By John Slayton
Leyland grips the chair’s armrests, half logs of birch, slick with lacquer and yellowed. He shifts his weight to relieve the ache in his body. Above him, on the mantle, a row of framed photographs. Old friends. His mother and father. His sons. A black and white of his first dog: Smokie. On the end, the closest to him: his wife. All now gone, separated by death or distance.
A dull wind whistles at the back window of the house, and the chimney damper shifts, squeaking to a hollow clunk. A cold draft bears the scent of ash from the fireplace. It’s mid-afternoon, he wonders if he should start a fire. He glances to his dog, Blue, on the rug in front of the window. But there’s something he may need to do today. He doesn’t want to leave the fire untended.
Blue whimpers struggling to his feet. His legs remain splayed, his muscles tight. Pain is consuming his body. The vet warned it would come to this. He told Leyland to bring him back when it was time. Leyland hoped Blue would have one more good day, that he would find a way to roll back time and the cancer that’s killing him. Leyland hefts himself up from his chair. He reaches down and pats Blue’s head with a calloused hand now soft. Blue’s tail thumps the leg of the end table.
For all his adult life, Leyland has owned a dog, a hunting dog. His first, a beagle named Smokie. As a boy, nothing thrilled him like chasing after Smokie hot on a scent. One day, Smokie took off after a fox. Leyland called to him frantically as the dog’s feverish bay diminished beyond his hearing, beyond the edge of the woods. He never returned. Sometimes even now, when Leyland is out walking, if he hears a distant sound, he likes to believe Smokie is still out there.
Leyland shuffles to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, takes the venison steak from the shelf where it thawed and sets it on the counter. He plants both his hands on the rim of the kitchen sink, leans forward, and gazes out at the trail into the woods behind his house.
He’s walked that trail since he was a boy, a trail that extends from the edge of the field back through the woods on his land and into the surrounding hills and mountains above. The trail goes for miles, eventually connecting to another that links to the Appalachian Trail.
The land belonged to his father. It will go to his sons. Both have moved away. One to Boston, the other Philadelphia. They have their own families. Their own lives. Leyland knows they will sell the land to developers who have been after him for years. He holds no animosity toward them for this. Times have changed. He only feels a sadness that something he loved and cherished will not continue in his family when he is gone.
The woods have always been a part of his life, a part of his heritage. He’s watched every year as the snow melted beneath the brilliant sunlight, welcomed the return of robins and spring flowers that gave way to summer with its long hot days and cool evening breezes. He marked the passing of fall by gazing up at the distant flocks of geese, high in the air, heading south, their squawks trailing far behind them.
Leyland has only a few more trips left in him, and he knows that today he will make one of them. Some things a man must do himself. He takes a fork and steak knife from the drawer and begins cutting up the venison. Blue rolls his eyes up at him. Leyland wished he had owned Blue when he was younger. By the time Blue reached his prime, Leyland was past the age where he could do anything other than short hikes along the most traveled paths. He feels guilty that a dog as fine as Blue has been condemned to spend his life in the service of a man too old to make proper use of him, a man only in need of companionship.
After he finishes cutting the steak, he sets the plate on the floor. Blue devours the meat then licks the juice, the plate clinking on the tile.
Leyland puts on his coat, gathers what he needs, and calls from the doorway. Blue trots past him, renewed by the venison. He saunters up the hill into the woods. Leyland lags behind laboring from the weight of his .22 and shovel. He hopes Blue will catch one last scent. He hopes to hear one more excited bay before the end.