The sun was well up and the frost melted by the time the old man loaded his gear in the Jeep and pulled out of the driveway. He had lingered over breakfast, taking a second and a third cup of coffee. Millie left him alone, knowing he had to do this at his own pace and feared that if she talked about it, she might lose her tenuous grip on her own emotions.
The knobby tires hissed and sang on the damp blacktop as the old man headed east into the countryside, passing woodlots and stubble cornfields, pasture and the fallow fields of the CRP Program. He drove slowly dreading the three-act play he had scripted for this day.
The small brass bell on Tom’s collar tinkled as he attempted to rise. He whimpered with the anticipation he always showed when they were going hunting. But, this time his whines were tinged with pain. Tom’s hips had deteriorated badly in the last couple of years. The old man had started giving him aspirins imbedded in soft cheese after each hunt. It helped.
But now, the cancer thing …. The vet tried to break it to him gently, “Hell, Tom’s twelve years old—nearly thirteen. That’s old for an English Setter.” Then he said, “You’ll know when it’s time to bring him in.”
Tom struggled to his feet and shuffled unsteadily forward until he could rest his chin on the old man’s shoulder. He choked back a sob. They had often traveled like this, with Tom whining in his ear, seemingly urging him to drive faster. The Jeep swung into a tight curve on the narrow country road and Tom lost his footing and toppled over. The old man swore, “Dammit. Lay down, Tom. Stay!”
In the month since the visit to the vet Tom had gone downhill fast and the old man knew it was time. Hated it, but knew. The vet said he’d wait for him.
He’d hunted alone in the early season leaving Tom behind. The dog had not appreciated that. Over the years he always knew that when the hunting coat and boots came out, it was time to go hunting. Even if sound asleep at Millie’s feet in the sewing room, he would come bounding into the hall like a three year old hopped up on Sugar Pops. Not wanting to torment Tom, the old man had started sneaking his gear out to the truck at night when the dog was zonked on his bed by the fireplace. Full of painkillers, Tom never noticed.
Hunting without your dog, he found, was like dancing alone. He’d enjoyed the brisk autumn days walking the hardwoods for grouse and stomping the ditches for pheasant, but it was not the same. His bag was lighter too. He had cursed two weeks ago when he lost a downed rooster. Tom, even a year ago, would have found that bird. He always did.
He braked the Jeep and swung into the farm drive way. Past the white clapboard house and around behind the weathered barn, he turned on to a dirt lane angling up the hill. He slipped the Jeep into four-wheel drive and slowly made his way up the rutted track. At the crest of the hill he spotted a battered white Chevy pick-up parked about 100 yards ahead.
Joe, the owner of the farm, crawled out of the truck smoking a cigarette. They were old friends and the old man hoped Joe would forgive him for being late. Joe waved as he pulled the Jeep up and parked on the verge 40 yards short of the pick-up.
Stepping out of the Jeep, the old man watched Joe signal the direction of the wind with a sweep of his arm and he waved in acknowledgement as he felt the light breeze on his face. Joe went to the back of the pick-up and reached into a wooden crate and after a bit of a struggle, extracted a rooster pheasant. Cradling the pheasant in his arms, Joe started walking down into the field of grass and low brush. He stopped at a thick bush about 20 yards in and after tucking the bird’s head beneath his wing, spun the bird in a circle half a dozen times. He then tucked the pheasant down into the bush and started back toward the truck.
“He’ll sit there a little while,” thought the old man. He opened the back gate of the Jeep and reached for his tattered hunting coat. As he shrugged it on Tom made his way to the back and started wagging his tail. When the old man reached for his gun case Tom gave his face a couple of wet licks. “Ready to go, buddy?” He asked. Tom waved his flag-like tail in response.
The gun was an old Fox side-by-side in 20 gauge. The bluing had long ago been worn off and the stock had plenty of dings, but the sheen of oil spoke to how well the old man took care of his gear.
He lifted Tom gently out of the truck and set him on the road. Snapping on his lead and grabbing the shotgun the old man and his dog entered the field. They angled across the wind. The old man wanted to get directly downwind of the bush that held the pheasant. Tom, though unsteady, had his head up, sampling the wind and working that trademark white flag of a tail back and forth. When they were directly downwind and 15 yards from the bird they did a left turn. He reached down and unsnapped Tom’s leash. “Find the bird, Tom,” he said.
Tom moved forward, staggering slightly, but he had caught a whiff and was closing in. Three feet from the bush Tom froze in a classic point, head and tail high with his left foot up and curled. “Whoa,” said the old man quietly. He dropped two shells into the open Fox and snapped it shut. Walking forward slowly past the dog he said “whoa” once again. He gave the bush a vigorous kick. Nothing. He kicked again and took a couple of steps. With a cackle and roar of wings the pheasant burst from the grass 10 feet to his left. The bird had run when he walked in and now was angling back the way they’d come. He brought up the double barrel swiftly and swung, fired and…. Missed! His second shot brought the bird down in a puff of feathers. “I guess we’re both getting old Tom,” he muttered.
