Gun Dog

gun dog

If Clyde had a fault, it was his excessive enthusiasm. Boy, did that dog love to hunt. Show him a shotgun and he’d bounce in place until you told him to kennel up into the back of the truck. Taken to the woods he was the happiest little dog you ever saw. He hunted dove and quail with equal vigor, smiling the whole time. He wouldn’t hold a point, but he’d act birdy before he pounced flatfooted into a covey, and he hunted close enough to give me a shot at the flushed birds. At times, especially if a pen-raised quail flushed up, he’d jump up and snatch the bird out of the air before I had time to get my safety off. I had to be careful not to shoot low-flying birds when he sprang into my field of fire. Whenever we could, we steered clear of pen-raised quail. Whatzit, whoa, Clyde. On a dove field it was hard to make him wait to take off after a bird that flew over until I had shot. He’d set out after any bird I feathered and some I missed clean. He’d follow it to the woods on the far side of the field. Most times that he ran off, he’d return with a bird. If not mine, he’d bring one that someone else feathered or shot down. Once he brought back a bird that put me one over the limit, and the game warden gave me a ticket. I tried to blame Clyde’s arithmetic. I told the judge that my dog was young and couldn’t count yet. He fined me anyway, insisting that I teach my dog to count. “No,” he amended. “Next time you need to get down there with Clyde and help him count your birds.”

One afternoon I was headed home after my classes. Clyde was in his favorite place in the back of the truck, his head into the wind, jaws flapping. We passed a dove shoot we weren’t invited on and, unseen by me, Clyde jumped out of the truck bed and joined the hunt. When I got home, I noticed he wasn’t with me. I backtracked, and found my dog hobbled at the edge of the dove field. “You come for Clyde?” a hunter inquired. “Yes,” I answered, “but how’d you know his name?”

“We all know Clyde,” he said. “Who the hell are you?” Spring break of Clyde’s second year we set out in my johnboat down the Chattahoochee and the Apalachicola for a four-day trip to the Gulf. Nights, Clyde slept beneath my jungle hammock on the swampy banks. I kept a campfire going all night to discourage alligators. I still hadn’t gotten over Geechee. When we got back, things at home weren’t any better. My wife had decided, with Dame Van Winkle, that Clyde’s and my side of the house was the outside. That’s when I moved my Airstream to a friend’s hunting lease. We had no running water, so I showered and shaved every morning before class at the YMCA.

By the end of spring quarter, troubles at home had escalated. Clyde and I took off for the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia and North Carolina to fish for trout and to start a novel about a man who heads for Appalachia after getting kicked out of his house. On the way out of town, we pulled into a Walmart, where I bought a pup tent and camping supplies. We stayed in campgrounds throughout the Appalachians, recharging my laptop at outdoor electrical outlets. I’d throw Clyde’s tennis ball off an overlook. Sometimes it took him the better part of an hour to fetch it. I’d read or write on my laptop until he came back with the ball. He loved to fetch from whitewater rapids, once following it by washing over a 20-foot waterfall. Clyde disappeared into the hydraulic and was gone an alarmingly long time, but he swam out. After he fetched his ball, we sat together beneath the waterfall listening to the babble and murmur of voices from under the rocks. There was nowhere you could throw his ball he wouldn’t try to fetch it.

He’d even stalk trout with me, slinking along the bank. When I hooked one, he’d jump into the water to retrieve it, something I’d have rather he didn’t do, but something I couldn’t break him of without endangering his ebullient spirit. One night we got lost in the Nantahala National Forest where I later learned that Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber, was hiding out. I had fallen into a gully covered in blackberry wands. By the time I cut my way out with my pocketknife it was dark, and I was hopelessly lost. Clyde may’ve been able to lead me out, but he didn’t know we were lost.

I had a single rainbow trout in my vest, which I cut into thin strips to eat raw. Clyde licked my scratches but turned up his nose at the delicacy and it didn’t take much of it to satisfy my hunger for raw trout, which would’ve been better with salt and lemon juice. It was a chilly night in those mountains after the sun went down. I covered us both with poplar leaves against the dew and we spooned together until dawn, when I was able to find our way out. By this time there was no question that we had bonded.

