The best you can hope for is a 50-50 Chance.
by Tred Slough
From the August 2009 Issue
It was October,
and a month after the fact, when 62-year-old Carl Shelton decided he’d made a mistake by going to the doctor.
It wasn’t just that the pain in his left shoulder and in his elbow hadn’t gone away. Or that the frequency of his dizzy spells hadn’t decreased while his bank account had. Carl had adjusted to those problems. It was that the seemingly endless tests he’d endured at the city hospital had delayed the start of the season.
For Carl, the season meant bird hunting, and for more than 30 years he’d arranged his life around it. The season gave him perfect mornings, hunter’s moons, and fields of freedom found only by walking them with a predator’s stride.
The season had become his purpose, and he had learned to extend it by leaving his Appalachian home in September each year to travel west and north—to the Rockies, the high plains, the dense forests surrounding the Great Lakes.
In years past, he would have been in Montana or Idaho by now, camping somewhere in the mountains with a Brittany, or a setter, or sometimes a pair of dogs, hunting every day and sipping bourbon by a good fire at night. And when the snow and north winds of those places finally drove him back south, he would spend the dark, damp days of the southern winter following his dogs through the mountain hollows of Carolina and East Tennessee.
Although the season had long been the focus of all that he did, the question of why was one he never asked himself. And if someone else had asked him, he would have had no answer.
He was neither rich nor idle. Carl made his own way in the world and accepted the price he paid. He worked with his hands six months of every year and spent little, so that he could afford to ramble as he chose when the season arrived.
To live as he did he’d forsaken opportunities others might have welcomed. He could have taken a wife. He might have had things, a modern man’s toys beyond a simple house and a worn pickup. But he did not. If there had been a reason once, as some might suppose there must have been, he’d forgotten it.
Carl Shelton was comfortable with his pursuits, comfortable with being alone. The single mindedness of following a dog didn’t seem strange to him, even though he lived in a time when evolutionary success favored the ability to handle a variety of tasks simultaneously rather than follow a single thought intently. Carl had not adapted. His habits were set, his journeys as much a part of him as a salmon’s call to leave the ocean and swim upstream.
With why unasked and unanswered, the question of when dominated his thoughts. Driving down the highway that led to the city, looking out the truck’s window at oaks and hickories less than half-clothed in russet and gold, Carl decided that he’d fooled with modern medicine long enough. This would be his last trip to the hospital’s sprawl of cold buildings and its scrubbed-face doctors. If they hadn’t found what was wrong with him by now, and if he’d learned to live with the symptoms anyway, what was the point? So no more tests. No more fooling around. He’d wasted enough time, and his season was already under way. He should have headed west weeks ago.
It was six hours later, and late afternoon, before he was far enough out of town for the traffic to thin. In the mountains ahead, the same half-dressed forests that had shown so brightly before noon were now veiled in shadows. The hickories’ gold was a washed-out copper, and the oaks were the color of dried blood.
He’d had to make the doctor use the word cancer, make him put what was happening in plain language when the medical man had wanted to hide behind scientific terms or describe the malignant tumor feeding on Carl’s brain as a “troublesome mass.”
Carl had started to walk out when the kid doctor, who couldn’t be even 40, started to tell him how fortunate he was—how the hospital had access to the best equipment and consultants in the state. Carl had stopped him long enough to say that he didn’t feel “lucky,” but since the physician wanted to put it like that, why didn’t he explain his luck in a way Carl could understand?
“What are my chances? What are the odds?”
The doctor hadn’t liked being talked back to. He was a specialist. He was highly trained, respected, rapidly becoming wealthy. He’d been at the top of every class in every school he’d attended since kindergarten. He was brilliant and he knew it. And now some old hick was talking to him as if he were a backstreet bookmaker.
“Mr. Shelton, this is a fairly common but very serious type of malignancy, and it’s much more
advanced than I’d like. We’ll need to start chemotherapy and radiation right away to see how it responds, but your chances . . . your chances are good.”
“How good?” Carl had said. “Fifty–fifty? Better? Worse?”
The young doctor glanced down at his watch and back up to look Carl almost, but not quite, in the eye.
“With aggressive treatment, we have a legitimate possibility of remission.”
“Fifty–fifty?” Carl wanted, needed, a number.
