Bad Day at Mossy Swamp

By Tom Word

    In the darkness Mary rose, dressed and departed her cottage for the Big House. Quietly she entered the kitchen through the back door and began preparing breakfast for eight. Aromas of coffee and bacon wafted from the kitchen down the halls and up the staircases. Her husband, Henry, lit fires in the drawing room and the gun room. The fatwood flamed and crackled as the live oak logs slowly ignited. At seven Henry delivered orange juice and coffee to the four bedrooms upstairs as Mossy Swamp Plantation’s owners, George and Grace Preston, and their guests, couples from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, awoke for a day of prime sport.
    At eight breakfast appeared in the dining room: eggs as ordered, bacon, ham, and sautéed rainbow trout, fruit medley–citrus, melon, and berries-- corn muffins, English muffins, biscuits, wheat toast and butter, plus on the Lazy Susan preserves, marmalades, jams, and jellies, all put up by Mary from fruits and berries growing on Mossy Swamp in the months when the Prestons were in Maine or Europe. More orange juice and chicory-braced coffee waited on the sideboard to be poured.
The ladies, all graduates of single sex colleges–Randolph-Macon, Sweetbrier, Smith, and Vassar (before it fell co-ed), would tour plantation gardens today. The men, all Ivy-leaguers save Preston, a UVa man, would ride the mule-drawn shooting wagon with Henry as skinner. They would alternate shooting coveys, two guns down at a time.

    At nine the mule wagon drew up to the front door. Three horsemen in white linen vests and orange Jones hats stepped down from their saddles and dropped the reins of their Tennessee Walkers. Deftly they stowed the four 20-guage doubles in felt-lined compartments as they greeted the guns by first names, preceded by “Mr.,” the deep-south equivalent of “Your Highness.” Henry slapped the mules’ backs with the lines and the wagon Lab Millie, tethered beside him, whined. The eight pointers in their cages adjusted positions on their beds of hay and resumed their naps. The four high rubber tires of the wagon crunched the pebbles of the magnolia-lined driveway, and the hunting party eased off to course #1, Preston’s favorite and the favorite of his dog trainer-hunt master, Ben Grimes. Riding beside Ben were his scout, Willie Washington, and Ollie Blevins, horse holder and downed-bird spotter, both born and bred in Mossy Swamp cabins. In twenty minutes, they reached the start of course #1, and Henry woahed the mules. Ben swung down to deliver his solemn sermon on safety. It ended with the same sentences it began with, “Gentlemen, don’t shoot low birds. If your barrels aren’t elevating as you swing or point, let the bird so.”

    Ben Grimes, like all great dog men, thought of little else but making dogs. From whelping time to a finished dog took three years average. Bred right, one in four might make an adequate wagon dog. Ben was much more demanding than that. He added three dogs to the string in a year. The string was twenty-four, more or less a few due to retirement or death by parvo, cancer, auto, snakebite, or gunshot. Dog death was never off Ben Grimes’ mind. The only thing Ben dreaded more than a shot dog was a shooting accident involving a guest or the help or the boss. Quail shooting was the most dangerous game in the wide world of sport, all because guns became distracted. College educated, even Ph.D.’s, masters of the universe in the world of money, but if they got on the wagon with their minds on something besides safe hunting, they were as dangerous as roadside bombs in Iraq.

    After a couple times walking up on a point, Ben could spot a distracted gun. He had little ways, little tricks, to snap them back to concentration. That’s what safe shooting required, concentration. Remembering every moment what not to do—not to swing on your buddy or anything else human, equine, or canine—not to shoot a low bird. A dog on the ground, less than two feet tall and hidden by the cover, was the unintended target of low-bird shooters. At a distance, it might just mean a sting and a yelp; up close, it meant death. On the shooting preserves and plantations of South Georgia, North Florida, and South Alabama, a dog a day, on average, died of gunshot.  All because shooters were thinking of something else.

    Ben Grimes was not unique in his obsession with safety, not even unusual. In fact, most plantations hunt guides thought of safety second only to making dogs (or making love, in the case of the young lusty ones). It was a near perfect January day. Fifty degrees, sunny, a tiny breeze. It had rained in the night and scenting conditions would be ideal. It would warm by midday, but not too much. A little ground fog lay in the low spots, soon to evaporate.  Ben eased two first-year pointer bitches out of the box. They stood motionless, awaiting their training collars and Ben’s command. Ben fastened the collars and said, “High on.” They shot away joyfully.

    Back on his horse, Ben watched the dogs with pride as they coursed ahead through the wiregrass. Then they were pointing, and Ben lifted his hat . . .
“Hunt dead, Millie,” Ben spoke to the Lab that Henry had released from its tether. She found the two crippled birds and swiftly carried them to Henry on the wagon seat. He dispatched them and threw them in the basket to cool. Millie resumed her ride on her haunches beside Henry, and the pointers took up their search.
At one they stopped for lunch. The mules were unhitched from the wagon, their collars removed, and Henry led them to the shade of a Live Oak. Ben and his helpers, each knowing his tasks, soon had quail grilling as the guns sat in canvas chairs and sipped cups of black-bean soup laced with one ounce of sherry (the only alcohol allowed on a Mossy Swamp hunt until the shotguns were finally stowed for the ride back to the Big House).

    The guests complimented Ben on the good work of the dogs and the abundance of birds, then on the good lunch. They were soon stretched out for the midday nap. Three of the four were soon snoring; the fourth did not sleep. He was deeply worried about his hedge fund’s long and leveraged position in the stock of a company that one of his shooting companions had a year ago retired from as CEO. All through the morning, the retiree had recited the hidden problems he’d left behind at his company. It was almost as if he took glee from the company’s problems. Then it became clear that he did—he’d been forced out against his will (the board had denied his request to stay on as CEO another year). But as consolation, they’d released the restrictions on his stock grants, and he was proud to say he’d sold every share near the top, just after his duty to file with the SEC under Section 16 expired.

    The hedge funder walked off, ostensibly to relieve himself. With his cell phone, he called his No. 2 with instructions to unload the position no matter the loss. No. 2 had said the loss would be huge—it was Saturday, but on Friday the shares were down three, and in after hours trading, they continued to crater. The position was his own idea—a year ago here at Mossy Swamp, the now retired CEO had dropped more than hints that the stock price of his company was heading for the stars. (Of course, the hedge-fund guy now realized, that was just before the soon-to-be-defrocked CEO would be unloading.)

    The hunt resumed at three, and soon the guns were booming and Millie busy picking up. The magic moment arrived—that time in late afternoon when cooling temperatures cause scenting conditions to become perfect, and the dogs show it with a burst of enthusiasm, no matter how tired. “Point” called Ben. His best first-season dog, Zeke, just released from the wagon, stood like a statue on the hill ahead, the falling sun’s rays gleaning on his white silky side, his tail at 12 o’clock, his head proudly lifted. The hedge-fund guy and the just-retired CEO walked toward the pointing dog, their Purdeys loaded and held at port arms. Before Ben could reach them to walk them up to the point, they walked up the covey that had run from before the pointing dog toward the wagon. Ben watched as the two shouldered their shotguns, each costing more than Ben made in two years, and fired at the scattering quail. In horror, he saw the hedge-fund guy pick a low bird that flew straight toward his beloved pointer—son, grandson, and great-grandson of dogs and bitches he’d bred and broke on Mossy Swamp Plantation. He heard himself yell. “No” just as he heard the nearly simultaneous muzzle blasts and the sharp yelp from the pointer, its last. The hedge-fund guy had killed Zeke.