Drain

You do not notice breathing until it is difficult. Then it is all you notice. Ragged breaths that come from the stomach up into a chest that once bellowed air as easily and reflexively as one might blink.

The old dog nearly died on the bathroom floor of a Days Inn. Imagined carrying his cooling carcass out to the pickup, imagined that too-long drive eastward toward home. Imagined the cold stiff burial under a Montana cottonwood turning October yellow. Imagined a lot of things. Did not imagine revival, but he did.

He rode in the front seat thirteen hours home, too weak to piss without being lifted out onto roadside grass.

At home, snow dusted the tall-back above 12,000 and the tailwind that chased you all the way from the coast peeled leaves off the aspens, alders, cottonwoods, robbing the fall of its color. But the bellows kept going, the machinery, pumping, filling, emptying, repeat. Pumping, filling, emptying.

The old dog home on his bed in front of the crackling woodstove, an old dog who does things his own way. Doesn’t die when you think death just on the next page, never came when called and on deer track, never lost a taste for discarded socks or detritus from toddler-feeding chaos, always retrieved and hardly ever pointed–just the exact opposite of every other setter on the planet. Outdid field trial champion Labs on water retrieves for Christ’s sake, but you think he’d point for more than a tenth of a second?

He crawls off soft bed for hard tile floor, laps water, pisses himself. Meds onboarded, food offered and refused for the first time ever. Draining, slowly down the drain. But the machinery still going. In. Out. In. Out. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Later. Not wagging his tail anymore even when hugged in the tears of his 8-year-old. Even when she places a spare sock in front of his nose and says, “I love you, Scouty, you can have these socks.”

Tomorrow. It will be tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes and the pickup is brought close to the front door so the carry will be easy, he goes his own way and the machinery stops. Ironic poetry from an old dog whose idea of verse would probably have been bawdy limerick told in a dank pub somewhere in the country. Yet the poetry: the machinery stops without veterinary action. Spares himself that final ride, spares his loves their final despairing decision.

The pump stops and the wind tails westward and all is quiet except the whispered cries of those left in the slipstream.

GUEST POST: Semi-Retired

By Blaine Peetso: http://www.theborealist.com


Wanted: Easy Work

Old age pensioner willing to work for cash/food under the table as long as the job is easy and hours are short.  No big wide open country or ultra dense bush.  Will need plenty of water breaks. Will not play games with the merchandise (keep away, tug-of-war, etc) like the young apprentices on the jobsite. Vision is going, hearing is gone but the sniffer works fine and I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve. Not as good as I once was, but as good once as I ever was. Contact me at my office on the couch for further information.
Full disclaimer: I may shit and/or piss in the truck depending on the length of the commute.

Go quietly into that good field

Up north of the house, tight against the highway to Opheim, it looked good last year. Tall weeds and snowberry in the gullies stringing off a patch of uncut wheat. A stackyard of old round bales and shoulder high kochia. You’d have to go easy in there, listening for the dog, watching out for hidden barbwire. But a rooster in that weed jungle would have to climb ten feet like a timberdoodle before leveling off and heading for friendlier parts. And in all these years, we’d never hunted it. Checked the map again. Yes, it was ours to hunt.

So we hatched a plan. The old man would drop us on the highway and we’d dodge grain trucks, hold the dogs tight, just two of them, and plunge into the tangle working quietly and quickly away from the traffic. The old man would drive the old truck–your new truck–around to the other side a mile away on the dirt section road and block. He might even get some shooting but his jungle days were over. We’d walked while he blocked every day for the last three days, hobbling on arthritic heels maybe ten yards to the edge of tree rows and ditch edges, swinging that beautiful double gun and dropping the occasional rooster. That felt better, far better, than shooting them yourself, just seeing him down them as he had done for seven decades.

It was a good plan except the truck was as arthritic as the old man. The synchros were going out in first and second, and you had gotten to where you could move forward without grinding, but it took some practice.

“You haven’t forgotten how to drive a stick, have you?” half joshing, half serious, laid out more sarcastically than intended.

Away we went from the traffic, quickly, worried just a bit about the dogs, both veterans, but there is no figuring a canine hot on a rooster and big rigs don’t stop for bird dogs.

