I low gear the Mazda pickup down the dirt road to the floodplain. The headlights help me find my way as the sun peaks over the horizon. I park by a small pond with stunted trees and knee-high shrubbery.
I grin at Mac, my big Airedale, rub his neck; he shakes his head, eager for the hunt. I grab the thermos of coffee. Mac and I move to the back of the truck. I open the top of the camper shell. Shaft and Dart, the brindle and the white greyhounds, greet me with muzzles and tongues and an eager trembling.
The four of us watch the sunlight creep across the stubble, wild grasses and new growth of shrubs clearing away shadows and fog. The coffee is as fine as the morning, as hot as the rising sun.
I put slip leashes on the greyhounds and leash Mac. We move toward the sun all restless and ready.
The jack rabbit jumps out of a clump of grass on the edge of the shade, fifty yards to my right. The black-tailed hare races straight into the rising sun. The hounds lunge. I slip the leashes and they are self-guided missiles on target. The jack rabbit is big and experienced. He has outrun dogs before. No panic just raw speed and leaps that threaten the low hanging clouds.
Shaft is an arrow with acceleration and closes on the bounding hare.
Dart is on Shaft’s right flank a few yards back.
The rabbit senses something is different in this chase. He jumps to the left running toward the railroad track a hundred yards away.
Shaft takes an angle on the turning jack that cuts the distance between them. The jack sees the error of his ways. The jumping is over. The race is on. The hare can hit forty miles per hour, and he knows this terrain.
I’m racing along with Mac trying to keep the chase in sight.
The railroad tracks are up a steep embankment. That will slow the rabbit. The hare, spins on a dime turning east into long grasses.
Now, Dart has the angle and the lead over Shaft.
At full speed, the rabbit turns again to the south in an all-out sprint toward a clump of shrubbery.
The jack almost makes it. Dart catches the rabbit with a leaping surge. One quick bite on the neck and the jack rabbit is dead.
I’m about one-hundred-yards away from the dogs and their kill when Mac stops, sniffs the air and gives a low growl.
A few seconds later I see why Mac is growling. A big German Shepard is loping toward the two hounds. The hounds are spent, but they come to their feet growling. The Shepard must be well over a hundred pounds. The bold Shepard snarls back walks over and picks up the dead rabbit and backs away from the two hounds.
I yell at the Shepard. He glances at me and starts to trot away with the kill. I release Mac. Mac has a huff more than a growl or bark, but the sounds rolls across the plain and catches the four-legged robber’s attention.
Mac trots just a little faster than the bigger Shepard. The Shepard picks up his speed. Mac huffs again and matches the Shepard’s speed.
Now the hounds are on the move after the Shepard. Mac closes fast on the big dog. The Shepard saves himself. He stops. Drops the rabbit and turns to face Mac. The hounds stop. I stop Mac with a quick shout to sit. Mac sits about ten yards from the Shepard.
The Shepard gets the wrong idea. He thinks Mac is backing down. The Shepard charges Mac. The hounds leap toward the Shepard. Mac twists away from the snarling Shepard and grabs the bigger dog by the back of the neck. In an instant, all three dogs have the big dog by the neck. It is over before I can get to them.
My dogs are not fighting dogs. They’re hunting dogs. They go for the kill. Always.
I’m standing over their latest kill as the all-terrain vehicle approaches. The driver has a shotgun standing by his side, a pheasant tied to the back of the ATV. He is livid. He drives right up to his dog with the ripped open throat. He looks for a long time at the dead dog. He reaches for the shotgun.
I have three dogs and my hunting knife under the early morning sun on the flood plain. “Don’t pick up the shotgun, leave it there. Leave the shotgun there. Your dog stole our game. Attacked my Airedale.”
Hand on his shotgun the pheasant hunter looks at me — looks me in the face. “My daughter’s dog. She taught him to retrieve. Jake was a good dog.”
“Yeah, Jake was retrieving, and my dogs were hunting. Dogs doing what they do.”
He lets go of the shotgun, wipes the tears from his face, loads Jake onto the back of the ATV. Not a word as he drives away.
I take down the ATV’s license plate numbers.
A week later I ease up the road to the farmhouse. A blonde woman and a blonde girl of about thirteen are watching me drive up. I stop near the house, tip my hat to them. I go to the back of the truck, open the back and remove the fourteen-week-old German Shepard. I put him on the ground. The puppy makes a beeline for the girl. She meets him halfway. I watch them frolic for a minute.
I get back in my truck. The blonde woman gives me this look-anger, forgiveness, pain. I don’t know. I ain’t got time to figure it out. I got to get home. I got dogs to feed.
Header photograph: By Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons