This time of year, I find myself cradling my shotgun on lonely wind-swept ridges, watching melodic dance of three hard-charging setters pulled by the Western wind. They spin and lope and run with their heads high, drawn into grassy arroyos, flung up onto high sage benches. They stop suddenly, honoring each other, frozen in moment and time and I ride up, dismount and move in. Never knowing what is before, only enjoying the moment and the dance. This is how I live my life. . . perhaps nothing will be there, but perhaps it will be a flock of Huns, flying hard and fast and my shotgun up and swinging. A bird may fall and the muffled panting of the grandson of my best dog will foretell of a young dog with a bird in his mouth, headed my way. I will take the bird from him in high praise, clean it quickly, and shove it down into my saddle bags, warm in the autumn sun, and warm with affection for animals who move us and think more of us then they do of themselves. That is good living, is it not? It is about the hunt, the dance, the west wind, the open country, the eighty year old saddle I ride, the fast-moving gray mare between my legs, the moment. What is before is yet to be seen and doesn’t really even matter.
By Chad Love
Editor at Quail Forever, Itinerant blogger (MOF, Mallard of Discontent)
You try to be Buddhist about these things, tell yourself that everything we think of as solid and implacable and unyieldingly forever will someday be gone, that all the bullshit artifices of man will eventually wither into nothingness, and that nothing, absolutely nothing is permanent; not life, not love, not nations or gods or religions, not the earth or stars, and sure as hell not a dog.
Fourteen years. You tell yourself that’s a pretty damn good run for a chessie. You look at the picture, and wonder why you like it so much. She’s not doing anything, just standing in the freezing water like she always did. She retrieved a helluva lot of ducks from that pond over the years, but that day we didn’t shoot a damn thing, just goofed off and splashed around.
You look at the picture and tell yourself that nothing is permanent. Not the dog, not you, not even that pond. It’s as gone as the dog. The dam failed during a flood a few years after that photo was taken, washed down the creek to the river and to the bigger river and eventually the sea, and a few generations of memories washed down with it.
Now that pond is just a silt-filled, willow-choked marshy bowl where some half-remembered things once happened.
I buried her on a bluff overlooking the spot where that pond once was, the third and final chessie of this impermanent lifetime of mine to be lowered into that hard, ancestral clay, cried over, and then relegated to compartments of memory that inexorably start dimming, just as the hard, bitter flash of loss and pain so keenly felt while digging the hole eventually dulls and retreats in the face of life going on.
Like every dog, she absorbed so many of my weaknesses, my shortcomings, my deficiencies, and processed that into love. That’s what dogs do. They’re alchemist: They take our failings, and turn them into goofy, panting, unconditional love.
Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts. Nothing endures. But some things come pretty damn close.
Forage (berries, hoppers)
Find a ridge that breaks from sagebrush on its south flank to Doug fir on its north. Deciduous cover such as chokecherry, snowberry, mountain maple preferred. Note temperature and date. Start climbing, letting the dog cover country. Belling is preferred by the more traditional chefs but discrete hawk-call collars set on point-only work quite well and are excellent in reasonable hands. Climb some more. If grouse are encountered, note elevation, time of day, day of month. Praise dog. Mix ingredients again on the next run. Repeat.
By Kyle Smith
Late summer and dreams for the season ahead abound like the apples hanging heavy on their branches in my backyard. A new hunting partner has joined the family, though he’s a decade removed (decade and a half if you ask his mom) from long road trips to high desert locales and the steep terrain of chukar country. Still, my mind wanders to his future and mine, much as I imagine it does for all new fathers.
Priorities have shifted in his wake, come into cleaner focus. Got to make time away from home count now. No more half-assed forays into the unknown. From here on out, things’ll be different. I’ll be more deliberate, more disciplined. Afterall, it’s not about me anymore, but for the hope that the boy takes to dirt under his fingernails and the call of the open road. The hope that he ends up with use for the type of knowledge that can only be gained by mistakes made in pursuit of something wonderful.
What young man wouldn’t be drawn to dogs and guns, fins and feathers? I tell myself there’s no way he’ll be able to resist trips to unnamed places in search of trout and birds and adventure. But if his passions lead him elsewhere, if he takes to theater, or football, or music, I hope the same lessons that have informed my days afield will shape his character. Hard work, humility, and an understanding that we’re not separate from the ground we stand on, that’s it’s part of us and we’re a part of it.
