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A Soft Belly in Rough Country

Shooting Sportsman
July/August 2013

When I was 5, the dentist told mom to take away my security blanket before my thumb-sucking ruined my teeth.  No matter.  I had another security blanket–Kelly, our Irish Setter. I clutched her silky hair like a blanket and buried my face in her warmth.   Kelly was a privileged member of our family.  She slept on the furniture, waited for dropped food under the table, and sprawled beside me in the back seat of the car. Her soft body was always within my reach until she died of a stroke at 17.  But my love for her--and all dogs--continued.  Nothing comforted me more than the touch of a dog.  I knew someday I would own a dog just like Kelly–a big, sedate dog that plodded next to me, slept by my side and was always within reach when I needed soothing.

I married a man from a ranching family where dogs herded sheep and cows, slept on the porch, and lived short lives. They told me a story of how their border collie chased a truck down a dirt road, got sucked under a tire, and crawled its way out of the soft dirt unscathed.  I was horrified, but they just laughed at the dog’s resilience.

So when Dan suggested we get a hunting dog, I was wary.  He took me to see his friend George, an avid bird hunter, who owned a male English Pointer he named “Bummer” when the dog destroyed most of the family room, including several expensive duck mounts.  When I first saw Bummer he had just returned from a hunting trip in some rough country.   He was short-haired and skeletal, with a rib cage like a barrel and a tail as long and sharp as a stick, bloodied on the end.  He had the broad head of a pitbull and his panting mouth was drawn back in a tight grimace.  His bulbous, watering eyes squinted up at me as I tentatively patted his bony skull.  When he turned and trotted away, swaying beneath him were testicles red and swollen from running in dry grass.   He was the homeliest dog I’d ever seen. 

But I let Dan talk me into getting a Pointer from a local breeder and he came back with Kate.  The breeder had been training her for field trial competitions but the only thing she had mastered was running big and hard.  When we went to buy her a kennel, she escaped from the truck and ran in circles around the parking lot then shot into busy Main Street where she dodged cars and ignored the squealing tires and our screaming until we were able to coax her in with a sandwich.  I felt sick.  This was more dog than I could handle.

Dan bought dog training books and a whistle, and we drove down dusty roads of wheat fields, knocking on doors of ranch homes for permission to hunt.   Every time we released Kate, she took off in a straight line for the furthest hill until she was a small white cloud of dust. We did a lot of walking, whistling and yelling that first month until George took us under his tutelage.  When George released Bummer, I saw the familiar sight of a muscular butt disappearing quickly from view and prepared myself for another long walk.  “He’s on point,” George said.  In a coulee 30 feet ahead was Bummer, frozen on the hillside, his nose pointed downward and his tail straight in the air.  I marveled at the dog’s strange intensity, locked up tight with warm, quivering birds two feet in front of him. 

That same day Kate made her first clumsy point and Dan killed one of the flushed birds.  The picture George took showed Dan holding the bird and me clutching Kate, who stared at the camera with wild eyes and raised ears, ready to bolt.  Our weekends fell into a comfortable routine of driving through the empty countryside of eastern Montana, following Kate through golden wheat fields, then sitting on the tailgate sipping whiskey on ice in the setting sun.

One evening the sun had set and Kate was still not back.  We whistled and called for her in the darkness, then put on our headlamps and set out to find her.  When I heard her panting beside me, I looked down and illuminated a dog covered in blood from nose to tail.  We searched her body for a lethal laceration, but it was only a torn ear that we stitched up on the tailgate under our headlamps.  But the bloodshed continued.  That season, Kate ripped open her leg on barbed wire fence, punctured her chest on a stick, slashed her front paws jumping onto a stream’s cracked ice. Even a grass seed stuck in her nose caused a marathon sneezing event that required another trip to the vet.   Kate was always a great patient.  She simply burrowed her head against me while the vet poked, cleaned, and stitched, then happily wiggled her patched-up body while I paid the bill.

After one particularly rough hunt in the craggy hills of Idaho, her feet were so torn up she cut her tongue licking them.  The more it bled, the more she tried to lick up the blood, which only made it bleed more furiously. That night her whimpering alerted us to a problem downstairs. Kate’s obsessive licking had caused a hemorrhage of blood that coated the room like the aftermath of an axe murder.  Once we gave a shaking, dehydrated Kate enough water to revive her and slapped a cone on her head, we were stunned to think our dog could have died from a cut tongue.

But a more insidious threat emerged on a hunt with George when Bummer suddenly stopped in mid-sprint, sat down and refused to move.  George carried him back to the truck and  looked in vain for a wound until a slight swelling started above his eyes.  Snake bite.  By the time we got him to a vet his head had swelled to twice its size and it took five days of antibiotics until he recovered.  Bummer was snake broke, but when a dog runs 20 miles an hour there’s no time to avert even known dangers.  Bummer was bit 40 feet from the truck and it knocked him out cold.  What would have happened if he was out of sight?

There were threats in every field and hill.  When I stepped over a stick, it transformed into a coiling, hissing rattlesnake.  An abandoned mine shaft appeared out of nowhere. Ranchers put out poison for marauding coyotes.  Fur trappers set out steel-jawed snares.  We kept adding to our equipment box: e-collars, GPS transmitters, energy drinks for dehydration, sutures and liquid bandage for cuts, a stapler for lacerations, hemostats for quills, dexamethasone for snake bites.  In the last 12 years, two more Pointers joined Kate and ran into barbed wire, fell down a mine shaft, attacked a porcupine.  Every trip was a possible disaster, and a successful hunt for me was when the dogs were safely back in the truck. 

Kate hunted 15 bird seasons and died in her sleep.  In her last year, she was deaf and partially blind but she could still run, and on one of our last hunts together she came tearing back to us with a herd of pissed-off cows chasing her.  She looked happy. 

I sometimes envy the people I see on Main Street who walk to the coffee shop with unleashed dogs that wait patiently outside the door while their owners sip lattes.  My dogs walk on a leash with great effort, their legs stiff and shaking, just waiting to bust out and run like hell to a distant hill where only e-collars can reach them.  They return with heaving chests and bloodied tails, their bodies matted with sweat and mud and sniff the air with snorting gulps while I pull cactus thorns out of their paws.  In the evening they sleep on the floor beside my chair. While their bodies twitch and lunge at imagined prey, I reach down to rub torn ears, cut bellies and jagged scars.

A Soft Belly in Rough Country: Work
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