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.