Monday, October 26, 2020

We Walk It Together

 Day after day, he hunted with his pup.  After work, after holiday dinners, before opening presents at Christmas, on vacation time saved throughout the year, even on days after he developed his recurring eye problem ("Yeah, man, I'm sorry, eye problems again.  I just can't see myself coming into work today. Buck and I found a monster covey of Chukar last weekend. Cover for me?  Thanks, I owe you.  Again."), he and Buck climbed into the old, 1989 F-150 set off down the road spewing gray dust out both sides and the back. They never missed an opener, or the last day 

The gun he used was an old, humpback 12 gauge Browning A-5,  bought at a used gun and tire store in town for $200.  One year, he moved to a much nicer 12 ga.  Then, as he gained confidence, and made more money, he upgraded a few times.  Now, he toted an artfully engraved 20 ga. double, with twin triggers and a fancy, incomprehensible name, fitted stock, and a storage box. He smiled when he looked at the dings, dents, and scratches in the Carpathian Walnut and scratches in the blueing on the side-by-side barrels.  Each imperfection brought back a memory, nearly all of them pleasant, of Buck and him scrambling over rockfalls, walking the top thick in Cheat grass, or looking for a dropped bird at the bottom of a boulder-filled hillside.  

One big gouge in the forend of the stock brought back a "less than pleasant" memory- one that almost ended in disaster.  He and Buck were trying out a new area along the top of the Snake River gorge.  Easy walking along the top lulled them both into a sense the world was finally in order, perfect, just a good day to be in God's Creation.  It was about 40 degrees, and a soft wind blew into their faces.  Buck ranged 100 to 200 yards out, got birdy and locked up on point. He hurried as fast as he could, since the flattish lava rock gravel turned into a boulder field hidden in the tall cheat grass. The dog was tight as he moved off to Buck's left side to give his lefty shooting stance an advantage, and also, to let Buck know where he was.  He was almost even with the dog, when a huge Chukar covey got up and headed for the edge, and safety.  The light 20 ga. barked twice.  One bird dropped, deader than a hammer, straight down to the grass.  But, the second bird wobbled, flapped, wobbled and set his wings. The last he saw, the second Chukar was gliding after the rest of the covey, down to the water way below. He lost sight of the bird, even though he tried to watch where it landed.  Buck brought the first bird back to hand, and made his way to the edge and over, down to the wounded bird. The man walked to the edge, hoping this was one time Buck could do this on his own.  He watched from the crest as Buck worked up and down the river.  He watched as Buck walked in to the river, and thought about going across.  A blast from the whistle settled that issue. Buck turned back, and climbed up a short incline out of the water. Reaching a small shelf, just a few feet above the river, he put his nose to the ground and started searching for the wounded or dead bird.  The man encouraged Buck with several "Good Boy!”s and "Look in there!" and "Hunt 'em up, Buck!" thrown in.  

Just about the time the man decided to head down the steep hillside and assist, he heard Buck yelp and jump back.  Buck whined and started trying to reach around to his left hind quarter and bite something.  It almost looked like he was trying to chase his tail, but he wasn't happy and was almost crying.  The man broke from his reverie, and started down the rock-strewn hillside with intention.  Buck was lying down now, still trying to get to his hind-quarter. It took five minutes to get to him, but it seemed like an hour, as he jumped from rock to rock, then used his free hand to balance himself as he wound between the bigger rocks.  The last 20 yards, before the hill leveled on to the shelf, he let himself speed up some.  He was close to the bottom, and he could tell something was bad wrong with Buck. Just a few, large steps from the shelf and his dog, his foot rolled on some smaller stones, and he almost did a split as one foot went out front.  One arm grabbed for a boulder on one side, and he instantly let go of his shotgun and reached for another boulder on the other side.  He managed to stay upright, but his thigh and butt hit the ground, about the same time his gun did, as he unceremoniously arrived at the shelf and his dog.  He ignored the sore rear-end and moved to Buck. 

