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A Broken Knife

February 25th, 2013

A Broken Knife

The decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s were dominated by the ubiquitous entertainment known as the Western. Some of the great classic Westerns were made during this fertile period right after World War II up to the Cold war era. But it was the fledgling medium of television that really showcased the western genre. Back then there were 3 channels on TV and they signed on in the morning and off late at night. No 500-plus channels of around-the-clock entertainment. Daytime was reserved for news and soap operas, and evenings for news and prime time entertainment shows.

In the year 1959 there were 26 western shows on prime time TV. A partial list includes such classics as Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun-Will Travel, Bonanza, The Virginian, Wagon Train, The Big Valley, Maverick, The High Chaparral, The Gene Autry Show, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, and Rawhide, the show that introduced Clint Eastwood to the world.

Growing up as a young boy on the Iowa prairies I was much influenced by all of this western mayhem that came my way via the big glowing box in our living room. In my spare time I was a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy, a mean gunslinger, an Indian fighter, and, often as not, the whole Indian tribe. Yes sir, I galloped, shot, fought, stabbed, and stampeded across a wide swath of Iowa sod.

My glee in my chosen profession (at least that is how I saw it) of being a full-time Westerner was only stoked by my discovering a couple of facts about my family history. First, it was rumored that the farm where we lived was built on an Indian burial site. I could not prove that, but it was a normal and frequent occurrence for us to pick up stone implements in the field just east of the house, which lends some credence to the story. Second, my great grandparents were original settlers of southern Iowa, homesteading on 80 acres miles away from any town or settlement.

Great Grandpa Gray came to Iowa, and the newly decommissioned Iowa Indian Territories, with his family some years after the Civil War where he homesteaded just south of the Old Mormon Trail (now highway 34) on 80 acres, at $2 an acre. Grandpa Fin (Alvin) Gray was born on the family homestead in 1883. As a boy I still recall some of the older men talking of how their fathers were impressed with the bravery of these old settlers living so far away from any town. In truth, these hardy families had little to fear from marauding Indians, as the Sac and Fox had by then relocated to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, the mighty Santee (Sioux) had fled to the west in 1862, and the Kansas and Pawnee had long since moved west across the Missouri river.

No, the real dangers were much more prosaic, and came from things like disease, violent weather, accidents, and the like. Ten, twelve, twenty miles doesn’t seem like much today, but back then for those early farmers, it was a day to and from civilization. There were no convenience stores on the corner for groceries, and travel was by foot, horse, or wagon. A doctor, replenishing supplies, or even the law for that matter was a good ways away. Creston was merely a railhead in 1868, Lenox would not be a town until 1874, Corning in 1883. The closest real town was Bedford, originally called Grove, a small community with a post office that began in 1855. Families had to be self-sufficient, or move back to a town.

During my childhood I was very privileged to be able to spend much time with my grandparents. I loved spending days, even weeks at a time on their farm north of Lenox. Grandpa Gray was a great man, a good farmer, and known around the state of Iowa as a famous rough-and-tumble wrestler from back in the early 1900s. His best friend and wrestling partner was Mr. Ed Briles of Corning, father of the future State Senator Briles.

My dad farmed Grandpa’s land by then, so as I grew enough to do to farm work I spent time there for different reasons than play. For as long as I could remember, and certainly longer than even that, when we would come inside for lunch or dinner the yard just outside the back steps was a space for clean-up. There was always a big wash pan and soap next to the hand-pump. Stuck in the ground was an old knife with a black handle and rusty blade. Back in some lost decade the point had been broken off leaving a jagged ending. For all the years I had been coming to the farm I never gave it much thought, it was just there to be used as a tool. We used that old knife to scrape the mud from our boots before we were allowed to step into Grandma’s spotless kitchen. Once we finished that task it was shoved back into the ground, where for all I knew, it had grown there like King Arthur’s Sword in the Stone. It was just always there.

In 1970 Grandma and Grandpa celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and the installation of an indoor bathroom on the old farmstead. Grandpa was 87 that year and starting to show signs of aging. Two years before, when he was 85, he was shingling the house in a windstorm and fell off the roof onto his head. This started the problems and a week after celebrating his 50th he had a stroke and passed.

Mom and Dad bought the farm and Grandma was set to move into Lenox. During the move I just happened to pick up the old knife and asked Grandma about it. “Oh, that old thing, your great grandfather Gray carried that when the family homesteaded here in the 1800s.” “Really? Can I have it?” “Of course, take it, but I have no idea why you would want that old thing.”

Well, she was right of course, it was not much. What it was to me was a direct connection to my families Western past. I took it home and kept it in my room. Several years passed and I was now in college in Des Moines. The old knife was one of the few things that went with me to my new life. I was stocking shelves at night at a grocery chain and happened to have a conversation with our produce manger about old guns and knife making.

This was a period of time in America when the art of shooting muzzle-loading guns was making a resurgence. The guns and all their accruements, powder horns, knives, etc, were popular in the shooting community. It turns out that Don, our produce guy, made hunting knives. I mentioned the old knife and he asked me if he could clean it up for me. Sure.

When Great Grandpa’s old knife was placed back into my hands I could not believe it was the same one. The “black” handle turned out to be the big surprise. It consisted of alternating leather and brass rings. Polished up, it is a thing of beauty. Since the blade was broken off square, Don honed it down to a nice pointed blade that shines in the light. It is sharp, and has acquired a new functionality after these many generations of being broken and serving as a boot scraper.

In my home I have a neat little room that holds my collection of antique arms and various accruements acquired over many years. Hanging on the wall is a frame containing family memorabilia. Inside the frame are many old coins of decorative value, and several family photographs. One of the photos is of my great grandparents in middle age, she with a severe black dress and frilly white collar, he sporting a full beard and a receding hairline. In another photo are my grandparents holding my mother at around 6 months of age. My grandpa looks like his father, hairline and all. A third photo shows my grandparents in the same identical pose but in this shot they are holding me, at 6 months of age. My connection to my past is palpable.

Over the years Great Grandpa’s old knife has maintained a place of honor in my collection. Years ago I hung it together with an antique .44 pistol, replete with brass cartridges. The items are wired onto an old barn board. The board was cut from one of our ancient corncribs that I helped dismantle in 1977. Just glancing at the primitive sculpture provides me a physical and emotional link between my childhood, my Grandpa Fin, all the way back to Great Grandpa Gray, and the old homestead out on the virgin prairie of southern Iowa.

A Walk In December

February 19th, 2013

A Walk In December

I turn my truck off of the gravel road and onto the ancient dirt road. Once farm-to-market most of these old roads in Iowa are abandoned or seldom used. Many are closed, ceded back to the owners whose farms border the roads. This particular road is still navigable, unless it rains. The isolated track is lined with the inevitable high weeds and brushy junk trees; features that make these old tracks especially good roads on which to spot a rooster standing in the fencerow where he feels safe.

It is late fall the second week of December and winter has yet to arrive. The weather has been glorious but is set to turn colder for the weekend. On Friday night Karen I drove up to Iowa from our home in Missouri, a quick two-hour trip. We are back in our hometown to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 39th birthday, plus a few.

In anticipation of a whole Saturday free to hunt I rounded up my pair of English Setters, Cromwell and Mingo and packed my guns and ammo. I am up early to let the dogs out but linger over coffee and a great breakfast. At my age I am in no hurry to brave the cold. I load up the dogs then drive out of town, south for a mile on the highway, then turn right onto the gravel for another mile, then a left turn onto the dirt road.

I slow my truck to a crawl, lower my window, and kick up the heater. A quarter mile down the hill I spy a nice mature rooster lurking in the weeds of the fencerow. He sees me at the same time I see him so I coast on another 30 yards before I ease the truck to a stop. Over my shoulder I hear the old boy cackling for all he is worth. I cannot tell if he has flushed leaving me high and dry or is just giving me sass. It has been my experience over the years that even if a rooster flushes, or you spot a hen, it is worthwhile to check out a fencerow in the event there are multiple birds there in hiding.

I spot my bird standing in a protected thicket, big and bold. My first inclination is to leap out and head directly to him; but I am nowhere near ready. In my younger more foolish days I would have just grabbed a couple of shells and let the dogs loose. This is generally a very bad idea because you often find yourself out of the car longer than you anticipate, improperly dressed, and getting very cold in below freezing temps. Also, the dogs are so excited about being let out of the car first thing to chase game without their shock collars on, you will play havoc getting them back into the truck. You are always better off taking your time and making the proper preparations before chasing the first game of the day.