Doubt creeps in often. It’s alarming how interested he becomes when he spies mom or dad checking our shining rectangles or hears the echo of the TV in another room. We’ve accepted that there’s no way to shield him from the digital age, nor should we, but dear God do I hope we can keep it from consuming him. Mostly for selfish reasons, I could really use a solid hunting partner, but also for his own benefit to know the small towns and grand views found while upland hunting or waist deep in trout water that have enriched so many of our lives. To know that his food doesn’t come via the Buy It Now button on Amazon and that nothing worth doing comes easy in this life.
For now, all I can do is hope and pray, and do my damndest to keep the TV off and the iPhone stashed out of sight.
We coyoted out the night before opener. Threw bedrolls down in the sage and drank bedtime whisky. Rolled out well before dawn, elk-hunting style, roused the dogs out of the kennels. Off by the ranch, where the dirt road led through the gate and up the mountain, there was a set of headlights.
Damn. See that?
The day came up and the light with it and birds started chirping and a breeze came off the mountain. The bedrolls were wadded into the bed of the pickup and hands felt for shells in vest pockets, collared the dog, found a whistle.
Another set of headlights turned at the ranch gate on the public access. Jesus, here comes another one.
Well, it is a Saturday and it is opening day.
The first set got closer and we could hear the engine coming up the mountain, deepening with the pull.
We better get moving, said to no one in particular. Just barely light enough to shoot and a third set of headlights turns at the gate and the first rig is next to ours and two pile out, say a reluctant and barely-friendly hello that is met in kind.
We move and the dog goes on point almost immediately and a woken covey of young Huns goes up, barely able to fly. They scatter and we hold our fire. Not sure the next party up the mountain will be so kind to young birds just learning the magic of flight.
The first blue grouse goes into the vest, warm and fragrant with sage, just as the fifth or sixth set of headlights turns off the road, light enough now to see well, but not so light that the computer in the Surburban down there shuts off the headlights. We are well up the mountain now and there are pairs of hunters below us, spreading out, ant-like in the coming day. For a moment we stop and lament that it didn’t used to be like this but then our valley got popular, made top ten lists in New York magazines.
Another blue down and the dog working well. A certain pride in being so far up the mountain now, so far ahead.
Eight rigs other than ours in the parking lot now and the sun not even cresting the mountain yet. It feels like a competition, not a hunt, a race to something, an exercise in chest puffery, a contest to see who can put the best picture up on his feed. We watch them scatter, hear the whistles, the shouts of anger for a dog loosed into opening day.
Opening day is on a Sunday next year, we say in unison. Let’s skip this place next year. I’d rather hunt than be in a foot race.
February would arrive as it always did in Montana. Cold and wet and miserably grey. With the sort of damp despair one feels in a Dickens novel. Two weeks after bird season, I was a Cratchit kid. A coal-smeared orphan. My dog Ruark was a stray mutt in a land with 8 months to opener and not much sun to cheer us up. The last best state my ass.
Biting nails and fighting back twitches I looked for a place to offer a late-night fix. I’d been on the wagon since the end of December. I needed a hidden bottle or secret stash. Going crazy I stopped and stared. “Arizona” “Quail” “Dos Cabezas” The words came to me in a vision born of cold shakes. I had visited the border country many times as a boy, hauling cattle to ranches tucked along the arroyos of Ed Abbey’s desert country.
Back then I’d drive with my father, trailer full of bulls from our herd purchased by ranchers in the cactus country. 22 hours strait driving. No stopping. Once there we’d take a few hours to chase the coveys of exotic quail under the scrub. Montezuma’s, Scalies, Gambles. The stuff of fairy tales for a high plains boy of 10 or 11. And then like all responsible farm kids we’d leave because of the work awaiting at home. Jump back in the Chevy and pull the trailer north. But I had tasted the place and those birds.
I remembered them now. They came back like a vision summoned up by Montezuma himself. I assembled the memories as the desperate plan took shape. I shuffled through the darkness and remembered Arizona season running through mid-February and that I had a work trip in a few days to Phoenix. This was my ticket. I called the old ranching friends. Made small talk and then blurted out “I need to hunt next week, can I do it?”. They heard the shake in my voice and mumbled approval probably afraid to say no, thinking I would take them hostage or hijack their pickup trucks like a desperate Mexican drug mule.
