The Old Man
The Old Man peered hopefully into the cedar thicket, looking for any sign of old Pap. It had been ten minutes since he had watched the aged setter disappear, but Pap had been acting awfully birdy before entering the quiet cedar glade. The Old Man shifted the weight of the double gun from the crook of his left arm to his shoulder, and continued around the thicket’s edge.
At the corner, where the cedars met an old field, Pap’s stiff tail was protruding awkwardly from an ancient stump, as if the dead wood had miraculously sprouted a quivering, white setter tail. The Old Man smiled at the tail and the unseen dog that he knew was closely attached before moving closer.
“Whoa Pap,” the Old Man calmly whispered as he approached the dog. Pap strained his eyes backward toward Sam Kenton without moving his steady head, but the Old Man noticed a quick tail wag at the sound of his voice.
“Ain’t this beautiful, Pap?” the Old Man continued. “See how this here field falls from the thicket... like a trap shoot.” The Old Man had made it to the stump when the covey exploded. Thirty birds, propelled by sixty separate feathered wings, rose like a noisy cloud of little rusty rockets.
The first quail fell quickly in a puff of feathers, and the Old Man swung the little Ithaca to a second. It tumbled in the air as he fired and the Old Pap was working excitedly through the orchard grass toward the first bird when the Old Man called “dead.” The Old Man sat comfortably on the stump as he watched the elderly dog work in front of him. He talked to the old setter like the covey rise had only temporarily interrupted their conversation.
“You see, Pap,... it’s sound that gets a man... that wonderful, addicting sound of the unity of all them wings and hearts doing exactly the same thing at the exactly the same time. And that sound... that... sound....”
The big setter approached Sam Kenton and gently dropped the quail on his leg. The Old Man took the bird and patted the dog’s head.
“Thank you Pap,... it’s that sound,” he continued, “that I’ll miss the most cause you’re the only friend I’ve got that understands about it.” The dog closed his eyes under the Old Man’s Hand.
“You see, Pap... I’ve had many good bird dogs in my life, but I never had one that was kind enough to stop hunting when I wanted to talk, and actually listen. That’s how I know you understand about the sound.”
Pap sat down and looked up at Sam Kenton. The Old Man continued.
“There are thousands of good bird hunters out there who want to talk to their dogs like I do, but they’re afraid people will think they’re crazy... but you see, when you’re as old as we are, you don’t care any more about such trivialities.”
The Old Man rested his shotgun on the ground and stood on the stump. He half-shouted to the quiet field.
“Hey! This here dog is a friend of mine, and I talk to him on a regular basis! He don’t say a heck of a lot, but that’s o. k.... ‘cause he understands. Nine years now, he’s understood.”
The Old Man looked down at the setter who was looking quizzically, like a puppy, up at the man on the stump.
“You see,” said the Old Man, “nobody seems to be upset about us talking.... Let’s go get that other bird.”
At the end of the field, the Old Man heard frozen rain falling on the surrounding dead leaves. He looked up into the grayed January sky as the sounds became distinctly louder. There was no wind, and the Old Man figured it wasn’t cold enough to sleet, but then again it’s hard to get cold when bird hunting, he thought.
“C’mon, Pap,” he called. “I know a place down this hollow we can keep dry.”
They walked three hundred yards until they found a watercress-filled spring branch crossing the field. Following the spring branch, the Old Man found a small path leading to a hidden honeysuckle thicket.
The thicket was protected from the north wind because it lay under a large wooded ridge that extended high above them. A hundred yards away, standing amidst the honeysuckle and three magnificent white oaks, was the cabin. The moss-covered shake shingles on the roof were somehow still intact, although in several places the roof had fallen inward, exposing the darkened interior of the cabin. The Old Man walked carefully down the path, feeling the same as he had always felt when approaching such a deserted home place. The sign of past lives was everywhere, and to the Old Man his presence felt almost like a trespass. The rock chimney at the side of the cabin had lost its highest ten feet, and the jagged edge of the existing earthen mortar gave the home place a wounded appearance, as did the fallen porch and the gaping hole where a large front door once hung strongly on its hinges. A web of dead tangled vines consumed one entire side of the cabin, and the Old Man noticed three separate track-worn animal trails leading under the foundation. He paused at the porch and called the dog, who had suddenly taken an interest in a pile of antique bottles at the opposite corner of the porch.
They entered the empty home together, and immediately heard the frozen rain on the roof. The log walls gave an immediate feeling of comfort to the Old Man, and as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he noticed that the light from the open door and one open window was sufficient to see inside. The floor was surprisingly clean, with no debris except two decayed piles of coon droppings in one corner. Sam Kenton walked across the floor to the fireplace, each step echoing in harmony with the scratching sounds of Pap’s toe nails on the worn wood.
“What do you thing, Pap? Care for some lunch?”
The Old Man reached in his coat pocket and pulled out a crumpled sack which contained one sandwich, one can of dog food, and a can opener. He leaned the unloaded shotgun against the rock wall of the fireplace and laid the sack on the floor.
“Don’t start ‘till I get back,” he said, and quickly returned with an armful of dead wood.
“Reckon this old fireplace can take one small fire?” he asked. Pap was looking at the sack and did not respond. The Old Man touched a match to the small teepee of kindling and immediately saw that the fireplace was going to draw, although some of the early smoke escaped into the room.
“Now,” he said, as he added some larger sticks, “ain’t that nice?”
Pap still watched the sack. The Old Man grabbed the opener and pierced the top of the can, and Pap licked his lips as the opener made its way around the circle. The Old Man shook the contents onto the floor with a loud slurp, immediately cutting the contents into three equal parts with the can.
“There you go boy.” Pap quickly devoured the food in three separate, inhaling gulps. The Old Man took more time with his sandwich. It was half-eaten when he noticed that the sound of the frozen rain on the roof had stopped. Sam Kenton slowly stood and made his way to the open door.
The snow was falling quietly outside, whitening the honeysuckle around the cabin. The flakes were quite large, and as the Old Man had noticed hundreds of times before with a snow like this one, there was no sound. The woods were peacefully silent. The bird dog walked across the floor and joined the Old Man at the door. Sam Kenton tore off a piece of crust and dropped it for the dog. It never made it to the floor.
“There’s something else that’s special about you, boy,” said the Old Man to the dog. “Of all the dogs I’ve raised to point birds, you’re the one that happens to be my last. I don’t have the heart to lose any more friends who don’t understand about the sound.”
The Old Man sat on the floor, letting his boots dangle down where the porch used to be. He took the old dog’s head under his left arm, and Pap licked him in the face.
“You’re it, old boy. I’ll not own another. When I can’t share it with you... I’ll not go again... and that’s why I talk to you... so you’ll understand how much your company has meant to me... so you’ll know how much I’m gonna miss you.”
The Old Man paused, looking out across the hollow. “It’s something, ain’t it boy? I’m gonna miss the whole wonderful shootin’ match. It’s surely and purely been a pleasure... and I’m proud to have walked with you... “ The Old Man had to stop, for as he looked into the tired, brown eyes of the old dog, Sam Kenton’s throat began to tighten.
The snow fell harder, but there was no wind. In the hollow, the quail were calling as they found each other in the thicket. They were uneasy when separated, knowing security only in the presence of an assembled covey. Their comfort was in the mere presence of the other covey members, but they continued to call even after they were unified. There was no reason for them to call after all had found each other, but they did. And, in the doorway of a decaying cabin, in the middle of a January snowstorm, the Old Man continued to talk to his bird dog, even though the dog already understood.