In the months of autumn, Sara loved to spend the early mornings out on the porch. The frosty air made her arthritis ache a bit, but the sun always came up clear and cast its warming rays across the old timber boards, and by the time the coffee pot whistled, she felt fine—as fine as an old dog can feel, that is. Sara had just passed her 16th year, which is not unheard of, but still rare enough for a Llewellin setter who had spent so much of her life working in the fields, bushes, and briars. The cataracts clouded her vision, but she could still make out shapes and colors and, thank the Lord, her nose and ears were as perfect as they had always been.
From the front porch of the farmhouse, she could smell all the scents of the world that drifted from the east, and she could hear the babbling bobwhite in the tree row along the pasture as the little cock bird called his covey to rise and feed. Every morning when that call came out, she would look back to the window where old Judge Bridger sat and watched over her, but today he wasn’t there to catch her eye. Sara pushed herself up and pulled her hind legs under her, groaning softly as she stood and walked to the door. She peered in through the glass, searching for the man she had known her entire life, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Jacob Bridger walked into his third-floor office on West 39th Street, just a few blocks from Grand Central Station, at 6:30 a.m. He was never late for the premarket trading conference call at 7:00, not once in his 10 years with the firm. He’d been raised to work hard and be punctual, and he brought those traits with him when he moved to New York to make his mark in the world. Today, his phone rang early.
He answered the call on the first ring and after a brief conversation, during which he listened more than spoke, he thanked the caller before disconnecting. His typically firm posture eased into a slump as he put his head down into the palms of his hands. Even a successful, grown man feels numbed by the news that his father unexpectedly passed. It makes him feel vulnerable and alone. The realization that the man who was always so strong, who would always be there, was suddenly gone…it leaves a gaping hole in his view of the world.
He turned to the window and stared out over the busy street that was just beginning to glow with the morning sunrise and looked at his watch to confirm the time. “Time is everything,” his father once told him. The Breitling watch on his wrist had been a gift to ensure he would never be late. He tapped the crystal twice with his fingertip, as if it might magically alter the time he had at his disposal now.
Jake, as his family knew him, decided to take the train home. Home was 1,000 acres of rolling pastures and woodlands just outside Knoxville, Tennessee, that had belonged to the Bridger family for more than five generations. It had soil that was rich for planting, but Jake’s father chose a life as a lawyer and ultimately became a county judge, and he returned most of the crop fields to natural habitats. It had always been his dream to leave something for the wild things he loved so much.
Jake boarded the Acela Express in Grand Central and after a few changes and a restless sleep in a private berth, he stepped onto the platform in Knoxville at 11:30 the next morning. His father’s old law firm partner, Tyler Morgan, was waiting for him. During the ride to the farm, he shared a few details about Judge Bridger’s final few years and the illness that had taken him, which Jake knew almost nothing about.
“I can’t believe he never told me about any of this. I would have come back to be with him.”
“I suspect that’s why he didn’t tell you, Jake. He thought you were happy in New York and building the life you wanted there, and he saw no reason to bother you. That’s how he was.”
“I always planned to come back here. I thought there would always be time, you know, after I’d really made it.”
As they pulled up to the house, Jake was surprised to see Sara lying on the porch. She barked once as he stepped out of the car, not being able to see him well, but when he called her name she tilted her head to the side, then swept her long tail back and forth over the dusty planks. Despite the years, she had never forgotten him.
“I can’t believe she’s still alive. She was about 6 when I left home.”
“She was never far from your father’s side,” Tyler said. “Your father left everything to you, and that includes Sara. He left a note for you on his night table, about her I believe.”
Jake left the note untouched until the day they buried the Judge in the family cemetery in the oak grove, near the entrance to the farm. After all the friends and well-wishers had left that afternoon, he stood in front of the door to his father’s room. He reached for the old brass handle but paused before opening the door. It felt wrong to open it without knocking first, so he rapped the door once with his knuckle before going in. The folded note was still there.
