by Colby Caldwell
It was in the fall, the leaves were turning, and the air had that familiar crispness. Hunting season was open. My grandfather loved the ritual of the hunt — getting up while dark, checking our supplies, loading the dogs, and driving for miles (when all we really needed to do was walk out in our back yard). He sometimes packed a bottle of whiskey. "Just in case," he would say. As a kid growing up with an absent father, my grandfather was larger than life. I wasn't sure how men acted, but I figured if I watched my grandfather, I might turn out ok. I mean, hunting and fishing were about as man-like as it got, I thought. I was 14.
This was going to be my second year going squirrel hunting. My first had been a “total washout” (according to my grandfather) — on the account that he insisted I take a .22 rifle. He had me target practicing each day after school in preparation for opening day. I was a "pretty good shot for a momma's boy," he joked. Heck, I could hit the bull’s-eye at 75 yards. When I wanted to. This year, though he had decided I could take a 16-gauge shotgun.
"Son, you won't miss with that".
Well, I did.
No amount of firepower seemed to bring squirrels down, just a lot of tree branches. My grandfather was a great shot. So he took this personally. He once killed a bighorn sheep with one shot at 1,500 yards. So, after several trips, lots of buckshot and no squirrels, he concluded that the sights must be way off. So he gave me his gun. More tree branches, no squirrel.
"It just doesn't make sense, you hit cans at 75 yards with a .22 during practice, but out here, you can't hit the side of a barn," he said.
The last trip we were to make that season began as usual, at 4 am. It was dark, and there was a light snow beginning to fall. It was early December.
"I think this time, I am going to take you where I know we won't miss.” he said. This meant even a longer drive, and even further walk. I smiled. “I think I’d like to take the .22 this time,” I said.
We piled into the cab of his truck: my grandfather, his two dogs, and me. What I remember most to this day is the smell inside. It must be what a life well lived smelled like: Musky, slightly exotic, and warm. He started the truck in his usual way, no need for the ignition — just roll start it — and we were off.
During both the drive and the walk in, he never stopped talking about past trips. It was if the only reason to go was to try to make past trips tangible by recounting them. It seemed to be a kind of incantation. Sometimes he would repeat the same stories twice or three times during the season. I didn’t mind.
We walked to a crest, and my grandfather whispered, "I think you are going to get one today." On cue, a squirrel darted across a branch not twenty yards in front of us. But beyond that was another, at about 75 yards. I sighted my gun on the further away one, and squeezed the trigger.This time, nothing but the squirrel fell. A clean shot.
"That was a helluva shot, son, one helluva shot!" he said excitedly.
As we made our way over to the limp, still squirrel, not one word was said. Finally, after reaching the dead animal, and examining the "damn near perfect shot," he looked me in the eye. He placed his dry, worn hand on the back of my neck, and simply said, "Son, next year, you can leave your gun at home."
I smiled back, and said, "Thank you."
We never spoke of it again.