Originally published on Nov. 2, 1995.
He woke in darkness and had his moment in the yard, then stationed himself inside the front door, keening softly. With eyesight dim and hearing all but gone, he would take no chance of being left behind.
Not on this most important morning of all the mornings in the year.
I don’t know what the signs were that told him it was the day. The gun had been put in the car while he slept. The boots were left in the closet until the final moment. And yet he knew. Always, the evening before the day, he has known.
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It is the 13th autumn of our time together, and I would not have dreamed of slipping out without him. Age and hurts have slowed him. But old dogs still have the glory in them. Old dogs cannot be left alone to grieve.
In some areas, I’m told, other men’s outings were spoiled by a deluge. But the weather at our place was fine for it — cool, with just an occasional spit of rain in the air.
And it seemed right that Rufus should have the field to himself. At least for the first hour of the first outing of the season that may well be his last afield.
There was no crazy careening, no foolishness. He spent his hour sensibly, pacing himself, going about it in the way old dogs do, hunting with his head instead of his legs — nose lifted, working deliberately into the breeze, letting it carry its messages to him.
When uneven ground or a malicious vine sent him sprawling, he would right himself, not humiliated, only vexed. And I pretended not to notice. I see him as he is, but also as he’s been. And in memory’s eye he still is young.
I recall the very first quail bird he pointed and brought to hand — and the astonishment, and pride, in his puppy face at that moment. If I tried, I believe I could remember each of the ones after, though there have been a great many.
I can see the orange and white flash of him across a tan meadow, then frozen at the far wood line, waiting for me to arrive to do my part.
Every hunter should have such a dog at least once in a lifetime, and I have had Rufus, and by the miracle of things remembered will have him always.
On this day, in the hour allowed, two birds were staunchly pointed, found in the tangled weeds and delivered. Two only, but quite enough, since there is more ceremony than purpose in the first morning.
He was ready, then, for the car seat and a nap. He did not mind that it was the turn of his pups, Pete and Bear, who, loosed from their crates, set off immediately on a mindless adolescent frolic.
They romped, explored, and after a while they worked a bit. But I’d not have a pup without some play in him. They’ll steady soon enough. Too soon, because hardly has that happened before you have to begin counting down the years.
Time is quick. Quick for all of us, but quicker for these creatures that share our lives.
And now, given the luck of another autumn, we’ll be measuring out our season, Rufus and I, hour by precious hour.