We’d made it twenty yards when the grinding and revving started. More grinding. Black smoke. Grinding. Forgetting the vow to go quietly, all you can think about is a transmission ground to powder and a mechanic’s bill bigger than two house payments.

“Damnit!!!” you yell. Although over the revving and grinding and with two hearing aides that whistle fitfully and aid not much at all, there’s not a chance he can hear you. So you yell louder. And louder.

He gets out. “I can’t get it into gear.”

No shit. You do not say this aloud. You walk back, holding the shotgun in one hand, stooping to hold the collar of the eager dog next to the highway.

“Okay, shut it off, put it in gear, then start it with the clutch in.”

You walk out twenty yards, following the dog.

More revving engine and now the smell, the sickening odor like shit-covered hair burning in a burn barrel full of garbage. A clutch burning. “Goddamnit!!!!! The brake is on!!!! The brake!!!”

There is no chance of him hearing you over the diesel engine and the squalling clutch but somehow he makes it off the little pull-out and onto the highway, brake still on, engine hitting maybe 5000, smoke everywhere, the stink of brake and clutch and the truck barely going 10 miles an hour. You yell louder and wave your shotgun over your head, still clutching the confused bird dog so she won’t rush out into the traffic. And louder still, cussing vehemently.

To make matters worse your hunting partner is giggling his ass off and so you scream at him too. “It’s not funny asshole, he’s destroying my truck!”

This just makes him laugh harder and makes you angrier and the F-bombs just add to the fury and hysteria.

Finally, the old man figures out the brake is on, just as an 18 wheeler is bearing down. You can hear its compression brakes, see it lumbering up on the pickup and then all is well as the brake comes off and the old man accelerates in a cloud of black smoke en route to the rendezvous point.

Oddly enough, there are very few pheasants in the field. Your partner speculates that maybe this one little spot, a spot we’ve never hunted in a decade of hunting this place, has been hit hard by neighbor kids.

To which you respond, chastened: “It might have been all the yelling and gear-grinding.”

 

Poop is always funny

One of life’s maxims is that poop is always worth a laugh. My 8-year-old stepdaughter wrote this to me on a card: “Remember Buddy, poop is always funny.”

Consider Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Along Came Polly: “I just sharted.” Evidence of the claim. Funny at 8. Funny at 58.

We have a dog that regularly eats socks. His name is Scout and somehow he has avoided any kind of gastro-surgery in 12 years of eating socks. It took us about 10 years to figure out that he should be locked up in his crate whenever he is in the laundry room where he sleeps. Because if he’s not, he’ll steal socks out of the dirty laundry and eats them. Kids’ socks especially but sometimes adult socks. If he can’t get to the socks, he’ll eat dryer lint out of the trash. And somehow he keeps on ticking.

You’ll see him out in the yard duck-walking around like a two-year-old with bad diaper chafe and then—horror!—something slowly emerges that looks like a child’s socked foot birthing from the nether region. More grunting and the whole ankle, the shin! Scout duck-walks and a leg starts to emerge. More duck-walking. And the birth has passed.

A poop-sock is born.

Don’t worry it will be upland season soon.

A bargain

In the early-morning silence of a Sunday morning, the slow drip of the coffee seemed loud. My fuzzy, pre-coffee brain tried to make sense of the computer screen.  $240? For a license? In my home state? That doesn’t seem right. It seems pricey. In fact, it seems ridiculous. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived anywhere else. I’m a house-owning, tax-paying resident, by god.

I page through the menus, check my profile, check my login, then realize the truck is idling, the dogs are loaded and the coffee is done. And I’m late.

I type in the help number, close the computer and hit dial as I walk out the door. To my surprise and relief, a kind lady named Sharon picks up the phone and I’m buoyed with confidence. After a few minutes and a lot of typing, she tentatively tells me there is some kind of error in the system and that she can’t help me. I’ll have to go to headquarters, which won’t be open for another couple of days. Or, I can buy a non-resident license. $240. I ponder this figure for a moment. The coffee is working and I now clearly understand that this is much more than the cost of a regular license. I also understand that it’s some kind of glitch, probably related to my recently renewed driver’s license. My buddy pulls into the parking lot. I thank Sharon and tell her I’ll go to the office in a couple of days.

