Grape vines had overrun the empty chain-link kennel, deep grass claiming the inside. As I walked past it in my backyard, a metallic twinkle caught my eye. I dug it out, blew the dirt off. A dog tag, with my phone number and one word'¦"Hope." The lump swelled in my throat, the dog tag blurred through wet eyes. I could not believe it. "Gin's New Hope" had died in my arms four years prior.
All hunters get one great dog. It's rough when that dog is your first. Black Stuff. The Microlab. The Pocket Retriever. We had many names for the diminutive little hot shot who was pure adrenaline, flash and style, topped with a supernatural homing-beacon nose. She made me look like a genius as a first-time trainer. The runt. A litter of great breeding, all gone, her still there on the concrete floor, half-starved, lingering, the unwanted weakling leftover. Available half-price — just the right amount on a journalist's pay.
She stayed small, about 60 pounds, and I liked her sprightly size better than my pals' big dumb gorilla Labs that towed back half the decoy spread. So smart, she taught herself to flush grouse toward me, not away. She is buried high on a Utah mountain where she made one of her greatest such hunts. What a dog does is come into your life and define a period of it, a friend said. Like children, you know you had a great dog when other adults love being around her. Friends far and wide wept at the loss of Hope. My adolescent son had known no world without her.
You try and tell people, "I had a good dog," and what that means. Words fail. I tried, in a newspaper column. If God makes something cuter than little boys and puppies, he's keeping it to himself. We were lucky to have that one 10 years, huh kid?
She once ran away and the old lady who found her responded to my desperate newspaper ad. "How do I know she's yours?" I led her through a few commands and the lady exploded with glee when Hope did all she said despite, it would turn out, a newly fractured leg.
Her first retrieves were on the surging Columbia. I feared for her, but my pal Pete said, "Skipper, you've got a keeper" as she dove for ducks instinctively and swam hundreds of yards, returning safely. She sat shivering, a lone duck feather curled up on her nose. She had no idea what had happened, only that it was right. Her nose was so good she became a field proof test when frustrated friends needed to know the truth about their dogs' failures. She often came back with cold birds that had been dead for a while. For me, bird hunting without Hope was cold, and dead for a while.
Sons grow up, move out. I keep that dog tag, "Hope," on my motorcycle key, to keep her angel close. I had a good dog. It's been years now. Black Stuff, it's finally time to try again. Time to find someone who breeds great microlabs, and start over. Until then I have only sweet memories and a poem that seems written just for her:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
and never stops at all,
And Sweetest in the Gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm
I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea,
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me
— Emily Dickinson, Poem 254