When the last wild covey of quail had disappeared from the two-sixty, he lost his youthful flame. It didn’t go out but turned to a glow like the coals of a burned-out campfire. The worst was during the dark, damp afternoons of late December. The wind and sky would seem to beckon him to come hunt. But all the strength of his youth was gone; even his heart could no longer go.
He was the last of his breed, the old-timers. He had been there since his beginning and would be there till his end. Now, he felt like a stranger in his own land. This was not the land he’d grown up in. These were not the same fields he’d hunted, nor the same streams he had fished. The constants had been altered. The corn and milo strips were overgrown with fescue and cedars. The fishing holes he’d loved were now swallow puddles. Like the wildflowers that grew on the last bit of unplowed prairie, he seemed to be clinging to the old world.
His great-grandfather had come to this land by train. A young doctor from St. Louis, he’d settled and raised his family. Now there were new pioneers, with their new ideas. They were too strong for the old man; like the grapevine that grew high in the branches of a tree, they had grown round him tightly, entangling him, choking out his way of life to live theirs. They did it so innocently, leisurely building a house here, then one over there, and another and another, till there was no country, no wild places.
He longed to shoot a covey rise over a good dog. Catch a goggle eye on a top-water minnow. But those days were gone, and soon he would be gone too. He would soon be part of the land he loved so much. He’d be forgotten like the ones who already left. What had been cherished in the past would never be known by the future. How deep and wide the rivers had once been. How the quail would “shuffle” on the courthouse yard. How a snowstorm was a real danger, not just an inconvenience. They would never know the old times.
But for now Ira sat on the porch, the cool morning darkness edging in around his clothes. The world was the stillest now, when the creatures of the night had gone to bed and the creatures of the day were still asleep. He sat there, listening to his nose whistle, waiting for the sun.
He had arisen early that morning like he arose every morning, but instead of making his adventure to the coffee shop to complain about the food and seethe about local politics, he’d instead made the short journey to the concrete slab porch on the front of his house.
This was his favorite time of day. The world seemed fresh and rested. It had been Lily’s favorite time of the day too. And many mornings she’d met him at the back door with a cup of coffee on his way out to the milk barn. But the milk barn was just a dry, dusty place used for storage now.
Ira removed his hands from the inside of his bibs where they rested against the warmth of his belly. Popping the button on his bibs, he removed a bag of Red Man chew from his pocket. Digging around in the bag, he produced a small wad of chew and placed it in his mouth. He leaned forward and spit toward the edge of the porch.
The world grew lighter in the east as the sun chased the stars away from the sky. Ira was surprised he hadn’t heard anything yet. He pushed himself up from the seat and gently let himself down the steps, making his way to a tree in the yard. Ira felt the rough bark through his thin skin as he braced his hand against it. He waited a few seconds for his breathing to calm and then placed his other hand to his ear. Any second, he thought as he wished the wind would die a bit. And there it was like an answered prayer, or at least he thought he heard it. No; he heard it.
From up the lane it came, a commanding sound that Ira swore made the leaves shake on the trees.
“I bet he’s got a beard the width of a two-inch paint brush,” Ira whispered to himself before spitting on the ground.
Ira tried to picture the bird in his head, remembering his first turkey. It seemed so long ago, even though at the time he hadn’t considered himself young.
“There was a time,” he said, shaking his head, and turned toward the porch.
Ira found his way back to his chair. He listened for the turkey as the world became lighter, picturing the gobbler in his head.
Ira didn’t remember falling asleep in the chair, but some noise caused him to jerk his head up. His chewing tobacco was dry in his mouth where he’d been breathing on it, and Ira twirled his tongue around it. As he leaned forward to spit, he noticed Russell’s truck lights bouncing down the drive and straightened his back against the chair.
The flatbed Ford came to a stop, and Russell slid out as he made his way toward the porch, shaking his legs, trying to make his blue jeans fall right over his cowboy boots.
“What do you know, old-timer?” Russell said as he stepped on the porch.
