An October day story full of tricks and treats with a little help from the devil.
Uncle Don passed a few weeks ago. He didn’t leave behind much besides dogs, guns, and stories.
By the end of his time, he saw fit to make me the guardian of two beloved bird dogs, Alder and Cricket, distantly related to Grandpa’s old dog, Purdey. As we rolled down the freeway, they rested quietly in a nest of timothy hay in the back of the truck waiting for their new home.
Laying against the seat next to me in a weathered leg-of-mutton case, stained and creased by adventures with dogs and birds, was the only other thing Uncle Don had willed to me: his favorite bird gun.
Heat from the dash warmed the leather, and it leaked aromas of sweat and cigar smoke and gunpowder and Hoppes No. 9. I didn’t dare look over at it for fear of finding Uncle Don’s apparition sitting there, lighting up a White Owl in preparation for one of the amazing tales that his nephews once lived for.
When Uncle Don came to visit during hunting season, he always said if we took good care of his dogs, and if Momma said we were good boys in general, he would tell us a real-life adventure story. Uncle Don had many colorful, outlandish yarns and we always believed them to be Gospel. Our favorite was the one of how Uncle Don and his little setter Purdey had shot the Prince’s grouse.
“Ain’t you boys sick of that one? I have told it about thousand times yet.” He would always begin the story this way. “It was a few years after your Grandpa passed away. I had just taken his little setter, Purdey,” named after a fancy gun he could never afford, “to her last field trial. Despite being past her prime, with a little limp she managed to take home the big ribbon.
“I still had energy to burn and didn’t want to go home. I was ridin’ high on the trial and that little heart beatin’ under all that white fur.” He took a long puff on the cigar and we slurped our cocoa
“So, I drove up to an easy covert that I used to hunt with your grandpa and your pappy, back when he was still fun.” He looked up with a wry grin to make sure father didn’t hear or maybe to make sure he did.
“It would be a quick hunt, or so I thought . . . Up at the turnout was one of them fancy kennel trucks you see all the big-time dog runners in. Leaning against the back was a little man dressed in a tweed jacket like some kind of fancy city slicker. He was staring at his watch with a pinched-up face until he spotted me, at which point he flicked the watch shut and smiled a greasy smile—”
“THAT WAS NO CITY SLICKER,” my little brother Joseph would always interject vehemently.
“Let him tell the story,” I would huff as I slugged Joe on the shoulder.
“At that moment,” Uncle Don would continue, “all I could tell was he looked angry. Like his back hurt, and his shoes didn’t fit, and it was all my fault. The little man grinned at me with teeth like cigarette butts jammed in an ashtray.
“ ‘Right on time,’ he said.
“ ‘For what?’ I asked.
“ ‘Well you have something that’s mine—that little white setter you’re so damn proud of. It’s my property.’
“ ‘That setter belonged to my father before me, and you have no stake in it, sir, so I suggest you stick an egg in your shoe and beat it.’
“I was getting a little mad, and so was Purdey.” He would imitate old Purdey’s snarls of contempt.
“At that point, the little man pointed up at the sky, and it turned from a beautiful September day to the blackest of tornado weather.
“ ‘I am the Prince of Darkness—Lucifer, if you will—and years ago your father cut a deal with me. I would give him the best hunting dog that ever was in exchange for his soul. I came through with my part of the bargain, yet he tricked me. I intend to make this right.’ ”
“How did grandpa cheat the Devil, Uncle Don?” One of us would always ask.
“Far as I can tell, he loved that setter so much he put his soul into her and hid it. Then later, when she went up to glory, Grandpa’s spirit followed, just like they did when they were hunting.” He smiled.
“Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. The Devil himself said that he would make a wager with me for a little field trial of his own: first six points, six shots, and six grouse in the bag wins.
“ ‘If you lose, I get the dog, and your soul,’ the Devil said.
“ ‘And if I win?’
“ ‘Then you can have my gun; I believe you’ll find it to your liking . . . it never misses and you can keep that cur,’ he said with a grin as he uncased his fowling piece. And sure enough, it was a looker!
“It was a perfectly slim and balanced 28-gauge made by Purdey and Sons. It was more gun than I could afford in several lifetimes . . . And it was named after my dog. Now, with all this talk of your grandpappy and eternal damnation and how the Devil was going to beat the best dog that ever was . . . well, it got my goat. I was prideful, true enough, but I also knew this country and the birds like neighbors, back when you knew your neighbors. And to top it all off, the twinkle of that gun with all its engraving caught my fancy pretty hard. My very own demon that sits upon this shoulder,” he pointed to his left shoulder and grinned, “whispered, ‘A man with a dog as good as Purdey ought to have such a nice gun as a Purdey.’
“I held out my hand and spit on it before offering it to the Devil, and he did the same before we shook. Then Lucifer opened up a kennel door on his truck. No hound of hell jumped out, but a rather large and almost all black English pointer. This dog was bulging with muscle and would have made Wehle himself jealous.
“I let Purdey out, and she stretched as I asked for her best and her forgiveness. She looked at my new hunting partner the way all setters do at strangers; she sized him up and snorted as if to say, ‘Oh, him? He ain’t nothing,’ and bounded into the cover. Just like that, the trial had begun.
“We hunted darn near side-by-side so we could keep an eye on each other. My dog’s bell off in the brush sounded like angels singing, and the bell on that big, mean pointer sounded like big old rusty chains being jangled.
