When she was younger, and not at all small, she would wedge herself between my lap and the steering wheel. As she advanced in age, she was allowed the luxury of a little extra weight. This made driving quite challenging.
Driving with 90 pounds of dog on your lap is tough enough, but she does not even look out the windshield when she steers.
We chose a flat area to hunt just for Cuddles' sake, a wide area in the Allegheny River Valley that had been the site of Indian villages for thousands of years, and later, the estate of a Revolutionary War general. Now in various stages of regeneration, it is excellent habitat for pheasants, grouse and woodcocks.
On Duke's ok, Missy leapt out of the van and tore off into the brush and briars. Cuddles was just as anxious, I suppose, but she does not move that fast anymore. After laboriously climbing out of the van, it took a while for her to loosen up enough from the hour-ride before she trotted in small loops, exploring the habitat she had hunted many times before.
"Look how she trembles," Duke said, shaking his head slowly. "I probably shouldn't have brought her, but I just couldn't stand to leave her at home. She got so excited when I brought out the shotgun."
Cuddles, Duke's German shorthair, is the best dog I have hunted over. She does not have the best nose in the world, but she knows how to hunt and how to find game. Never straying far, she constantly maintains her coordination with hunters. She understands hand signals and more words than a dog should. I believe this is because she is a housedog. More than a housedog really, she is part of the family. No one loves their dogs more or treats them better than my friends Duke and Betty Fiscus. The result is highly developed intelligence and a bond that no amount of training could ever match.
Missy, the younger shorthair, is just coming into her own as a hunter. A bit more of a pup than might be expected of a five-year-old, she still ranges too far, especially at the start of a hunt. Seconds after Duke put on her vest, she was a hundred yards away. She often flushes birds far out of range.
The hunt began in a mix of goldenrod, blackberry briars and quaking aspen. Missy ran. Cuddles looked around, took hand signals from Duke and I, and stayed close. The overgrown field gave way to a narrow swamp. This was terrible work for Cuddles. Each time she pulled a foot from the muck obviously caused pain. Abandoning the swamp to Missy and Duke, she moved in front of me, on the dry side of a thick band of brush that bordered the swamp.
"Missy's on point!" Duke called a half-mile from our starting point. Duke approached along the edge of the open swamp while I approached through the thick brush. The pheasant flushed into the open. Duke dropped it with the nifty little over/under I had foolishly traded to him for a big-bore lever-action. I am very happy with the big-bore, but the over/under I got to replace the one I traded away does not fit me as well, and I can not get around to having a quarter-inch cut off the stock.
"Dead bird," Duke called to his dogs, neither of which is hot on retrieving. Missy found the bird, then looked at Duke as if to say "Well, here it is. You don't expect me to bring it to you, do you?"
Both dogs, of course, inspected the pheasant when Duke picked it up. Cuddles was shaking now more than before. She hunted closer than ever, saving her energy to get into the best-looking places.
We paused for a short break where the swamp met a large, overgrown field. Missy continued to hunt while Duke and I talked. Cuddles stuck close by us. Though she looked like she could barely stand, she stood. Duke knelt beside her, gave her a hug and a couple gentle pats on the side.
"I think we better call it a day," he said, looking at her rather than me. I knew what he meant. There comes a point in the relationship between dog and hunter when the hunt is more for the dog than for the hunter, even if we do not think about it that way. It is just an unconscious thing you do for someone who has been a good hunting partner. Hunting is a strong bond, one that has been with us since our ancestors discovered meat tasted good over fire.
"Let's loop through the end of this field then walk back along the old road," I answered. "That'll be easier walking."
The end of the field is bordered with nearly impenetrable brush and multiflora rose. There is no finer pheasant habitat. Cuddles was obviously very tired. She followed a trail where the walking was easy. A couple of times she ventured into the brush. Once Duke had to help her get out. The will was still there, but the body just could not keep up.
Missy found another bird, that also went into Duke's game pouch. Then we were at the end of the field, and the hunt was over. All that remained was a walk along an old road, through ancient oaks and bare forest floor.
With shotguns broke-open over our elbows, we walked slowly and talked about our good fortune that day. It had been a slow fall. Two birds was the best we had done in one day. Yet it had been a pleasant hunting season. Any shortness of game could be attributed to fewer miles.
"I sure wish Cuddles could have found one of those birds," Duke said. "You never know which one..." He did not finish that thought. Ahead just 20 yards Missy was very excited about something by an old stump.
"She's going on point! What the heck could she be pointing here?" "I'll bet she's pointing a chipmunk," I replied. "It wouldn't be the first time."
But Cuddles believed Missy, and joined her on point. I was in a perfect position to see her erect silhouette against a sunlit backdrop. She's always had a classic point.
With Duke's limit of pheasants already in his game pouch, I approached the stump alone, wondering what the dogs could be pointing here. Surprisingly, a pheasant flushed toward my left. I dropped it on the riverbank.
Missy immediately jumped over the 10-foot sheer drop to the riverbank where she promptly grabbed the bird. Only at the last instant was Duke able to grab Cuddles to prevent her from jumping down to the bird.
"Bring it here Missy. Bring it here," he coaxed. But Missy dropped the bird. I climbed down the bank and tossed the pheasant up to Duke.
A morning of bird hunting has never ended better. Cuddles appeared years younger as we completed the short walk back to the van. I think Duke and I did, too. "Wasn't that a great point," Duke said through a very warm smile. "I'm so glad Cuddles got to point a bird."
And it was a great point-- the tail, the nose, the front paw lifted, the old eyes keen.
. . . Another hunting season has passed. High on Scandia Mountain the wind is howling and snow is piling up outside the home of Duke and Betty and Cuddles and Missy. This evening, I trust, Cuddles will lay on the end of the couch, the end nearest to the heat. Dogs dream, you know. In our dreams we can be forever young, our bodies lean, our senses keen. We can be pups again, remembering how it was seeing things for the first time. But old dogs are not to be pitied. They can dream better than any pup.
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