The walk. A short story.
The man woke to the sound of his dog whining. “Do you need to go outside, girl?” He reached over and touched her head gently. “Ok, come on, let’s go.” He rose from his bunk and went to the door. He picked up his rifle, which was sitting in its usual place, next to the door; and opened the door slowly, peeking out the crack between the door and the jamb.
“I don’t see any bears this morning,” he said to no one but the dog. He opened the door and walked out onto the porch. The dog followed him and then continued on down the steps and into the yard. She was walking slowly, even more slowly than usual. The man could tell her pain was getting worse—much worse than last month. “I am sorry you are hurting, girl, I wish I could take the pain for you.”
The man sat in the porch chair staring out at the familiar, but still beautiful scene; waiting for the dog to finish. As he sat there, he decided that today was the day to go over to the mountain. He went back inside and packed his bag and threw it over his shoulder, then he picked up his rifle and headed back outside.
The dog was lying in the shade, half asleep, but woke up as the man closed and latched the door to the cabin. She watched the man approach and started to get up as the man got close. “Come on, girl,” the man said. “We have a long walk.”
The dog followed the man slowly. It wasn’t obedience, she would have followed if he had said nothing. Maybe it was habit, as she had been following him for almost twenty years, or perhaps it was love. Who can say why a dog follows.
The man walked slowly down the hill toward the creek, the fall leaves crunching under his feet. He winced as he walked through a spider web, and then struggled to get it off his face. As he reached to pick up a stick to protect himself from other webs, he remembered all of the spring days he sat on the porch and threw sticks out into the yard for the dog to chase. He would throw the stick dozens of times and the dog would dutifully bring it back. Eventually the dog would tire and lay down in the cool grass, chewing on her stick as if it were a delicious bone.
The creek had standing water in it, but it wasn’t running, since it had been a few weeks since it rained. The man stopped in the middle of the creek and stood on a large slab of rock, looking back at the dog approaching the creek. She stopped as she got to the bank and looked down. In the past, she would have jumped down onto the flat rock with the man, but today she stopped and looked. She walked up the creek a few paces, then back down a few, looking for an easier path down.
The man walked over to her and sat on the bank of the creek. He reached around the dog’s neck and pulled her head into his lap. “You are a good girl,” the man said to her as he stroked her head. They sat there for a while, the dog remaining completely still, while the man continued to caress her head. “You are the best dog ever,” the man said.
They sat there for a few minutes until the man reached back and put his hand under her tail and picked her up. He carried her up the creek a few yards and put her down by a clear pool of water. “Are you thirsty, girl,” he said as he put her down next to the pool. He wished he could carry her the entire way to the mountain. But he knew he couldn’t, she was just too heavy.
The dog walked into the pool and began to drink. The man stood and watched her patiently as she wandered around the pool drinking the cool, clear water. She eventually got her fill and approached the man. He reached down and rubbed her ears, and then headed down the creek, picking out the high spots, while the dog followed.
The sun was filtering through the leaves making the forest much darker than it had been while they were still in the yard. It was a hot day, hotter than normal and, while the forest blocked the sun, it also kept in the humidity. The man brushed the sweat out of his eyes and continued walking.
He finally reached a spot in the creek that provided an easy way up the hill. He started up the hill, zig-zagging slowly so the dog could keep up with him. Before he reached the top, the forest ended and a large grassy field appeared.
The man and the dog had been here many times before. They often crossed this field when they were hunting. He remembered bringing her up here the first time she saw snow. As they cleared the trees and the dog saw the large open field of white, she took off running through the snow. She ran directly away from the man, then turned to run in big circles. The man watched her for several minutes and then called her. She made one more lap and ran back to him. That was the day he decided she was the best dog ever. Most puppies would have ignored a call, but she never ignored him. It was as if she wanted to be near him as much as he wanted to be near her.
