The Old Man - Old Black Dog
Old Black Dog
The Old Man had worked the ducks wonderfully for the last two minutes. He had turned the twenty some-odd birds when they were nothing more than steadily moving dots against a red sunburst dawn.
Circling first in a high watchful pattern, they had then settled into a purposeful flight path arching directly into the sixty-four carefully placed decoys.
The Old Man glanced at Henry at the opposite end of the small blind. He was slightly out of breath from the calling and there was a particular emphasis in his whispered command.
“Get your face down!” The Old Man continued his chuckling.
Henry Jacobs was spellbound. It happened every time. He couldn’t help himself. It was impossible to even consider doing anything other than finding a hole in the brush and watching. White face or not; he just had to watch the ducks as they cupped their wings and fell into the decoys. He wished that he could obey the now-familiar command of the Old Man, but it was useless. He could more easily conquer the addiction of alcohol or tobacco. He had no defense for the sight of incoming ducks. It was futile to even fight it.
The lead mallard flared. The black dog between the two men whined, as her intense start followed the now-beating wings away from the decoys. The Old Man added even more emphasis.
“I said get your ugly shining face down.”
Henry had heard that command for forty years, and finally the mild-mannered, even-tempered, nicely dressed little man revolted. He raised to a standing position in plain sight of the ducks, and threw his camouflaged hat at the Old Man.
“You listen to me, you ill-mannered, uncouth bag of whiskers and backwoods philosophies. I enjoy watching the ducks. Do you understand me in your simple, tobacco-chewing brain? I enjoy watching the ducks!”
The Old Man stood up and stretched. His bones had become stiff from the crouched position in the blind. The Labrador looked bewilderingly from the Old Man to Henry while the mallards were climbing through 3000 feet on a direct heading for a bayou somewhere in Louisiana. The Old Man spoke softly to the dog.
“Did you hear that girl? The crazy man in the corner enjoys watching ducks. For forty years he’s been watching ducks and for forty years he’s been flaring ducks. It’s a clear and undisputed miracle from the Almighty that we’ve been blessed with enough young birds that had never seen a human before his shining face so that we could shoot a few to get you trained.”
Henry balked. “Oh yeah! Well, by golly, why don’t you let me call and you hide your face for awhile?”
“Hey, black dog! Did you hear that? The man who blows a call like a dying crow wants to call ducks.
You never could blow a call. You never could shoot a shotgun. At rifle building, you’re the best in the world, but huntin’ ducks.”
. . .Wagh! Did you every wonder why we never shoot any adult birds? I’ll tell you why! Because any self respecting bird that had half the sense of a retarded starling could see your face a stickin’ through the blind five miles away. That’s why. I don’t know why I ever started hunting with you.”
Henry stuck an arthritic index finger in the Old Man’s direction and smiled. I’ll tell you why. Because, with the exception of the dog, I’m the only proof of intelligence associated with your meager existence. I don’t know how the dog can stand your simple company. It’s a true compliment to the dog’s patience.”
The black dog was whining, and the two men stopped arguing long enough to see that what the Lab saw was ducks. The Old Man grabbed a brown burlap bag from the side of the blind as they quickly disappeared beneath the camouflage. With his pocket knife, the Old Man cut two eye holes in the sack and threw it at Henry.
“Here. Wear this.”
“I will not,” said Henry defensively.
“Listen to me, Henry. I’m gonna call those ducks into these decoys. If you insist on watching, then wear the sack. Otherwise, I’ll tell the black dog to bite your backside.”
Henry reluctantly pulled the sack over his face. “This is ridiculous.”
“You look wonderful,” smiled the Old Man. “Now you can watch all you want.” The ducks worked as before, only this time they didn’t flare. They came in fast and both men could hear the wind from their wings.
“Take’em,” whispered the Old Man. Both men stood and emptied their double guns. Two green-heads and a gadwall hit the water with three separate splashes. The dog was nervously shifting its weight and finally the Old Man commanded, “Fetch.”
The Lab exploded into the icy water. There was no sound other than the rhythmic breaths coming from the moving dog across the water. She sniffed one dead duck as she passed it, but continued into open water.
“Where’s she going?” asked the head within the sack.
“You can take it off now, Henry, smiled the Old Man. “One of us didn’t lead enough, and it wasn’t me.”
