FICTION

Hunting Coat

The moving story of two men and a dog, and a faith that could never die

PAUL ANNIXTER May 1 1946
FICTION

Hunting Coat

The moving story of two men and a dog, and a faith that could never die

PAUL ANNIXTER May 1 1946

Hunting Coat

The moving story of two men and a dog, and a faith that could never die

PAUL ANNIXTER

IT BEGAN to look as if he had another young hunter to initiate into the niceties of the game. The very thought of that tired him. He had been so fired anyway, just doing nothing. All summer he had drowsed and dreamed the days away at the great kennels, only going out for his short daily exercise. He had thought it might go on like that. But fall was coming. Birds were beginning to band in restless flocks. Morning and evening the tang of hunting weather was in the air. That stirred him. As long as he lived he would always answer to that. Of course you had to have a man with a shotgun when fall came on, or die.

As the days sharpened, more and more men came to look at him and stand talking before his runway— gun-dog championship talk, while he looked away, pretending not to hear what they said. So many masters he had had to train since Cam Royster died. Four of them during those eight years, and now this Bryanston, the fifth, the youngest of them all. He was too famous; there had been too much potential money in him, as Champion Maidstone Hi-pockets, winner of the Continental, for them to let him stay on with the mistress when Cam’s small estate was broken up. So he had gone with the rest of the things, sold to the highest bidder; he whose code and life had been to serve one, to obey one, and to love one master only.

Four times passed from hand to hand. And each of the four owners had thought himself a hunter, and slowly Hi-pockets had had to undo their many faults and teach them the punctilios of the hunt; as well as discipline their callow young dogs. Even before he had won the Continental he had been a stickler on form. One of the four lacked even respect for the game, and had shot at a sitting bird when no one was looking. Hi-pockets had stood looking at him witheringly, and the man had shouted orders and cursed him when he

refused to bring the dead bird in. Hi had picked it up at last, as if it were something dirty, but he refused to bring it to hand, simply dropped it on the ground and looked away, lip lifted from his teeth in his twisted sneer of disgust.

Only an Englishman could have taken the man down half so effectively. His integrity, his sheer consecration to the game had got under the hide of even that callow hunter, and during the year and a half Hi remained with him he had changed the man over from a high-handed tyro to a regular hunter and one of the cult.

He who was the most faultless quail dog in the South had been used for duck all one year, and another year he had been taken north to Saskatchewan to hunt Hungarian partridge. That was a breach of taste as well as etiquette, but within an hour he had mastered both techniques. In quail hunting you could show your flashing form, you went as fast as you could, and saw the country for miles and miles, and it was glorious! Duck and partridge were interesting, but you must go very quietly, and at the first faint scent slow to a creep, and never, never, flush your bird, never overrun it. He had flushed both duck and grouse on his first try and had been reprimanded until lie grinned in an agony of contrition. After that no more birds were flushed. He had just crept about, finding birds in every direction, but there was no excitement in it, no way of showing the marvellous field technique for which you had worked for years. He disliked strange things that interfered with welllearned habits.

At first he had thought that Bryanston might be the callowest of all his owners, but he began to have certain reservations on that even before the transaction was over. Bryanston stood talking with the kennelman in the runway, and the smell of him and

the sound of his voice were all to the good. That counted most. Something had made Hi rest hi« shoulder against Bryanston’s strong leg as a traveller might rest against a tree, and the man’s hand had come down to his head. The feel of him was right too.

“. . . but a thousand dollars! It’s a frightful price for a dog of his age.”

“He’s getting old; we’re not hiding the fact,” said the kennelman. “But he’s a champion, man; as famous in the sporting world as Sarah Bernhardt was on the stage. It’s worth the money just to associate with such a dog in the field.”

“But he may not last more than a season—'two at most.”

