A Christmas Adventure

By Tom Word

    Seventy. John Gordon had never dreaded a birthday, but as his 70th loomed, a certain sadness began to grip him. He knew it shouldn’t be happening—he was lucky beyond all deserts, with reasonably good health, enough money to live comfortably, a tolerant (usually) spouse, and loving children. What’s more, John had a grandson, Billy Gordon, just turned fifteen, who shared his love of bird dogs, and they owned together an eighteen-month-old pointer that was the best prospect John could remember. On John’s farm in Goochland County, Virginia, he and Billy had developed her into a promising derby, a super gun dog if not a trial winner.

    As John reflected on his malaise, he asked himself, again and again, “How can I be sad when I have so much to be thankful for.” Slowly he came up with answers. First, there was the loss of his bird-hunting companions. Joe had died five years before, killed in a farming accident. Denny had died two years before, victim of a vicious debilitating illness. Second, quail had all but disappeared from his Virginia. While ten covey days had been common through the 1980s,there were no wild birds to be found now on the southside farms and timber tracts that had been for so long his happy hunting grounds.
As Christmas approached, John’s depression deepened. His wife Pat detected it, and finally said, “John, get yourself out of your funk. You’re going to ruin Christmas for us all.” The Christmas issue of the American Field arrived, and John read it with relish, but in it he found no solace. Then, as he searched the shelves of his library for something to read, his eyes hit upon a volume he’d almost forgotten, an old favorite, John Buchan’s John McNab, a 1925 British novel, the mood of which perfectly matched his own of 2006. Recalling the novel’s plot, he came up with a cure for his funk.
On another shelf in his office he found the directory of members of the Georgia-Florida Field Trial Club, the owners of the quail plantations lying between Albany, Georgia, and Tallahassee, Florida. John loved the plantation country, had often ridden there as a field-trial judge. It was the last land in the eastern United States where a reasonably healthy wild quail population still flourished, thanks to the serious habitat management efforts of the owners.    Late into the night, John plotted his cure. The next morning he mailed identical letters to the owners of five of his favorite plantations. The letters read:

Ladies and gentlemen:
This is to advise you that, between December 20 and 24 of this year,
my grandson and I with our pointer Bess will shoot into a covey of quail on each of your plantations and document the event in a digital photo to be delivered to you with the birds shot on the day before Christmas at your Community Center. If we are caught, we will offer Bess for raffle to benefit the Center. If we are not caught, we will ask that you each donate a half-dayhunt on your plantation for a similar raffle.

Very truly yours,

Two Good Ole Boys From Virginia

John enclosed a snapshot of Bess on point with each letter.

    December 17 was Billy’s last day of school before the Christmas break. That night, John told him of his plan. On the 18th, the two left at dawn for Georgia with Bess on the truck seat between them.
Meanwhile, the five recipients of John’s letter were on full alert. Their cell phones buzzed with calls to one another, to their plantation managers, and to Plantation Services, the outfit that provided security services to most of the plantations in the quail belt.

    John had made a call himself to Fred Barnes, a contemporary of John’s and the recently retired dog trainer for Mossy Swamp Plantation. Over his long career, Fred had worked for all the five plantations John had targeted for his poaching foray. Fred agreed to serve as John’s consultant and cameraman.

    When John and Billy neared Albany, John called Fred by cell phone. They agreed to meet at a diner in Leesburg for breakfast. Fred and Billy immediately took to one another. After a breakfast of eggs, grits, bacon, and pancakes, Fred drove Billy and Bess to his nearby small farm where Billy showed Fred Bess’s prowess on quail from a johnny house. Meanwhile, John found a used car lot and bought a ten-year-old gray Ford Crown Victoria that showed all its hundred fifty thousand miles. That afternoon, John took Fred to the lot to pick up the Ford. The Virginians would stay with him during their poaching foray.
The first night with Fred, the three pored over county road and USGA topo maps that Fred had collected over the years. Their plan was simple. They would drive to a secluded spot where a public dirt road adjoined plantation land known by Fred to hold quail. They would park the Ford beside the road and place a red handkerchief beneath the windshield wiper to signal a breakdown. Then they would remove Bess from the trunk, and, with John and Billy carrying .410s and Fred carrying a camera, they would go hunting. Their first hit was quickly successful. Fred got good shots of Bess pointing and John and Billy shooting the rise, then a shot of them flanking a posted sign, both holding a quail by its feet and Bess on her hind legs with front paws on the pine holding the posted sign.

