It was a Sunday, 15 years ago, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Down by a twisting creek, off in a flat and treeless corner of a farmer's pasture, a handful of men had come together, as they did every Sunday before Thanksgiving, for a turkey shoot.
The men carried old guns, the kind they call muzzleloaders. They shot at bulls-eye targets set up by the creek, and on this day, chill and still in the country, the report of a shot rang across the hills. In an ambulance, coming over the hills toward the creek, the man heard the shots, and he smiled.
The man brought these shooters together over the years. There weren't many, no more than 20. But every Sunday, they came to shoot their muzzleloaders. If it snowed, they wore gloves and cursed the weather, but they came anyway. They shooed away the cows down by the creek, and they shot until the daylight, or the coffee, ran out.
The man who started them shooting was always the first there and the last to leave. He brought the targets and took them home. He kept them in his garage, and he kept them in his house, and, finally, he built a room inside his house for the guns and targets and lead (he made bullets on his wife's stove).
The man had always been a sports fan. In grade school he was a high jumper. Once, he was proud to say, he made it over the bar and was able to walk back under it without stooping. He played baseball, too, and basketball, but not much. His father died at 41, and he went to work when he finished the eighth grade. He drove trucks for a while, and he was in the Army for a while, and then he was a carpenter.
The man was caught up by guns when he moved his wife, son and daughter into a big, old house and, cleaning it, found a rusting handgun. Sometime later, he began buying the muzzleloaders, one here for $10, one there for $25, and tired, or driving a hundred miles every Sunday to shoot, he made up his own-muzzle-loading club.
The man was, by then, an aficionade: he ran advertisements in shooting journals, setting down the dates for his club's shoots; he took to wearing a buckskin jacket when he shot, and he always wore a black mountaineer's hat with a pheasant feather stuck in the band; he made, with his own hands, muzzle-loading guns of such precision and beauty that men offered him hundreds of dollars for them, all the while knowing the man would as soon sell his right arm as his guns.
Every spring, the man made the pilgrimage to Friendship, Ind., 300 miles from home, for the national championship muzzle-loading matches. He drove a pickup truck, and his wife sat in front with him, and his son and daughter rode in the back in a cabin he built for them. He entered the benchrest matches, those in which the shooters put their guns on a table to shoot them. He never won, but he never cared, and in the winter, looking at his magazines, he would announce to his family the dates for the spring nationals.
And then, 15 years ago, when the doctors told him he had cancer, and he had two weeks to live, no more, the man though of his turkey shoot down by the creek. He would go, he said, to the turkey shoot if he had to go in an ambulance. And on that Sunday before Thanksgiving, he went.
Coming over a hill in the pasture, the ambulance rolling silently over a path worn dusty by the shooters' cars over the years, the man heard the guns of his friends, and he smiled. He wore his black mountaineer's hat (his wife once caught him unawares and took his picture when he wore white longjohns and the black hat. And when they lifted him out of the ambulance on a stretcher, he told his son he wanted to sit up, damn it, so he could see.
He hadn't spoken in the ambulance during a half-hour's drive to the shooting range. Once there, he laughed and talked and had his picture taken with his friends and family making a semicircle on either side of his stretcher.
He didn't talk going back to the hospital that Sunday before Thanksgiving, and he died on Tuesday, and I thought of all this again on another Sunday before Thanksgiving when, late at night, my son, 16, said, "I love you daddy." That's what I said, on that ambulance ride 15 years ago, to my father.