I have a favor to ask. For the past few years, I couldn’t take Sara out for walks in the field. Every morning she hears the quail calling from the woods, and all she wants in the world is to find one more covey before her time is done. Maybe you could take my old 101, it’s yours now anyway, and let her meander in the field. Who knows, she might show you a thing or two.
Jake found his father’s favorite shotgun, the 28-gauge Winchester 101, in a worn leather case standing in the corner of his bedroom closet. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled it free, opened the action and held it up to the light coming in from the window so he could peer down the smooth, gleaming barrels. He had watched his father carry this gun in the field since he was a boy, and almost every little nick and blemish on the walnut stock brought back a memory.
The sound of the action breaking open caught the attention of Sara as she slept in the kitchen, and a moment later she came into the bedroom with her nose testing the air for the scent of gun oil and her tail lightly waving. At the sight of the shotgun, she settled up next to Jake and laid her muzzle on his lap and gazed at the old double gun with the same memory-infused fondness.
“What do you say, girl? Would you like to make another run in the field?” Her cloudy eyes flicked upward towards his, but her tail thumping against the pine floor was more expressive. Hunting dogs have a special sense about things, and rather than waiting at the door to be let out the next morning, Sara stayed as close to Jake’s side as she could, even leaning against him a few times to keep her balance. When he picked up the shotgun and vest and moved towards the door, she managed a little bounce of excitement.
He picked her up and set her in the front seat of his father’s Ford, where she could put her head out the window and enjoy the ride. They drove out the front gate and down the dirt road that went alongside the pasture, and as they neared the edge of the pine forest, Sara’s tail flagged excitedly and told him it was time to stop. As he pulled off into the grass, there was something familiar about this place, but so much of the farm had changed in 10 years that he couldn’t place it. What was now a field of briars and wild berries on the right had once been tall with summer corn, and the tall pines on the left were barely shoulder high the last time he was here.
“Are you sure this is the place?” he asked.
As he lifted her down from the truck and put her feet to the grass, she was suddenly transformed. For old dogs, and old men, too, every time in the field is the first time. All the slates have been wiped clean, and a new day, a new life, begins with infinite possibilities. The excitement of what might lay only another step ahead surpasses everything that came before and renews worn muscles and bones with a brief reprieve from the pain of age. We are young again.
As he dropped two slender shells into the breech of the Winchester, Jake watched Sara moving carefully along the edge of the thick, thorny brush. Her tail was spinning in the way it always did when she was in hunt mode, although a bit slower than the last time he saw her in the field. I remember now! he thought. This was the place Dad brought me before I left for New York. He wanted to show me where he was going to seed the wild plants for the quail. Sara had been in her prime and his father a newly retired judge when they were here last. And now everything had changed. The land, the dog, the man; everything was different, or gone.
Sara’s tail suddenly switched from circular to a side-to-side swing, and her nose dropped lower to the ground. She focused intently on a few dusty patches and then followed a scent trail across the road and into the tall grass at the edge of the pines. Then much to Jake’s surprise, she locked up in a classic Llewellin point with her nose, back, and tail in a razor-straight line.
He took a step forward but wasn’t ready when the covey of quail came up all around him. He shuddered like a clap of thunder had exploded from beneath his feet, and the blur of wings and whistles spun around his head and sped off in all directions. At the last moment, he recovered enough to raise the Winchester and swing into the birds, but he was too flustered to pick out a single target.
He thought he had fired twice, but he couldn’t remember hearing the gun go off, and no birds had fallen nor even a feather fluttered. He opened the shotgun, and the two spent hulls left a smoky blue arc as they sailed over his shoulder. He reached into the vest pocket to find two more, and his hand trembled with adrenaline as he fumbled to load them. He paused and took a deep breath, then slowly dropped them into the chambers, one at a time. Sara was still standing firm and waiting to be released to continue the hunt, knowing that her companion had failed to do his part, but she was enjoying the moment nonetheless.
The rush of birds had awakened Jake’s senses. He was acutely aware of all the things he had lost in the city, like the feel of cool crisp morning air on his cheeks and the sun on his face and the sound of wind moving through the autumn leaves. He closed his eyes and listened, and a moment later he heard the scattered quail calling to each other from three directions. Sara heard them, too, and with a wave of his hand she was off through the tall grass and into the trees.
