Charlie's a semi-legend around here.
He's an ace bird dog, one of the best any of the hunters in these parts has seen. Charlie - we all call him Chuck - has what they call a "soft mouth", meaning that when he grabs a bird he never crushes it, never even musses a feather. Pheasants fetched by Charlie are brought back in utterly pristine condition; ducks whole and succulent; doves perfect and shimmering.
Charlie's a black labrador, a truly handsome animal. He has a massive, noble head, vast paws, intelligent fathomless brown eyes. He's nearly eight years old now, and his joints are starting to stiffen; labradors tend to have joint problems, and it's sad to see that Chuck's succumbing to a nasty breed trait. Even though he's slowing down a bit, Chuck's still the best bird dog around. He fetches sticks with tireless, insane abandon, barrel chest heaving, baying like a pup. He's a special dog by any standard.
My dad tells a story about Charlie. It seems that a few years back when Charlie was around two years old, some plovers were ground-nesting in the back acreage of the property. The mother birds spent all their time fussing over their fluffy broods, anxiously herding their flightless babies, trying to keep a semblance of order. But one of the babies ventured a little too close to Chuck.
A lesser dog would have looked at that little bird as an amuse bouche. Not Chuck. Chuck decided to take the little guy for a ride.
Yep, you read that right. With my dad looking on in slack-jawed amazement, Chuck took the baby bird for a swim.
Chuck scooped the little guy up into his big grinning velvety jaws, trotted down to his beloved Snake River, and paddled about for ten minutes or so. He was an enthusiastic tour guide, a Labradorian gondolier.
After he'd swum around in a few wide, joyous circles, Chuck lunged out of the water, black coat streaming and glistening. He considerately set the baby plover down for a moment while he gave himself a good nose-to-tail shake, re-scooped the bird, then loped over to the exact nest from which the baby bird had wandered. He tenderly deposited his tiny passenger (ignoring the squawks of the mama bird), gave it a nudge with his giant nose, and released it into the care of its frantic mother.
So yeah, that's Chuck.
Gentle and soulful as Chuck may be, around here he's still "just" a working dog. Until this hunting season, Charlie was given the same treatment as any other working dog. He has a nice big kennel with a good-sized run, lots of snuggly bedding and old flannel shirts to keep him warm on those bitter winter nights.
But my aunt and uncle were out of town for quite a few weeks this summer, and Charlie got lonely. He'd accompany my dad on the general rounds - lawn mowing, garden watering, fence mending. He'd hop into the back of Dad's pickup for runs to the local grocery store, his oversized pink tongue lolling in the breeze, his soft mouth peeled back against the wind in an ecstatic dog-grin.
He was supposed to spend the nights in his kennel. During hunting season Chuck has to stay in that kennel constantly, because if he hears a shotgun he's off to the races. He's hardwired to hunt, and nothing - aside, perhaps, from stick-fetching - gets his sap rising quite like the sound of gunshot.
But it was summertime, and no hunters were out. A quiet unanimous decision was made to allow Chuck to spend his nights where he chose to spend them. And Chuck had Ideas.
Chuck wanted to spend his nights inside, with us.
After two or three evenings under the carport, Chuck made his wishes known in his characteristically polite way. Charlie knocked.
I was sitting here at the computer late one evening - had to be around one AM. Suddenly, I head a distinct, methodical "thump...thump...thump" at the back sliding glass door. Thinking my sister had come down to visit, I pushed my chair back and headed to the door. Peering into the black desert night didn't yield any sign of a late night visitor, so I went back to finish typing my email.
Before I could sit down, there it was again, more insistent this time: "THUMP...thump...THUMP."
Now I was getting kinda creeped out, so I crept to the doorway of my parents' bedroom and tapped. "Yeah, what is it, Ash?" My father sounded sleepy and a little annoyed.
I explained to him that a possible axe murderer was attempting to gain entrance; would he please discourage it?
Dad muttered something colorful under his breath that elicited a muffled giggle from Mom. After a moment or two he emerged from his cave, blinking in the halflight of the hallway. This time he heard it too: "THUMP...THUMP...THUMP!"
Dad looked comically puzzled for the barest moment, then the light dawned. "Oh hell, Ash, that's just Chuck!"
"Chuck?" I said. "But...he's...he's knocking!"
"Yeah, yeah he is," Dad said as he meditatively rubbed his stubbly chin. "He does that sometimes at the wood shop, too." Dad grinned. "He's a gentleman, Chuck is."
Dad headed over to the door and slid it open. Chuck, perfectly camouflaged by the darkness, sat politely on the threshold awaiting a formal invitation. "Well, sir," said Dad mock-sternly, "If I let you in, you gonna be a good boy?" Chuck thumped his tail enthusiastically, fixed my father in a liquid gaze, and raised one enormous dextrous paw in response. Dad sighed, powerless in the face of such a courtly display.
"Okay, Chuckers. C'mon in."
Charlie gathered himself, stretched langorously, and with great Labradorian dignity padded across the room to a spot beside the wood-burning stove. He curled himself into what I'm sure he considered to be an unobtrusive ball and fell asleep immediately, snoring gently.
And that's how Chuck became an indoor beastie.
He's graduated from the hearth. Now he likes to hang out at my feet - more specifically, on my feet. But it's a win-win proposition, really. I've always been a cat person, but that was before I realized how warm my feet are beneath an 80-pound black lab furnace. And Charlie? Well, he gets to rest his arthritic old bones inside a warm house for the winter.
I keep some special chicken rawhide strips on the computer desk. Chuck's my new buddy, and I try to spoil my friends. My uncle teases me, says I'm making Chuck soft, but I don't care a whit. Chuck's here right now, snoring peacefully atop my feet. I have a fat tabby cat on my lap, a giant labrador snoozing on my feet, a bottle of good stout, and stories to tell.
Winter's coming, but it won't be as lonely as the last one was. This time I'll have a gentlemanly, patient presence to keep my feet warm and toasty - a friendly, doe-eyed writer's companion.
Things could be much worse. Sometimes - like tonight - I don't see how they could be much better.