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by Sam Jefferies | Aug 19, 2020 | GUNDOGS, HUNTING
A Dog’s Tale

Of all the great moments I’ve laughed about and cried over, one keeps coming back. I’m glad to return to it as a reminder of his endless delight at life.

I lost an old friend recently. Lando was as big-hearted as they come, a goer right to the end—a true companion in every sense of the word. He deserves a big place to run, a field packed full of cackling pheasants that always hold just right. It should be a piece with a small river right at the end where mallards hole up in the backwater and maybe, every once in a while, a covey of bobwhite quail hunkers in the brush alongside, content to wait for the right nose to bust them out.
There are so many stories to be told about one of the great retrievers of all time. Impossible recoveries of enormous geese come to mind. So do unlikely rundowns of clever roosters, brave plunges into icy waters to bring back silly little buffleheads, and one glorious day where he stood, chest torn open by barbed wire, yellow fur stained with blood, unwilling to leave a river bend. I remember the mallards kept coming and the blind was dry.

Just one more I promise, this will be the last one. Just let us all stay and if you two shoot well, I’ll keep bringing the birds back. Why would anyone ever leave a paradise where greenheads decoy and there’s a little pond over the hill that holds big goldeneyes when it’s late like this? Maybe we could go jump it just one more time?

Of all the great moments I’ve laughed about and cried over, one keeps coming back. It’s a recent one, and in this moment of hurt, I’m glad to return to it as a reminder of his endless delight at life.

My wife and I had traveled westward to visit Chubbs, my father and Lando’s longtime companion and fellow cantankerous old-timer, just in time for grouse season.

I’d forgotten how the West can spoil you. Everything is all right there, just out your door. And we took full advantage that trip. The old dog was, in all honesty, too seasoned for chasing mountain grouse. His bones were brittle and his muscles gristle on bone. He couldn’t jump into a truck bed or run at anything faster than a lope. But he was as eager as a puppy, as expectant as a veteran who’s proven his worth a thousand times over—and we’d be damned if we were going to leave him behind.

It could have been any one of a hundred days over the course of a dozen hunting seasons, my father, Chubbs, and I walking opposite sides of an old logging road lined by pine trees with our faithful yellow bird dog 20 yards ahead.
It could have been a day in my teenage years, when Lando taught me how to watch 10 feet in front of his nose. Or, it could have been a weeklong college trip, reminding me that no smell in the world rivals the mixture of pine sap, gunpowder and a wet, happy Labrador. But it wasn’t. It was a day in the Montana mountains behind a four-legged hunter, more faithful than youthful, now pushing 15 years of days-afield-glory. We were just grateful to be there. Grateful and lucky, all three of us.
lando yellow lab dog
We hit a small covey of ruffed grouse partway up the road, knocking down all of them for the first time in too long, and handing a delighted old dog a few retrieves just easy enough to finish, yet hard enough even for a veteran gundog. On every retrieve, his tail beat side-to-side with the same fervor of his puppy years.

It was hard for me to remember seeing that old boy so delighted in himself except, of course, for every other bird he’d brought to hand over the years.

Fresh feathers can’t be beat, he seemed to say to us, and to hell with my creaky joints and sore paws.

It was too perfect to be replicated so we headed back to the truck, our content old friend now at heel next to my father, both content in their lot with the world.

Of course it doesn’t end there. Of course it doesn’t. How could it with a dog like Lando?

We tucked him in the back seat on his well-worn bed, stuffing the grouse in an onion sack one row of seats ahead. The miles slipped away easily under our tires as we traded stories about guns, the dogs’ good retrieves and bad, self-congratulations about this morning’s wingshots and talk of the coffee and sausage and a well-rested wife at home, carefree talk punctuated in the middle by an audible crunch of bones…

“What the hell?” was followed by the chirp of tires as we screeched to the side of the road. The door creaked as we opened the back to find Lando grinning from ear to ear, the head of a ruffed grouse dangling from his mouth.
“Gaawd, Landoooo, son of a…oh, hell…”

Then, at once at a loss for words, for actions, for reactions at the sight of a carefree old-timer who’d eaten not one, but two birds feet to beak in a matter of minutes, Chubbs yanked the remaining partridge away, tossed it in my lap and we drove off, momentarily angry.

It was a fleeting feeling. What’s a scolding going to do to a retriever nearing 15? Would he remember it next time? Or, next season?

As this dawned on us both, the tightness around our mouths softened and was quickly replaced by smirks, then grins and chuckles and finally belly wrenching laughs as we reflected on the audacity of a wizened friend too clever for us both. He’d damn sure earned those grouse, and we all knew it, Lando most of all.

Rest well, my friend. I promise that when I see you again, I’ll shoot straighter. I’ll always have water in my game pouch and biscuits in my pockets. I’ll scout better to find sandy creek bottom instead of muddy marshes and pheasant fields without hens, just like you like them. I’ll try and pass your lessons on to all the puppies to come. I’ll miss your skill and your nose and your endless desire for just one more. But most of all I’ll miss you and your big heart, always by my side.
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