Remembering a dog that knew his business
The ringbills roared down the lake on the cusp of the gale, the wind off their wings like ripping canvas, like the whistle of incoming artillery. They wheeled against the treeline at the south end and came back over the blocks with their feet hanging, Remington-paper-shotshell-calendar perfect.
Three quick shots from my Perfect Repeater, my beloved Winchester Model 12, three birds down, bismuth No. 4s.
I checked the pup. “Hold up, boy, hold up.”
Late-season Canadian birds from the wilds of Manitoba, maybe never seen a man up close, likely never been shot at. I knew my ringbills, and I knew they would be back.
I was right.
Three more shots, three more birds. I checked the pup again.
Now what? I had a limit in 10 minutes, but the first three were long gone, blown to the far end of the lake, and the second batch was disappearing fast. I shucked my camo parka, threw it on the ground, snapped my fingers and the dog lay upon it. No way would I chance him in the boat in that hurricane north wind. I put on a life jacket and slid the boat into the water. She was a vintage Alumacraft, and the wind took her like a sail. I overtook two ringbills and got them aboard, but then when I put my back to the oars to snag a third, I snapped one clean in two.
I pinwheeled helplessly downwind into a pandemonium of waves crashing into a floating cattail bog. But it was more than cattails. The melee included driftwood snags and saplings torn from the bottom, waving about and encrusted with a rind of ice from wind-driven spray. No other options, I went over the side into chest-deep water. The sudden cold stole my breath.
I wrestled the boat through the chaos into a little inlet that led to shallow water and firm ground, and I found two more of my birds along the way. I slid the boat onto the bank, tied the ringbills two and two to a snatch of baling twine, hung them around my neck and began the long trek into the biting gale along the shoreline to the blind. It took me all of three hours.
And there was my dog, my faithful dog, still lying on my parka. He wagged his tail, whimpered and licked my hands, blue now from the cold. He was only eight months old.
Porgy, from the cry of the Charleston Street hucksters of my youth: “Porgy, Porgy, come get your Porgy! Waitin’ at the Gate, don’t be late. Don’t be mad, here’s your shad.”
A Porgy was a menhaden, about the size of a middlin’ bluegill and greasy as any mackerel but tolerable, if a man couldn’t afford a mullet, fried crisp, bones and all, in smoking-hot bacon drippings.
The pup was mostly Newfoundland but a quarter golden retriever on his dam’s side. You couldn’t tell it, but the AKC could. No papers. Porgy was a giveaway.
I drove down to Minneapolis to pick him up. US 10 South. I snagged a wooden wine box for his puppy bed. At 10 weeks, he wouldn’t fit. I looped the box into the pickup bed, and he stretched out on the seat, his head on my knee, his hind paws hard against the passenger door. Yes, it was a small truck, but not that small. When I took him after those ringbills, he was eight months and 100 pounds. At two he was nearly double that . . . dry.
I heard it said that a man who really loves dogs, a man who literally breathes the same air they breathe, will be blessed with only one great dog in his lifetime. Maybe so. But I had Old Blue, a black, tall, deep-chested hundred-pound bitch out of Tomahawk, Wisconsin; and Lacie, a blockheaded Chessie that would fetch me all the ducks no matter who shot them and would try to drown any other dog that dared object; and Zebo the yellow Lab; and Mojo the silver, monstrous and highly protective. And then there was Porgy.
I got him a sled-dog harness, the biggest one made. He’d pull the boat to the water and drag it back uphill at the end of the shoot. After I hauled him over the gunnel a couple of times, knocking his knees and nearly swamping the boat, he refused the classic leaping retrieve; but he would carefully mark every bird, then whine and bark till I put him ashore where he could work them from the bank. I’d paddle to every block, and he would lean ever so gingerly over the side, mouth each by the head and lift it into the boat. But I never could get him to wind up the strings.
When Leif Erickson ventured west out of Iceland to the New Found Land, he carried “a great bear of a dog” on his Viking ship. Lord Byron, poet and libertine, bedded 300 women during a year-long Italian vacation but wrote his best-known poem to Boatswain, his Newfoundland dog. Boatswain died of rabies, and Byron nursed him to the very end and never got bit. Lewis and Clark took a Newfie named Seaman all the way to the Pacific and back, amazing the Indians with his “size and sagacity.” When the Sioux stole the animal, the expedition threatened war unless he was returned. Turned out the Sioux only wanted him for breeding to liven up the genetics of their skinny whip-tailed feists. There are statues of Seaman in Missouri where the voyage began and in Oregon where they wintered before their return. In 1814 a collar turned up in Virginia that read: “The greatest traveller [sic] of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacific Ocean through the interior of the continent of North America.”
On his way to exile at St. Elba, Napoleon Bonaparte attempted suicide by jumping overboard. The ship’s dog, a Newfoundland, jumped in and saved his life. Newfies became regulars on the fleet working cod on the Grand Banks. Man overboard? Forget the life ring. Throw the dog at him. Once when a dog accidently fell off a schooner, the captain put about and searched diligently. The dog was found three days later, still swimming.
