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Sam Cook column: A nudge on the leg, a hole in the heart

Lucy, the "old yellow dog," retrieves a rooster pheasant during a western Minnesota hunt. Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com1 / 2
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Sometimes, just standing in the yard at home, I would feel a light tap on the side of my leg. It was barely discernible, the faintest of touches, almost as if I had merely imagined the sensation.

I would look down, and there she would be, letting me know she was there.

"And, hey, as long as you're just standing there, talking to the neighbor or whatever, how about a little lovin'?" the touch implied.

She would have materialized next to me after snapping the heads off some dandelions or plucking a wild raspberry off a bush at the edge of the yard.

Lucy. The old yellow dog.

That was her way. Soft. Gentle. Unassuming.

So, I'd respond the way she had trained me. I'd drop an arm and start rubbing a floppy yellow ear. That's all she needed. That's almost all she ever asked.

If the grass was dry, I might sit down on the ground beside her for a full-on rubbin'. Ears, head, back, belly. If I'd pause, she'd extend a big front paw to my arm or leg or face as if to say, "Dude. We're not finished here."

And I'd go back to give her more, because who could not?

Montana prairies. North Dakota pheasant sloughs. Minnesota switchgrass.

She loved it all, as long as there was sharp-tailed grouse or pheasant scent involved. She never met a cattail slough she didn't like. She must have figured out early on that that's where the pheasants wanted to be. She rarely had to be sent into the cattails. She just plowed in and started rattling those brittle October stalks.

If the seed-heads were mature, you could follow her progress in the cattails by watching the fluff shake from the heads. I'd move along the outside, waiting for a rooster pheasant to come thundering out, splashing his color against a drab autumn morning.

If I were lucky enough to drop the bird, she would somehow, in that jungle of stalks, sniff it out and emerge from the slough, looking for me through a sheaf of rooster wing that had flopped over her face.

Any hunter who is not humbled nearly to tears by such an event must be completely bereft of heart.

Once, when she was still a young dog, I stood at the edge of a North Dakota cattail slough awaiting her return. When I had taken the shot at the rooster, in a wild prairie wind, I feared the bird may have been too far out. I wasn't sure she had even seen it go down. The minutes stretched on. The cattails slapped at each other in the wind. No dog. No bird.

Finally, I gave up. I tried to call her in, as if she could hear me. I blew the come-back call on my whistle. More minutes passed. Nothing.

Dejected, I finally dropped my gaze from the landscape. And there she was, sitting at my side, her muzzle full of rooster.

I have no idea how she got there without my seeing her, nor how long she had been sitting there.

The old yellow dog left us this week. It was, as near as humans can determine, her time.

When she finally lay still, I pulled some pheasant feathers from a little bag I'd been keeping. I let the feathers fall from my hand, alighting softly at the edges of her muzzle.

I'd like to think she would have appreciated the gesture.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.

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