A Short story about dear friends, and deer friends too.
Any Friend of Jake's
By Tony Killinger
The old man stood leaning on the handle of the short spade, the aroma of freshly turned earth and decaying leaves wafting past his senses unnoticed. The air was chilled but not cold, the breeze hearty but not stiff. It was, all in all, just a normal October morning. The nine o’clock sun promised a warming day, one with the color and splendor of burning red maple leaves and the brilliant yellows of Aspen and Alders. It would be a day to delight the pallet of any artist, a day to stir the blood of any outdoorsman, a day to remember, but it was lost in the old man’s melancholy.
He had shared every passing day for the last nine years with the lifeless body that now lay in the welcoming earth at his feet. They were two very dissimilar of God’s creatures, yet they knew each other the way few had ever been allowed to know of another specie. To say he had loved the dog would be unholy, perhaps, yet he could not think of another word that adequately portrayed their relationship. They were companions, who could, without reservation, place their complete trust in the other. Their moods were transferable and it seemed that either of them had the power to cheer a lonely evening or excite a dull afternoon for the other. Each of them, in his own way, looked out for the other. Perhaps all such relationships will remain forever unnamed, but the old man cared little if the world understood or approved. He would miss this true friend and cherish the memory of his affection for him.
After a few more minutes of reflection the man took a small branch and drove it into the soil beyond the head of the gentle mound. The branch had been stripped of its bark and slightly polished. A small crotch, shaped into an almost perfect “Y” pointed skyward. With a slow and deliberate hand, the man hung a well-worn link chain collar into the crotch. Two metal tags jingled happily together for one last time. One of the tags was a license, long since expired, but the only legality the dog had ever had. The other tag was a crude piece of workmanship into which the single word “Jake” had been punched with the sharp end of a nail. “Sleep well, old friend,” the old man murmured barely audibly in a voice that was nearly choking. He turned and walked towards the old Chevy pick-up truck parked a few yards away.
As he walked, the man noticed the flick of an ear on the far side of the clearing. Five yards into the brush a magnificent buck had been watching this simple rite. The scent of turned earth had called him from his bed nearly a quarter of a mile away. When he approached he recognized the scent of the man and the truck, but something he normally associated with the man was different. The scent of the dog had no life element to it and it seemed to fade in tiny increments the longer he watched. Some years before the dog had chased him for a short while, but gave it up when the man called to him. The buck had seen the two of them, many times. They walked in the woods in late afternoons, often when the buck was just starting on his nightly rounds. They had grown old together, the three of them. The dog had lost his once youthful vigor and became more deliberate, more settled, and less wasteful of his energy. The buck had matured in those years also. He had been slightly wounded one time when he was just a two year-old and carried a thin eight-point rack of antlers. Now, at seven years of age he was a monarch who roamed the forest almost exclusively at night. His authority was unchallenged although the younger bucks realized that his reign was rapidly coming to an end. If the approaching winter was harsh he might not survive to see the spring and even if he did his own sons would probably drive him off.
The man stopped on his way to the truck and studied the far side of the clearing. Although the deer thought himself to be invisible, hidden in the brush and as still as the trees around him, his shape and form were well known to the human. It had been nearly a full year since he had seen the buck, but he recognized him instantly. The presence of the animal brought the man from his sadness in an instant and he smiled. “Your curiosity is going to get you into trouble some day”, the old man thought to himself. “At your age you’d be better advised to stick to the cedar swamps, my friend, there are plenty around who would like nothing better than to find you in within range.”
The man continued on to the truck, the deer watched and listened as he started the engine and drove away in the direction of his cabin. After a few moments the animal moved off also. The leaves of the Aspen trees fluttered in the breeze and sang their song of the coming season in golden, yellow tones.
The cabin seemed empty and hollow. The man settled into an overstuffed chair and absentmindedly surveyed its interior. It was the dog that had brought them here, he remembered silently. It was not long after his wife had died and he was living in a typical suburban house. One day his son came to visit and spent a few minutes lecturing his father, saying he needed more activity, something to occupy his time. It sounded like a sales pitch, and it was. The son retreated to his station wagon and reappeared with this half-grown dog on a leash. The dog looked terrible. His feet and legs were in a full run while the son held tightly to the restraining leash. The dog was leaning at about a forty-five degree angle, his feet unable to scratch traction on the smooth tile of the kitchen, gasping for breath and sounding like a combination of whooping cough and some sort of weird floor polisher. “Good heavens,” the man remembered saying, “what on earth is that?”