With Mingo safe in his cage I struggle to keep Cromwell on his seat in the truck while at the same time I shrug into my hunting vest, open a box of shells, buckle shock collars on both dogs, put my gloves on, and all while the clock is ticking on my errant rooster. Today I was re-resurrecting and old friend my NR Davis .12 gauge side-by-side. It dawns on me that I bought this old gun more than 30 years ago. The Davis is a fine example of American shotgun manufacture and as was the custom back then for fine shotguns, it was built with Damascus barrels. Damascus is beautiful and was a premium feature a hundred years ago. Not so much now. Because Damascus is weaker than fluid steel, modern powder is not considered safe to shoot in these old guns. For several years after I acquired the gun I shot hand loaded black powder shells, which generate much less pressure. A few years ago I purchased two .20 gauge sleeves so I could shoot modern shells. Recently I decided to try .16 gauge sleeves so today was yet another resurrection for the Davis.

With all of my accruements secured I set the eager dogs loose and we are off to pursue our quarry. In the fencerow where I spotted my bird Cromwell hits a crouch. In a semi-point he creeps forward, warily. In another 10 yards Cromwell is on a solid point, no movement from head to tail stiff as a board. In anticipation of a flush I move toward Cromwell keeping my eyes locked on the grass in front of his nose where I expect the bird to flush. Mingo bounds up the ditch toward Cromwell ready to back his point. Suddenly the weeds explode with a beautiful rooster pheasant highlighted against the cold morning sun. Except the rooster left cover 15 yards to my left and slightly behind me. I struggle to move my feet and turn my body. I snap off two shots, punching holes in the air behind the wily rooster.

I laugh at the cunning of the old boy and my poor shooting. Well the gun works. The dogs did good work. My shooting definitely needs some work. Chagrined, I put the boys and my shotgun back in the truck and I drive to our farm. I park off of the road in the acre of grass on the corner of our farm that was once a one-room schoolhouse and playground next to an old cemetery. I pour myself a cup of coffee and settle in to relax before starting our walk. As I sit in the car admiring the scenery I am treated to the sight of a dozen wild turkeys walking regally in single file up the hill to cross the highway. What a splendid sight. The flock shies away from the road when a car passes, then they just disappear into the landscape like copper colored ghosts.

The temperature is warming and the boys are restless, I can put off the hunt no longer. With collars already in place and all else ready I merely slide out my shotgun, put in 2 shells, and point the dogs in the direction I want to hunt. We start by circumnavigating the edge of the old school yard then head south down the hill following a tree lined fencerow. Over the years this is always a hot spot for both pheasant and quail.

I smile watching the dogs as they work well together. Cromwell is almost 12 years old but still has a great nose. After a long day his energy flags but he still balks when he has to leave the field. Mingo is 5 years and has all of the energy of youth. Mingo was crazy when I got him nearly 3 years ago but he has become a good hunter. Mingo is learning fast with some nice points and retrieves to his credit. The three of us are jelling into a good team. We reach the bottom of the hill; here the fence splits left and right. The boys did a thorough job vacuuming the fencerow we just walked down so I don’t think we left any game behind. They have a “birdy” look to their gaits though and are excited to press on. Turning left we skirt the property line between our neighbor’s farm and ours.

Within a couple of hundred yards we come to a gap in the fence and I shift right through the fence line into a large patch of grass. Suddenly Cromwell hits a brick wall, a rock solid point on my left. Mingo comes around on my right and also hits a point, in a different spot. I step into the grass and the world explodes in quail. It’s a large covey of at least 20 birds flying in what to the uninitiated seems to be that many directions. Some birds are flying left and some to my right but the majority are in fact going up and over the rising hill to my front.

If you have never been in the middle of a covey flush of quail let me assure you it is exhilarating. The sudden blast of so many little bodies rising seemingly out of thin air at first startles, then the beating of many small wings at once sets off a vibration in the air that you feel right through your body. You realize you need to pick a target out of the blur of all of those rocketing clumps of feathers going hither and yon. Few upland hunting situations are more challenging or exciting. I have seen novice hunters just stand with their mouths open, then ask, “what, was that?” “What you are supposed to be hunting,” is my response.

The repurposed NR Davis came up to my shoulder almost on it’s own. I pick out a single quail rocketing away on my left from in front of Cromwell’s nose. When I fire my right barrel the quail drops out of sight. Immediately I turn my attention elsewhere. There! I focus on a small bundle of feathers flying straightway from me. I fire the left barrel and the quail drops into the weeds leaving a shower of feathers floating in the morning air. The rest of the covey flies away over the hill leaving my heart pounding from the excitement.

I call the boys in with the command “dead bird.” I direct them to where my second bird went down. In a few moments of casting around Cromwell sticks his nose in and comes up with the tiny prize. “Good dog.” I direct the dogs back to our left where I feel sure the first bird will be found. The dogs cast back and forth in the grass but no quail. Maybe I missed him? We work up the slight slope about 20 yards and Crowell goes on point. “A single,” I think to myself. With my gun at port arms I walk into Cromwell’s point. Suddenly he breaks point, dives in, and comes up with the errant bird. Whoowee! a nice double and some beautiful dog work.

We hunt slowly up the hill following the flight of the covey. I anticipate bumping one or two singles but nothing flies. At the top of the rise I pause to admire the view. It is late fall and no snow has fallen so the foliage across the land, while browning is still upright and in places lush. The land is a mosaic of various shades of brown, green, yellow, red, all the splendid colors of a muted fall. This magnificent vista unfolds under a bright warming sun. It is a beautiful sight. We press on following the fence down into the valley.

There is a slough that drains both farms running north to south beginning on our farm almost up to the road ending a half-mile south where the slough intersects into a creek. The slough is widest on our side of the fence where the two property lines meet then it narrows dramatically south of the fence line. Over the years water runoff has cut a trail into the land. The dry ditch is hidden by long grass that grows up each year then lays over forming a natural screen. I have seen many a hunter step on the “solid” grass covered ground, only to find themselves pitching forwards after stepping into the hidden ditch. The result being some very dramatic and humorous falls. Of course this includes yours truly. Today I step carefully as I cross to the opposite side.

I direct the dogs to work the heavy grass along the fence line. Nothing. We turn south towards the creek and Mingo immediately dives into a large plum thicket. This thicket is a real hot spot for roosters. They like to slip into the 30-yard long thicket and keep the bushes between you and them. When the rooster runs out of the thicket he flushes keeping as much cover between you and him as he can manage. Over the years many roosters have been shot flushing out of this one thicket. The birds that got away have frustrated many hunters too.

Mingo is working the dickens out of the small forest of plum trees. I am convinced he is working a live bird. Keeping my eyes just in front of the peripatetic pup I anticipate a flush at any moment. Mingo and I reach the end of the trees but no rooster comes out. I am most surprised. I really sense he is working a bird, but where is it? It dawns on me I do not see Cromwell. I step around the far end of the shelterbelt of plum trees and there is Cromwell on point in the tall grass next to the thicket. The pheasant tried to slip out of the opposite side only to be frozen in place by Cromwell. That dog knows his business.

At the same moment I see Cromwell on point Mr. Rooster flushes from his hiding place. He soars across a picked bean field at a high rate of speed. I mount the fine shotgun to my shoulder and swing the barrels out ahead of the bird. Boom! The rooster folds in midair. Cromwell bounds over for the retrieve and delivers his bird to my hand. Teamwork. Nice.

After praises and pets all around our little hunting party resumes our march to the creek. At the confluence of the slough and the creek we turn east following the line of the creek. Somewhat to my surprise the several hundred-yard stroll to the next fencerow yields no birds. At the next fence we turn north and start back up the hill. About halfway up the hill the boys get birdy. On high alert I step along quickly. We pause at a small break in the cover where a bird must cross an open space to get to the next cover.

Cromwell is on my right and Mingo on my left. Mingo circles around me and back down hill. The dogs trap their quarry in between them. The bird flushes. A hen. Reflexively I shout “Hen!” then laugh, as I am the only person there to hear the warning. After praising the dogs for their good work we keep trudging to the top of the hill back to our property line. Turning west we are on the way to complete a long rectangle of our walk back to the truck.

