Alaska Shorts: A Last Walk in the Woods, by Dan Walker

consensus among people I know is that we wait too long before we finally put our
sick, old pets to sleep.  That was on my
mind when I finally decided to put my old dog Nelson down.  I saw that his mind was more confused than
ever, and as he paced around the yard overlooking the lake, I knew he had
reached a point from which he couldn’t return. 
We had already decided that this was the place he should end his days,
had been preparing ourselves for a year.  
Now, it seemed the time had come. 
After a final family conference, I walked him up away from the cabin and
the lake, away from Madelyn shut in the cabin with radio turned up, and away
from the trail that lead back to the car. 

The rain-soaked tall grass wet us
quickly as we pushed through the devil’s club and wild raspberries that clutch
at us with their tiny claws.  Sometime
the leash would catch on a stalk of devil’s club or Nelson would go the wrong
way around, so I would stop untangle us then move on forward, following the
moose trails through the alder and birch forest.   Nelson came along willingly as always, and I
didn’t need the leash, but I didn’t want to have to chase him down if he
wondered off or decided to go back to the cabin and the dry straw bed beneath
it that he refused to use.  He so hated
the rain and this would not have been his choice for a walk, but he was
followed me willingly with confusion thick in the big black soul of his eyes. 

I wanted to find a good spot away
from the cabin and wanted a hole I could roll him into and cover with logs and
leaves without digging something to scar the wild dense forest floor with my
grief, so I carried the axe instead of the shovel.  Then I found a downed birch that had fallen
away from another tree, lifting and pulling it’s rots so the standing tree had
bit of a cave beneath it, a den there under the arch of the roots big as a dog,
and dry too.

That’s where I made my stand,
talking soft words to those big black eyes, and crying a bit as I gave him half
a slice of ham and then the rest of it and while his head was down I felt a
great surge of motion and I put the gun to his head real quick like I was in a
rush and the body lurched with the shot behind the ear then I fired five or
four more time times fast and muffled against the wet white hide.  The body thrashed and twitched then was
limp.  I moved with planned efficiency of
a criminal, lifting the limp carcass by the feet — two in each hand– and slid
my old friend down into the dry dark den where he lay down out of the rain in
the loamy odor of forest earth surrounded by the birch roots and me looking
down with my share of guilt then saying something like,   “Here you go, get out of the rain, old boy.”  
I knew it was a good place where maybe
the bears wouldn’t do the work of digging him out or the wolverines.  I took the axe to some alders and laid them
over the dog and hacked up some root from the fallen tree and layered that over
the opening with chunks of birch branch and more alder to fill in the holes
until there was bower of green alder dripping its rain leadened leaves on
me.  I was wet all through by now even
under my raincoat because I had left my hood down and the zipper open so only
my shoulders and back were covered, really. 
The woods were wet all around me except in that den under the roots with
that crazy old dog white dog that hated the rain, and I wondered if I should
bring in some fresh moose shit I had seen on the way up to cover the blood
place where he died, but the rain was already washing it. 

I picked up my 22 rifle and the axe,
noticing then those shaking hands trembling in the evening wet woods where I
was leaving a dog who had given me ten good years and more.  I walked back to the cabin and stood in the
downpour before the lake by the porch thinking how right my son-in-law was when
he said, “Every good dog deserves a last walk in the woods.” 

Dan Walker is a homesteaders’ son
who grew up to become a teacher and a writer in Seward.  He has published essays, professional
articles, and fiction in magazines and literary journals such as the Journal of Geography and the old We Alaskans. Now, when he is not
training writing teachers, he is working on two book length projects, a memoir
and an autobiographical fiction.  Dan is
the 2014 winner of first prize for fiction in the Alaska Daily News/UAA Writing

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