Where it Went

4eae1595-2a11-41bc-826e-5aaab559fb05 By Tom Reed

I will never get used to it. The suddenness of it. In humans, it is difficult enough. Wake up one morning and you’re having to use 1.5x readers for the newspaper. The tromp through the cattails seems to go a little slower, the truck’s warmth a little more welcome. The fire for another push needs more stoking. It’s more of an erosion, a slow spin.

But in canines, the slap of years is stunning. One day you look down at her and she’s an old lady, her joints swollen by arthritis, various bumps and warts in her hide, a once-stunning feathered tail now something a rat might sport. She totters where once she used to float. She huffs and coughs at the fountain she once drank.

We drive east, across the roll of Montana, past coulee and pine, pump-jack and silo. Past corn and scrubland to the Dakotas. It has been a long span for me and for her, this leave from the Dakotas and now it is late in this season and late in her life and I wonder how it all happened.

She gets the princess perch, behind the driver, the other dogs in back in the camper shell. She rides in the warmth of the cab, for after a dozen years of bringing me to all of those different birds, the least I can do is bring her into the truck where she can curl in a tight ball against that rat tail and snore.

There have been other trips. Many. I view her mostly backward. Pups are forward, what lies ahead. Old dogs are what you have been and what they were and what it once was. Over the shoulder, behind, when she was young and the truck had one hundred thousand miles instead of twice that and she had ten thousand miles instead of twice or thrice that.

I will make one trip to the Dakotas this year, one visit to the river of scent that is hundreds of pheasants in one section of CRP. This journey, I tell myself, is for the young pup who is fire and burst, an uncontrollable effervescence of puppy joy. But really it is for grandma, kinked with time, crippled by the uplands of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico. Knotted and rusted by roosters and blues, sharpies, ruffs, sprucers and sage chickens, chukar, Huns, Mearns', cottontops, Californias, mountain and Gambel's. It has been one hell of a run.

The quail times seem particularly keen. In her prime, we were there when the quail of the great Southwest were in a prime of their own. They burst from seemingly every cover like foam from a shaken beer. The rains had been kind and gentle and timed just right. Even the marginal habitat held coveys. The really good habitat was stupendous. It was here, on a steep rise of ground framed by oak trees that she pointed her way into the heart of my hunting companion. In that moment, a dog frozen in point made a springer man into a setter man as quail rose against the sky. The shotguns barked and four Mearns' went to hand.
Later, we marked a covey of Gambel's down among the headstones of a long-forgotten New Mexico ghost town cemetery and had the temerity to stroll among the dead looking for quail. It seemed at once blasphemous and reverent. The next day, we found blue quail in grass as tall as her shoulder and it was as if the spirits had smiled and forgiven us for our transgressions among the headstones and altars of the day before. At times, only the very tip of her tail could be seen in a sea of grass.
She shined. I can think of at least three men who got pointing dogs of their own because they were fortunate enough to see the glow that was this little dog at work. Yet time indeed is inexorable in its steady march.
So she sits behind me as the diesel growls east, through Baker and Hettinger and Lemmon and Mobridge. East. Toward. One last trip, one last bird, one last point. Please, God, just one more.

Tom Reed, a frequent contributor to Quail Forever Journal, writes a bird hunting blog, Mouthful of Feathers, and is a lifelong westerner and author of several books including Give Me Mountains For My Horses. If you enjoyed this story, and would like to get more great content year-round, join Quail Forever today