    Fred had a radio scanner that picked up transmissions from all the local law enforcement agencies, plus Plantation Services and the radio systems used by most of the plantations. On their drive back to Fred’s after the hunt, they learned that their MO had been detected. A description of the Ford Crown Vic was circulating, along with its license tag number. The Crown Vic went into Fred’s barn when they reached it.
On their second morning, Fred dropped them off on a similar road bordering the second target. He then drove to the nearby home of a black family whose patriarch had once worked with Fred as a muleskinner. He parked his truck behind the home and walked across the road to join Fred and Billy. It took Bess almost two hours to locate a covey—birds were not moving—but then Fred got similar pictures to the ones taken the day before. They had a narrow escape when a Plantation Services truck drove by just as they exited the plantation to walk to Fred’s truck. Fortunately, Fred carried a portable radio tuned to Plantation Services’ frequency, which gave the foursome just enough time to hide in a thicket in a ring around.

    That afternoon, Fred drove to the plantation they planned to hit the next morning, taking along a young dog he’d been breaking and offering it for sale as an addition to the plantation's wagon-dog string. During a workout while the plantation’s dog trainer evaluated the pup, Fred gathered information on where the plantation’s owner planned to hunt tomorrow and what extra precautions were in place to catch the poachers from Virginia.

    Based on this intelligence, Fred suggested they wait until the owner’s hunting party passed and then hunt with Bess behind the owner. Today’s challenge would be avoided detection when entering or exiting the property. Fred solved that problem by asking permission to bring the prospect he’d offered for sale back for a workout (it had broken shot when Fred showed it to the dog trainer and obviously needed work on wild birds. The plantation’s dog trainer was happy to oblige). The third day of poaching went off without a hitch since the owner thought Fred was working the pup when he passed Fred’s parked truck.
That night, Billy came up with a brilliant idea—to send the story of the Christmas poach and the pictures to the Pointer Breeder’s Home Page. Billy used his laptop to send the E-mail. Word of the adventure spread like wildfire among the bird-dog fraternity. The plantation owners were incensed and even more determined to catch the poachers. Two more plantations remained to be invaded.
How to manage their fourth invasion consumed the threesome well into the night. Fred came up with a brilliant plan. His next-door neighbor was a driver for UPS. They would take the brown truck into the plantation, get out and hunt, be picked up on the second run. Again it worked like a charm. Billy E-mailed a photo of Big Pine Plantation’s posted sign to the Pointer Breeders Home Page that night, surrounded by two grinning faces, one fifteen and one seventy, plus a happy pointer with a bird in her mouth.

    Now only Mossy Swamp Plantation remained to be poached. Before today the order in which the plantations would be poached was unknown, but now everyone knew the day’s target. Plantation Services had vehicles circling the 20,000-acre spread from sunup. Additional units drove the interior roads. But Fred had come up with a brilliant strategy for poaching Mossy Swamp.
Among the dozen black families that had lived on Mossy Swamp for decades was that of Mose and Sue Green, in their 90s now and long retired as butler and cook for Mossy Swamp’s owners. They occupied a cottage at the heart of the plantation, at the crossing point of three of the hunting courses and overlooking the millpond that bordered the namesake swamp. Fred had paid Mose and Sue a visit the evening before and proposed the bold plan. They had loved the idea and authorized Fred to put it in motion. Mose had made a call to his fellow deacon Hiram Franklin at Franklin Funeral Home. After Masonic preliminaries that Fred didn’t understand, Mose, a great natural actor, had said,
“Hiram, Sue wants to see for herself what your hearse would look like inside when it comes to pick up her remains one of these days. She’s planning her funeral, mine too. Could you maybe have your driver stop by our house in the morning so Sue could inspect the conveyance?”

    Hiram said sure, assuming there was no emergency. He had no funerals scheduled for Christmas Eve and he smelled an opportunity to sell a “pre-need funeral contract.”
Hiram’s hearse driver was a young black man named Cephus Jones who had worked for Fred while he was in high school. When he got home, Fred called Cephus and made him a proposition to make a little extra out of tomorrow’s funeral practice run to Mossy Swamp Plantation. So when Cephus approached the gate at Mossy Swamp Plantation, three men and a dog were behind the curtain separating the driver’s seat from the casket compartment. The back windows were, of course, blacked out with a dark plastic coating. Mose had called the gate man to tell him to expect a hearse from Franklin Funeral Home, and Cephus was waved through without an inspection.

    Bess found the covey in Sue’s garden. While Sue usually forbade shooting her birds, she made an exception for Billy (she had a great grandson named Billy who was Billy’s age). Mose and Sue, along with Fred, Billy, John, and Bess appeared in the photo of Mossy Swamp’s posted sign—Cephus snapped the shot. Thus John’s Christmas funk was broken, and the William C. Potter Community Center received the proceeds of a raffle for five South Georgia plantation quail hunts.