“Perhaps not. His speed’s gone, but he’s got all the brains and all the nose in the world. And while he lusts you’ll see and learn things you’ll never forget. If he flushes a single bird on you, sir, we’ll be ready to pay your money back . . . But, of course if you’d rather try one of t hese young dogs—”

Bryanston had looked up and down the line of runways, but his eye came back to Hi. He knelt for a minute, his fingers moving cunningly down Hi’s neck and back. The old champion was a Llewellin setter, with the vivid black-and-white coat that makes the ideal gun dog, black and white constituting the height of visibility in fog, rain or dense cover. This had been a high point in his favor on that long-ago day of rain and blow when he had won the Continental. Two prominent body spots, like pockets, below each white shoulder, had given him his name. He was deepchested and big-boned for endurance; his face, chest and legs showed old briar scars. His worn and broken

nails testified to the Continued on page 49

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countless trails he had followed. There was a world of wisdom and dignity in the splendid dome of his head, craft to solve the riddles of the woods and fields, soul quality to prove to the core of a man’s spirit.

“I’ll take him,” Bryanston said, rising; and Hi, who understood many words and could catch the very sense of a man’s thought, knew the matter was settled.

“One thing, sir,” said the kennelman, pulling something out through the kennel door. “This old hunting coat must go with him. It belonged to Cam Royster, his original trainer. He’s slept on it for years, and I fancy you’d have some trouble with him if you left it behind.”

“I see,” smiled Bryanston. “Oneman fixation. A good dog always has it.”

Things began with a bit of a boner on Bryanston’s part. “Come on, old boy,” he had called as they reached the car, and patted the front seat cushion. Hi had heaved himself onto it courteously, but he hadn’t stayed. After a minute or two he climbed laboriously over the seat back, his legs, for some reason, stiffer than ever that day, and dropped into the rear seat. No dog belonged in the front seat, as everyone ought to know. The back of the car was for dogs. The front seat was for another hunter or two who might be picked up on the way. So it had always been.

Bryanston didn’t seem aware of his blunder. He was young, but he had dignity and a certain containment. Hi studied him intently as they drove away, muzzle lifted to get the subtler story that eyes and ears alone didn’t tell. So intent was his scrutiny that Bryanston turned. Hi’s mouth snapped shut and he blinked at the man down the length of his jowl.

“It’s all right, old snoozer,” chuckled Bryanston. “Do it your way, your idea’s as good as mine.”

The voice reminded Hi of something. “Snoozer.” The word echoed down the years from those all-conquering days when Cam Royster was the core and soul of his existence. Strange. Cam had called him that.

They drove a long way through gorgeous country filled with streams and wonderful bird cover, but they did not pick up any more hunters. Hi had expected a kennel full of young dogs, but there were no other dogs at Bryanston’s home. He could hardly believe it. It was like those days of his young prime when Cam had brought him home and they’d gone out to work— just the two of them—in the golden Virginia woods. There were splendid kennels at the Bryanston place, but apparently he was not going to live a kennel life. He was taken at once into the house, where he gravely made friends with Bryanston’s wife and small daughter. He sniffed loudly over the silly names they called him and kept his head high in dignity. He had always disapproved of this hugging business and of women in general. But he approved of the deep wide chair Bryanston led him to. It stood near the fireplace, and he guessed it was going to be his chair when he saw Bryanston spread Cam’s leather coat in it. Years before there had been a chair like that, an open fire, and the Coat.

He put his forefeet into the chair seat and heaved himself up, his toes scratching and slipping on the leather. He was so big that his hind legs trailed ç>ver the edge. Later Bryanston slid a hassock up in front of the chair. The hassock held up his legs and it was like

a step by which he could walk easily into his chair. He saw what it was for, but threw his head high, blinking into space, to simulate that he had no idea why it was there and had no earthly use for it. He was going to be a long time approving of it, he decided.