“He’s a full-blooded German wirehaired Pointer,” his son answered. “He’s just a year old, but he just can’t be left alone. My friend who owns him says he’s fine as long as someone is with him, but when he and his wife leave for work, the pup goes nuts.”
“Oh, that’s a ringing endorsement,” the father laughed. He knelt down in front of the dog and the dog responded by sitting, even calming down a bit. He was a calico mixture of browns and grays, all sort of running together yet retaining some semblance of a pattern that looked like large brown islands on a gray sea. He had an absolute comical face with a walrus looking mustache muzzle and deep, dark brown eyes. As he studied the dog the dog studied back. He tilted his head to one side, looked the man squarely in the eyes and seemed to smile happily, almost clownish. That had been their beginning.
Within a month it became painfully obvious that the pup had just too much energy for suburbia, he needed space. He was constantly moving and he could cover ground like an ocean tide covers a beach. He never moved far off from the man, but he swung back and forth, back and forth like the pendulum of some great clock. And in every movement there was a joy that made the man smile. Each blade of grass, each tiny bug, every flitting butterfly became a new universe to explore. Pausing only a moment, the pup would extract all the data his eyes, ears and nose could give him, and then he was off to some new exotic find, each more wondrous than the one before.
Before long, the house had been sold, most of the contents distributed to friends, relatives and charities, and the dog and the man began a new adventure. He purchased a sixty-five acre plot of woodlands, twenty miles outside town, nestled snugly between vast tracts of land belonging to a paper mill and bordered by the Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A small, four-room cabin, a ramshackle garage and a well house became their new domain. It was, to be sure, a very Spartan existence, but they both took to the challenge with unbounded vitality.
Looking back, the dog hadn’t done much, actually. He never sawed a board, drove a nail or swung a paintbrush, but he was always there, inspecting, approving and acting as the general overseer. But, when the day’s work was done or when a fine, fat grouse was needed for the evening’s feast, the dog gave himself to the task with skill and happiness. Those two jingling tags on his collar sounded their joyful song again and Jake would be off into that world that only he knew. Nothing missed his unerring nose, and once he had the scent he rarely lost it. When he froze, solid, unmoving and entranced, there was a tasty bird within easy shooting distance and it was left to the man to finish the job.
Over time, the cabin had been almost completely rebuilt. The four rooms became six, complete with a farmhouse-sized kitchen and two rooms that could hold visiting grandchildren. A new garage boasted a fine workshop, ample light and a potbelly stove that consumed deadfall firewood like a hungry locomotive. The woods too had undergone a transformation. Dense areas were opened up to the sun, hundreds of oak trees planted on ridges that rolled endlessly through lesser stands of Alder and soft Maples. Only one area had been left to its own resources and that was a ten-acre swamp that was so thick and impenetrable it defied man or beast to enter its dark, dank interior.
Jake loved it when visitors came. Into his otherwise blissful life he welcomed the young arms that could throw his ragged, tattered old tennis ball a bit further than the old man could manage. The man seldom spoke, but when visitors were around the air was filled with the shouts of children or the busy patter of workmen. They were always good for an extra pat on the head or a scratch of his neck and they frequently tossed him a treat. Then, in the evenings, there was the warm fire and the sound of music floating endlessly through their cluttered world. And there was always tomorrow’s adventure to explore.
The October days gave way to November when the life cycle of the deer reaches a momentous landmark. Does become edgy, seemingly dissatisfied with their usual diet, drifting almost aimlessly through the forest in search of something new to appease a different hunger. Bucks thrash sapling trees, polishing antlers already hardened and ready to do battle with other bucks that a few weeks before had been constant companions. The red and gray squirrels chattered and scolded the deer, perhaps understanding their restlessness better than the deer themselves understood. It is not a time of understanding; it is a time when genes and instinct and nature’s drive to ensure a new generation overshadow usual caution and timidity. It is also a time of dire danger.
For several days the old buck had been uneasy. Besides the kinetic activity connected with the breeding season, there was other activity that bore watching. He continued to make his rounds at night, renewing scrapes he had made on the ground, signals for does that he was around and as virulent as ever. The scrapes also served to warn off lesser bucks and make them aware that they traversed this area at their own peril. But there were also signs that humans had come to the forest in expanded numbers, and their kind always brought danger.
