he sky was one of those wintery blue numbers, made even brighter by the respite from the normal grays. The sun was out in force through the midday, and the breeze was keeping no secrets. It was a good day to be a pointing dog. Even those of my species with olfactory challenges looked like geniuses that day. It was as easy as falling off a log, which I’ve never done, of course. You humans do have some quirky figures of speech.
We had enjoyed quite a season to that point. We tried our paws at pheasant in the Dakotas in the early fall, pointed up woodcock and grouse in the whippy woods of northern Michigan to a light dusting of snow, and only then migrated south with the ducks, surrendering the flyway to them as we made our way to the warmer climes of bobwhite country along the Red Hills of southwest Georgia. I think this had been a bucket list trip for the Old Man, to hunt as much as possible without stopping, through every corner and every kind of habitat and every type of bird in season. We’d only hunted together for about seven seasons, but I’d swear I’d never seen him smile as much. He even seemed to forgive my missteps, offering only a chuckle and a scratch behind the ear.
We lived in and out of the truck for two months or more, I think. Dogs have no real sense of time, though, so it could’ve been a lifetime. We ate diner food, stayed in hotels both fancy and sparse, and the Old Man reconnected with friends he hadn’t seen in years. He introduced me as the “new dog” so many times I thought he’d changed my name. But, he’d use my real name when it was just us. I’d ride in the front seat as he drove along the backroads and farm roads, through the small towns, recounting hunts from years before with names that began to sound familiar. We crossed rivers big and small, and before we reached the other side I knew where they came from, and where they were going. While I had no sense of the importance of those places, I understood that there was a reverence in the crossing.
But that day in the quail woods was the money shot. There was no doubt about that. The pace was just right, the birds held close under my nose, and the Old Man hit more than a few, often passing on shots just to take it all in. The chaotic flush of wild quail never grows old. He was hunting with old friends from high school, some of whom he hadn’t seen since graduation more than a half century before. The reunion was interesting to watch—old guys accounting for days and lives passing by in a ceaseless march, without judgment, without regret. The hunt was followed by a little food and fellowship by the fire pit, and even the old dogs were allowed to warm their whiskers as the old lies and earnest truths mingled in the rising embers.
I thought about that quail hunt just this morning. I was stretched out on the bed I share with the Old Man and his wife. It was a lazy morning, with gray skies and a light drizzle noted during my morning constitutional. After breakfast, I was content to return to bed, where the Old Man sat propped up on pillows reading and napping. His had been a fitful night’s sleep. I propped my head in his lap, soliciting the usual affection, and was rewarded with a soft scratching behind the ears. His wife, more attentive than usual, returned to the chair she’d placed beside his nightstand. I looked over, and she offered a sad grin. There had been a dark cloud in the house of late, as a mixture of anxiety and helplessness settled like dust on furrowed brows, folded hands, and pharmacy bottles. When the hand behind my ear grew still, I looked to the wife and saw the tears. The first of many.
Humans tell dogs things they rarely tell each other, but you didn’t hear that from me. A man I was hunting with once told me that he cried inconsolably for two days when his dog died, and I could see his eyes beginning to well up just telling me about it. Maybe you think that because dogs don’t cry, we don’t feel pain or loss the way humans do, and that may be so. Dogs have no sense of time, either, but I remember every minute I spent with the Old Man. Every minute.