For the life of me, I could not believe I was here and this was happening. I felt a crushing sadness and at the same time a foggy sense of disbelief, as if I would wake up and it would all be a bad dream. A long time ago I had entered into a pact with an old friend and now, somehow, today was the day.
"Did you think this could never happen?" said the annoying, pious voice in the back of my head. "People die every day; you will, too, you know."
The words were biting, infuriating.
"Just shut up and go away," I mumbled to myself and the voice, but I knew it wouldn't listen.
"Still talking to yourself?" Millie asked.
I hadn't noticed her standing in the door, the same one I had entered probably hundreds of times over the past 40-odd years. Sometimes it was in the zero-dark-hundred hours as we stumbled around and tried to get back out the door quietly, but other times it was late at night as we returned from some adventure, usually frozen and dog tired. I tried to summon the courage to walk up to the house.
We walked through the living room they never used, by the kitchen where she was always baking something and into his den, if you wanted to call it that. My old hunting buddy called it his den, as in a room like a study or an office. Millie referred to it as "the den," as in the den of a bear or a bobcat - and not overly tidy.
Millie had a large folding table set up in the middle of the room, and it was piled up with different hunting and fishing equipment, trinkets, memorabilia and some plain junk my hunting and fishing buddy of almost 50 years had accumulated. At least two dozen rifles and shotguns lined the walls of the cramped room.
"Now you know he wanted you to have any or all of this," she said. "Take whatever you want; the kids have already said they don't want any of it."
Her statement hit me like a sledgehammer. How could his children not want something to remember their dad? A cloud of anger swept by me and was gone just as quickly. Maybe it was too painful to handle their father's prized possessions right now.
I stepped over to the table and tried to survey the items through the fog that seemed to surround me. I knew each thing before me because I had seen him pack most of it around for several decades. There was an old box turkey call, one of many on the table, that I had always told him sounded like "two pieces of stove wood scraped together"; a Case Trapper knife with one of the blades broken; three brown duck-hunting coats, all the same make and size (they only differed in the amount of wear - he always said if you find something you like, you better buy two of them); boxes and boxes of shotgun shells (turkey loads and low brass); an old military-style compass; and what looked to be about 40 pounds of topographic maps.
That was just the first layer.
Glancing down to the other end of the table, I saw the picture and was drawn to it like a moth to flame. A closer look almost took my breath.
There we were, at least 30 years before, as he and I sat on a great chestnut log that had fallen long ago. Six grouse and a jake turkey were proudly displayed between us as I held a Winchester Model 1912 shotgun and he cradled his old Fox double-barrel. Two pointer dogs sat at our feet, Cisco and Patch, and they seemed to laugh at the camera and the absurdity of all human endeavors, but for today they were just happy to run the woods with us. Like all dogs, they lived in the day and didn't worry about yesterday or tomorrow.
The log we sat on was ancient. The guns were old when the picture was taken. Yet somehow the picture captured that we were young and vibrant, full of wonder and optimism for what lay over the next ridge and with plenty of energy and muscle to get there. Now the dogs were gone and my friend was gone. What now?
"There's a dog out in the pen," said Millie, unafraid to bring up what I couldn't.
I knew all about this dog, a little cat-footed Gordon setter, 2 years old, smart as a whip and with a nose that would shame most bloodhounds. This dog was just coming into her own and had all the makings to be one of the great ones. Most bird hunters would give their eyeteeth to have her.
I tried to start a ramble about how I just couldn't take this dog, but Millie waved me off.
"He told me about the agreement you guys made way back when," she said. "Whoever goes first, the other is to take whatever they can of guns and hunting gear, but especially dogs. There is no way you want that little dog to end up with somebody that doesn't hunt or, God forbid, in the pound."
She was right and I knew it, so there was no arguing with her. I told her I would be back in a few days when I had made arrangements at my house for the setter. To my amazement, I actually felt a little surge of excitement about it.
Awkwardly, I made my way out the door and down the walk. The voice in my head chimed in with a thin cackle and a wheeze.
"Well, you really blew that one," it said. "Now you've got that dog on your hands."
I answered with newfound confidence: "Yes, and she is a good one."
I could tell the voice was miffed, and I didn't think it would be back.
It didn't really matter - I had to do it. It was a favor for a friend, and I remembered someone had just told me they thought there were a few grouse in Back Creek this year.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.