Deep inside, Molly knew that she could tug my heartstrings and do anything, get away with anything, and be forgiven, because my soul held her in an embrace more needing and more desperate than a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a life raft.
Molly was the best bird dog I ever owned. And the best pheasant dog I ever hunted over. For 10 years Molly was my every-bird, every-hunt companion. She owned me in ways that no other dog ever did or ever can, and memories of her come rushing back to color all my bird hunts, always and forever. Every opening day brings a rush of joy when I recall the great hunts we had together, and a touch of sadness when I remind myself those days are over and she is gone.
Molly’s time in my life lifted my heart and spirit to heights I never thought they could reach, and her passing dropped them into a pit of despair I thought they would never escape. Great love inevitably means great sorrow in this life, it seems to me, so giving your heart to a dog that you know will be with you but a short time is the height of folly. But looking back on all the happiness and all the tears Molly brought to my life, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
An English springer spaniel that weighed only 29 pounds in her prime, the minimum for the breed standard, Molly had a hundred pounds worth of dash and speed and desire and style. She was my third springer, and I knew she was the smartest and most talented from the first day of her first pheasant hunt. But I did not fully appreciate what an amazing bird dog she was until later in my life, and very late in hers, when I had hunted over dozens of first-class dogs and came to realize that she was among the best of the best.
Molly was all fire and passion in the field, and all affection and friendship at the end of the day. She would hunt herself to exhaustion and then curl up in my lap in the pickup and sleep angelically on the long drive home. Of course there were times I would scold her, and she would tell me that I was a jerk, but she never resented it or held a grudge – and she never let it dampen her enthusiasm for one minute. Deep inside, Molly knew that she could tug my heartstrings and do anything, get away with anything, and be forgiven, because my soul held her in an embrace more needing and more desperate than a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a life raft.
You see, Molly, the daughter of my field trials-bred springer Suzie, carried a heavy load of my emotional baggage in our years together. Born in West Texas when a new and virulent canine plague known as parvovirus was sweeping the country, she was the sole survivor of a litter of thirteen puppies, all of them dying in our arms over a period of six days. Suzie died, too, despite the best efforts of a veterinary hospital staff.
We never really got over that, and Molly, bottle fed for five weeks by my wife Patti while she fought stubbornly for life, was my daily reminder that a man can arise from the depths of sorrow and despair to a renewal of faith and hope that tomorrow may be a better day. Throughout her life Molly had to accept the flood of love and affection meant for fourteen dogs; she never seemed annoyed by that, and looking back I think she used it to manipulate me on more than one occasion.
My foremost memories of Molly should be of days spent hunting pheasants because she gave me more than two hundred of those ring-necked demons that are the toughest of challenges for a bird dog. I do recall, often, her eager sweeps through weedy pheasant cover, her unerring finds, flushes, and retrieves. Especially the retrieves of wounded but very much alive and enraged roosters that seemed to be as big as her little body.
But when she comes back to hunt with me in my dreams it is always the ruffed grouse at North Bear Creek that she takes me to. She was in her third hunting season, I was in my twenty-fifth, and neither of us had ever held a ruffed grouse in our possession. No surprise there; we had only recently moved to the North Country, and ruffed grouse were not native to any of the lands we had hunted before.
Working our way through the thick cover of red cedar trees, plum thickets, and wild raspberry patches in the bottom of the steep-sided coulee of North Bear Creek, Molly went electric with bird scent and burrowed through and around a tangle of vines and drooping branches. The grouse must have attempted to escape on foot because Molly followed its fresh trail up the rocky face of the bluff to our east, and just as she scrambled to the top the bird burst into flight from the rim and arched across the coulee toward the far side. I snapped off an impossible shot, and wonder of wonders the grouse came tumbling down on the lip of the opposite bluff. Molly raced helter-skelter from atop the east bluff, wormed her way through the cover at the bottom, swam the creek, climbed the west bluff, gently picked up the grouse, and carefully descended to bring it to my hand.
I opened the gun and we sat by the bank of the creek to examine this exotic bird. Molly took several deep breaths of its woodland aroma. “What do you think?” she asked me, her eyes full of excitement and her tail wagging uncontrollably. “Better than pheasants? I think it’s better than pheasants. What do you think?”
I am not sure a ruffed grouse hunt is necessarily better than a pheasant hunt, but we went on dozens more together and she found many, many grouse for me. In our years together we hunted eleven different game birds in eight different states: pheasants, bobwhite quail, blue quail, sharptail grouse, prairie chickens, Hungarian partridge, woodcock, snipe, mourning doves, white-winged doves, and of course ruffed grouse. We even did some jump-shooting of ducks in northeast Montana. Molly was amazing. I took her too much for granted.
Molly was seven years old when we bred her with a springer out of field trials lineage and she delivered seven pups. I kept the one with markings most like hers, my daughter named him Hercules, and four years later Molly was semi-retired and Herco and I were off hunting the fields and forests each fall. He was a great dog, but even then I knew he was not quite Molly’s caliber. Evenings when they sat with me on the couch I told them that. Molly knew it. Herco was a little resentful but worked hard all his life to measure up to his mother.
When we had to put Molly down, old and feeble, still affectionate and wanting to please, but ailing and weary and no longer really Molly, I wept unashamedly, partly in grief over the loss of the best bird hunting companion I had ever had, and would ever have in this mortal life, and in part because of the guilt and mortification gnawing at my heart because I had not honored her in her final years with the two or three small hunts we could have taken together for memory’s sake. Although I do not deserve it, I hope she has forgiven me for that.
If she has, we are going to pick up where we left off in the days of our prime when we meet again. “Do you remember the ruffed grouse at North Bear Creek?” I’ll ask. “How could I forget?” she’ll answer. “Let’s do it again.” So that is the first bird we will be after. Molly will work him flawlessly, but pray for me to make the same lucky shot. I don’t want to disappoint her. Molly never disappointed me.
More stories about bird dogs, bird guns, and bird hunting are published in my collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and in my novel Hunting Birds. All three books are available in paperback and Kindle editions at amazon.com.