Tom had seen the bird go down and was struggling through the thick grass in that direction. The old man quickly overtook the dog and snapped the leash on again. “Easy Tom. We’ll find him.”
The rooster lay in plain sight, gleaming in the fall sunlight, its gaudy colors a stark contrast to the dull brown grass. Tom gently picked it up and they started slowly back to the Jeep. He looked up to wave his thanks to Joe, but the pick-up was gone. He’d have to phone later with his thanks.
Halfway back to the Jeep Tom stopped. He could go no further. He tried to get Tom to release the bird, but Tom would not let it go. “All right you stubborn shit,” he said and picked up the dog. He carried Tom back to the Jeep with the bird dangling from his mouth. Only when the old man had set Tom in the back of the Jeep did Tom release the bird. He then lay down on his blanket, guarding his prize.
The vet was waiting when the old man carried Tom into the office. The place was deserted, as it was Sunday morning. Another debt to be paid. “You ready?” asked the vet.
“Yeah, I guess,” replied the old man. “Shot a bird over him this morning.”
“So I see,” replied the vet with a slight frown, noting the old man’s muddy boots tracking up his spotless floor.
Tom lay calmly on the stainless steel table. He knew the vet and the old man rubbing his speckled head and scratching his black ears soothed him.
“This won’t hurt him,” assured the vet. “He’ll get sleepy and then it will be all over.” The vet slipped the needle into Tom’s paw and the dog jerked at the sting.
The old man gripped Tom’s head and stared into his eyes. “So long old friend” he choked. And then it was done.
The vet said nothing as the old man gathered up Tom’s limp body and carried it out to the Jeep. Tears ran down through the gray stubble on his cheeks and dripped off his chin as he wrapped Tom gently in his blanket. He climbed in the Jeep and drove slowly away.
The Jeep followed the narrow country road lined with hardwoods gaily displaying their fall colors in the bright afternoon sunshine. The old man took no notice. Turning on to little used dirt track the Jeep continued diagonally across the ridgeline, coming to a stop at a small clearing. The old man picked up the blanket wrapped bundle from the back of the truck and set off following a faint game trail through the trees. After 100 yards he emerged into the open. To his right a large meadow sloped down the hill, to his left an extensive stand of second growth hardwoods and mixed pine blanketed the ridge. At the edge of the field stood an ancient and massive birch tree and beneath the protective branches of the birch loomed an open grave. Next to the grave a large pile of stones and small boulders stood like a sentinel.
The old man paused at the edge of the hole before gently lowering his burden into the opening. He removed a dog collar from the pocket of his hunting coat and buckled it around a low hanging branch before removing his coat and grasping the shovel leaning against the tree. He began filling the hole.
Brushing the dirt from his gnarled hands on his jeans, the old man sat on a log and studied the pile of stones. “Those rocks should discourage any coyotes from messin’ with you.” He said. The old man fished a crusted briar pipe from his pocket and stuffed it with dark tobacco from a worn leather pouch. When he finished the ritual of lighting the pipe, he wrested a can of beer from his hunting coat. Popping the top and flicking the foam off his fingers he raised it in a silent toast toward the pile of stones. “I guess you know why I picked this spot, Tom. This is where you finally figured out we were supposed to do this hunting thing together. In those early days I was thinkin’ about renaming you 5K, ‘cause where ever I was, you were about 5K somewhere else.”
Taking a long pull on the beer, the old man continued, “When you pointed that ol’ ruff cock bird right under that birch and brought him back to me with your teeth chattering in excitement, a light bulb went off in your head. You’d figured out that we were doing this as a TEAM. Things got lots better after that.”
The old man drained the beer and relit his dead pipe. “I won’t say you were the world’s greatest setter, but you were a good one. You were a sweet and gentle dog, and Millie loved having you around the house. Jeff loved you too. Hell, the two of you grew up together learning how to hunt. I’m sure he’ll be stopping by once he gets back from Iraq.”
He stood, shook the dregs from the can and stuffed it in his battered hunting coat as he slipped it on. He picked up the shovel and came briefly to attention. “Semper Fi, old pal.”
And with that the old Marine turned and limped back the way he had come.
Author’s Note: This is my first attempt to place some fiction on the blog. Certainly a departure from my “right wing rants” as one of my readers so charitably puts it. If you like “Tom”… great. If not, feel free to offer constructive criticism or suggestions on an alternative hobby. Don’t recommend golf. I’ve already proven I’ll never be any good at that damn game.