His father had planted the pines in an open pattern, leaving space for ground cover and filtered sunlight for seedy plants to grow—a perfect habitat for the wild birds. Jake walked slowly behind as Sara weaved back and forth over the crunchy bed of needles that covered the ground. She would stop now and again to catch her breath and turn to see if he was still with her. A hundred yards into the forest, she found another scent trail and picked up the pace, and Jake moved quickly to catch up. She ran past a blackberry thicket, then spun around and froze with her head nearly alongside her tail.
Against the backdrop of the forest, Sara’s white coat with speckles of cinnamon was glowing in a ray of sunlight. Jake was standing back, lost for a moment in the beauty of what he was seeing, and as he watched, he could feel his father’s presence all around him. In this marvelous dog, in the forest and birds, in the old double gun that he held in his hands, and in himself as well. Everything here had been touched by his father’s hand and reflected the essence of what the man loved most in this world.
Sara’s old hips began to falter and she teetered to the side. Jake knew she couldn’t hold the awkward point much longer, so he moved in quickly to flush the birds. As he stepped into the thick brush, the pair of quail burst into the sky and then tapered their flight towards the thick tree cover. Jake was focused this time. The Winchester came up smoothly and joined his eye as he tracked the little cock bird leading the way.
As the birds flushed, Sara regained her balance and tried her best to follow the sound of buzzing wings. Her eyes couldn’t see the result of the shot, but she heard the gentle drop of the bird as it landed in the grass some 30 yards away. She found it quickly with her nose and picked it up as carefully as she had a pup from her first litter many years ago. Jake guided her back with a warm voice.
As she released the prize into his hand, Jake looked into her shimmering cloudy eyes and saw the life he had left behind—a life of simple pleasures, a life of connection to the world around him and to the people who loved him most of all. This pretty little setter, whose life was nearing the end, had found more joy in each day of the last 10 years than Jake had found in all of those years combined. Sara had lived her life in a place that made her happy and dedicated her heart to what she was born to do. She spent every day and every night by the side of the man she adored and who loved her back. Not a single moment of her life had been wasted.
In his youthful haste to seek a life of accomplishment, Jake had lost the balance of work and joy that makes life worth living. He had relinquished one for the other, assuming that one day he would accumulate enough wealth to buy back those things he lost. But no amount of wealth could return to him the last few years of his father’s life or the gentler influences of the life his father had tried to give him—a life of pride in his work as well as a peaceful soul. Meaningful work is essential to a man’s happiness, it’s true. But so, too, are those things that bring him joy. They can be found in the sparkle of life in a young dog’s eye, in the laughter of children playing in the yard, or in the legacy of land returned to the wild things who call it home.
Jake went down to his knee and caressed Sara’s head, then stroked her down the back to her tail. He had a banker’s hands, nearly as soft as her silky coat. “Dad was right, girl. You really did show me a thing or two.”
Thirty minutes in the field and one pretty bird gave both of them everything they wanted from the day, and as Jake lifted her back into the front seat of the truck, she curled up and slept during the ride home. Later, they sat on the front porch, and he brushed a few stickers and seeds from her coat. He poured a finger of his father’s bourbon into a glass and sat there with her until the sun fell below the treetops, reacquainting himself with the sounds of the world he had known as a boy. Sara lifted her head once, as the birds cackled in their evening roost, and then fell peacefully to sleep. As far as she was concerned, there had never been a more perfect day. Her time to join the Judge came soon after, and Jake placed her exactly where she belonged, within sight of his father.
Another month had passed…it was 6:30 a.m., and Jake was preparing for the morning call. He lifted a cup of coffee to his lips and took a sip, then opened his laptop and signed in to the market conference line. He was thinking about his father when he heard the familiar sounds coming from across the way, and then he thought of Sara. He reached down and felt the soft fur with his fingertips, and the setter pup at his feet leaped up and scrambled into the yard to listen to the quail.
Some things change, he thought. And some things never should.