After we’d been in the North Carolina Smokies about a month, Clyde the writer was notified by the Dougherty County sheriff that a missing person report had been filed on me. Did he know of my whereabouts? “It’s hard to say,” said the novelist, avoiding the question. But when he learned I’d been rambling around in the mountains trying to write a novel from a pup tent, he and Mary Hood, another eminent novelist, used their influence and donated money to secure me a fellowship at a writing retreat I’ll call Brainbridge.

A private cabin on top of a mountain and vegetarian meals were provided. I wasn’t sure I could thrive on a vegetarian diet, and I knew Clyde couldn’t. We were both carnivorous productions who saw no reason to hunt or fish unless you ate what you killed. Clyde would’ve lifted a leg to a Caesar salad. Or worse. There was an orange cat on the screen porch when we arrived. Clyde shared his food and they got along fine after the cat slapped him for trying to say hello.

The next morning, I was writing great guns when a Volvo slinging gravel came up the steep hill to our cabin. The facilitator. Call him Irv. “Oh, Mr. Miller,” said Irv, “I’m so sorry but we don’t allow pets at Brainbridge.” Clyde was really glad to see Irv. He stood on his hind legs, wrapping his paws around Irv’s chinos, tail blurring, eyes rolling, tongue wagging. Except for the cat, Clyde hadn’t greeted a stranger for quite a while.

“If you mean Clyde, he’s not a pet,” I said. “He’s a gun dog, but there was a cat on the back porch when we got here.”

“Oh, no,” he said, “there are no animals at Brainbridge—allergies, you know.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that. Clyde doesn’t have any allergies, and neither do I.” “I’m so sorry, but you’re going to have to board your little doggie for your tenure at Brainbridge. Down doggie,” he said, forcing a smile. “Board him?”

“Yes, there’s a veterinarian clinic in town that will be happy to take him in,” he smiled. I looked at him until he turned away.

“I’ll discuss it with Clyde and let you know something before supper this afternoon.” At the time, Clyde had never known a fence or a leash. Clyde followed Irv out to his Volvo, anointing a tire. Irv rode his brakes as he slid back down the hill, gravel pinging the undercarriage. I wrote until noon, shared a can of Vienna sausages with Clyde, and drove to the reception center to check out.

“Did you come to a conclusion about your little doggie?”

Yessir,” I said, tossing the key on his desk. “We decided to leave. We know y’all are vegetarians and all, so we ate that damn cat.”

“Oh, Mr. Miller!”

I hated it that my friends had gone to all the trouble and expense of getting me accepted at Brainbridge. I regretted leaving in less than 24 hours, but I just couldn’t bring myself to abandon Clyde in our quest for freedom. We’d begun this odyssey together. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s just how I was feeling at the time. So, we took off again. When we came home for fall quarter and hunting season, the locks on my front door had been changed. That’s how my wife was feeling at that point in time.

Clyde died in his prime. He never had time to disappoint me. We were in Louisville, Kentucky, visiting my second ex-wife in a country club subdivision when Clyde chased a squirrel across the street and was hit and run over by a teenager in his mother’s station wagon. I scooped up his broken little body, and he bit the ball of my thumb. I was so distraught I didn’t pull my hand away. I let him bite me again and again in the agony of his death throes. By the time we got him to a vet, his bright, amethyst eyes had rolled back in his head. His death mask grin revealed gray bloodless gums. The most willing dog I’d ever owned was dead. He died the same year as both my parents, the same year my fourth marriage died. I lost my parents, my dog, my home, and my job all in the same year. I mourned them all, minus the marriage and the job. Such was the double-edged sword of liberty. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I acquired a sailboat and took off for the Caribbean. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s just how I was feeling at the time.

After a life fraught with quixotic episodes of misadventure, retired English professor O. Victor Miller returned to the family home to sit on the banks of his beloved Flint River, remembering dogs gone by.