A typical 12 gauge quail-load shotgun shell contains around, or slightly more than, 400 #8 tiny, lead, spheres or pellets. I know this cause I’ve cut them open and counted. Four hundred tiny pellets gives you four hundred chances to hit your bird. Many people, even frequent shooters, harbor a misunderstanding about shotguns. They assume the pellets spread out immediately in every direction, but for the first 10 feet or so, the entire load of 400 #8, lead spheres are basically a single, one ounce, projectile.
Paul Dixon was about 10 feet away when his older brother, Peter, shot him just behind the left temple with a typical, traditional, 12 gauge quail-load. After hitting Paul’s skull, each of those 400 pellets immediately spread out in every direction. I don’t really want to paint this picture too clearly but have you ever seen a grape that’s been squashed underfoot?
All hunting is dangerous I guess, but quail hunting is particularly so. Ducks and other game birds like ducks and doves fly high overhead. Quail, on the other hand, are liable to flush from right before you, right beside you or even right behind you. They also may depart at any level, oftentimes, head high. A good pointer, setter, or dropper dog makes this departure more predictable but one still never knows the direction a startled bobwhite will fly.
A quail hunter aims at his fleeing target, following along with the firearm at the same pace as the bird and, like a baseball player, must follow through with his swing. If the bird flies back towards the shooter, and the shooter doesn’t stop his swing in time, he may be aiming at his flanking partner, and may pull the trigger at the exact fatal moment. All quail hunters know this tendency, but that instinctual swing can be hard to stop.
Well, that’s exactly what we figured had happened; the damned bird flew right back at the brothers and Peter paced the bird and pulled the trigger just as it passed Paul’s head. Picture a squashed grape. I try not to. That’s what it looked like when we got there, a squashed grape.
Me, my daddy, and my uncle, Milam, were sitting around the old Dearborn gas heater when Ash, the Dixon boys’ farm hand, burst through the kitchen door. He didn’t even knock.
He told us he was splitting stove wood when he’d heard a shot and then screams from our bottom field near the honeysuckle-covered hedgerow.
The four of us headed in the direction of the ruckus. When we made it to the hedge, we could see Paul’s crumpled body and Peter’s crumpled LC Smith double-barrel broken in half where he had obviously smashed it over a large flint fieldstone.
Peter was nowhere to be seen. Daddy took off his wool coat and wrapped and tied it around Paul’s head to hold it together. I hoisted the body over my shoulder and headed towards the house. Daddy followed, carrying the boys’ shotguns. Paul wasn’t a big man but the old adage is true: dead weight is just different.
Uncle Milam and Ash set about searching for Peter.
I carried Paul the half mile back to our house and laid him in the wagon. Mama came out and wrapped him in one of her string quilts. Daddy’s Model A had a cracked head, so he hitched Alice to the wagon and headed to town to fetch the Sheriff.
I went back down to the hedgerow to help Uncle Milam and Ash look for Peter. We searched till dark in the surrounding woods but found nothing. I sent Ash back to the house to gather some kerosene lanterns and the makings for torches. When he came back, a dozen or so gaunt, malaria-ridden, sharecroppers in soiled overalls, threadbare shirts, and flannel coats followed behind, a few of them carrying lit pine knots.
The search party split up into pairs. I took Ash with me because he knew the deep woods along the river bottom better than all the rest of us put together.
We slopped through the black, knee-deep mud till almost dawn. We almost gave up, but decided to rest on a large fallen log to catch our breath and get our bearings. Ash produced a clear bottle filled with his recently-brewed Blackstrap molasse rum from his coat, took a big swig, and then handed the bottle to me.
“Listen at dat,” Ash said.
“Listen to what?” I replied. “I don’t hear shit.”
“Just listen boy,” He said.
I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and listened. The cold November swamp was almost silent. Almost, cause in the distance I heard a low whimpering sound, like a mewling puppy. Ash put the bottle away, turned up the wick on his old lantern and started in the direction of the sound.
About twenty minutes and a quarter of a mile later we found him. He had wedged himself, head first, in a fallen, hollow, beech tree. All we could see was the bottom of his muddy boots.
We tried to coax him out. Ash talked to him like he was trying to calm a panicked mare but he wouldn’t talk. He just kept on whimpering. I finally grabbed his ankles and drug him out on the ground. He still wouldn’t talk. He just lay there in the mud and kept on making that low whimpering noise like a newborn puppy.
Peter was still making that noise when Ash shot in the air to summon the other searchers. He was still making that noise all the way back to the house as we carried him, two at a time, by turns. He was still making that noise as the sun came up, and when mama wrapped him in another of her quilts, and he was still making that noise when the sheriff and the town doctor put him in the back of the car and took him away.
Alan Caldwell lives in Carroll County, Georgia, but is working on moving to his rural property in the mountains of Northeast Alabama. He has been married to his lovely wife, Brandi, for 33 years. He has one son, Caleb, who is a firefighter, a daughter-in-law, Chelsee, who is an emergency room nurse, and a grandson, Asher. Alan has been teaching for 27 years and spends much of his free time outdoors or reading. Alan has been collecting stories, mostly about his family, for over 40 years, but has just begun writing them.