The Walkers have run an annual early-season dove hunt on the family farm here for two generations, but even old-timers couldn't recall a day so inhospitable.

On Saturday, the air felt like steam and the sun bore down. There was so little breeze at 2 in the afternoon that when a freight train clattered by a half-mile away, you could almost feel the air stirring faintly around you.

It was no hunting day, but the shooters came, anyway -- farmers mostly, with a smattering of merchants and "bidnessmen," as tycoons are called locally. Some brought duck-retrieving dogs to fetch the doves when they fell, and there was the usual round of tobacco-chewing, spitting, dog-scolding, dust-kicking, bragging and concern about prospects for the day as they gathered around the barn next to the corn silos, sweltering and awaiting marching orders.

"I don't care how hot it is," said Joe Brown, who drove up from Greensboro, N.C., to start the season the same way he has for decades. "I wouldn't miss this hunt for anything."

"Have you seen many birds?" asked Louis Walker, who ran the hunt for 25 years before turning the operation over to his son Louis III a decade ago.

"Plenty birds," said the son. "If you like swallows."

It was rare, indeed, for shooters to be pessimistic before this hunt. The Walkers farm 1,200 acres of corn and soybeans and always have made it a point to save a special patch for good dove shooting for their friends first thing in the season.

"Last time I went, I had my limit of 12 in an hour," said Dave Henderson of Springfield, Va., who took me along as his guest.

This year, the Walkers planted sunflowers and millet on a high spot next to an irrigation pond to attract birds. Then they cut the adjoining corn early, so the doves would have time to find the spillage, which is the only thing a dove likes better than sunflowers and millet.

That would have guaranteed good shooting if the hot, rainless weather hadn't induced all the other farmers around to cut corn early, too. The doves wound up with many places to feed and no particular reason to fly to the Walker farm.

With 45 gunners and six dogs on their hands and not much bird life to accommodate the crowd, the Walkers had a job putting people in places where they might get a shot, or at least wouldn't collapse from the heat.

"We'll put you down by the irrigation pond so your dog can get to the water if she gets overheated," Bobby Walker told Henderson.

Henderson's black Labrador, Tulip, and I tagged along happily as he trudged down the dirt road to the appointed spot. The clay was baked hard and was almost white under foot.

The irrigation pond sat at Henderson's back. A cutover weed field lay in front and beyond it were hundreds of acres of tall, dried-out feed corn, baking away in the sun. Swallows and goldfinches darted around and, occasionally, a dove flew by, "O.R.," as Henderson put it -- out of range.

Behind the irrigation pond, in the cut corn, the other gunners were starting to bang away as we withered in the heat.

But things improved.

A bank of clouds drifted in and the temperature change sparked a breeze, first of the day.

Then Louis Walker III rumbled over in his four- wheel-drive, the back of it full of kids and cold drinks. "They're getting a little shooting in the field," he said as he handed out sodas. "If it doesn't get any better here, I'll move you."

Later, he came back. The banging from the cornfield had grown intense, and we could hear the shouts from the throng assembled there. "Bird!" they'd cry. "Bird coming!"

Walker put Henderson and Tulip and me in a stand of uncut corn in the middle of the cut field. Two minutes later, a dove swooped by, Henderson shot and Tulip took off on retrieve like a black cannonball.

A breeze rustled the standing corn, which rattled drily in the distance. The dog bounded back, cradling the bird in her mouth. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air.

Autumn!