Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Whatever Happened to Antonio?

Whatever Happened to Antonio?


Mearns Quail are special.  Many years ago, through a friend of a friend of a friend, I was introduced to Wally. “Hey”, he said, “if you are going to Arizona, why don’t you call my buddy, Wally, down there?  He’s a specialist hunting those Mearns Quail in the mountains south of Tucson.”  I rang him up, and he agreed to shepherd us along to see if we could find a few coveys of the elusive birds.  It was a serendipitous introduction.  

Male Mearns Quail


Wally and I had nearly identical military careers, with a few major exceptions, one being that no one, that I know of, ever tried to shoot me down.  The other major difference was that he was an Air Force pilot, while I was a Naval Aviator who proudly wore “wings of gold”.  Wally never hesitated to remind me the Air Force had standards and required its pilots to read and write and use cutlery at the dinner table.  I would retort loudly that the Navy required the parents of aviators to be married.  And so it went as we scoured the hills and mountains of southern Arizona for quail.    


Our first meeting was at an exit off the local interstate.  “Don’t be late.  We have a long way to go,” he said over the phone.  The four of us in our party were waiting for him when he drove up before sunrise.   Right away I could see he was serious about his bird hunting- one Brittany face peered out the passenger side with two more in kennels in the back.  “Let’s go!” he said.  What followed was more akin to a motocross race over smooth pavement, then rough pavement, then smooth gravel, then rough gravel, then 4-wheel-drive-holy-crap-hang-on, Manzanita paint-scouring two-track.  Ninety minutes later with queasy stomachs, wide-eyed dogs, and thoughts of undercarriage damage to the Beast, I exited the truck to an amazing place.  Rolling hills, brown grass, low spreading oaks, and blue sky from horizon to horizon.  I’d seen a place like this on the other side of the world- in Spain. I was captivated. 


That first trip, my main dogs were Ace (Brit/M) and Bo (Setter/M).   Ruby (Brit/F) and Cap (Brit/M) were along, but barely 6 mos. old. Ace and Bo did their thing for three days, and I learned a lot about the Mexican Quail. We were at the northern limit of the Mearns habitat.  Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas have populations of Mearns quail in the high, grassy areas in the mountains.  Their range extends south into Mexico, and I have Spanish-speaking friends who fly to Mexico yearly to hunt huge coveys of them.  But, for us, this is Mearns Quail central.  What looked like gentle, grassy slopes revealed themselves, many times, as rock-strewn ankle-breaking areas leading down into broad, smooth, easy bottoms between the hills.  The bottoms all sloped gently south, to Mexico.  


Some days the birds would be in the bottoms, some days on the slopes in the rocks.  One characteristic I noticed immediately was how tight they would hold.  Over the years, it was not uncommon to see the coveys before the flush.  One day, watching Wally’s new puppy hesitate for a bit before moving on, I was commenting that it would be nice if she would have had a covey. I looked down to watch my step and stepped into the center of a covey of 8.  It was not uncommon to turn around to locate a dog and find them pointed behind you on a covey less than ten feet from your track. The birds would much rather you walk on by than flush.  Mearns Quail eat mainly tubers growing under the oak trees.  They have an extended claw to dig for the tubers, and we know to look for the little holes around the base of the oaks indicating a close-by covey.  They are smallish compared to their desert cousins, the Gambel’s and Blue Quail, and males are marked by a unique pattern of black chest covered with white spots.  How in the world they can disappear into a brown rock-strewn world, I don’t know.  But they do. Ten to fifteen coveys in a hard day’s hunt was not unusual for many years, but those are the “good old days” now.  Recently, I had a 7-covey morning before rain cut our day short.  It was my best in many years.  


