There is a time in late October when, in the half-light before dawn, you expect that a few dim-witted bees will be lazing about the frost-stroked goldenrod, the upper pond will be glazed with a skim-coat of ice, and the October skies will look more like November, a northwest wind pushing a heavy gray sky. On such a morning, however, one wakes to find Indian summer, a day when the bees swarm around the hive, you dive buck-naked into the pond, hot from splitting wood, and the heat shimmers up from the hay fields, the skies overhead washed with the powder blue of bachelor's buttons. It is a day too ripe in the nose for August, the sun too strong for November, and one's step too lively for the coming of winter. It is a morning full of promises, like a first date, the warm air ripe with pumpkin, dry hay, wildflower, and the sweet smell of honeysuckle.
There is a man in our part of town whom I respectfully refer to as Mr. President. He is President of the Old Rabbit Hunter's Association, a group whose membership extends only to the President himself, his son, and me, as the devoted disciple. (My apologies and thanks to Gordon MacQuarrie, the best outdoor writer who ever lived.) Mr. President wears green wool pants with suspenders, an orange hunting hat, a gray beard, and an honest, weathered face. The pockets of his hunting vest have long ago given up hope, the stained and tattered bottoms hanging below his waist. He doesn't say much except to start every hunt with the words "I guess we'll eat good tonight"-- like a man who, having done the same thing all his life, digs deep and finds a burst of enthusiasm to do it one more time. Now Mr. President has been at this hunting business awhile, and you notice right off that although he isn't quick to shoot, he usually bags what he's aiming at. I've been known to empty all five shells from my gun in less than two seconds, hitting nothing more than gray birch and red maple. On that occasion, Mr. President simply waited a few seconds, sighted in, and delivered dinner with one shot. His only remark was, "Need shells?"
On this particular late October afternoon, Mr. President and I headed out with his overstuffed rabbit dog, Bucket, and my then 12-year-old daughter, Whitney, on a long amble through some marshy scrub, a Christmas tree farm, and then down through a thicket so dense with milkweed that the only thing I could make sense of was Mr. President's orange hat. Later in the afternoon, after raising a grouse, a woodcock, and two rabbits that were smarter than we were, I flushed a third one but didn't have a clean shot, and Bucket took after it, through the swamp and up a side hill. Mr. President told us to sit and wait-- rabbits always run in a circle-- so I got comfortable, my back up against one of the few hickories still standing.
The clouds came in, the wind freshened, and it started to feel like late November. I picked up the scent of wood smoke from Mr. President's house as I watched the day being swallowed by shadows. While the snowbirds head south to smile smugly on beach chairs, the pulse of a die-hard Northerner quickens at the first killing frost. Nothing freshens the blood like the howl of wind, a cold nose ripe with the scent of wet leaves, and the pop of creosote in a stovepipe.
In the middle of my reverie, the rabbit had come full circle, stood up in front of an oak not 20 yards away, looked me in the eye, and headed straight for its hole. I had time for just one badly aimed shot and managed to make short work of a clump of skunk cabbage. Then there were three shots from Mr. President's gun, and all was quiet.
Mr. President came up quickly from behind, looking peevish. He growled, "Next time, I expect, that rabbit will walk right up and plant a kiss on your smacker. Can't eat skunk cabbage." A cold gust blew right through my vest and shirt. The woods were silent, and I was tired.
Then Mr. President looked up with a warm glimmer in his eye, "Yup, why don't the two of you come up to the house for dinner?"
"A rabbit dinner, Mr. President?" I asked.
"Nope, tonight I'm in the mood for pot roast." I looked down and noticed that his left hand was empty. He had fired three times and missed.
"Well, I guess I wasn't in the mood for rabbit anyway," I said, as we headed home. I considered the cold, dark winter that was settling into our narrow mountain valley, the sunset fading into a bitter twilight. Then I thought about Mr. President and smiled. If you know where to look, in the twinkle of an eye or deep in the shadows, you'll find Indian summer when you least expect it.