Bill Mayer for Reader’s Digest
Much of my childhood in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, was excruciatingly lonely. Family troubles, devastating shyness, and a complete lack of social skills ensured a life of solitude. Hunting was not only my opening into a world of wonder; it was my salvation. From the age of 12, I lived, breathed, existed to hunt and fish. On school days I would hunt in the morning and evening. On Fridays I would head into the woods by myself, often for the entire weekend. Still, I had not learned to love solitude, as I do now. I would see something beautiful—the sun through the leaves, a deer moving through dappled light—and I would want to point and say to someone, “Look.” But there was no one there.
Then I met Ike.
It was the beginning of duck season. I got up at 3 a.m. and walked from our apartment four blocks to the railway yard, then across the Eighth Street bridge. There I dropped to the riverbank and started walking along the water into the woods.
In the dark it was hard going. After a mile and a half, I was wading in swamp muck and went to pull myself up the bank to harder ground.
The mud was as slick as grease. I fell, then scrabbled up the bank again, shotgun in one hand and grabbing at roots with the other. I had just gained the top when a part of the darkness detached itself, leaned close to my face, and went “woof.”
Not “arf” or “ruff” or a growl, but “woof.”
For half a second, I froze. Then I let go of the shrub I had been clinging to and fell back down the incline. On the way down the thought hit: bear.
I clawed at my pockets for shells and inserted one into my shotgun. I was aiming when something about the shape stopped me.
Whatever it was had remained sitting at the top of the bank, looking down at me. There was just enough dawn by this time to show a silhouette. It was a dog. A big dog, a black dog, but a dog.
I lowered the gun and wiped the mud out of my eyes. “Who owns you?” I asked. The dog didn’t move, and I climbed the bank again. “Hello!” I called into the woods. “I have your dog here!”
There was nobody.
“So you’re a stray.” But strays were shy and usually starved; this dog, a Labrador, was well fed, and his coat was thick. He stayed near me.
“Well,” I said. “What do I do with you?” On impulse, I added, “You want to hunt?”
He knew that word. His tail hammered the ground; he wiggled and then moved off along the river.
I had never hunted with a dog before, but I started to follow. It was light enough now to shoot, so I kept the gun ready. We had not gone 50 yards when two mallards exploded out of some thick grass near the bank and started across the river.
I raised the gun, cocked it, aimed just above the right-hand duck, and squeezed the trigger. There was a crash, and the duck fell into the water.
When I’d shot ducks over the river before, I had to wait for the current to bring the bodies to shore. This time was different. With the smell of the powder still in the air, the dog was off the bank in a great leap. He hit the water swimming, his shoulders pumping as he churned the surface in a straight line to the dead duck. He took it gently in his mouth, turned, and swam back. Climbing the bank, he put the duck by my right foot, then moved off a couple of feet and sat.
It was fully light now, and I could see that the dog had a collar and a tag. I petted him—he let me, in a reserved way—and pulled his tag to the side to read it.
“My name is Ike.”
That’s all it said. No address. No owner’s name.
“Well, Ike”—his tail wagged—“I’d like to thank you for bringing me the duck.”
And that was how it started.
Bill Mayer for Reader’s Digest
For the rest of the season, I hunted the river early every morning. I’d cross the bridge and start down the river, and Ike would be there. By the middle of the second week, I felt as if we’d been hunting with each other forever.
When the hunting was done, he’d trot back with me until we arrived at the bridge. There he would sit, and nothing I did would make him come farther.
I tried waiting to see where he would go, but when it was obvious I wasn’t going to leave, he merely lay down and went to sleep. Once I left him, he crossed the bridge and then hid in back of a building to watch. He stayed until I was out of sight, then turned and trotted north along the river and into the woods.
If the rest of his life was a mystery, when we were together we became fast friends. I’d cook an extra egg sandwich for him, and when there were no ducks, we would talk. That is, I would talk; Ike would sit, his enormous head resting on my knee, his huge brown eyes looking up at me while I petted him and told him all my troubles.
On the weekends when I stayed out, I would construct a lean-to and make a fire. Ike would curl up on the edge of my blanket. Many mornings I’d awaken to find him under the frost-covered blanket with me, sound asleep, my arm thrown over him, his breath rumbling against my side. (All dogs can sense these 13 secrets about their owners.)
It seemed Ike had always been in my life. Then one morning he wasn’t there. I would wait in the mornings by the bridge, but he never showed again. I thought he might have been hit by a car or his owners might have moved away. But I could not learn more of him. I mourned him and missed him.
I grew up and went into the crazy parts of my life, the mistakes a young man could make. Later I got back into dogs—sled dogs—and ran the Iditarod race across Alaska.
After my first run, I came back home to Minnesota with slides of the race. A sporting-goods business in Bemidji had been one of my sponsors, and one evening I gave a public slide show at its store.
There was an older man sitting in a wheelchair, and I saw that when I told how Cookie, my lead dog, had saved my life, his eyes teared up and he nodded.
When the event was over, he wheeled up and shook my hand. “I had a dog like your Cookie—a dog that saved my life.”
“Oh, did you run sleds?”
He shook his head. “No, not like that. I lived up in Thief River Falls when I was drafted to serve in the Korean War. I had a Labrador retriever that I raised and hunted with. Then I was wounded—lost the use of my legs. When I came back from the hospital, he was waiting. He spent the rest of his life by my side.
“I would have gone crazy without him. I’d sit for hours and talk to him …” He trailed off, and his eyes were moist again. “I still miss him.”
I looked at him, then out the store window. It was spring, and the snow was melting outside, but I was seeing a 13-year-old and a Lab sitting in a duck blind in the fall.
Thief River Falls, he’d said, and the Korean War. The timing was right, and the place.
“Your dog,” I said. “Was he named Ike?”
The man smiled and nodded. “Why, yes. But how … Did you know him?”
That was why Ike had not come back. He had another job, taking care of his sick owner.
“Yes,” I said, turning to him. “He was my best friend.”
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