The little gun was in a corner of that room that every house has. The one where things never, or at least not often used, accumulate. Those things sulk there, but attempt escape now and then. I will find a solitary hand plane with a rusty blade hiding in the kitchen cabinets behind the canned yams; an old golf club from God knows where, since Iíve never played golf ends up in a coat closet, and a lamp shade tucked behind the sofa.
But the old gun was in there, with a few cousins. Leaning in a corner like a clutch of old men, some drunk but most just aged and staggering under the weight of forgetfulness. All I could feel from them was shame.
I dug out the little shotgun first, caked with dust, and my heart sank at the ocher hue of the barrel. Next came two old twenty-twos, a Winchester and a Remington, both single-shot bolt actions; then a bolt four-ten shotgun; pulling up the rear, a hammered twelve-gauge side-by-side. Family lore has it that it killed three men, all by hands of my ancestors. My father referred to it as Mankiller, and had last used it to dispatch the neighborís chickens that had grown fond of my fatherís fishing worm beds in the back yard.
In the workshop, I scrutinized the little crack-barrel four-ten with regret. My grandfather gave it to me. It was his brotherís. Marked "Volunteer" it was probably of Iver Johnson manufacture. Maybe a Savage. Certainly it was very old, like the rest of them.
When had I last handled it? Probably when I moved into my grandmotherís house, an inheritance stretching back some 160 years. The house was built by my great-great-great uncle, an Indian chief, and had remained in the family.
A decade earlier, I fled the remains of a broken life and taken refuge in that house, and the old guns came with me. They sat there, forgotten, until that day I sifted through the flotsam and jetsam of the past to find them leaning in a corner like weary, battle-worn soldiers.
My grandfather stood on the porch of the same house when he gave it to me. I was twelve. I was given a BB gun when I was eight, a Benjamin pellet rifle when I was ten and the little four-ten followed. I was afraid of it, and he was mightily disappointed that I couldnít pull the trigger. He would go to his Creator before I found the courage to fire the first round, and learned it wasnít nearly as intimidating or loud as I feared.
Steel wool and gun oil relieved it of rust, and stock oil revived the walnut. Restoring the cold bluing is a long process and requires great patience, but retribution was due.
Not long after I learned to shoot it, my father donated a worn carpenterís belt and bag to my forays afield. "Head out to the cane fields," he said. Though I had never known him to hunt - a devout fisherman by all I knew of him - he spoke with convincing authority. "Walk the ditch banks and the fence rows. Youíll scare up some quail out there, Iíll bet."
No dog, but I didnít know anything about dogs and bird hunting then. I tucked away his tutelage and set out, out into a world where it was still safe to let a fourteen-year-old boy loose with a shotgun and an old carpenterís pouch in search of quail in the sugar cane fields of south Louisiana. I was addicted after the first adventure! Right as rain, there were quail out there, Gentleman Bob, as Havilah Babcock called him. The first covey erupted at my feet when I stepped into it, and the great explosion of deafening wings and swarming birds nearly made me run. I didnít even fire.
But there were more coveys and before long I learned to pick a bird rather than try to shoot all of them at once with a single-shot gun. Not much longer than that I was bringing home a dozen birds every trip, which my mother would smother down in onions and gravy and serve over rice.
Now and then Iíd run into a farmer, and heíd tell me the locations of a few respectable communities of bobwhites to plunder. Usually heíd send me home with a few ears of fresh corn or turnips. Even if I never saw him, sitting on his tractor in the distance, to be sure he saw me. If I were handling my gun in an unsafe way, or shot a mocking bird, my father would have known it before I got home. That was my world, my era, back when I shouldered that little four-ten.
Bluing the gun took days. In between sessions, I started talking up quail hunting with my buddies who roam afield.
"Thereís very few quail anymore," they told me, and my heart sank lower into my chest. "Been gone for years."
I couldnít fathom it. I turned to the great realm of cyberspace to verify the awful truth: Bob was mostly gone, had been in steady decline since the 1980s. New farming practices and a preponderance of fire ants, bobcats and coyotes, among other predators, had done the little gentleman in.
It was unthinkable. What was the South without Bob? As empty as a Jack Daniels bottle turned on end. As silent as a burned-out plantation home. As lonely as an elderly statesman, the landed gentry, holed up in a rest home.
After I outgrew the little four-ten, thinking I would venture into waterfowl, I acquired a Savage Fox in sixteen gauge. A beautiful old side-by-side, but I never made it to the duck blind until my twenties, where I learned that sitting idle for hours in thirty-degree weather was not for me. Besides, where was the explosive flight at my feet? The drumming wings? Where, after all, was Bob?
There was no pitting to the metal of the little shotgun, and I was glad of that. It was choked full, and belatedly I realized my adequate marksmanship had been cultivated by shooting wild exploding quail with a little shotgun that might as well have been a rifle at close range, the shot package was so tight. By the time I hit my adolescence, though, with an eight-cylinder Mustang and girls bounding all over high school, the hunting diminished, then stopped altogether. My fatherís addiction to fishing, particularly bull-nosed bream on the fly rod, became my own as well. By the time I was in my early twenties, the guns were put away or sold.
Dismissing college, I took a job with a newspaper in town and started a career that filled me with interest in politics and government. I moved to the city, found it was not to my liking, and came home. I made a stint in radio news, but returned to my first love, the broad sheet press. I married, became a father, and divorced, fleeing to my grandmotherís house on the reservation. My grandparents left this world, and my father followed. Long chains of events, long roads between that last quail hunt and finding old soldiers in a corner of the junk room.
In that time, Bob had departed, too. Now found on hunting refuges for hundreds of dollars a day, or crowded public management areas.
The little four-ten, and all its kin, revived beautifully. I took a box of two-and-a-half inch shells to the bayou side and fired off a few rounds, and the slight recoil and the smoke and the oil conjured me back to my days with Bob. They say quail were thick as mosquitoes in the South before I was born. Now heís scarce as henís teeth.
The few land owners I spoke to cast their eyes down, stuck their hands in their pockets and kicked at the dirt sheepishly.
"You know," they said. "Lawsuits, insurance and all that. You understand."
I understood. No place for quail in this New South. No place for little four-ten shotguns. No place for a man to follow the boy he once was along a fence row or ditch bank. The old haunts swarm with four-wheelers now, not Bob in frantic flight. I wander anyway to some of the public places, and listen. Itís not silent, but it might as well be. Thereís no familiarity to it in the absence of the shrill call: Bob-WHITE! Bob-WHITE! I miss him as much as I do my own blood.
But one fall day, the guns oiled and safely tucked away with remembrance, I loaded my wooden pirogue into the back of the truck, searching for out-of-the-way bayous or borrow pits or ponds to fly fish. Out behind a vast woodland along an old dirt road, I stopped to survey a wet spot through the trees. As I was walking back, I stopped dead in my tracks.
Illusion, I thought. A trick of time. But there it was again. And again.
I smiled to myself, and the boy that once was smiled back.
Yet so far as legacy goes that part of the South is gone. Relegated to history books and memory. The gentlemanís bird, the little statesman, only found in abundance near the pens where he was raised, or the public lands where he struggles to maintain a foothold.
Remnants of Bob, here and there, hither and yon. Like a pair of magnolias standing roadside at the entrance of a long-vanished plantation, or a rusting and rotting sugar mill in a thicket of Chinese tallow, or a dried-up marsh and silted bayou, Bob is a vestige of a South that has folded itself up and withered. Fast retreating to the way of memory.
My South is a much, much lonelier place without him at every turn. Too bereft of his melody. Far and away darkened by his absence.