column By: Arthur R. Macdougall, Jr. | November, 17
The last kindness of the October sun touched the wide valley of the upper Kennebec. It was a stone’s throw back to summer, and a toss to the white months of winter. I took my hat and set it on my head, and started upstreet in search of Dud Dean. It was high time to get out in the hills, where the ruffed grouse were drumming in the lazy autumn air.
Mrs. Dean surveyed me with critical eyes. It was apparent that she suspected truancy. “No, Mr. Macdougall,” she replied, “Dudley isn’t at home. He went down to Whitney’s store to get some putty. I told him that this nice spell of weather was just the time to get the storm windows on for the winter. He usually puts it off until it’s so cold that I pity him. I presume that your storm windows are all on, aren’t they?”
I was considerably embarrassed, and was glad to escape Nancy’s half amused and half censorious eyes. Muttering something about wanting to see Dud for a few moments, I hastily retreated.
I met Dud on his way home. He did not notice me until I spoke, and my greeting interrupted a profound consideration of the frost-painted hills.
“Nice day, Dud,” I said.
“Aya,” he replied, bringing his gray eyes to rest on me. “Aya,” he reiterated, looking off beyond me.
I grinned, rather sheepishly. It seemed probable that Nancy’s storm windows would wait for less auspicious weather.
“Aya,” repeated Dud, “did yer see the latest setter?”
“Why, no. Your wife didn’t mention a setter. She seemed to be interested in–”
“Hm. Sh’udn’t wonder: Never mind that. Come up and see the latest. Ain’t really looked at her, myself. Jist came on the mornin’ express.”
“Well,” I began, hesitatingly, “we really should get started. You go up and get your gun and dog and meet me down here at the corner.”
The lines About Dud’s eyes danced merrily. “Um, wel-el, I never heard of putty sp’ilin’. So, by crotch, I’ll go yer! Git that old omnibus of yourn, an’ me an’ the dog’ll be down here waitin’ fer yer. But we ought to pick out sunthin’ kinda special. Know where thar’s some nice flocks?”
“I know where there are a half dozen, and some woodcock to boot.”
“My gosh, Mak, that sounds good enough. What more c’ud a mortal ask?”
So we got going.
“Tell yer what,” said Dud, as he climbed in, and we started out with his latest setter, “next to trout fishin’, I’d as soon gun fer pa’tridge. They’re smart. The Almighty made ’em early in the mornin’. It’s danged wicked, an’ all, to say it, but as long as I can lug a gun, an’ October comes round once a year, I ain’t hankerin’ to graduate.”
“It surely is a great afternoon.”
“Crotch, Mak, yer ain’t strong on language, be yer? Why, the weather today is almost as good as it feels.”
“What about this latest dog?” I asked.
“She’s one of the same old breed, Mak. Ain’t had her out. What erbout them pa’tridges yer had in mind?”
“Well,” I confessed, “they’re tarnish, I’m afraid. The sort that like to run out of trouble.”
Dud chuckled. “I like ’em wild, Mak, but not too wild. When they take to flyin’ out of a lot b’fore a man c’ud throw a baseball in the front–
“Well, here we be, danged if we ain’t, as my friend Humphries likes to say. Yer know, I kinda figgered we both had the same birds in mind. I see ’em, when I was fishin’ up the brook last August. Let’s see, that fust flock was hangin’ out down in them alders, warn’t they?”
As we got out of the car, Dud looked at the latest setter in a puzzled manner. Then turning to me, he asked, “Now what in Tophet is this dog’s name? Prince Step-and-Take-It? No, that was the big raw-boned feller I had two falls ago. Let’s see – last fall it was Pride of sunthin’ er other. Gol-durn it, I’ve gone and fergotten this dog’s name. Here you, Bill Barnum, the third, er whatever, git goin’ an’ show us if ye’re any good in this country. Yer better be, becuz if yer ain’t, we’ll have to stay home an’ put on storm winders.”
At that, the big setter looked long and thoughtfully at Dud.
“Well, how c’ud yer expect me to remember that?” he demanded, as though the bitch had asked him a pointed question. “Mak, it’s jist come to me that this setter’s name is Lady Gracious of Kennetunk. So now that’s been taken care of, suppose we git goin’, Lady G.”
