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Portrait Of A Hunter

There’s no greater adventure than following a bird dog’s nose through the autumn brush.

Expect the predictable and the unexpected, because forays with a pointer can lead to flurries of quail, rocketing ringnecks and the occasional tense encounter with a skunk.

Even a hunting dog of impeccable lineage can succumb to primal urges and vanish over the horizon chasing a jack rabbit. The dog might run pell-mell into a barbed-wire fence or romp into a patch of prickly pears. Maybe he’ll lock on point, nose-tonose, with a rattlesnake.

The freedom to run in the wide open range often leaves bird dogs reluctant to obey a whistle. But nothing makes a pointer race for his master’s side faster than wild-eyed pursuit by a bull.

Let him out of your sight for long and a bird dog will invariably find something of significance.

A covey of tight-holding partridge. Baited coyote traps. The remaining patch of burrs in the Palouse. Fresh cow pies.

Old Dog, king of the kennel and co-pilot of the Ford pickup, had sorted and prioritized the wild upland odors by the time he was 12. Experience had taught him the consequences of getting fresh with a badger. He’d lost the urge to be a pincushion for porcupine quills.

Old Dog was not perfect, but he had pretty much learned by virtue of genetics and experience that the scent of quail and grouse leads to good things while the scent of skunk leads to a bath.

At 14 weeks of age, Pup had a nose full of curiosity and unlearned lessons.

In the field together that day, Old Dog and Pup were the picture of poise and pandemonium. When Pup ran downhill, his back legs tried to outrun his front legs until he would spin out like a cop car in a chase scene.

Pup skidded on his chin when he tried to jump a log. He hopped like a kangaroo on a hot tin roof in his first romp through wheat stubble that prickled his tummy.

Old Dog lumbered along, measuring his waning energy and devoting it to the most likely places a quail might hide. Meanwhile, dirt was flying as Pup was head-first to his ears in a ground squirrel hole.

Old Dog continued zigzagging ahead, nose pulsing into the wind for game scent. Pup was behind, swooning to the rot of an unidentifiable carcass.

Old Dog wheeled around and froze on point. Pup, bringing up the rear, spotted a moth and chased it. Pup was looking straight up when he collided at full speed into the pointing veteran.

The commotion flushed the covey of quail prematurely, but one bird fell to the approaching hunter’s gun.

The pointers both busted the brush. Old Dog returned immediately, bringing the downed bird to the hunter’s hand.

Finding no bird, Pup eventually emerged packing a coyote skull as though it were an Olympic gold medal.

The hunter couldn’t help but wonder if Pup would ever measure up to Old Dog.

Truth is, even Old Dog couldn’t be considered a star. On an alternating basis, he could be brilliant or a renegade. A trainer once advised, “Don’t waste your money on a trainer. The dog needs a psychologist.”

Old Dog had his flaws, but his devotion and enthusiasm were unconditional. Time has a way of clearing the record of busted points and lapses in attention to the hunter’s whistle.

Old Dog put his heart into that last hunt, even though his ticker was failing. He collapsed on point while his nostrils were flooded with the scent of quail and sage. Moments later, stub-tail wagging, his weary but fearless amber eyes pleaded to go hunting again.

He came to heel reluctantly and endured Pup’s playful hounding all the way back to the pickup. Both dogs needed a lift onto the end gate. Both slept like bears in winter on the way home.

Later, the hunter’s wife tended to Pup in her own inimitable way.

“Here sweet puppy honey-darling,” she called. “Get over here to mommy and sit, you cutest little adorable thing I love you so much.”

Translation: “Come, Pup.”

But the style worked for her. And it worked that night for Old Dog and the hunter.

They needed to be alone.

For a long time, they cuddled outside in the chill under the stars. They dreamed of flushing grouse, the scent of gunpowder and the treasure of adventures one finds at the service of a bird dog’s nose.

The wife finally stepped out, knowing deep down that what she’d see would smack her like a load of buckshot.

Old Dog didn’t look too good, either.

She said nothing. With tears streaming down her face, she left them alone again, for as long as it took.

This was familiar ground for the hunter and he was damned mad that it wasn’t any smoother than the last time. He scratched Old Dog under the collar and cursed at the moon.

No one has adequately explained why a hunter can fight back tears at his mother’s funeral, but can’t find strength to get off his knees after burying his dog.

Maybe a hunter would never stand straight if it weren’t for the warm, eager lapping of Pup’s tongue on his cheek.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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