But the Newfie’s size was eventually its undoing. Unless used for the harness, a Lab could do anything a Newfie could with half the hair, weight, feed and slobber. I am here to testify a Newfie can make enough hair and slobber in a month to make a whole new dog. Thus, the Newfoundland became the foundation of many retrieving breeds, all smaller, from the four flavors of Labs to the golden retriever to the Portuguese water dog. The best of each breed bear black spots on the tongue. Porgy did too.
“I reckon it’s a dog’s business to know his business.”
Robert Ruark said that and attributed it to his grand-pappy, Capt. Hawley Adkins of Southport, North Carolina, a retired harbor pilot, quail hunter, whiskey tippler and philosopher. Porgy knew his business all right. My job was to find out what he knew and help him do it. He trained me as much as I trained him, likely more.
He’d work grouse in a deliberate and delightful slow-footed pace, but he’d curl his lips at a nasty timberdoodle, sit by it and bark till I picked it up myself. He’d find dead deer and help me drag them from the woods, then lay all night beneath the meat pole, on guard against any coyote’s midnight sniffery.
Me and Porgy. It was bacon, beans and kerosene in those days, a big garden, and the fish and game from the lakes and woods. A fat cottontail was a treat. I’d be hooked over the laptop at first light of mid-March mornings when they would venture off the edge of the garden, browsing upon tender buds of aspen brush, swelling and ready to bust upon the passing of the last frost. I’d ease open my back door, steady the .22 on the door jamb and make clean headshots at 80 yards.
He slow-footed it to the bag, worried the mallard loose and dropped it at my feet.
Above zero, Porgy preferred sleeping on the porch. He’d leap from slumber, shake off his dusting of snow and come tearing around the corner at the crack of my little rifle.
And his soft and eager brown eyes would ask, What, Boss, what?
He was keen on hand signals. The first time I pointed along the treeline like I was throwing a rock; once was all it took. From then on I only had to say, “Rabbit, Porgy, rabbit!”
Not three minutes later I’d have the cottontail in hand. Into the kitchen quicker than it takes to tell. Skin and butcher and quarter, wrap the shuckings in a back issue of the Fargo Forum, and ploop into the trash. I’d have supper in the fridge and still be in my robe and slippers. No, they weren’t birds, but they were some mighty fine eating anyway. If a cottontail had wings, he’d be prime game worthy of the snootiest shotgunner.
Winter of ’98 was a blue-lipped bitch, 40 below, snow 11 feet deep on the flat, and the deer and pheasants were starving. That fall also had seen a bumper crop of corn. All the bins were full, and great piles of it lay in the middle of small-town main streets thereabouts, waiting on trucks to haul it to market. But trucks were few and slow. The boys at the Pelican Rapids Farmer’s Co-op Mill and Elevator gave me free run of the pile, 40 feet tall and three blocks long. I’d back up the pickup, shovel till I broke sweat, drive home, sack it and whistle up the dog. One hundred pounds on an L.L. Bean folding sled a half-mile uphill? No problem. We pulled together at first, but once we got a trail broke, Porgy did it all himself. We saved a lot of critters that season.
Back at the shack I’d finished off an old garage, hung insulation and paneling, and dragged in a woodstove. Shotguns and decoys in the corners, I called it the Boar’s Nest. Porgy and I hung out there on the short winter afternoons as shadows grew long upon the land, the stove popped and rumbled, the cubes tinkled in the glass and the occasional friend came calling. It was the sweetest of times.
“Hey, Rog. Hey, Porgy. How you making out?”
“Pretty damn good. Watch what he learned today.”
There was an open duffel of decoys over by the stove. I eyed a mallard bill protruding from the pile. “Hey, Porgy!”
He was at my side in an instant. What, Boss?
“Hey, Porgy, fetch me up a mallard!”
He slow-footed it to the bag, worried the mallard loose and dropped it at my feet. “Good boy!”
Next block up was a bluebill. “Hey, Porgy, fetch me up a bluebill!”
I was a good host; there was a dram or three ladled out by then.
The bluebill performance was repeated with much slobbery affection, the anchor line tangling beneath Porgy’s massive paws and the anchor rattling across the floor behind him.
Another mallard was up next. “Now, Porgy, go get me a wood duck!”
Halfway through, I hollered, “What!”
He froze, dropped the decoy.
“What the hell dog? Didn’t I teach you better than that? What’s wrong with you? Why you embarrass me so?”
He groveled, rolled his eyes and whined.
“Now go back and get me a wood duck!”
Of course, a woodie was up next. He dropped the mallard, went back to the sack and lay the woodie at my feet. “Good boy!”
“I think you and Porgy are playing a card trick on me, Rog!”
Porgy served me 13 years—a long time for a dog his size. One July morning he was gone. I looked and called and cried three days. Then there was the faintest whining from beneath the porch, and he crawled to my side, no longer able to stand. I fetched my camo parka, the same one he’d lied upon during that furious ringbill shoot years before. I snapped my fingers, and he struggled to it and lay down one final time.
I did what I had to do.
I wrapped him in the parka, buried him where the digging was easy.
Twenty years later Porgy still comes to me in dreams.
Roger Pinckney is the author of 15 books of fiction and nonfiction and upward of a thousand newspaper and magazine features. He is a lifelong wingshooter, big-game hunter and fisherman.