In fine style, Pat, my Irish setter, was boss. If there were ever any question about that it would be resolved without hesitation, and to everyone’s understanding, if not their total satisfaction. In a rural neighborhood where country dogs were free to roam pretty much as their owners allowed, that is a broad statement to make. But during the 1950’s this maverick in the local area of northern Mississippi where I spent my teen years was a family legend, the protector of our modest farm and home we called Bluebird Hill.
The name on his pedigree registration papers read “Leland’s Tennessee Patrick,” but Pat never won any bird dog field-trials, he never would have won any strut around dog shows had we entered him in such. If one were so cruel as to put him in enough fights with big tough dogs he probably would not always have won. But he was the trusted guard of our home, a self-appointed virtual cop.
We were new in a rural neighborhood that had been many generations with traditions of free ranging stock. Cattle, horses, mules, and hogs, particularly hogs, were deliberately turned from their pens in the early fall, ostensibly after the harvest, to fatten on “leavings,” which in that old scheme of things were considered community property. These animals ran loose until time for spring planting and had access to any yard with access from the road or through pasture or field fences that could be breached from the farm’s interior. Unfortunately for all concerned, our yard and fields were available from the road, a fact that meant Pat would spend years of his life earning his keep by policing Bluebird Hill against invasion by stray stock.
That he took his job as a solemn duty, a matter of utmost personal pride, would be in evidence at the slightest provocation from any stock or stray dog, cat, or person venturing near its perceived boundaries. Our house was very close to the road and for all in the above list except people, Pat’s concept of Bluebird Hill’s boundaries included the road in front of the house. People were allowed to pass along the road if they were very respectful of the way they looked at the house. A disrespectful approach from a stranger precipitated the full hackle and low rumble treatment unless otherwise directed by a family member. Our other dogs took their cues from Pat.
Most of us think of Irish setters as rather slim, with deep-red drop-chests, long feathery red-golden hair flowing behind their front legs and hanging below their tails, bird dogs bred as beautiful show trial animals. Pat had the deep chest, but in addition he was broad across his back and more blocky and muscular. His jaws were robust and heavy. He was built for battle, as well as for beauty. He loved to hunt, but he had less than the optimal bird dog instinct to point and hold on birds. That would be the subject of many disagreements he and I would have during our years together, though at one period he was a fairly good bird dog.
Pat was born on St. Patrick’s Day, so he was a gangly six months old pup when I got him in anticipation of my own birthday in October. He was an inquisitive yellow-coated fellow bound to discover everything on the farm that had a ticking heart or tickling smell and wanted to chew everything in sight. I talked Mother into letting him sleep in the house so I could watch over him at night to hopefully keep him out of trouble. Because we lived so close to the road, Dad insisted we teach him to fear automobiles. One of us held him close to the road and when a car came by, someone else would shoot him with a slingshot, sending a very small pebble into his backside, and everyone would run away from the car, as if the pain was inflicted by the vehicle. It worked on Pat. He always had a sense about the presence of moving vehicles and was never harmed by traffic.
We used the same method for training most of our puppies. It was either that or pen them and we didn’t like the idea of them not having their freedom. On most it worked, on a few it failed.
Dad worked for the U.S. Postal Service, collecting and delivering mail by rail line from and to towns between Memphis and New Orleans. His job required him to be gone from home two days, home for one day, gone two more days, and home for five days before restarting the cycle again. I was in charge when he was away. We ran a small farming operation, but when he was on his “long days off” we could often do things together.
One of the things he became involved in was ‘coon hunting. He acquired a female Redbone hound, Betty, and had her bred. Soon we had a squirming litter of five little Redbone hounds that we named Fiddle, Baritone, Joy, Trumpet and Drum.
The pups grew to about six months of age and we were training them to trail and to be fearful of cars on the road and all the other things little hound dogs needed to learn. Fiddle was my favorite. He was deepest red, with the longest ears. They were almost of bloodhound length and needed to be pinned up with a clothespin to keep them from dangling in the bowl of milk as he lapped.
Fiddle forgot his lessons of the slingshot and was hit by a car. It broke both bones in his left front leg. Dad was at work so there was no way to get Fiddle to a veterinarian. The situation called for on the spot medical treatment. I used an axe to split four thin red oak splints from a stick of firewood and smoothed them out with my pocketknife. As much as Fiddle would allow, I set the bones in his leg, padded the leg with quilt batting and splinted it, wrapping the four little boards with adhesive tape. His leg looked mummified when I finished.
He wore the “cast” for about a month before finally gnawing it off. It turns out that it turned out. His left front leg, that is, turned out. I hadn’t quite set correctly, but it was serviceable. He used it just fine his whole life. Except for being a little bit “left footed,” Fiddle was fine.
Soon, Dad was into ‘coon hunting in a big way. It wasn’t that he cared anything about killing raccoons, which he almost never did. The hunt was something in which to engage, to occupy his mind. He loved the chase and the sound of the hounds’ voices in full cry after the ringtails. In fact one of the magazines he subscribed to for years was titled, “Full Cry.”
