When the Deal Goes Down

7db359f6-1fa2-43a2-b361-f88f25a795b3
Story By Tom Carpenter
Art by Ed Anderson

 
More frailer than flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down
-Bob Dylan

It happens in every bird dog’s life. 

A graying around the eyes, muzzle and flanks. A slowing of the step. A clouding of the eyes. A hardening of the eardrums.

That magnificent nose is last to go. Sometimes I think they can navigate on that alone.

Such was the inevitable case with Rascal the Little Brittany. One day your bird dog is in its prime and another day you wake up and realize she’s not going to be with you forever. Who knows why it just happens. Our subconscious knows much more than our conscious lets on. But it hits you like a hammer in the gut.

For me that hammer came in her twelfth year. The step slowed noticeably. Her eyes showed a veil of cirrus. She stayed closer in the field because she was afraid of losing me. Like I was afraid of losing her.

Oh, she still hunted. And found birds. We had some good hunts in those years between “My dog is getting old,” and “Goodbye.”

But it was time to start appreciating the frail and precious hours we had left.

***

But why start at the end? That always comes soon enough.

My little bird dog puppy arrived from Kansas on a warm June day. She took over the house immediately, as did every bird dog I’ve ever owned. And that was fine, the way it should be: Unconditional love and soft ears and intense work in the field and birds in hand make more than adequate payback for living with equal if not privileged family status.

She came at that perfect time of life to be the dog my kids were raised with. She went with me everywhere, she slept next to my bed at night, so tightly bound we were.

***

I won’t brag her up much, for you know how perfect they all are despite their imperfections, so I will tell you about some of my little bird dog’s mischievous escapades in those early years: 

Jumping up on the table and running off with a whole chicken carcass. Rolling in a pile of rotting carp on a local riverbank. Pulling out of her collar and interrupting a football game on the local high school field. 

***

Did I tell you she was hell on squirrels?

At home she would put front paws up on the windowsill to check the bird feeders out front, and if there was a squirrel busy scarfing seed on the ground, she would ask out. But instead of a direct frontal assault, she would conduct a circuitous paw-by-paw sneak around the back of the house and come at them from the side, aided by the element of surprise.

Her launch and acceleration were legendary among the local squirrel population, which she kept skittish and trimmed.

***

She was a fishing dog too – an excellent boat companion due to her laid-back nature, and a fine trouting partner because she would play in the woods and meadows instead of the creek.

***

I almost forgot to tell you that we hunted too.

Like your bird dog, every bird dog, she had her own distinct style and personality in the field … little quirks and behaviors that ultimately put more birds in front of her nose and in our bag.

Anybody who hunted with us knows that she loved to point grasshoppers, and was an excellent mouser with staunch nose-down point and a red-fox pounce.

We started every autumn on ruffed grouse. It always took couple birds bumped before she re-learned locking up at the very first hint of scent on nervous-Nellie thicket-rockets.
With credit to my friend Ben Williams, I dubbed her ruffed grouse lockups “bus stop points” because they were loose, laid back, casual, nonchalant … like she was waiting for a bus.

She was close-working and fine-nosed on woodcock. Doodles sit nice and her woodcock points featured a head low and parallel to the ground with two nostrils aquiver, her stub tail pendulating slowly.

We hunted Huns and sharptails in Montana, and she always annually adapted well to the Big Wide Open, maybe because she knew it getting us ready for the Main Event.

***

That Main Event was pheasants. Rascal hunted pheasants in 15 autumns, guiding us to roosters across pheasant country.

She was a natural on wild roosters probably because that’s what we hunted most, pursuing them above all else almost exclusively once the seasons started opening up. If upland bird hunting were our religion, pheasants were our communion.

My dog also had a couple quirks – good ones – as a pheasant hunter. 

She learned, somehow, early on, to leave a running, downwinding bird and lope wide around to course crosslots back at me, into the wind, confusing many a rooster and cornering them between us.

She approached the hunt in a cool, laid back, never-too-excited gait, seeming to know she was going to hunt all day and pacing herself so. I would call her a cruiser, not a crasher. Even waves of snow-covered late-season cattails weren’t assaulted as if a frigate from above but rather as a submarine from below.

***

Where would I start, where would I end, to tell you about some of our rooster hunting adventures across pheasant country? 

She pointed first pheasants for each of my kids. Hunted in 80-degee heat and below-zero cold. Plowed snow. Cruised bluestem and goldenrod and corn stubble and willows and cattails from Montana across the Dakota to Minnesota and Wisconsin and down into Iowa and Nebraska.

I could look back in my journals and enumerate it all – places visited, points made, birds brought to bag, sunsets watched in my arms. But the story is better told by brushstroke images of a fleeting afternoon long ago on the South Dakota prairie, just me and this little warrior of a dog and three perfect points made in a golden sunset.

***

Our last birds together came in December of her 14th season.

After a 2-hour walk on a rare bluebird day for the time of year, she locked up in light grass just ahead of me on our trudge back to the vehicle. It was a gift of a bird, with prayers answered when I dropped it and she bounded like a puppy to her prize, later falling asleep in the grass with it as we napped in the sun.

We rested at a friend’s hunting camp for a few hours, and I thought she had had it for the day. But when I tried to sneak out for a golden hour stroll, she limped to the door to go. We flushed a rooster that dropped into cattails, and I had to carry her in to help me find it. When her bell stopped, I walked over and dug out the rooster.

It was last bird she ever pointed.

***

In the intervening summer, Lark joined us. My old bird dog got older but put up with the young upstart.

But that next hunting season, I knew it was getting time. Still, Rascal would ride along and go for cursory tootles after the puppy had finished her work.  

That last November weekend, I walked with my old dog in a little patch of prairie grass for one final cruise late on a Sunday afternoon, our shadows rolling together for maybe 20 yards before we lie down to nap, tightly bound, in the midday prairie sun. 

It is time.

***

She asks out in the middle of the night. Ten minutes later I check outside and find her curled up in my wildflower bed. I come back out with a comforter, and we spend the rest of the November night out there, curled up soul to soul. 

***

A dear friend meets me in the parking lot. Hugs. Tears. Goodbyes. I go in alone with my bird dog. 

I knew it would end this way, we all do, but she is curled in my arms just as we spent so many nights during her life. 

More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down


I doubt Dylan had bird dogs in mind when he wrote those words. But the meaning of art – whether a poem of music or the strokes of a brush or the majesty of a bird dog in motion – comes from those looking therein for peace. He knew the price we pay for unconditional love is being there at the end.

So we lay there, her curled up in my arms, soul to soul, those frail and precious hours streaming between us. She still smelled of the prairie as I stroked her silken ears for the last time, whispering into them sweet nothings and everythings.

This story first appeared in the Summer 2020 Bird Dogs Issue of Pheasants Forever Journal.