First he ran the mountains, stretching out to thirty miles. He ran the length of the valley floor and darted to summit its walls on a route as haphazard as the morning wind. Several times he stopped violently only to change his mind and run in another direction. His false alerts and fresh starts were a joy to share; the athleticism was his alone. He out-ran us for several hours before he finally sat down on a hillside overlooking the country. If Winchester had anything in common with humans, it was this trait of his to sit for a moment. Not to rest, not to wait, but to take a vantage point. I was glad he did.
My hunting partner called them “Winchester’s mountains,” and now I think of them that way. Without him, the distant peaks appear lonely and vacant just as he is aloof and sleepy in the house. Together, both the mountains and the dog come alive. He hunted the deep snow, the avalanche drifts, the slate rocks, the cold creek beds, the willow patches, and the lichen-covered hillsides all the same. He just ran until he found birds. An English setter born in New England, North Dakota, he had been raised pointing ptarmigan in the Kenai mountains.
My two hunting partners had a lot in common. It wasn’t just that they were both male and born in North Dakota. They both possessed a prey drive resembling a survival instinct. Our days in the field were long and there were no breaks for food. They both searched for an elusive bird, not just a game bird but a particular game bird and under the right circumstances. Winchester scoffed at retrieving the way my hunting partner scoffed at a song bird. Between all their scoffing were miles of country and an endless drive.
Despite the call of his puppy face and black-spotted fur for petting and cuddling, Winchester was not a particularly affectionate dog. After a day of hunting he was distant and preferred to be alone. Like the stereotypical man lover who asks a girl to leave in the night, Winchester was only a gentleman in the game fields. At home he was moody and surly with the other dogs, mostly the Labradors. We never bonded, but he was my favorite of the six hunting dogs. He was the best.
His distrust of me started with a bath he was given as a puppy. He didn’t want to go in the tub, but I picked him up and set him down in the warm water. He let me wash him and dry him without the rambunctious struggle of the Labradors. I thought his dislike of baths was an extension of his dislike of water. Feathers like the ones he developed as an adult dog were only meant to blow in the wind. He side-stepped puddles and avoided the rain. But it wasn’t the water. He didn’t trust me.
North Dakota was much different than I remembered when we had hunted it six years prior, before Winchester was born or the thought of owning a setter had ever crossed my mind. I had remembered the soft fields of grass lit by the sun and crackling with roosters. We had our limits before breakfast and hunted geese in the afternoon. Now, corn fields replaced the grasslands and the shelter belts we had hunted in previous years. Corn grew right up to the barricaded doors of an abandoned farm house, and the undergrowth and overgrowth of once carefully planted trees burned in piles to ready yet more acreage for planting.
The first morning we hunted it was obvious the birds weren’t there. Not like they used to be. Winchester ran his first grass field with his nose in the air. Maybe it was the newness of the place or the fact that pheasants have a stronger smell than ptarmigan that made him use his nose more than usual. Finally, he locked up, pointed into the cattails. I didn’t have time to wonder over what it was like for him to point a bird he had never seen or the way it felt for him to run through blades of grass and cockleburs. The landscape must have been a jungle compared to the cold rocks, lichens, and snow in the mountains.
My partner flushed and shot a rooster. It was the only one our party took that morning. We had no idea how lucky we were. After breakfast at his father’s house, the 76-year-old came with us on another hunt. That would be our pattern for the remaining five days. The five of us, including a black lab named Lady, would hunt the first two fields on either side of breakfast then my hunting partner and I would spend the rest of the day on our own with Winchester. We hunted until sunset with a break for lunch at a gas station diner.
After the morning hunt on the second day, Winchester was covered in cockleburs. He let me pull out a few before lowering his ears and growling. “He’s not going to let us comb them out,” I said. We pulled into the parking lot of a veterinarian’s office my partner’s father had told us about. The vet looked him over and recommended we let her give him a haircut. He could be sedated, sheared, have the sedation reversed, and be ready to hunt in a few hours. We drove the countryside and walked a fence line before heading back to the vet’s office.
A little girl led Winchester out of the back room on a leash. His muscles and bones stood out to me for the first time. His feathered hair had covered so much vulnerability. And, apparently, an English Pointer. His skin was red and raw where burs had imbedded into his skin under his collar and groin. We headed to a nearby section of PLOTS land, but I wondered if Winchester would be ready so soon after the experience. Wouldn’t it be disconcerting for any creature to wake up from sedation in a strange place, shorn, and smelling like an oatmeal bath?
“We need to get him back out there,” my partner said. Winchester was his dog and cowboy logic worked better on him than mothering, that much I had learned. I enjoyed hunting birds because he enjoyed it. I’d never have the sight or excitement of flushing a bright colored bird at eye level for the first time like he did. It wasn’t just his first time hunting pheasants on that trip, it was his first time being the only dog in the “house.” If it was up to me he’d be back at the hotel sitting on a pillow and being read a Gene Hill story.
But Winchester wasn’t me. He was the best, and he hunted without hair as well as with hair. He hunted from sun up to sun down with us for two more days. His beautiful feathered tail and legs were not his lion’s mane, they were not a shield for fighting the cold nor a symbol of his royal breeding. They were just fur and I’d have to get over the loss. “His under coat is fine,” my partner said, “the feathers are just for pride and show.” Despite being a mountain dog, he’d never hunted for four days straight. He was “dog tired,” and we decided to rest him for a day before our last day of hunting. That night, after a day of sleeping in the car, Winchester snuggled up beside me.
My sympathy for his raw skin, sore eyes, and badly cut coat of fur was such that it distracted my imagination in the field as well as at “home” in the hotel room. His manner in the field had always been for me nothing short of a work of art both in meaning and vision. His hair was more about romance than efficiency. I missed the way the wind blew through his feathers and the light played on his fur so that he glowed as he ran the skyline. I thought of this as I pet his ears and rubbed his neck. As he gently licked my hand it occurred to me that something else had changed, and this had happened more gradually and more importantly than his loss of fur. He trusted me.