by Randy Lawrence
The hill behind my home is my favorite plot of ground on the entire planet, 47 acres with a ten mile view to the north. Our grouse hunting is rolling at best, vertical at worst, so we practice like we play, up and down and around steep slopes where we sync hay making, brush hogging, and grazing with our dog work.
I can still find Captain there, resting at the foot of our hill in a spring fed wetland alder brake bordered by a two-track oil road. In the spring, Captain would sit with us and watch woodcock dancers spiral high above the hay field. Along that same two-track, he became the first of my dogs to point a wild bird while retrieving another.
An Aspenglow setter named Arran was the second to count that coup. Arran and her kinfolk, Indigo and Dusk, stand watch from the western slope above the alders. Riley, the mostly black “own son” of Elhew Snakefoot is there, too, Riley “The Natural,” born broke with an uncanny nose.
On top, overlooking where we live and hunt is Williedog, a horseback trial setter turned honest gun dog who found birds in times and places the others could not. In his lifetime, Willie wore out the clapper on a stout collar bell; he pointed the last ruffed grouse seen on this property.
Willie keeps company with five generations of Labrador retrievers, earnest black dogs who earned their crust along the Scioto River and for years on the old lease on Lake Erie’s Nielson’s Marsh. Moxahala is there, too, Riley’s orange and white daughter. Well into her dotage, she pinned a brood of Michigan grouse during my son’s first trip north. Zane managed but one step across Moxie’s bow before four consecutive rolling thunder flushes left him with his jaw dropped and his gun unfired.
I have buried my share of prized 4-H cattle, long riding saddle horses, porch-snoozing farm dogs. But where a gun dog is laid to rest is a different matter. I suppose it’s the shooting that makes it so.
Think about it. Together the dog and I conspire to take a life to add another layer of meaning to our own. We do so within a stylized set of sporting rules that somehow make it OK to kill a grouse or woodcock or sharptail we would otherwise never harm.
Within those rules, we keep our own score, call our own fouls. When we are in polite company and accept a wet-mouthed retrieve after a solid point and fortunate shot, we try hard to be sober about the whole matter.
But when we are alone and bring a bird to hand, there are silly setter dances and ball caps turned backward and rib rubs and rude, leaping lunacy we would never brook elsewhere. We have been known to yip and howl over a kill like the coyote gangs that shadow our farm fencerows, celebrating that by god we do know how to do this.
Several of the dogs gathered around that hilltop were born into my hands; nearly all of them died in my arms. Between those markers, we trained. We traveled. They slept by my bed, dozed at my feet while I wrote or read, tagged along while I did farm chores, ran errands to the village bank where the pretty teller never forgets to offer a treat.
Our most grievous sins were but sins of enthusiasm, and we learned to forgive each other over and over and over again. The way we lived, the way we hunted, redeemed us just enough to keep pushing for the precious handful of times we Got It Right.
Maybe that’s what makes possible the clawing back from grinding, gnashing grief that no shovel can begin to cover with yellow Perry County clay. Maybe that’s what makes possible taking in that next puppy, especially one bred from those who hunted here before, all of that promise and fun and learning shading out the terrible knowing of how this always ends.
When autumn ebbs to winter, the heirs to my ghost pack hunt the deep draws and tangled alder brakes that drain the flanks of that high hill. Always, we work a course that lets us finish topside. From there we catch our breath and revel in that ten mile vista, the one that sees all the way through my very soul.