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In an epic season of sport, Jim Fergus and his trusty Lab, Sweetzer, trek the mountains, plains, prairies, forests, marshes, deltas, and deserts of America.
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In an epic season of sport, Jim Fergus and his trusty Lab, Sweetzer, trek the mountains, plains, prairies, forests, marshes, deltas, and deserts of America.
MY LIFE AS A DOG TRAINER Preserve wild game, use a trained dog.
Common ad slogan of state fish and game agencies I live in a small town in northern Colorado called Ayn (as in Ayn Rand; local boosters have tried to make a case: that the noted writer actually came here once and that our town is the model for a town in The Fountainhead, but I can find no evidence for either claim). It is a tiny community (population 13), not even on most maps. There aren’t too many shotgunners around and certainly no skeet range at which to practice, so last summer my rancher friend Billy Cantrell and I formed our own skeet club at his ranch dump. We called it the Ayn Gun Club and we were the only members. We had different stations set up in various parts of the dump. One of the most challenging stations from a shooting standpoint was the one we called the “hole” down at the bottom of the dump next to an old upended chest freezer; here the clay targets would whiz directly over your head. Billy shoots an old Ithaca Flues model 20-gauge double-barreled shotgun that he inherited from his beloved aunt, Effie, who died some years ago and is buried in the tiny cemetery on a windblown ridge overlooking town. He calls the gun “Old Effie,” which I find lovely. I was shooting my little Belgium side-by-side which I bought cheaply from a dealer in Texas. Manufactured in Liège by a small company that didn’t survive World War II, the gun has no collector value but is in excellent condition—a plain gun, but I think rather elegant. It has an initial plate on the stock and came with the original muttonchop leather case, both engraved with the initials DAB. It also has sling clips attached; before the war in Europe, bird hunters used to sling their shotguns over their backs and ride their bicycles outside town for a little shooting. I like to hold that shotgun in my hand and imagine young DAB pedaling away in the Belgian countryside on a fine fall morning. Anyway, by the end of the summer when it was time for me to leave on my trip, Billy and I were breaking targets pretty regularly, even from the hole. Maybe it wasn’t exactly the Orvis shooting school, but we had a lot of fun.
Though Cantrell never went to college and hasn’t been down to the city in nearly twenty years, he is possessed of that innate brand of rural wisdom and humor, hard earned through a lifetime of close attention to his surroundings and a familial understanding of the country. The first time he watched me working Sweetzer on hand signals when she was just a puppy, he smiled his generous tobacco-flecked smile, spat a stream of tobacco juice on the ground, and said, “Why Jim, she’s just like a fool a fuckin’, she don’t know where to begin!”
Billy used to hunt sage grouse around here as a boy. He tells a story about driving down a dirt road one day with his uncle. They came across a flock of sage grouse crossing the road. His uncle told him to grab the shotgun behind the seat and shoot one for supper. Billy reached around, got the gun, and aimed it out the window. Then he waited. “Well, what arc you waiting for?” his uncle finally asked. “I’m waiting for them to fly,” Billy said, thinking that was the sporting thing to do. He’d read the sporting magazines, too. “Billy, we can watch them fly after you shoot one,” his uncle explained. “Tonight I want to eat sage chicken for supper.”
There are actually two other fellows in town who shoot shotguns: my friend Don Reed, who runs the general store, and another rancher named Marvin Labatt, who owns a nice-looking English setter. Actually, Marvin found the dog in a campground in the national forest, either a runaway or abandoned by its owners, and though he advertised in the newspaper, no one ever claimed it. So I loaned him a couple of my dog training books and he set out to make the dog into a bird dog. For the most part, people up here still lead a kind of close-to-the-bone existence and there is no question of going out and buying a fancy thousand-dollar finished bird dog, or even a hundred-dollar unstarted bird dog for that matter.
Let me say right off that I believe in training your own dog, rather than buying a finished dog or sending it off to a professional trainer. It’s hard work but fun—for you and the dog (though there are people with temperaments clearly unsuited to dog training, in which case it’s no fun for anyone). So one day early that same summer I went down to the local general store to ask my friend Don if he was a competent wing shot. I had acquired a couple of pheasants from a game bird farm, and I wanted to shoot them over Sweetzer in order to teach her steadiness to wing and shot. I intended to eat the pheasants, too. Both Billy and Marvin were busy with irrigating and other spring ranch work and I needed a gunner while I handled the dog.
