An old dog, a long walk, and the art of moving on
Story by Katie Willis • Photos by Chloe Nostrant
The last time I was here, my arms were as bare as the ground we hunted. An unseasonably warm January had burned off the December snow and we walked easy in t-shirts through the sage flats stretching between a series of cattail-choked, willow-lined sloughs and along a cottonwood-shaded river.
It was an afternoon without agenda, the last weekend of the season, our cups full from a morning of chukar hunting in the steep rimrock above us. Ben’s girl Bernie perfect, pinning coveys while my two pups steadily backed her. The quality of the dog work and the weight of the birds in our packs taking the edge off the end-of-season melancholy.
Having watched the steady decline of my old black wirehair over the last four months, we reserved the quail thickets at the base of chukar hills for him. With windows down, we heard them on our morning drive in, whistling and chattering as the quail moved out to forage in the sage.
With sandwiches and a lunch beer consumed, we left the young dogs whining protests in the truck as we followed my sugar-faced dog through the cover. The pace slow and expectations low, we trailed along, the old dog close to blind and deaf, pottering around shoulder high sage, skirting along the red willows.
Because of the way he so fully lived in pursuit, his name was forgotten and replaced with the moniker “Birddog” or BD for short.
“BD’s last hunt,” Ben and I said with certainty. It seemed each day the cost of rising from his bed increased, requiring more to shake off the arthritis. Ben listened as I retold stories of his wildness, his exploits, his near perfection. But mostly stories of how he saved me, resting his head in my lap, offering up silken ears to stroke whenever it all felt too much, when my limits were found.
But it wasn’t BD’s last hunt. It was Ben’s. He dropped a trio of quail over BD that day. The following day, with Bernie on point and my pup Gravy backing, we both took a chukar out of the last covey we saw for the season. Back at the truck, I was as happy as I could ever remember.
In the days following Ben’s death, I would pull BD to my chest and ask him for a week, for a month, for as many days as he could bear. Heavy-headed, he sat with me, holding down his end of the couch as I cried, his ears rubbed to velveteen.
Then came September, we went to Montana and in the edges where alfalfa meets prairie, BD pointed and returned my first sharptail. On to North Dakota and my first double, a bright pair of roosters, taken over BD, his eyes too cloudy to mark the fall but his nose as keen as ever.
December brought the specter of returning to our last shared place, appearing on the calendar like a term paper, unavoidable and required. I asked my friend Chloe to join me, and the cruelty of a warm, wet snow met us. The roads a dangerously thick gumbo, the routes to the rimrock and the chukar they hold impassable.
Yesterday, we turned the young dogs loose on quail and watched their steadiness evaporate with the heady perfume they found draped throughout the sage. Coveys turned to singles and pairs, some shot, but most chased as our pups careened across the landscape. Hopes of freezing temps and a solidification of mud disappeared as snow two degrees colder than rain fell through the night.
“Well, we could have an old dog day.”
Curled in the back seat of the big Chevy, BD’s white face tucked between his paws, snoring as old dogs do. Next to him, equally relaxed but awake, the grizzled face of Chloe’s ten-year-old griff, Shep. Or rather, James’s griff Shep.
You see, while Chloe has known Shep his entire life, he only came to live with her last year when James stopped answering the phone. Chloe’s mom found James in his kitchen, Shep beside him, the last cup of coffee he brewed cold on the counter.
I never met James but by all accounts, he was the sort of man campfires, good bourbon, and fly rods were made for. The kind of man who looked out, saw a young Chloe cutting her teeth rowing boats and casting flies in Montana and promptly took her under his wing.
"Let's do it."
So we ease down a side road, heading toward the river and a dense stand of willow and cottonwoods. We don’t go far when a group of thirty quail scurry and flitter from left to right in front of us and tuck into a copse of sage on the edge of an irrigation ditch.
As the dogs follow their noses, we follow the highway of tracks through the snow. Just short of the tall sage, Shep pauses, tail high, foot raised. BD, too blind to back, comes just to Shep’s right and locks up. The squeak of wet snow on our boots drives the quail from cover, they rise a hair’s breadth above the sage and disappear. I miss mine, passing left to right but see feathers fall before Chloe’s shot. Shep rushes for the retrieve, BD moving against the wind, following the covey.
A whistle draws my eyes skyward. A quartet of quail sits thirty feet off the ground, watching us from the bare branches of a wind-stripped tree. Three, weathering their first winter, cluster below a bright male, the weight of his crowning feather curling to his forehead, the ruddy red of his chest deep, edges lined with calligrapher’s black. He gives me a long look and breaks, bailing into heavy cover, keeping the tree between us. The remaining trio follows suit, and I am left, laughing, gun cradled in my hands.
We keep working, following the dogs, splitting up at times to work singles, only to find ourselves back together as the dogs find more coveys tucked in golden grasses and snow laden sage. The quail are quick, the dogs steady, our conversation threading through the landscape, these fine dogs and the men we lost.
Chloe thinks James may have taken Shep quail hunting once, but isn’t certain. You wouldn’t know it to watch him. Shep carries every confidence of a seasoned campaigner. He creeps along the edges where the sharp red willows meet the heavy sage, slows then stops, stretching his shoulders backward, eyebrows furrowed and waiting for us.
BD has always had a catty quality on quail, rolling his paws with a delicate intensity when working coveys. His brown eyes opaque, vision reduced to light, shadow and movement. Age has stolen his grace and at times he stumbles when holes appear in the terrain, or falls when grabbed by the dead and broken limbs littered around the cottonwoods as we work closer to the river. Clarity of scent pulled deeply through his nose, he looks out from behind the big sage as focused and certain as he has ever been.
I drop down to the river’s edge, the wet snow dragging the willows down towards the moving water. Up ahead the slow swirl of an eddy lies obscured by ice, the fresh snow without blemish. Chloe and the boys are working the thicket above me, the sound of their movement muffled and distant. The snow has stopped falling, wind quieted, a light fog rises from the moving water.
I hear Chloe say “Birddog” followed by the rush of wing beats. The covey breaks overhead. I take the second and fourth from a group of ten, watching the rest coast under icy branches and scurry up through the rocks on the far shore.
There is a crack and hiss beneath my feet as I walk out to my birds. They have come to rest on the reach of ice stretched across the eddy. The first is rolled gently on his side, beak pulled chest ward, his feathered head arcing away from me. The second stretches out just short of the moving water, her wingtips leaving grooves alongside her, angelic indentions in the snow.
BD stumbles down the embankment, the snow squeaking softly beneath him. He presses his nose skyward, slowly working his head left to right, searching. As if drawn in by a line, he finds me, slides his head beneath my hand, his cloudy eyes meet mine. His nostrils flare with the scent of quail in my other hand and I lift it to him. The ice groans under the rise and fall of his feet as he lunges to grab it. This is not a place to linger.
This is not a place to linger.
Lingering is something I have done more of this year than is my custom, pressing heavy into the comforts of memory, seeking solid footing in the past. I have struggled to pull my chin forward and set eyes to a horizon, too overwhelmed with organizing what I think should have been.
But like the ice, this moment, my life is transient, most precious in its brevity. All destined to disappear beneath the same sun.
There is a hint of blue sky upstream as the clouds lift along the gold kissed edges of snowy rimrock, while willow and sage pop, shaking branches free from snow.
“Come on old friend,” I say to the soul beside me, “we aren’t done yet.”
Katie Willis is a freelance writer from Baker City, Oregon. This is her second feature for the magazine.
This story originally appeared in the 2023 Summer Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Quail Forever member today!