But somehow he couldn’t help approving of the mistress and the little girl. The touch of the mistress’ hand, some caressing quality in her voice got into his blood and ran along all his nerves in a soothing tide, in spite of the ridiculous things she said. He was Champion Hi-pockets of Maidstone, attending to vital business, not a precious lamb. And not “Hindee.” But her ways were new and different and wonderful. His eyes would follow her with a searching questioning scrutiny as she walked away, but if she turned and caught his look his head would snap high, his haughty gaze losing itself in space.

“Heavens, what dignity—what integration,” Maude Bryanston said. “He makes one utterly self-conscious.”

“Everything’s strange to him. He’ll adjust his life to ours in a few days.”

“You mean we’ll adjust ours to his,” said Maude Bryanston.

TTE HAD his dinner in the kitchen; XX much more than he wanted. Nowadays he was never very hungry. He had to leave two pieces of meat in the dish, and it mortified him.

In the evening some of Bryanston’s friends came in. Hi-pockets thumped the chair with his tail two or three times in the hospitable courtesy demanded of such occasions. Everyone gathered around him, and a real dog man scratched him expertly back of the ears. Their adulation was all utterly familiar. His soft setter eyes went from face to face, and presently he closed his eyes with a long sigh, thrusting his nose into a fold of the hunting coat. Long ago the scent of Cam Royster had gone from it; it was thin and worn from many cleanings, but it was a link to hold to—like holding one’s bird while the master was gone. It was beyond any understanding of his where Cam had gone, but some day, somehow, he would find him again. All the generations of dog’s confidence in man had kept that faith burning within him.

The voices and the snapping of the fire grew fainter and fainter. And presently he was eating his dinner again, but it wasn’t Bryanston who stood beside him, it was Cam Royster. And again he had to leave two pieces of meat. He, a young and powerful dog, turning down the fine food the master had given him. It was shameful. He twitched and mumbled in his dreams while the people talked.

“You’re a lucky beggar, Bryanston,” one man was saying. “This is as close as I’ve ever been to a real champion— much less the Champion—”

“Yes, this is really something,” said the oldest man of the company. “You’d realize it better if you’d been in at the making of this fellow as I was. I can see that stormy, blowy day now as clearly as the details of this roomvisibility cut off every now and then by gusts of rain and sleet—most of the dogs quit long since— but Hi-pockets running, running, a mere black-andwhite speck sweeping the thickets, smashing into his bevy finds, one after the other, and holding, holding his birds; then on again, while a hundred seasoned hunters shouted and swore at hirq lovingly and followed after. Never anything like it, I give you my word!”

“You’re not going to hog him all to yourself, I hope,” the first man said. “I’d practically barter my wife for a day behind this fellow.”

“Hi and I have to get used to each

other first,” Bryanston said. “We’re starting out tomorrow. There’ll be some kinks to iron out. He can’t forget his original master, they tell me—”

“Cam Royster. Greatest dog trainer the South ever had. Why, old Ira Eddy, the millionaire sportsman from Philadelphia, and another man in New York, used to ship their young dogs across country for Cam to smooth out . . .”

Next day he and Bryanston went forth together in the autumn woods. They started at midafternoon, but it was early enough for Hi. No more hunting for him from a pink dawn to a violet dusk. Those days were gone forever. He knew it and hoped it was his secret alone. Bryanston knew it and hid the fact from him.

This year Hi didn’t even feel like moving, though it vaguely shamed him, and perfect gentleman that he was, he simulated eagerness when Bryanston got out his gun. But as soon as they were away from the house he really did feel all the old thrills and did all the old things. When they came to the place, he heard the thousand ancient voices in the ancient wind and all the olden meanings were there. It was fall. And you collaborated with a man and a gun in the fall, or you died trying.

He was glad there were no other dogs. He caught Bryanston’s glance, put spring into his old legs and ran to a thicket, skirting it with care to show that he was ready. Bryanston didn’t need to speak. Slowly they advanced and almost immediately he was on a point with high proud head and level tail, moveless as a statue. Somewhere within 100 feet ahead poised a breathless bevy of gold-brown birds with close-held wings. A sharp “quit, quit” and a roar of wings and they were up, and Bryanston brought one neatly dowm.

Hi fetched it in without ruffing a feather. They went on and in three minutes he did it again, but Bryanston made a rank miss. Hi-pockets turned a rolled-up eye on him and sneezed with disgust. There was a look on his face that Bryanston would never forget— the black lips twisted in a grinning sneer of pain. The grin was because he was a gentleman, the sneer was the acute torment of an impresario over an ineptitude. Bryanston stood reprimanded, yet he could scarcely refrain from a shout of laughter.

Sheer self-consciousness had caused the thing. From the outset he had been working against odds. The dog had been touted to him from every quarter as faultless. In him was a youthful sense of diffidence at working with a champion; then there was the sense of Hi’s drillmaster perfectionism, and something else—a shadow and a memory—the memory of Cam Royster, who had been as faultless as Hi himself.

They went on and Bryanston took hold of himself, determined to rub out his error. It was a memorable morning. For the first time in his life he was shooting over a dog who looked upon his calling as a consecration. It kept the man on his toes. Only Hi-pockets’ physical powers had flagged, he saw. His form was faultless, his nose, which was his soul, was still the nose of a champion. And bird sense, Bryanston had never seen anything like it. Hi could tell for hundreds of yards around whether a stretch of wood would be empty or not; answering an instinct that was nature’s very whisper.

They had two more hours of sweet hunting. And shortly after midday Bryanston partially rubbed out his blunder by making a brilliant double, one of them a cross shot. Not long after that Hi, as if in competition, pointed some more birds 100 yards

away with a dead bird still in his mouth, a feat which only the coldestnosed dog might ever achieve. He brought it in, so proud, earnest and intent that it wrung the heart. Bryanston pummelled him on the back quite as he might another hunter. Then they shared a lunch together and sat resting while a new rapport grew between them. No nuzzling or lying with his muzzle in Bryanston’s lap; none of that stuff. Hi simply lay looking up into the strength and shelter of the man’s face, while wonderful memories, which he wouldn’t quite admit as yet, stirred within him.

They went home in late afternoon and Hi sought the Coat and chair, leaving it only long enough to eat. Next morning they tried it again, but Hi’s legs were stiff and tired; he moved with heavy feet. He’d have gone on till he fell, but Bryanston took him home before midday. After that it became plain how age was taking its toll of him, and Bryanston took him out only on alternate days, with a day of rest between.

THEY came to dovetail perfectly in the mechanics of the hunt. All the small niceties of the game that Bryanston usually disregarded were carried out to their uttermost convention, and the man began to see the deeper reason for them all. It stayed warm and they had a long run of good days. Sometimes Maude Bryanston accompanied them and sometimes a friend of Bryanston. but it never made any difference to Hi’s form or attitude.

Through it all Bryanston never had the usual sense of owning the dog. Between them was a man’s understanding of mutual restraint and respect, something to be felt, not seen. A single word of commendation, a touch on the head, was all that passed between them, but it sufficed. To Hi it was all so like those old days with Cam Royster that memory often wavered, scenes overlapped; an old world was being slowly forgotten; another world remembered, come true.

Bryanston sensed the gradual transformation, the slowly strengthening bond of the spirit, and pride filled him. He was fulfilling a great picture of a great hunter and dogman or Hi would not have accepted him. It was like an accolade, but it was not an ordinary transference. Hi was being faithful not only to Cam Royster but to a nobler thing, the faithfulness which was in himself.

All too soon the season was over. In December winter set in, the brisk open winter of the South, with bright frosty days and nights. For Hi-pockets hunting was over, but he and Bryanston often took long tramps together through the leafless woods. Sometimes Bryanston shot squirrels, rabbits or possum. Hi gravely approved of this, but did not co-operate. Birds were his sole province.