For those readers unfamiliar with the vocabulary, steadiness to wing and shot simply means that when the bird flushes and you shoot, the dog is to stop, sit, and wait until you send it for the retrieve rather than chase wildly after the bird. This is important partly as a matter of safety and also because the dog is better able to mark the location of fallen birds for the retrieve from a stationary position than when running. And the better able your dog is to mark and find dead and crippled birds, the fewer will be lost in the field.
Reed and his wife, Sandy, run the general store, which is the only business in town. Besides being one of those consummate jack-of-all-trades so important to the life of a small town, Don serves another invaluable function as the local skunk buster. The skunks get underneath the houses, many of which have no foundations. At night they tend to quarrel amongst themselves and squirt each other. Many times I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with my eyes watering from the skunk juice wafting up through the floorboards. That’s when I call Don, who, when he can’t shoot them, traps them.
“Don’s an excellent shot,” Sandy interjected proudly on the day I went over. “I bet he’s killed fifty skunks around town so far this year.”
“Yeah, but do you shoot them on the wing?” I asked skeptically.
“On the wing?” Don asked.
“Yeah, you know, are they flying or do you ground-sluice them?”
“Oh,” he said, nodding. “On the wing. Definitely. Wouldn’t be sporting to shoot them on the ground, would it?”
So that evening Don and I met up on the sage flat above town next to the cemetery for our controlled pheasant shoot. I rigged up my release cage with the pheasant inside, positioned Don, and put Sweetzer on the check cord. Reed wanted to shoot three-inch magnum shells in his 20-gauge Winchester automatic, his gun and load of choice to bring down flying skunks, but I insisted that he use light field-load shells which I provided. I wanted to eat that pheasant, not have it blown to bits. Don seemed a little nervous to me. I explained that the pheasant was likely to be a bit faster off the ground than your average skunk, and I tried to calm him by telling him that it was no big deal if he missed. Still, he knew that the pheasant had cost me five dollars, and that it would be a wasteful thing if he were to miss, like letting a package of perfectly good “pick of the chick” go bad in the refrigerator. This kind of conscientious thrift still exists in the heartland.
“Just take your time and say ‘Pull’ when you’re ready,” I told Don.
“Okay. . . .” He settled himself. “Pull!” I pulled the cord attached to the lid of the cage, the pheasant saw daylight and rocketed out the top. Just as I had hoped—a perfect release, offering Don a perfect crossing shot. He swung on the bird. I had been worried that he might be overanxious and fire too quickly, not letting the pheasant get out far enough and thus damaging the meat with too much shot, but Don kept his cool and let the bird get out a bit, and then he let it get out a bit farther, and I began to think that he’d better shoot now, that pheasant was really gaining airspeed, and soon it would be out of range all together. “Ah, Don . . . ,” I said.
“Oh, shit!” he hollered suddenly, “shit, my goddamn gun misfired!” Sweetzer seemed to have a certain puzzled look on her face as the pheasant sailed, unmolested, over the ridge, heading for the dense willows of the creek bottom below. “That’s never happened before,” Don moaned, flustered and embarrassed. “I’ve shot hundreds of skunks, and this gun has never misfired!”
I wondered if maybe in the heat of the moment, Don hadn’t had a small attack of what is known as “buck fever” and possibly forgotten to take his safety off. I’ve done it myself, pulling helplessly against an unyielding trigger as the birds dispersed in the air. But I would never suggest such a thing to Don. If he says his gun misfired, then it misfired.
Still, he was terribly upset about it, and apologetic, and later that evening he called me at home and asked if he could have a second chance, could we try again tomorrow with my other pheasant? It wouldn’t happen again, he assured me. He had taken his shotgun apart, cleaned and oiled all the moving parts, and it was now working perfectly. Having just watched one five-dollar bill fly over the ridge, I admit I was reluctant to risk the other one so soon, and I stalled Don, told him that I wanted to get ahold of some pigeons for us to practice on before we tried the second pheasant. “Okay,” he agreed reluctantly, “but I want another chance.”
The next day I took my pigeon trap and set it up in the warehouse of a feed store in the county seat, a town called Thoreau (no relation to Henry David), twenty-two miles up the road from Ayn. They had some pigeons hanging around eating their spilled grain and generally making a mess, as pigeons do, and they were delighted to have me trap them.