I lied just like all junkies do. Looking back now I see that I had a problem. Or was at least struggling with acceptance. Might have needed help. Should have been put on a couch, or shocked or lobotomized or some goddamned thing. I was hurting those around me. My wife Sara specifically. She was worn threadbare with my fishing season followed by bird season. My seasons were long, revolving and incessant. Did not leave me much time at home. I stared off into the distance and thought about the bird year. A great one with 60 days or more behind the dogs.
I resolved that this was not the time to quit anything or start any damned 12 step bullshit. Certainly not the time to give up another possible bird trip.
Sara would be away on her own short excursion the day I would leave, and I decided to subvert the truth rather than risk the backlash that talk of more bird chasing would bring. I’d tell her that our friends were watching Ruark. That I had to stay a few extra days for business. I had to do it. She was just barely looking at me again now that the Montana season was closed.
Our schedules had us arriving back the same night and we’d meet up at the airport. I gave no thought to how I would explain the obvious nature of the trip. I just cared about another point, a covey rise, some smoke rising from the barrels. Some Scalies, a bunch of Gambels, and maybe a Mearns covey or two. I was breaking into a cold sweat just thinking of it all.
The night before the trip I jammed some clothes in a bag then rushed around the garage, shoving 20-gauge shells in duffles, finding vests and collars. Dusting off the kennel. A frenetic movie scene. I showed up to the airport barely in time. Skidded to a stop unloading three times as much gear as one person needed for a short business trip. Dropping gun cases, fumbling for ID. Ruark twisting his leash around my legs as I mumbled incoherently. Families in line staring at me mouths agape. I flashed a wild-eyed smile back at them as they looked away. Mothers shielding their kids from a junkie on bird meth.
I arrived in Phoenix never having considered if the downtown hotel would allow a birddog to share my room. When they gave the emphatic “no”, I replied “no problem, where are the stairs?”. And I shuffled Ruark up the back way. Dodging staff and looking at questioning guests like I owned the place. I took him to work with me in the city the next couple days. Oblivious, I thought people would love him. And they did, at least the good ones did. Anyone who did not love a birddog did not need my attention anyway.
I slammed through the work in two days, rented a car and drove south. Stopping in Wilcox at a bar I remembered from the trips with my Dad. A low-slung dive blasting Haggard from an old juke box. I asked for the steak and a bartender pulled one from a small fridge. She handed it to me raw on a white paper plate then pointed to a grill in the back. It was up to me to cook it as I drank my beers. My tremors were starting to ease. The place had not changed a bit in 20 years.
The next morning, I knocked on the doors of our rancher friends and was chasing quail 30 minutes later. Within spitting distance of the southern border in magical sacred mountain ranges. 3 days of this big country. The needle was in my arm and I could breathe again. Quail everywhere. Tight points and beautiful birds. I was high as a kite. I could have stayed another month. I could have overdosed time and again.
No doubt I was addicted but I had just enough sense to pull myself together. I loaded Ruark back into the car and headed to the airport when we were both so tired neither of us could walk. His pads were worn raw from the rough country. I had to fold him into the kennel and shove him onto the luggage belt. He and I were on the same drug.
Sara hugged me as I trudged off the midnight flight back in Montana. We had been married less than 6 months. “Did you miss me?” she asked. “Umm, yeh, I barely thought of anything else” I started to mutter. Then Ruark’s kennel and the gun case showed up in the luggage and she looked at me. The look of a wife married to an addict. Thinking of what to do. Whether to toss me to the curb or call the authorities. Fury and sympathy both boiling within her. “You’ve been hunting, again haven’t you?” Tired and hung over from the desert wind I shot back “Nope, I have been getting high on the border and I gotta warn you. You are married to a guy that is hooked on something he can’t stop. I don’t need treatment and this ain’t ever going away.” Thank god she loves Haggard, low-slung dive bars and a guy that finds them on bird benders.
There are bad decisions, and then there are bad decisions in chukar country.
It started with a point and the beeper ringing across the hillside to my right. As I jogged toward her, I realized she was in some nasty country. I finally saw her standing beautifully, tail high, nose to the sky, pointing uphill. She was on a steep slope and it looked odd to see her at that angle, her high tail marking the low winter sun.
There was a steep, narrow scree field between us and I wondered how the hell she crossed it as I stepped into it, the promise of birds on the other side.
