From “Another Autumn: The Rufus Chronicle”
Teal season in the Midwest arrives oddly out of time. The days still are warm and the leaves have not yet started to color when the early flights of green-wings and blue-wings come racing down the continent to linger a few weeks, then hurry on ahead of the cold.
I was involved with several friends in a duck lease 90 minutes south of the city — a shallow, muddy little pond of 40 or so acres, with two blinds. Some years there was too little water. Other years the creek flooded, overflowed the pond and washed the blinds away.
A few mornings each season, usually just before the freeze, the mallards — the big red-leg flight ducks — came in great numbers and the shooting was fine. Most days we watched them pass over high, looking for larger and more promising water. But it was the early teal opener that began the hunting year, and it was good to be down the road and out before first light, even if it seemed queer to be sitting in a duck blind in shirtsleeves.
Mainly I went out that morning for Rufus’s benefit. That’s how men often explain their hunting: They only do it out of obligation to the dogs. This time it was the truth.
To accustom him to sudden noise, I’d started by banging his food dish and rattling pans at feeding time. Then we graduated to a cap gun, and from that to blanks from a starter’s pistol. The neighbors must have wondered why, with all that shooting, no ambulance ever came to the house.
He was ready now for the racket of some light shotgun loads at close range. So we loaded, in the 3 o’clock morning dark, his crate and my chest waders in the back of the station wagon, him beside me on the front seat, and drove to the pond.
The sky was cloudless and full of stars. No one else was out that morning, so we would have the place to ourselves.
The blind was on the far bank, a waist-deep wade of most of a quarter-mile. Briefly I thought of trying to carry him out, Rufus under one arm, gun and bag of decoys in the other. But, loving water as he did, he plunged directly in and dog-paddled cheerfully beside me as we crossed.
The day came on with a rush — sparkling, windless, unpromising for ducks.
“Well, little fellow,” I told Rufus, “maybe after a while we’ll let off a shot or two anyway, just to see how you like it.”
I’d hardly said it when there was a whispering rush over the blind as the flight of a dozen green-wings sped in from behind, turned once and dropped on cupped wings straight to the decoys. My first startled shot went wild. The second put a drake in the water.
The surprise was what followed.
Except for songbirds in his yard and in the park, he’d never seen a feathered creature of any sort. But at the sound of the shot and the splash of the teal, Rufus was out of the blind and swimming for the prize.
He towed the duck in by its wing. And his expression, when I took it from him and lifted him back in with me, was both excited and proud. He sniffed the teal with interest, licked it once. Then, I swear, he looked skyward to see if there might be others coming.
“You’re not a duck dog,” I told him in a mock-chiding way. “You’re a bird dog!”
He was not yet 6 months old. And I think it was in that moment that I understood, in a way I really hadn’t before, that Providence had given me a very uncommon companion to share my seasons in the field.