Somehow, he knows it’s time, and I never cease to marvel at this. He has an abundance of nervous energy these days, as if some internal voice is saying, “I know I’m supposed to be doing more than hanging out on the porch right now. Let’s go.”
We give ourselves over to these biorhythmic pulses, he and I, and the rest of our tribe. Though maybe some of us are just more susceptible to it than others, or embrace giving outlet to it more willingly. Or maybe we’re just lucky enough to know what outlets we truly need – something that some sadly never figure out and find all manner of displacement for.
Regardless, it is time, and with the dead of winter still feeling far, far away, life swells with new focus and purpose and less important things, like jobs and too many other responsibilities, must be shoved aside, in exchange for the preservation of our souls.
Somehow, he knows it’s time, and I never cease to marvel at this.
Sometimes, they let us down.
At the end of a season, half-a-dozen years in, you expert a certain level of professionalism.
Seeing as it’s winter, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Apparently surprises the shit out of a lot of people though.
They are so surprised that many of them forget how to drive, or how to dress, or even how to take it in stride.
They forget how to talk about anything else. Don’t they know there are two weeks left in the quail hunting season? Or that ice on the river concentrates the ducks?
When you live in the Rockies above 5,000 ft, you have to know that’s it’s going to get cold sometimes.
The thing is, so many people never do more than brave the cold between their car and the front door of their office.
It makes them soft.
Unless they’re hunters that is.
If you have pounded through the snow clenching a 7lb chunk of frozen steel in your hands while following a deliriously happy dog, then what’s a little cold weather?
If you have felt your truck do the diagonal slide, where you look a bit like a crooked-gaited hound dog going down the road and asked your buddy, “We have a shovel, right?” Then what’s a little snow on the roads?
If you have knocked the ice off of your fly-rod guides so you could get an extra couple of feet on your cast, or sat shaking in the frigid predawn dark listening to elk, or taken off your gloves to cut the ice balls out of your dog’s toes, then what’s a single digit temperature mean to you?
It’s what happens in the mountains.
The small army is gone. The skirmish line and the blockers have packed their bags and headed across the horizon, leaving a mile-long cloud of dust.
This time there is no, “how should we hit this one” conversation. No waiting on slowpokes or getting into position only to watch the line dissolve into a grupetto.
Now, it’s just the dog and I and a simple plan. Head up wind, as quickly and quietly as possible.
No whistle, no yelling, just a quiet “easy,” then we’re moving. A few dozen yards in, she sniffs hard, inhales something bigger than bird scent and snorts a bit before working two hens into the air. Their flight sends a jumpy rooster up, just out of range.
We round a corner and two roosters get up. I whack the first one and when the second one drops, I’m momentarily disappointed that there is no one to witness my shooting, then Roxy drops a bird in my hand and returns to complete the double and I recall how many birds we have watched flush from 500 yards away on this trip. I snap back to reality and think about how often this game of wild birds and dogs comes down to chance.
Sometimes, for a few brief moments, the dog is flawless, the birds hold and my shooting is clean.
It’s just us and it’s perfect.
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.
He may be the best dog I will ever walk the ground with. Perhaps not. Perhaps there will be another dog that will display and dazzle. But there will never be another dog like him. And there will never be another time like his. That I do know.
Some would say he was just a dog, but there are those of us who know the other plane. That place of which Henry Beston wrote: “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. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
There are humans, though, who at a minimum understand Beston’s other nation. They may even live there. Perhaps. Many are my friends. Hunting men mostly, men who hunt because they have a dog and if they did not partner with a canine, they would find no pleasure in walking an autumn field with a shotgun no matter how much they enjoyed the taste of roasted pheasant. They certainly would find the cliffs and crags and rough tough of the chukar partridge much more empty. Perhaps they would draw upon the wildness and raw beauty of the desert, but without a dog pal the picture would be incomplete like Mona Lisa without her smile. Can an old woman with a Peekapoo experience the same kind of other plane, that melding of human and dog mind into a mutual understanding that transcends verbal language? Perhaps. But I think not. The reason is quarry. There is something very different about an animal that lives to hunt for you, that pursues what you pursue. You are caught up in a mutual joy of the hunt, a mutual drive that sinks deep to the soul into the core, the heart, the bone, the very cells that make up a living creature. This is in our DNA, those of us who hunt. I am sure that dogs that hunted held a different status in the ancient nomadic tribes of which we are rooted than dogs that plodded along at heel, eating food and in the end becoming food. Each type of dog—the food hunter and the food “on the hoof” certainly played a role in the survival, but it was hunting dog that actually earned its keep by living, not dying.
It was hot that day. Christ was it hot. June. People do not think of Wyoming as hot. Wyoming is snowy peaks and ice, wind and empty. That day it was over 100 and the sweat poured over my eyes. I took a half-splintered Pulaski bandaged by black electricians tape and a half-sharp shovel and made little progress. A more prudent man might have a sharp shovel and a strong-handled swinging tool, but I did not expect to be burying my dog. Maybe at twelve. Definitely not at six. He lay next to me in black plastic and I did not look over there very often. I swung the Pulaski and water ran off of me, out of me. I was miles from nowhere and the desert made me small. Tiny. Alone. Only a half year earlier, I had walked the same piece of ground with a shotgun in my hands and him out there before me. And now he was wrapped in black plastic. The desert had never made me feel so small. True enough it is a big place with sky flung in all directions, miles from water, miles from those snowfields on the Bighorns and the Absarokas. No it was not the desert that made me feel tiny, it was death. I was no longer a man with one hell of a bird dog. I was just a man.