The July after Flip's derby bid in the National, Jack and I set
out again for Doc's ranch in South Dakota. We hauled two horses
and eighteen dogs to train, plus Flip, who rode up front as
usual. Doc had invited John Proud Bear to stay with us and train
on his leases. In just three weeks after quitting Norman Klensch,
he had put together a full string of field-trial dogs for a half-dozen
owners. Doc's sons would again be home from college.
Washington Grimes would be with us too. The cataract implant had
been successful, but Doc wanted to monitor it.
We drove west on I-64, then north on I-77 into
Ohio. We made four hundred miles a day and stayed over each night
with old field-trial friends of Jack's. July ninth we arrived at
Doc's. Thirty dogs were already tethered to the plastic
barrels. A dozen puppies ran loose, as Flip had two summers
"You know," Washington Grimes said after supper our
first night, "being up here in this big country reminds me of the time
I rode on the train with Mr. Ames up to Manitoba. My job was to
clean the guns and help take care of the dogs. Mr. Ames had his
railroad car parked on a siding in the middle of nowhere beside a
“The men went out with mules and wagons every
morning, dogs chained in the shade underneath. They came back
before lunch with prairie chickens and ducks and geese piled up on the
back. Then they'd have a big lunch and take a nap, and late in
the afternoon they'd take the wagons and dogs out again. At night
they'd play poker, eat a big supper, then go to sleep."
"How old were you, Wash?" Jack asked.
"Oh, I guess I was about twelve."
"So when was that?" Jack teased.
"You think you're going to trick me into telling you
how old I am, but you're not."
"Tell us, Wash, how did you break Flip from killing
chickens?" Doc asked.
"I just told him he was to be a gentleman, and read
him about Noah's Ark from the Bible."
"Somehow I think you did more than that," Jack said.
"No, sir. That's all it took."
And that's all we ever learned about Flip's
A week after we got to Doc's ranch, Norman
Klensch telephoned. Klensch wanted to breed Takeover Betty to
Flip. Doc said, "No way, Norman," and hung up. We didn't
suspect it then, but that call would have big consequences for us.
Quickly we settled into our prairie training routine. Most days
we worked in teams of three, alternating partners because Doc was
working at the clinic three days a week. My favorite days were
when Jack and John Proud Bear and I worked together.
Jack and I had surveyed Doc's leased territory in a Cessna Jack rented
at Pierre. We'd spotted a remote section to the southwest with
long ridges, good cover and a little stream that fed into the White
River. When we tried it from horseback, it turned out ideal--lots
of sharptails and Hungarian partridge, even a couple of coveys of
quail. About once a week we took a string of dogs there for the
day. We always parked the truck and trailer well off the road
where they couldn't be seen. John Proud Bear seemed a
genius with a dog and a horse. He seldom spoke above a whisper,
yet animals understood what he wanted of them. I never figured
how he did it. My father was a pretty good amateur dog trainer,
but what Jack and John Proud Bear could teach a dog in prairie country
was nothing short of amazing. The country lends itself to the
job. It's open, and flat enough so you can see the dog and the
dog can see you (your horse, really, is what he sees at a distance and
takes direction from). And while adult sharptails and pheasants
are hell for a pointing dog to handle, young birds in July and August
are not. They put off lots of scent, hold for a point, and when
flushed they fly to the nearest shade. That let us get repeated
points with our young dogs.
"Don't overdo it. Let him get three or four
finds, then put him up to think about it. Lots of short lessons
are better than a few long ones," Jack said.
The most fun was patterning the dogs--teaching them
to hunt to the front, make their turns forward, not hook back.
With Jack riding in the middle and John Proud Bear and me riding on the
flanks, Jack would release a green derby and head it for a stand of
poplar saplings where the birds liked to loaf. If the dog got off
course John or I could ride to straighten it out. It was amazing
how quickly a good young dog learned what was wanted, and how the
horses understood our game too. We worked long, hard hours, but
it was my best summer--ever.
One day John Proud Bear took us to a new area he had
scouted. We worked it west into the breeze. Suddenly we
were on a sheer cliff that dropped fifty feet. I almost rode over
it--you couldn't detect the drop-off until you were on the lip of
it. John laughed at my surprise--he had maneuvered us to the spot
to show us something. John’s people called the cliff a
biscom. At the foot of the cliff was a patch of bare ground
twenty yards across; around the edge of the bare spot the grass was
deep green. We rode around the cliff to the bare spot.
