IT IS squirrel season and dawn just breaking, red and gold. Cold. In a stand of tall oaks between a pasture and a river, a man and a boy are pussyfooting through the damp leaves, inspecting the branches overhead.
The man is telling the boy about how sneaky wild squirrels are compared to their sassy city cousins, and what stealth and skill it takes to winkle them out of the woods. . . .
The boy listens patiently, then stops and peers through his telescopic sight at a leaf- shadowed limb fifty feet above. The man is about to scold him for using the scope to search for game when the boy flips off the safety and fires.
A fox squirrel slips from the limb and thumps dead at their feet: a two-pounder, hefty as a rabbit and trailing the bushy red plume that gives him his name.
Thought you saw him, too, and were giving me the shot, the boy says tactfully. The man smiles ruefully, remembering when he had eyes like that.
The hunters separate, planning to swing wide and circle back through the wood, which is nowhere as much as a hundred yards wide. After a fruitless half-hour of scanning trees limb by limb through binoculars, the man sits down by a sycamore, trying to stay statue-still long enough for the animals to forget him.
As the forest floor warms, the odors rise, the leaf mold smelling richer than honey and older than time. Mingled with it are faintly sweet traces of skunk and the pungency of red fox. Perhaps they disputed here in the night.
Now and again comes the muted pop of the boy's .22. They're using Zimmer patronen caps, as quiet as an airgun and less powerful than a slingshot, but effective up to a hundred feet and safe for shooting skyward.
From the sounds of the squirrels landing, louder than the shots that bring them down, the man can tell there'll be enough for the stew they have promised friends and for the landowner, who seldom can take time off from his farming to hunt them for himself.
By the river a quail whistles. In the stillness, each falling leaf is heard.
A gray squirrel, attention span exhausted, concludes that the intruder has gone, and shows itself within easy range. But the man's mind is off wandering with the boy. The man is wondering what it's like to hunt with your father. Whether it can be anything like as wonderful as hunting with your son.