From “Another Autumn: The Rufus Chronicle”
Twelve autumns we traveled the fields together, and were prodigal with our time. Almost to the last we did not consider endings.
He flew the fences. I clambered ungainly over. He plunged boldly into the thickest, prickliest cover, while I took the easy way around the edges.
“The pup has style,” a man once said, and I thought I’d won the lottery. He also had much courage, and a ruling passion. If I’d ever gone at writing with a dedication like that, there’s no knowing what work I might have done.
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“He’ll live in his house outside,” I told my wife when we brought him home. “He’ll be a hunting machine.” That lasted until the weather cooled. Then of course he joined us and the old dog and the cats indoors. He slept in a chair or beside the bed.
But when we returned from an evening out and he met us at the door with that look of innocence, we knew there’d be a warm place on the covers where he’d trespassed.
He could be devious. A sandwich unattended for a moment would vanish in a gulp. His lust for bagels was indecent.
But those were merely vices.
His abiding devotion was to the hunt. He marked the season’s turning, and when the alarm sounded in the dark of a November morning, he always knew, and was waiting already beside the downstairs door.
His eyes, gold when he was young, deepened to chestnut brown. A knee failed and had to be repaired. He hunted on it eagerly as ever, not seeming to mind the price of soreness afterward. Then the cataracts began to come, but it was his nose that brought the important messages, and the nose still was keen.
Nearly every man who ever walked behind him spoke of someday wanting a Rufus pup, and several had them or have them now. One of those was Fred Kiewit, who, in the year when we were in Paris saw to it that the autumn was not wasted. Fred is gone, too, now. As is that other fine man, Stuart Mitchelson, for whom Rufus pointed and brought to hand the last bird just at the mellow sundown hour of the last day Mitch and I had together.
All of them — those men and Rufus — had full lives, good lives. And good lives never are long enough. But in the end there are some things that medicine cannot fix.
He passed his last night at home, on a pallet in the kitchen, with me beside him. He was tired, and had borne enough, and had been too good a friend to hurt any longer.
In the morning, then, I dressed for the hunt — put on my boots, and folded my canvas coat beside him, with the bird smell still in it. Also his leash. His head came up from the blanket. He’d have stood if he could. All the old excitement was in his eyes.
Dan, who’d cared for him so well from earliest puppy days, made the sad house call. Came to kneel with me beside him. And just as I let Rufus take the quail wing from my hand, released him to wherever it is that old gun dogs and those who’ve followed them finally go.
With my wife and a daughter I drove to the farm, and on a day of false spring, working together under a warm sun out of season, we buried him, wrapped in the coat, facing a thicket in which he almost always found a covey.
My theology is a bit shaky, and I don’t profess to know what, if anything, lies beyond the darkness. But I believe in covering all the possibilities.
So before we walked away, I looked a long minute straight up into the cloudless deeps of that sweet springtime sky and said, in my heart if not actually aloud, Freddy, Mitch, I’m sending you a pretty good dog. But he isn’t given, only loaned.