He turned just four on Friday. And it is not boasting to say he turned heads, even total strangers’. And now he’s dead.
We were playing out on a friend’s ranch. Call it retriever training, but it was play. The orange retrieving dummy spun through the air like a majorette’s baton and Kaycee’s short liver-and-white legs churned across the ground and prairie-dog mounds as he fetched it back, coming to an eager “sit” and making soft whimperings as he waited for another shot. Then after half a dozen he simply lay down, panting. I could not call him in and had to drive over to get him back in the car.
He got in between the two front seats — his accustomed place because I spoiled him something terrible — and lay there resting, I thought. I stopped to snap a few pictures; and when I got back in the car, I realized that he had not been resting. He’d been dying. Silently. Inexplicably.
In the five stages of grief, I got no farther than denial, out there east of town, calling his name and shaking him. Then I had to phone my wife and drive home, blinded by tears, snot covering my upper lip, wailing “Friend” like the forlorn monster in the tower dungeon, as I could feel his body, pushed against mine, slowly losing its warmth.
A great dog is always an astonishment. You can look to blood lines, or try out a started dog; but it’s ultimately a crap shoot. And with Kaycee I rolled a seven. Even as a demandingly lively pup he showed an astounding passion for all things with feathers.
As a young dog, he’d leap headlong into patches of burrs, and seemed to hang there, like something thrown against a Velcro wall. He was a dog who had to be held back in the field or else burn himself down to cinders, especially when running with stilt-legged galoots like Labs and pointers. For every stride they would take, Kaycee had to take two. And did.
Kaycee never ceased to surprise day to day. He was continuing his course of studies in language skills, and had taught himself a “let’s go for a ride” bay, a short “I gotta go to the lawn” bark, and a crazed “I’m looking out the windshield” tremolo.
He learned a very pleasant trick of waiting for me at the head of the stairs, then rising up on his hind legs as I approached the top step and putting his oversized paws on my shoulders — trying to push me backward down the stairs, lacking only the butcher’s knife to reenact the scene from Psycho when “Mother” attacks the detective.
One night, a sum of money, in loose bills on the top of the bedstead, went missing; and I had no idea where. Six months later, buried in a pile of rocks in the garden was a desiccated lump of white dog waste I discovered while cleaning up. And from the waste poked a small triangle of green, the corner of a bill, more encapsulated bills beside it, Kaycee’s savings bank.
In other instances of imperfection, more than once doggie mints and a small dose of Beano proved godsends.
And too often he did unspeakable acts with cat poop.
In his heart, though, he was the fiercest hunter of birds, to the point where he nearly lost physical control around them. Despite the hatred of some for the supposed cruelty of hunting and for enlisting “innocent” dogs in the sport, not hunting a dog like that would be the greatest injustice.
Last year we got in two good pheasant hunts, one up in Manhattan, Mont., and another out at Clear Creek near Clearmont, both with my son Bryan, and one with my friend Leroy, as well.
Out at Clear Creek, Kaycee, in his orange vest, ranged out to the right and was nosing a clump of stalks. Instead of going over there, I called him in; and he came, reluctantly.
A few seconds later, a cock bird clattered up from where Kaycee had hunted; and I told myself I would not doubt him again in the field. And now I cannot.
The death of a dog teaches what a tenuous, suspended by a silk thread thing life is.
And yet, the wonder is not in how easily and perplexingly they die, but how truly alive they can be.
It is not just about dog years, but dog days, even dog minutes. If I had only four years with him, I would have settled for 10 seconds. And wished for forever. Because he was my friend.
Tom McIntyre is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.