The first crisp October morning stirred deep memories in the old dog even before he was awake. Lying on the rug by the door, his feet twitched and saliva formed at the corners of his mouth as visions of past Octobers touched his mind. He whimpered softly as he dreamed he caught the smell of grouse, of spent shells, and of frosty aspen woods.
Then they stirred in the house, and he came awake slowly lifting his square old head from its cradle between his paws. Before he was fully awake, he saw Him standing in the doorway with His old hunting coat on and the broken double tucked under His arm. Then he knew it wasn't Him because he had heard no footsteps, and there was no gentle hand on his head. It had been so long now that even the odors of Him had faded from the house. Lately, he could find it only by the hallway closet upstairs or on damp days, by the workbench at the front of the garage. And they wondered why on rainy days he liked to curl up on the wood shavings and dust that had collected under the workbench.
Lately, the boy opened the door for him, and slowly, because of the aching in his legs, he pulled himself up with proper dignity and stepped out. The grass was wet with dew, and across the near pasture, small eddies of mist were rising in the early sun. He circled the yard slowly, stopping now and then to sniff out some scent, but his mind was on other things. Once some woodcock winged overhead, and he stopped for a long time looking off into the direction they had gone.
When he came to the turn-off, where a two-track trail followed the rail fence before it dipped into the oak and maple grove, he paused again. He turned his head to look at the house where smoke rose from the chimney and from which came the tantalizing odor of bacon and coffee. There were some clattering noises from the house, and soon they would come out to the garage and leave in the car. He sat down and waited.
Over by the pines, some crows were calling. The old dog heard them, but they were not important to him. The sun was coming through now, and he turned just slightly to get its warmth on his back. After a few minutes, he lay down and stretched out, his head toward the house, his eyes shut.
He heard the garage door open and, standing, watched them drive away. Now there was no hesitation. He turned down the trail toward the grove of trees and began to trot. Once he got going and some of the stiffness was gone, he felt pretty good. He pranced just a little and carried his feathered tail at a confident angle. His feet left slight pad marks in the sandy dust of the trail.
When he entered the grove, he surprised a blue jay that had been on the ground looking for acorns. The jay flew up in the tree and voiced his outrage. The old dog turned his head as he trotted by and grinned.
Beyond the grove was the rolling pasture -down a hollow and up along a gentle ridge. Grasshoppers were warming up in the sun and whirred across the trail as he came by. Occasionally the old dog turned and looked back down the trail, but there was no one there. At the edge of the pasture, the trail entered the nearby woods and became a narrow log-skidding trail. This was as far as the dog had ever gone by himself. He'd always had the run of the pasture where, since puppy days, he had chased butterflies and played games with swooping barn swallows. The pasture was close enough for a whistle to bring him back for the meal or lor the jeep ride to town. Beyond the pasture was the hunting country, and they had always shared that.
So, at the edge of the woods, the old dog turned and studied his back trail. When that did not satisfy him, he stepped off the trail and trotted up a slight rise. From this vantage, he could see most of the trail he had come and, barely through the trees, some white of the house showed through.
Suddenly, it all seemed very familiar. This was where he had always waited for Him. After rushing excitedly ahead, here he would wail for Him so they could enter the woods together. At any moment now, the well-known form would emerge from the grove of trees and come toward him up the trail.
Now the dog made a show of waiting, impatiently jumping up on his back feet and sounding sharp, short barks of excitement. He paced back and forth between the approaching trail and the woods and almost expected to hear a mild, amused voice chiding him for his impatience. But there was no voice, and the dog turned to face the trail and stood quietly.
There was no casual, half-slouching figure coming up the trail, no cheerful whistle, no blue eyes looking directly into his liquid brown eyes. The dog stood statue-like with the breeze coming across the pasture softly rippling his feathered legs and tail. There was an almost, but not quite, imperceptible sag to his shoulders and head.
Suddenly, the dog turned and trotted briskly up the trail into the woods. He must be up ahead somewhere, waiting by some alder thicket or resting on a convenient stump.
