CHAPTER NINE

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 before.

    "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 watering tank.

    “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 reformation.

     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 thoughts.

    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 commanded, "Search."

    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 name.
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 gravel.

    "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)