The old buck slept very little, but rested often. Even with his head laid flat to the ground, the drifting scent of humans and does in heat kept stirring him from any slumber. It was about mid morning as he rested in a thick growth of balsam and spruce trees that an accelerated puff of wind brought a strong scent of man, close and moving even closer. Snow was falling and he knew sounds of movements would be hard to detect. In his nearly colorless world of blacks, white and grays, the thin curtain of snowflakes blurred shapes, yet he felt he must move away from the approaching danger even if the wind would be at his back. Fully alert, he judged a quartering movement would be best, allowing him opportunities to circle back if the opportunity presented itself. He rose, silently, testing the air from this new level. The scent was there, even stronger than he had perceived. His nerves were taut, every muscle and sinew in his body was ready to propel him crashing through the brush, yet he moved off slowly and deliberately. He picked his way carefully between the balsams, trying desperately not to dislodge the snow steadily accumulating on those broad branches. Within a few minutes the heavy growth of the evergreens began to thin, but he had put some distance between himself and the approaching danger. He would move through this relative open area, cross the ridge ahead of him and make a wide circle back into the cedars.
Twenty yards into the hardwoods he realized his mistake. Ahead of him, perhaps another seventy yards, something moved. The shape was indefinite, but the movement was quick and real. He had no choice, he was committed and he wheeled to the left and bolted for the high ridge. The crack of the rifle and the impact were simultaneous. The shock threw him to the ground, his legs continuing to run and, for a moment, he thrashed violently in the soft snow. His head throbbed and a stabbing pain bit into his right shoulder, sending fire the length of his being. He had been thrown into a jagged stump and a spike of wood penetrated into the soft flesh of his upper leg. In half a second he had regained his feet and tried desperately to clear his vision and summon all of his strength for a run he knew meant life or death. There was no time to pick and choose now; he plunged headlong through the trees, bowling through brush, breaking off branches as though they were matchsticks. Even in his terror, he realized something was wrong; he could not turn exactly when he wanted and his head felt tilted, but he threw off the feeling and ran. Behind him the rifle cracked and cracked again, but the bullets missed him.
After running about three hundred yards he slowed enough to be aware of his surroundings again. He knew exactly where he was and it was possibly the worst place he could be in his situation. He walked a few paces and then he stopped, strategically hidden by ferns and willows. There were men behind him, he knew that for certain, but as to what lay ahead, he had no idea. He needed a place to rest and hide and there was nothing close to him. It was broad daylight and he was weak and tired, sore and confused. As his breath returned he calmed somewhat. There was a place, he remembered, if only he could reach it undetected. It would take some time but he would move cautiously and if he could get there it would be his sanctuary.
It was late afternoon and the man stood in front of his window, not looking at anything in particular, but just watching the fading day. Two hundred yards from the cabin a high ridge of hardwoods gave way to a long hill and at the bottom of the hill was the edge of the cedar swamp, that untamed, impenetrable mass of tangled growth that was so terribly foreboding. Then, he saw the buck. He crested the ridge and made his way slowly from one tree to the next, stopping often and never completely exposed. The man noticed the limp immediately and he quickly grabbed a pair of binoculars. It was nearly impossible to get an entire picture of the animal, but he could see in quick glimpses the buck had suffered some trauma on this day. A full half of his right antler had been broken or shot off and the right front leg had been injured in some way. But, the buck made his way, ever so slowly towards the haven of the heavy swamp. It would be nearly dark by the time he threaded his way through the trees and sparse brush. The man watched and silently urged the buck on. Finally, as the last light of the day slid behind the ridge, the buck ducked his head and disappeared into the swamp.
The final days of autumn were consumed in a burst of activity. There was firewood to gather and stack, machinery to be winterized and stored and the snow blower had to be tuned up for the annual fight against confining drifts. It has always been that way, this final preparation before winter’s onslaught, but the absence of the happily jingling tags of Jake's collar was sorely missed. But, fate occasionally steps in to right an obvious wrong. And so it was that the man found himself in the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart one afternoon, only a few days before Christmas.
“Hey mister,” a young boy standing next to a large cardboard box called to him. “Do you remember me?”
The man stopped and smiled at the boy. He did seem vaguely familiar. “You better refresh my memory,” he laughed.
