If that dog lives to be old and gray-faced, stove-up from heroic efforts and mishaps afield, groaning on a bed by the woodstove, feet twitching in dreams of long-gone birds and battles and glory, that is one kind of story. If your dog dies, violently, needlessly, at the height of his powers, the sun-lit days of wind and prairie and swamp still unfolding, and then cut short, that is another kind of story, indeed.
In the early 1990s, with a carefully timed phone call at midnight, you could leave a message and be first in line to reserve a day on the Teller Wildlife Refuge, a 5-mile piece of bottomland along the east bank of Montana’s Bitterroot River. The Teller was thriving, a landscape conserved and more powerfully alive than ever—a patchwork of hayfields and other cropland, dense hedgerows of wild rose, chokecherry, and hawthorn rustling with pheasants, dark-water cattail marshes and ether-clear spring creeks snaking through, all of it easing only slightly downhill to the big cottonwood forest that shelters the braids and oxbows of the Bitterroot River itself.
My Labrador, Bear, was 13 months old. I remember him that day as a cannonball brush-buster—45 pounds, pure black, utterly fearless in the water. The Teller Refuge trip was Bear’s first hunt, and the first for me with a retriever that I’d trained. We were not set up at first light; I’d never been there and needed a little daylight to get the lay of the place. Bear bounded, came back, bounded, came back, walked to heel, serious, sober. I carried a pillowcase stuffed with four mallard decoys. We crossed open fields to a bend in a spring creek, where a patch of cattails offered the only cover. As I threw out the dekes, already there were the wild voices of Canadas that we could see in lines above the river. A flock of teal whirled, and mallards passed over fast, the jet noises of their bodies cutting cold air. Three drake mallards came in hard to the decoys, wings cupped, straight out of the northwest. I poleaxed the drake on the far right, leaned back, turned, and fired my second shot foolishly behind the other two. Then, adding more foolishness yet, I racked the slide and fired another round as they disappeared against the bottomland trees, too far away. Waterfowl hunting—and this is as true for me now as it was then—is so intense that I frequently have to stop and remind myself to settle, to enjoy, to still my raging pulse and blabbering, often cursing, mind.
Bear emerged from the water with the drake clamped in his jaws. His clear pale eyes locked on mine, and he walked up to my leg and sat down still holding the duck, looking out over the water. I took the bird from him, hugged him, let him shake beside me, and stopped him from grabbing the bird again before we tucked back into the cattails.
By 9 A.M. , we were limited out—each bird a perfect retrieve. I picked up the decoys, and we took the ducks back to the truck, then went out to walk the spring creeks, jumping a few Wilson’s snipe, Bear working close, flushing them. He’d never seen them before, and for the two I killed, he retrieved them with a little less fervor than he had the drakes; they are so tiny and, like mourning doves, their feathers slip and stick to tongue and palate. I put them in my jacket pocket and we walked to the river as the day warmed and gray clouds gathered; autumn in the Bitterroots—the smell of apples from the orchards on every wind, big brown trout like bars of light bronze hovering over the sand and gravel in almost every little tributary of the river.
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