Emerging from the dense woods, I spotted the last known location of the downed Ruffed grouse. The bird was gone - vanished.
I closed my eyes, while a dreamy internal movie reel of the recent events began to flicker away...
My five-month-old German wirehaired pointer, Remy, had just popped out of a tight knell of poplars and aspens. His owner was in hot pursuit, trying to keep up with the overly excited 25-pound bundle of energy.
He was roughly 20 yards ahead of me, and sniffing the ground like a spastic drug addict looking for his next fix. We had just entered my grandfather's private gravel pit: a small cup of sand and pebbles that hadn't been used for its namesake in the last half decade. The surrounding woods were sending up young shoots by the hundreds in a painfully slow reclamation of the scarred earth.
"Whoa boy," I said, trying to stop the pup.
Just then, a rapid stochastic drum line of wing beats signaled a bird flushed to the right of Remy. The dog was unaware, too transfixed on whatever interesting scent he had found, but I knew the fowl was somewhere amid a dense grove of pines. The trees - thick, tightly-woven bunches of green pipe cleaners - offered nothing but inky darkness. They stoically sat atop a small hill on the north side of the pit, and were the last bit of cover before the quiet, quaint county road on the other side.
I squinted, and caught the white glimpse of feet scuttling through the pine litter. A silhouette of a bird suddenly appeared on the top of the hump, and my shotgun instinctively rose to my shoulder and fired before I could register a thought.
The bird disappeared.
Remy heard the report of the smallish 20 gauge shotgun, and kicked it into high gear. Not knowing where or what I was shooting at, his instinct to retrieve whatever was down overtook the urgent pleas by his owner to get into the woods.
I took it upon myself to lead the manic canine to the last known sighting of the feathered delicacy.
"Up here, dead bird," I said, my voice nearly at a yell from the excitement of the moment.
Remy started up behind me, but immediately shot to the right and headed around the base of the hill.
"No," I commanded. "Come. Dead bird. Fetch."
Each order was in direct contradiction to the other. "No" doesn't mean much to Remy, except that it's negative and he's probably doing something wrong. "Come" means he should hurry to me with no questions barked; not a likely task for a young dog on a hot scent. "Dead bird" likely rings no bell except that I try to use it when we hunt whenever an unfortunate fowl somehow finds itself in the way of my errant shots. Lastly, fetch means Remy needs to find whatever it is that I want, and return it to me, which is in direct opposition to my first and second operatives.
Thankfully, Remy pretty much ignored me.
When I had finally clawed to the top of the heap, through the poking branches and slippery, dew-covered leaves, I was greeted with empty ground. A sunbeam spotlighted the location, making it even more painfully obvious of its vacancy.
Brushing the shot off as another miss, I nearly called for Remy. That's when I keyed in to what he was doing.
Remy's tale was wagging so fervently I feared it would dislodge from his rear end. The pint-sized wirehair intently followed an invisible trail as if being drawn forth by clear fishing line.
He stopped, made an about-face, and firmly planted his puppy mouth around something hidden under a log at the base of the hill.
"Fetch," I yelled.
Up popped the pooch; a dead bird in his mouth. The beautiful gray-phased bird completely blocked out the small dog's face, making it look like some miniature mythical Greek beast was sauntering toward me.
Demonstrating a loyalty and obedience well beyond his training and age, Remy promptly plopped the partridge into my awaiting hand and lavishly licked his owner's overjoyed face.
I was dumbstruck. This young dog, with only my meager, inexperienced training as a guide, had made a blind retrieve to hand on a bird he hadn't even encountered before in his short lifetime.
Words cannot express the overwhelming sense of pride and joy at that moment in this amateur dog owner's heart.
Remy proved his prowess as a hunter was not a fluke. He expertly retrieved six birds to hand during the next few days.
My wife, Erin, even got the chance to tag along and see our pooch in action. This shooter proved himself a poor shot under pressure, however, so she did not get to see any of his retrieving abilities.
Everything was not peaches and cream, though. Remy got into a habit of racing ahead of me, especially if he was hot on a fresh scent. This resulted in several bumped birds out of range, and mounting frustration on my end.
He also took off into the woods more than once, the jingling of his dog tags fading into silence. Just as surging fear nearly sent me into an adrenaline-induced heart attack, Remy would emerge, tongue hanging out and in a puppy grin, and ready to continue down the trail.
Still, it's tough to look back on that weekend with nothing but smiles. We ate well, visited wonderful relatives, and came home feeling like we'd just spent four days at a spa in Old Mexico.
But it's tough to top watching a pup doing what he was born to do: hunt.