We follow the fence and are trending down hill, nearly back to the plum thicket when Mingo goes on point in the dry fall grass. A quail single flushes straight away from me flying down hill. I raise my gun tracking the bird pushing the barrels out in front of the fast moving target. At the bottom of my vision I see Mingo leap off of the ground. At the last moment I pull my gun up and shoot air behind the bird. Darn. One gone bird is better than one dead dog, I reason.

I smile wryly at the near disaster then continue down the fence line. Both dogs are casting off to the right side of the fence. I let them track their noses. About 30 yards more I turn to call the dogs and at that moment I step on another single. The quail shoots away behind me. I spin in the wrong direction screwing my feet into the ground in the process. My hasty shots are both clean misses.

The two single quail are the last birds we see on our trek back to the truck. This morning I have three hits and three misses. In baseball that’s a .500 average and they pay pro ball players lots of money for that accomplishment. I would not trade a beautiful morning like this with my gun and my dogs for all the money they could give me. Seriously.

For me, in bird hunting the misses as well as the hits are all good. Watching the dogs work the birds until they go on point. When the bird flushes, in that singular moment you experience success or failure. But even in the miss there is still the triumph. After all is said and done it is not the getting that is important it is the pursuit. In the end

High Wind Rooster or The Nose Knows

September 15th, 2012

High Wind Rooster or The Nose Knows

The big day was here, the opening of our annual pheasant hunt in Iowa. Not only were we beginning our annual hunt on a spectacular fall morning we had a crew of my favorites together who will most likely never be together again. Today I had GK, Mark, Scott, and Ed. But our bonus this year was the return of our old friend Fred along with the addition of Eddie and Corky. Corky had his beautiful Mabel with him and of course I had Cromwell my three-year old English setter.

The morning began before first light with our normal fantastic breakfast cooked and served by Martha and Keigh. After we’d filled our bellies we packed dogs and guns, stopped for coffee and gas, then headed the 60 miles northwest to Oakland, IA and the Robinson farm. As usual the five hundred acres of switch grass was high and today waving in a stiff wind. Our saving grace this year was that the grass was dry and would not pull at our legs too much as we wading through hundreds of acres of five-foot tall grass.

Our morning was an opening day success. Our group would work through a large section of grass while other hunting parties worked nearby fields within our sight. Each group would flush birds back and forth between the fields. It was exciting to watch all the pheasant flying from field to field. Immediately we had a bird up and down but we lost him to a too long shot and the tall grass.

Through the morning GK shot two roosters, Eddie shot one, and Scott one. We had plenty of excitement from wild flushing roosters and close in hens. A little additional excitement was the Deputy Sheriff who stopped to ask for our hunting licenses. There were no criminals among us I am happy to report.

After lunch and a nice visit with our hosts, the Robinsons we hit the tall grass again. The wind had definitely picked up from the steady blow of the morning. Mariah was blowing gusts over twenty mph, which kept the birds running but not flying. After a couple of hot dry hours pushing into the high wind covering mile-long fields end to end we decided to call it a day.

Tired our little group of Argonauts trudged slowly back toward our vehicles. If I know our bunch cold beer, not pheasant, was first on everyone’s mind. We broke out of the switch grass onto bare ground just over a quarter mile from the trucks. Our path took us over a picked bean field following a grassy strip hoping to bump one more bird.

A branch of the grass strip broke out at a 90° angle away from our path. Cromwell all of a sudden got interested wanting to follow this new path. I suggested that we work it. The guys stopped, calculated the additional distance of the walk, then laughed and invited me to go ahead. They informed me they were going for a cold one. Always the troopers Ed and Eddie threw in with me.

Ed took the left side of the quarter-mile long berm and Eddied the right. I walked along the top so I could control Crommie’s movements. The wind was blowing more fiercely than ever and I think it was only my personal ballast that kept me from falling off the top of the berm.

We worked slowly as a high wind is confusing to both dog and bird. Cromwell would move a few yards, stop, smell, look, then move on. We did this dance to within ten yards of the end. The berm petered out perhaps twenty yards from the fencerow in a bare bean field, nowhere for a bird to run only flush.

Ten yards before the grass petered out Crommie hit a rock solid point. Confident, I shuffled in and kicked at the grass. Cromwell did not break point. I kicked and moved and the dog followed me to the end of the grass. He went on point again. I kicked grass and the dog’s head moved side-to-side, a clear indication that the bird was moving. Still no rooster issued forth. Cromwell moved back ten yards to his original point. He hit a hard point but again no bird was forthcoming.

We did rinse and repeat of this maneuver three more times. Eddie moved to the end to block. Each time Cromwell would come back to his original point but no bird. We were perplexed to say the least. We were working an area maybe ten yards square but primarily a three-foot wide strip to the end. Where could a bird hide? How could he hide? Cromwell would hold a hard point on the same spot while I kicked and stomped. I think I stomped every square inch of that ground.

At last on the forth point I kicked a young rooster out of a heavy patch of grass where the ground made a natural bowl for him to snuggle into. That bird hit the stiff wind launching off the ground like a rocket. I was looking directly at Eddie when the bird hit the air. Eddie went flat to the ground. I whipped my Remington to my shoulder for a snap shot and decked our errant rooster.

The rooster took his final tumble onto the bare bean ground. Cromwell of course made his usual picture perfect retrieve, head held high and a look that said, “Why would you ever doubt me?”

The three of us had a good laugh about our little adventure as we too headed to the cars for a cold one. I always thought of that bird was as much Eddie’s as mine. It was the ultimate culmination of a day hunting with my boy and my favorite hunting companions. What a beautiful day and a great adventure. The day we shot the high wind rooster.

Snap Shots

August 20th, 2012

Snap Shots

When one has been walking this earth long enough one discovers a myriad of memories bouncing around the old brainpan. In my rapidly increasing decades of walking the hunting fields across the USA I have gathered enough fodder for many, many stories. I enjoy writing down my recollections but I have some small incidents that will not make a whole story, merely a sentence or two. I am calling these Snap Shots. Enjoy.

• Back in the late 1970s I acquired my first decent shotgun. It was a nice little .20 gauge over and under. Made in Brazil, it was not a bathing beauty but boy that little gun could shoot. One nice fall day I was walking along a likely little tree filled ditch on Ronnie Wurster’s farm. Old Jake my sainted Black Lab stuck his nose into a promising patch of grass. The world exploded in quail, some headed into the ditch and trees others went right and left hugging the grass between the ravine and the bean field. I shot one quail and down he went, swung my gun fired and missed. I reloaded quickly. The covey kept flushing and my third shot brought down a second quail. I stepped down into the trees to locate my first bird (Jake had the second) as my boot hit ground a big old rooster flushed almost under foot. I raised the .20 firing the second barrel and down he went. By the time I had my quail in hand Jake was fetching up my surprise rooster.

• As a young boy I did most of my hunting within walking distance of my home. Of course that was several square miles of territory but as is the human condition we always think the hunting is better “over there.” I would walk the roads and often meet hunters from out of town. For a free ride I would be their hunting guide, getting them on places they could not hunt. It was a good arrangement. My hunting dog at the time was a Border collie we called Boots. Boots was hell on game, he would point for sure. Of course he could be pointing a rooster, a hen, or a rabbit. Potluck. One of my companions for the day was busy making fun of Boots when the dog did his version of a point. I stepped in to flush the unknown game. A hen flushed out about five feet ahead of the aforementioned hunter. The fast flushing bird hit him square in the chest knocking him ass over teakettle. He should not have been making fun of my dog.

• It was just before the Iowa opener when I decided to take Cromwell on a warm up hunt to Shore Winds Hunting Farm down in the Pine Barrens of south Jersey. My good buddy Jerry set me up in a field just right for a single hunter. As is customary Jerry set out half of my birds for the first go ‘round. Cromwell was in great form and within a couple of hours I shot several quail and two of my three pheasants. It was a warm day so the birds were slipping into the woods when they could. Jerry stopped to check on me and I suggested he grab his shotgun and walk in the woods to see if we could find my errant rooster. Just shy of a large fallen tree trunk Cromwell hit a rock solid point. When I moved in I was shocked when the bird that flushed was a wild turkey and not my rooster. He looked like a B-52 coming off of the ground. Jerry laughed and lowered his gun. “Wait!” I admonished. Cromwell had not broken point. “There’s still a bird there. You take the shot.” I kicked at the tree trunk and Mr. Rooster rocketed out of his hidey-hole. Jerry made a pretty shot and we got a good laugh out of the situation.

