He’s a knife-in-the-teeth type, a run-hell, fast-go, wound-tight, son-of-a-bitch, so when he yelps down by the creek—out of sight (again)—I don’t think much of it. He comes roaring back and I can see blood dripping from his ear. The cut is perhaps a quarter of an inch in length and right at the tip and not bleeding very heavily. Yet. As a horseman friend of mine would say, “It’s a long way from the heart.”
And we’re a long way from the truck. It’s 15 below zero and the pheasants are holding tight. There’s about one point five minutes of debate. We push on. If he could vote—and he can—he’d vote “aye.”
This is the way. His way. He’s pretty good at it. Full-fricking-tilt until he’s completely gassed and done. This is also the way of Western pheasant, those savage bastards of greasewood and buffaloberry, their craws stuffed with Russian olive pits, their hearts full of bitter fuck-you fire. No other bird evokes the chaos, the running pandemonium beneath the wide skies. Wild bird, of course. Feral is more apt. You hit the ground running and you need a “Katie-bar-the-door” dog. Barbwire, thorn, bur, be damned. Late season? Snow? Even more so. Those runnin’ sons-a-bitches. David Alan Coe, or perhaps it was Chris Ledoux captured it this way: “Oh, it’s forty below and I don’t give a fuck, got a heater in my truck, and I’m off to the rodeo.”
So we continue, despite the bleeding, because, darn it, the pheasants are holding tight and the injury is superficial. It is worth a repeat: the pheasants are holding tight. It’s too cold to hunt. But the pheasants are finally, for once, holding tight. This is the epic once-every-seven-years cicada hatch on the Green, for crying in a bucket. The pheasants are holding tight and you may not see this again in his lifetime. Maybe even yours. It’s too cold to hunt? Yeah, right. Unless you are a cold-hearted bastard. So, onward, blood flying from sliced ear. Hey, we’re hunting late season wild roosters. Call the ASPCA. Go ahead, call ‘em.
In the whitewash of eastern Montana’s winter, he is lost quickly and then I pick him up again. The ear is bleeding freely now, and he’s frozen on point. I huff up and watch the blood dripping into the snow. He’s oblivious to anything but the smell in his nose and when the cock bird goes up and the shotgun barks, he’s on it. Hard on it. A 24-inch-tailed rooster and he retrieves, then blasts onward. I think for a moment, “Maybe I ought to do something about that ear.” But as soon as that thought enters, he’s gone again, romping into the snow, blood-be-damned, as if affirming my “long-way-from-the-heart” mantra.
By the time we get back to the truck (with three stone-dead rooster pheasants being flash-frozen by Montana December against my back), he’s a red and white setter. He looks like something out of a slasher movie, all from the flopping of an ear splattering blood everywhere, a minor cut with a major bleed. He doesn’t care, though. I tape him up as best I can, but the tape comes off and the ear bleeds more. I wrap his head and he digs into it and off comes the bandage. Screw it, he says, I’m a tough guy.
That night in the motel room, the bleeding finally stopped, he gobbles his feed, then promptly pukes it—and a wad of cocklebur and pheasant feather—up on my bed. Twice. “Get off the stage, you god-damned goof,” sings Ledoux. What an animal. Both. Or all three of us.