This is a reprint with permission from Bernard & Associates from the August 2010 issue of Sporting Classics‘ First Light by Mike Gaddis…I hope you enjoy Mike’s writing as much as I do!
Among the many stones in my country canine cemetery are a select few which stand to their own.
Apart, as the dogs beneath them did, the moment they were born. They number only four and sooner than later now – when my own days are spent, and the better part of me lies there with them – I expect at most but six. Could I live long enough to breed and have and hunt over another hundred, I know as a dog man there could be only a small few more.
A great and ancient cedar tree soldiers and shelters their graves and a small lamp collects the sun each day, to push aside the darkness from their nights.
Of the scores of pointing dogs that have bettered my life, they were the most virtuous. They are The Honesty Brigade. Within my heart, the warmth of their memory fuels a grateful, eternal flame.
I’ve had dogs that split the wind, that scorched the ground with hot, blistering speed, that would carry an edge until they knocked a hole in the horizon. Dogs so strong and driven they could bring a hard-and-ready walking horse to a lather in the space of an hour. Dogs so bold and independent that to break them required an agent and a contract. Dogs so brilliant they could put your heart in your throat with the savvy of a single find.
Dogs so handsome and fiery on birds they set the leaves aflame when they came to a stand. That carried you to mountain tops and lifted you on past the clouds. That churned up your heart and courage somewhere close to theirs, gave you to look trouble in the eye the breadth of your being, and never walk away. Dogs that made you to reach inside yourself, and find the same, never-say-die spirit and determination that sent them forever on – hard and on and away.
Home-run dogs. Dogs that put the bow in your sails. Dogs, should ever you want for an electrifying synonym of “inspiration,” you have only to say their name.
But dogs, all, whose genius walked a fine line. That, however great and thrilling, would now and then, this way or another, venture a lie. Small and white, or black and bright.
Nothing polite folk would notice. But evident to a dog man in a South Georgia minute.
Dogs that would ask you along, if you could manage where they’re going. That would hunt to the gun, except when it was great fun to hunt on their own. Old dogs who knew better, that would sneak a glance over their shoulder . . . see you weren’t up looking – and blow the birds out. Then whoa-up up proud as Patty – wind in their nose – and swear it was a stop-to-flush.
Dogs, whitleather tough, that would take a whipping, get up – shake it off –
say to hell with you, Jack . . . and do-it-the-blazes over again. That kept you mumbling at night over the board of chess between brass and broke, wondering when and how ingeniously they’d call “Checkmate,” once more. Flim-flam artists, when nobody but the Lord was watching, would filtch a bracemate’s point, then stand on a Bible it was a divided find. Dogs, when it suited ’em, could ignore a bird like it never crossed their nose.
But under the rarest moon, when you treat your wife right and rub down your horse when he’s ridden in wet, is born a pup that is chaste. Virginal as the Mother Mary. In my experience, at least, she will be female.
A girl pup that is betrothed to virtue from the moment she’s whelped. So it’s never in her to lie.
A pup that’s born gentle and kind. That cares who you are and wants to know where you’re going. Cause she wants to go, too. That from the moment her heart started beating was born a bird dog. I mean, a bird dog.
A pup that is easy to heart and ready to hand. That looks you in the eye, licks you on the nose and tells you she adores you. And will. As long as there is the breath to let it be. That wherever you bide, so also will she.
A pup, grown to a lass, that from the day you show her a gamebird, knows it is her life’s calling. Her supreme reason to be. That it is the only thing that will draw her from your side, except that she will never allow herself to forget you are there. That you are meant to do it together. So that she promises herself faithfully to check back. Enough that where you are, always she will know.
A lady that’s born with a clock, set permanently ten-to-two. That keeps her true to the front, regardless how the land swings, steady as the day is long. That’s born with a compass, to point her where to go . . . to always where the birds are. That takes her, with needless a word, to where they will be.
She may be the fanciest dog in your kennel, or only a penny prouder than plain. It will not matter. Still you will cherish her. Where there is love, there is understanding. And the thing you will understand most is that she is infinitely special.
From the moment you ask her, she will heed your every word. You have only to show her what you want; only, softly, to ask. She will put her everything into pleasing you, and should she not . . . there will be only the once or twice she will fail. Because it will trouble her to the quick that she has disappointed you, and there shall not be the need to remind her again. For she is honest and will never again allow herself to forget.
From there, there shall be for all the days of her hunting life a season of joy and completion. You have only to go with her. She will show you, as reliably as the sun and the moon, the closest thing to Paradise.
There will be no need to direct her. She will know where to find it. She will take you to it on her own.
Let her hunt. When she is missing, you have only to look for her. When she stands, there will be birds. She will hold them for you. For as long as it takes you to come.
Upon occasion, they may leave. But they will jump of their own.
She’ll be waiting still, flagging an apology that they are gone.
You are the Master; her’s is to serve.
As humbly as you shall ever be reminded, she will bring you to consider . . . that for all its opulent riches, constancy is the greatest treasure the world shall know.
You will marvel time and again at how rarely she has happened. Of how naturally she came to be. At what little of it was because of you.
Over and over, you will thank the stars for the wonder of her. Time and again, you will ask of the Heavens, for just one day more.
Tragically, it cannot matter.
How short, how painfully, wonderfully, achingly short . . . the time shall be.
Until one day you will lift her gray muzzle and look into her dimming, ever-trusting eyes, and know it is gone . . .
There is nothing anyone can say, or do, to soothe the passing. As truthfully as she lived, you will know to the depths of your being, that it is the hardest loss you can ever know.
It will haunt your life. It will trouble your dreams. Nothing can truly help, unless it is to ultimately accept that there cannot be life without death, and to remind yourself of how empty your life would have been, had never she lived.
Bear her gently, gently to rest, my friend. Pay to her the greatest compliment a dog man can bestow.
Bury her softly, and thankfully, on Honesty Row.
Grouse Season is just around the corner!