Lynn Burkhead — A Fox scattergun, a world of trouble and Christmas quail

Herald Democrat
In a less than memorable year, the mixture of family, old shotguns and a few Christmas quail can bring a smile and lifelong memory, even in the middle of a pandemic.

(Editor’s Note: As he has done for many years now, longtime Herald Democrat outdoors writer Lynn Burkhead continues his yearly tradition in 2020 of penning a fictitious outdoors story as a Christmas gift to readers.)

As the December wind moaned around the eaves of the house, the oak logs in the fireplace crackled and cast warm shadows against the walls of the Sullivan family’s farmhouse not far from the banks of the Red River in Montague County.

With a twist of his hand to the right, then to the left, and back again to the right, Raymond Sullivan spun the dial on the gun safe’s heavy door, feeling a familiar click when all of the numbers were correct. After cracking open the heavy door, he reached into a far corner of the voluminous old safe, pulled a weathered shotgun from its recesses, and then turned to hand it to his son Jed.

“What’s this?” queried the 30-something year old son to his 60-something year old father.

“It’s a side-by-side Fox Sterlingworth 16-gauge,” laughed Raymond. “I guess young fellas your age don’t know what a classic American double-gun looks like anymore, huh?”

“I know what a side-by-side is dad,” Jed laughed as he cracked open the scattergun and peered down its twin barrels, both bores shiny and bright. “But I don’t remember seeing this double gun before. Where did you get it?”

“Well, I got it from some guy named St. Nicholas,” Raymond grinned. “He said to give it to you and tell you to take really good care of it. Even though it’s in good shape, it’s really old, you know?”

“I can see that,” Jed replied. “But what do you mean that St. Nick said to give it to me?”

Before he answered, Raymond turned and poked the fire, stirred the flames up once more, and then settled back into the den’s overstuffed leather chair that sat next to a dog-eared collection of outdoor magazines.

“Well, to tell you the truth son, there’s a story behind that old gun there,” said the Sullivan family’s patriarch.

“A shotgun like this, there usually is — so what’s the skinny on this old scattergun?,” inquired Jed.

With that, the elder Sullivan proceeded to spin the yarn of a shotgun that Jed liked more and more the longer he held it. Bought years ago by his great uncle Tony, the Sterlingworth was a simple thing of beauty when it was purchased at the beginning of 1918. The gun handled with ease, had just enough scrolling and checkering work to suggest something fancy, and enough remaining case coloring on the receiver that hinted of deep craftsmanship pride in a far different era of American shotgun manufacturing.

But shortly after it was purchased — Tony lived in West Texas and had planned to hunt quail and doves with it — the 1918 flu pandemic began to sweep across the Lone Star State and the rest of the country. When the flu raged through the small community that Tony and his wife Mary lived in, he grew ill and succumbed to a virus that would eventually kill millions of people worldwide.

After burying her husband in the cemetery on the outskirts of town, Mary eventually gave the scattergun to the couple’s infant child, Jed’s Uncle Floyd, and he had kept it all these years in a back bedroom closet. Not much of a hunter, Floyd rarely used the gun, only taking it out when he went on a Panhandle pheasant shoot with some friends at church or to let loose a load of buckshot at the occasional coyote trying to raid the hen house out back.

“As you might remember, Floyd is right around 100 years old and still lives out there in West Texas,” said Raymond. “When the pandemic hit, your mom and I went out there to visit with him — he lives with a caretaker — and make sure he was doing ok and had what he needed.”

“Like toilet paper?” laughed Jed.

“Exactly,” grinned Raymond. “Wow, what a strange year this has been, huh?”

The elder Sullivan then told his son that before the visit was through, Floyd had told the couple that he had something for them to take back to Montague County. When he reappeared, the old A.H. Fox double-gun was in his hands.

“Floyd said that since he never married and had no son to pass the gun on to, he eventually decided that it should be yours. And after he found out that you had just gotten a German shorthaired pointer and were wanting to get into bird hunting, he figured now was as good a time as any.”

Raymond then explained that he had held the shotgun in the safe all year, wanting to give it to Jed before the family’s Christmas Eve festivities began. Once that happened, all attention would turn to the grandkids, what was under the tree, and getting the smoked turkey and pecan dressing meal ready for the holiday feast.

“I know we normally go deer hunting on Christmas Eve morning, or some years duck hunting on the big pond down by the river,” said Raymond. “But you’ve already got a deer in the freezer and the duck numbers are a little stale right now. So, I thought we could turn that young bird dog of yours lose, see if she’s learned anything about pointing, and find out whether you can hit the side of a barn with that old twin barrel.

“There aren’t many quail left on this old home place, but maybe we could find a covey or two in the morning if you’re game.”

