We’d been walking for several hours, neither of us speaking a word. Even the dogs at heel sensed the tension in the air. Frank looked hangdog while he occasionally checked his cell phone for service. My feet were sore and only getting worse in anticipation of the ten miles back to civilization when all of a sudden we heard the gravel crunch and diesel roar of a truck coming toward us on the logging road. We looked at each other, grabbed our dogs by the collars and jumped off the road and into the underbrush. The truck roared by and I tried to puzzle out the day’s events that brought us to this sorry state of affairs.
It was a brochure day; Late October’s flame burned at the edges of every changing leaf and in the hearts of the dogs who worked artfully, sensing the promise of this new covert. Frank and I got in a lot of shooting and actually managed to bring a few birds to bag. I felt overly lucky that I had found such a generous friend in Frank that he would share this patch of cover with me. I hadn’t known him long having just moved to the area but he had shown me a few truly spectacular grouse hunting spots asking for nothing more than for me to do the driving since his eyesight was on the fritz.
Of course, hindsight being 20/20, I should have paid more attention to his handwringing and reluctance to go hunting this morning when he rolled up my driveway for our hunt and I informed him that the Mrs. would need to use my truck that day leaving Frank’s pickup as our only option. “I don’t know if that’s a good Idea. Maybe we should just hit it another day,” Frank murmured, looking down at his boots. “It will be alright, Frank. I can drive your rig for you.” “I’m worried about getting my rig stuck,” he said, eyes still locked on his toes. “But it’s a four by four and according to you it’s already made the trip. My rig is only two wheel drive,” I countered. “Alright,” Frank muttered under his breath, a rarity for such a loquacious man.
The first time I met Frank was at the Clear Cut Pub. I could hear him jabbering from across the bar about all the great shoots he had in his day and how all the duck hunting down in the valley had gone to pot because of that damned Duck Syndicate locking up every last puddle and pond. It was at that point Bob Duncan, my advocate and only local friend at the time, spoke up and pointed his thumb my way.
“This fellow here happens to belong to the Greater Valley Duck Syndicate,” said Bob with casualness unbefitting the words that fell from his mouth and hit the floor with a thud. “Greater Valley Duck Syndicate… They haven’t had an opening in years…” I heard my soon to be best friend Frank say with enough reverence to knock the froth off our beers. The Greater Valley Duck Syndicate was owned by my employer Silas Lund, or Si for short because Si was a short man, not the kind of short man that people looked up to for kindness or as a leader in the community but the kind of short man who was always trying to remind everyone exactly how short he was by placing himself next to things that were impossibly tall. When not hunting he enjoyed mountain climbing, he drove a ridiculously lifted four by four with tractor tires. Si resided in the biggest mansion anyone could recall laying eyes on which would also tell you he was incredibly wealthy and wasn’t afraid to stand on his stacks of money to get eye to eye with those taller than him, which didn’t take much because when wearing heeled cowboy boots and a ten gallon hat he barely reached five foot. He was a mean little squint and a game hog to boot having bought out most of the farmer’s duck hunting rights. But Silas Lund wasn’t all bad. He had a passion for grouse hunting and a true soft spot for bird dogs, owning a kennel or two full of them. It was just by sheer accident he took a shine to me one day when I pulled a hidden porcupine quill from the snout of his prized setter Bitch Daisy. The dog had been on the hook for quite some time after a bout with a quill pig had apparently left her nose blind. A few days after the offending quill was removed and all the puss that followed drained out her sense of smell returned and she returned to the winner’s circle on the trail circuit. Si was so grateful he lavished me with invites to his gun club and a Duck Syndicate membership and I wasn’t too good to decline new friend in a high place even if he was as short as Si Lund.
“Let me buy you a drink my good man!” Frank exclaimed as he sidled next to me and began his verbal outdoor resume. It turned out Frank was a small time country realtor and a first class schmoozer. He knew just about everyone in the middle class echelon of sportsmen in this area but lacked the money, influence, and connections to be invited to the hunts and parties of the true high rollers like Mr. Lund. In the months that followed Frank wouldn’t let himself or his connections be forgotten. He demanded to help an out of towner become a local and showed me a dozen hidden gems that grouse hunters are more likely to read about than actually walk through.
There was the Whirlpool Covert, so named for the old washing machine at the beginning. We could have limited out in five minutes if our shooting was better. There was the Mourning Wood ranch where legend had it a grief stricken hardscrabble Swedish farmer planted a hundred different varieties of fruit trees in honor of his dead wife before abandoning the place. On the northern edge of the orchard her lonely headstone peeked out of the brush like an iceberg her husband had crashed into. There was the Thunder Bone covert where an old horse skull remains tethered to a tree forever spinning in the breeze like a compass trying to find home. There was the Octagon and the Split Crotch Gully and the Haywire. He gave all these secret forgotten grouse strongholds up so freely I was truly spellbound by his generosity and more than determined when opportunity arose to put in a good word to my boss Mr. Lund. But that unraveled this morning.
