This past spring, Ike’s back end gave out. We were on a mountain ride, a short one, up to the cow camp cabin to check things out, chase out mice and winter’s stale breath. It was a short ride, but it was too long for an old gun dog with creaky running gear. We noticed he wasn’t behind us and rode back and there he was, dragging legs weakened by age, arthritis, atrophy. But his tail was wagging and he got to ride up on the saddle for the return to the truck. I was smart enough to be riding with my friend who doubles as my veterinarian and Ike was in good hands and soon had some outstanding drugs floating through his system.
He reminds me of an old cowboy, all elbow and no-butt, an angled old man with a hide like an old saddle kept dusty and un-oiled in a hot barn. Not an old man who wheezes about low on oxygen and high on gout, but an old man who totters all bent forward from a life of fence mending, Wranglers falling off his fading keister, belt tightening each year and the leather punch close to hand. But he is happy.
I know for certain that he has climbed his last chukar crag and I fear that he has vacuumed up his last pheasant field. I hope not. I ply him with Rimadyl and flax seed oil and I hope that he’ll be able to take a stroll with me through a small field near town and perhaps point one of those cackling buggers one more time. I’ll drop that son-of-a-gun and Ike will have a mouthful of brilliant feather one more time. Maybe this fall will be his last, or the next. I do have dogs in reserve and a pup on order and do not want to think about shovel time and tears.
I am afraid, too, that he has taken his last walk with me along a Western trout river. He can follow, but each morning when we go on our stroll and the other setters spin out into the summer dawn chasing joy, Ike shuffles along behind. But still, his tail wags. He buries old elk leg bones and chases skunks and voles for hours down by our trout stream just past the barn. He barks for hours at nothing until I open the sliding glass door and shout: “Ike!!”
I don’t think he has the stamina, the juice, to keep up with me on a river. Maybe he can ride in the boat, but I’ll have to lift him in. Instead, he is probably transitioning to a bank-dog, a companion who will sit by my lawn chair while I fish, an old man who will pant and find shade and wag his tail and stink that stench that only old dogs can stink. His teeth are worn to yellow nub and his legs, particularly the back end, fade and thin as time passes. Ike may no longer be a fly fisherman. And because he can’t follow me, he may turn me back to my roots–to chucking hardware or worms, harvesting trout to take home and smoke and eat. I’d do anything for that old dog.