The scree started to slide, a river of rock running in slow motion and I surfed it down, taking steps when I could. I hit solid ground downhill from the setter. My heart was racing, and not just from the cardio. I looked up and she was still standing, steady as a rock, beeper still screaming. Up, up, up. “Good girl, good dog!” And then they were airborne. Two shots, pushing the barrels right, missing and then missing again.
I wasn’t even mad. That was a hell of a point and nothing makes you feel alive like this. And then I broke one of my hard-earned rules. Rather than cross the scree field again, I decided to go down a different route in rugged, unfamiliar country to follow the birds down.
We navigated one set of cliffs, a butt slide and a couple of short jumps and we were making progress, but we worked our way into a narrow chute. Then we hit the 15-foot drop.
I thought hard about turning back, but it was a long climb up, plus some scrambling, plus the scree field. I decided to take a look and see if we could do it. There was a narrow ledge about half-way down and a nearly sheer wall going to it. I sat down and tried to get a sense of the feasibility. I stretched my tip toe, decided it was a bad idea and then I was sliding. My first thought was, “Oh shit,” followed quickly by “No turning back now.” I caught the ledge halfway down with my feet, which was good news coupled with bad. The setter looked down at me from above. I couldn’t climb up, and it was a good drop to the bottom.
Standing on a narrow ledge, I took my gun apart and slipped the three pieces into my vest. The setter started a nervous whine, but I had my own problems. I considered that I might injure my stupid self and checked my pocket for a lighter. I already knew there wasn’t a reliable cell signal for 30 miles.
I steeled myself, then turned to face the cliff and slid my left boot down to a cleft that seemed like a solid hold. A couple of minutes later I was at the base, now with Luna 15 feet above me, howling like a pack of coyotes.
I prowled the base, looking for a route for her to come down. I wasn’t excited about the prospect of climbing back to the top, climbing back up the chute, then crossing the scree and covering the miles back to the route I came up. After a while – Luna growing more vocal by the minute – I concluded that I couldn’t get all the way back up, at least not with the gun and with all my bones intact.
I slipped off my vest and whistle and stripped layers. Luna sounded desperate and it was making me a little desperate too. I left everything in a pile at the base and climbed back up to the ledge. It was a hell of a lot easier going up and without the gear.
On the ledge, I didn’t have a better idea, so I just called the setter. She came without hesitation and I wasn’t totally prepared. She stepped onto the slick rock immediately started sliding toward me, her claws scratching but not enough to arrest her. I moved sideways so she didn’t knock me off the ledge and grabbed her collar as she got to chest level. I swung her around and stopped her on the narrow ledge where I was standing. She was steady, so I let go of the collar and give a whoop of triumph.
I climbed down the same route I took before, but about halfway down, Luna decided not to risk being left again and jumped. She landed like a cat, lightly and on her feet. I rushed, slipped and slid, scraping the skin off my forearms and finger tips while trying unsuccessfully to grab the wall. I hit the bottom on my tip toes and felt my body compress vertically before rolling sideways.
Luna was glued to me as we navigated the last 500 vertical feet to the bottom, butt slid through another chute and clambered down one more cliff, this one not so sheer. At the base of the hill, the adrenaline born of success and terror and elation wore off and I was suddenly bone tired.
At the truck, I loaded Luna in her box, give her a good hug and told her what I hope she already knew.
“I won’t leave you behind.”
“In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” –Henry Beston
It has been said—by those who should know—that a man only has one special dog in a lifetime. I wonder about this statement, for I can remember every dog I ever had fondly, an attachment of heart and soul that brings a smile. Sometimes there are tears. Not long ago, I found myself tearing up over the day I put my first gun dog down, a day that has more than eleven years behind it. I remember my first dog—gone twenty years now—and she was not even a gun dog.
But then I think about special times and places, about timing and time. There was a period in my life when I needed a friend and his name was Hank, a hard-charging English setter with the heart of a pure hunter. I had left an unhappy marriage and Hank was there, ready for the wind-whipped granite chukar haunts, ready for the pheasant fields stretching to the western horizon, ready for sage grouse rising above an ocean of sage. He tore it up and lived not long enough. But before he left, he put a litter of setter pups on the ground and then he was gone. But this story is not about Hank. This tale is of Hank’s buddy Coot and her partner, Dave.