The setter raced ahead to the alders.
“I’m afraid she’s too fast,” said Dud. The words were but spoken, when the big setter came to an abrupt halt and a beautiful point.
“Crotch,” whispered Dud, “Lady Gracious, sure e-nough!”
I offered, none too obviously, to fall behind Dud. He motioned for me to come abreast.
“Don’t sneak out of it that way,” he said, with a deep-throated chuckle. “I always dread terribly to be responsible fer the fust bird of the season. Every fall, I feel jist the same way I did when I toted my fust muzzle-loader. My heart goes plunkity-plunk, an’ I’m scared to death fer fear I’ll miss the fust shot.”
We were walking up to the setter. In front of her was an island clump of alders, such as one often sees in old pastures.
“Pshaw,” muttered Dud, “I’m afraid that’s one of them woodcock of yourn. If it is, you shoot him.”
I walked closer, for I knew that Dud felt woodcock were a little beneath his gun. A small brown bird shot up out of the alders, and away into the heavier growth beyond. It left a faint swirl of whistling sounds in the October air. The setter stood her ground. Somehow I had not been able to get my gun on the bird.
“Deuce take them little whistlin’ idgits,” drawled Dud. “I ’spose yer c’udn’t see him, c’ud yer, Mak?”
“Certainly I could see him—more or less.”
Dud laughed softly. “Mak, maybe ye’re like me—got a one-track mind. Likely, yer was thinkin’ pa’tridge. Then up gits one of them little long-nosed pokers. It ain’t fair.
“Crotch,” continued Dud, “I’m beginnin’ to be afraid that Bart has sent me a dang lap dog. She claims that thar’s some more of them little tinklin’ birds in thar. I don’t like ’em. Make a dog learn to hunt too slow. ’Spose yer step in thar an’ let ’em have it on the nose.”
I stepped in ahead of Lady G. Sure enough, another woodcock climbed to the top of the alders, and began to whistle about freedom. I caught him at about that moment.
“Good on your head,” said Dud. “Go an’ fetch fer Mak, Lady.”
“Say, Dud,” I said as we moved on, “this is a great dog.”
“Well, crotch, Bart never sent me anythin’ but good dogs. That seems to be what he raises. But I wish that this one was a little more peeticler. I like a dog that won’t bother ’ith them fly-by-nighters. Like to have ’em specialize in pa’tridges. Of course, these little whistle-britches birds is all right. I’d rather gun fer them than saw wood.”
Lady G. started up the path, through the alders. Again she halted, and her tail came up. It was a beautiful picture – the dog in that shadow and sun spotted path. She was pointing a bird in a thicket of alders that filled the wet ditch and sprawled over the bank to the second growth beyond the old pasture wall. Dud clutched my elbow, and we both halted in our tracks.
“Look at that,” Dud whispered. “Steady as the rock of ages, an’ as purty as a wild thing in the month of May.”
A round ball of russet feathers suddenly leaped into the air, and shot up straight for the sky and into the sun. The trim little twenty-gauge barked, and the bird fell, almost where it had started. And that was enough to start two more. One climbed in orthodox fashion. The other slanted off on a confusion of wings. Dud dropped the first with his second barrel. And I managed to spill the third.
“Crotch,” exclaimed Dud, pushing his felt hat back on his head. “Now do yer suppose that bitch will look at us, like maybe we was one of her crowd?”
While he picked up the woodcock, I talked with his dog. Dud’s muttering interrupted me. “Dang it all, I knew them things warn’t worth shootin’. Look how small they be. I’ve shot pa’tridges year in an’ year out, man an’ boy, but it’s been years since I cracked one of these tooters. It’s kinda fun, ain’t it?”
Evidently there were no more woodcock in that particular cover. The setter went to work on her own.
“Where d’ye figger them pa’tridges is, Mak?”
Of course, I wasn’t expected to answer that question. But we finally located the plum bushes, about an old stone heap, that I had in mind. The dog was out of sight. Dud called. And with simply delightful manners, the setter obeyed the soft summons.