“Hey buddy, ready to chase some birds?”

“I can’t hunt today because I can’t get a license, but let’s go run the dogs.”

“You sure?”

“Yep, all good, let’s roll.”

On the drive out, I convince myself that it will be fun, useful even. I have my camera and my dogs. It’ll be a good chance to focus on the basics. Like off-season training, only during the season.

And then later, she’s pointing. The tip of her tail white against the black sage, which in turn is black against the white snow. My buddy walks in, shotgun held at the ready. In the second before the covey goes up, I damn sure would have paid $240 to be walking in with him.

It would have been a bargain.

 

 

 

 

 

Tailing off

The last big trip is done. The take–a pile of roosters hatched and nurtured on Kansas mixed prairie–is aging in cool storage. There’s plucking to be done, but not for a few days, maybe a week. The strength of walking 12, 13, 14 miles in a day has not faded. The dogs have recovered and are twitchy. Old snow, not post-hole stuff, but crusty and hard, covers the ground like a heavily frosted cake that sat out overnight. There might be a covey of huns up on the old Rex place, and in the summer, you saw a ruffed grouse cross the road where you parked the horse trailer for the coulee-to-cabin ride. So you grab the pup because she put it together somewhat on the loess of the heartland and you’d like to build on that. You park at the coulee, shoulder into the vest that is still littered with rooster feathers, and step out into it, the pup bounding over the snow-scabbed land. Sip from the water bladder that carries the last of the delicious water pulled from a deep well strawed into the fading, famed Ogallala and follow her to hope. One more time. Maybe a few more, yet, but this one for sure, if only for an hour or two.

Ass-deep in sagebrush, shin-deep in shale

Blood on the tail, blood in the wind.

In the mornings, as the sun works its way down the canyon at your back, inching its way over the remains of a giant castle of lava shattered by time, you double-knot your boots. You can smell yesterday’s sagebrush hike on your clothes and measure that they are clean enough, good enough for another day of the same. Take a survey: knees, hips, ankles. Not as sore as you suspicioned and you figure the little bit of IB you took last night did its number. Drank enough water too. You pack. Water for the dog. Folding dog bowl, shells, vet kit, water for you, energy bar, energy chews, camera, phone. Survey the dog. She walks around the camper, does her business. Stiff-legged, then works out of it, wagging, happy, jumping up to your waist. Ready, partner. Never boss. Partner. Yesterday she pointed and retrieved the one and only chukar triple you have shot in two decades of chukar hunting. How can there be a chain of command in such an attainment, even an implied one? She is good to go. You can feel it rising in your chest, the resolve of it. From up the canyon on the warming rock, a wild chortle, the call of the quarry. If all birds are descendants of dinosaurs, this one has a direct line to dilophosaurus, a vengeful little bastard that Hollywood reckoned spit acid into the face of its foes. One last look around the camp. Lock the camper. Hop in the truck, pull the lever into 4×4 and turn up the road that will put you half way to the fray. The other half is all muscle and grit, sweat and sage and a partnership living on wind. Let the battle continue.

Blink

Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a baby or a bird dog or a season knows how precious the passage of time can be. Blink and the baby is driving a Ford F250 instead of a plastic toy Ford 8N. Blink and the bird dog is cataracted and arthritic and done. Blink and the season goes from too-hot-to-hunt to frost-bite-your-nuts. Perhaps you should have prayed to the gods of the uplands harder, prayed for a long, gentle autumn with cool days and frosty nights. Prayed. But you blinked and now the deep freeze has descended. An October high of 18 in Colorado’s queen city of the plains on a day that averages 60 in “normal” years. Whatever normal means anymore. The Northern Plains are even worse. Ten below. Fourteen below. Two below in Pocatello. You blinked. Might as well go elk hunting.

Falling in love with bird dogs, babies and seasons is not for the weak. Photo courtesy Matt Soberg, Covey Rise

This time of year

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.

Permanence

GUEST POST
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.