• It was a beautiful Monday in Iowa, our half-day hunt before we headed home. Today it was Mr. Ed, GK, and I. We were on Quail Run Rd in the forbidden area north of the bridge. I decided to take the fencerow in towards Wurster’s land. That fencerow has rarely failed to yield at least one rooster per year. As we bracketed the fence line Cromwell had his nose down and was real birdy. One side of the fence the land widened into an acre of heavy grass/weeds. I don’t know what type of weeds they were but they were three foot tall and thick, laying down willy-nilly and making it damned hard to walk in. Cromwell went on a hard point, I kicked at the heavy cover, Crommie moved, I moved with him, he hit another point, repeat action. That doggone rooster had a freeway under the weeds and we could not make him flush. For fifteen minutes Cromwell chased him from point to point and I chased Cromwell. My leg was tired of kicking the unyielding weed cover. At one point Mr. Rooster stuck his head up to see where we were then immediately ducked back into the cover. We never did flush that wily old boy.

• Scott Busch and I were on the north side of Miller’s place coming around the hillside. I was watching Cromwell track a bird through some low ground cover. I knew he was on a bird and I was ready. Mr. Rooster made a beautiful flush not ten yards right in front of me, and easy shot for an old pro like me. I threw my old NR Davis double to my shoulder and fired (twice) hitting nothing but blue sky. Mr. Busch was a good thirty yards to my right and as my bird sailed away he raised his .20 and decked the old boy with one very long and very nice shot. I may never live that one down. Well done my friend.

• Way back in the 1970s Porky B Flowers and I were hunting with Jake my faithful old black lab. We were at the edge of a picked field of corn when Mr. Rooster flushed out of a stand of grass, over the fence line, and over a bare bean field. Cary made his shot and the bird went down then immediately was up and running, trailing a broken wing. I set Jake through the fence and he was off disappearing over a low rise. Cary was hard on their heels when he too disappeared from my sight. I shouted, “Can you see your bird?” “No!” was the reply. “Where’s Jake?” sez I. “He’s right here.” What’s he doing?” “Just laying down.” “Well, sez I, “turn him over.” Jake was laying on the errant rooster legs crossed and a happy smile on his face. You see, he was spurred by a rooster as a pup and did not like to pick up live birds. He also did not like to lose them.

• When I first began hunting at the game farms in New Jersey it was became obvious that using a .12 gauge on close flushing birds was not very sporting. I scouted up a nice little .410 side-by-side made in 1915 and it really fit the bill. Mr. Ed seeing my neat little shooter got the green monster so when I found a barely used Stoeger .410 I put him on it and he snapped it right up. We have had some great times shooting both pheasant and quail over the last 20 years using those diminutive guns. I prefer the three-inch shells but not to be outdone Mr. Ed uses the tiny two and a half inch shells. On one hunt an errant quail surprised us at the end of a field. Ed busted him on a beautiful right to left shot. When he picked up his bird the quail’s head was completely gone. Mr. Ed, with a totally straight face said, “I always like to shoot their heads off it’s a nice clean kill.” You could probably hear my eyes rolling.

• In yet another .410 adventure at Shore Winds, Ed and I were in the Pine Barrens chasing twenty of Jerry’s best flying quail. That morning Jerry had a surprise visitor. A stranger stopped to ask Jerry if he could audition as a guide for Shore Winds? When Jerry asked if we minded giving him a try we assented. Jerry and his dog were with Ed. I got the stranger and his pup. We were in the same general area but far enough apart to be safe. I have to say up front it was a good day. We walked leisurely through the woods watching the dogs hit their points. Then Bang! Down would go my quail, sometimes a double. Bang! Bang! came from over where Ed and Jerry were working. And so it went. We flushed quail from laurel thickets, in the open going away, and shot around trees. By the end of the afternoon we had 19 of our birds in the bag. The stranger sat his pup down, pushed his cap back, and said, “man you boys can sure shoot.” Maybe the best compliment I have ever had, it brought a big grin to my face for sure.

• I’ve seen dogs do great things and I’ve seen dogs do silly things. After old Jake passed on to Doggy Heaven I was made a present of Droopy, a Springer Spaniel. Droopy was well trained and a great dog. His nose was infallible and over the years he picked up many wounded birds. One fine fall morning I was hunting along the creek south of our farm. Droopy was in full hunt mode so when a rabbit shot out of a clump of grass Droopy took off after him like a coiled spring unwinding. The cottontail had a good ten-yard head start and went zipping by a small tree. Droopy intent on his quarry never saw the tree. He hit that tree head on and at full speed. I think he bounced backward about eight feet. He scrambled to his feet shaking his head but all of the rabbit chasing was whacked out of Droopy that day.

• The hunters were working a field of standing corn south of our farm on a beautiful November Saturday. Scott B. was in the party along with Mark A., Porky B, and his new stepson Shane. Shane had recently turned fifteen and this was his first Iowa pheasant hunt. The guys were walking east in the corn, Shane and I were blocking at the fencerow. A nice cock rooster flushed with a loud cackle right in front of the boy. Shane threw up his gun and fired, the bird sloughed to the side, waggled but remained airborne soaring down the long valley. I watched him go but he stayed in the air for at least a half a mile. The disappointment showed on Shane’s face. “It was a good shot,” I said. But that didn’t help much. Once back at the truck I suggested we hunt a rarely hunted piece of picked corn west of the bridge. Working along the corn stubble and foxtail Droopy got birdy. Soon his nose was down, his stub tail whirling like a helicopter rotor. I got Shane in a good position to shoot and sent Droopy in to flush. Droopy sat back on his haunches, looked intently at a pile of corn stalks, then leaped ahead sticking his nose under the corn. That dog backed out with one dead rooster, still dripping blood. Droopy had found Shane’s wounded bird. One the happiest experiences in my many years of hunting is to present a boy with his first wild pheasant.

• Opening weekend in Iowa was a hot one that year. Scott B., Mr. Ed, and I were south of the creek on Belding’s. We were working along the heavy cover provided by the fencerow. Back north towards the creek was a picked bean field and across the creek standing corn. It was hot so we decided to take a break and settled into the soft grass to rest and chat. When we resumed our march almost immediately a nice rooster burst out from the fencerow. I don’t now remember who shot I know Ed did, being on the far left and having the best angle. Mr. Rooster barely waggled but Ed stood staring after the bird as he soared across the empty field, across the creek and deep into the standing corn. “I got him,” said Ed, “I have him marked and we’ll find him dead.” I looked at him with incredulity it was at least a quarter mile to the middle of that cornfield. But over the years I’ve learned to trust Mr. Ed’s eyes more than mine. We worked our way to the end of the fencerow, then across the creek. We had both Scooter and Duke so we loosed the boys into the corn and started our march, guns at port arms. About halfway into the field was an island of weeds. “This is where he went down,” says Ed. I called Duke in and told him “dead bird.” And I’ll be damned if ol’ Duke didn’t snap on point within a few yards then nose in and come up with the dead rooster. It was quite a day.

• One of the funniest shots I have ever made was the day our group was hunting our farm. We were on the west edge of the farm where it comes together with Belding’s and the old cemetery. One group was coming up the hill along the tree line and two others and I were working east along the fencerow that separated the cemetery from the farmland. We met at the corner where all three properties meet. As we met we naturally formed a circle about ten feet across. The dog was off elsewhere and everyone relaxed. That’s when the rooster flushed right out of the middle of our circle. Having nowhere else to go he went straight up. He hit his peak at around twenty feet when I raised my shotgun and fired. The dead bird had gone straight up and come straight down barely missing the surprised hunters.

