p>This story appeared in the Tabor-Loris Tribune on October 14, 1998 and also appeared in the Wilmington Star News. It received second place 1999 SEOPA Excellence in Craft award for Best Weekly Newspaper Column or Feature.

His registered name was Baytree’s Blacksmith. I called him Smitty for short. That jet-black Labrador retriever possessed me as surely as he owned any crippled wigeon that tried to escape from his incredible nose by burrowing deeply into the maze of a needlerush marsh.

A high-octane dog, with the blood of eight field champions coursing through his never-give-up heart, he was just the right partner for a twenty-something-year-old duckbuster who never missed seeing a dawn over the decoys no matter the price in lost workdays or sleep.

Smitty was my partner on days a-marsh. But he really “belonged” to my wife and son. Carol fed him and pampered him. Justin played with him until they fell asleep together in an exhausted heap on the floor. They made a mischievous pair. A four-year-old kid and a Lab think alike, so they banded together to torment the grown-ups of the house by playing hide-and-seek with things like shoes and car keys.

That dog was a marvel, fetching over 1,500 ducks to my hand before being called up too early to walk at his heavenly Master’s heel. Justin collapsed, burying his face in a pillow when I gave him the bad news that his dog was gone.

“I know he’s just over in the woods and will come home some day,” the little guy sobbed. Unfortunately, it was never to be.

“There have been a lot of excuses in the decade since, for not replacing that water-worn lab: He was too hard headed, I have no time to train a dog, Justin is too young, the duck daily limit has shut down to a trickle of three, two or one.

Everyone was certain I would get another Lab. But I never believed the timing was right. Carol and Justin asked often but my answer was “No,” although duck numbers began to climb until seasons and limits were as liberal as they were during my youth.

Three weeks ago, it was Carol’s birthday and our good friend, Ned Connelly, knew a nice young man named German Alvarez who had a six-month old puppy who was doomed to a life of apartment confinement or to be shipped to South America when his owner returned home.

Puppy and I were introduced. Skeptically, I tossed a ball. After five minutes of playing “go get it,” he was steady on the throw and dropped the ball into my hand. Over the next two weeks I tried to say, “No,” again. But how do you argue with the pleading puppy-dog eyes of a wife and teenager? Finally, I agreed to teach a pair of new pupils in the art of waterfowling because, I reasoned, by training a son to train a retriever, the son will be trained along with the dog and learn the best traits to be desired in the man – trustworthiness, dedication, obedience, consistency, unselfishness, and the list goes on.

I took Santana hunting the second day he came into our lives. He tasted his first dove that day. He liked hunting, except for the heat of September and percussion of a shotgun blast.

By the sixth day however, he knew that gunfire meant there were birds to be fetched when he found a lost dove and laid it gently in my hand. After less than two weeks, he dove into a pond in our woods at the sound of a shot. When he swam back, he laid a perfectly fetched wood duck in my hand.

That clinched the deal. He owns me now, as his predecessor once did, for the place that Santana brought his first duck to me was the same place on the bank where Smitty retrieved his last. I was glad to be alone with the new Lab at the time. I sat on the ground and hugged that wriggling pup while he licked traces of tears from my cheeks.

He isn’t as blue-blooded as his powerhouse predecessor. As a result he inherited a calmer demeanor. That makes him just the right partner for a not-so-hard-charging, middle-aged duckbuster. But I still get confused and call the little guy “Smitty” from time to time.
As I walk around our neighborhood, teaching Santana to heel or tossing a dummy for him to fetch from the dock, my neighbors comment on what a lucky dog he is to have a master like me. What they all should realize is that it is an honor for friends like them to recognize in a man the qualities it takes to be possessed by a Lab. If they could take a peek into the window of my soul, they would see a picture-perfect sunrise over Masonboro Sound, with the imminent dawn glowing pink above the dunes and a flock of pintails turning themselves inside out to land among decoys surfing on waves kicked to foam by a northwest wind.

Until now, there was something missing in that colorful picture that could only be filled by the jet-black silhouette of a Lab. By denying that small place in my soul for a dog, I kept the pain of losing my old hunting companion at bay. Life spans for hunters are too long, compared to their dogs. But if I outlive this one, he’ll be replaced within a month. Without a Lab, I was just another duck shooter. Now I’m a waterfowler again.

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