Gunner finally pounced, and a pheasant came out of that grass. It was a brown, bedraggled juvenile bird that could barely get its wings. Then came another, and another, and another. Half a dozen hard-pumping, but barely flying, birds got up, flew 75 yards and landed back in the grass. We were into a late-hatched clutch, just the kind those state land dog training regulations were meant to protect.
This was the first time Gunner ever experienced a flock of birds, and his groomed manners—so carefully trained—were immediately overcome with untamed hunting instinct. He raced after the young birds, caught one, killed it, and brought it to me. After prancing around me twice with the bird just out of reach, he came to heel and made as nice a delivery as he ever would.
In the excitement of flushing birds, the realization of what was unfolding, yelling and whistleblowing, I was panting, sweating and swearing at my dog. I raised my hand to swat him, then caught myself and stopped. He hadn’t done anything wrong. I’d put him into a situation he wasn’t ready for. It was my fault.
Staring at the warm, limp, half-grown pheasant in my hand, I suddenly remembered Dad was in the truck. This disaster had unfolded before the eyes of a man who had never in his life broken a game law, who had taught me violators were the worst of the worst thieves who stole from us all, who never asked for … or gave … second chances. I couldn’t look up the hill because I was sure I’d see him crying again.
I leashed Gunner and turned toward the hill. I kept my eyes down and carried the bird in my right hand. At the creek, I tied Gunner’s leash to a willow, turned over the biggest rock I could move, placed the pheasant underneath it, and rolled the rock back into place. Some mink or coon would have an easy meal.
The climb back up the hill seemed endless, but not long enough. I knew I’d have to face my pa. I purposely came up behind the truck and loaded Gunner in his kennel. I opened the driver’s door and slid into the seat. I finally looked up at Dad and saw a contorted … smile I couldn’t believe! He grabbed my upper arm and squeezed, then gestured to the back. He wanted Gunner up front by him.
I went around back, let the dog out, and told him to kennel up through my door. I maneuvered him around the console and onto the floor to sit between Dad’s withered legs. He scratched the young dog behind the ears, and Gunner melted onto his lap. I was still stunned as I started the truck and backed away from the rocks.
As we pulled into the driveway at home, Dad stopped scratching the dog, reached over, and took my right hand off the steering wheel. He gave it a long squeeze; he looked me hard in the eyes. His haggard smile told me what it meant for him to see those six coppery, long-tailed roosters come boiling out from under Bingo’s nose.
Gunner’s grave was wide enough and deep enough now. I gathered the four corners of the wool blanket up around Gunner and lowered him into the ground. I reached down from my knees and scratched behind those ears one more time. I mumbled, “Goodbye, old friend. Say ‘hey’ to Pa for me.” And I covered him with the rug from his kennel.
Numbed nerves and muscles reacted grudgingly, but I stood up and started to cover the grave.
Nine seasons unfolded for Gunner and me as a team. Dad never got to see him run again, but after each hunt, I’d call home and ask Mom to hold the phone to Dad’s ear so I could tell him about the birds, the fields, the flushes, and, mostly, the dog.
Then the call came from Mom one spring day—Pa was gone. I had played a million times in my head what I would do when that call came. Before heading to the airport, I grabbed the things I planned to take. One was a photo to display at the memorial—an old black and white shot of Dad and Bingo alive, healthy and successful after a morning on the river. In remarks to friends at the wake, I tried to think of all the things Dad could do now that he’d been freed from that body that had quit working—drink a beer, ride a horse, walk beside us as I escorted my sister down the aisle at her upcoming wedding … and hunt pheasants over Bingo, again.
A few more seasons went by. Then a few hours ago, I held my withered, partially paralyzed dog on the front seat of my truck outside the vet’s office. As Gunner relaxed in my arms after the prick of the syringe, I cried. After a few moments, I felt the vet’s hand on my shoulder. He was crying, too.
I turned to the Doc, swallowed hard and said, “… must be a bunch of pheasants in God’s Country this year, too. Dad’s hunting so hard he needed another dog.”