It was raining when I woke, a warm and gentle rain that did not beat harshly on the window glass, but melted into the unresisting air so that the smell of the morning was as heavy and sweet as the breath of spring.
By the time I came down to breakfast, the rain was done and the dark clouds were passing, leaving behind them a blue mesh of sky with the last cloud tendrils passing dimly under it. I went to the back door and stood there for a moment, listening to the roundelay of spring bird calls in the woodlands.
Champ came to the door behind me. I turned and looked at him and time jumped suddenly, and I saw that he was old. I put my hand on his grizzled muzzle and shook it gently.
“Spring’s here, old-timer,” I told him. “And who knows, perhaps the ducks have come back to the slough.” He wagged his tail once and then moved stiffly by me, his nostrils wrinkling as he tested the fleeting breeze.
The winter past had been the longest he had known. Through the short-clipped days of it, he had lain dreaming by the fire. Little half-heard whimpers had stirred his drawn lips as he journeyed into time in the sole direction that remained open to him. He had dreamed the bitter days away, content to sleep. As I sat down to breakfast, I glanced down and he was watching me, wondering when we were going out. I knew that he wanted to see about those ducks, and when the meal was done I put on my rubber boots, picked up my field glasses, and followed him out the door.
The gravel drive was silver with runnels of thaw water and bronzed by the sliding ridges of the melting ruts. There was no other wanderer on the trail, yet I was not alone, for his tracks went with each paw print as familiar as the print of my own hand. I followed them, and I knew each thing that he had done, each move that he had made, thought that had been his, for so it is with two who live one life together.
The tracks meandered to and fro across the trail. I saw where he had come to the old “Nature Trail” sign, which had leaned against the flank of a supporting snowdrift all the winter through, but now was heeled over to a crazy angle, one jagged end tipped accusingly to the sky, where flocks of juncos and tree sparrows bounded cleanly over and ignored its weary threat. The tracks paused here, and I knew that he had stood for a while, his old nose working as he untangled the identities of the many foxes, coyotes, deer, raccoons skunks, etc., which had come this way during the past weeks.
We went on then, the tracks and I, over the old trail and down by the bird blind, to pause for a moment where a torpid garter snake had undulated slowly through the softening mud.
There, Champ had left the trail and turned into the greening prairie, pausing here and there to sniff at an old deer scat, or at the collapsing burrows left by the meadow voles underneath the vanishing snow.
So we came at last to the oak woods and passed under the tracery of budding branches where a gray squirrel jabbered its defiance at the unheeding back of a horned owl, brooding somberly over her white eggs.
The slough lay near at hand. I stopped and sat on an upturned stump and let the sun beat down on me while I swept the surface of the water with my glasses. I could see no ducks, yet I knew they were there. Back in the yellow cattails, old greenhead and his mate were waiting patiently for me to go so that they could resume their ponderous courtship. I smiled, knowing that they would not long be left in peace, even in their secluded place.
I waited and the first bee flew by, and little drifting whorls of mist rose from the scattered sublimating banks of snow, deep in the woods. Then suddenly there was the familiar voice raised in wild yelping somewhere among the dead cattails. And then a frantic surge of wings and old greenhead lifted out of the reeds, his mate behind him. They circled heavily while, unseen beneath them, Champ plunged among the tangled reeds and knew a fragment of the ecstasy that had been his when ducks had risen over other ponds in other years.
I rose and ambled on until I found his tracks again, beyond the reeds. His trail led to the hawthorn thicket and I saw where he had stopped a moment to snuff at the still-unopened door of a chipmunk’s burrow. Nearby, there was a brush pile and the tracks went round and round beneath the boughs where bob whites had spent the night.
We crossed a clearing, Champ and I, and here the soft black mold was churned and tossed as if by a herd of rutting deer, yet all the tracks were his. For an instant I was baffled, and then a butterfly came through the clearing on unsteady wings, and I remembered. So many times I had watched him leap and hop, and circle after such, the first butterflies of spring, forever led and mocked by the these slow-flying insects. I thought of the dignified old gentleman of today who had frowned at puppies in their play.
Now the tracks led me beyond the clearing to the edge of a broad field and here they hesitated by a woodchuck’s hole, unused these two years past. But there must have been some faint remaining odor, enough to make Champ’s muzzle wrinkle with interest, and enough to set his blunt old claws to scratching in the matted grass.
He did not tarry long. A rabbit passed and the morning breeze carried its scent. Champ’s trail veered off abruptly, wandering recklessly across the soft and yielding soil of the prairie restoration, slipping and sliding in the frost-slimed patches. I followed more sedately until the tracks halted abruptly against a bramble patch. He had not stopped in time. The thorns still held a tuft or two of his proud plumes.
And then there must have been a new scent on the wind, his tracks moved off in a straight line toward the horse trail, and the woods which lie beyond it. There was a new mood on him, the ultimate spring mood. I knew it. I returned to the trail, and my boots were sucking in the mud.
I did not know that, in following the tracks, it was to be an end to some of the best years that I had lived. In the evening of that day I went out again along the trail in company with a silent friend who had kept me company all these years. We stopped beyond the slough, and there I laid him to rest. The tracks that I had followed earlier were still visible, but would they ever lead my heart again?
It rained that night and by the next dawn most of the tracks were gone, save by the slough where a few little puddles dried quickly in the rising sun. There was nothing else, save that from a tangle of rustling brambles some tufts of fine golden hair shredded quietly away in the early breeze and drifted down to lie among the leaves. The pact of companionship between the two of us was ended, and I now walked the trails alone.
He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are
his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true,
to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such
devotion. — Author unknown
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land ‘O Lakes area. To comment on this story, visit the “Outdoors” section of StarJournalNOW.com