He read about a deep-throated bloodline of Bluetick hounds that he “needed” to have to round out his pack, so he ordered a male puppy and had it crated from somewhere out of state (Illinois, I think). So little Buck joined our “music” making menagerie.
Buck was another individual that didn't retain the slingshot lesson very well. His instinct was so innate to trail game that if it went across the road, he went across the road. He and an automobile met on this one critter track at the same time and he got the worst of the collision. It dislocated the hip joint from his upper thigh.
Unfortunately, again Dad was away at work for a two-day period and we had no way to get Buck to the veterinarian. When Dad returned, we took him in but the vet said it was too late to reset the joint. Consequently, Buck lived out his days with a right hind leg that was seated in cartilage above the normal joint. After it healed, he used it as well as normal but when he stood still, that leg dangled freely, a couple of inches shorter than the other hind leg.
A twenty degree morning, still and frosty, was one on which you would hear Buck cold trailing a rabbit or a raccoon perhaps two miles away. He had more desire to follow where some critter had planted its paws than any dog I have ever known before or since. And my Dad certainly got his money’s worth in that voice.
Hound men argue about bell-like quality of their dogs’ voices. Buck would have won any of these contests hands down. It’s not that he would have necessarily won a particular ‘coon hunting contest. It’s just that his voice was one of the clearest, most melodious and distinctive hound voices around. Genetics are powerful and he brought a delightful package with him from Illinois.
If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’ll tell you that my Dad was a bit of a maverick about the animals he liked for our farm. If everyone else was using pointers for bird dogs, he wanted setters. If everyone else wanted Black and Tan hounds, he wanted Redbones and Blueticks. If everyone else wanted Hereford cattle, he wanted Charlais. If everyone else wanted Five-Gaited horses, he wanted Tennessee Walking Horses. He wanted to try something else, something different from what everyone else was doing.
One of the daytime pursuits that the area offered in season was duck hunting. The Mississippi flyway is renown for its numbers of migrating ducks and geese and we just happened to be situated approximately in the middle of it. The standard duck retriever dog everyone else used was a Labrador Retriever, so Dad just naturally bought a chocolate colored female Chesapeake Bay retriever. Now, there weren’t too many Chesapeake Bay retrievers in the Mississippi area, you can bet. Be that as it may, Cookie came to live with us and retrieve the ducks we managed to gun down in the Arkabutla Reservoir waters to the southeast or in the slash waters of Mississippi delta bayou country that were about five miles to the southwest.
Pat was a little older than all the hound pups or Cookie, but he still more or less grew up with them. He learned about the hazards of farm life from taking one bite of it at a time and learned to turn it loose if he could, or hang on if he couldn’t. Some hazards, like learning to haze horses and mules, was mostly just a matter of luck for a young dog. If a pup gets kicked with a glancing blow first he may learn that the hooves are deadly and are to be avoided while herding the animal, otherwise life is likely to end badly for the would-be herder.
The same goes for the tusks of older feral hogs. The hog’s ear is a handle, but the tusk is a lightning quick dagger in waiting. One misstep in handling a tusker can result in death or terrible injury. I’m sure you’ve heard the Mark Twain quote that “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Pat developed enormous strength by wrestling semi-wild range hogs that often weighed from two to four hundred pounds. He was determined to hold them for whatever his masters’ wishes were. That could be for normal domestic farm purposes but mostly his masters’ wishes were to punish feral hogs in hopes that they would find it more to their liking at a distant location, as they were a destructive lot, rooting and tearing the pasture sod, yard flowers and even building foundations.
The act of holding a hog by the ear was certainly punishment enough, especially as the other dogs would find it entertaining to nip its heels and flanks when it was so grossly engaged. It often occurred to me that it wasn’t the poor hog that should be getting the third degree from the dogs, but rather, its absentee master should be on the receiving end of these canine favors.
Pat would “scotch” all four feet and let the hog drag and tug him along for a while until the hog could go no farther. There he would hold his squealing quarry until he was called off or until everyone tired of the game and it was obvious that the hog was making every attempt to leave the premises. Very few hogs ever stayed on the property the same day after one of Pat’s treatments and many of them became wary of ever again wandering onto our property.
There was a time when several bunches of hogs had infiltrated the farm before we became aware of it. Pat and the dogs chased after one bunch while I went after another. It took me a little while to get up a hill and over a small rise. I came face to face at about twenty feet with an old silver-back boar of about two hundred and fifty pounds with four-inch tusks. Normally hogs would turn and run when approached closely, but this one decided to make a stand. Its body language indicated it was going to charge and I was in trouble, with no trees in the immediate vicinity to climb. My heart was pounding.
It was probably only a few seconds that we stood in that face-off before — you guessed it — Pat sailed over the hill and did his wonderful dance and bounce with the boar before seizing him by the “handle.” After that session with Pat the silver-back was more than willing to take to the exits — to my sighs of relief.
