Author Topic: Sophie's Story -- chapter 6 & epilogue  (Read 246 times)

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Offline OffGrid9

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Sophie's Story -- chapter 6 & epilogue
« on: November 09, 2017, 07:30:55 PM »
Chapter 6 ? 7 December, 1997

Pearl Harbor Day.  Just finished my yearly batch of Christmas cards, and I?m not ready for sleep, so I?m back to this narrative.  You know, it started out as sort of an epistolic short story.  Now it?s a damn novel.

I didn?t hunt all that much this year.  It was a funny year.  September 1st, opening for dove season, fell on Monday this year.  It was three weeks after that horseback ride, and Sophie seemed pretty healthy, but I finally made up my mind to start hunting with Leila, too.  I had spent about 10 minutes a day training her for three weeks, and she seemed to understand a lot ? some of that comes from watching me work Sophie the past two years. 

Bob hadn?t seen many doves in the Yakima Valley.  Back in the ?80s we had a couple of good dove hunts at the edge of the wheat fields up on Blue Grade, just north of Wenatchee on the east side of the Columbia River, and Bob had often told me of a great hunt he?d had years back right around Lake Chelan, and he also said there were sometimes a lot of birds in the wheat fields across the Columbia from Chelan, north of Waterville.  Lots of possibilities.  So instead of just hunting in our usual haunts on the Yakama reservation, we thought we?d scope out the areas around Wenachee and Chelan.  We used Sunday, 31 August, to scout as much country as we could ? we split up to cover more country.  I was in an old RV with Sophie and Leila, Bob had Jo-Jo.  My son Don and his friend Ed Otto were going to join us for the hunt.  They would wait in Seattle for a call from Bob or me, and drive over Sunday night and meet us wherever we told them.

Bob and I drove hundreds of miles that Sunday, separately at first, and then (after I had some engine trouble) together.  We saw maybe 20 doves the whole day, mostly singles, sitting on a wire.  Never more than two together.  Worst crop of doves either of us had ever seen.  We figured there must have been a cold snap that neither of us had known about, and the doves had all skedaddled early on their annual migration to Mexico.  Sadly, we called Don and Ed, told them not to come, there were no birds.  Ed had apparently been looking forward to the dove-hunt with great anticipation, and was broken-hearted.  He hadn?t been hunting for about ten years, not since his dad stopped hunting, or some such.  He had gone out to buy a shotgun, shells, a vest, a license?he was just devastated. 

Bob and I were too tired to drive home.  Since we were already at Wenatchee, we decided to take a quick run up to Chelan, camp there, and next morning see if we could find doves in the hills north of the lake.  We drove around the lake, and wound up at the end of a dirt road in a long draw pointing north into the hills.  There was a small horse ranch down in the wind-protected canyon.  The owner, Dan Steiffle, told us that two days before there had been a great many doves in the field of mixed brush and volunteer wheat on the plateau to the west just above his ranch.  But he thought they were all gone now.  He said we were free to camp below his house, and could hunt the plateau next day if we wanted, no one cared about that deserted wheat field.  We camped, but didn?t sleep much. 

Next morning, opening day, we didn?t really feel much like climbing 200 feet out of the draw, but figured we needed to walk the dogs, anyway.  Then I looked up at the rim, at a skeletal bush silhouetted against the morning sky.  ?Bob, are those leaves on that bush??  Uncle Bob reached for his glasses.  He smiled.  ?Doves.?  We took Jo-Jo and Leila and started up the old road carved out of the wall of the small canyon, listening to Sophie?s plaintive howling from the back of Bob?s wagon.  Just as we hit the rim, a cloud of maybe 75 doves rose out of the field just in front of us and flew maybe 60 yards to settle into the wheat and brush.  Neither Bob or I even took a shot.  We had never seen so many doves.  It was unnatural.
If there?s one thing I?ve learned about dove hunting over the years, it?s that you simply cannot jump-shoot doves.  You see them land in cut wheat or a grass-field, and you try to approach stealthily, and they fly when you are 60 yards away.  Every time.  Don?t waste your energy trying to jump-shoot doves.  Can?t be done.