By noon at this new cover we were all well-worn and tired. Enough birds had been bagged for our satisfaction and more than enough left for seed. The dogs licked their pads and breathed the air heavily. Normally on a day like this we might rest awhile and tend to the dogs before heading home but my unusually taciturn friend seemed anxious to get going so I didn’t press the matter and we walked back to his truck.
When we rounded the corner his truck was there as expected but something was askew. Frank groaned rather loudly and I realized his truck sat on four deflated tires. Upon closer inspection we could see five valve stems one from the spare sat on the hood and a note had been tucked under the wiper.
I plucked the note from where it was pinned and immediately recognized the crisp efficient signature from my pay stubs. My mind reeled as I read it aloud to my companion who looked upset but somehow not surprised.
“Dear Frank, You broke the code. Si Lund.”
Frank looked sick as he patted his chest for the cigarettes he quit smoking years ago. He tried to kick his pointer Sadie as she walked by but missed and fell on his ass. “Well isn’t it a fine day?” Frank Grumbled as Sadie licked his ear. “What code is he talking about Frank?” I asked, still fairly dumbfounded. “You know… the code about not hunting someone else’s covert unless invited or given permission by the person who originally found it.” Frank sighed and looked irritated for having to explain one of the more well-known and inconvenient nuances of social hunting to me. “I helped Si close a real estate deal a week ago and he screwed over the buyer. He ended up making a lot money which always puts him in a good mood so he invited me to go hunting. This is where he brought me.”
“You poached his covert?!” I nearly yelled it suddenly dawning on me that I was all too guilty by association.
“I don’t see what the big deal is. Every covert is someone else’s covert. There are no truly secret spots in existence,” Frank said matter of factly.
“Not if someone can’t keep a lid on them by breaking the code!”
“Who’s to say I didn’t find this spot own my own before Si did? Just like all the other spots I’ve taken you to?”
“Do all those other coverts belong to someone else? IS THAT WHY YOU ALWAYS INSISTED ON TAKING MY TRUCK? SO YOU WOULDN’T GET CAUGHT?” I shouted through clenched teeth.
“Of course they do if you want to subscribe to that old covert ownership malarkey I wouldn’t take you to one of my own private coverts, seeing as how you are new to town you might just blab their location to the wrong people,” Frank rolled his eyes at my naivety.
What a hypocrite. I was sick. All this time I had been enjoying other people’s hunting spots and I was poaching by proxy. It would be one thing if I had found these places myself, earning them with my own sweat, boot leather, and gas money but I felt like a parasite. People had opened up to Frank and showed him something meaningful in their lives. There are few things as meaningful as a good secret grouse cover. They are intimate gems where great memories and moments take place and here comes old yellow mustached Frank like a thief in the night, stomping through their covers uninvited, to violate and rob them of something they might just as well have protected had they known it was in danger. It’s not like he even asked or invited them for a second hunt, a common courtesy at the least, and I was his unwitting accomplice.
“Good grief!” I groaned.
“I don’t see what you are so bent out of shape about. You enjoyed your hunts at these places.”
“Frank, how would you feel if you invited me to one of your best spots and I came back to hunt it without even telling you, let alone asking for your permission?” “I’d be upset.”
“Of course, but why?”
“Well, I guess I’d feel used, like you couldn’t stand my company enough to give me a call to go hunting.”
“Now don’t you see why breaking the code is such a bad thing?” “It’s not a big deal. It’s not like this was private property. It’s open to the entire world to find,” said Frank with all the false certainty and denial of a man who needed to be right for the sake of being right.
“Apparently it was a big deal to Si who used his own sweat and boot leather to find out where the best parts of this place was before he showed it to you. Apparently it was a big enough deal for him to feel the need to pull your valve stems out after he found you betrayed him by breaking the code.”
Frank stared at me indignantly but I could see I was getting through to him despite his need to come out on the winning side of this argument. “Frank, Si is big player in The Greater Valley Duck Syndicate. If he catches me with you on this defunct adventure he is going to take my membership away and you won’t be able to come duck hunting with me on his lease,” I growled “Oh, alright dammit! I get your point!” Frank allowed now that argument had pinpointed his interests.
We began the long walk back down toward town and cell service, between the gravel crunching under our feet and silence there wasn’t much else to say. I held silent in firm resolution to never share a secret grouse covert with anyone but my dog from now on.