The owner still lives on the place, though his advancing years keep him close to the ranch house these days. He greeted us with a wave as we ambled down the long driveway. Mr. K. is one of a rare and vanishing breed, called "The Greatest Generation" by Tom Brokaw. Actually he is rarer than that. He is a bona-fide fighter pilot ace who served in the Pacific against the Japanese. The walls of his modest home are lined with personal letters to him from Charles Lindbergh, a shuttle crew who took his pilots wings into space with them, and current fighter pilots who revere the elderly rancher like a rock star. Eyes now dimmed with age once lined up the guns of a P-38 Lightning on Japanese Zekes and Zeros when he was little more than a boy. When he returned from the war, he set his hunting guns aside. He had grown tired of guns. But he indulges us.
This trip is a bit of a homecoming. Several years ago I hunted this ranch extensively. A new marriage and other responsibilities had cut into my leisure time, and in the last several years I only made two trips to the place. I spent a lonely Christmas week there one year with just my old black Lab Bandit; but that is a story for another time. This day was a day of new beginnings. This would be Trey's first real hunt, and my first hunt with Brad, the love interest of my wife’s best friend.
As I drank in the view from the hill overlooking the ranch, my mind ran back to hunts on this very land with my old dog Bandit. It was on this rolling acreage where he made his first...and last retrieves. Much of his training was accomplished here in a couple of the larger tanks (ponds to those of you not from Texas). Bandit joined the family when a co-worker's dog had puppies. I ended up with 2 pups out of the litter "so they won't get lonely". They definitely didn't get lonely, but they almost ate our entire house before they got old enough to find new toys.
Bandit and brother Smokey were as different as Palin and Biden. Bandit was a hard charging retriever. He loved to swim and play. Smokey was more laid back, and seemed amused at Bandit’s alpha dog behavior. He was very obedient with his training, but lacked the drive to hunt. Bandit became my hunting dog, Smokey the house dog.
Bandit and I spent many hours training. I had never trained a dog before, so I read a lot and made many mistakes. I was the weak link in the process, because normally if I figured out how to effectively communicate what I wanted, he did it.
Bandit’s first retrieve plays through my mind like a favorite movie scene. I shot a duck, and it was on the surface of the big tank about 40 yards from shore. I gave Bandit the command "Back!” which means go fetch the bird and bring it back. He hesitated. Bandit had retrieved hand thrown bumpers hundreds of times, but this was the first time he had been sent after something with feathers. Embarrassed and frustrated, I threw a rock in the water near the bird. The splash got his attention. Now understanding the game, he swam out, grabbed the duck and brought him back to me.
Emotions tumbled through my brain. On one hand I was embarrassed that he had not known what to do and I had to throw the rock (something I never had to do again). On the other hand, I was thrilled that he actually completed the retrieve.
My mind drifted back in the present. I continued to walk down the road that would lead me to the dove field, and lead me past the smaller tank. My thoughts again leapt back through the years to a winter’s evening. I left work early in advance of an approaching blue norther...the harbinger of ducks. I got to the smaller tank with Bandit at the perfect time. The wind slashed at our backs as I threw out the decoys. A small flock of green winged teal bore down on us. Twisting and weaving in the wind, their small wings churning furiously to outrun the approaching storm. They came over our backs first, wings tearing through the air with the sound of ripping silk. They turned into the wind, feet stretching for the water. My shotgun spoke, and the flock rocketed into the gloom. Two birds remained behind on the water. Bandit retrieved them both perfectly. He shivered with the cold and with the excitement. It was a perfect moment, the culmination of fitful dreams from my youth. The storm surrounded us and we were alone in the bosom of winter.
Doves on the power lines wretched me from my daydreams. I placed Brad at a location in the field that is normally the hot corner for doves. Trey and I walked thirty yards further and set up in a thicket of brush on the brow of the hill, providing a sweeping view of the ranch. Doves traded back and forth between the fields in singles and doubles. A single crossed from my right and fell to the lead shot. I sent Trey to retrieve the bird, but he was a bit confused and didn’t find it until he stepped on it. I took the bird from his mouth and praised him profusely. The imprint of his hunting ancestry clicked into the full on position.
The next bird flew right to left and after my shot, fell into the thicket, it’s final resting place unseen. I sent Trey on a “blind” retrieve…one in which the dog hasn’t seen the fall, and has to use his scenting ability to detect the bird. We circled downwind of the spot, and I gave Trey the command “find it”. He made a bee line to the fallen bird and delivered it to my hand. I was thrilled.
It is folly to try to replace a fallen dog with another, in the same way that one cannot replace lost friends or loved ones. Others come into our lives, but they are not replacements, for that cheapens their relationship with you, and blinds you to the uniqueness given to them by the creator. I loved Bandit. He shared a difficult chapter in my life, and I shared the final chapter in his. I still sometimes slip and call Trey by his predecessor’s name. I hope he forgives me.
On this ranch where Bandit’s spirit hangs palpably over us this day, I know he has not been replaced in my heart, but he has passed the mantle of my care over to a younger brother of his tribe…and I welcome it.