“We hunted through the easy cover quickly. Both dogs were driven by different wills, but I had never seen old Purdey hunt harder or smarter. By the time Grandpa’s favorite covert had run out, we both had five points each, five shots each, and five birds apiece. Sure as hell, the Devil’s gun didn’t miss, but much to his surprise, I believe . . . neither did mine.
“It was getting down to the wire, so I suggested we push forward in the deep holler. It was the darkest, nastiest piece of cover I had ever seen. If there weren’t stickers pulling you down, there was sucking mud. Higher up was sharp shale slabs that could cut up what was left of a dog that the thorns didn’t account for. The few grouse in there were cagey birds, no easy marks like those resting in our game bags, but I knew many of their tricks, and I knew the land and was starting to feel like I had the edge.
The chains stopped clanging and his dog was on point. This bird was caught out in an open spot of shadow and this looked to be an easy mark as his pointer stood locked-up. The Prince started making his way toward the final bird, keeping obstacles in mind for the best shot, and I will be danged if he didn’t look like he was fixing on ground sluicing that bird.” Uncle Don stopped as he got to one of our favorite parts and played with his cigar until we were all fidgets.
“Now that dog knew better than to break point for anything. His master was the Prince of All Darkness and probably pretty handy with a whip. Fear held that dog stone still, and nothing would move it . . .” Uncle Don stretched.
“AND THEN?” Joseph all but screamed.
“Well, like I said, that dog wouldn’t break point on a bird for fear of upsetting the Devil. That’s why when a bear busted out of the cover the dog didn’t move till that old bear picked him up and shook him and then threw him down in the shale before skedaddling.
“Now, a bear is a bear, but all the same, he looked pretty familiar to me. I think it was the same one Grandpa and me sprung free from a trap, and I might be wrong, but he was doing us one last favor for saving his bruin life . . . But that’s another story, and I am still telling this one, Joe.” He smiled and winked at my brother as he mussed up Joe’s hair.
Joe was ready to combust with excitement.
“That dog lay on the rocks just about dead. I mean he was tore up.
“ ‘Get up!’ The Devil’s voice echoed off the shale and the dog rose.
“He looked back at me and my dog, and I think he recognized a pair that loved each other. He looked tired and envious as he started working again.
“The cover got so thick all we had was but a little trail to follow as we listened to hell’s bells and angels singing. Soon we reached a spot where I knew a very tricky old bird to live. At last, I knew how I was going to beat him!
“I slowed down and let the Prince go up ahead. Right on cue, the chains stopped clanging almost at the same moment Purdey stopped to back him.
“That big pointer had the bird pinned at the end of a big root ball. The Prince moved in for a flush, and the bird hopped from the clover to the edge of the trail, where it sailed deep into brush and down a slope. The Devil never could get a shot. But I had encountered this particular bird before and was pretty sure where he was going to escape. I positioned to see just the smallest of openings on his flight path and I already had my gun shouldered and pointing toward him.
“I don’t remember seeing the bird. Just a blur and I pulled.
“ ‘Looks like I won, sir. You can hand over that gun and go kick rocks,’ I said.
“ ‘My dog pointed that bird, not yours, and it was mine!’ His scream shook the trees with its echo.
“ ‘Afraid not. You never specified whose was whose before you shook, and all I know is a point’s a point, a dead bird is a dead bird, and a handshake is a handshake,’ I laughed.
“I never did get a reply from him. He just walked off or disappeared into the ether like he was never there. I made the long walk back carrying Purdey, as she was pretty banged up from all that tough cover, all the while wondering if what had happened really had.
“When I got back to the truck, sitting on the seat were six grouse, a shotgun, and a note:
“ ‘Well, Donald, I consider this matter resolved. I took the liberty of refinishing this gun so you might remember our little trial. Besides, it was too fancy for a tricky devil such as yourself. See you later. Lu., TPD.’ ”
Uncle Don smiled and held up his shotgun, the same one he’d earned in the bet for his soul, a nice little 28-gauge Purdey double that had an English setter backing an English pointer engraved on the side. It was this part—how the engraving depicted the tale—that made us believe; besides, he would have never been able to afford a Purdey in a million years of saving, and despite Mother’s insinuations about gambling or grifting, we knew Uncle Don would never lie to us. He would always smile at us and shout, “THE END. Now go to bed before your momma tans my hide.” And we would toddle off to bed believing every word.
The memory of that story hit me like a load of No. 4s, and I didn’t know if I was supposed to bust up laughing or break down crying. I took a deep breath and caught it as I stared at the road. A rest stop was coming up, and it was high time I stretched out my leg cramps and let the dogs out for some fresh air.
As I pulled off the road and into the rest stop, I noticed a large kennel truck, like you see all the big-time dog runners driving, parked a few spaces down. Standing next to it was a man in a tweed jacket like some kind of fancy city slicker. Next to him was a mostly black pointer. The man’s face was all pinched, and he stared at his pocket watch as if he were horribly late for something and probably not going to make it even if he tried. Only the pointer looked up with a tired smile and slow tail wag. I gassed the truck and got back on the freeway. A small chill ran down my spine as the dogs in the back of the truck howled mournfully.
Michael R Thompson is an independent artist and custom knife maker living in the Bitterroot valley of Montana with his setters and labs.