But indoors his Gibraltar had quite broken down. Grudgingly he had allowed his aloofness to melt away under Maude Bryanston’s constant affection, and still more grudgingly he accepted the love of Bryanston’s sevenyear-old daughter, Fran. By midwinter he was shamelessly allowing himself to be petted and hugged by both. Once his love was aroused he was constant as the pole star ...

This strange new thing, this woman love; he had never known it before, but it gripped in a way that nothing had ever done, for in it there was need for all his high and knightly courtesy, his gentleness and protection. Each morning he accompanied Fran to school and by afternoon he was waiting for sight of her return.

When summer came he was removed to the kennels for coolness. He lapsed

into the apathy of all gun dogs between seasons, lazing the hot weather away until the time came round again to follow gun and trail, the prime reason for a setter’s existence. And then another October, another opening day, and once more he, and Bryanston roamed the fall woods together. For a month they had halcyon weather and hunting such as Bryanston had never known before. Then in mid-November the years seemed suddenly to overwhelm the old dog. His eyes had been going bad, and it had got sohecouldn’t hold still on a point. He’d tremble with slow vibrations as of palsy, and sometimes his hind legs would give out and he’d go down on one hip, his head and tail still holding, holding the point. Long ago, as a tiny pup, before he had been taught anything, it had been like that. He had stood point on the blackbirds and linnets that alighted in his kennel runway. He would hold them, hold them, until his puppy leg3 trembled and gave under him, though no one ever came to flush the birds for him.

It got so his breathing became raucous at the slightest exertion. His heart was giving out, said the vet who was called in. And there was nothing that could be done about it.

The hunting still meant the breath of life to him. And he wasn’t able to forget it, for quail nested just over the ridge back of Bryanston’s house. So each day Bryanston tried to take him out—sometimes in the car—for a short swing of 20 minutes or a half hour. On the days when he went forth alone, Hi would watch from the living room window, mumbling and rumbling in a humility of shame and misery. And he’d wait as if on point for the moment of Bryanston’s return. When he saw his figure, when he caught his voice or whistle approaching, he would lie for another few minutes, head raised, eyes glowing, little whines escaping him as though the intensity of the moment was too much for him. But before Bryanston arrived he would return to the Coat and the chair to preserve what little dignity remained to him.

The final day was altogether strange. Even the movements of the wild things weren’t altogether according to Hoyle that day, though Bryanston was never sure just how much of it was true and how much due to the nervous state he had been in. Fran had been sent away to her aunt’s that morning, for it was plain the end was near.

It was a golden day toward the end of the m::nth, a hunter’s day, bright and warm and still, the woods aflame with the first frost fires. Nature seemed to be putting on a show. The faint smell of wood smoke was in the air, and one could catch the pungent breath of nitro powder too, for some hunters had passed by at midday. Cock quail called on the ridge; wedges of waterfowl were winging southward; squirrels grunted from their knothole doorways.

All afternoon Hi had watched from the open window, taking it all in as if he could never get enough, at times panting and gasping for air, the thudding of his heart quite audible in the room. Toward sunset he lapsed into a doze. Bryanston was sitting by the window, when abruptly Hi’s old tail went thump, thump, thump on the floor. Bryanston listened, but no one was coming, the house and grounds were utterly quiet.

Hi got stiffly to his feet and came toward him. His tail whirled blissfully; his gaze was fixed on Bryanston, yet beyond, in a way that made the hair stir across the man’s scalp. An adoring love and devotion filled the steady brown eyes.

He moved over to the chair and the Coat, but his eyes were fixed above, as if awaiting orders, and to Bryanston the whole room was warmed with a glow of kindliness and love. He himself had known enough of death to have had a glimpse through certain veils between the worlds. He always maintained that Cam Royster had come to get his dog that night. Later it was there to be seen in Hi’s still open eyes. Glorious in reunion, hi? spirit was sweeping the celestial hunting grounds, flashing into point after brilliant point, and holding, holding his birds.