The doctor nodded, thinking already of his next consultation, timing his day. He was brought back abruptly by another question from the old man in front of him.
“And without treatment? What are my chances then?”
“Why . . . why no chance at all. In about six months your condition will become much worse. And you’ll be dead by this time next year.”
The following morning arrived cool and damp and gray. Sunrise was but a seep of light through dirty windows. Carl awoke to the sound of his dog asking to be let out, and he saw that the bottle with which he’d spent the evening was empty. The flames of the fireplace into which he’d stared were gone. The ashes were cold.
Carl followed the setter through the door, and as the dog made dark wet signposts on the trunks of the yard trees, the man leaned against the porch rail and pissed in the barren flowerbed three feet below. The stone floor was cool beneath his feet, and remembering how fast he’d drunk the whiskey, Carl was surprised at the clarity of the sensation.
“Nothing like a death sentence to help a man forget a hangover.” He spoke the words out loud, and the dog in the yard turned his head immediately to the voice. The solid black patch of his right eye gave the speckled dog an intelligent expression, and there was a hopeful look on the animal’s face.
“Whatta ya’ think, Jack? I think that kid doctor’s probably full of crap. How’d he come up with fifty-fifty? Why not fifty-five–forty-five? Or sixty–forty. And if it’s sixty–forty, is it sixty–forty which way?”
The dog ran back to the porch, clearing the steps in one jump. He was a wonderful athlete, a fine hunter, and he happily followed the man who was his god back into the house.
Carl’s thought settled on the dog as he boiled coffee and put on his boots. The setter was in his prime.
The Season Sleek and hard muscled, he was as boldly efficient on prairie partridge in Montana as he was stealthy and cool on the ruffed grouse in their own East Tennessee hills.
He could find the dog a home easy enough. Several men he knew would be glad to have it. They would keep it in a kennel, and would take it hunting for a few hours every week or so, should good weather happen to coincide with a random urge to get out in the mountains for a morning or an afternoon. It wouldn’t be what the dog needed, or was used to, or what any of Carl’s dogs had been used to for the past 30 years. But it would be better than nothing. And nothing was a possibility now.
Even without education or medical knowledge, Carl knew the treatment of his disease would leave him sick and weak and poor. But if it worked, if the coin flip fell his way, if the single card left to be turned landed in his favor, he could get the dog back and they would have a handful of seasons together again. And if the card fell wrong . . . Well, the dog would be okay, well treated by any other man’s notion. The decision, a last season as he’d known them before or a 50–50 chance of an unknown number to come, had to be made.
A man with a hard choice seeks out the familiar. He looks for comfort in a place where he remembers, or imagines, his thoughts were once clear. With his boots firmly laced, Carl took a shotgun from a closet and put on his old coat. The dog followed the man out the door, and the two hunters climbed into their pickup.
The abandoned mountain farm that drew Carl wasn’t far away. Though the path to it was familiar, he found himself feeling strangely out of place, and he posed a question to the dog as he maneuvered the truck uphill along the narrow, winding dirt road to a cover he usually visited in late winter.
“Whatta ya think, Jack? What’re we doing up here on Big Knob in October, old man?”
When Carl spoke, the dog stood on the truck seat, wagging his tail and bracing himself with his nose pressed to the windshield. He didn’t care where he was. The man’ s voice was one of the two things he lived for. The other, the hunt, he knew to be just ahead.
It was different for Carl. The sanguinity he’d found on the mountain so often in the past seemed to be absent today.
The air, even at elevation, was too warm. The unbowed heads of the wildflowers in the meadows reminded him that he should be far away and could be yet. All he had to do was turn down the 50–50 chance of more seasons to come.
He spoke again to the dog. “That’s it in a nutshell, ain’t it, boy? Go out with a bang, live strong one more time, or put myself in the hands of that kid doctor. Play the even odds and hope. A safe gamble for most I ’spect. Whatta ya thing, big boy?”
The setter didn’t speak his answer, but his excitement increased when the man pulled the pickup into a rutted logging road and parked beside a seeping spring. Once out of the truck, the dog ran a tight circle around the clear earth surrounding the seep and then turned back to the man.
Carl was looking up, staring into the few remaining leaves clinging tenuously to the top branches of a tulip poplar high above them. When a minute had passed and the man didn’t move, the dog raced to him, bounced his front feet hard off the man’s thigh, then ran to the trail leading into the woods, stopping to look back over his shoulder.