?That morning, Bob and I walked back and forth through that field, jump-shooting doves.  We should have limited in ten minutes, but every time a flock of doves flew up, there were so many it was hard to pick a target, so we just blew holes in the sky.  How did we miss so many birds?  We should have been able to get two or three doves with each shot, but we didn?t.  We shot so badly that we used almost three boxes of shells, and it took us about four hours to limit.  By that time, we?d steadied down, and were picking targets, and if the limit on doves was 50, we likely could have limited by dark.  But we each got ten, and walked out of that field with a memory that will never fade, mind-pictures of a sky dark with doves.  It may be that every dove in the state of Washington was in that field.
?But this is supposed to be Sophie?s story.  What happened with the dogs that day?  Well, it turns out that Leila may be as good as Sophie when retrieving tennis balls, but she wouldn?t touch the doves.  I could not make her pick one up.  She was absolutely repelled.  So I took her back to Bob?s car and brought Sophie up to the plateau, and she did great.  Obviously in pain, limping, and wagging her tail uncontrollably as she picked up bird after bird.

Leila could tell I was angry and disappointed, and it clearly distressed her to be a ?bad dog?, but she wouldn?t touch a dove.  ?Before I condemned her, though, I figured that I?d better try her on some other kind of game.  I remember Sophie?s disgust with the smell and taste of dove, nine years back, yet she learned to love to retrieve doves.

We went up to the happy hunting ground only once this year, and there were very few grouse.  I?m not sure of all the reasons why.  It was a pretty mild winter, but the summer was really dry, and the miniature huckleberries that the grouse love so much were small and few and far between.  I?d guess the grouse are somewhere where the food supply was better.  I only shot two grouse, and I had Sophie with me both times, so Leila didn?t get a chance.

I left Sophie home on the only trip I made for pheasant this year.  I took Leila instead, but I never got a shot at a rooster.  Leila didn?t have a clue about spaniel work.  She knew she was supposed to find and flush birds, because she saw other dogs doing it, but I had a great deal of trouble keeping her within gun range.  She stopped listening to my whistle signals as soon as she scented a bird, and was 75 yards away in a heartbeat.  She flushed six nice roosters, not one of them within gun range.  Bob and Sage were both angry, more at me for failing to properly train Leila than at Leila.  I finally lost it, and walked Leila down, way out in the middle of a field, and used the butt of my shotgun to knock her down and hold her on the ground, cowering, while I chewed her out in a deadly quiet voice.  Then I put her on heel and walked her back to the truck and shut her in the cab for the rest of the hunt.
The shotgun has a soft rubber butt-pad?I know I didn?t hurt her much, physically, but that doesn?t excuse my cruelty.  The jury may still be out on Leila as a retriever, but I think it has reached a verdict about me as dog-trainer.  She?s just a little dog, and she loves me, and more than anything else she wants to please me, and all I have to do is take the time to show her what she is supposed to do.  I guess it?s time I grew up.

And Sophie?  I don?t think she can go on much longer, not as a hunting dog.  She has earned my love and respect and a place by my fire as long as she lives, but I can?t watch her destroy herself hunting any more.
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6 September, 1998

Dove opening was on a Tuesday this year.  Bob had done some scouting, and felt we could hunt the wheat fields just east of Tieton, maybe three miles from his old orchard, and have as good a chance as anywhere else.  He got permission for us to hunt there, so Sage and Don and I drove over Monday night.  I took both Sophie and Leila, but it was clear that Sophie wasn?t going to go very far.

Tuesday morning, I figured I was the only one who had a prayer of handling Leila, so I let Sage and Don take Sophie, with the promise that they wouldn?t let her work too hard.  No fear.  We got zero birds, just sat and watched the sunrise.  There was a bunch down at the edge of the last orchard that was doing some shooting, but none of the birds came up to where we were.  It was a really nice sunrise, coming up from the orchards below us in the pastel morning.  I knew it was Sophie?s last hunt.  I watched her, sitting with the boys, and tears began to come out of my eyes, no sobbing, just a little water.  It was a nice sunrise.
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28 March, 1999

I took Sophie up into the happy hunting grounds twice last fall, but I didn?t hunt with her.  She couldn?t get over a downed tree for the pain.  I took her for a few short walks, then I?d lift her into the back of the truck, and she?d gratefully lie down on her soft pad, and I?d tell her to stay.  She?d look at me mournfully and thump her tail, begging to go, but I shut the door of the canopy and went hunting with Leila.  It was hard on her to stay behind in the truck as I walked away with a shotgun and another dog.  And when I came back with two nice fat grouse, she?d sniff at the pouch of the game vest, and the look she gave me would break your heart.  The last trip of 1998, I just left her home with Yoko and Max and Nana.

