Hugo ran below me on cliffs, already past safe distances and on the rocks, running a knife’s edge with a sprawling view dropping a thousand yards behind him. I watched him as Steve called him back – the sound of the call and command broke over the edge and echoed. The lost meaning of Hugo’s name on the wind made weather of words. I wondered how it was possible for me to fear for his safety and still take in the beauty of his light feathers against the dark rocks. As I watched, another fear materialized as he went on point.
“He’s not on point!” Steve said from somewhere behind me. His words expressed both question and disbelief at my signal.
“He’s on point.” There was a difference between his false points earlier in the day and this one. The front of his body crouched and his tail followed the straight line of his flexed body. Despite the shale slides of the headwall we came upon from above, my mind focused on a route to follow Hugo down to the ledge and the bird. This was the exact situation we agreed to avoid. But we were past the decision point. My stomach lurched as I descended. “Don’t look down” is impossible advice to follow if you’re going down.
Cogswell, who never ranged as far as Hugo, and who would have kept us to a reasonable hunt along caribou trails, tested the rocks next to me. His four legs would do better than mine, but he might also cause me to lose my balance. “No, Cogsy,” I said. I adored him keeping pace with me on the stairs at the house, but not here. I closed my shotgun to clutch the wall behind us with my free hand and maneuver away from him, but Cogswell stayed close. “No,” I said.
Then he saw the bird.
He took a direct route down the rocks and shale like a mountain horse – more a sturdy mustang in stride than Hugo’s flagging Arabian horse style had been when he worked the same vertical rocks back and forth like a field. Cogswell displaced material as he crashed down on top of Hugo’s point, breaking the pure line between Hugo and the bird.
The bird – a whitetail ptarmigan – burst free from the spell of the point and lifted into the free space of air. I caught my breath and set my jaw as my eyes squinted to focus, my mind brightly aware something beautiful and resurrecting would surface to save what appeared to be a small white dog running full tilt after a bird gone past the edge.
“Hugo!” Steve called from above. Hugo stopped and looked at me in his daredevil way that told me he knew where I was (and he was) all along. His tongue hung from his mouth in a wide smile. Rocks dropped off the edge at his feet as he twisted his body back towards us.
Cogswell, nowhere near the edge, looked like a child caught doing something wrong, eyes wide, warm, and wondering. He seemed to think every command was directed toward him and came to the name of any dog. He horsed his way up the rocks in the same straight line he had crashed down.
Hugo dashed to the left and the right, making a mile out of his ascent and ran past me again. “On to the next one,” he seemed to say. While Cogswell seemed to say, “Sorry about all that.” And, Steve resigned himself to rest on a rock to regain his wits.
“I had a shot at that bird,” I said when I reached him. “If Cogswell hadn’t busted Hugo’s point.”
Steve looked at me as if Hugo and I were on the same team – the irresponsible team, the team that jumps out of planes without parachutes, the team that damn well heard his calls or could have made them and didn’t. And, the reckless team that should be a little bit sheepish and, for some unexplained reason, isn’t. He petted Cogsy’s head. “You’re a good boy,” he said. It seemed to mean the rest of us weren’t.
Who was good? I wondered. Was it Hugo who found birds and pointed them or Cogswell who stayed close and flushed them over the edge?
That night Hugo lay curled in my lap and, instead of cleaning birds, I measured the day in human terms. I thought of how to balance my responsibility and a dog’s freedom better – how to keep Hugo safe and still let him dare to claim the mountain. Hunting wild birds with a dog is exactly that practice – navigating the world between the wild and the domestic, following a dog as a medium between the two. And, I thought of the birds tucked away for the night in high mountain beds. They are not caged birds, not safe. I thought of how much we all want for things and fight our weaknesses with our strengths every day. Every damn day.
We end up in the places between our marks – in the unfulfilled vision of how it ought to be or once was. Only because we’re excited and want it all at once without thinking as much about one thing at a time do we sense but not think of the overwhelming totality. The mountain and all the air held in the valley. The air that holds birds and unspoken thoughts. The inverse world that holds it all together where intention and explanation are expressed and repressed and moved through like breath when I held mine.
And only later did I try to make sense of the subtle difference between a dog that is good at what he does and “a good boy.” Really, it doesn’t matter where any of us falls on the spectrum – passionate or pure; fair or loyal; domestic or wild; safe or reckless; good, bad or best, as much as it matters that we learn every day and wild places set us all free.