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|A Christmas quail hunt|
(Editor's Note: Sam Hanna Sr.'s Christmas column is reprinted below in his memory. He published the column each year for many years prior to Christmas. Hanna was owner and publisher of the Concordia Sentinel, The Franklin Sun and The Ouachita Citizen when he died Jan. 15, 2006.)
On a cold winter day as Christmas nears, I should be out there, the knee-high sedge swishing against my pants legs, Joe roaming back and forth out front, a covey of birds in the briars in the corner of the field.
Although we lived across the street from the school, I was within walking distance of bird country. I would cross the slough behind the house, walk through a large neighborhood of blacks, most of whom I knew, and in a mile or two I would be there.
Bird country at Christmas time. I can smell the pines and hear the wind blowing through them. Joe is on point.
The town was bordered by small farms, mostly cotton with a corn patch here and there. The uncultivated land was grown up in sedge and briars. Sloughs and woods broke the landscape.
It was quail country.
In high school and college, I hunted every day of the holiday season over there. Every day, I remember.
There were three of us in our family, and my mother decorated her table in the spirit of Christmas. My memories of those Christmases gone by are especially precious to me now, for I have reached the age of my parents when I was a boy.
After dinner I would take the 20-gauge pump off the gun rack, call Joe and strike out across the slough. My dad paid $17.50 for that model 12 Winchester in 1917, and it's still the best shooting gun we own today.
My son shot it when he was growing up.
In my early hunting days across the slough a covey of birds would scare my pants off as I threw the pump to my shoulder and shot in the direction of their flight. Occasionally, I would drop one.
In time I learned to concentrate on one bird at the time, and my results improved. I am no longer a serious hunter due to the decline in the quail population. A good birddog in our area is wasted today.
I don't recall ever killing the limit as a boy, but that doesn't matter now. Being out there, often with friends Larry Taylor and Raymond Taliaferro, left me with memories that have lasted a lifetime.
There was something about being over there across the slough around Christmas time. The black folks were poor, but their little homes always had a string of lights twinkling in the windows. They were friendly people who were not startled by the sight of a young man walking through their neighborhood with a gun on his shoulder.
It was a different time, a different day.
An elderly white couple lived in an old frame house on the edge of my favorite place, a pasture with a slough that had patches of cane on the banks. I could always find a covey there.
I became friends with the old gentleman, who was almost blind. He would gather firewood in the field, stack it in a pile and bundle it up with a rope and pull it to his house.
The sight of that old man dragging the firewood home burned into my memory forever.
All the while Joe would be hunting in the bottom or running through the sedge, winding birds. A birddog that winds birds, like Joe and Joe II and Boots, runs with its head titled back slightly. A birddog that trails birds, like Dixie, runs with its nose close to the ground.
Joe wasn't what you would call a finished product. He had a terrific nose, but patience wasn't one of his virtues. If you didn't get to him quickly when he pointed, he'd break point and run up the birds. He came into my possession as a gift or a loan from our neighbor, Clarence Holmes.
But as a boy just beginning to hunt birds, I didn't know that Joe failed to meet the standards. As an old dog he slowed down and held point better. He lived to be 12 and died under the house.
By then I was grown and living away from home. My hunts across the slough came with less frequency. In later years I went back a few times, but the town's growth engulfed the little farms. The sedge and briars were gone. So were the birds.
But, oh, it was once a place, a holiday retreat that offered me the freedom of roaming through the country, Christmas lights glowing against the winter sky, a birddog out front working the sedge, quail exploding from their cover.
And always the old man going home with his firewood. I can see him now.
That's where my heart is at Christmas, as another year rolls by, and the old man's boy grows another year older.