One of Pat’s most common tactics was to use the shoulder smash. This was the most effective method of exerting immediate superiority over his subject. He learned this would get their tusks out of the way then he could grab them by the ear and hold them to be punished or hogtied and carted away or killed for butchering or whatever. After learning to handle the big hogs, it’s no wonder that most local dogs were little more than a nuisance for him.
If a dog displayed belligerence, Pat would close the distance in a stiff-legged manner showing aggression. When he closed to perhaps six or eight feet he would dart toward the dog and at the last second throw his body sideways into it, crashing shoulder to shoulder. Inevitably, even a larger dog would be bowled over several times and when it looked up, Pat would be standing over it. If it still showed signs of belligerence, it would be in the worst possible position to fight and would usually be quickly undone. If not, Pat would likely back off, although on a few occasions I have seen him hike his leg on a dog just to make certain his point was taken.
As I’ve mentioned, Dad liked to bring to the farm animal breeds that were not generally prevalent in the local area. One day he brought home a beautiful young blue-gray full-grown male Weimaraner that he called Jojo, telling us about how the Germans had bred Weimaraners to be very intelligent dogs. Dad carefully introduced Jojo to all the dogs, including Pat.
As it was Dad doing the introducing, Pat accepted Jojo, except that Jojo decided to whip Pat. No no, Jojo! Pat spanked Jojo smartly, then walked away. Jojo immediately jumped on Pat again. Pat spanked Jojo smartly again and walked away. A third time Jojo jumped on Pat and Pat really whipped Jojo soundly. Only this time Pat hiked his leg on Jojo and soaked him, but good.
We all shook our heads at this supposedly “smart” Weimaraner. When Dad left for work, we chained Jojo to a doghouse at the side of our house, knowing he would run away if not tethered. He went crazy and started tearing boards off our house. We got him calmed down a little by the time Dad returned from work two days later.
The whole family (Dad, Mother, me, my two brothers, my sister) and some other friends took all the dogs and drove to the old swimming hole. This was a spring-fed lake with a sand beach that abruptly dropped off to depth. All the kids and dogs ran down the hill and jumped into the water and began swimming. This included Jojo, except that Jojo found himself fifteen feet out and hadn’t a clue as to how to swim. All we could see were gray paws flapping the surface. Someone realized his mental defect and pulled him out, no doubt extending his life.
Back at the farm it was fairly apparent that Jojo was not going to run away from us or run into the road (and we weren’t nearly as concerned about that any more), so we turned him loose. The other dogs took off running toward the back pasture, Jojo with them. At the pasture fence he didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the lowest wire was just about the same height as his throat…too late. It took him a while to get his breath back and we had to put some more staples in two or three fence posts along there. And the same thing happened in several more places at other times over the next few days.
I don’t know if he ever figured it out or if his stay on Bluebird farm ended before it occurred to him that a line of fence posts meant there might be wires attached. In any event, Dad’s penchant for trying out “exotic” breeds of animals kind of backfired with Jojo. Maybe Jojo just didn’t ever have a chance, never had the puppy training he needed to make it as an adult on a farm. Or maybe he was the victim of a breeding mill for dollars, where they bred the brains out of the dog. I know he didn’t have good sense. Whether he could have had it or not is an open question. Pat certainly didn’t think so. I think we were all happy when Dad found him another home.
I remember that Pat used another tactical trick in fighting other dogs that was rather bizarre. An event occurred the following way: Three stray dogs are running across a fresh plowed field below our house. Their sizes are perhaps sixty, fifty and thirty-five pounds. All are mongrel type tough country dogs. Pat sees them, and bolts to challenge their passage. It is just not allowable for them to be on our land.
He attacks the largest with his shoulder smash move. It is soon apparent that he has bitten off a big job for the other two dogs swarm in a vicious counter attack and the larger rejoins the fight while Pat is preoccupied with them. Pat grabs the smallest and swings it around, slams it back and forth into each of the other two, backing away from them to protect his backside until the one in his jaws eventually goes limp. He drops it and grabs the medium sized one and slams it into the larger one, all the time backing around using the one to avoid the other until that one goes limp. Then it’s one on one and it’s all over in a couple of minutes. There’s a method to it for him. He doesn’t kill any of them, but tails are tucked and they all go back the way they come. And Pat is definitely the boss of Bluebird Hill. He comes back to the house, bloody, muddy, dog slobber streaking his coat, proud as a peacock strutting up the hill, tail and head high, obviously looking for other interlopers to set on the right path.
In those days we never thought about neutering our dogs. There wasn’t the urgent need to do so as there is now. So Pat, being the dominant dog of the neighborhood that he was, sired a good number of puppies that we could very often identify. They were all black, and often resembled Black Labradors. The fact is they were Black Irish, the mark of a legend in that time and place.
© 2006 R. Leland Waldrip