We were in a cabin on the First South Branch of the Oconto River. It was the last day of November. The deer season had ended, and it was legal for hunters to again carry shotguns in the woods looking for ruffed grouse. I had no choice but to spend the night in that cabin and, on the following morning, deliver the usual first-of-the-month Spendthrift Trust remittance to Major Nathaniel Peabody (USA, ret.) It was cold. It was very cold. The bunk assigned to me was the farthest from the pot-bellied wood-burning stove, and I knew that the stove somehow would be completely out of the heating business when I experienced my regular early morning call of nature.
I went to law school in order to own a nice condo in Philadelphia and perhaps another somewhere in Florida-places where people sometimes dress for dinner, places with central heating and air conditioning. I never expected to be trapped into wearing heavy woolen clothing and, on the first day of each month, having to personally deliver Major Peabody's checks, regardless of whatever part of the uncivilized world he had decided to station himself. I'll admit I was not a happy camper, and I complained about the cold weather. I immediately was confronted by a chorus of "You don't know what cold is!" from the assembled bird hunters. There followed a series of comments all beginning with "I can remember when it was so cold that... " Some of the comments were so extreme that I began to think they were fabricated. Major Peabody, of course, joined in with the rest. He told me that duck hunters will get up at 4 am during almost-sunless December days; get into a leaky skiff; paddle through two-foot waves that turn to ice when they run over the boat's deck; and then, in sub-zero temperatures, sit for hours in a blind while gale-force winds whistle around them. That was simply too much for me. I gave him a look of obvious disbelief and managed to repeat two words I had heard spoken that very day. In fact, I had heard them spoken many times in a backwoods tavern during a discussion between one of the Major's friends and another patron who was explaining how the governor was going to balance the state's budget. (The first one of those words was "bull.") The Major called me aside and quietly chastised me for suggesting he had told an untruth. "The truthfulness of a friend's statement should always receive the full benefit of the doubt," he said. "Even a friend's lack of accurate memory or a pos-sibly unintended misstatement should be gently corrected-not referred to as a lie or subjected to the description you just used. Such terminology would be considered socially unacceptable within any closely knit fraternity of men who regularly hunt together. "For example, Steve, the fellow who owns the place; you've heard him say he makes the best Bloody Marys in the galaxy?" "Yes," I said. "I've heard him say it more than once. And I've heard the other men agree-each one of them, more than once. Many times." "Since I am addicted to aged single-malt," Peabody said, "I don't drink Bloody Marys and therefore am not a good judge of them, but I can tell you this: Steve is the only one who thinks he makes the best Bloody Marys in the galaxy." I saw the Major's point and began to appreciate the grouse-camp etiquette that he was explaining to me. "I see," I said. "Steve's friends don't want to hurt his feelings, so they agree with him." "Ah... something like that," the Major said. (Actually, the Major didn't want to disabuse his attorney. He didn't want to tell him that his friends said Steve made the best Bloody Marys only because Steve, upon hearing the compliment, immediately would make a batch and hand them to the hunters, who then wouldn't have to get up from their chairs and make their own drinks.) Peabody rejoined his friends' conversation and reported an occurrence at a Maine grouse camp. The Major said he had been hunting in a stand of young popple when a bird had exploded from cover so close that he almost had dropped his 20-gauge. The grouse had been nearly out of range by the time he'd fired. It had sailed on, disappearing into some spruces. "That certainly is a strange story," one of his hunting friends observed. "I suppose you're going to admit it was the only shot you missed all last year?" Peabody paid no attention to the comment and went on with his tale. "It is a strange story, and it becomes even stranger. I walked on into the spruce trees, shaking my head and trying to understand how I could have missed. Then I heard a sound coming from above me. Gentlemen, the grouse I thought I had missed fell out of the tree I was standing beside. I hadn't missed. I had hit it. The bird had had enough strength to fly to the tree, but that was all. It died there and fell to my feet." The other hunters were silent. They exchanged sidelong glances and wouldn't look into the Major's eyes. Then one of them spoke. "I believe you, Major," he said. "That very same thing happens to me three or four times every season." He paused before adding: "Only I'm not lucky enough to be standing anywhere near the tree when the bird falls out of it." Then one of the old-timers took his turn. "It's nice to be with people who can recognize the truth when it is told," he said. "It's a terrible thing when people don't believe you. Terrible, yes, terrible." He paused and took a sip of his Bloody Mary. "You may not believe this, but about 25 years ago I was accused of telling a fib. I'll never forget it. It is burned into my memory. "The grouse cycle was on the downside, and there weren't many birds around; but it was a beautiful October day and I decided to go for a walk. I was hunting on one of those long-abandoned logging roads north of the Pine River. I hadn't seen a thing, and then, about 10 in the morning, this bird jumped up in front of me. I busted it, and it fell in the middle of the trail. "I was going to retrieve it when I heard a wooshing sound right over my head. I looked up in time to see a red-tailed hawk heading straight toward my bird. He was gliding down with his talons stretched out in front of him. He meant to steal my grouse, and I wasn't going to let him do it. He grabbed it just as I fired at him. Well, I missed, and he sailed away with the bird. "You can imagine my surprise when I looked down and saw a little four-point buck lying there alongside the trail. He must have stuck his head out of the brush just as I shot at the hawk." The old-timer took another sip of his drink and slowly shook his head from side to side as he finished his story. "It was just terrible. The game warden didn't believe me. Neither did the judge. I simply can't understand it-unless they assigned some meaning to the fact that the deer was killed with double-ought buckshot and not a load of chilled 71/2s... " Galen Winter's favorite Major stories have been collected and anthologized in The Best of the Major, available for $25 (plus shipping) from Countrysport Press, 800-685-7962 or 207-594-9544; www.countrysportpress.com.
- By: Galen Winter