“I was one of the group that came with Mister Dutton from the Forest Service to see your oak tree nursery,” the boy explained. “We had a great time touring your woods. How’s Jake? He’s a neat dog.”
The man’s smile dimmed a bit. “I’m afraid Jake is no longer with us,” he sighed. “He had a good life and now he’s buried in that small clearing at the end of the road.”
“Gee, I’m sorry to hear that,” the boy said in a remarkably adult manner. “I’ll bet you really miss him. Good dogs are hard to come bye,” and the boy smiled devilishly.
“What’s in the box?” The man questioned, anxious to change the subject to something a bit lighter.
“It’s a pup,” the boy said, and then reached into the box and extracted a rather small but exuberant puppy. “Our female German Shorthair escaped while she was in heat last summer and presented us with a litter of eight pups a while later. This is the last of them. Dad says I have to get rid of him or turn him over to the animal shelter. I guess you know what that means?”
“Yes, I understand,” the man said. “Well, he sure looks like a pointer; the father must have been some kind of sporting dog too.”
“We don’t have any idea,” the boy laughed. “All I can tell you is that the whole litter looks pretty much the same, except for the runt here. He just isn’t quite as big as his brothers and sisters. He’s had his shots and his tail docked, and he eats like a horse, so I think he’ll catch up someday,” the boy said while trying to evade a tongue that insisted on licking his face.
The pup’s coloring was similar to Jake’s, but the face was a bit more refined and lacked the walrus mustache that is so typical of wirehairs. He reached out and took the puppy from the boy. The pup seemed anxious to make a good impression and became quite calm. The moment passed quickly however and the pup began a new effort at face licking. The man chuckled and the pup stopped for just a moment. He tilted his head to the side and looked solemnly into the man’s eyes. He couldn’t have known it was the one thing he might have done to seal the deal, but sealed it was.
The boy sensed his dilemma might be at an end and hurried to reinforce whatever impression the puppy had made on his own. “He seems to take to you right off,” the boy said. “I know how well you treated your dog, I’d be happy to give you the pup because I know he’ll have a good home.”
“Well,” the man said slowly, “how about you let me pay you for his shots and the tail docking, and we’ll call it even.”
The kid smiled broadly. “That would be just great.”
The days of winter passed slowly in spite of their seeming shortness. The pup grew but it was obvious he would always be somewhat smaller than average. It seemed to be okay with both of them and it didn’t require a name change. The man called the pup “Runt” and it seemed to please the pup. He possessed the boundless energy of a youngster but he was a little less silly than Jake had been. He had an equally keen nose, of that there was little doubt, and he delighted in watching the birds that came to the feeder outside the window where he spent much of his time.
Some months later, on a warm spring day, the man, his son and his daughter-in-law sat on the porch of the cabin soaking in the brightness of the glowing sun. His two granddaughters and the pup were out on a treasure hunt, as they called it. The trees were budding and the landscape was caught up in the slow process of turning green once more. Life was renewing itself. The animals, large and small, were making their reappearance. Chipmunks dashed in and out of the woodpile, chickadees chattered noisily in the trees and an eagle soared in lazy loops, high in the sky.
Half way up the hill, on the old logging road that now boasted a bright green centerline came the laughter and shouts of the girls. His oldest granddaughter carried what looked like a branch at a distance. Runt cleared the way for them, swinging back and forth across the road, inspecting the brush and poking his nose into the bunch grass.
Very soon they all ran into the yard. “Grandpa, look what Runt found on the edge of Jake’s clearing,” she declared joyously. She extended the object to her grandfather. It was an antler, or half an antler, to be precise. The massive base and the shattered main beam left little doubt as to who had recently shed this obsolete piece of bone. For a moment, the man’s eyes misted over and a huge lump gathered in his throat. “Is it a treasure?” His granddaughter pleaded.
He was silent for a minute, the lump subsided. “Yes, my dear,” he said softly. “It is indeed a treasure. We’re going to put this treasure on the mantle of the fireplace and keep it always.”
The girls were ecstatic. They jumped and clapped their hands, cheering their, and Runt’s achievement. “You found it in Jake’s clearing?” The grandfather asked.
“Yes,” the girls replied in unison. “On the far side.”
The man smiled. “I guess that old buck must have been there visiting a friend when he dropped this.”
“Was Jake his friend?” The younger girl asked.
“Jake was everyone’s friend, honey,” the man smiled.