Dismounting, John dug his hands into the bare earth, which was moist
and greasy. He pulled out bone chips.
"Buffalo bone. In the buffalo days a boy your
age, the fastest runner in the band, would cover himself with a bull
buffalo hide with a hollowed skull and horns. He'd work his way
between a herd of buffalo and this cliff. Then the rest of the
band would crawl toward the herd from the east, south and north.
At the right moment, the fast boy would jump up, make like a buffalo
and run for the cliff; on his signal the rest of the band would rise up
and wave skins and beat sticks. If the boy did his job well, the
herd would stampede after him. If he was fast enough, he slipped
under the lip of the cliff, and the buffalo went over the top and broke
legs or necks in the fall. Then the band would have meat and
hides. If the fast boy was not fast enough, or didn't have his
timing down, he got trampled."
It had been more than a hundred years since a buffalo had gone over
that cliff, but the blood and bone were still so strong in the earth
that grass couldn't grow beneath it. Before the railroads came
west, there were sixty million buffalo on the plains, Jack said.
"How could the wild buffalo have become nearly
extinct?" I asked as we rode the truck in that night.
"Very deliberately," Jack said. "Our people
killed them--to starve out John's people and speed up the
trains." We rode the rest of the way in silence, thinking our own
As the end of summer neared, Jack and I rode
together--just the two of us--for the last workout of the day.
Until that week Jack had worked Flip only in roading harness, not
wanting him to get stale on sharptails as will happen with mature dogs
if they encounter the birds too often. Today we had Flip braced
with a year-old pointer female I was handling. The dogs ranged
far ahead of us, encouraged by the cooling air as the sun fell toward
the horizon. An abandoned homesteader's cabin came into view to
the right. A few minutes later Jack asked,
"Where's your dog?"
"Just ahead, I think." While watching Flip, I
had taken my eye off my dog, an bad handling error.
"Let's check for her over that little knoll," Jack
said, and we moved on.
When we topped the knoll, however, my pointer
was nowhere to be seen. After she'd been out of view fifteen
minutes, Jack called Flip in to heel, and we retraced our course.
When we got to the spot where I last remembered seeing her, Jack
stopped and dismounted.
"Give me the roading harness you had on her before
you turned her loose," Jack said. Jack offered it to Flip to
smell, then held Flip by the collar, looked in the dog's eyes, and
Flip began to circle, moving slowly as if on a
relocation of birds, but with a different attitude. He changed
directions several times to sniff the breeze, then took a straight line
at a trot toward the abandoned cabin. We followed on
horseback. When Flip reached the cabin, a half mile from where
Jack had commanded search, Flip stopped and began to bark. Just
ahead was a hole--a caved-in cistern. From the bottom came a
dog's whine. The pointer had fallen in the cistern; fortunately
it was dry. Jack rigged a bowline hitch on doubled
check cords, and we placed a timber from the old house’s porch across
the hole. Jack lowered me into the cistern on the rope. It
was fifteen feet to the bottom. The pointer wasn't hurt, and
there were no rattlesnakes in the hole. I rigged the rope around
her chest, and Jack pulled her up. Then he let the rope back
down, rigged the other end carefully around his pommel, and Copenhagen
raised me from the cistern floor.
"How did you teach Flip to do that?" I asked Jack.
"When he was a pup--before you came to the farm--I
read a book about rescue dogs. It said bird dogs weren't good for
the work because of their instinct to search for game. But I
tried the techniques on Flip, and he took to it. He understands
the difference between hunting for game birds and 'Search.'"
For miles the prairie seemed deserted, abandoned
cabins and rusting windmills the only reminder of failed
settlement. Twenty miles into the solitude, at an intersection of
two narrow roads to nowhere, stood a little road house, its asphalt
shingles tattered, grass growing ankle high in its graveled parking
lot. It could have been mistaken for a mausoleum, except for its
Jack's curiosity led us inside The
Blue Streak on our first trip to the secret section of prairie
that had become our favorite. The room was lit dimly by beer
signs behind the bar, proclaiming the virtues of Bud, Miller, Coors and
Corona, and by the hooded bulb above a bumper-pool table. The
eight bar stools and six Formica-topped tables with chrome and plastic
chairs were empty. Electronic poker games blinked along a
wall. Through a curtained opening to living quarters behind the
bar emerged Vern and Ella, the proprietors, retired pilgrims from
factory jobs in Milwaukee. Two months before, Ella had inherited
The Streak from an eccentric bachelor uncle who built it in 1950 in
anticipation of a post-war prairie tourist boom that never came.
