Out of habit, I scooped dog food into the two dishes for the evening feeding. I picked them up to head for the kennel - and then caught myself.
I would need only one.
Earlier that day, we had made the long drive that no dog owner wants to make. We sat on the floor of the veterinarian's office, Banjo's head resting on my wife's leg. We stroked the old yellow Lab until she lay still, and then we kept stroking her for several more minutes.
She made it 14½ years, but her time had come. Her hindquarters were weak and wobbly. She flopped and fell occasionally on our walks. One day, her instability had caused her to fall from a dock into a lake. No problem. She recovered nicely and went for a therapeutic swim. Lately, though, she had lost interest in food and finally quit eating altogether. That's when we made the call.
In the days leading up to the end, I would go out to the back yard and sit in the grass with Banjo. I would rub her ears and try to recall some of our best moments in the field.
I remembered her first duck retrieve, in a little cattail marsh in western Minnesota. A friend of mine had dropped a mallard. I waded in from the edge of the marsh as far as my chest waders would allow and sent Banjo on in. She hadn't seen the duck fall, and I hadn't trained her on so-called "blind" retrieves.
After a few minutes, I heard her swimming back to me. I assumed she had given up on the duck. I was still chest deep in the marsh, and when I saw her, I was almost eye level with her. She was carrying the duck.
If you have been lucky enough to know a good retriever, then you know what that moment meant to me - that, despite my shortcomings as a trainer, I had a hunting dog.
There was a morning we spent 40 minutes north of Duluth, weaving among pipe-cleaner popples at dawn when the woodcock migration was on. The morning was frosty. Steam rose from Banjo's back. Golden October light bathed the scene. The woods were crazy with woodcock, and I bounced from popple to popple, trying to keep up with the dog. The woodcock limit was five in those days. We picked up our limit without much trouble, and it was still early. Banjo didn't want to quit hunting, so I unloaded my gun and let her flush two or three more birds.
Our best days were at a friend's farm in Lac qui Parle County, Minn., where we spent most of a week each fall chasing pheasants. She would hunt the cattails and switchgrass and willows until her nose was raw. I could tell you about some of those hunts if you have three hours.
The best hunts were in those last half-hours before sunset, just the dog and I on the trail of a rooster across the burnished prairie. And then, with a warm bird or two in the vest, we'd make the long walk up the lane, past the old corn crib, to the farmhouse. The evening cool would be settling over the land, and maybe a great horned owl was calling.
In the evenings, Banjo would lie with my partners' dogs on the braided rug before the Franklin stove. Sometimes, she'd whimper and her paws would flinch. I assumed she was on the trail of a dream rooster.
Maybe she still is.