Illustration by Harry Jaecks
Roy wanted a shotgun so badly he had thought about it almost every day for three years. Actually he wanted a new shotgun or a better shotgun, since he had actually been granted use of the family’s ancient J.C. Higgins bolt-action a few years back. When he was 12, being entrusted with any gun was a proud milestone. But soon he understood why his dad and the other men teased him. Although the rusted smoothbore had a clip that held two rounds, he never could fire a follow-up shot because the second shell would always catch inside the receiver. Besides that, the trigger pulled so hard it pinched his finger.
Eventually his dad leveled with him. “That old gun’s okay … for a beginner. Good enough for learning the ropes. Someday we’ll get you a better one.”
Well now Roy had his new shotgun, right here in his hands. It was the very gun he had dreamed about, a Model 1100 Remington 20-gauge autoloader. A gun “smooth as butter,” according to Dad’s cousin Robert.
Another hundred yards and Roy would reach the overgrown field where the quail lived. He had envisioned the scene many times: a hammering covey rise; a smooth mount and swing; two quick shots; two birds falling. Then a late flusher; a third shot, and another bird for his pouch! Three shots, three handsome bobs. His dream come true. But the reality of it turned his stomach and Roy slumped to his knees.
Why had it happened like this? His wish, his Christmas gift. All of it gone so wrong.
Roy had been given the shotgun two days before by his Great-Aunt Regina. Though it was the day after Christmas, there was no holiday spirit when Roy’s family walked into their aunt’s home. It was nearly noon, yet she was wearing slippers and a bathrobe. Her hair wasn’t put up, and he could tell she had been crying. Roy’s mom hugged Regina and rubbed her back. His dad walked over and stood by the staircase, a brightly wrapped present in hand.
“What a year,” said Aunt Regina. “Mm-mm.”
She turned, shuffled over to a Christmas tree and retrieved a bundle. It was a brown canvas gun case, one Roy had seen many times. His heart pumped harder. There was no wrapping or bow, but a plain white tag bore his name and the elderly lady handed it to him.
“That last time that you two went out, when he came home, he told me that someday he would be giving this to you,” she said shakily. “I guess that someday is now.”
Roy knew exactly what was in the case, but he was too stunned to speak. After a minute, his dad prodded, “What do you say, son?”
“Uh, thank you,” he mumbled.
While the adults congregated on the couch, Roy sat on the stairs, the gun case resting heavily over his knees. He thought back to the last time he had seen the case, November 1, opening day of the small game season. Though it had been less than two months, the memory seemed dim.
Robert had picked him up just as the sun was coming up and they zoomed the five miles out of town to the family farm. Halfway down the lane they met the tenant, Mr. Kramer. “I told the missus you boys would be coming today to go hunting,” he said.
“We wouldn’t miss it!” replied Robert. “You been seeing plenty of birds?”
“Oh, there’s a few pheasants coming onto the picked corn. And we heard the bobwhites just about every evening all summer. I suspect you’ll find them where you always do.”
The air felt sharp and cold as they retrieved the shotguns from the car trunk. The 1100 gleamed as Robert drew it from the canvas, the wood shiny and tan, the metal a perfect dark blue. Roy admired it all over again, then checked to make sure his old clunker wasn’t loaded.
“Let’s start between the big cornfields and see if we can jump a couple ringnecks,” Robert said. “See if I can’t push ‘em your way, and you make that Higgins talk. Bang! Bang! Two dead roosters in the air! The kid gets a double!”
Although his dad’s cousin was 10 years older, he was more like Roy’s friend than like a typical adult. Robert had made a point of coming to Roy’s ball games, taking him swimming up at the lake, and he would drive Roy around in his white Corvette. It was a fine feeling waving to your friends from the hottest car in town. Since he wasn’t married and had no kids of his own, Robert spent lots of time outdoors and he especially loved bird hunting. The last couple seasons, Roy had become his regular partner and because of it he got to hunt and fish more than any of his buddies. The youngster knew he was lucky to have such a good friend.
The first pheasant flushed on Robert’s side and when that happened the bird got dumped. Then there was rustling and the drum of heavy wings and two painted roosters darted low in front of Roy. He nailed the leader, and for once the Higgins fed the second shell into the chamber. The sight picture looked good … but the shot had no effect and the big cockbird sailed away. Ooh—no double! But his first shot of the season had connected, and that made it a great start.
The quail were always harder, and Roy had managed to drop his first and only one at the end of last season. The little bobwhites were super fast and covey rises were flat-out crazy. “Pick out one bird and concentrate on hitting it,” coached Robert. But of course that was easier said than done.
Soon Robert showed how it was done, marking a fast double on the season’s first covey rise. Roy missed his bird and then, as usual, the gun jammed. “Here, let’s trade guns, and then we’ll follow up on the stragglers,” Robert offered.
The Remington felt great in the teenager’s hands, as if it was poised to spring into action, kind of like his favorite baseball bat. The first single bird went out behind them without drawing fire. Then another jumped in front of Roy and he shot, and it was followed by a second and he swung and shot again. “Did I get … ?” Even before finishing the sentence the sequence replayed in his mind and he knew he had missed number one, then clearly saw the second fall in a burst of feathers. Robert’s 1100 was quick and seemed to have a mind of its own! That’s how a shotgun’s supposed to work, thought Roy.
“Here’s your bird,” said Robert. “Well done on that second shot. I believe that gun fits you now.”
“I can’t believe I hit the second quail after missing the first one,” said Roy.
“Well I believe it,” Robert replied. “You were sure breaking the clays with it the last couple times we got the trap out and you looked like a natural on that rise.
“You know, my Uncle Hank gave me that gun when he moved into the Lutheran home,” Robert remarked. “He said it would be a shame for such a fine gun to just sit around, and so he wanted someone to have it who would use it a lot and shoot it well. It was almost new then, and he just up and gave it away. Maybe this gun is meant to be passed on from one shooter to another. Looks like I might have to pass it on to someone who will use a lot and shoot it well,” Robert winked. “Wonder who that might be?”
That had been one of the best days of Roy’s life. The next morning was the worst.
Roy’s mom shook his awake much earlier than normal for a Sunday. “Roy, I hate to tell you,” she said in a strange voice. “There was an accident. Robert.”
He sat up, “Not the ‘Vette. Don’t tell me he totaled it?”
“No. Well yes it is. But Robert, himself, he died in the accident. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late.”
That changed everything. Since then there had been no peace in the family. His mom seemed stunned, his dad was angry, and it was especially bad for Aunt Regina. She cried almost constantly, and over and over he heard her say, “Lord, I never dreamed I’d have to bury my own child. Lord, lord.” The ladies did their best to calm her, but that would only work briefly.