Jack's eyes lit up at the big jars of pickled hot sausage and boiled
eggs on the bar, and lit brighter still when he found fifties tunes on
the jukebox by Webb Pierce, Hank Williams, George Jones and his
favorite, Patsy Cline. Frozen pizza warmed in a toaster oven and
hot dogs from an old-time steamer were the menu. The Streak
became our lunch spot whenever we worked dogs nearby. Jack said the
place reminded him of a club-joint in Davis, West Virginia.
"To join you pay a dollar for a membership card,
which entitles you to a dollar off on your first drink. That
makes liquor by the drink legal in West-by-God Virginia."
Vern and Ella had been puzzled by the sawed-off
shotgun and baseball bat they found under the bar, but before summer
ended, they would understand why Ella's uncle had kept them
there. (Later they discovered, painfully, the uncle's teargas
system, triggered by a panic button at the beer taps.)
On a hot day in mid-August, as Jack and I finished a
pizza in The Streak, we heard a distant rumble above the whine of the
struggling window air conditioner. It grew to crescendo as a
dozen long-forked Harley-Davidson choppers rolled into the parking lot.
The engines died, the rickety door swung open, and in walked a dozen
dirty bikers, the steel plates on their boot soles clicking on the
cracked linoleum. They smelled. Not the honest smell of a
day's hot work, but the stench of sweat long accumulated. They
could have come off the set of Easy Rider: greasy Levis, tank
tops, leather caps, black boots, dirty beards, long hair, earrings and
tattoos (LOVE-HATE on knuckles, MOM and MYRTLE on biceps, snakes and
eagles on chests and backs). They shouted for quarts of
beer. One had noticed the dog box on Jack's truck.
"What are you, old man, the dog catcher?" Jack
ignored him; the hair stood on the back of my neck. The
questioner walked out the door, beer in hand, and put his nose against
the wire grate door of the compartment where Flip snoozed on a bed of
hay. Flip growled. The biker beat his fist on the top of
the box, and the dogs let out a chorus of barks and
growls. Jack left money for lunch on the table and
walked to the truck; I followed. The other bikers followed too,
attracted by the commotion.
"Turn the curs loose and we'll chase 'em," the
bikers' leader shouted.
In one motion, Jack dropped the tailgate, pulled out
his training shotgun, broke it, injected a shell, snapped it closed and
shoved the muzzle against the ear of the biker tormenting the dogs.
"Unless I hear your engines fade west down that
road, I'm blowing his head off," Jack said. He ended the sentence
with the cock of the hammer.
The scruffy bikers saw the steel in Jack's
eyes. They hesitated.
"David, get the rifle," Jack said.
I grabbed the .22 Hornet behind the seat and laid it
across the hood, working the bolt to shuck in a round. Cursing,
the bikers hit the kickstarters and roared out, throwing a hail of
"David, get the highway patrol on the CB," Jack
said. The sound of the cycles grew faint.
Vern and Ella appeared at the door. "We've
called the highway patrol. They're on their way."
"What's their beer bill?" Jack asked.
"Forty-eight bucks," yelled Ella.
"Okay, Sonny Boy," Jack said. "Drop the money,
get on your bike, and get down the road."
The prisoner extracted a fifty from his wallet and
dropped it in the gravel. Jack stuffed two ones in his hip
pocket. The Harley's rumble soon faded on the horizon. My
knees were shaking and my mouth was cotton. A siren's
wail came faintly, and a minute later the patrolman slid his cruiser to
a stop, its blue lights flickering like a Christmas tree. Worried
the gang might return to harm Vern and Ella, Jack had to my amazement
memorized every one of the bikers' license numbers; he wrote them out
for the trooper. All were California issue, except one from North
Dakota. The trooper radioed the numbers to his dispatcher and
assured us the gang would be escorted to the Montana line and warned
not to return. Apparently, The
Blue Streak was a cult destination for West Coast bikers, which
explained Ella's uncle's security precautions.
"Let's don't mention what happened today," Jack said
as we drove into the ranch that night. We never talked about it
again, except once when I asked Jack how he remembered the license
numbers. He said he practiced memorizing while he was a prisoner
of war. That's also when he taught himself to count cards.
(to be continued)