Henry jerked the burlap off. “It’s no wonder with this thing on.”
“Cripple hit the water about two hundred yards off to the right. Old Black Dog saw it right off.”
The retriever continued for ten minutes until her head was only a bobbing dot, in fifty-foot deep water.
The Old Man and Henry were resting their arms on the front of the blind watching the dot grow larger as the tired dog returned. Another flight of ducks passed overhead, the Old Man never took his eyes from the dog. And Finally, they could hear her breathing again; more labored than when she had left, and with each exhale, a tuft of white feathers would move on the body of the duck.
“I want to apologize, Henry, for all these years of tellin’ you to hide your face. If, for some reason, I was told to keep my face covered while the dog retrieved, I couldn’t do it either. To me, the sight of that animal working brings on a happiness I just can’t explain.”
Henry smiled. “It is a wonderful sight, and I accept your apology.” Old Black dog emerged from the water at a slow walk. She was just plain tired, but delivered the duck to the Old Man’s hand at the blind.
“At a’ girl,” he said. “That’s a good dog. Rest a minute.”
But the dog would not rest, and returned to the water with the enthusiasm of the first retrieve.
She passed the two nearest ducks for the gadwall, and headed back in a sharp turn. The wake behind the dog was as high as before, and when she returned to the blind dripping from the water, the muscles in her chest were rippled from the extended exercise. The Old Man praised her again as she presented the duck, but this time he dragged her into the blind to rest. He gently pulled a small, white feather from her right nostril as she lay down on the floor of the blind. She was panting, and the muscles in her legs trembled between breaths. A white ice began forming, like crystals, on her back.
“Would you please hold her back while I collect that nearest duck?” The Old Man stepped from the blind. “She doesn’t know the word quit.”
Henry placed his hand on the dog’s back. “Stay here for awhile girl.” The dog quit panting as she watched the Old Man pull up his waders and start into the water. She cocked her head quizzically before breaking away from Henry’s grasp and exploding into the water. The Old Man reached the nearest floating duck as the black dog passed him.
She was swimming hard for the remaining mallard when the Old Man noticed the moving decoys, and his heart began to beat wildly. Seven magnum decoys were now following the dog, as her steadily moving legs became entangled in the decoy lines. She reached the duck, gently took it in her mouth, and turned. The decoys were all around her; she disappeared.
The Old Man threw his duck toward the blind. He started forward into deeper water toward the bobbing decoys.
“Dusky!” he yelled.
Henry had heard the Old Man call the dog by its given name only twice before and he crawled from the blind. He yelled to the Old Man.
“Don’t go any deeper!”
The black dog appeared blowing water. Her movement was erratic, but slowly she made progress toward the Old Man. She went under again, surfaced, then again, she was gone.
The Old Man took one more step and felt the shock of the icy water invading the warmth of the chest waders. The dog surfaced only three yards away, and the long arms of the Old Man met her half way. He pulled her solidly against his chest and turned, inching slowly toward the bank. Henry met them, chest deep in the water. Slowly, two old men, a half-drowned Labrador retriever, seven magnum decoys, thirty-five feet of entangled line and assorted lead weights, and a wet, dead green-head made it to the dry land. They all promptly collapsed.
Neither man spoke as Henry cut the line from the dog’s legs. The Old Man couldn’t move his stiffened fingers, but clutched the eighty-pound dog tight in his lap.
“Ain’t life funny?” the Old Man asked.
“Why’s that?” Henry’s fingers were becoming numb.
“I’m sixty-five years old and all I can think about is how much I wish my father could have seen that.”
“Why’s that?” Henry repeated.
The Old Man paused as he wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“Cause him and this Old Black dog were made from the same stuff.”
“C’mon,” said Henry. “Let’s get y’all back to the truck before you freeze to death.
The Old Man tried to get up, but his legs wouldn’t move very well. The dog licked him with a warm, wet tongue.
“You’re always in a hurry. If you ain’t in a hurry, you’re gripin’ about something. When are you gonna slow down, Henry?”
Henry smiled. “Not today Old Man, not today.”
“And don’t forget your burlap sack. That thing worked pretty good. Should’ve thought of that forty years ago.”