It took Carl a long moment to lower his gaze and refocus his thoughts. “I hear you, old man. I hear you. I was just thinking about something, that’s all. We’ll hunt now and I’ll quit.
He didn’t, though. And as the day passed, his thoughts wouldn’t settle into the pattern that had brought him so much comfort, so many times, in so many places and so many seasons past. The simple rhythms of the hunt, the consideration of wind and slope, of cover and angle of light, and of the dog’s subtle changes of posture and pace were, for the first time, elusive. Instead, Carl’s mind churned with the choice he knew he must make.
But for a few flushes far in the distance, the day passed in incongruent frames as the man and the dog made a meandering loop about the mountain. Remembered springs and good corners of old land were interrupted too often by cold calculation until, in the late afternoon, they reached the last dark northside hollow, where the slope would lead back to their trail’s beginning and their hunt’s end. There the dog raised his head alertly, tested a breeze, and began to work a grouse.
The life in the dog’s tail brought the hunter into focus at last. The setter crossed the trickle of water that drained the hollow and moved softly into a stand of fiddlehead ferns. Carl remained on a foot trail above the creek, watching the setter and paralleling his course.
He didn’t speak to the dog. Words were unnecessary. Words would only break the spell and alert the game ahead. Carl’s thoughts were centered now, natural and unforced. His senses were keen. He followed the dog’s search by watching the ferns close behind the setter’s stalk.
Carl’s footsteps felt the uneven ground without thought, alive and sure. The gun was light in his hands, its lethality a perfect extension of his purpose as he slipped through sapling hickory and patches of dark green rhododendron.
The bird, across the creek and ahead of the dog, was moving as well. Even before hearing the thin swish of dog hair against brush, the bird had been aware of a predatory presence nearby. It was an old cock, very old for a grouse. The winter ahead would be its fourth. And it had been hunted by something every day of its life.
The grouse had been feeding on cinquefoil leaves beside the creek, but it crept into the tangled top of a blowdown oak when it sensed the dog. The bird picked its way through the dead limbs from one side of the brush pile to the other, then paused where a short piece of open ground lay between it and a hillside of thick cover just ahead.
The dog felt the scent trail cease moving and froze in midstep. The hunter saw the dog stop and turned his body so that his left shoulder angled toward the thicket ahead of the dog..
Of the three unmoving creatures, only the man had the capacity to consider the future and the past. His hunter’s eye took in the terrain, noting the small gap between the fallen oak and an ancient apple tree whose gray limbs were covered in a snarl of fox grape. It was the only path the bird might take that offered a shot, and it would be very quick.
Carl knew his own skill well; he had years of reasons to be confident with the gun he held, but even so he knew the grouse was as likely to escape as to be killed. A 50–50 proposition.
The bird might have waited longer. The hunter might have made a mistake by moving, and been caught in midstep and unready. The grouse could have broken low, flying back over the dog. Those choices would have meant good luck for the quarry. But the grouse’s instinct was to flee for the safety of the cover just yards away.
The flush was hard and fast. The sound of wings beating the air moved the gun to Carl’s shoulder as he swung the muzzles in a swift, compact arc before touching the trigger just as the bird reached the shelter it sought.
Pieces of dry, dead grape leaf fell to the ground below the hole in the tendrils of vine where the bird had flown and Carl’s shotstring had followed. The woods grew very still, and the epiphany Carl had sought all day came to him as the sound of the gunshot rolled away, tumbling off the side of the mountain.
The man released the dog, then waited. It had been a fair hunt. The grouse had taken its chance, hoping to live, and the
hunter found himself hoping that it had.
The setter returned quickly, his head held high, proud and happy and carrying the bird in his mouth.
Carl looked at the sky beyond the ridge ahead, where the sun was settling into purpling clouds; then he knelt to take the dead bird and caress the dog.
“You’re a good boy, Jack,” he said. “A good boy. We’re gonna have a good season. A fine season. One more season. Tomorrow we’ll start west.”
Tred Slough is the pen name of Robert Holthouser, a carpenter and freelance writer from North Carolina. This story came from an imagination that has aged to the point where it has begun asking not, What would I do if faced with such a choice? but What will I do when that time comes?