ESSAY: Dusty

The dog I own is a certified, guaranteed, bred in the bones English Springer. Both parents are field trial champions. She is gaunt, intense, hungry and an absolute a killer when it comes to pheasants. Drive is not an issue. On opening day this year she tore out of the truck and flushed three roosters, one after the other. Before we got the guns loaded.

The farmer saw it all.

“That sure is a smart dog,” he said. “How much did you pay for that smart dog?”

I still recommend choosing a bird dog from proven hunting stock. You know what you’re getting. But I have to admit the finest hunter I ever saw was a poodle. Or a poodle mix, based on appearance. The truth is Mike didn’t know what kind of dog Dusty was, or even how he came to own him. It all happened during a divorce with broken dishes and late night shouting matches and cars screeching out of driveways and accusations and counter-accusations and much confusion and cursing and door slamming.

One day the wife vanished. The dog appeared, skinny, homely, and hungry. Being pheasant season Mike took him hunting. And that was that. “I never taught Dusty anything,” Mike said. “He just did it.”

Dusty owned a fine coat of white fur, tightly curled. He had a brown, pleasant eye, a bit on the sad side, as strays will. He swam well and knew how to handle the rivers and drainage ditches of Freeborn County. After you shot he would circle the duck pond and take the shortest route to any retrieve. In rivers he knew the trick of running downstream and snatching a bird as it floated past.

A smart duck dog doesn’t have to swim very much.

Dusty had more horse-sense than most people. You could trust his judgment. He liked decent folk and wouldn’t go near a liar, a thief, or fool, and I believe Mike introduced him to people just for his opinion.

He only tolerated being petted. Petting is just foolishness.

In the field Dusty worked slowly. He loved pheasant hunting and he specialized in birds other dogs over-ran. He could confuse me, like working behind the hunters. “Stay with him,” Mike would yell. “He knows what he’s doing.” Sure enough out would jump a smart old rooster, one who fooled everyone. Everyone but Dusty.

Mike and Dusty made a good team. Mike is quick, intense, athletic, impatient. If he shoots a bird he doesn’t bother to wait. He just keeps hunting. “He’ll find us.” And in a few minutes there is Dusty with the pheasant.

As Dusty grew older he would pick and choose his hunting days. He’d simply wander off to do his morning business, and not return. “Where’s Dusty?” I asked on the second day of a particularly hot weekend. “He wanted to stay home,” Mike said. In the evening we’d find him in the back yard, dozing in the shade. It’s not much fun to hunt when it’s hot. As I said, that dog had good sense.

He ignored rabbits and didn’t bark at strangers and comported himself as a gentleman. I never worried leaving Dusty with my own nervy little Springer, who is terrified of other dogs. Both would wait patiently in the vehicle when Mike and I went into a prairie saloon. They were buddies.

Dusty could be too polite. Once we towed a trailer of goose decoys a good half mile through picked corn fields. At a rise we started unloading. I got my dog out of the vehicle and we realized Dusty was nowhere to be seen. Just then he came struggling up behind us, tongue hanging out. He’d followed us the whole way.

“Why I believe that’s the saddest thing I ever saw,” Mike said, giving him water.

A couple of years ago Dusty went on to the Great Hunt in the sky. Mike needs another hunting partner, but is having a tough time of it. There don’t seem to be that many good dogs Mike would say, but everyone says that. You want the same dog, but that’s not possible. Dusty was a breed of one.

When I think about it Mike hasn’t replaced his wife, either. He might not know what kind of dog to get, but he sure knows what kind of wife NOT to get. “Never,” he said. “Ever marry a stewardess.”

If Dusty could talk, he would have told you that.

Richard Donnelly

Richard Donnelly lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Classic flyover land. Which makes us feel just a little… superior. Mr. Donnelly’s first book is ‘The Melancholy MBA,’ published by Brick Road Poetry Press in Columbus, Georgia.