, began to inquire about any hobbies that his valued employee might engage in. After some sundry talk about toy trains and stamps, John asked Ed if he had ever hunted pheasants.

“No, but I do love pheasants,” Ed exclaimed with some passion as the plates arrived with the delicately presented breasts of that most desirable of birds steaming and framed like a work of art with the rice and vegetables.

After the feast was consumed, and the coffee was served, John brought up the subject again.

“I would like to invite you to my home for a little pheasant hunt if you are willing… I have over 60 acres of scrub fields bordered by thin wooded copses that are full of pheasants. A couple of years ago my accountant suggested the idea of reducing our taxes by raising game on our land, so we stocked 25 pheasants and bought several chickens and even a pet goat. The chickens lay a few fresh eggs, and the goat… well, the goat just is a goat, but the pheasants multiplied like rabbits. There must be over a hundred cocks and hens, and I rarely get time to hunt them any more, but now that the project is over and a success, I suggest we take the time this Saturday for a few hours and do some nice upland wing shooting.”

Ed mentioned that back before grad school he was a keen trap shooter, but that his shotgun was back with his parents in Connecticut.

“No worries,” John assured him. “I have a little Spanish side by side 20 bore you can borrow, a spare game bag for you, plenty of shells I got from a little ma and pa sporting goods store that was closing, and anything else you need. Just come as you are, so to speak, and wear some tough pants and a jacket that will stand up to moving through brush, and also a stout pair of hiking boots or something on that order. We will hunt together, and then Ellen, Mrs. Phillipson, who you will meet, will do her magic to the birds. You also will meet my English Cocker Abby, the best bird dog I ever owned.”

“Do you enjoy a fine Scotch, by the way?” John enquired with one raised eyebrow.

Ed agreed he did indeed enjoy a fine malt, and would be delighted to enjoy this adventure offered so kindly to him. The time was fixed at 1 o’clock Saturday the next.

Sometimes fate turns and weaves its lines through the stories of our lives beginning with a little incident. The ‘incident’ in this case was that in un-boxing a fine 12 year old bottle of Speyside Scotch, Mr. Phillipson accidentally dropped it. The tinkling of broken glass and following invective brought Abby to investigate, and the poor dog trod on a bit of glass, cutting her front left paw. There was no other bottle of scotch in the house, and with Ed due to arrive in fifteen minutes, a change of plans was in order. Brandy would follow the hunt, which would now have to be conducted without the dog. More difficult for certain, and lacking in that essential quality of hunting over a champion bird dog who knows more about bird hunting than the hunters ever will, but not impossible he reasoned. The sheer quantity of birds on his land would allow the hunt to continue even without a dog. They would just have to do it ‘old-fashioned style,’ each of them zigzagging and flushing their own birds. He hurried to sweep up the glass as his wife placed a bandage over Abby’s thankfully very slight injury.

Ed was prompt, and Phillipson, upon opening the front door, was greeted by a unique sight. Ed had on a pair of old rubber galoshes complete with metal buckles. For a coat, his guest was sporting a dilapidated khaki barn coat obviously several sizes too big for him, and smelling faintly of mothballs. This outfit was crowned by an eager smile and delivered forward with a warm handshake. John wondered, just a fleeting thought in the back of his mind, if Ed’s hunting attire had come from a short visit to a local thrift store. But then, he recalled, Ed did say he loved his pheasants. Maybe he had no outdoor gear, since Ed seemed to be always working owlishly at his computer, or maybe he had his old hunting kit stored at his parent’s house along with his shotgun. Well, today he would show him a bit of the outdoor life anyway. Perhaps if Ed enjoyed it, Phillipson speculated, he could gift him with some briar pants, a game vest, and even a nice bird gun as an end of year bonus. He was worth it after all… all those long hours…

John ushered his guest into a little sun room located off the foyer that he playfully referred to as his ‘Safari room.’ He seated Ed in a nice leather chair, and took down a canvas gun case from a nook between shelves filled with outdoor books. He unzipped the case, and revealed the soft warmth of a hand-rubbed and oiled walnut stock, and case patterned side plates of the Spanish double. He broke the gun and handed it to Ed.

“This little girl needs to sound off a little. She hits exactly as you point her. You don’t need to lead too far with pheasants, and I think a box each of high-brass number 5s should do us fine today.” Ed was cradling the gun as if it would break or bite him, but Phillipson soon reassured him, and closing the action on empty chambers, executed a few snappy swings. Ed said the drop and length of pull were perfect. John was impressed. His associate knew a few things about guns. This would be a fine hunt, with the slight clouds, little wind, and a half-inch of powdery snow fallen in the pre-dawn darkness.

They began on the edge of a small corn-stand abutting the drive. Each side of the drive was a field, and on the edge of each field were the wood copses.
“Pheasants, like most game are creatures of edges,” John explained to Ed. “Edges and Cover. We will split the sides between us and work the edges of the field and wood. Cover everything in between. Pheasants can be runners instead of flyers, and you want to kick them up into flight. Try not to shoot runners, that can lead to accidents.”