Jed smiled and nodded: “Sounds good Pops. There’s venison in the freezer and I’d like to see what this fine old double-gun can do.”

The next morning, which dawned partly cloudy and chilly, the father and son waited for the sun to come up and the temperature to rise. Then they loaded up the truck and hurried Jenny, the 12-month old GSP pointer, into the dog box.

As they packed the shotgun cases, Raymond handed Jed a couple of boxes of RST low-pressure loads, #8 shotshells designed to fit into the weathered steel of the World War I era shotgun with its 2 1/2-inch chambers.

“Unless we get the chambers bored out to 2 ¾-inches, you’ll want to use these low pressure loads,” said Raymond. “Now let’s see if the bobwhites are still around the backside of the ranch on that mesquite flat where I saw them this summer.”

A half-hour later, father, son, and bird dog were pushing through the area filled with mesquite, cactus and brush. While the year didn’t seem to impress the biologists too much, quail often respond to good habitat on a very localized level. Thanks to some timely rainfall during the spring, summer, and early fall, Raymond held out hope that the empty brush might suddenly spring to life with the eruption of whirring wings.

A couple of actionless hours later, Raymond stopped, wiped sweat from his brow, and took a slug of cold water from the YETI rambler in the pocket of his bird vest.

“Well, maybe the biologists were right son,” he said. “I thought we might have found a covey or two. But hey, it’s 2020, right — what else has gone right this year? Now, I’m not complaining, there’s too many people who have gotten sick and too many who are hurting for me to do that.

“So, what do you say? Want to count our blessings and good health and head for the barn? I suspect that your momma has a list of last minute Christmas Eve items down at the market before we start celebrating.”

Jed was about to nod in agreement when Jenny suddenly turned her nose sharply, took a few more steps near a clump of cactus and brush, and slammed to a tail-quivering halt 30-yards away.

“Dad, Jenny’s on point!,” he hissed.

The two hunters slowly edged forward, not knowing what to expect in a year of the unexpected. As Raymond eased in, the ground seemed bare and empty and he was about to sound the all clear.

But that’s when the air exploded with the buzzing sound of a covey of bobwhites — a BIG covey at that! — clawing their way skyward out of a prickly pear patch and into the crisp morning air.

When the wingshooting was over, Jed cracked open the Sterlingworth, removed the two spent shells, and watched smoke curl up from the warm chambers. Raymond did the same with his old Browning Superposed over-and-under and the two hunters watched Jenny fetch up the fallen bobwhites.

When the retrieving was done, there were five birds in hand. Jed and his father had slowed down, focused on single birds pulling away, and doubled cleanly. And apparently, someone’s shot column had caught up with an unseen bird crossing into the shot pattern.

“Well, I’ll be,” said Jed quietly. “A handful of Christmas quail over a young bird dog, and mine with a brand new old gun. And you doubled up too, huh? Pretty amazing Pops, guess I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life.”

Raymond smiled, cleared his throat, nodded, and reached down to scratch the bird dog’s head. It all seemed too perfect in a not so perfect year; like a quail hunting scene of old, and one pulled straight out of a John Cowan painting.

For a few seconds, the two hunters said nothing and simply admired the quail in their gloved hands, all while listening to the wintertime breeze blow.

Then Raymond broke the silence.

“You know son, I didn’t know what to expect today,” he said. “I was just excited for you to get that old classic shotgun and to give it a try. Truth be told, I feel almost a little guilty for being out enjoying a hunt when so many are hurting right now. When I went into town yesterday, I heard that Mr. Smith down at the feed store had lost his battle with this dreadful virus. Kind of put a damper on things, you know.

“And I wasn’t sure we’d see a single bird. Quail are pretty scarce around these parts now. But as the Good Book says in Hebrews, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. That was certainly true during that first Christmas, and I guess it’s still true during a 2020 quail hunt too.”

Jed smiled and agreed.

“Yeah dad, I guess you just never know, now do you? What do you say we load up and head back? It’ll be kind of hard to top this memory — old guns, a new bird dog, out hunting with my dad, and doubling up on wild quail. The world isn’t perfect right now, but this moment is. And I guess that’s what the Christmas story is all about, the unexpected invading a gloomy world and making things right.”

“That’s the way I see it,” said Raymond. “You know, if I’m a betting man, something tells me that your mother still knows what to do with a handful of Christmas quail and an old iron skillet.”

With that, the father slapped his son on the back, and they started a long trek though the brush, heading for home, each man lost in his own thoughts on a day that seemed rich and full.

And somewhere overhead, the lonely sound of a honking goose was carried on the dying December breeze, completing a perfect outdoors scene, even if it came during a year that seemed anything but that.