The gravel pinged the side of the truck as it steered down the rock road. In the rear view, the old man could see the cloud of dust slowly billowing up behind his tires and drifting off the side of the road with the breeze. Out in front, he gazed upon miles and miles of corn and prairie grass stained brown from the heat of summer giving way to fall.
The old man’s truck came to a stop at a crossroads and he took a moment to look around, trying to glean a memory from his surroundings. “Is it a left, or a right?” he thought. Unwilling to guess and unable to recall, he pulled out an old map, the edges torn and yellowed from years of age. The map told him left and he turned out to continue on his way. The old man passed a house another mile down the road. A small kid played with a young, pointer puppy in the front yard. The old man’s mind began to drift back to days that didn’t seem so long ago, back when he got his first bird dog. He hoped that the boy playing would have half of the memories that he and his first bird dog had had.
A curve in the road, drove the sun’s beam across the dash of his pick up and the old man pulled down the shade to give his eyes relief from the over powering glare. He decided to roll down the window and ride with his hand in the breeze just like he had done on this very same journey many years ago. The afternoon air was heavy with the rich smell of drying corn and fresh dirt. The kind of scent you can’t find in the city. It whipped by his hand and up the sleeve of his flannel shirt, cooling off his underarm and rejuvenating the joints that have been car bound for so long. He drew a deep breath.
It was another 1/4 of a mile before he found his little turn off. A small grass driveway opening into a wider space designated for parking. He backed his truck up into a spot and shut off the engine. His eyes peered through the windshield, scanning the grasslands that lay out in front of him. It’s been 40 years since he had seen this place. He couldn’t believe it was still here. A few things were different than what he remembered, but it was still here. So many things had changed in the 40 years since the man had last seen this place. He had grown up, gotten married and raised a family. He had gotten a job and become a good businessman. He had done everything he was supposed to. He had also suffered the loss of friends and loved ones. He had seen lands and lakes change around him. But this place was still here, just like he had left it. He smiled.
The panting breath behind his shoulder began to make a whine. Without permission, Jake jumped up onto the console of the truck and began lapping his tongue towards his owners face. Much like the man, Jake was older now. Despite his age, there was still the drive of a much younger dog behind his grey muzzle. Jake was a fine bird dog, perhaps the best one the old man had ever had. He had gotten Jake as a surprise anniversary gift from his wife 9 years ago. She’d decided the old man needed more exercise and a hobby now that the kids were all out of the house. She was tired of seeing him sit around reading books all the time or complaining about what hideous thing the neighbors had done to their yard.
The old man was immediately drawn to the young puppy, rekindling a fire from long ago days of hunting and walking in the woods. It wasn’t long before he and the young pup were out walking the paths of the family farm, exploring and bonding together. The old man routinely bought birds to work the young dog. The wild birds that used to roam the farm were long gone with no hope of coming back. But it didn’t seem right to the old man that the bird dog should have to suffer for the mistakes of human carelessness. Pointing birds was what Jake was bred to do and the old man saw to it that he got his fair share. They spent countless hours pointing up the pen raised birds, Jake’s skills seemed to improve on every outing. Over time, the old man released so many birds that he began to notice a few of them were surviving. He began planting food plots for the birds and released twice as many the next year. After 4 years of pain staking work, and with Jake by his side, the old man had established a respectable covey of quail on the farm. Each week the old man and Jake would go out to check on them, some days they would point and flush the birds. But, most days, they would sit and watch from a distance so not to disturb them. The old man never shot this group and he liked to think that even Jake understood why.
Jake and the old man travelled to different preserves around the state hunting pen raised birds. Jake enjoyed the challenge and the old man liked showing Jake off to the bird boys and other men joining on the hunt. They became quite the pair, practically inseparable.
One night, while sitting by the fireplace reading, the old man realized that Jake had never gotten to hunt for a wild bird. He began to feel ashamed for having deprived his best friend of this true honor and set about figuring out a way to make it happen. All of this is what set in motion the journey to now, the truck sitting in an abandoned grass parking lot adjacent to the prairie and corn fields that the old man had jumped his first wild bird some 40 years ago.