“Steady, Lady,” said Dud, and we started in.
Catching bird scent, the setter raced ahead, and we lost sight of her for a moment.
“Now, we’ll git a crack at sunthin’ real, maybe,” grinned Dud.
The grin was youthful. It would have fitted the face of a ten-year-old. Such is October’s wizardry. And that is the big reason for gunning. For that, October days were made. So, for a few hours, at least, one may rub off the years.
Although there was bird scent in and about the thorn plums, there were no birds. They had been there earlier in the day. The dog settled down to find those birds. By that time, I looked upon her as an old friend. In fact, I watched her work with open-mouthed admiration. It seemed to me that she was one in a million. To have been able to buy her at any price one could raise would have been a piece of unmitigated luck.
Dud watched me closely. And it certainly seemed to me that some hidden amusement betrayed itself in his face. At last he spoke.
“I know what ye’re thinkin’, Mak. It seems to you that this Lady G. is medium good. But she’s jist another of Bart’s dogs, I guess. All in all, I’ve shot over ten er fifteen of ’em. They’ve all been pa’tridge dogs. But thar was only one in the lot, a red Irisher, that was far an’ away the best. Of course I remember them all, although I never tried to remember their hifalutin’ names. But the pitchur of the Irisher is hung in my heart. That’s how I always let the rest of ’em go back at the end of the season, ’ithout too much trouble. I’ve liked ’em all, but danged if I didn’t love that Irisher.”
We were hurrying across an old field, knee-deep with dead June grass. The latest dog had raced across to thick cover beyond an old cedar fence. There wasn’t much time to ponder on what Dud had said, but it did awaken an old curiosity.
This Bart – what sort of a fellow was he? The annual dog was always a perfectly trained animal. And although they certainly never lost anything of finish under Dud’s hands, he never attempted to alter their education in the least. This Bart apparently loaned the dogs to Dud. It was, seemingly, an unusual gesture of friendship. When it became clear that Dud was not going to enlighten me after all, I suddenly determined to ask a question.
“Confound it all, Dud, who is this Bart?”
“Huh? Oh, he’s one of them fellers that makes a livin’, somehow, raisin’ dogs ... setters.”
“Would you mind telling me what his last name is?”
“What? Do yer mean to say that I never mentioned his last name?”
“I don’t think that you ever mentioned his last name, to me.”
“Huh, that’s funny. It’s Brown – jist Brown, Bart Brown.”
“I suppose that you and he have been hunting together a great deal?”
“Nope. I never saw him but once in my life. Though he’s always promisin’ that he’ll be up fer some trout fishin’.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, as we came to the cedar fence. “I don’t get this at all. Did you have the first dog, the Irisher, on trial? Hang it all, Dud, there’s something in this succession of good bird dogs that is fantastic. Excuse me, but I’ve held in on it as long as I can.”
Dud let the matter hang in the air, figuratively speaking, and sadly surveyed a tear in his woolen trousers.
“Bob-wire,” he said, “is like a bankrupt’s friends. It bobs up an’ snatches what it can git hold of ’ith no more decency than dynamite. Nancy will comment on this. Crotch! What was yer sayin’? No, I never had the Irish dog on trial. If thar had been any chance to buy that dog, I’d have bought him, if doin’ so had ruined me now an’ eternally. I’ll help yer understand jist how much of a dog he was: Nancy would have taken in washing, to have kept that dog in our house. If we didn’t have important business to transact, t’other side of the fence, I’d set right down an’ tell yer the whole story. As ’tis, thar’s jist erbout time to say that I had to return the Irisher to his rightful owner. He was a stolen dog.”
“Stolen!” I gasped, not comprehending how Dud and Nancy could have been mixed up in an affair like that.
“Yes, sir, stolen. I got a black eye out of that rumpus. An’ I d’know but that Nancy w’ud tell yer to this day that I got erternally disgraced in the course of events. But I’d know. ... I got a brand new setter to use, every year so long’s I want one, er so long as Bart an’ me can kick the leaves off the toe of our boots. An’ if ye’re still curious, I d’know but that I’ll tell yer the rest of it sometime. But jist now, let’s git over this danged fence.”