“In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” –Henry Beston
It has been said—by those who should know—that a man only has one special dog in a lifetime. I wonder about this statement, for I can remember every dog I ever had fondly, an attachment of heart and soul that brings a smile. Sometimes there are tears. Not long ago, I found myself tearing up over the day I put my first gun dog down, a day that has more than eleven years behind it. I remember my first dog—gone twenty years now—and she was not even a gun dog.
But then I think about special times and places, about timing and time. There was a period in my life when I needed a friend and his name was Hank, a hard-charging English setter with the heart of a pure hunter. I had left an unhappy marriage and Hank was there, ready for the wind-whipped granite chukar haunts, ready for the pheasant fields stretching to the western horizon, ready for sage grouse rising above an ocean of sage. He tore it up and lived not long enough. But before he left, he put a litter of setter pups on the ground and then he was gone. But this story is not about Hank. This tale is of Hank’s buddy Coot and her partner, Dave.
Coot was a lively black Lab pup, all teeth and torment, a bundle of high-test energy who squirmed in your grip and growled puppy growls and launched herself into algae-covered ponds at ten weeks of age with the enthusiasm and drive of a finished dog. She came into Dave’s life just a year after Hank came into mine. We were new friends then, Dave and I, but we were kindred spirits, lads raised in the West, fed venison and elk steak, trained from youth to squint at far ridges looking for game.
In the mid-1990s, Wyoming was awash in upland birds. There were Hungarian partridge in places where there had never been Hungarian partridge. Chukars lived on about every crag in the desert. Even the pheasants were doing well, with wild tough roosters thriving on nothing but greasewood and new grass. It was into this landscape that Dave and I loosed Hank and Coot.
I needed the distraction from the logistics and loss of a failed love. That was my excuse for hunting every weekend and most week days. I don’t know what Dave’s was, but he was usually along with me. With time and opportunity, our young dogs tore it up. Hank hunted like a finished veteran of eight years when he was eight months. Coot was the same.
Those years were also duck years and the flyway was thick with big northern greenheads, widgeons and teal. We floated the Big Horn through Thermopolis, drifting past Russian olive, crawling and jump-shooting when we didn’t feel like setting up decoys.
One warm November day, we stood on the bank of the river taking a break from the action. Dave, who always shoots better than I, was done. I had one duck to go before I could claim my limit. The Big Horn rolled by thick and green and cold and then a male widgeon drifted downstream about forty yards out, on the edge of my range. I swung up and pulled the trigger and dropped the widgeon stone-dead far out in the river. In an instant, Coot was out in the current, swimming hard, and bringing the duck back in to hand.
On another trip, a wounded drake mallard took to a muskrat hole across the river. It was during the Ice Jamboree, our annual last-weekend-of-the-season hunt down the Bighorn and it was cold, with panes of ice thick on the river and fingers frozen on canoe paddles. Coot had seen the duck go down, but we didn’t know where it ended up. Working on a blind retrieve, she swam the river, sat at Dave’s command, and then worked right and then left and then finally down into the hole where she came up with the duck. She was like that. I can never remember losing a cripple when I was around Coot. She found them.
North Dakota in that era was also full of birds, particularly pheasants. It was hard to drive down a country road without seeing fifteen or twenty roosters standing roadside picking gravel. That first year, Dave and I joined a group of four other friends and we turned our dogs out into bird heaven. I walked through one field of tall grass and had three roosters off Hank points in about an hour. I met Dave on the other end of the field. He was done too and we waited while our friends came through. At the edge of the field, a rooster went up before the gun and one friend swung and dropped it, but it hit the ground like so many of those damned roosters do—head up and running. We had four dogs with us and all of them were turned loose to find the cripple. We hunted back and forth for what seemed like a long time and then someone asked, “Has anyone seen Coot?”
The little black bitch had run off and Dave was cursing her. She had disappeared over a rise in the prairie and was gone. Time ticked by and then I saw the grass moving, and a flash of black and there was Coot, the pheasant in her mouth, charging hard back to us. She had run perhaps a quarter-mile after that bird.
After that trip, we drove home to Wyoming, saturated in that tired-good feeling of hunters with birds in the cooler and memories in the bank. Hank and Coot were worked—their muzzles raw and red from ten thousand grass cuts, their bodies twitching as they slept the sleep of dogs with birds in their heads. We stopped in Spearfish, South Dakota, at a Subway sandwich shop and each ordered. As an after-thought, we asked if they had any old meat they wanted to give to a couple of tired dogs and the young man behind the counter made each of our dogs a free sandwich sans condiments.
This past spring, I drove through Spearfish. In the backseat slept a tired puppy named Hank’s Echo, whose grandfather had eaten a Subway sandwich in that same town a decade earlier. I found myself thinking about Coot and Hank and those special years and then my cell phone rang.
She was an old dog with cataracts starting to cloak her eyes. Her ears were deadened by many shotgun blasts, but she still had a season or two left in her, maybe an hour in some easy pheasant field. She deserved to die in her sleep in front of a crackling winter woodstove, warm and relaxed and dreaming of hunts behind. Maybe she never even heard the car that hit her. I hope so. I hope it was without pain and that wherever she is now, she has a white lean setter to keep her company and a human friend who can drop a bird.
And so I think about that adage. One special dog in a lifetime? Perhaps. But perhaps too, there is one unique period when you have the time and the wherewithal and the means to hunt a lot with one good gun dog, when the birds are thick before your gun and your hunting companions share common ground and equal ethics. If that is the case, I hope to duplicate that stretch of time again and again and again until my eyes cloud with cataracts and my old bones can no longer carry me into the pheasant fields of autumn. When that happens, I will remember a black dog named Coot and I will smile and cry with that memory.
This essay appeared in Wyoming Wildlife in 2007.