I almost blow it before it starts. I hadn't slept well the night before, and when the alarm goes off at five I hit the snooze button. Five minutes later I hit it again. And again. Lying there, I try to rationalize: there aren't any ducks left. The lake's locked up solid. I didn't see any ducks on the river Friday. It's gonna be a waste of time. It's frickin' cold. Go back to bed.
But it's the last day. It. The end. Fini. Last chance for another year, not just for me, but for her. She's only six. Not old, but not a pup any more, either. Realistically, another five seasons, maybe six. So I drag my ass out of bed, drink my coffee, get dressed. I sneak into my son's room and peak out his window at the kennels. She's standing there at the kennel gate, staring holes into our front door.
She's no dummy. She knows. She watched me load up the waders and decoys the evening before. I go outside, unlatch the kennel door and let her out. As I turn back to the truck Lewey starts his jailbird routine, pressing his muzzle against the chainlink fence, whining and howling his heartbreak to the world. But it was his turn last week, so he stays. Forlorn, forgotten and sad beyond measure, he sits on his haunches and watches us walk off. He'll never recover from this betrayal. At least until the truck pulls out of the driveway and he falls back asleep.
No dog box this trip. Tess hops into the cab and, for better or worse, we're off. I'm not optimistic. The slough I'm headed for is shallow, and I'm hoping the warm weather has thinned the ice enough for me to break out water for a few decoys. But we better hurry. Thanks to my earlier sloth, we're an hour behind schedule and the sun's catching us. I pull into the parking area, quickly throw on my waders, grab the gun and decoy bag and take off at a swift waddle. They may keep you warm and dry, but there is no dignity or grace to be found in a pair of chest waders.
Twenty minutes later, soaked in sweat, we arrive at the slough just as the eastern sky starts warming from pink to orange. I can hear ducks whistling overhead. The west side of the slough is frozen, but thin, breakable. The east side is solid, intractable. I need to be on the east side, crouched in the catttails with the sun to my back, but I'm out of time. Shooting light is here and small groups of gadwall and wigeon are buzzing the ice. I say to hell with it, break out a tiny spot, throw out a half-dozen decoys in what is surely one of the fakest-looking spreads ever and splash back to shore.
Tess and I crouch in the slushy muck next to a rotted, hollow cottonwood trunk and wait. Two minutes later the gods smile and ducks start pouring in. I shoot a drake wigeon out of the first group and Tess breaks at the shot, like she has virtually all season. I know I shouldn't, but I just let her go and tell myself I'll fix it when we start training again. Right now I just want to watch her plow through the ice.
She's always loved the ice, this one. When she was twelve weeks old she jumped off the end of a dock at the city pond, right into the slushy, ice-filled February water. Horrified, I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and pulled her back on to the dock. I thought I'd ruined her. I let her out of my arms and she jumped right back in.
One more wigeon, a pair of gadwall and suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably, we're done. Limited out. On the last day of a weather-screwed season in which limits have been few and hard-earned. On a day I almost didn't get out of bed. Almost left her in the kennel. Almost let the season steal silently away.
She would have forgiven me. Dogs always do. But forgiveness for myself would have come harder. I gather the decoys and ducks, sling the bag over my shoulder and start the long walk back to the truck. The added weight digs the straps into my shoulders. Tess prances and jumps around like a pup as the sun finally breaks over the trees. Not a bad way to go out. Not a bad way at all.