Hedge Johnson's boots crunched and slipped noisily through the snow covered stubble field. There was not an animal within five miles that had not heard him coming. But yet, he clutched the trusty 12 gauge shotgun to his chest ready in hopes of that wayward covey of quail, deaf pheasant or brain damaged chucker to suddenly spring up in front of his sights in willing submission to Hedge's hunting prowess.
Over on the next hillock, Hedge could see his hunting partner, Bert Ryman. Bert seemed to move in a stealthy way that Hedge tried year after year to emulate. Even dressed in his bright orange coveralls and cap, Bert had the uncanny ability to fade into his surroundings in a way that surprised even the late, great hunter, Bart Farnsworth, from over at Dog Hollow.
"Now Bart Farnsworth, there was a hunter," thought Hedge with a kind of respectful reverence that only a seasoned sportsman could manage. Hedge had heard wild tales of Bart's exploits. It was even said Bart once tripped over a log while deer hunting up around Rim Rock Canyon. When he hit the ground, his trusty Winchester discharged and not only nailed a 10-point buck right between the eyes, but also picked off two jackrabbits and a barn owl in the bargain.
The only thing even slightly similar that ever happened to Hedge was the morning he slipped on the ice getting into Bert's pickup truck to go goose hunting. When his gun discharged, Bert was shot in the right buttock with a load of double O Buckshot. "I suppose that's why Bert always hunts on the next hill far away from me. And why he limps a little from time to time," mused Hedge.
As he came to the end of the stubble field, Hedge turned towards Bert and trudged toward the waiting truck. As yet Hedge had not fired a single round. He had heard a number of shots coming from Bert's direction and was glad to see two lovely pheasants hanging from Bert's belt. "Damn good thing we didn't get skunked," yelled Hedge.
"Yep. Sure is," answered Bert.
"Ya know. I heard the pheasants are thicker'n fleas on a hound dog over at Parker's cornfield, Bert."
"Yeah. I head that too," said Bert rubbing his chin in thoughtful interest. "Good long way over there though. Halfway across the county from here."
"Yep. Take us maybe an hour to get over there," remarked Hedge checking his watch.
"Sure be a shame to leave those fine eating birds out there for some old road-hunting, city folks," mused Bert.
"Now that would be a blame waste. Maybe even a crime against humanity," Hedge thought out loud.
The two men jumped in Bert's pickup and pulled out on the icy county road heading west. Bert gunned the big block engine knowing that their quarry could be massacred by city folk at any moment. Worse yet, they could hunt like Hedge and scare the birds into the next state.
The two drove over an hour and finally started up Dead Man's Hill. Now, this hill was known throughout the county as an evil place. It was said thousands had lost their lives coming down that hill. If the stories were right, an equal number had died going up that hill too. It was said the hill claimed victims even in the middle of summer. But this was the only way to the Parker Farm.
At the top of Dead Man's Hill the pickup turned into the Parker farm having survived another trip up that hill. Ned Parker was chopping wood in front of the woodshed with Billy, his oldest son. Some folks here abouts said Billy weren't quite right in the head. But Hedge knew different. Why, many a time, Hedge had carried on deep philosophical conversations with the boy while fishing down along the Trask River. The conversations sometimes lasted for hours, although the boy never really seemed to say anything. But Hedge knew this was just the boy's way of careful thinking and hanging on every pearl of wisdom that rolled off Hedge's tongue. Secretly, Hedge liked fishing with Billy. This kid was the only fisherman in the county worse than he was. Hedge always felt fishingly heroic when he dragged in his stringer with a four-inch catfish and an occasional lamprey. You could not eat either one, of course, but they were trophy fish just the same.
Hedge leaned out the window as the truck stopped in front of the woodshed. "Hey, Ned. How's the hunting in yer back corn field? Seen any city folk out and about?"
"Hiya, Hedge and Bert. Nope. Ain't seen nobody. Billy here was out hunting that field early this morning. Never seen a single bird over there," answered Ned.
"Aw shucks," said Bert. "We heard there was hunerds of um over there."
"Nope. The Vonda kids were over there hunting a couple days ago. You know how they are. Sounded like a damn war. I bet they shot off a thousand rounds that day. They musta killed everything in sight. Still can't find my old dog, Blue. They may a shot and ate him too," Ned said conversationally.
Hedge looked at Bert. Both shook their heads. "Well, I guess it's time to quit anyway," Hedge said sadly.
Waving good bye to Ned, Bert backed the truck around and headed back out onto the icy county road. Before them loomed Dead Man's Hill. Bert stopped the truck in the middle of the road. "We could take the long way around, Hedge."
"That's forty miles. It'll be dark before we get back. Just go on ahead. We done the Hill lots of time, Bert."
Bert pondered the possible fates before shifting the truck into Drive. The pickup crept forward slowly. Even at this speed the truck seemed to side slip on the ice.
"Give her a little gas, Bert. It'll make it easier to handle," advised Hedge. Bert pressed down on the accelerator with a pressure of one quarter of an gram. The pickup shot forward. Bert stomped on the break. The pickup did not slow down at all, but began to fishtail wildly. Bert cranked the steering wheel like a man possessed. First, he cranked the wheel right, then left, then right again.
Calmly, Hedge looked out through the windshield. For some reason the truck seemed to be moving sideways. "Hey, did you see that new Combine, Berry Worthington has sitt'n next to his barn? Just caught a glimpse of it as we went by. And why are you driving sideways, Bert?" Hedge looked at Bert. What he saw was a man possessed. His lips were pulled back in a manic grin. Sweat poured off his face and dripped onto his orange coveralls. His hands gripped the steering wheel with such force his knuckles were white. And still he swung the steering wheel right and left frantically.
Hedge looked back out the windshield. It did seem rather odd. He found himself looking back up the Hill as the summit seemed to recede away from them. "Bert, you crazy guy," Hedge laughed. "Taking The Hill in reverse. Now that's takes guts, let me tell ya. That's what I like about you, man."
Suddenly the pickup seemed to shudder for a moment then the rear end raised up in the air with a great thump followed a split second later by the front end bouncing over something too.
"Hey, that thing lying in the road looks just like that heifer calf old Tom Samuels bought at the farm sale last week. Wonder what it's doing laying around out here?" There was no answer from Bert.