My father was a duck hunter and, I guess, a good one. At least, he came back from Moriches Bay on Long Island to our home in Scarsdale, N.Y. often enough with ducks he had killed. On the Island he usually stayed with an uncle of mine at Eastport. Their habit was to leave the house before first light and shiver in an icy blind until dawn came and the birds flew. There was no sense of inevitability to it, but his trips produced a lot of dead ducks.
My mother was pleased that Dad enjoyed himself, but her pleasure didn't extend to the ducks he brought home. She would cook them, but she wouldn't pluck them and she wouldn't clean them. She wouldn't eat them, either, at least not more than a bite or two. She said they tasted gamy, and sometimes she'd bite on a piece of buckshot, which she'd then drop carefully from a height onto her plate. "This bird"—ping—"is a bit strong, Charles," she'd say.
She was right. The wild ducks were gamy, especially compared with the commercially raised fowl my father got from another of my uncles, who owned a duck farm.
I never went duck hunting with my father. As I recall, he never invited me and I never asked to go. But I once went rabbit hunting with him and a third uncle, named Bert, who lived upstate in Dover Plains, N.Y.
That day my father and I were up before dawn to drive to Uncle Bert's house, where we ate a large breakfast. Uncle Bert had an old beagle who was mad with joy from the moment he caught the scent of Uncle Bert's hunting clothes and gun oil. The dog was 12 years old.
As we drove to the hunting grounds, Uncle Bert explained how we would go after the rabbits. The explanation was for my benefit, although I don't think my father had ever hunted rabbits before, either. I had never hunted anything, and I was the same age as the beagle.
The dog would be loose, Uncle Bert said, to range through the woods. We would follow by listening to his barks and yelps. If the barking suddenly changed character, became excited and accented with howls, it would mean he had scented a rabbit and was giving chase. We were then to position ourselves at approximately the spot where the wild barking began. In time the dog would turn the rabbit and drive it back to where we waited. Bang! Rabbit stew.
While Uncle Bert talked, I sat in the backseat of his car and tried to play with the beagle, who whined anxiously and dashed from one window to the other. He appeared to be a fine, eager dog, but I was skeptical of Uncle Bert's confidence in him. How would the dog know where we were waiting? (Uncle Bert had forgotten to say that a hounded rabbit doubles back on its track.)
We tromped through the autumn woods, over soggy, rotting leaves, listening to the sounds of the dog ahead. I carried an old shotgun of my father's, a simple single-barreled weapon I had fired just a few times and then only at tin cans. As we walked I snapped the butt of the gun to my shoulder, sighted down the barrel and cleanly killed a bear. Next I brought down a running deer. I was gunning for a catamount when we heard a series of sharp, intense barks and my father said it was now all right to load the shotgun.
After a few minutes of scrambling we reached a gentle, lightly wooded hillside that Uncle Bert declared was close enough to where the dog had picked up a rabbit's trail. He moved 50 yards uphill and out of sight, my father paced off an equal distance downslope, and I held the middle ground. We had 100 yards of hill covered against the moment when the beagle would herd the rabbit into our ambush, a prospect I continued to consider unlikely.
But I waited, shotgun loaded and finger on the safety, and hoped. The barking grew faint, all but moving out of earshot, before it gradually began to strengthen.
In another five minutes the beagle's urgent voice was nearly upon us and I took the safety off. As I peered into the woods in the direction from which the barking was coming, a rabbit astonished me by popping out from a pile of brush.
But it was a gray one! Expecting that any rabbits we might see would be brown, I was startled to see this gray version. And it was small, not at all like the rabbits downstate, fattened by a summer diet of lawns and gardens.
Seeing me at the same moment I saw it, the rabbit paused and then dashed uphill to loop around the threat I posed. I followed it with the barrel of the shotgun and had a clear target all the way. I imagined the noise of the shell firing and pictured the frantic rabbit exploding in a mass of fur and blood, but I never pulled the trigger.
My quarry reached a point directly uphill from me—Uncle Bert was somewhere up there—and bounded on. I kept the shotgun trained on the rabbit, and when it disappeared into the woods, I fired, knowing I'd miss. A patch of leaves twitched and settled, and the kick from the heavy gun made my shoulder ache.
Shouts came from uphill and downhill. I shouted back that I had missed. A moment later the beagle appeared, precisely at the spot where I first saw the rabbit. He circled along the rabbit's looping path, barking and howling as he looked for the carcass that experience had taught him to expect after hearing a gunshot. Failing to find it, the dog again put his nose to the ground and ran on.
Much later we hiked back to the car, which was parked at the end of a half-overgrown dirt road. The dog had trailed the rabbit into the woods away from us, his barking had faded, and the excitement had gone out of the moment. That was it for the day. We saw no more rabbits.
We sat on the running board and drank coffee from a Thermos while Uncle Bert whistled and shouted for his dog. When the beagle arrived, tongue hanging and tail barely wagging, he walked deliberately, painfully. Uncle Bert scooped him up and laid him on the backseat of the car.
I didn't try to play with the dog as we drove out of the woods and turned onto the highway. He put his head down next to my leg and slept.
When we got home, Uncle Bert carried the beagle inside, and while we ate dinner the exhausted dog lay on the floor. He moved in his sleep and whined, as if hurt. Once he woke and tried to walk to his water dish, but his legs collapsed under him. Too old, Uncle Bert said. The dog's too old to hunt anymore.
I didn't tell my father or Uncle Bert that I had fired only when the rabbit was gone from sight and there was no chance of killing it. If at that moment in the woods I realized that hunting wasn't my sport, I also worried that this might be considered a weakness.
But what about the beagle? He had run all day and now he couldn't walk. He had performed just as generations of breeding and hours of training would have it, and then some kid, acting more from sentiment than conviction, betrayed the ritual of the hunt, probably the dog's last.
About two months later the dog died, and Uncle Bert confirmed that he hadn't taken him hunting again. Even now I feel a touch of guilt whenever I see a beagle trotting along a dirt road, head down and sorting through the scents for one worth chasing.