The day was hot—really hot—and more intense than any single one I could remember from summers past. It came after a week of all-day, all-night scorchers, which wreak havoc on a bird dogger’s training routine. Seasonal heat is inevitable, so we improvise and shift our sessions to early morning and early evening. Even then, though, days with near 100 degree heat and 98 percent humidity are just plain miserable. Everything living, including the dogs and I, just sulks around, and we lay low, preferably in the shadows of shade.
But that approach only goes so far for so long, and after a while we all go stir crazy. I get that way, you get that way, and the dogs certainly get that way. There’s only so much sitting, resting, and thinking that can be done, and on one particular day we gave in. We needed some action.
By about 6 p.m. the sun started its descent behind the tips of the pitch pines. Twilight was in the woods, and for the first time in a while there was an evening breeze. I belled the setters, and off we went through the woods. Bird season was a month away, and it was time for them to muscle up. Truth be told, I needed to knock off the ice cream sundaes and barbecue beers, too.
The dogs were running ahead, far ahead of me and my running shoes. I think of mine as sort of a manual-roading process. Over the years we’ve gotten in shape together, and following the first week of soreness we start having some fun. I much preferred the time when they were pups. There was a sweet spot between the time they were old enough for work but before their legs had lengthened where I could outrun them. It lasted for maybe a week or two. Ultimately I was confined to a life of falling behind.
With today’s heat, I was further behind than usual. We’d been huffing and puffing for about 45 minutes when they got out a little too far for my liking. I took advantage of that fact and took a break to listen for their position. At last report they were west-northwest. But now no bells sounded, and that was good—they must be pointing a quail!
The ensuing silence was punctuated by the distant sound of a crying child.
I whistled the dogs in. Their handle was good, and in a minute or two all four setters were panting at my side just as hard as me. They couldn’t tell me about the commotion, but since we were in need of a splash of cold water from the garden hose, we took a shortcut through the pines to get it.
I saw the source of the crying a bit later when I reached the dirt road. It was a family: a father, a mother, a daughter, and a son. The daughter appeared to be a teenager; I know that only because of the menacing way she glared at me. Her younger brother of a half-dozen years old was crying.
His weren’t just tears but rather a stream, a river, an ocean that accompanies an incredible sadness. I rolled my eyes, took a deep breath, and prepared for a tongue lashing from his dad.
“Hey,” I said. “These are my dogs. Did one jump on your son?”
“Not at all,” said the father. “They’re very well behaved. What breed are they?”
“They’re English setters,” I said. “They like people. Most of the time they just want a pat. The pup is a little spunky, but he won’t hurt a fly.”
“A setter,” he said. “I think my grandfather had a setter.”
“They used to be popular, but everyone now likes Labs.”
“We have a Lab.”
I looked around at the dogs. “Why is your son crying? Doesn’t he like dogs?”
“He loves dogs. In fact, he lit up when he saw your dogs. That one in particular.”
“That’s Albert,” I said. “He’s a good-looking dog. My friend calls him the ‘Zeus of Setters.’ He’s a good boy.”
“My son is crying because of the bells.”
“Yeah, he heard them way off in the distance and kept looking up in the sky. He kept looking and looking, and we all were looking and couldn’t figure out what he saw. But then your dogs got close and popped out of the woods. He thought Santa Claus was going to appear.”
I didn’t see that one coming, but boy did I feel rotten. I pulled Albert towards the boy, and after a few pats the tears went away. Santa Claus in the summer? I guess anything is possible when you believe.
Tom Keer is a senior editor with Sporting Classics. For more great features and columns from him, be sure to subscribe to the magazine today!