There is a rule in writing: Never write about dead friends or dead dogs. Well get ready, because I am going to break that rule right now, and I think you will enjoy the result, especially if you are a dog person. If not it will still be a catharsis for me.
I recently lost my friend of 15 years. She was called Sweety and she was a yellow Labrador retriever. She was originally a gift from my daughter and son-in-law, to replace a Brittany that had died.
I don’t remember where they got her, but I doubt that her breeding was one of champions. I didn’t expect much out of her; I had been given “good dogs” before and mostly they were just pains in the neck. But I made happy noises at the gift and more out of boredom than expectation began her training.
When I got her she was just a long-legged, big-footed, gangling, ball of happiness, wrapped in a blond shock of hair thick enough to stop bullets. Her approach to life was what gave her the name. She never met a person she didn’t like and could be a real bother if someone deigned to scratch her ears.
I taught her to sit, stay, come, heel, and fetch. She especially liked to fetch and would chase a dummy as long as you had arm left to throw it.
She was just about nine months old when dove season rolled around, and I took her along on the first day of the season. I thought it would be a good outing, but expected nothing from her, she was just a puppy after all.
I was sitting on a dirt bank over a tiny water hole. Sweety was sitting, rolling in the dirt, scratching, sniffing at all the strange scents, and doing all the things puppies do, including, I thought, not paying attention.
When the first dove of the season came winging over, I managed to kill it stone dead. It fell about 25 yards away on open ground. I was about to go get it when I noticed Sweety was no longer rolling around in the dirt at my feet. Instead she was gone in a flash, and in less time than it takes to tell about it, she was headed back with the dove in her mouth.
She brought it to me and gave it to my hand, just like she did the rubber dummy we played with. Then, all the puppy gone, she sat down and started watching the sky.
I was shocked, but ecstatic. We shot a few more doves, far less than a limit, but she retrieved every one, including one that fell into a nasty tangle of thorns. From there it only got better. As the season wore on, and other seasons after that, if a dove flew over that I thought was just out of range and refused to shoot it, she would look up at me with reproach.
A couple of years before Sweety came to us, a outfitter friend leased a ranch for deer hunting. Upon closer examination, he found that the place was absolutely stuffed with quail, both blues and bobwhites.
He asked me whether I would guide some quail hunters, and I agreed. My pay was to be able to hunt quail and deer when he didn’t have paying customers. I had a very good Brittany named Charlie and I hunted him regularly.
Then one day, Charlie came home from one of our hunting trips, lay down on the back porch and quietly died. It had been a fantastic day, with 25 or 30 coveys flushed, and I guess Charlie decided it was as good a time as any to go west. Thus, Sweety came into my life.
By the time quail season rolled around, I knew that Sweety was a good retriever, but had no idea how she would do on quail. Still, she would be handy to have along for finding the birds we shot in dense cover and couldn’t find—and South Texas is almost all thick cover.
On the first trip of the season, we were trundling through the thick, thorny brush. Sweety was instinctively working in front of us, but I knew she didn’t know what she was doing.
Soon, we flushed a covey of bobwhites. We knocked down a couple and Sweety found and retrieved one of them. Then, apparently having figured out what we were doing, she began to really work back and forth, in front of me.
Suddenly her attitude changed. With her nose held high, instead of on the ground, it looked like she was following a scent trail in the air. In a minute or two she flushed another covey. This time we killed three or four and she found all of them.
From then on it was Katy bar the door! I just kept an eye on Sweety and told the hunters when to get ready for action. Even hunting the thick brush of South Texas we seldom lost a bird. Our best day, I believe, was 31 different wild coveys. Almost every dog man that hunted with me offered to buy Sweety, but she wasn’t for sale at any price.
I hunted Sweety steadily for more than 10 years. When she got too old to run after quail I would take her out a few times a year to retrieve doves. Finally she got too old to do even that, and I retired her to the house and yard.
Still, if I walked out the gate with a shotgun, she tried to follow me, and looked terribly dejected when I wouldn’t let her come along. She still had the desire, but just didn’t have the legs. Whereas in the past, she would leap into the back of the pickup, I now had to pick her up and put her in. I know how she felt, because I am getting to that age myself.
The other day I was expecting company when I heard a cacophony of noise in the front yard. I went to the door, and saw my two friends standing outside the fence, yelling and pointing. I looked where they were pointing and saw Sweety and my Jack Russell terrier, Max, dancing around a gigantic rattlesnake.
I tried to call them off but they were too intense. I ran in the house, grabbed the .410 shotgun I keep by the front door for such emergencies, and shot the snake.
While I was busy with that, Sweety ran into the house, went to the bedroom, and lay down on her bed, just like she always did when she was tired of being outside. I kenneled the terrier, threw the snake over the fence, and then checked the terrier for a bite. He seemed fine. Then I went to the bedroom and looked at Sweety. She, too, appeared okay.
I had my meeting with my friends, which took maybe 45 minutes, saw them to their vehicles, and went back into the house. When I walked into the bedroom I could tell instantly that all was not right with Sweety. She was no longer lying on her bed. Instead, she was standing up, trembling, and I could see blood on her foot. Looking more closely I saw that the snake had bitten her on the chest, right over her heart.
I immediately called a friend who is a veterinarian and rushed Sweety to him. He gave her several shots, and told me that was all he could do. I took her home, made her as comfortable as possible and waited, hoping she would be okay. She died about 11 that night.
I measured the snake at five feet, five inches, not stretched or pulled, but just lying on the ground. It was at least as big around as my not inconsiderable forearm.
It was the second biggest rattlesnake I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of rattlesnakes. I accept there are a few six-foot rattlesnakes, but I have never seen one.
Well, my friend is gone, and now you know the story.
Just remember that the next time somebody gives you a free dog, it could well be the dog of a lifetime. I don’t think I will ever have another hunting dog. I am too old and too broken down to follow one through the brush, and I know that any dog I got could never measure up to Sweety.
I do know, however, that if dogs do go to heaven, Sweety will be there, smiling and panting and wagging her big rudder of a tail. Maybe they will also have quail there. You never know.
—story by Steve LaMascus