“Turkeys are gobbling.”
“Yeah, did you hear that one up the road? He’s struttin’ around with some ladies up there next to the county road. Looks as big as a baby calf, blacker than a Halloween cat.”
“I heard him…or it could’ve been me fartin’. I’m sure it was him though. Even an old, deaf fucker like me could hear him.”
Russell smiled and took his straw cowboy hat from atop his head “What’d the doctor say yesterday?”
“Huh?” Ira said, not hearing him over the sudden roar of the spring wind in his ear.
“What did the doctor say about your arthritis?”
“Oh. That I’m an old shit and then gave me some different medicine.”
The two men talked about the weather and cattle and people they didn’t like, and finally Russell got up from his chair he’d took, saying, “Well, I need to go check on my heifers. You want to come with?”
“Nah, I’m gonna feed the chickens. But look to see how that Springfield bastard is gettin’ along with his house.”
Russell shook his head and trotted down the steps toward his truck. A big cloud of black dust erupted from the diesel engine tailpipes as Russell fired the truck to life.
Ira made his way past the milk barn, overgrown with grapevine, and the equipment shed that held some old dusty tractors.
The chickens scattered as Ira came around the corner but came back as he lifted the lid on the trash can that contained the chicken scratch.
Ira dug the small plastic cup into the mixture of grain and tossed it toward the chickens, and watched the chickens start their feeding dance of scratching the ground before pecking at the earth with their beaks.
A large Rhode Island Red chicken, which Ira named Bossy, bullied the other chicks around, busting her way in where more grain had fallen and the other chickens gathered.
“You little bitch,” Ira said, watching with amusement as he dug the plastic cup back into the grain and scattered some more grain away from Bossy.
He placed the plastic cup back and stood watching the chickens when a shadow from above caused him to look up. There was a flattering of wings, and Ira looked back down at the chickens and a white bird.
The bird strutted his way around the chickens, not even Bossy paying it any mind, and pecked at the grain.
“I’ll be damned,” Ira said, watching the bird. Upon hearing Ira talk, the bird raised its head to study Ira, its pink skin blinking over its yellowish pink eye.
“I thought you was a hawk after my chickens,” Ira told the bird, watching it blink again before continuing its pecking.
“Well, as long as you’re alone, I guess it doesn’t matter much. But you start bringing your friends around and crapping on everything, we’ll have a problem.”
Ira turned, watching the bird as he left, wondering where it came from and whether it was a pigeon or a dove.
Ira was sitting in the kitchen when he saw Russell returning across the pasture in his truck. Ira placed the chair back like Lily had taught him and made his way to the porch. As the screen door slammed behind Ira, Russell slammed his truck door.
“They’re gonna overtake you, Ira,” Russell called out.
Ira, not able to hear him, simply smiled and shook his head.
“They’ve got the foundation poured. That’s goin’ be a big old house,” Russell said as he stepped onto the porch.
“Yeah, I don’t why he’d want such a big house for just him, his wife, and two kids. And then still want to buy my place. He actually asked, almost commanded. Came up here and sat just like you. Saying, I sure would like you to put a better-looking fence in between us. I told him I didn’t have the money and couldn’t do the labor. And then he tried to buy my place.”
Russell just shook his head, having heard the story before. The two men sat there for a while. Finally Russell spoke.
“How come you just don’t sell it to him.”
Ira shot Russell a glance, but Russell was like his dad, a cowboy first and steward of the land second. So the glance went unnoticed.
“I mean, you’ve done farmed this place; other than the bottom ground, the grass ain’t all that great on it anyways. You could move to town and visit with people and such. Chase women.”
Ira spit toward the end of the porch, but he had a misfire, and the spit ran down his chin and onto his shirt.
“Fuck,” Ira said, taking out his handkerchief and wiping his chin. “You’ve got it all wrong. My father-in-law gave me this place as a wedding present. The whole damn county made of foreigners, plum crazy, buildin’ houses. I’ll be damned if I join them.”
