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Dog Gone  at Cabela's

Dog Gone

Author: Thomas McIntyre

When he was younger, I seldom worried. He was ludicrously strong and healthy; and his name and address were engraved on a brass plate riveted to his blaze-orange collar, there for anyone to read.

It is also the country around here, and he has never been a cattle or deer chaser or chicken killer; so it was unlikely he would be run over or shot. (Unlikely, but certainly not impossible, it must be admitted.) I knew his haunts and could usually retrieve him within hours or by the next morning, even if nobody had called to tell me they had found him. I do wonder a little these days, though, if this time will be the last he gets out, if I will still be able to hunt him down.

I know, I know--I can already hear the cries of the self-righteous: Why dost thou suffer thy dog to runneth away from thee? To which I might ask: Why do you let yours pee on the carpet, chew up your boots, or bark after midnight? Sometimes, a dog's gotta do what a dog's gotta do, yellow Labs in particular. And you're right, that's no excuse.

Nonetheless, the plain fact is that three, maybe four times a year, rain or shine, hot or cold, Beckett (yes, named in a fit of literary pretension for the expatriate Irish existentialist playwright) calculates a means of escape and takes off on a walkabout ("dogtrotabout?"). And a-hunting I must go. I saddle up the F-150 and begin to make the circuit. If he's gone uphill, about 10,000 acres of ranchland are spread out up there and barely a chance exists of my finding him out on it. At his age, though (just turning 13, or into his 90s in those proverbial dog years), he doesn't do uphill much anymore. Mostly Beckett heads downhill, toward "civilization," or our rural equivalent of it, and fellowship.

For a number of years I could usually track him down to the doghouse of a golden retriever, a couple of miles away. The golden was a male, so I didn't have to worry about paternity suits, though in certain dark moments I may have pondered Beckett's sexual persuasion (early in life, Beckett had a full-time companion, a neutered male mixed Australian shepherd/golden my wife had brought home from the pound some years before Beckett was born, and Beckett was not above taking the occasional outrageous liberty with that dog's person, invariably in full view of the public; so perhaps a kind of nostalgia that dare not speak its name played a part in his ending up where he did). The golden was tethered to a long cable run, and apparently tolerated Beckett's showing up in the middle of the night and commandeering his quarters, because it was out of the doghouse's opening that I always saw his head poke when I arrived in the early mornings, calling his name, the golden camped stoically outside, lashed to his cable.

The golden must have gone away or died (perhaps hanging himself from his cable out of sheer boredom), because I do not see him in his yard anymore, and Beckett no longer finds his way back there. It's hard to know where he will turn up now; one of the last times, last spring, it was close to four miles away where he was playing happily with a pack of Airedales, by reputation at least not necessarily the most hospitable of breeds--but everyone, it seems, loves a Lab. The Airedales' owners had read the phone number on the brass plate and called to tell me where my dog was, and when I got there--following the directions to the log house behind the wrecking yard past the wooden bridge--I found an extremely friendly middle-aged Harley couple; and it was undoubtedly only my prejudiced perception of elaborate skin art and tank tops that prevented me from asking if I might come back someday to fish the really inviting little stretch of creek that ran behind their home. And the fact that Beckett had already done enough imposing for the both of us.

Finding Beckett these days, though, is more and more a matter of pure hunting, and as perverse as it may sound, that may be the point. As annoyed and distressed as I get when he takes off on his quarterly expeditions, I have to admit that I enjoy the thrill of tracking him. The best is when there is fresh, real tracking snow. Beckett doesn't concern himself with property boundaries and "No Trespassing" signs, so I am generally unable to stay directly on his spoor until I can run him down, but I can get a pretty good fix on his line of travel. Then it is a matter of using back roads and lanes to circle around until I can cut his track again. New tracks leap out sharp and clean in the headlights, as any good varmint hunter knows. Sometimes I can even stop and listen for the barking of other dogs ahead to tell me that Beckett may be intruding on their territory. Not all signs are positive, though, and a negative one is if I encounter deer feeding placidly, meaning Beckett has not passed this way: Even though Beckett does not chase, a dog is a dog to a deer--and on second thought, maybe not everyone does love a Lab after all.

The moment of truth in this, as in all hunts, is when the quarry is spotted. For the English "hunter" (the mounted variety, versus the "stalker") this would be the "view" portion of the "from a view to a kill" segment of hunting the fox. Canis familiaris is what I'm hunting now, rather than Vulpes fulva , so there is only going to be the view. The sensation, though, is astonishingly much the same as when I spot a game animal I am in pursuit of. It's actually somewhat shocking to think that finding a missing dog can bear a thrill similar to sighting a big buck. Seeing Beckett jogging ahead of me, then turning to look back, is almost uncomfortably close to the feeling of coming out of the timber's edge to see a big black bear shambling away, pausing to look around. It would be easy to ascribe this to a conditioned response brought on by years of hunting game, but I don't know. I suspect that even the most staunch vegan experiences a kind of rush when he "hunts" down that special bag of lentils hidden in the grocery aisle. There may even be Biblical precedence, because what besides hunting were the Good Shepherd and the widow doing when one sought his lost sheep and the other swept the floor to find her missing mite? The truth is, that with hunting wired into our brains from our ancient ancestry, there are more moments in the day when we are hunters than most of us ever imagine. Or maybe care to acknowledge.

It could be, then, that's why I secretly, or subconsciously, look forward to those times when Beckett gets out and I have to hunt him. It's all part of the real Great Game, the one descending from those first hunters. It happened again the other night, just after Thanksgiving. I'd come home and opened the door and he ran out, ostensibly to take care of matters. It's hard to tell how many minutes are too many to turn your back on him, or when he is in the mood to take off without warning. This time it seemed like seconds before he was gone into the dark. I went out twice in the next couple of hours, hunting his usual habitats. He was in none of them. The night was unseasonably balmy, so I wasn't overly concerned; and I was sure I'd find him in the morning. I'd get up at dawn and hunt him hard till I ran him to ground. I was clandestinely, and a little pleasurably, laying out my plans in my head like unfolding a topo map on a wood table in a hunting shack, when I went to the sliding door on the deck to lock it up for the night and saw Beckett's snowy-muzzled face looking in.

One thing he almost never did was come back on his own, maybe because I found him before he ever grew homesick. Tonight, though, I opened the door and he walked in on his slightly wobbly aged legs and went straight to his bed in the laundry room and curled up. He was asleep almost at once, but I lay awake for a while after that, thinking, The old son of a bitch is going to take all the fun out of it if he keeps this up.

Thomas McIntyre
Thomas McIntyre has written for Sports Afield magazine for nearly a quarter century. He is the author of four books on hunting and fishing, including the critically acclaimed "Dreaming the Lion", published by Down East Books. His newest book, "Seasons & Days: 25 Years of Hunting Stories", will be published next year by The Lyons Press. Tom lives with his wife and son in northern Wyoming.

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