On Buck's left hindquarter, he saw just a little dab of blood, in two places, in the meat on the backside of his leg.  Snakebite.  Those bloody dabs were a long ways apart.  It was a big snake- surely a rattlesnake. And while it was uncommon for cold-blooded snakes to be out at this temperature, it was warmer down near the river, and they will sometimes come out to sun.  Buck stopped reaching and was just looking back and whining.  "I'll bet it hurts like hell, buddy," the man said.  He assessed his situation. Options were not good.  Upstream and downstream, along the river, it would take forever to get to help.  A ranger boat could come by- not very likely.  He was never that lucky.  The only real option was back up the hill to the top, a trek to the truck, and a 50 mile drive to the vet. Buck's left-rear leg was beginning to swell.  He got up and tried to walk on three legs.  It worked, but it was painful, as the venom spread through the leg.  The dog would never make it up the incline.  The man took off his vest, emptied it of anything not critical, grabbed Buck by the collar, and slid him inside the bird bag.  Buck was feeling the shock of the bite, and was docile.  The vest was one of those favored by many Chukar hunters- WingWorks- with a huge bird bag.  The man sat down, pulled the vest on, and cinched up the waist-belt tight, and then the chest strap.  He left his water bottles, everything in his bird bag, and anything else he could to lighten the load.  He grabbed his gun, unloaded it, and set it in between two boulders.  He would need both hands to get out of the canyon in a hurry.

Leaning forward with the almost 50# dog in his bird bag, he picked and chose every step on the way up the slope, hands out ready for a fall and for balance.  He slipped a few times, and was thankful for his deerskin gloves.  They protected his hands when falling, grabbing, or balancing on the lava rocks. Sweat poured off him as he crested the hill, and sat down.  Buck was OK.  He couldn't see the swelling, the setter fur and position of the dog masking it.  After a minute, he loaded up and started for the truck- 2 miles in the distance.  The easy, pleasant walk on the way out was pure torture for his back and shoulders heading back.  He was thankful for the vest, though.  It held Buck safely and snug. A little over an hour later, he rolled in to the vet's office in a cloud of dust.  The vet was waiting for them, and the man carefully picked the dog up, trying to avoid the swollen left rear.  The vet did her magic with antibiotics, fluids, etc., and told the man to come back the next day and pick him up.  Ruefully, he got in his truck and headed back to retrieve his gun.  

It felt weird to be out with no dog or gun, he thought, as he retraced his steps down the hillside to the shelf.  The gun was where he left it, and he admired the nice, fresh gouge in the forend. He retrieved the water bottles, and the first, dead Chukar.  Glancing around, he gave the area another quick search for the second, wounded bird, but didn't find him.  He was, also, semi-looking for a big rattlesnake.  He knew what he would do, if he spotted one in the area.  After a while, not finding the bird or rattlesnake, he started back up the same hillside, and headed home.

Buck survived the night, and was ready to hunt again within the week. The man's butt was bruised, and he had 'road rash' on his thigh, but all in all, the incident became nothing more than a story that was the subject of many a campfire tale.  The man would get his gun and point to the, by now, well worn gouge in the forend of his sweet, little 20 ga.  Then, he would begin the story of the day he and Buck fought off rattlers to hunt Chukar high above the mighty Snake.

Through the years, they hunted all over Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and even as far south as New Mexico, and one trip to Arizona for the mystical Mearns Quail.  They were quite the team.  He couldn't bring himself to get another dog. The thought of watching a dog that was 'not Buck' sweeping the ground in front of him didn't elicit the excitement he felt with his setter. And so it went.  Through the years, they hunted, laughed, shot poorly, shot perfectly, made friends, and lived and loved a lifestyle few people even knew existed.  His wife and children knew him as a good husband and father.  They understood the pull of open land, bird dogs, and birds. His wife, especially, knew better than to schedule big events that required his attention during "Bird Season" before checking with him with exact dates in hand.  It's rumored one of his daughters changed her wedding date from October to the traditional June, after announcing with glee her engagement and prospective wedding date at the dinner table."Well, honey, that's wonderful," said Mom. "But I think we should discuss the date a little, if that's OK?"  "Mom, why?" the daughter replied, shocked.  "All I'm saying is, your Dad sure would like to be at the wedding," said Mom.  "And, you know October is the finest month of the year for bird hunting.  Wouldn't June be a better month for the two of you?"  The man, sitting quietly next to his wife, never raised his eyes, as he shoveled another spoonful of dessert into his mouth.  Only his wife of many years noticed the little uptick on the corners of his mouth. 