A fly landed on the man’s face and brought him out of his trance. He brushed it away and began walking again. The grass was taller than the man’s waist. He left a trail of bent stalks, as the dog got lost from view. The stalks waved in the breeze, but the movement of the grass caused by the dog could still be easily seen. “I’m over here, girl,” the man said. He stopped walking and called her as she continued her slow progress through the grass.
As the dog approached, the man sat down in the grass and called her. She quickened her pace as much as she could and laid down next to the man. They sat there for a while so the dog could rest again. But it wasn’t long before the gnats made it uncomfortable for both man and dog. The man stood and looked toward the other side of the field. “Come on, girl,” he said. “let’s keep moving.”
They continued down the other side of the hill toward the lake, stopping occasionally to rest. The sun was high in the sky by the time they reached the lake. The man walked along the bank slowly as the dog followed him. He stepped onto the dock and walked out to the end. He dropped his bag, laid his rifle on the dock, and sat down, his legs hanging over the edge of the dock.
He opened his bag and took out a small bundle. He moved the bag away and laid the bundle on the dock, where he unwrapped it to reveal a stick with fishing string and a hook, and several dry minnows. The man baited the hook and dropped it into the water.
He loved to fish. He and the dog had come here often. Usually, the dog would jump into the water and swim while the man was fishing. Of course, this always made it harder to catch a fish, but the man didn’t mind. Eventually, the dog would get tired and come up on the dock and give the man a chance to catch a fish.
But, today, the dog didn’t go swimming. She laid on the dock next to the man and tried to sleep. The pain seemed to come and go. She would sleep for a while and then half-awaken with a quiet yelp, only to quickly fall back asleep again.
The man pulled the hook in and threw it back out again. Normally, fishing was just something to do while he sat on the dock and enjoyed the view of the mountain on the other side of the lake. But today he really wanted to catch a fish.
He continued to cast and pull the hook back in until he finally caught a small lake trout. He cut the head, tail, and fins off and cleaned it out. He wrapped the filets and string up in the cloth and threw what he had cut off into the lake.
He put his bag and rifle in his row boat and then helped the dog get in, before he climbed in and untied the boat. The man paddled across the lake toward the mountain. He paddled slowly, like he wasn’t in any hurry. So, even though the lake wasn’t very big, it took him a while to get across. As he reached the bank, he heard a flock of geese fly overhead. The dog looked up expectantly. “Not today, girl. It’s getting late. We need to keep moving.”
The man started up the mountain trail, with the dog following behind. He walked the trail for about a mile until he found the cairn that marked the spot where he needed to head into the forest. He built the cairn several years ago. He and the dog came up here and found just the right spot together.
The man picked up another stick, remembering his encounter with spiders in the forest near his cabin. He headed into the forest, following the blazes on the trees he had made years before. The last cairn was in a clear area under a large oak tree. The man sat down next to the cairn and looked down at the lake. His eyes found the dock and then scanned up the hill. He could see his cabin, a small wisp of smoke still coming out of his chimney.
“Look, girl, there’s the cabin, right there,” the man said pointing. “Isn’t this perfect?” He pulled the dog in and hugged her. “You are the best dog ever,” he said. He laid his rifle on the ground and opened his bag. He gently opened the bundle containing the fish and cut it into pieces. He held a piece in front of the dog’s nose and she gently ate it from his hand. He continued to feed her until the fish was gone.
“Let’s just sit for a while, huh, girl,” the man said. He sat there, petting the dog and rubbing her ears as she laid next to him with her eyes closed and her head in his lap. She was a good dog. A brave dog. The man wished they could be together forever. But they couldn’t. He knew that. It wouldn’t be fair.
The man put his fishing gear back in his bag and then got up slowly. The dog was still lying on the ground, her eyes closed. The man threw his bag across his shoulder, and grabbed the rifle. He took aim and squeezed the trigger. The shot rang loud in his ear, and echoed all around him. He stood there for what seemed like an eternity, with the echo reverberating in his mind.
The man looked down at the dog’s body, and was glad she was no longer in pain. But he would feel the pain of her loss for the rest of his life. He had managed to take her pain on himself after all.