Coot was a lively black Lab pup, all teeth and torment, a bundle of high-test energy who squirmed in your grip and growled puppy growls and launched herself into algae-covered ponds at ten weeks of age with the enthusiasm and drive of a finished dog. She came into Dave’s life just a year after Hank came into mine. We were new friends then, Dave and I, but we were kindred spirits, lads raised in the West, fed venison and elk steak, trained from youth to squint at far ridges looking for game.
In the mid-1990s, Wyoming was awash in upland birds. There were Hungarian partridge in places where there had never been Hungarian partridge. Chukars lived on about every crag in the desert. Even the pheasants were doing well, with wild tough roosters thriving on nothing but greasewood and new grass. It was into this landscape that Dave and I loosed Hank and Coot.
I needed the distraction from the logistics and loss of a failed love. That was my excuse for hunting every weekend and most week days. I don’t know what Dave’s was, but he was usually along with me. With time and opportunity, our young dogs tore it up. Hank hunted like a finished veteran of eight years when he was eight months. Coot was the same.
Those years were also duck years and the flyway was thick with big northern greenheads, widgeons and teal. We floated the Big Horn through Thermopolis, drifting past Russian olive, crawling and jump-shooting when we didn’t feel like setting up decoys.
One warm November day, we stood on the bank of the river taking a break from the action. Dave, who always shoots better than I, was done. I had one duck to go before I could claim my limit. The Big Horn rolled by thick and green and cold and then a male widgeon drifted downstream about forty yards out, on the edge of my range. I swung up and pulled the trigger and dropped the widgeon stone-dead far out in the river. In an instant, Coot was out in the current, swimming hard, and bringing the duck back in to hand.
On another trip, a wounded drake mallard took to a muskrat hole across the river. It was during the Ice Jamboree, our annual last-weekend-of-the-season hunt down the Bighorn and it was cold, with panes of ice thick on the river and fingers frozen on canoe paddles. Coot had seen the duck go down, but we didn’t know where it ended up. Working on a blind retrieve, she swam the river, sat at Dave’s command, and then worked right and then left and then finally down into the hole where she came up with the duck. She was like that. I can never remember losing a cripple when I was around Coot. She found them.
North Dakota in that era was also full of birds, particularly pheasants. It was hard to drive down a country road without seeing fifteen or twenty roosters standing roadside picking gravel. That first year, Dave and I joined a group of four other friends and we turned our dogs out into bird heaven. I walked through one field of tall grass and had three roosters off Hank points in about an hour. I met Dave on the other end of the field. He was done too and we waited while our friends came through. At the edge of the field, a rooster went up before the gun and one friend swung and dropped it, but it hit the ground like so many of those damned roosters do—head up and running. We had four dogs with us and all of them were turned loose to find the cripple. We hunted back and forth for what seemed like a long time and then someone asked, “Has anyone seen Coot?”
The little black bitch had run off and Dave was cursing her. She had disappeared over a rise in the prairie and was gone. Time ticked by and then I saw the grass moving, and a flash of black and there was Coot, the pheasant in her mouth, charging hard back to us. She had run perhaps a quarter-mile after that bird.
After that trip, we drove home to Wyoming, saturated in that tired-good feeling of hunters with birds in the cooler and memories in the bank. Hank and Coot were worked—their muzzles raw and red from ten thousand grass cuts, their bodies twitching as they slept the sleep of dogs with birds in their heads. We stopped in Spearfish, South Dakota, at a Subway sandwich shop and each ordered. As an after-thought, we asked if they had any old meat they wanted to give to a couple of tired dogs and the young man behind the counter made each of our dogs a free sandwich sans condiments.
This past spring, I drove through Spearfish. In the backseat slept a tired puppy named Hank’s Echo, whose grandfather had eaten a Subway sandwich in that same town a decade earlier. I found myself thinking about Coot and Hank and those special years and then my cell phone rang.
She was an old dog with cataracts starting to cloak her eyes. Her ears were deadened by many shotgun blasts, but she still had a season or two left in her, maybe an hour in some easy pheasant field. She deserved to die in her sleep in front of a crackling winter woodstove, warm and relaxed and dreaming of hunts behind. Maybe she never even heard the car that hit her. I hope so. I hope it was without pain and that wherever she is now, she has a white lean setter to keep her company and a human friend who can drop a bird.