The old man opened the door to his truck and stepped out into the afternoon sun. He stretched his arms up high above his head to loosen the muscles that have been glued to the car seat for the long ride. He opened the rear door and Jake leapt out in a full sprint, running circles around the empty grass lot, stopping just long enough to mark a corner post here and there. The old man slid on his well worn hunting vest and emptied a new box of Federal high brass number 5’s into his shooting pocket. He then lifted up his Beretta silver pigeon over and under and gave it a look over as if shaking hands with an old friend he hadn’t seen in a while. Jake had finally come to heel beside the old man, bounding up and down on his front paws unable to contain his excitement. The old man looked down at Jake and said, “Are you ready? Let’s go.”
They walked a hedgerow of evergreens a few hundred yards to get a lay of the land and to orient the wind in Jake’ s favor. The shade of the trees made it a nice walk, the breeze a little more brisk than what would be going on back at home. Once they reached the corner of the row, the old man gave the nod to Jake which signaled it was time to hunt. Jake sprung into action, making crossing passes out into the knee high grass as the old man watched and followed along. They were hunting a thick cover of crp bordered next to a large corn field. The old man wasn’t quite sure if there were birds in the area, but he knew Jake would find them if they were.
It wasn’t long before the old man saw the tell-tale sign of a bird. Up in front of him stood a statue of white and brown muscle. The grey muzzle of the bird dog staring intently upwind, forepaw lifted and his tail up, tremoring slightly. The old man smiled and readied his gun. Easing up in front of Jake, the old man’s heart began to pound loudly. Each step was like another turn of the handle of the childhood jack-in-the-box toy in his chest. The bird erupted from cover to the old man’s right side, the sun glistening off of his maroon chest, his tail feathers reverberating against the wind as he cackled into the air. The old man threw the gun to his shoulder. His eyes followed the barrel out to the bird and then took a slight lead in front. He squeezed the trigger to hear the firing pin slam against an empty chamber in the unmistakable “click” sound. The bird gained altitude and sailed out of sight on the breeze. The old man was astonished. His heart still beating too loudly to comprehend what had gone wrong. Then it dawned on him, in his haste he had forgotten to load the over and under. It was a costly oversight. The old man broke the action of his gun and dug out two shells to load it, vowing to himself that this time would be the last time he would make that mistake. Of course, he had said that a time or two before as well. He reached down and gave Jake a consoling scratch behind the ear and they continued the hunt.
They walked for an hour, covering more of the thick grass and corn fields hoping to find another bird. When they reached the edge of the pond, the old man decided to take a rest. Setting his gun down and then himself, he reached into his pocket to pull out his cell phone. The screen told him that he had no service. He liked that. Jake came and laid down beside his master. His tongue was hanging to the side of his mouth, his face and chest covered in pond water and brown beggar’s lice. The old man snacked on a pack of peanut butter and cheese crackers. Taking a bite for himself and tossing the other half to Jake.
30 or so minutes must have passed by as the old man and the dog sat there. Thoughts meandered through the man’s mind like the tufts of cloud passing over his head. He contemplated what life would have been like if he had moved his family up here many years ago. What it would have been like to spend every fall Saturday roaming these grasslands. He sighed and let the thoughts go with the breeze. Looking over at Jake, who’s gaze had been pulled away by a grasshopper, the old man took in the moment for what it was and for once appreciated the present instead of worrying about the if’s of life. With that, he lifted his shotgun and then himself up off the ground.
The old man spent the rest of the afternoon following the bird dog in what would be an uneventful wide circle back to the truck. They arrived just as the sun was setting on the horizon. The first stars just starting to appear to the east. He unloaded his gun, took off his vest, and the old man and the dog climbed back into the truck. The headlights guided them both toward the small town hotel they would be calling home for the next few days, both of them dreaming of what tomorrow could bring.