Buck was 11 years old, and the pair were in Montana late one September.  He slowed his run noticeably on this, the first, trip of the season.  He held his right front elbow out a little when he ran, and his left rear leg seemed to be losing the power it once had- perhaps from that snakebite many years ago.  The man noticed immediately, and kept calling Buck in for water and to discuss strategy, and to "take a break" in the heat.  He noticed, on a more personal level, he didn't have a lot of the go he once had, either.  It rankled him that the young bucks he hunted with would occasionally stop and wait for him.  His hips seemed to hurt more after a few days in the field.  Cramps would routinely hammer him, in the middle of the night, after the first day hunting from sunup to sundown, and he needed to eat bananas and avocados to get the minerals needed to keep them at bay.  Stretching every morning was painful, but mandatory, if he would maintain the ability to hunt behind his dog. 

Both man and dog slowed from those first years, when everything was new and exciting.  Buck's nose was as sharp as ever, and the 11 years' experience made him as lethal as ever.  It seemed he went directly to the coveys now, not covering non-productive ground first.  The man didn't waste much movement anymore, either.  He could look at a piece of ground at a glance, and determine their odds of finding birds.  He wasn't foolproof, to the amusement of his hunting partners, but they listened closely when he made a suggestion about staying or moving on.  He always explained to them why he felt as he did. 

One day, the group put out on some rough ground in central Montana. As often happens, a cold front moved through overnight and instead of the 80's and 90's from the last several days, they encountered temperatures in the 40's and blustery winds from the north.  The hunting companions let their dogs out, three and four year olds, and started up the rough hills in the grass that held Sharptail Grouse.  Three dogs took off with Buck in his usual front position.  Two of the dogs headed to the top, while Buck turned and headed for a coulee holding a long line of shrubs.  The man chuckled as he move off to the right, keeping Buck in sight approaching the closest bunch of bushes.  He suspected what Buck already knew- the birds were in the shrubs staying out of the wind and cold and away from the predators they couldn't hear in the hard wind.  In moments, Buck locked up in that pose the man grew to love.  He moved in, for the moment ignoring his aching hips, and checked the load in that old 20 ga. The birds were there, alright. 30 gray monsters blew out of the shrubs and headed for the top.  The 20 barked twice, and two birds dropped.  By the time Buck made the retrieves, the two young hunting partners and their dogs came swooping down from the top to join in the fun.  The man knelt down and held Buck's collar.  "Let's let them have some fun, old boy," the man whispered.  "We both know they are all your birds."

Later on that day, at a different spot, new dogs were put out, eager yearlings with muscle, sinew, balls, and not much in the way of wisdom.  The man told his partners, "Go on guys.  Old Buck and I will move down to the next coulee.  We want to take our time, and you guys need to stay right on top of those young dogs." Plans were made to meet up around sunset, and the man kept Buck in the front seat as he drove down the road. They stopped where the man knew would be more Sharptails hiding in the plum thickets high up the hillside.  He got out, let Buck out and they started up the hill.  Buck moved slower now, the morning hunt was draining, and the hill in front seemed a lot steeper. He looked back at the man, walking stiff-legged and resting every five or ten steps.  Buck turned and came in, like he usually did for some water, and the man grabbed the bottle from his vest and let him drink his fill.  Then the man sat down and they admired the day and the country.  They heard shooting, then whoops of joy coming in off the wind from their friends the next coulee over.  The man smiled and stroked Buck.  "Those young dogs must have gotten an handle on their hormones, Buck.  That surely is a good feeling to see a young dog coming along like that. You were like that once, although I know you'd never think you could be."

The man stood up, shouldered his vest, grabbed his gun and reloaded.  His legs felt pretty good for a change, and he pointed up the hill as Buck limped in front of him- doggedly set on reaching those plum thickets.  "Buck, you take your time. I need it, too.  I'll stay with you, buddy.  We'll walk it together.  We're a good team.   Damn, the days we had!"

Buck reached the plum thickets just ahead of the man. He pointed like a year old setter- full of piss and vinegar.  The man went off to Buck's left, the routine as old and comfortable as a pair of well-worn chaps.  The birds were there, and the man thought it might be a little unfair to them with Buck on the ground.  He laughed as 10 Sharptails flew up 20 yards in front of Buck. He dropped one, then bent a knee and waited for the old dog to bring it in.  "Maybe by this time next year, Buck, we can have us a little ball of hair-on-fire setter up here for you to train. Us two old guys need to pass on what we know, before it's too late for either of us to get up the hill."  They walked slowly, deliberately, back to the truck.  The old dog and the middle-aged man walked together.