Wally and I parked at the base of a draw, not far from the border fence.  The fence itself was a barbed-wire affair mainly designed to keep cattle from straying.  We started uphill, north from the trucks, passing a large stock tank covered in mossy slime.  One of Wally’s girls struck first and pointed out of sight on top of a cut out riverbank.   Wally climbed up and over.  Not long afterwards, I had several high passing shots as the birds flew over me, at speed, to escape to the opposite hillside. We compared notes and birds while standing in the shade of one of the small, spreading oaks.  A little farther up the draw, the canyon split, and so did we, agreeing to meet in about an hour.  I had my little puppy Ruby down.  Mearns, to me, are the absolute best birds for very young dogs.  They hold tight, don’t run, and are in beautiful country.  I never hesitate to work my young dogs on them.  (A close second would be Sharptail Grouse in the Montana grass.)


Ruby worked well, crossed the canyon from one side to the other, then she ran up one side wall about halfway before she stopped to locate me and dropped back down.  It was fun to watch her and think of things to come.  I was following a trail in the bottom of the canyon, it was most likely a cow path, but it occurred to me it might have been a smuggling trail coming up from the border.  Throughout the area, backpacks, shoes, blankets, and water jugs littered the ground.  Some were so old, they were falling apart.  Some were shiny and new.  All the years hunting the area and I never saw an illegal immigrant, and I was unconcerned.  Ruby suddenly spun around and pointed in the center of the canyon, nearly under a huge fallen log.  Her first covey of quail.  I managed to drop one, and she retrieved it to me with no drama, just the workman-like, “Here’s your bird, boss!” attitude she would display for the rest of her life.  It was a monumental moment for me, so I took a minute and loved on her while I sat in the grass.  Then, we went back to business, and I climbed over one side of the canyon to drop down and meet Wally in the parallel wash.  I heard gunshots earlier, and I recognized his 20 ga. semi-auto.  I looked forward to the stories as we shared our bird encounters.

Wally and Antonio check the map.

We turned and started back downhill to the trucks.  Another hunting friend of ours left the trucks and hunted south towards the border, and we wondered if he found any birds.  We usually didn’t hunt together, since he used pointing Labs, and he didn’t want our dogs messing up his.  Wally and I chatted as we approached the trucks parked in the shade in a washout near a corral.  I saw Vince (our Lab friend) sitting under a tree not far from the trucks.  Jokingly, I held up my shotgun and yelled, “Hold it right there, pardner!  Explain yourself!”  It was then I realized “Vince” wasn’t Vince!  The man sitting in the shade jumped up and raised his hands.  I quickly lowered my shotgun and laughed, although I don’t think the man saw much humor in the situation.   I noticed he was Hispanic, dressed warmly, and didn’t appear to be injured.  He was also very attentive to the crazy gringo with the shotgun.  

Wally approached him as I went to the trucks to load Ruby and stow my shotgun.  I heard Wally ask where he was going.  He said his name was Antonio.  He spoke a fair amount of English, and I overheard him tell Wally he was lost, had been there a week, had no charge on his cell phone (none of our chargers would work), was out of food, and didn’t want to drink from the stock tanks (smart!).  His group left him after telling him to go to Tucson (50 miles in a different direction).  It was just before Christmas, and he wanted to go home.  I walked up then and told him to walk up on any of those roads and Border Patrol would pick him up and take him to the border, but strangely he wasn’t interested in that.  I also thanked him for not disturbing our trucks.  His response was interesting to me.  He said, “No, SeƱor, those are very expensive trucks!”   We gave him a gallon of fresh water, an awesome ham sandwich I made that morning, a can of Red Bull, and Wally pointed him to the border fence.  He headed on his way, thankful and relieved, but not before I commented, “So, let me get this straight.  You want to break into Mexico?” We all chuckled for a minute, but I noticed he kept an eye on me the entire time (Hey, the gun thing was a joke!).  


It wasn’t until after Antonio was long gone, I realized I should have asked for a home cell number and given his wife a call to tell her Antonio was on his way home for Christmas. Meet him at the fence.  I can only imagine how that phone call would have gone.  I often wonder about Antonio, and I wish I had his number to check on him. I think we could have been friends. I think he loved his family enough to risk his life to better theirs.  I wonder if he ever thinks about that meeting in the Arizona mountains with the crazy gringo and his awesome ham sandwich.