Often, it takes hunters a long time -- too long in some cases -- to realize just how skilled their dogs have become.
The mid-autumn air had an edge to it -- not so sharp that it razored through clothing, but keen enough to nick ears and cheeks. Chilled beads of the night's rain dripped from trees and fell earthward through washed-out leaf color. A breeze sighed down the tree-lined lane, stirring brown, brittle ferns clustered along puddled ruts.
A fine morning, the man thought, to be entering the quiet heart of a grouse and woodcock covert. Especially one that he and the setter at his side knew so well. There would be no preliminary examination, no prodding, no searching for the covert's pulse before getting a feel for how to hunt it. He paused and looked down the old lane's familiar track, along its canopied archway at a stretch of wet-shiny bedrock ledge bordering one side.
Until the recent break in the weather, autumn had been locked in a pattern of unseasonably high temperatures, no moisture, and scattered birds -- only a few woodcock had dribbled through, and grouse sulked deep in the thickness of cool bottoms and wooded swamp edges. It was midway through this difficult fall that the man realized his setter of 13 seasons was old.
The weather exhausted the dog and forced him into creeks for frequent drinks and coolings. But it was more than the heat. He seemed to have fallen into old age suddenly, though the man knew that it had not happened that way. The setter's style had always been paced and sensible, geared around the habitat and, wherever the cover allowed, the man. Now, his bird work was even more measured.
The sun had stretched to the treetops when the man released the setter. He watched the dog slowly climb a low spot in the ledge -- not go up it with a leap as he would have a few seasons past -- and move through a stand of spindly aspens. The dog circled a bulging outcrop of rock and shifted upwind of a dense cluster of whippy birches, where he slowed down, then froze, his tail lifted skyward like a thinly furred finger, and his head thrust out in a plane with his body.
The man walked around him into the birch thicket and was pulling his boot from a root tangle when a woodcock twittered up, leveled above the trees and disappeared. A second bird jumped, then two more, then a fifth that tumbled to earth in a flurry of feathers.
In the next hour they moved 37 woodcock. Although some of the flushes were wild and others were reflushes, at the man's best count, the setter righteously pinned at least 11 birds. But it was in a mixed stand of aspens, chokecherries and scattered apple trees that the setter shined and added the essential brush strokes of his work to the image forever planted in the man's mind's eye.
The dog drifted over the dampish earth like a weaving trail of smoke, pausing here, stopping there, wisping his unobtrusive way through the stand's nooks and crannies. He was workmanlike but not methodical; deliberate but not pottering; cautious but not tentative. He was unrattled by so many birds. Watching him, the man realized that a younger and faster but less experienced dog would have been out of context, perhaps even an intrusion, in the cover on that morning.
Moving through the trees, following a dog that had been part of his life for many years, the man realized something else. The setter was the best gun dog he had ever owned -- and had been the best for years, long before age slowed him. In a flash of insight, he saw that the setter had come to fit him like a shirt worn soft and supple or boots with miles on their soles and their folds and creases in the right places -- each so perfectly fitted that we forget their presence. He understood, as well, that he had taken this fine dog for granted, that he had allowed himself to see the setter's day-in and day-out, season-after-season performances as commonplace rather than singular.
The man shot a limit of woodcock that morning, something he had not done for years. He shot them for his setter -- meaningless as the gesture was -- to acknowledge what had gone unacknowledged for so many years. He shot them, too, for himself, to keep a poignant memory alive and vivid, stored against a time when the dog would no longer grace the covers.
The two of them finished the morning back at the ledge: the man sitting on mossy rock watching fluffs of cloud drift across what was now a soft-pastel sky, the setter lying on ferns with his head resting on a leather boot. In their own ways, each was comfortable with the other, content to be together in this cover on this morning. At the moment, nothing else mattered.