“Good hunting!” he added. “We will meet back here in two hours, so take a look at your watch… I have it half past the hour.”
Ed nodded and smiled, his action broken and cradled expertly in his right arm, and his galoshes clicking and galoshing as he walked.

John turned and strode into the shoulder high grass and weeds, beginning the process of covering ground and every likely lie a bird might favor. After 10 minutes or so, he kicked up his first cock out a sort of snow-covered wigwam of brush. The bird flew straight up and angled right. John swung from behind and touched off the right barrel of his Fox 16 bore. The pheasant dropped in a shower of feathers. It was easy to locate due to the snow cover. It also helped that John had hit it with a headshot, so it never had a chance to run, hide, and slowly die hidden from prying eyes.

Five minutes later John found his second bird. A hen, this crafty gal ran straight away from him and then flew low and flat. He aimed the fowling gun and fired the left barrel, giving the hen a shot-string of full-choke 5s and bringing her down dead. As he retrieved the bird, he wondered at the lack of shooting from Ed’s side of the field. That morning he had spread a large bag of feed around on that side of the drive, and if the past were any experience, the birds would be on the feast pretty quickly. He did want Ed to have a successful and fun day today.

The third bird John flushed required both barrels to bring it down, and as he was searching for it where it fell near the edge of wood, he heard the joyful sound of a distant report followed by a second muffled ‘boom.’ Ed must have found a bird! The day would be a success if Ed could shoot one tenth as well as could write code… but then there were those galoshes… really, what was he thinking? Ed really needed to get out more often.

The next hour saw no more birds located by John, while on Ed’s side of the woods sounded like a slightly excited English shooting party on a driven hunt. No more than ten minutes elapsed between further exclamations from Ed’s shotgun. He must have found the mother-load thought John.

The time came to make his way back to the rendezvous, and as Phillipson approached the little corn stand, a final pheasant flushed and flew left and high. John’s shot was on the mark, and the fourth bird fell fifty yards off as Ed appeared out of the field. John pointed to the bird, and motioned Ed to place it in his game bag, as he was much closer. Ed’s bag, John was very pleased to note, was sagging heavily and very full. The pheasant was added to the bag and the tail feathers stuck jauntily out as Ed smiled.

“Well, how did it go?” John asked with a wink.

“I had the best time ever!” Ed exclaimed with flushed cheeks. “Some of the pheasants flew kind of strange, and one just sat there, and then there was one that perched in a tree, but I only missed a few shots! I even hit a double…”

“Pheasants can be like that sometimes,” John explained as they walked back to the barn to breast-out the birds. “Predictability is not a pheasant’s strong suit.”

Phillipson had a bench at waist-height covered with plastic sheeting and a tin garbage container ready to accept the offal. He reached in his back game pouch and placed his three pheasants on the table. Ed opened the strap and turned out the contents of his bag next to it.

There are moments that time seems to move rather slowly. At this very moment, it crawled in slow motion. The contents of the bag that tumbled out onto the table included in order:

One cock pheasant (The one that Phillipson dispatched)
A large woodpecker.
One pigeon
Two grackles
A starling
One female cardinal
And wearing a rather stupefied expression, as if to say “Now what the hell?” a very dead member of the small Phillipson stock of chickens.

“Well, what do you think?” Ed proudly exclaimed.

The words almost formed in John’s mouth, but both because he caught himself in time, and due to the fact that his jaw was hanging open, only a sort of strangling gurgle made itself heard. He finally closed his mouth, straightened to his full six feet and with his back rigid, and his hand extended, turned to Ed, shook his hand, and exclaimed, “Good shooting!”

As he lined up the birds for dressing and stropped his knife, he reflected that it would not pay to even mention or explain to Ed what he had done, nor to inquire if Ed indeed had ever actually seen a pheasant before, and if he had or had not, what the heck he was thinking…
His knife hovered carefully over the little starling.

Ellen (Mrs. Phillipson) was presented a tray of ‘Pheasant breasts’ in the kitchen with a whisper from John. She arched her eyebrows in reply, and John placed his forefinger to his lips and winked.

Seated in the ‘Safari room’ after being introduced the smiling and lovely Mrs. Phillipson, Ed was offered a large snifter-glass of amber liquid. John proposed a toast, but Ed insisted in presenting a tribute instead. “To my first hunt and your excellent hospitality,” he proclaimed.

“Excellent Scotch,” he added on the subject of the brandy. The best I have ever tasted.”

Both Mr. And Mrs. Phillipson agreed with some shared reflections after dinner was over and Ed had left for home with grateful thanks; these were that the woodpecker was surprisingly delicate and tasty, that Ed had obviously thought of a ‘Pheasant’ as some sort of food he had been served once or twice that formerly had wings and flew a bit now and then, and that above all…. That Ed REALLY needed to get out more…