I spent quite a bit of time with Leila late last summer, and then even more the first two weeks of September.  She started to listen to me when we were hunting, and when she got a bit too far out I?d give her a short, sharp whistle ? during a retrieve, this normally means she is to stop, turn around, sit facing me and wait for further commands, but while casting for scent she soon learned I just wanted her to stop and wait for me to catch up a bit.  If she kept pushing the envelope, I?d call her back to me, and put her on heel for a few minutes.  When we?re on a walk back in the civilized world, she doesn?t mind being put on heel, but when we are hunting it really pickles her brain.  After a couple of minutes I?d tell her to sit and stay, and I?d hold her muzzle gently and ask her, ?Will you be a good girl now and stay in range??  She?d promise me with her eyes that she?d be good, so I?d give my personal signal to work, waving my finger from side to side while giving several soft low-to-high whistles, ?wooeeep, wooeeep, wooeeep?.  The first couple of days I tried it, after we?d gone through this cycle two or three times, she?d get the message and would start keeping tabs on where I was, and would work within the reach of the gun, or (when we were in the woods) within my sight range.  After a few more days, I seldom had to do it more than once to remind her.  And Leila doesn?t mind the smell or taste of grouse and pheasant.  If we find doves next year, I believe she?ll be OK with them, too.  She is coming along, and I?m being good, too.

It?s getting easier and easier to write about Leila?not because I love her as I do Sophie.  It?s just getting harder and harder to write about Sophie.  Writing about her forces me to think about what I know is going to happen.  People who wish for the ability to see the future are crazy.  When you can see it, it is real, and it hurts.

This winter has been cold, and it is hard on her.  She is now having trouble climbing stairs at all.  Dr Kauffman told me about a drug called Rimidyl, supposed to do miracles for dogs with rheumatoid arthritis and such.  I started giving it to Sophie ? it?s not quite the miracle I?d hoped for, but it does help some, she can move better.  Both her front shoulders are pretty much shot, now, and her hindquarters have lost most of the muscle mass due to inactivity.  Still loves to fetch, but can?t do it too much, or very often.  Four or five short retrieves, two or three times a week.  She still has some pretty good days.  Even on the bad days, she still has good moments.  She still sticks to me like glue.  She still gets a sparkle in her eyes when she sees me cleaning the guns, or airing out the sleeping bags.  I have never had a friend like her before.  I didn?t know a relationship with a dog could be like this.  I can?t just watch her suffering too much longer.  I know I will have to put her down soon.  But I?m not sure I can do it.
___________________ ___________________ ____

8 August, 1999

Sophie has lost the ability to hold her water.  She doesn?t consciously urinate, she just leaks slowly into the carpet, and then she is embarrassed.  We are giving her medicine to alleviate this condition, and likely it helps, but not enough ? the problem remains.  Yoko tried diapers, but Sophie just chewed them off, and then leaked.  Next, Yoko tried to keep her lying on a dog-mattress covered by absorbent pads, and Sophie would stay there for a while, until the wetness and smell bothered her, and then would move onto the rug when we weren?t watching?and then she?d leak again.  Yoko knows how much Sophie means to me ? hell, by now Yoko loves Sophie as much as I do ? but she is beginning to feel the time has come.  She has a point.  It?s not the leaks and washing the carpet.  We figured to replace that old carpet next year anyway.  It is seeing the look in Sophie?s eyes when we have to skooch her hind-end back onto the pad, and then sop up the urine and wash the carpet.  She knows she did it.  She knows she isn?t supposed to do that.  She thinks she has been a bad dog.  We can?t explain old age and infirmity to her, and she simply cannot understand.  You can see the pain and humiliation in her eyes, and it hurts to see it.  I had to drink three stiff margaritas to get the nerve to sit down and write this.  She is twelve, now, and the arthritis is worse.  She can barely get up and down stairs, even with the Rimidyl.  And yet her mind and eyes are as sharp as ever, her joy when I come home from work, her strong, thumping tail when she sees me or Yoko or any of the kids.  She is 95% perfect, but the shoulders and one damn sphincter are shot.  She is such a good dog.  She is my best friend, and I don?t know what to do or how to do it.  This is not fair.
___________________ ___________________ ______

29 October, 1999

I almost didn?t go for dove opening this year, but Bob and the kids thought I should take Leila and get away for a few days.  Leila did pretty well with the doves.  She still is not happy about the smell, or the taste, or the feathers in her mouth, or something.  But she knows it is her job.  She really loves to go hunting, and she loves retrieving?but she spits those doves out fast when she gets them back to me.  Somehow I am sure she knows I?m comparing her to Sophie.  She knows I miss Sophie, and she wants to make me happy.  She is a good little dog.