And so I think about that adage. One special dog in a lifetime? Perhaps. But perhaps too, there is one unique period when you have the time and the wherewithal and the means to hunt a lot with one good gun dog, when the birds are thick before your gun and your hunting companions share common ground and equal ethics. If that is the case, I hope to duplicate that stretch of time again and again and again until my eyes cloud with cataracts and my old bones can no longer carry me into the pheasant fields of autumn. When that happens, I will remember a black dog named Coot and I will smile and cry with that memory.
This essay appeared in Wyoming Wildlife in 2007.
Perhaps you have noticed that even in the very lightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in differing ways. – Black Elk
The way the sap smells. A rising tangy scent among tall trees, buds not out yet, but pushing, pushing. Like bean sprouts in black soil.
The trees rattling bare in spring wind and then, almost overnight, even though you have plotted the course of it for weeks and stared hard, it is there and it surprises you: leaf. New baby leaf, small, the sheen of it a subtle thin blanket like some green lacy organic lingerie. Once, long ago, when I lived in a high mountain valley and we ached for something green in a place where snow cuffed the land hard and fast for months, we made a bet. When, we asked, would the cottonwoods across the street leaf out? Who won the bet is lost in decades, but the date remains: May 17.
June came to this piece of ground where I live and the stream swelled up out of its banks and danced and flowed among the trees, large and small. Saplings bent to the force of it and the soil soaked and soaked until it could not take any more. Down where the stream met the river, more water poured out of the margins, onto fields where center pivots lay idle because God’s irrigation system was in full throat. The river ran between cottonwoods tall and cottonwoods small and pushed brown water full of rich silt onto sapling flats, feeding and watering in one big swell. Then the water dropped streamside and riverside and left mud flats around thin lively stems and sun provided the boost, the power, to young and old trees alike.
Summer now and the cottonwoods fully fledged. Three species on my place, all staking their own part of the ground: black, eastern, narrowleaf. And deep smells now, rich and full. Not the promising subtle-sharp odor of rising sap, but more pervading—the kind of scent one gets when you step into a candle store, a spice shop. A hint, somehow, of cinnamon. Not just from the cottonwoods, though, but chokecherries in their shadow, mint along the ditchbank, grass and flower and soil alive.
I walk with my morning coffee now among the trees, sipping and feeling the height of these giants over me, the deep green shade of their leaf. Cottonwood. I think about the cottonwoods I have known, the places. A shaded glen, an Eden along a desert river where in all directions there was nothing but baking slickrock and sweltering juniper, yet beneath the cottonwoods on a desert river, there was cool greenness and hearty laughter. A thin line of cottonwoods way out in the eastern plains, a line of trees, a line of life. In late summer, no moisture anywhere, but the roots deep in hard sand and cobble-soil and somehow the trees green. Another cottonwood grove in another place, where a vast stand sheltered a flock of wild turkeys and I stalked them with my shotgun and waited. Listened.
No tree has so defined the West as the cottonwood; its fluffy seeds waft in the breeze over nearly every western town, its bark is still nibbled by horses just as it was in the time of Lewis and Clark, its saplings are thrashed by whitetail buck antler and nibbled by mule deer fawn. The scent of dried cottonwood burning in my open-air barbecue pit floats now across a summer landscape and elk steak sizzles over cottonwood coal. Just as it did in the time of Washakie.
Fall will come to this land in a few months, crisping the big trees, tinging them yellow. A new scent will arrive, an odor that somehow reminds me of fresh apples. I’ll walk among the trees with a rifle and wait for a whitetail buck that I’ve watched all summer long. I’ll know his pattern, the shape and curve of his horn. If I’m right and he does what he has been doing, I’ll shoulder my rifle as I lean against the wizened bark of a one hundred-year-old tree and my aim will be solid and sudden. Then the next summer, when the scent of richness hits this piece of western ground, I’ll sizzle venison over cottonwood and think about the cycle of life and the turn of leaf.
This essay originally ran in Wyoming Wildlife.
Cold blew hard from the north. The setter tore into it. The man followed, wind whipping his shirttail and numbing his face.
He focused on the dog ahead and his footing below, stepping cautiously but letting his mind run, replaying the hours before.
“Why don’t you let me come with you,” she asked for the hundredth time.
“Alone is part of the attraction,” he answered honestly.
