A day without promise takes a turn for the better with the arrival of an unexpected visitor.
The setter was a vision of electrifying beauty, outlined with St. Elmo's fire from the top of her head to her upright tail.
He awoke to the drip, drip, drip of rain on the cabin roof, the cold, miserable drip of a winter rain. It meant flooded creeks and branches, a sea of mud in the kennel yard, moon-landing boots of mud and chopped cotton stalks. It meant birds buried deep in the bays, where a ferret could not dig them out.
It was a mid-south winter rain, cold, inescapable and unrelenting. Misery was its name.
Things had started badly and become progressively worse. Sam, the big black and white pointer, the top dog in his kennel, could usually hold his own in the fastest company. This week he had been a different Sam. He seemed unable to do anything right.
On his very first covey he forgot whom he was working for and became lost on point. He came into view after an eternity of fuming search, then broke point, flushed the birds, standing with a confused look, not bothering to chase.
He stumbled over singles without properly honoring their flight. Worse, when the man berated him for his ineptness he looked at him as if to say: "Okay, hot stuff. You try it. See if you can do better."
Nell, the setter bitch, was ordinarily the epitome of decorum and solicitous of his whereabouts. Not on this trip; she was wild and uncontrollable. He was continually yelling and screaming at her in a vain attempt to keep her in the general vicinity but often she would wander off, sometimes getting far behind, at others disappearing for time on end.
Worse, she was unreliable on her birds. Upon scenting birds she would not even break stride, running them up and chasing them out of sight. This behavior was completely out of character, seeming without cause or cure, and filling him with despair.
Bud, Sam's son, had shown promise of becoming the best bird dog he had ever known.
Now, not to be outdone, he seemed to be vying for the distinction of the worst.
They were working along a sandy two-track, although "working" was an exaggeration.
Bud was trotting down the two-track making no effort to hunt the cover on either side.
After some pointed comments and the suggestion his hide might get a tanning, he finally made a move calculated to fool his master into thinking he was hunting.
The act failed. He was soon digging in the grass for a mouse. The activity disturbed a huge covey of quail. Oblivious, Bud did not even acknowledge their flight. The birds strung out, dropping into the broom straw in plain sight.
Now, the times you get modern bobwhite quail scattered in the broom straw are about as rare as a brother-in-law repaying the 50 dollars he borrowed from you when he was fired from his last job.
Before him lay riches, something remembered from his far-distant youth. Mentally he marked the singles. Then he took Bud on a circuitous route to kill time, giving the birds a while to give off scent. It was not hard to do. Bud was not going anywhere except for a stroll.
Finally they came around to the area where he had marked the birds down. He stopped, giving his usual command to hunt close: "Bud! Birds! Birds in here; stay with me."
Why was he not surprised? It was a day of madness. Suddenly Bud came alive. With a burst of speed he headed for the horizon. Whistling and screaming would bring him in for a moment, then he was gone again. Nothing would keep him in, hunting the singles.
They did not move a single bird. He snapped the leash on Bud and gave up in disgust.
So it was, wet, dejected and exhausted in body and spirit that he wearily made his way to the cabin.
He heaped good oak on the faintly glowing coals in the fireplace and threw himself into the chair by the hearth. The three bedraggled, shamefaced dogs sprawled on the rug nearby.
Soon, the fire was blazing. The gentle warmth began to seep through his wet clothing.
Beads of moisture traced tiny rivulets down the window panes. A combination of despondency, fatigue, steaming clothing and dogs became an opiate. He stretched out his legs with a sigh.
He thought he heard a scratching at the door. The scratching persisted. He got up and opened the door to find a beautiful white setter bitch before him. She jumped straight up in front of him, then made a short run down the path, returning to repeat the performance.
He knew she wanted him to follow. He hurried into the cabin, quickly grabbing his gun and shooting jacket. With fumbling fingers he stuffed shells into the chamber. She was already on point 50 yards down the path.
She was a vision of electrifying beauty, outlined with St. Elmo's fire from the top of her head to her upright tail. He stepped in front of her and the covey flushed into the trees. He fired two quick shots, not knowing if either was effective.
She retained her pose until he touched her shoulder, then she sped off. Moments later two birds lay in his hand with scarcely a ruffled feather.
Again, she was quickly away. Carried on a riptide of admiration, he followed as she became a white speck in the distance. The speck transmogrified into an alabaster statue.
He did not run nor hurry, as there was no need to. He could tell exactly where the birds were by the alignment of her muzzle and intent gaze. He approached within six feet of the spot, stamped his foot and a huge covey erupted.
The gun came to his shoulder, spoke twice and two birds plummeted to the ground. His usually pedestrian shooting had changed to match the brilliance of the bird work. The setter remained immobile, head and tail high, watching scattered singles dropping into the broom sedge.
Oh, happy day! A tap on the shoulder and she was off. She did not quarter, did not road but went directly to the birds. Twice she did so, twice the gun boomed, and twice more birds fell.
Working the remaining singles, she went from bird to bird. Completely sated, he merely flushed each bird and watch
ed it fly off. She watched calmly, unmoving until ordered on.After he flushed the last bird, she gave him a look as if to say, "Well, that's it." Then she was off in a burst of speed, a comet disappearing over the hill.
A freshening breeze stripped the clouds away. Overhead, twig-clinging water droplets became sparkling, multicolored prisms. Shielding his eyes, hurrying to the brow of the hill, he caught a glimpse of something dazzling white disappearing into the golden haze.
The fire had burned low. The dogs lay scattered about as they had when he sat down. The rain had stopped. It had turned cold.
Only a few glowing embers remained on the hearth. He sat up aching and chilled. Did he hear scratching at the door? Anxiously he hurried, opening it.
His heart fell. It was only a swirl of wind-driven, fallen leaves.