I had the trap down there for several days but for some reason I caught only one pigeon. It was hardly worth a forty-four-mile round-trip drive for just one pigeon, but the girl who called me from the feed store said I’d better get over there because it was the “weirdest-looking pigeon you ever saw.”
I went to pick it up and, yes, it was easily the weirdest-looking pigeon I’d ever seen. It appeared to be some sort of show pigeon, a foppish-looking thing with mottled reddish brown and white plumage and a lavish crown on its head. But the most extraordinary thing about it was that it had fully feathered feet, like little white booties. It looked kind of like Nancy Sinatra in the old days of go-go. When I brought the pigeon home, my wife took one look at it and said, “Jim Fergus, you are not going to shoot that pigeon, are you?” She had already expressed her disapproval of our abortive pheasant shoot and made no bones about the fact that she was delighted the bird escaped unharmed.
“It’s all for a good cause,” I explained. “ ‘Conserve wild game. Use a trained dog.’ ”
I called Don and that afternoon we met back up at the cemetery. He had a determined, no-nonsense look on his face. I had Sweetzer and the feather-footed pigeon with me.
“That’s the weirdest-looking pigeon, I’ve ever seen,” Reed marveled.
“I know, that’s what everyone says.”
We set up. Don called Pull. I flipped the lid but, unlike the pheasant, the pigeon didn’t fly out of the trap. It looked calmly at the open door and then hopped up and sat on the top.
“Don’t shoot!” I said. “I’ll take the dog in and flush it. Then it’ll have to fly.” I walked in with Sweetzer on the check cord—this would be good practice for her—but the pigeon just sort of hopped off the cage and flapped over to land on the hood of Don’s truck. “Don’t shoot!” I repeated, afraid that Don would be overanxious.
“Don’t worry, Jim,” Reed said, calmly, “I’m not going to shoot my truck.”
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to shoot this pigeon.” I went over to the truck and picked the pigeon off the hood. He was so tame he hardly resisted. “The dog’s not getting much training out of this at all,” I said.
“Throw the son of a bitch up in the air, then he’ll have to fly,” Don suggested. He really wanted to shoot that pigeon to redeem himself, and I really wanted to have a bird shot over Sweetz. She was beginning to wonder what the purpose of these trips to the cemetery was. Now I’m not proud about this part, but I’m going to tell it anyway. I held the pigeon in both hands, put him between my legs, and catapulted him in the air for all I was worth. Still the pigeon was not having any part of this and he kind of fluttered back down to about five feet off the ground and flew a clumsy circle around us. He wasn’t a very strong flyer. “Don’t shoot!” I hollered again, as Sweetzer and I hit the deck. My concern was unfounded, for Don is not careless with firearms. We watched the pigeon fly around us and then he landed back on the hood of Don’s truck.
“Must be a homing pigeon,” Reed remarked.
“This pigeon shoot is over,” I announced, gathering up my bird.
“Guess we’ll have to shoot that other pheasant,” Don said hopefully.
“I’ll call you.”
When I got home, my wife was on the couch reading a magazine. “If you shot that poor pigeon I’m not talking to you.”
“Then I guess I’m in luck.”
That evening I made a few phone calls trying to track down the owner of the strange pigeon, so I could give it back. I learned that there was only one old man in the entire county who kept pigeons and he lived in a town thirty-five miles away. He was known locally as—what else—“Pigeon Man” and evidently he had several hundred of them, each of whom he knew individually and by name. I phoned Pigeon Man and described the feather-footed pigeon. There was a long pause on the end of the line before the old man spoke in a soft, reverent voice. “No,” he said, “that ain’t one of my birds, but I sure would give about anything to have a pigeon like that. I never seen one with feathers on its feet.”
Imagine my wife’s amusement the next morning as I drove off to deliver the pigeon to Pigeon Man’s house. But before I left, I put a little harness on the pigeon, planted it in the bushes, and let Sweetzer find and retrieve it a couple of times. So far our training sessions with live birds had been a complete bust and I was desperate to show her some action. She has a very soft mouth and the pigeon didn’t seem to mind having her carry him around. In fact, he was so relaxed about it that I think maybe he enjoyed it. I’ll be honest, I was glad we hadn’t shot that pigeon. I named him Rocko, to compensate for his effeminate, feather-footed appearance. Sweetzer and her new friend, Rocko. Seemed like a nice balance. I almost didn’t want to give him up.