Upon Ira’s last words the white bird fluttered from the sky and landed on the porch.
“Well, shit,” Russell said, looking at the bird. “That is a big bastard of a bird.”
The bird walked around the rim of the porch, inspecting its surroundings like an architect discovering a new building design.
“I think he’s checkin’ your place out, Ira,” Russell said, pushing his cowboy hat up so it rested on the back of his head.
“It better not shit on my porch,” Ira said.
The bird didn’t and the two men stared at the bird as it strolled around the edge of the concrete porch.
“Do you think it’s a homing pigeon that’s got lost?” Ira finally said. “It seems mighty tame.”
“I don’t know. Don’t they usually have bands?” Russell said as he began to get up. “Well, I got to go check on the cows back at my place.”
The pigeon paced toward the other end of the porch as Russell got up, ready to fly away if he approached.
“He does act mighty tame. Maybe he’s got a message for you,” Russell said, chuckling. “I’ll see you later, Ira. Good-bye, Mr. Pigeon,” lifting his cowboy hat from the top of his head.
The bird stood watching Russell’s truck leave with Ira on the porch. When the truck turned out of sight, Ira looked at the bird and the white clump behind it.
“Son bitch,” Ira said, and spit at the bird. The bird dodged the black missile with a light flutter. “Go on, get off my porch. I told you not to cause any trouble.”
The bird flew off into the tree in the yard, turning toward Ira to watch him.
For some reason the bird took a liking to Ira and made the farm its home, forcing Ira to like it back. Russell and Ira began questioning each other on its origin. Whether Mr. Pigeon was a male or female. If it was a pigeon or dove, how much it weighed. And Ira even joshed he’d potty-trained Mr. Pigeon because the bird hadn’t messed on the porch since the first day it arrived. The bird became a pet, like a dog, always close to Ira and just as trusted.
The feeding of the chickens became a treat for Ira, watching Mr. Pigeon feed among the chickens and, when it was done, return to the porch, where it received a few clumps of fresh bread from Ira.
Ira would meet Mr. Pigeon on the porch early in the mornings, and together they would listen to the turkey gobble up the drive. Ira even began telling the pigeon his own hunting stories and always, jokingly, telling the pigeon he’d be for supper if he didn’t mind. But the bird always seemed to know it was a fruitless threat and would simply blink its pink eyelids back at Ira from the other end of the porch.
One morning the pigeon wasn’t there, and Ira told himself it was for the better. But later that morning Mr. Pigeon returned, its wings stirring the dust from the top of the concrete porch.
“I thought you had left for good. Wait here; your bread’s inside,” Ira said, getting up from the chair.
But when Ira returned, the bird wasn’t on the porch. Ira threw the bread down in the grass, thinking it might be in the tree where he couldn’t see it, but the bird didn’t come down.
Ira scanned the scene, using what was left of his senses. The wind gently blew the uncut grass in the yard, causing it to shuffle. Even with most of his hearing gone, the world seemed too quiet.
“Pigeon?” he cried out. But the bird did not appear.
There was a sudden flash from a shadow at the other end of the porch. Ira moved toward it, calling out to the bird.
“Just what the hell…?” Ira said as he turned to look down the edge of the house. There was a dull thud as Ira saw the falcon pounce on the white bird and squeeze its claws. The pigeon’s eyes squinted with pain. Ira stood motionless. The falcon, spreading its wings, tried to lift the pigeon. But the weight of the white bird was too much.
“I gads!” Ira finally mustered. “Hey, you fucking bird, drop him!” Ira flapped his arm. “Get!”
The falcon flinched, released his prey, and flew toward the trees at the edge of the yard. Ira shuffled toward the steps. But the falcon, seeing him leave, began to swoop down on the white bird again. Ira glimpsed the falcon from the corner of his eye and turned, yelling again as the falcon landed on the pigeon.
