Merle died on a Wednesday in July.
Days after, just for the briefest of moments, I’d find myself looking for him around the house, wondering if he needed help getting to his feet and gently piloted out the door to take care of business in the back yard.
I don’t do that anymore and feel bad that I don’t.
Merle was my third Brittany. His predecessor, Deke, also died years ago in summer. Both were 14. Coincidences, certainly, but nothing more.
We’ve always had bird dogs and likely always will. Ollie, our 11-year-old golden retriever who, I’m certain is sacked on our leather couch as a I write this, has slowed a step and doesn’t recover as quickly from a day in the field. That, and the want to hunt often when work and family allow, is something we have in common.
In 14 years, with Merle mostly quietly in tow (he’d ride without a peep on pavement, but invariably broke into a nervous, shaking whine once tires touched gravel), it’s difficult to remember all our outings. Considering all the miles, the many empty shotgun shells, our share of birds and seasons of tailgate lunches, much of it blends together.
Yet, like recalling your kid’s first fish, deer or duck, I can easily unearth from the clutter of many years’ worth of memories, Merle’s first hunt.
It’s the sharp-tailed grouse opener, a Saturday, of course. It’s raining a bit, but not enough to keep us home. This is going to be, has to be, a quick hunt. I promised I wouldn’t be late to a youth soccer game back in town where they don’t keep score and the T-shirts hang nearly to the little players’ knees. I’m excited to see how the morning will unfold, but I’m not holding my breath. This is wholly different than training on grouse wings tugged around the back yard on a string. I’ve picked this spot, a hilly pasture, with buckbrush patches here and there, because it’s close to town and seasons before we’ve shot a bird or two on the sidehills. I’ve yet to shift my pickup into park when I see birds, sharptails, maybe a dozen or more, fly a halfmoon around the tallest hill in the pasture and land out of the wind. I know it can’t be this easy, it typically never is, but we’ll make the quarter-mile hike because that’s why we’re here, putting Merle’s inexperienced nose into the wind, and see what happens. I split my time watching Merle weave with purpose through the short grass and keeping an eye on the sidehill to see if the birds stay put. I’m guessing that this early in the season, this early in September, that some of the birds are just like my dog, young and inexperienced enough to let us within shotgun range. Turns out, they are. With two grouse in my game vest, bouncing warm against my lower back, we hustle downhill to my pickup and a soccer game. What a wonderful start.
Years later, on a Wednesday in July, I can’t say the same about the end.