CARBON COUNTY, Wyo. — The 20-gauge shotgun rode easily in my hands as I walked down a trail on the north slope of a tangled ravine that cradled a trickling stream.
The light was crisp with the fleeting, brief perfection of fall. The aspen leaves shimmered their best yellow and orange against the pale blue Wyoming sky. The breeze carried the tang of spruce warming in the sun.
The dog zigzagged tightly up and down the slope ahead of me. He had cut a pad badly earlier in the day but continued hunting hard without complaint. He was methodical, intent and good at his work.
Suddenly, two blue grouse broke cover close in front of me. The sound of their beating wings throbbed in the air as they pumped hard to make it across the ravine and into the safety of the dark forest.
The gun came up fast as I worked the slide to chamber a round. The barrel settled on the bird on the left.
At the shot, a puff of small feathers erupted from the grouse and then hung in the air as the bird cartwheeled and plummeted down, appearing to drop into the stream bed.
Outstanding. My second grouse of the day. Now all I had to do was find it.
Half an hour of unsuccessful searching later, I was starting to doubt the bird ever had existed. My wife, Susie, our son Stanley and I combed the same rough ground repeatedly. We exhorted our dog to put his nose to work sniffing out the bird. No luck.
Impatient to get on to more birds, my mind began to create a convenient fiction: maybe the grouse somehow had flown farther into the thick evergreen forest. Maybe the search was pointless, I told myself. It was certainly inconvenient. We had done our best. And fundamentally, I had given up hope of ever finding the bird.
“Let’s go,” I said. “He’s not here.”
Stanley refused. He said he had seen the bird fall and said we needed to continue to look for it. Of course, he was right. And while I was chagrined to be set straight by my 9-year-old son, I was proud of him for being disciplined and sticking to the truth.
Soon I found a single, downy feather clinging to a bush. Then, searching beyond the feather in a line from the point where I had fired, I found the bird.
If anything is sweeter to a boy than contributing to a hunt, it’s got to be proving his old man wrong. I didn’t begrudge Stanley a few well-justified “I-told-you-sos” as we continued hunting down the ravine.
I passed on another grouse that broke low, and flew straight down the trail. I could have hit him, but I couldn’t see whether anyone was walking up, hidden by brush.
We came to the river, where the low, clear flows of autumn left the humps of the midstream boulders exposed, dry and chalky white. We cleaned the two grouse and washed their bodies in the water. I hung the birds’ guts in a dead tree to keep the dog from eating them. Soon they drew an impressive swarm of flies and yellow jackets.
Stanley used my knife to dissect the birds’ gizzards and hearts, peering carefully into the crannies of the mysterious organs that so recently had kept the grouse alive.
Susie had carried her fly rod down into the river canyon. She rigged up and fished upstream while Stanley and I ate sandwiches of homemade bread, sausage, cheese and homegrown tomatoes. Then we looked for interesting rocks in the river.
On the walk out, another grouse flushed in nearly the same spot as the one that had taken so long to find. I hit it with a good, fast shot. This time, Stanley found the bird promptly.
Three birds, my daily limit. I was more than satisfied with the substantial weight of the game bag bumping on my hip. The setting sun stabbed its orange fire through the heavy, purple clouds building over the rounded mountains to the west as we made the steep hike out of the canyon.
As we walked, Stanley asked if we ever had the feeling that we didn’t want a day to end — that as you lived it, you knew you were living one of the best days of your life.