• One of my fondest pheasant memories has nothing to do with hunting, shooting, or even eating the beautiful game bird of the Midwest. It is a tale of Nature at her best. One spring morning in 1970 I stood transfixed at the kitchen window and watched two old cock birds perform a mating ritual for the favors of their prospective harem. They were strutting along the fencerow in the hog pasture. For nearly an hour each colorful bird would strut and cackle marching back and forth getting closer and closer. Periodically one would raise his hackles and flutter up in an implied threat. Finally they were within a few feet of each other face to face. I don’t know what one sees and another doesn’t but one of the would-be grooms suddenly flew away leaving his rival to claim his girls. That vignette was a real life National Geographic film running forever in my head.

The Road Not Taken

June 11th, 2012

The time is early spring, the year 1971. Karen (my future wife) and I had been dating for nearly six months. It was increasingly obvious that we liked each other and were going to continue to see, as much as we could, a future together. I don’t think we’d imagined the future that was ahead however.

In 1971 I was a senior in high school, Karen a junior. That week there were posters up advertising a Spring Fling dance in a nearby town. Karen had agreed to go with me so we were all set for Friday night. I can recall, after all these years, that it was spring because of the light clothes we wore to the dance. Spring in Iowa can be a glorious time of year. The nominal warmth of 50 to 70 degree days, while cool, can feel positively balmy compared to the freezing temps of a long Iowa winter. The prevailing fashion for young girls at the time were eye-popping short shorts. Karen had several pair and the figure to wear them. They were so short and so tight that, as the man said, “you could count her assets.”

We made it to the dance in good time and proceeded to have a splendid time dancing wildly to the most current music. I don’t recall anyone else from our school being there, but we were so in tune with each other we didn’t notice. Now it was not unusual for trouble to start if you were a strange boy from another town “intruding” at such a function. As a matter of fact it was entirely routine for altercations to breakout amongst the teenaged Alpha males. This would generally be from a boy or boys with no dates and usually drunk. But being fearless, strong, and dumb I always felt like I could take care of myself. Truth? I had been fighting since I was a small boy. This was just the way my world was at that time. Still, since I had been dating Karen I was attempting to become more genteel. And control my temper. She let it be known that she really didn’t appreciate, and would not tolerate that type of rowdy behavior.

So as the evening progressed we were enjoying the music, the dancing, and each other. A particularly rockin’ song came on and it energized the dance floor. When Karen danced she could be very expressive. She would lock eyes and give me a devilish look. Her pretty face framed by her long hair. Throwing back her shoulders she would shake from side to side and make her breasts dance. This really electrified the dance floor. And me. Just then, there they were, the wolf pack. Four boys who were obviously drunk came cruising through the dance floor bumping couples out of the way. As they passed just behind Karen one of the boys was smitten by her butt cheeks, which were tantalizingly close and seemed to have mesmerized him. He was medium height and heavy set. Small eyes set back into a round face and the fact that he was plastered gave him tunnel vision.

Anyway, he stopped and slowly contemplated Karen’s gyrating posterior. I was instantly on alert and began a quick count of my most likely problems. I already had a scenario in mind, and it wasn’t pretty. I figured my best bet was to get in fast and do as much damage as I could before the rest jumped on me. Drunk Boy weaved back and forth for a minute and came to a conclusion. He started to reach his hand out to grab at Karen. I stepped closer to get past Karen and hit him. She was dancing in complete oblivion when she saw the expression on my face. Just as the boy reached out he dropped his hand, spun around and lurched away. I recovered, smiled at Karen and a short while later we left the dance.

The next morning we awoke to the tragic story of a boy at the dance who was so drunk he’d gone outside and passed out on the hood of a car. Later, he rolled off into the street and was hit by a passing car and killed. It was of course our Drunk Boy. The same boy. All my life I have wondered what the outcome of that night would have been if I had hit him?

Lessons from Old Yeller

May 21st, 2012

Arliss Coates: Why did you shoot Rosemary? (the cow)
Travis Coates: She was sick.
Arliss Coates: Well, you were sick. How come we didn’t shoot you?
Travis Coates: That was different.

I was four years old in 1957. That is the year the movie Old Yeller was released. In the typical fashion of the times it took a couple of years for the movie to make it to our little theater in Lenox, Iowa. Some critics have deemed Old Yeller the finest boy/dog movie ever made. Probably so.

For those few who may not be familiar with the tale, it is the story of a family on the Texas frontier, post-Civil War. Father is off on a cattle drive so Mom and her two sons are left to tend the farm. From seemingly nowhere a large yellow dog appears and ingratiates himself into the family. He is christened “Old Yeller” and quickly becomes an indispensible member of the family.

In one pivotal scene Old Yeller defends the older brother from a rabid wolf but is bitten in the battle. Certain that their now beloved pet will contract the deadly disease Old Yeller is quarantined in the corncrib, chained to the wall. When Old Yeller exhibits symptoms there is no recourse but to have him destroyed.

Travis: No mama!
Mama: There’s no hope for him now. He’s sufferin’. You know we gotta do it. Travis: I know Mama… But he was my dog… I’ll do it.

By the time movie finally made its way to Lenox I was six or seven years old. My older sister Margaret Ann took me to town and sat through the movie with me. To this day I can remember. We sat halfway down the theater on the left hand side. I sat next to the wall. I was rapt with the story. In no small part because the little brother reminded me very much of myself. The life of a small boy running free on the prairie having adventures with his dog I thought was pure magic.

Then came the dramatic high point. There was no hope for the dog. Even at my tender age I understood. I did. But… to be forced by life to give up the very thing you loved because it was best for the poor suffering dog. Well that was just too much for one small boy.

Travis stepped up like the fine young man he was and the deed was done. In typical Disney fashion the movie ended on a high note. Cue the happy music and see the boy running with his new puppy, the progeny of Old Yeller himself. I sat stunned through the credits. I began to cry, then sob. I was inconsolable. The lights came up and we were the only ones left in the theater. Finally Margaret Ann had to pick me up and carry me, still sobbing to the car and home.

I don’t remember that I went home and gave our two old dogs a good pet but if not, I should have. Most farms had at least one dog that served as ratter and house alarm against stray animals and strangers. Back then we had two. Farm dogs were rarely treated like our modern housedogs are today. I don’t remember Dad ever buying a sack of dog food. Our dogs ate only what they could find around the farm and the occasional scrap from the table. Of course as all little boys do I loved my dogs. They were constant companions anytime someone was outside of the house. They served as herd dogs, hunting dogs, faithful companions, and of course the aforementioned ratter and alarm system.

The first dogs I remember on our farm were Skipper and Tubby. Skipper grew old and died in his time. Tubby ran off with a pack of coyotes and “went wild.” For a while we would see Tubby swing through the neighborhood running across the pasture until one day we found him dead in the ditch along our road. It seems he developed a fondness for our neighbor’s chickens and paid the price.

Not a boy to be without a dog Cricket came into my life. Cricket was… well Cricket was about everything one can throw into a dog. Medium sized, reddish blonde medium length coat of hair. Certainly part Collie also part a few other breeds. Where ever I went Cricket went. He was a good squirrel dog too. When we were out hunting and would spy a squirrel up in a tree Cricket would worry that squirrel around until it moved to my side of the branch where I could get a good shot. I shot a lot of squirrels that way. I would just stand quietly gazing up into the tree while Cricket ran to the other side barking until our quarry moved to get away from his tormentor.

In today’s world of 24/7 electronic stimulation and at the risk of sounding like the fogy I am the joy of running across the landscape unfettered and unsupervised is a feeling that cannot be equaled. Especially if your best friend Cricket is running by your side. We spent many many hours conquering the world as both cowboy and Indian. In the summer we fished and camped and in the fall and winter we hunted. It was nothing for me to fetch up my rifle, a pocket of shells then Cricket and I would hike the mile across from road to road, through the fields and back, hunting all the way.

In 1963 Disney released a sequel to Old Yeller titled Savage Sam. It was a pretty good movie for a sequel, having all the necessary elements to make a small boy happy, a dog (of course), wild boys, wild Indians, danger, and adventure. I do remember thinking that Mr. Searcy’s daughter got one heck of a lot better looking in four years than I thought was possible. I was flush with the adventure of Savage Sam. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be the boys, the man who takes the mile long shot, or one of the wild Indians. It was in short, the type of movie that fired my imagination and playtime for a longtime to come.

