Black powder overflowed a brass charger. The precious granules trickled down the Northwest gun’s muzzle. Wadding squeaked, resisted, then seated firm with a hickory wiping stick. Lead shot rattled to the breech, secured with thinner wadding, tamped tight.
The fowl cackled again. “Kort-kok,” it called, loud and strong, walking closer. Drying prairie grass with a hint of sweetness from the corn in the north field perfumed the air. A cardinal twittered. That crimson songster was perched low in a wind-tipped cherry tree. The nameless creek meandered west, dividing the cattail wallows, willow stands and rolling knobs. That narrow strip of land, left fallow because of standing water at planting time, produced an evening fowl or two, even in the lean years.
Chilly air settled in the lowlands at dusk on that late-October day in the Year of our Lord, 1796. A red-tailed hawk cried out, somewhere to the west, but the post hunter didn’t look up. Elk-hide moccasins zigged and zagged due east through the prairie grass and red willow switches. The helter-skelter course turned south at the twin poplar trees that grew at a sharp creek bend.
Here and there roost forms, marked with a single white-edged leaving, betrayed the fowls’ habits. The underbrush thickened, going knee-high to thigh-deep. Pauses, about-faces and quick turn backs highlighted the erratic dance, all choreographed to befuddle one of those winged delights.
On that eve, the quick foray first produced the bounding, brown-fur flash of a cotton-tailed rabbit. Heartbeats grew rapid. The turtle sight pursued, lost the critter, then regained its head in an impenetrable tangle not meant for a swarm of death bees. Pressing on, a lush, shoulder-deep patch of mixed swamp grasses with the occasional clump of cattails produced nary a flush.
A sharp turn about angled the woodsman’s course in the direction of the creek, all the while progressing to the log bridge that crossed the creek, giving access to the north side and a wilderness wander’s way back to camp.
What was once a thick plot of goldenrod, perhaps the size of a fort’s barracks, was now a sea of brittle, dry stems that snapped and crackled with each buckskin leggin stride. Six or seven trade-gun lengths distant, stalks wiggled. The advance ceased. The forest tenant’s body turned. The smoothbore’s muzzle eased right and hovered over the movement. The woodsman’s thumb pressed hard on the firelock’s hammer screw. Arteries pulsed. Death bees huddled tight in great anticipation.
Three or so minutes later, the post hunter’s left moccasin weaseled forward, then the right, cautious and unhurried. A stem snapped, loud and distinctive. Wings flapped. A frantic brown bundle of wildland frenzy exploded skyward. The English flint jerked to attention with the distinctive click. The trade gun’s tarnished brass butt plate slammed to its rightful place. The turtle sight pursued the rising fowl, then stopped, sagging in despair. There was no red wattle, no iridescent green head, no white neck ring, no cinnamon-colored chest, no streaming, barred tail. “Hen!” his mind shouted as the fowl cleared the swale, set her wings and coasted into the cornstalks on the opposite side of the nameless creek…
Oh, Those Inconsistencies…
Funny thoughts flood my mind right after the intense encounter of a wild bird, be it a gobbler, mallard drake or hen pheasant. I realized not a minute after that hen pheasant dropped out of sight in the standing corn that I had not offered a prayer for that evening’s simple pursuits. “A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” I whispered, rectifying my alter ego’s oversight.
I don’t have a name for the inconsistencies in my writings that have arisen in recent days. I’m sure one will come up, either in my scribblings or in a phrase or sentence from a loyal reader.
In the early years of my time-traveling misadventures, there were a lot of issues with my clothing and accoutrement choices—inconsistencies, if you will. I gave little mind to authenticity of ring-necked pheasants.
Fox squirrels, cotton-tailed rabbits and pheasants were the mainstays of hunting in my youth. Small game was the major reason for choosing the smooth-bored trade gun over a longrifle when I decided to journey back in time. I hunted roosters with my modern shotgun, so why not with the firelock? I wasn’t much good at wing shooting, modern or traditional, but that did not matter; getting out for an evening of bird hunting did, if only for an hour or so.
It wasn’t until years later that I started looking into the “authenticity” of the game I loved to chase in a 1790s sense. As I read through trading post clerk’s notes, like those of George Nelson, Michel Curot and Francois Victor Malhiot, I found “fowls” mentioned, but no ring-necked pheasants. But this was no surprise, it only pointed up one of these inconsistencies that Lt. Lang so aptly referred to.
Back then, a conversation with Al Stewart, an upland game specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, brought to light Ralph A. MacMullan’s pamphlet, Life and Times of the Michigan Pheasant, published by the Game Division, Michigan Department of Conservation, Lansing, MI, re-issued in 1957.
The Chinese ring-necked pheasant first showed up in early settlement documents in 1832, a few years before Michigan gained statehood. These wily fowls were introduced in this state on March 27, 1895—a century after my beloved 1790s. Legal hunting began in 1925. These gorgeous game birds thrived across the southern part of the state, reaching their greatest population density in the 1940s to the early 1970s.
As a youth, I was fortunate to hunt at the end of that era. By the time the hired post hunter began his journey back to yesteryear, the local pheasant population was in decline. Despite the falling numbers, “Old Turkey Feathers” downed its share of inconsistent fowls.
But were they inconsistent? To some degree, no, they were not. By the time I considered the period-correctness of the ring-necked pheasant, the principle of measured compromise had found favor with my time traveling adventures. The concept smoothed the modern me’s love for chasing ring-necked roosters, a cherished pastime handed on to the historical me.
The idea of physically traveling back in time is not possible within the confines of man’s understanding of the laws of the universe. The mental route is the only option. As a living historian, I can only approach some semblance of what it was like to live, hunt and survive in the wilderness that abuts the River Raisin in the Old Northwest Territory. I can never achieve that reality, only view from a distance.
When modern inconsistencies arise within the framework of a time-traveling simulation, they threaten the fabric of the total experience. Some are serious situations, dangerous or life threatening in nature, others acts of frivolous stupidity, like the proverbial crushed soda can beside the re-enactor’s path.
Yet in either case, dangerous or frivolous, the principle of measured compromise steps in to ease the disruption created by a specific transgression. With luck, one’s mind assesses the severity of the infraction, calculates the probable effect and applies a suitable solution that negates that disrupting impact. The best case is the crushed soda can will pass by without conscious awareness on the part of a forest tenant.
In truth, ring-necked pheasants morphed into fowls in the same manner coyotes evolved into wolves. The error on my part, as a humble writer wishing to reflect on the life and times of a hunter hero, was allowing my mind to cross back over time’s threshold and describe the “fowl” as a “pheasant.” Even with a healthy dose of measured compromise, those pesky crushed soda cans spring up now and then…
Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.