“Hold on, pigeon…” Ira said, rushing toward the front door. Ira grabbed his gun from behind the door and heard the screen door slam as he pumped a shell into his gun. The falcon, startled by the noise, flew toward the trees again. Ira felt the gun slide, naturally, into his shoulder, squeezing the trigger as the falcon cleared the edge of the porch. With the report of the gun, the falcon crumpled and pounded into the earth. Ira pumped the empty shell from the gun, watching the falcon’s claws grasp at the air.
He made his way around to Mr. Pigeon. Using his shotgun, he gently kneeled next to the bird. The wind roused the bird’s white feathers, its pink eyelids still shut.
The next day Ira sat on the porch thinking of his friend and wondering when Russell would show up today, when a strange pickup came bumping up the drive, a green Dodge with a spotting light on the driver’s side.
“Shit. A possum cop,” Ira said out loud.
The truck came to a stop by the front gate of the yard. After a few moments the door opened and a brunette woman jumped out.
“Howdy,” she called, organizing some papers under her arm.
“Howdy,” Ira said, admiring the woman, who reminded him of Lily.
“Are you Ira Smith?” the lady asked as she stepped onto the porch.
“Well, I suppose so.”
“I’m Officer Taylor Kaufman. Your county’s game agent,” she said, sticking her hand out toward Ira.
Ira looked at her unpainted nails for a second, thinking to himself, They’ve come to arrest me for shootin’ that fucking falcon. I knew I shouldn’t have told Russell. Damn blabber mouth. Or they had a damn locator beeper on it, somewhere, and it was last detected in this area. Christ.
“Nice to meet you,” he finally said, shaking her hand. “What brings you my way?”
“Well, people tell me you’re quite the conservationist. That you help bring back turkeys in this county.”
“Yep, I helped release them over on Jimmy Whitenburg’s place back in sixty-four.”
“Well, we are planning a state celebration for the fifty-year anniversary. Your number wasn’t listed so I just drove on out.”
“I ain’t got a phone,” Ira said.
Officer Kaufman looked at Ira in disbelief. “Well, anyways, we are collecting stories for a book that is to be published and presented at the banquet in Jefferson City, and the author would like for you to contribute to the book.”
“Your experience with the reestablishment of the American wild turkey,” Kaufman said, taking a seat. Ira watched as she pulled her French braid over to rest on her shoulder. “That is if you want to.”
Ira rubbed his sweaty palms against his bibs, thinking of what to say. “Well, there ain’t much to say. I just stood there as the officer let them go. There’s a picture up at the courthouse.”
“I know. That’s how I knew you were involved in it. So can I tell the author you’ll be happy for him to come out and record your story?”
“Sure,” Ira said, placing his hands back inside his bibs.
“Good,” Officer Kaufman said, getting up. She removed some of the papers from the stack under her arm and handed them to Ira. Ira took them and watched as Officer Kaufman bent over, retrieving the empty shell that had killed the falcon.
“Sixteen gauge. Don’t see too many of those around anymore,” she said, handing the spent shell to Ira.
“Did back when there were quail,” Ira said, his hand shaking.
“Sadly you don’t find too many of them anymore either,” she said, making her way to the step.
“Tell me about it,” Ira said.
“The author will be in touch. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Smith. Have a good day.”
“Yeah,” Ira said as he watched her open the door on her truck. Officer Kaufman, not knowing the usual route that Russell’s truck took, made the turn too large. Ira watched as she stopped the truck, the backing lights coming on.
Oh shit, Ira thought, the burn barrel. He pushed himself up from his chair and waddled down the steps into the yard, just as Officer Kaufman was opening her door.
“I’ll move that barrel for ya,” he cried out, and pretended that his steps didn’t hurt to keep her from getting out of the truck to help.
Ira tipped the barrel and rolled it off the gravel, his hands becoming black from the soot. He watched her wave as the truck rolled by, waiting for her to disappear before looking into the barrel at the skeleton remains of his friend and the falcon.
Art:Alex ClinePortrait of Gretchen eating my plantsDigital illustration2018