I turned twelve years old on that farm with Cricket as my outdoor companion. Living miles out in the country I had no one else to romp with. Playing around the yard one day I watched as our neighbor came barreling down our gravel road. This neighbor went everywhere at high speed. My folks had commented on it often. I had only a passing interest until I heard the Yelp! Cricket had charged into the road and was struck by the pickup as it barreled past our farm. I doubt if the driver even knew he’d hit the dog.

I gathered Cricket up in my arms and carried him to the house. Cricket was alive but his eyes were clouded with pain. His legs were not moving. He was very broken. It is impossible to know the extent of his injuries but it was hard to imagine that the collision had not killed him outright. I asked my dad, “can we take him into the Vet?”

His response began with a sad look and a hand on my shoulder. “That dog is so broken I doubt he can be fixed. He is in pain. Further, you know we have no money to treat the animals that don’t bring in money like cattle or hogs. Cricket will have to be destroyed. Go get me my rifle.”

A sob caught in my throat. I knew what must be done. I also knew it would be wrong to leave this task to my father. This was my job to do. When I returned I was carrying my own rifle. I looked at Dad. Dad looked at my rifle and then at me.

“Are you sure?”

I took a deep breath looking off into the distance. “I’ll do it. I have to.”

Dad went back into the house, trusting that I would do what was needed. I sat next to Cricket and lay his head on my lap. I stroked him and talked to him for a few minutes. He still had not moved and the dull light of pain was in his eyes. I pulled the bolt and slipped the single round into the chamber of my rifle. I stood behind Cricket his eyes did not follow me. I stared at nothing for a minute then raised the gun to my shoulder.

I put Cricket in the ground south of the house along the edge of the field of bluegrass where he liked to run, chasing rabbits and birds. What was done was what needed to be done. I sat behind one of our outbuildings sobbing and sobbing until there was nothing left to come out. Then I put my rifle away and the sad experience behind me. I fully understood that it would have been far crueler to Cricket to try to hang onto him. It would have been selfish on my part. A lesson from Old Yeller.

By 1989 Karen and I were living in Kansas. We had two boys by then, Brad was a toddler and GK was five. Today it is difficult to imagine at the pace technology changes that the VCR was a pretty new invention. Instead of waiting for old reruns on late night TV one could rent many of their old, all-time favorite movies to watch right in their own home. Magic.

Like many fathers I wanted to share a bit of my own childhood with my boys. I rented Old Yeller so GK and I could watch it together. He had already been walking with me on hunts since he was three. For his first five years there were dogs in his life. I knew he would love the story of the boy and his dog.

The two of us sat in our rec room watching this wonderful story. GK crawled on my lap and watched wide eyed. When the pivotal scene unfolded there was not a single reaction from my small companion. Puzzled, as the credits rolled I asked, “Did you like the movie?”

“Oh yeah,” was his response.

I pressed on, “didn’t you think it was sad that he had to shoot his own dog?”

A thoughtful look came over his five year old face but his response blew me away. “It was sad and all, but he was sick. I would have shot him if he were my dog.”

And there you have the lessons of Old Yeller.

Cotton and the Dog Boys

April 23rd, 2012

Cotton and the Dog Boys

It was a beautiful October Sunday in Iowa, opening weekend of pheasant season, 2001. The weather was cooperating this year, as was the bird population. My buddy Ed and I attended mass before we headed to the hunting fields. I like to think this helps account for our very good day. Who’s to say? Today we were hunting north of Lenox up by Oakland, Iowa on the Dewan Robinson farm and his 500 acres of switch grass. Today we were in in for a surprise. Several actually.

My son GK and I made the 32-hour drive from San Diego to Lenox this year with a new pup, Cromwell an English Setter. Cromwell was just eight months and had not yet seen a wild pheasant. Joining us at the Howland compound were Ed Hartwell, Mark Abendroth, and Scott Busch long time hunting buddies and charter members of the Southwest Iowa Sportsmen & Liars Club. I am the president and founding member. It is a lifetime self-appointment. Scott brought along Cotton his pure white English Pointer.

Scott picked up Cotton from a local dog trainer a few years before and she came with some baggage. A whole cartload of luggage as it turns out. Cotton was to have been trained as a Trials Dog. Her idiot trainer broke her with a shock collar and she would never be a Trials Dog. Poor Cotton had been abused. When she didn’t respond to commands her trainer would lay on the shock collar. He did this until she was completely broken. While not the norm sadly such training techniques are not rare in the Field Trials world and when dogs don’t make the grade their owners often destroy them. Sometimes, like Cotton they are sold as hunting dogs or pets. Little Cotton was a sweetheart by nature but of course she exhibited all the signs of an abused dog, when a stranger approached she would squat and pee or when one attempted to pet her she would shy away.

I had a particular soft spot for Cotton mostly because I just like dogs and also because a couple of years before she showed me her mettle. We were hunting up a slough and the wind was pretty stiff that day. The slough split halfway up the hill and I sent the rest of the guys up the heavy side with both dogs and I took the thin split without a dog. Naturally as I approached the end a rooster flushed out ahead of me but just within range. I raised my old single-shot and boomed off a round. A hit. The old boy waggled in the wind but continued over the other side of the hill. Darn. When I reached the top of the hill I paused at the fence line gazing across a picked bean field hoping to see my bird dead on the ground. No such luck. Then I saw something moving. Way off I could see a white shape tearing across the hillside. It was Cotton running down my errant bird. She caught the wounded rooster and brought the bird to Scott, her master. From then on Cotton had earned her place with the Mighty Hunters and a place in my heart.

Well that was then, over the years Cotton slowly began to slip away from us. She would hunt less and less. She would start out the hunt but often she would abandon the group and find her way back to the truck. But since she was one of us we never remonstrated against bringing her along on the hunt. If Cotton wanted to hunt, fine. If Cotton wanted to sleep by the truck, also fine.

Today back in Iowa we parked our vehicles in the drive of our host’s home. Dewan and Marge lived in a ranch style brick house built right off of the main highway. Behind the house stands a windbreak of mature pine trees planted to block the winter winds. We climbed out of our trucks and stretching out our road kinks as we surveyed the beautiful fall landscape that stretched out before us. A far as the eye could see were roads and fencerows dividing up the patched quilt landscape into rectangles that resembled a Mondrian painting done in browns, tans, greens, oranges, yellows. The entire world before us stood out in stark relief under an azure sky, the air was clear as we joked with each other in an easy fellowship.

It was mid-morning when we arrived at our host’s farm. We set off with Cotton and young Cromwell slogging through the heavy, head-high switch grass. Cotton hunted for a time but eventually she abandoned us for the shade of Scott’s truck. Oh well, let the girl rest. Scott hooked her to a lead placing food and water within her reach. The highway traffic was heavy so Cotton could not be allowed to roam free.

After a lunch in Oakland we piled into one vehicle and headed to the neighboring field where Babe (Dewan, our host) was picking corn. It was a small field and the yield this year in corn and pheasants was excellent. We shot a couple of birds in the morning but this hunting next to the field as it was being combined was another story indeed. As Babe would approach the end rows roosters would flush and we would shoot them. It was a plethora of roosters. Soon the day was waning, we shot eight roosters and found seven, one we could not find. After some searching we decided to be satisfied with our lucky seven.

When we arrived back at Scott’s truck Cotton was nowhere to be found. “Where’s Cotton?” was the question.

“She must have slipped her collar,” sez I.

We looked under the truck, no Cotton. We looked around the house, no Cotton.

“Maybe she is in the field behind the trees,” I offered. “I’ll drive around and take a look.”

Ed and I were in my Expedition and I pulled off the driveway into the field then bore left behind the windbreak of trees. When I rounded the corner of the trees there she was laying in some tall grass.
“There she is,” I pointed to her as she jumped to her feet.

The sudden appearance of the Expedition spooked Cotton who ran off at a full tilt away from the house. I floored the gas to get ahead of her and herd her back towards home. I didn’t want her to get into the tall switch grass. If she did we would play hell finding her. Every time I would get her headed back to home base she would swerve away trending farther and farther from the house.

“Whoo whee!” I shouted. “We’re herding dog. We’re dog boys!” I was beginning to have fun with the situation.

I looked over at Ed but he didn’t seem to be finding the same level of humor in the circumstance as I was. I would speed up and Cotton would swerve around me, or cut right angles away from me. Soon I was driving us in circles and curlicues.

