Autumn in Coastal Alaska
Joe Haag zipped closed the case to his Winchester. "I’ll not be out long, Abby, quit worrying."
His wife stirred around the kitchen, not meeting his gaze. "A man over seventy needs to have a partner," Abby complained. "I don’t know why you have to go alone."
"I’ve done this a hundred times." Joe reached across the counter for the sack lunch she’d fixed him and the wooden beads on his game belt clacked hollowly.
Abby shook her head at her husband and smiled. "I’ve never seen anyone who loves bushwhackin’ as much as you."
"Hunting," he corrected.
"You haven’t known the feel of warm feathers for, lets see…five seasons now."
"Today’ll be different. I can feel it."
"Well, take it easy. You’re not sixty anymore you know. Remem-
ber what Doc Swartly said about overdoing it."
"God takes care of me, Abby." Zipping closed his camouflage coat, Joe moved for the door. "Besides, it’s opening day. Never missed one yet. I’ll be back by two." He kissed her on her withering cheek, which smelled of cold cream and talc. "Love you."
Joe drove to the edge of the broad, open flats in time to meet low tide. He hiked in the coastal haze across the exposed sea-bottom of the channel toward the opposite island shore, searching for a saltwater tide pool to drop his two small decoys. The walking was hard. Heavy silt sucked noisily at his rubber boots. It was no wonder he hadn’t heard the sounds earlier.
Behind him came a noise, a shuffling. He stopped and turned slowly to investigate. Following a few feet in back of him was a dog. The dog stopped as he did. Joe was taken by surprise. "Now that’s odd. Where did you come from?" He would have noticed such a large dog in this wide-open area. It was as if she appeared from out of nowhere.
The dog stared at him with friendly eyes. She was a shorthaired breed, with the features of a Black Lab, only with occasional patches of dark silver. Strange. She had a strange look about her, but it wasn’t at all menacing. Grey hair peppered her muzzle. She was old.
"Hello girl," Joe said. The dog wagged and took one step closer. "Well, well. Are you hungry?" Joe unslung his pack and after a moment he produced a piece of beef from his sandwich, which he held out to his visitor. The dog looked at the morsel, but did not move to take it. Instead, her eyes reverted to Joe’s face. Strange again. Joe shrugged. "Suit yourself." He plopped the meat in his mouth, turned and started walking. The dog fell in behind him, following. Joe shouldered a glance, and then stopped again. The animal stopped with him, like a shadow. "You want to come along?" The dog took two steps closer to Joe and nudged his hand with her old gray muzzle. "Well, girl, you’re real nice. Come on, then." Joe started trudging through the mud, talking softly to his new and mysterious friend. "You know how to hunt for birds, lassie? You look like the breed for it. I’ll call you Ginger, after an old flame of mine. She always used to pop up when I least expected it, just like you," he half grumbled. Ginger accompanied him quietly, heeling with the changes in Joe’s gait. By the time Joe found a suitable spot for his decoys, his breath was short and his chest burned.
After placing his lures, the old man slogged to the shoreline and dropped down to rest and hide against the bole of a great evergreen. Immediately, he began to call for the birds. Ginger sat next to him in the soft grasses and didn’t move. Her eyes were like radarscopes, scanning the terrain around them. It seemed to Joe as if she’d done this before.
Over an hour passed before a flock of low-flying Mallards grew from specs out of the sky. Joe held his breath and waited. He honked a call. The flock swerved and circled, eyeing the decoys, and then in unison the eight of them set their wings to land close by. It was a beautiful sight. "Easy Ginger…stay," he whispered. The two of them had become fast friends and it seemed to Joe as if Ginger had always been his dog.
Slowly, Joe lifted his gun and sighted down the oil-blue barrel. The force of the first blast always surprised him; it recoiled into his left shoulder. His thin back slammed hard into the craggy trunk behind him and his old heart skipped a secret beat. The shot pierced into the group and they parted like a school of fish then took to the air. He missed. The gun snapped upward. Again he sighted with both eyes open, leading his target. The second blast recoiled hard, like the first, and for a second time his back met painfully against the tree. A hit!
The single drake fell tumbling to the Earth. Joe pointed excitedly, "I got one!" Ginger was off like a dart, wet sand flying from beneath her wide paws. Joe didn’t think twice about what the dog was doing. Grinning, all he knew was that this was his dream of a perfect day.
Loping lazily, she brought the drake to Joe where he sat under the high bows feeling too tired to rise. Yet his excitement was hard to contain and his smile split his face from ear to ear. Gently, Ginger placed the prize in his lap and backed away, panting, to stare and cock her head at the excellent bird.
"Man Ginger, you look even happier than I feel," he said. It was the most magnificent duck he ever saw. "Good girl, Ginger." Joe patted the dog as he inspected the fine shot. Presently, he pulled its webbed feet through a nylon loop of his game belt and secured it with the slide of a bead.
"Atta girl," he cooed to his proud companion. Ginger sat, tongue lolling, and seemed to regard the world with confident authority. Joe felt more satisfied than he had in a long time; he loved duck hunting more than anything in the world. He couldn’t wait for Abby to see what a grand Mallard he bagged. As he thought of his wife his mind began to drift…he remembered his twin brother, Richard, had bought him his first duck call at the age of ten, just to annoy their mother…then, he thought of his mother…. Smiling soulfully, Joe relaxed against the tree, closed his eyes, and began to reminisce………
Late the next day, two men drew near from the east. One was Charlie Moss, a close friend of Joe’s, and the other was Sergio Valentine from Borough Search and Rescue. The men approached quickly.
They found the dog lying across Joe’s lap. At the sound of their footsteps, Ginger’s head rose from off her paws. Her large brown eyes looked at them flatly, as if she were expecting them.
"Sweet Jesus, " breathed Charlie, "he’s dead." Joe’s eyes were closed, as if sleeping, and his face held an eternal expression of calm the men had rarely ever seen. His skin was the color of chalk, his cheeks sunken and hollow. One hand held his shotgun stiffly to his chest and the other lay in the grass beside him. Sergio turned away and spoke quietly into his handheld radio.
Staring, Charlie dropped slowly into a squat. Secured to Joe’s game belt was the biggest, most beautiful drake Mallard he had ever seen. A lump began to form in his throat. Joe had a duck.
Charlie looked at the dog and spoke softly to his friend’s curious companion. "There, there girl, who are you? Come on, come to Big Charlie." The strange dog only looked at him. "Come on girl," he coaxed. "Good girl. What a beautiful big duck you have there. Come to Charlie." Finally, her tail wagged once, then again. "That’s it, girl. Come on." The old dog lay still for a moment longer, and then she crept from Joe’s lap. To Charlie, it seemed her actions were sad for having failed to keep her new master warm. A tear tracked down the large man’s nose. "That’s a good girl, come to old Charlie." His hand trembled as he reached out to touch her between the ears. "It’s okay now. We’re here to take Joe home." Ginger looked at him and Charlie felt for a bizarre moment that she was about to speak. Suddenly the dog turned, gave Joe a long look and trotted away.
Astonished, Charlie watched her silvery black form fade and vanish into the thick stand of forest, as if she’d never been.
© 2000 Bobbi McCutcheon
Bobbi McCutcheon is the author of a completed science fiction novel, which she's spent the last four years developing. She acquired a literary agent three months ago, but so far it has not sold. She grew up in Boise, Idaho, and now lives in Juneau, Alaska with her husband and three children.