He looked at her face, ruddy from an early-morning, cold-water scrub and saw the corners of her eyes crinkle in concern. “Are you sure you can handle it,” she asked.
He hesitated, almost giving the easy lie, then conceding.
“I can’t say for sure.” He wasn’t accustomed to explaining himself, but she deserved more than that. “I might be old, but I don’t have to die in bed.”
He stepped off the porch and walked in the early morning darkness to where the truck was running and the dog was stretched across the seat.
He slammed the door and the dome light went off. He saw her on the porch, lit with the glow of a single tungsten bulb. She looked so much like her mother that for a moment he was confused about where and when he was. His mind righted itself and he reaffirmed his time and place before stepping on the clutch and pulling the shifter hard, willing it into gear.
They crept out of the drive, the dog standing on the seat looking back at the house before settling in and resting his head across on the old man’s leg.
The wind gusted, tugging at his collar and bringing him back to the sage brush and basalt, both frosted in white.
He wore awool vest– black with silver buttons – that had lay in the bottom drawer of the dresser for 20 years waiting for a special occasion. He had donned his best shirt, a bright white, pressed herringbone pattern that he’d always saved for Christmas.
The shotgun was cold against his hand, but the weight felt good and it balanced just at the hinge pin. For all his years collecting shotguns, he was down to this one, a 16-gauge Parker GHE. The spiraling pattern in the Damascus barrels grew more intricate as you looked closer. His great uncle had left it to him when he was 30. He rarely shot it and never hunted chukar with it.
Mostly, he hunted with a 20-gauge Remington pump gun. He had other guns, a Spanish side-by-side and an Italian over-and-under, but he’d kept them for the trap range and lowland pheasant jaunts. He told those who asked that the pump was a proper chukar gun, indelicate and with a handy third shot. In truth, he carried it because it belonged to his father.
Dad was decades gone, but on warm fall days seventy years past his father had picked him up from school and taken him along to jump shoot mallards on Elk Creek. They hadn’t said much to each other – those days or any other – but the just-fired smell of waxed paper hulls still brought a vision of those moments.
The Parker had always seemed as if it were for someone else. Over the intervening years, he’d retrieved it from the safe countless times to hold it in his hands, admire the cartography of the dark-grained walnut and listen to the sound it made when he closed the action. He would stare at grain of the pattern-welded barrels until he drifted off to some other place, then he’d heft it a few times before returning it to the safe.
The pump had been handed over to his daughter and the other guns had been passed on in quiet ceremonies with nephews and friends. Even the safe was gone now. He’d paired down some, though he was dressed for a wedding and carrying a shotgun that was worth more than his pickup, so he hadn’t exactly stripped himself of all but the essentials. Still, he was lighter than he’d been in thirty years in more ways than one. He was not alone, though barring the dog no one depended on him for anything any longer.
The young setter was the same as he’d ever been. Fleet and determined. He always seemed to be charging, never running or going anywhere in particular, but moving across the terrain as if he meant to subdue it. He still thought of him as the young setter, though he wasn’t anymore. He was the last in a line of dogs that stretched back to his teens. Ten seasons had slowed him some, but he was more than enough dog for the old man.
Unprovoked thoughts of mortality washed over him as he struggled over the uneven ground. The man knew he would die, maybe someday soon. He wondered if the birds ahead could feel what he was feeling. Did they feel death descending on them like a darkness, or like something familiar and warm? Maybe they felt something different. Maybe they felt the car slipping on the curve at 90 mph, the terror of losing control mixed with the certainty of immortality. Even chukar must be teenagers at some point, he mused.
The dog ranged ahead and he followed, lost in the decades that melded together somewhere between the pickup and the big wide empty.
Follow the girl, follow the job, follow the money. Follow. Eventually, the job finished, the girl passed on and the dream faded to something simpler.
And he did dream of this. This ocean of grass and sage had always called to him. In the last few weeks, he had dreamt of this place and had woken disappointed.
The setter marked a variation in the sea of rock and snow and grass and varied his course to carry them toward it. When the old man arrived a few minutes later, the dog was gone upwind, still seeking.
He stopped at a rock wall, all that remained of a house in country that was too hard for someone, even back in the day when people were harder. There was a low spot in the wall that must have been a window. It’s weathered wooden frame stood like a portal, nothing on one side. More nothing on the other.