The very act of what I was doing soon had me laughing like a mad man. I realized it was a totally ridiculous thing I was doing but I couldn’t stop myself. I accelerated turning didoes and doing everything I could to herd that dog back to her master. Cotton turned away from the tall grass and headed towards a picked bean field, a shallow ditch separated the two fields. I was heading for the ditch at high speed.

“Look out!” Ed shouted in a panicked voice.

“I see it,” I laughed the reply, much to Ed’s consternation.

Ed’s eyes nearly came out of the sockets when the truck left earth for a brief moment. I can still see the shock on his face when his head hit the roof. At over six-foot Ed’s head was much closer to the roof than yours truly. Cotton made it across the ditch ahead of us and hit bean ground. By this time Scott and GK joined the chase in Scott’s truck. We surrounded her a couple of times but Cotton was stopping for no man, or vehicle for that matter. We would circle her and she would slow for a moment. Scott called and whistled but every time she paused Cotton’s fear got the better of her and she was off on the run, again. Poor Cotton her ears were laid back, her tail straight down, and her eyes went from the looking forward eyes of a predator to the panicked eyes of prey.

Soon Cotton was a half-mile away from the house, all the way to the next gravel road with us in hot pursuit. Ed and I drove through the open gate at high speed trying to stop her on the road before she made it through the fencerow but to no avail. Cotton went through the fence, over the road, and through the next fence like they were not even there. Both trucks shot into the next field one after the other. Cotton was off at a high lope. Soon she was well into the next mile.

When I looked ahead and saw Cotton run into a field of picked corn I hit the brakes. That was it for me she could run to Des Moines for all that. I knew that driving over a cornfield would be like driving over a field of small logs. Scott forged ahead rolling his SUV gingerly over the bumpy ground. Finally, finally Cotton was run out. She stopped and came to her master’s whistle. She got a hug and a nice pet for her reward. We laughed and laughed. Poor Cotton seemed no worse the wear for her adventure. I dubbed us “Dog Boys” a new designation in the rodeo world no doubt.

Ah, but our surprises were not yet done for the day. Babe spied us cutting up like the fools we were and waving us over to his combine asked, “did you fellas lose something?” He reached down to the floor of the combine and presented us with our eighth rooster. Babe spied it when he made a turn with the combine on one of the rows. What a way to end the day. We were feeling particularly lucky now. We caravanned the sixty miles back to Lenox. On highway 71 driving south just before it crosses highway 34 a huge, heavy-horned buck charged across the road right at my truck. In a flash I swerved missing the buck by mere inches. The old boy slipped past the rear of my truck and dodged between my vehicle and Scott’s. How we did not hit him I don’t know. He hit the ditch at a dead run as we gasped our relief. Must have been the luck of the Dog Boys.

What a day that was. In the span of time it was one day out of the many great days of hunting I have had over the years. That day however was the kind of day that brought us one surprise after another. The years roll on. I have gone from being a fairly solitary hunter to hosting my little group year in and year out. I have seen the addition and subtraction of old friends, the inclusion of our children, many of whom now have their own. Perhaps they too will join our little band of misfits when they are ready. Little Cotton went on to a comfortable retirement in Scott’s back yard. Though she had wonderful treatment from her new master over the years she has since gone on to her reward out of this world and (I hope) to a better one. Cotton may be gone but never forgotten by her Dog Boys of the Southwest Iowa Sportsmen & Liars Club.

Sshh... Im Hunting Wabbits

April 11th, 2012

“It was the best shot I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever played.” –
Tom Horn, Apache Indian Scout and Man Hunter before he was hung.

Back in the winter of 1979 Karen and I decided to make a weekend trip home from Des Moines to Lenox. We brought along our close friend Cary my oft times pheasant hunting companion. It was mid-January so pheasant season was closed but rabbits were still fair game. We loaded our clothes and guns into the car and made the two-hour trip to Lenox, right after work on Friday. Pleasantly ensconced in the Howland’s warm home we got a round of cocktails from Doc and a great meal from Martha.

The three of us were only a few years out of college and still felt the need to raise the roof when ever possible, so after dinner we headed down to the bar to have a few and see if any of my high school buddies were about. They were. Soon we were basking in the glow of old companions. Karen’s brother showed arriving from his job in Omaha. We pushed over and welcomed him with all the zeal of those with a good head start. The custom at this bar was drink around the table then you buy a round for the rest. Pretty democratic for all that.

Several rounds went around and Brother wasn’t piping up. He looked sheepish and admitted that he had no cash, only his paycheck. “No problem,” says I. “They’ll cash it here.” And so they did. The three of us thought it would be very clever to try and drink up his proceeds for the week. A dirty trick I’ll admit, but under the fog of hooch it seemed like a great idea at the time. The thing is it was half-price drinks night at the bar, mixed drinks were 50¢ and beer was 20¢. The bulk of his check was very safe even with a few extra bought for our friends. But by the time last call came around we were, all of us, very much the worse for wear.

The problem we suddenly realized was that we had forgotten the admonishment from our hosts, the Howlands. The former minister and his wife were visiting and spending the night. We had been told, “don’t come in making a lot of noise and stinking drunk.” Oops. We tried to sneak into the house undetected but apparently I made enough noise going upstairs to wake the dead, let alone the merely sleeping. The next morning was brutal.

I arose, almost literally from the dead. When I made my way down to breakfast my mother-in-law’s looks were lethal. I perched miserably on the edge of a high stool attempting to pull on my lace-up hunting boots. Every time I would bend over I would get woozy. I was attempting to disguise my discomfort from the minister and his wife who were present at the table. This was the minister who married us and I liked him very much. It seems that they slept downstairs last night and were unaware of my noisy entrance. But Martha was certainly aware of my poor behavior and on the hunt. With a malicious smile Martha inquired, “what’s the matter are your boots too tight?” Ugh.

In spite of our obvious pain and discomfort we managed to eat some food. Then Cary and I loaded up for our hunt and oozed our wounded carcasses into the car. We decided the best place to hunt would be on the way to my folk’s farm where, I assured Cary, my mother would give us some very strong coffee. Off we went. We headed south for two-miles on the highway and then turned right towards the farm. At the top of the first hill setting in a fence line right next to the road I spied a cottontail. Cary wanted to try out his new .357 pistol on the little bunny. He steadied for a shot but the barrel kept weaving, a result of the previous night no doubt. Bang! Miss. Bang! Miss. Of course this happened six times before the bunny got bored and hopped off down the fencerow. Great beginnings, as they say.

Out at the farm we had a nice visit with Mom and lava-hot cups of coffee that would float that massive revolver Cary was toting. Soon we started to feel like at least a shadow of our old selves. We kissed Mom and hit the back roads peering intently for rabbits setting along the road in the fencerows. We had as our principle weapons .22 rifles. Mine was a single-shot from Montgomery Wards. My dad paid a lordly $12.50 for it, brand new and presented it to me on my ninth birthday. There was snow on the ground, the sun was out, and the weather balmy for January in Iowa. The conditions were just right for finding cottontail along rural roads. A handful of bunnies were collected by each of us over the next few hours.

We were considering calling it a day when we topped a ridge, stopped, and could see several piles of trees that had been bulldozed along either side of the road. I honed my hunting eyes along the jumble of trees spying a bunny tucked up next to a tree limb. The rabbit looked to be pretty far, I guessed at least fifty yards. I had with me an old Remington .50 rifle, made just after the Civil War. The trapdoor Springfield was supplied to our troops on the frontier to use to fight the fierce Apache tribes who were defending their homes and decimating homesteaders. The Army soon went to a .45-70 caliber rifle and the .50-70s were consigned to the Apache police. In fact in many historic photos of these stalwarts the Indian Scouts can be seen holding a rifle just like the one I had acquired.

The .50-70 shoots a cartridge as big around as a man’s finger and throws a chunk of lead large enough to kill a buffalo. I was hunting rabbit. After I acquired the old rifle from an antique shop in Arizona I ordered some empty brass and a bullet mold. I hand loaded and shot many rounds through the old gun. It still shot pretty well. It was an interesting weapon in that it has most of a man’s name carved into the stock on one side Fred Sh… and FS, his initials on the other. I liked to tell myself the Indians got him before he could carve his whole name. Who knows? That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway, today my big game in the form of a fuzzy little bunny was basking contentedly in the sun at what I am sure he thought of as a safe distance from danger. I rested the barrel on the window frame of the car, took a deep breath, and held the sights just a bit high and on his nose. “You’ll never hit that rabbit from this distance.” This reassuring quip came from my hunting companion. I slowly let my breath out and took up the creep in the trigger. The big gun boomed and set back into my shoulder. One count of the clock and as I watched mesmerized the rabbit flipped three feet up into the air in a somersault, dead when it hit the ground. I just smiled at Cary.