Four days later, Henry pulled into the front yard of the Old Man’s farmhouse. He had loaded some shotgun shells that patterned especially well in the Old Man’s Gun. There was no answer at the door, but he could see the familiar truck at the side of the house. It was then that Henry heard the sound from out back.
He rounded the corner of the house and stopped abruptly. The Old man was standing with his back to the house, resting his weight on a shovel handle. There was a fresh pile of ground at his feet. Old Black Dog was lying at the side of the grave and suddenly Henry saw the Old Man’s shoulders moving uncontrollable. He wanted to leave, but his feet wouldn’t move.
The Old Man’s shoulders were stilled and he moved to the dog. He smoothed the hair on her side an carefully placed the limp animal in the hole. After covering her with a neatly pressed white sheet, he returned the ground to the grave. The Old Man sat cross-legged in the grass with the shovel resting in his lap. The Old Man did not look up as Henry approached, but stared at the fresh earth.
“I brought you those shells.” Henry was at a loss for proper words.
“Thank you Henry.” The Old Man rubbed his swollen, red eyes.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Me too, Henry. Me too.”
Henry sat in the grass. “What happened? I mean she was so healthy.”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. She had some trouble with her left hind leg, but I thought it was just a touch of arthritis. Then, she got weaker and wouldn’t eat and I took her to the Doc and, well, it didn’t help. She was dying and I couldn’t do anything. She died about an hour ago. Some type of infection I guess. I don’t know.”
Henry saw blood on the Old man’s hands and the busted blisters from the digging.
“I understand death, Henry. I accept death. It has a purpose. I don’t argue with death, but... well... ”
The Old Man had to stop. He looked away.
“Maybe it’s best not to talk,” Henry said.
“No, I need to explain.”
“You owe no explanation to me.”
“You see,” the Old Man continued, “me and that dog have been through some powerful livin’ together. Why, I figure, maybe a thousand doves, at least half that many ducks. Even in spite of your shinin’ face.”
The Old Man smiled. “And probably ten cases of shells and five pair of waders. We wore out a good flat-bottomed boat and three sets of tires on that old truck. She helped me through the death of Sarah.”
He paused. “Now you talk about somebody who loved that old black dog. She loved that dog.” And he had to stop again.
“Why, I remember when ole’ Dusky lit into a whole pack of dogs that tried to eat Sarah’s little Chihuahua. Fought ‘em like a champ and Old Black dog hated that little yip dog. Worried her to no end.”
“You see, I know that a dog is only a dog. Dogs are not human. But that dog gave me so much of what a dog gives best.” He paused. “Myself. She gave me back all that I gave her, and more. A good dog will replenish yourself.”
Henry stood up and grabbed the Old Man by the arm.
“C’mon,” he said.
The Old Man looked away.
“C’mon,” repeated Henry.
“I ain’t going nowhere, Henry.”
“Oh yes you are.”
“I’m serious, Henry. Leave me alone. Go home.”
Henry released his arm and spoke down at the Old Man who was still sitting cross-legged in the yard.
“For years you’ve shown me that being old isn’t bad. You’ve showed me strength in your old age. When I felt tired, you always managed to enthuse me with something new.” He paused. “But you, you’re acting old. You’re acting tired. And, quite frankly, it’s disgusting.”
Henry turned. As he reached the corner of the house, the Old Man stood.
“Where are you takin’ me now?”
“Down the road about sixty miles,” Henry said.
“There isn’t but one remedy for this situation, and the remedy is about six weeks old and black as night. I just happen to know where a certain litter of fine pups is and one of ‘ems got your name on it. Fine bloodline and healthy as mules.”
The Old Man thought a minute, walked briskly to Henry, and hugged him like a lone lost brother.
“You’re right, by cracky, you’re right! And I haven’t trained a new dog in years.”
Ten miles from the farmhouse, the Old Man looked out across the lowlands surrounding the river. Henry had talked consistently since they had left, but the Old Man had suddenly grown quiet.
“It’s the dog’s absence. It hurts really bad.”
The car hit a chuck-hole and bounced. The Old Man’s throat hurt and his eyes burned.
“I told her not to die. I carried her outside and laid her under that tree where she always slept. It was the only command I ever gave her that she didn’t obey. All she could do was wag that big black tail.”
The window fogged and Henry turned to see the Old Man pressing his head hard against the glass.