The grass was better around the old house, as if some spirit still tended it. The grass had drawn the dog and the man had obliged. Now he sat with his back against the wall and rested for a moment.
He reached for the whistle to reel in the setter and realized he’d left it hanging from the rearview mirror back at the truck.
Swiveling to look, he saw the dog had come back and was lying at his feet. The man reached down and gave him a pat, wondering how he would fare without him or if he would. He’d left the camper shell on the truck and the tailgate down. He’d put food and water in with the old sleeping bag he used as a travel bed, justin case.
The old man knew if he tipped over, the setter might stay with him and lead him right to the end. And if so, he would follow.
He only been in the hospital for a week. Nothing serious, just a bout with a virus, though he knew age was the real culprit. All the damn beeping and buzzing of the machines, plus people coming in every few minutes to check on him, had interrupted his mental wandering into the basin where the chukar lived. If they had left him be, maybe he could have just died. But his body wasn’t ready to give in and now he was less worried about death and more worried that being off his feet had taken the starch out of him. Folks had waited on him hand and foot. They had spoken to him softly, as if he were a child and not an 81-year-old man with poor hearing and low tolerance for bullshit.
It wasn’t that he wanted to die. This was not some final quest for peace. It was just that he didn’t want to die slowly. He didn’t want to slide into nothing without putting up a good fight. He chuckled at the thought of quoting Dylan Thomas as an explanation for being here.
Truthfully, part of him wished he’d let her come along. She was good company, a good shot and the dog worked harder for her. But he did not need his hand held today. He didn’t need to see the look of poorly concealed concern on her face every time he took a step or climbed a hill.
He stood up and checked the chambers before closing the Parker on two purple-hulled shells.
The setter was already gone, 50 yards in front, nose into the wind. Before he could follow, a wave of vertigo washed over him. Maybe stood too quickly. Maybe his blood pressure was out of whack again.
The fall wasn’t painful, but it shocked him. One moment, he was standing watching the setter, the next he was lying on his back with the Parker across his chest. In the lee of the wall, the wind slowed and for a moment it felt almost warm.
Lying on his back, he turned his head and looked over the wall, through the old window hole and saw snow flurries swirling against a gray sky. The weathered wood of the window framed a swath of grass and sage that made up this part of the Great Basin. Low hills off to the west were crowned with black rock. It was the kind of view that might have kept someone here, he thought.
He loved this wild country. Even mulled walking into it and not coming back. In the beginning, the longing was about traveling, about toughness and exploration and the feeling that comes from a long hard walk and the knowledge of self-reliance that is strongest when you are young. Later, when the rolling hills beaconed, it was about running away from all the things he’d spent his youth chasing. Now, there was nothing left to run from and nothing left to pull him back either.
He lay still for several minutes before struggling to his feet. Miraculously, the Parker was intact, not even scratched as far as he could tell. He dusted himself off and felt no worse for the wear. He looked for the setter and to his surprise, saw him on point maybe 100 yards out on a shallow hillside just past a low spot that might have carried water in wetter times.
You can always find a little extra energy when the dog goes on point, and he moved toward the setter, no longer sore or tired or dying, but striding with determination.
The dog would wait, that much he knew, though he couldn’t say whether the birds would.
The setter was upright and solid, the feathers on his tail were waving in time with the grass but he was otherwise still. He walked in confident that they were holding, though his confidence stretched to little else.
He had time to soak it up. He saw the setter give him a sidelong glance as he walked past. He saw the snow, on the ground and still falling. He saw the cheat grass poking up above the skiff of snow and the jet black of the rocks in the lee of the storm.
There were a dozen, flushing from the snow at 25 yards. He lifted the Parker and swung on the second to last bird before shooting far behind. It would be easy to say he missed intentionally, though it might be harder to say he could have connected if he wished.
The old man broke the gun open and caught the fired purple hull with his palm as the ejector kicked it from the chamber. He lifted it to his nose and closed his eyes. He had a vision of his father, tall and lean with jet-black hair and a rare smile on his face, holding a pair of drakes in one hand and a Remington model 17 in the other.
He slipped the fired hull into the back pocket of his vest and dropped another shell in the chamber. He felt good. Maybe even as good as the young setter.
The old man looked over at the dog.
Just for a moment the setter looked like he was standing in a picture frame, or maybe a window.
The setter was waiting for direction.
“OK, let’s go find them.”
The dog tore into the wind, and the man followed.