From the car to the bunny I paced off fifty-five long strides. Well, as long as my short legs could stretch. Not bad shootin’. But my surprise came when I picked up the rabbit to see if the heavy slug left anything to eat. There was not a mark on the rabbit. His front leg was broken and he was deaderin’ dead. I looked where he had been setting; the slug had gone just under his chin skimming off a hunk of frozen dirt. The shock wave made by the big bullet was what actually killed the rabbit.

Well after my sharpshooting display I figured I couldn’t top it so we headed back to town for some hangover medicine. The rabbits cleaned and the hunters too; I was happy to discover that I was no long persona non grata. However I was to be under the evil eye for quite a few years after my dirty trick. As I think back on this story today I realize it has been longer than I can remember since I have seen last call in a public tavern. These days last call for me means the TV News is over. Karen generally beats me to evening’s end by a comfortable stretch. However, there were times way back many years when we thought we were setting the world on fire.

Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end. – Mary Hopkins, 1968

Gran Hunting in Iowa

March 30th, 2012

Gran Hunting in Iowa

It was mostly my fault. When I think back on it, which is not often and I think you will come to understand why I would love to put it all out of my mind. It started (naturally) with my love of antique firearms. I am getting a bit ahead of myself so please let me set the stage for you. The story begins many years ago 1977 if I remember correctly. I was a couple of years out of college, had a good job and was beginning to amass my gun collection, of sorts.

One afternoon I was perusing the stock at my favorite gun shop when I spied the newest object of my affection. It was a Zulu single-shot .12 gauge shotgun. The Zulu was a unique gun made in the later half of the 1800s, the early years of the cartridge era. It had an iron barrel, a plain walnut stock, but the loading mechanism is what made the Zulu unique. The Zulu had a gigantic block behind the barrel that flipped to the side allowing one to load a shell. Pulling back the massive hammer, then pulling the trigger the hammer struck the firing pin in the loading block and Boom! Rotate the block, pull it back and the shell moved enough to allow extraction and a new load. The exact name for this loading mechanism is the Snider Conversion. Simple, fool proof, cheap.

The Zulus were converted from French 1857 muzzle loaded percussion muskets; then converted to breech-loaders by adding a Snider hinged action. They were sold to Belgian surplus dealers who cut down the stocks and bored the barrels smooth. Sold as cheap shotguns and named "Zulu" to invoke images of fierce warriors hunting in the wilds of South Africa they were exported and sold all over the world. They were especially good for immigrants moving into unsettled territories in places like the American frontier, Africa, and Australia as the Zulu was cheap to purchase and cheap to shoot. And the Zulu was practically indestructible.

Well this poor devil was quite the specimen. The stock had been broken and repaired with a copper sheet and nails. The barrel was shortened I suspect some one used the weapon as a club after their shot had been fired. Hmmnnn. Well I believe the price was well south of a hundred dollars so I ponied up the lucre and headed home. Knowing that these guns were from the muzzle-loading era meant that shells would need to be loaded with black powder. No problem. I scouted up some old paper hulls and set about hand loading some .12 gauge black powder loads. I didn’t have a good set of wads so I used newspaper and I under loaded the amount of powder to get more shot in each shell.

The next weekend I was home in Lenox, Ia and set out to do a little squirrel hunting with my Zulu. I found a promising place in the woods and took a seat. My vigil was soon rewarded when a squirrel perched on a log just a few feet from my hiding place. I raised the venerable old gun and fired. A plume of black smoke poured forth from the barrel. The squirrel did not even flinch. Not a hair was disturbed. This was a total hand loading failure. Back to the drawing board. I acquired some plastic shot cups, cut the amount of shot down and increased the amount of black powder. Now I had a real antique shooter on my hands.

Fast-forward a few years and another state. Karen and I were living in Kansas on 5.5 acres of hay ground. Spoiled husband that I was I had mounted a trap thrower in my back yard where I tested my shotguns. That fall I organized a pheasant hunt up in Iowa with several friends, old and new. There were two Ms and one Mr. X. The names are changed to protect the innocent and keep us from killing the guilty. Anyway Karen, X, and I made our way north from KC where M1 and M2 met us at my in-laws the Howlands. X as it turned out had never been pheasant hunting. Uh oh, my fault but it violated my first rule of safety… don’t hunt with a novice. That is also rule 2 through 10.

Saturday morning after one of Martha’s famous breakfasts the mighty hunters were off to chase the birds. It was a beautiful day and we had our fair share of good shooting. The only cause for concern came late in the afternoon when strung out in a line we were approaching the end of a nice piece of cover. I remarked to the group to be alert as the dog was showing “bird sign.” Which he did by moving his bobbed tail round and round like a propeller. X nonchalantly remarked that he “was ready his safety was off.” As a group M1, M2, and I stopped and in no uncertain terms instructed him in the proper way to hunt, which is NOT with the safety off. To be sure. No bird came up and no harm was done. The hunters finished the day and our nice walk made way for the feast that the Howlands always provided my hunting friends. Not to mention the few libations hoisted downtown after dinner.

On Sunday the weather turned nasty. It was cold, the wind was up, and an intermittent mist made walking miserable. I suggested a road hunt. This of course back when I was only a few years removed from my meat hunting days on the farm. I was not yet the Farquhar-dressing gentleman of the fields I would become in my later years. Here’s how it worked: M1 was driving his company car that day so he was in the drivers seat. Two hunters would relax in the back while the hunter up front had the gunner’s position.

I started out up front with my old Zulu because it had a short barrel and could be brought into action quickly. I have always had what my Dad called squirrel eyes, which meant I could spot game when no one else could see it. After a few turns around the back roads we had collected 3 nice rooster pheasants. It was time for X to ride shotgun. Literally.

X slid into the catbird seat and I sat right behind him so I could watch the ditches. M1 crept slowly down the road. The windows were down and the heater at full blast. Suddenly I spied a tail feather sticking out from under a thicket. “Stop!” I commanded in a stage whisper. “Back up about 30 feet. X do you see him? He is right below you in the ditch. Open your door slowly and swing your gun around.”


The gunshot inside the car sounded like a cannon on a battlefield. Each of the hunters jumped in terror. Silence filled the interior of the car along with a cloud of roiling black smoke. X, wearing heavy gloves, had tried to pull back the massive hammer on the Zulu while still inside the car. His thumb slipped and the gun fired. Oh God.

“Do you still have your foot?”

“Yeah the barrel was between my feet on the floor.”

“Oh my holy Jesus.” M1 and M2 were both in such shock they could not speak. Then it dawned on M1 that some fool had just shot a hole through his company car. Not cool. Needless to say that called an end to the day’s hunt. I exchanged places with X. I could see the gravel road through the neatly blown hole in the floorboard. The shot had missed body parts and also the gas line by mere inches. When M1 started the Torino back towards town the black powder flared up and began to burn. I poured hot cocoa on it and extinguished the sparks.

Back at the house the girls wanted to know “did you shoot anything?” “Sure 3 pheasants and a Gran Torino.” “Oh my God is everything alright?” “Well, the Torino ain’t that’s for darn sure.”

We pulled the wounded beast into the garage and I put my thinking cap on. I went under the seat and cut out a small square of carpet. M1 got under the Torino and pushed the metal back in place then I cut out the hole and over sewed the new piece in place. We threw the mat away and took one out of the back. Heck the boss never looks back there anyway. It looked as good as new. The powder smell would leave in awhile, I assured M1.

Rest assured we never hunted with X again. In fact I think X was cured of the hunting bug quite completely. I retired the old Zulu and a few years later I traded it for something else nearly as old. So you see looking back it was sort of my fault. I have always been relieved no one was injured and the damage to the car negligible. After the shooting of the Torino I have stuck to rules 1 through 10 assiduously. The thing is I never could find a good recipe for cooking a Gran Torino.


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