Pigeon Man lived in a broken-down old trailer house in the flats outside a town with the inelegant name of Cowpy. His place was easy to find, due to all the pigeons soaring above it or sitting on the roofs of a motley collection of outbuildings in various stages of collapse. He was a tall, cadaverous eighty-four-year-old, with a long chicken neck, rheumy eyes, and a vicious wet cough. His skin had the ashen gray, oxygen-deprivation pallor of the lifelong smoker. He led me inside the trailer which had a variety of wooden lean-to additions tacked on; they looked somewhat like a litter of mongrel puppies hanging on their mother’s teats.
Mrs. Pigeon Man was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking an extralong cigarette and watching a game show on TV. She was emaciated, too, wiry and just as tough looking as old shoe leather, her face wizened with a network of deeply etched lines. She was wearing a housedress and she sat with her legs sticking straight out. She had a pair of worn Indian moccasins on her feet, the kind with the laces stitched around the top, and the big toenail on each foot protruded through holes in the leather. They looked like small, dangerous stilettos, astonishingly long and pearly. Suddenly I was overcome with the bizarre notion that she was going to leap up from the table and perform a series of high-kick karate moves, slicing my face to ribbons with those toenails. “You come for pigeons?” she asked. And before I could answer, unable to take my eyes off her toenails, she said, “You can take every goddamn one of the filthy things. I hate ’em.” She took a long disgusted pull on her cigarette and went back to her game show.
We sat down at the table and Pigeon Man expertly rolled himself a smoke out of a pouch of Bugler tobacco. He held the cigarette up between long, skeletal, weirdly translucent fingers, and regarded it thoughtfully: “Waaall,” he said, slowly, “they ain’t killed me yet, but I’m gonna give ’em one more chance.” Then he popped the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. The air in the trailer was already dense with smoke. An ex-smoker myself, I figured that five minutes in here was equivalent to a pack-a-day habit, and I was anxious to get back outside to conduct our pigeon business. However, in the country there is an obligatory enforced “visiting” period, during which you are required to sit around the kitchen table like this, visiting. “This fella brought the pigeon with the feathers on his feet,” said Pigeon Man to his wife, but she ignored him, her attention riveted to the television set. “I ain’t seen it yet. I thought we’d visit for a bit first.”
I didn’t get the feeling that Mr. and Mrs. Pigeon Man received many visitors and, given his wife’s dour nature, I think that he was a lonely old man. He was a sociable fellow, as talkative as she was silent, and now that he had a captive audience he wasn’t about to give me up too quickly. Like many country eccentrics, Pigeon Man shared a deep hatred of the government and after he had vented his ire at local, state, and federal officials alike, he asked me what I did for a living. When I told him, he wanted to know how much money I earned at it. He clearly distrusted anyone who made a lot of money. I gave him a modest ballpark sum representing my average yearly income, and he seemed quite pleased. I had passed the test. Finally, I suggested that we go have a look at my pigeon. At no time during our visit did I take my eye off those toenails.
“What would you take for that pigeon?” Pigeon Man asked, trying to appear only casually interested, like a canny horse trader. In truth, he was clearly having difficulty containing his excitement. This was certainly the fanciest pigeon he’d ever laid eyes on.
“I need some pigeons to train my dog,” I explained. “Just regular old pigeons that don’t have feathers on their feet and that are strong flyers.”
“Oh, hell, I got plenty like that!” he said. “I’d trade you a dozen of my pigeons for that one there.”
Now I was in the pigeon business and I went home and built a coop for my new birds. My wife watched quizzically through the kitchen window as I worked on it. Later she accompanied me up to the store where I went to organize yet another pigeon shoot with Reed. She had stopped worrying about the pigeons. I guess they seemed safe enough in our hands. Indeed, before we were through, Don and I would populate Ayn with pigeons escaped from our shoots. By the end of the summer they were roosting on roofs all over town. People were beginning to complain. Somehow my wife seemed able to anticipate all this. “Who are you going to get to shoot the pigeons for you?” she asked me that day as we were walking to the store.
“Why, Don, of course, that’s why we’re going to the store. And I might shoot a few of them myself, once I get Sweetzer lined out,” I added.
“Yeah, right, but who are you going to get to actually shoot the pigeons?” Then she just laughed.