By Edgar Castillo
The truck slowed to a rolling stop. Spencer turned and said, “Edgar, grab your shotgun.”
Fumbling around I quickly realized my gun was in the truck behind ours. Peering out through the back window, a line of quail hurriedly crossed the dirt road.
“Here, just take mine!”
I grabbed the over-under and quietly got out. Out of my peripheral I saw Hutch and his brother silently preparing for a good ol’ fashion bushwacking. There was no need or time to hash out a plan; everyone was on the same page.
“It’s loaded. Here put these shells in your pockets. See them under the bush?”
Spencer pointed to a small crowd of shadowy-outlined nervous quail scurrying about. The male Gambel’s are easy to pick out as they’re exclamation-shaped topknots are more profound. They flickered about like jittery tweakers. Their paranoia substantiated by our sudden interest in them.
I took a few steps and raised the shotgun which signaled the quail to burst from their sanctuary. A whir of wingbeats broke the silent Arizona air. What happened next was a barrage of gunfire. Birds flew in every direction. Everyone involved in the melee was shouting. Not all of the birds flushed though; five decided to make a dash for it and run towards the edge of a cliff. Bringing up the rear was a stud male. He ran so fast I could see his tiny flamboyant black plume angle backwards; it was almost cartoon-like.
I was told that ground sluicing is acceptable as these desert quail are known to refuse to fly and on occasion, need encouragement. But I didn’t want to be that guy. The little sucker spread his wings and gently took flight, catching a wind current. He was off the ground and fair game.
Without hesitating, I pulled the trigger. The trajectory of the hot pellets created a sand cloud as some impacted and ricocheted off the earth. The rest of the BBs missed their mark, catching nothing but open air. In an instant that damn bird changed his flight path and suddenly dive-bombed straight down.
Stopping just short of the rim of the canyon, my boots skidded to a stop. Panting, I watched in disbelief as quail emerged from the brush at the bottom of the rocky bowl. The leader of the troupe scampered onto a small boulder while his cohort’s escaped. As if to taunt me, he turned and looked at me, seeming to say, “Not today.”
Taking offense to the little bastard’s mocking expression, I shot him just as he turned and zipped upwards in flight from his stone perch. He made it only a few feet up in the air before his limp body fell back to the ground.
“Not today,” I said sarcastically.
Immersed in my own success, I was shocked to suddenly see more movement. A celestial force must have given that little quail a second life, because the bird popped up and quickly staggered toward the edge of the cacti bush and exaggeratedly collapsed forward, disappearing. From the foliage, a white blur appeared with something dangling from its muzzle.
The arrogant quail was delivered to my hand by Spencer’s German shorthair, Lexi. While marveling at its beauty, a chorus exclaiming, “Chi-qui-ta. Chi-qui-ta,”erupted across the whole gully.
We were surrounded like heroes encircled by ruthless assailants. The only sound emanating from across the arid landscape were ghostly callings appearing out of thin air, only to disappear back into the desert abyss. My chest was tight with adrenaline. I took the staccato chit chat as taunts.
This was an invitation to face these black masked bandidos. Small skirmishes began breaking out. The cries for help from those Gambel’s that were perched alone merely gave their positions away. I saw a trio of determined figures clad with orange vests follow the birds’ calls. Quick single-shots were evident of shooters hitting their targets. Gunfire began drowning out more desperate calls from quail across the way. A few of the bandit birds startled me and I fired haphazardly.
Hutch appeared from around a giant cactus with outstretched limbs. He dispersed a volley of shots from his repeater.
“I got one,” he yelled.
Below us we heard a series of calls hailing other quail. Like two gunslingers, we reloaded our shotguns and scrambled downward into the shrubbery thicket of sharp catclaw. Again, we heard the distinctive, “Chi-qui-ta.”
A group of small plump gray birds shuffled down alongside the face of an embankment. Like outlaws that’ve been seen, they were desperate to get away from the armed posse hot on their trail. We split up in the hopes of outflanking the birds. A quick shot from Hutch told me he’d made contact. I broke through a tangled mess of sharp branches. One of my sleeve’s ripped. Blood began trickling down my arm. Sidestepping around a clump of small ground cacti, I found myself in the middle of a huge covey. Ambush. I flicked the safety off.