The old dog was headed for the far woods. The trail he was on ran through these woods for perhaps a quarter mile, winding between aspen trees broken by patches of spruce or balsam, then across a series of low-lying meadows, and into the larger forest known as the far woods. The dog quickened his pace. He paid scant heed to the chickadees that flitted from tree to tree ahead of him, uttering their cheerful chatter. Once he was brought up short by the throaty twang of a nuthatch, but the illusion that it was a voice he knew was only momentary.
At the edge of the meadow, he startled two deer that bounded off, tails high, until they realized the old dog was no threat to them. When the dog hurried on with only a sideways glance, the curious deer stopped and came back a few hesitant steps, noses outstretched and tails half-raised.
The dog continued his pace, sometimes turning his head to the side, but not wavering from the trail that was becoming more over-grown. Some of the tall grasses leaned over the path, and the dog's shoulders brushed dew from their tasseled tops.
Ahead, the trail tunneled into the darker forest. These were large, mature trees, white pine with scraggly tops in the sky, wide northern red oak on the high ground, and clumps of black-trunked basswoods on the edges of low land. Here were large male aspen with their buds that fed the grouse in winter. Here were thick spruce that protected the grouse from winds in the wet, cold autumn days, and held the snow in deep drifts for their survival in sub-zero winter nights. This was prime grouse country, a grouse hunter's—and a grouse dog's— heaven.
Now the old dog's purposefulness was gone. He seemed to alternate between random wanderings down faded old cross trails and standing for long, pensive moments at some turn in the trail. Once he nosed among the leaves near a wide stump and finally uncovered the old wax-paper wrappings of a sandwich. He waited near the stump for longer than usual, sitting quietly with alert eyes and moist nose.
Wandering on, the dog showed near-excitement at several places. In an alder thicket at the edge of a grassy marsh, he circled and re-circled with his graceful tail waving slowly. When he paused, his eyes looked off through the trees into the distance.
Vaguely, the dog realized that he was in the presence of his happiest memories. Here he had spent the Octobers of his life. As a young pup with awkward, gangly legs and a speckled face, he had pointed his first grouse for Him. And he had learned the purpose of life—to scent the woods-birds with thunder in their wings, point them for Him, and retrieve the downed bird for His warm praise and for the touch of His hand on his head.
So they had grown old together doing the things they loved together. The essence of life was condensed for them into a bright autumn day, a walk in the woods, a thunder of wings, the smell of gunpowder, and a shared sandwich from the pocket of an old hunting coat.
Quietly, the old dog stepped through the golden, autumnal woods. His pace was slowed, and he seemed confused as he looked vaguely about him. Several times he stumbled, rustling the bright leaves that he walked on.
Suddenly, like the clear sound of a note, like a stream of cold water, it came to him—the most delectable scent of his world. Slowly, so slowly, he turned his head, his nose bringing him the direction of the grouse. One front foot was up and It did not move. He leaned slightly forward, back legs wide and feathered tail raised.
And there they were—the birds! Two of them behind a small clump of brush. They eyed each other, the birds and the dog. And He was there too. The old dog could feel His presence just back of him, so he waited.
Saliva drooled from the corners of his mouth. He rolled his eyes back to see if He was coming in or waiting. He knew he could hold this point forever, but a heaviness and drowsiness seemed to be pulling him down. With a deep sigh, the old dog sank to the ground, tail laid straight out and head resting on the ground, but still pointed at the watchful birds.
For one long moment, there was a hush in the forest, no bird sounds, no wind in the trees, no rustling of leaves. There was only the sunlight shafting through the trees to light up the bright October leaves, and the white, black, and golden form that lay on them. A large basswood leaf, veined and brown as a man's hand, fell from the tree above. It drifted slowly down, twirling and spinning, till it settled tightly on the old dog's head. The old dog closed his eyes as he felt again the gentlest touch he had ever known.
by Cliff Schroeder