The following are really two stories, one about a terrific Gambel quail hunt and the other about an avoidable accident. The events took place in January 1974 and were spread out over a 15 hour period. Back then gas had climbed to $.50 per gallon and based on the Arab oil embargo, President Nixon had just frozen the price. This was the beginning of our energy problems!
In 1974, on this particular hunt to an isolated canyon along the Salt River, Jake, my hunting buddy, and I took along a good friend, Tommy Walker. Tommy was in Phoenix for a business meeting that had ended the day before, so we planned a Gambel quail hunt for the next day, which was a Saturday. Tommy, being a flatlander and never having hunted these wild Arizona birds, was excited at the prospect of some real good hunting!
The trip to the hunting spot was a real doozy! Driving out Shea Boulevard and turning north on Bee Line Highway, after a few miles, we took a ten-mile, dirt road, short cut to reach the main road from Payson to Globe. Heading east, back on the paved road, we took another dirt road south that followed the west rim of the Salt River Canyon. Eight miles later the road turned into a four wheel drive only road and it was four more harrowing miles later that we reached our hunting spot. We probably made six or seven trips to this spot and never saw another soul.
Our hunt was along a wash that fed into the Salt River. The wash continued west up into the hills for a mile or more, then turned into a mini canyon almost two hundred feet deep. The little canyon had nicely terraced sides along its north rim. We, our dogs and hunters, would spread across the wash and head up it until the coveys of birds were found. At the time the coveys were enormous, a hundred to two hundred birds each, almost huge beyond belief!
Tommy, Jake and I, along with two of our Brittany Spaniels, Ned Pepper and Rooster, began our hunt around 8:30 AM. After the usual checking of our gear, we trekked a quarter of a mile into the wash, spread out and began our hunt. Once the birds were found, we pursued them up the wash into the small canyon. Conveniently, this split the coveys into more manageable groups with some flying up and over the canyon rim. Then the shooting and walking really began! Up the canyon, up the terraces, back down the terraces, up the terraces, not for the faint of heart!
The dog work was excellent, the shooting bordered on fantastic and the Arizona desert hills made for a perfect setting. We hunted two dogs for three hours then circled back and kenneled them up, took a break and got a fresh one, Candy.
Around noon we broke for a quick sandwich, sat a spell enjoying the scenery, counted our near limit of birds and headed back up the north rim of our little canyon. Earlier, several bunches of the main coveys had flown up there. Then we saw 15 or 20 birds running on the ground ahead of us before they flushed wildly over the rim back to the bottom of the canyon. These were a group of birds that had flown up there earlier this morning.
Jake said, “I’ll take Candy and go down into the canyon and try to drive them up on to the terraces.” I added, “I’ll take the middle terrace,” knowing that I could come under fire from Jake if the birds flew straight up the canyon wall. It was safer for Tommy to be up on the top and away from the edge, sixty yards or more from the bottom.
Tommy was to walk slowly, a safe distance away from the canyon’s edge and mark the birds that flew up and out of the canyon. I had already told him that I would not shoot at a bird flying up the canyon wall toward him. Tommy wasn’t familiar with the rough hunting terrain and especially to the erratic behavior of the birds when being pursued by dogs and hunters.
In the bottom of the canyon, Candy pointed the group of birds that had flown back down and Jake, letting me know of the point (Tommy heard the exchange too), walked in on the birds. They went everywhere, bam, bam, 2 shots from his over and under, that I could hear whiz over my head because I had moved away from the edge and then I heard Tommy yell in pain, “I’m hit!”
We were miles back in the Arizona wilderness and our guest and friend, Tommy Walker, had been hit with a blast from a 20 gauge, shotgun! Scrambling up the thirty yards to him I saw that he was down on his knees, holding his eyes. Oh no, not his eyes, I thought! Jake came racing up, “What happened to Tommy” he exclaimed? “Looks like he got some shot in his eyes,” I answered. Tommy said, “I heard you and Jake say a few words and I got curious and walked over to the edge of the canyon and looked down just as Jake shot and I think I’ve got some bird shot in one of my eyes!”
His pulse was normal, his skin felt normal, but one eye definitely had one or more shot in it, the other one was normal. No apparent signs of shock, for now. While we figured out what to do, we had him lie down and elevated his feet. Our problem was how to get him the two plus miles back to the truck?
We figured that if we bandaged his eye we could lead him out OK. The only problem was we didn’t have any bandages, some were in the first aid kit in the truck, but none with us, so we improvised. We took the back of my tee shirt and Jake’s clean hankie, tied them together and oops, to cover his injured eye, we had to cover his good eye too. We didn’t have any tape with us. It was back in the truck, too. Covering both eyes, we tied the “bandage” off on the back oh his head.
We started back to the truck but it was hard to guide Tommy, all 200 pounds of him. Jake and I took turns, one carrying all three shotguns, the other guiding Tommy by having him lean on and put an arm around our neck. Carrying the shotguns for two miles sounds easy, but remember there were no handles, or slings, on them and no easy way to carry three guns at once for any distance. Our main worry for Tommy was shock, but he told of being wounded in WW II and didn’t feel like he was anywhere near it.
Candy, bless her heart, hunted all the way back, Tommy couldn’t see, but he could hear us talking. “Hey, Jake look, point up there.” “Beech, here’s a point.” Whirrrrrrr! A quail took to a hurried flight as Tommy said, “Guys, set me down here and you all hunt these birds. You can come back and get me.” “Not a chance, Tommy,” we both echoed. Our two-mile jaunt took almost two hours, but our first goal, the truck and the four wheel drive road, was reached.
We still had four, hard, four wheel drive miles, at least two more hours, to cover before we got to the dirt road. Jake drove and I sat with Tommy in the back of the SUV. The dogs were packed into two kennels behind the second seat. We were all tired and as we bumped the four miles to the dirt road, Tommy’s eye began to throb! Soon we reached our second goal, the dirt road, but it had been over four hours since the accident, however we could make this eight-mile leg in about thirty minutes.
The sun was setting as we reached the hard top road to Payson and it had been almost five hours since the accident. There was a small hospital in Payson, 25 miles ahead, so we sped on in that direction.
No cell phones then, so we stopped at the first convenience store we came to in Payson and called the hospital, alerting them of the accident and getting directions. We also called our wives in Scottsdale to let them know of the situation and they hurried on up.
Finding the emergency room we checked Tommy in. There was a short wait for the local eye specialist. An hour later the doctor came out and told us that he had removed the shot from Tommy’s eye, but he was concerned that the vitreous fluid could leak out, causing Tommy to loose the vision in that eye.
The doctor would end up keeping Tommy in the hospital for a week. His eye healed and he returned to shooting and hunting almost as soon as he got back home. I hunted and shot skeet with Tommy for the next ten years and after his ordeal, all of us started wearing shooting glasses!