Then on Friday, 1 October, I took Leila up to Bald Mountain for a three-day grouse hunt, and left Yoko to care for Sophie.  I came home on Saturday, a day early.  I just couldn?t  stay up there.  Yoko told me it was time.  She truly wasn?t mad, either at me or at Sophie.  She was just honest enough to say it straight.  It had gone on too long.
I made an appointment with Dr Nell for Tuesday, 19 October.  Then on the evening of Friday the 15th Yoko and I put all the dogs in our little old RV and went up to Jeffrey Point on the lower slopes of Bald Mountain, just above Canteen Flats, and stayed for the whole weekend.  The weather was perfect, a few fluffy cumulus clouds way up over Mount Clemens, all the rest of the sky a dark clear blue.  There had been a good steady rain a few days earlier, so there was almost no dust.  We had a nice campfire the evenings of both Friday and Saturday.  We roasted wieners, and gave some to the dogs, who were in heaven.  We took Sophie and the other dogs on a couple of nice slow walks, and she didn?t seem to be suffering much.  Yoko slept in the RV, while Sophie and I slept in a tent so my snoring wouldn?t keep Yoko awake.  Sophie slept with her head on the edge of my pillow.  She knew I wouldn?t object.  She knows her rights. 

On Sunday morning we packed everything up and were ready to pull out.  I put the other dogs in the RV, and took Sophie for one last hunt.  When I pulled the old Remington pump out of the case, Sophie went into her old grouse-dance, tail waving and body bent like a banana, bouncing, spinning and laughing.  And away we went.  Just a quarter mile through the meadow to FS 1701, then back through the edge of the woods.  It would have been perfect if she had flushed a grouse, and I had knocked it down, and she had retrieved it.  But we didn?t find any grouse.  If we had, there is no way I could have hit it.  I couldn?t even see the rocks on the ground before us.  Just half a mile.  Sophie was tired, and a little sore, but very happy.  She knew there would be more grouse on another day.  I put the gun in its case, and after a while I started the RV.  Yoko didn?t say anything.  We didn?t talk much on the way home.

I had a meeting on Monday the 18th, so I had to go to work, but I came home as soon as the meeting was done.  I spent the rest of the day with Sophie and Leila.

Tuesday morning was bright and sunny.  I took Sophie out in the yard below our deck and took a picture of her, lying on the grass.  She looked so perfect, black dog in the sunshine, panting a little, shiny and lovely and so young.  I lifted her up to the seat of her truck, and drove her to the clinic.  Nell was waiting.  She has known Sophie and me for a long time.  Back in ?94, when she gave me the news about Sophie?s bones, She was mad enough to almost spit at me because she thought I was the one who had abused Sophie when she was young.  Nell was crying a little, too, as much for me as for Sophie, I think.  I sat down on the floor, and hugged Sophie, and held her.  Nell gave her the shot, patted her head, and quietly walked out and shut the door.  Sophie licked my hand and laid her head on my lap, and closed her eyes, and stopped breathing.  I held her for a while, stroking her head softly.  Then I laid her head on the floor, and I said goodbye, and I got up and went to the truck, and sat there until I could drive home, alone.

Leila was waiting on the back porch, and I sat on the steps and held her for a long, long time, and she wiggled, and whined softly, and licked my face, and helped me get through that day, and every day since.  I am really glad I have Leila.

Last Monday I picked up Sophie?s ashes.  I had her cremated.  It didn?t cost all that much.  The ashes are sitting here beside me on a shelf in a nice wooden box.  Next year I?ll spread some of the ashes up in the happy hunting ground she loved so much.  I?ll keep a small part of them.  I can?t really tell you why I?m doing this.  I?m not sure there is any kind of reason I could put in words.  But I know it?s important.
___________________ ___________________ ___
___________________ ___________________ ___

Epilogue ? 5 November, 2002

We moved off Vashon two and a half years ago.  We now live on a hill east of Auburn, Washington.  I still keep that last picture of Sophie, lying on the grass, on my desk.  I see it every time I sit down to work, or read my email, or use the computer.  And that picture of Sage and me and Sophie and the six pheasant hangs prominently in the library downstairs that has become Yoko?s favorite room.  Sophie?s ashes still sit in my office, right behind me.

Leila has become a fine hunting dog, a worthy successor to Sophie.  But I still occasionally forget and call her Sophie, and she is sharp enough to catch the mistake, and it pains her.  She cannot be Sophie, and I don?t ask her to try.  She is a very good little dog.

But I miss Sophie.  I always will.
6 phases of a project:  (1) baseless enthusiasm; (2) growing uneasiness & fear; (3) over budget & behind schedule; (4) search for the guilty; (5) blaming of the innocent; (6) praise and rewards for the nonparticipants.