The Last Retrieve

I have two Labrador retrievers and I love to hunt birds. Zucker, (German for “sugar”), is 13 and ‘Becca is 5. I like to stagger my dogs as I’ve found having a young pup keeps an older dog frisky longer while the presence of a mature dog helps calm a young one.

Zucker is pretty much retired now. She is on pills and shots for arthritis, and falls down on slick surfaces. She was bitten by a rattlesnake three times as a younger dog, and has a “pirate” scar over her right eye; the result of the swelling caused by the venom rupturing. She had to have her larynx tied back several years ago, a common problem in large breeds, and her bark is now more of a “woof”. Like all Labs, she is good-natured and tends to overeat.

Zucker has a hard mouth, no excuses and no remedies. She has a great nose, and can find any downed bird, but like as not, it will be tenderized before she gets it back to me. That’s been her only real failing, and I have enjoyed her company through the years on ranches from Uvalde to Raymondville. Of course, the main drawback to having a dog is that their lives are shorter than ours and they age faster. Zucker is slipping away, and I’ve resigned myself to helping her make the passage with a full belly and a soft bed.

Yesterday, however, I returned from a weekend of dove hunting and was asked to go out for a third hunt in three days. ‘Becca was crapped out, having done a great job both days, so I decided to take Zucker and let ‘Becca rest. We had just had our first cold front, so the temperature was cool with a nice breeze from the southeast. I left ‘Becca on her bed and snuck Zuke out to the truck. Anyone with two hunting dogs knows you have to sneak off if you’re planning on leaving one, but usually Zuker is the one left behind. As she only gets in the truck now to go to the vet, she was a bit reluctant, but, always the trooper; she put her front paws on the tailgate to be loaded. I grabbed her as fast as I could, knowing the strain that must put on her hips, and she went into her box.

Once we got to the lease, she realized she was back in the game and put up quite a ruckus. Of course, when I got the gun out, she was beside herself, not having hunted in at least two years. I set up my stool in the shade, put out a bowl of water for her, and got ready to hunt. Zuck continued to pace, and finally I realized she could no longer sit at my feet due to the arthritis. I reflected that the only time I see her sit now is when I’m offering a treat, and then not for very long. After about an hour, with no birds, I decided to put her back in the truck so she could rest before the birds started flying. But she would have none of that, particularly after she saw me walking away with gun still in hand. So I let her out and we went back to our station to hunt.

The birds finally started flying, but since they have been pretty well shot up over the lease, they were flying very high. After wasting half a box of field loads, I switched to express shells and managed to hit one. Unfortunately, it fluttered and stuttered about 200 yards before it went down and I marked it for later. It turns out that was the only bird I knocked down that day.

At sunset, I loaded her into the truck and drove downwind of where I marked the dove. I let her out and loaded my gun, to show her we were back at work. Within a few steps, she picked up the scent and took off. She found the dove and I was surprised and dismayed to see it was a cripple, the kind that can only fly about 2 feet above the ground. Now, five years ago, that was both Zuckers’ and my favorite retrieve, but in her condition, it must have been very painful to twist, turn, and jump after that bird. I tried to call her off, but she, like most old bird dogs, is quite deaf, the result of hundreds if not thousands of shots taken over her. She kept at it, falling down twice, and finally trapped it.

I thought about going over to her and stopping the ordeal, but realized this was her last retrieve and knew if it were me, I rather do it up right. Feeling sentimental on my part, and somewhat anthropomorphic, I let her struggle up on all fours to bring it in with some sense of pride. As I bent to take the bird, tenderized as always, I got a flashback of times when we were both younger and hoped she did too. I can only imagine what she was thinking when I pulled off the tail and wings and fed her the last retrieve.

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