Every wagon dog string needed one, few had one, all dog men wanted one. The One was a pointer or setter which, when quail were elusive, could be counted on to find and point some. Only such a bird dog could rescue a failing crucial bird hunt, one the Boss Man counted on to seal a business deal or secure the good will of a politician on a key vote, say, if the Boss Man sold concrete, on a bill to fund road construction.
Many a dog man had lost his job for want of a Put-Down Jake, that mythical canine which became country store conversation at the end of a difficult hunt day. There were in a season many such days, blamed on weather, an east wind, poor scenting conditions, or simply, “They won’t movin’ today.” Owners were inclined to blame such days on their dog man’s failure to produce good dogs, especially if the owner had recently hunted at a plantation where the wagon held a Put-Down Jake, that special dog saved for the four o’clock brace.
Sometimes the dog was a Put-Down Jane. Whichever the sex, it was the super bird-finder with a radar nose which could magically produce a covey when no other dog could. It was the job saver, customer saver, bank lender saver.
Great bird dogs became legends after death, their exploits in memory growing in grandeur. Such is the way of memory. Just as the beauty of a long lost love increases in dreams, the achievements of long dead dogs swell in memory.
The east wall of the gun room at Mossy Swamp Plantation held a small oil portrait of a pointer known only as Jake, circa 1930. He was white with a solid liver head. How he became a wagon dog was explained by his tail in the portrait, two inches shorter than normal. Legend had it he’d lost the end in a kennel fight after his derby year in the plantation’s field trial string. The battle wound proved lucky for all, for Jake became the ultimate Put-Down Dog when consigned to the wagon dog string.
Legend had it Jake saved the plantation and the family fortune on a December day in 1931 in the depths of the Great Depression.
What happened exactly that day was now lost from passed-down memory. But in the attic of the Big House in a dust covered wicker basket was the diary of the current owner’s forbear who had owned Mossy Swamp in 1931. This is how he recorded the crucial hunt when Jake saved the plantation and the fortune of the owning family, then and now.
“Ben Rice guest for hunt today. Only the two of us. Shooting terrible in morning, worse after lunch. Only four birds at 4 o’clock. Then Jake put down. Five coveys pointed and shot into, the last at dark, fire belching from our barrels. For the day, twenty four birds, twelve each.
“On the wagon ride in, Ben said, ‘I have got to have Jake. Name your price.’
“I said, ’Ben you know I can’t sell Jake. That would be like selling a child.’
“Ben said,‘Name your price.’
“I said, ‘You buy the mortgage on Mossy Swamp from Bank of Boston, give me ten years to pay it and Jake is yours.’ I said it as a black humor joke. Ben knew I had lost it all in the Crash, foreclosure was weeks away.
“‘Deal,’ Ben said. I thought at first he was joking, but he was not. When we got to the kennel Ben took Jake from the wagon and put him on the front seat of his Packard, drove the mile to his Harmony Plantation big house. Jake ate ground steak for supper, slept in Ben’s bedroom that night and every night for the rest of his life.”
The rest of the story was well known in the family. The only business saved by the owner of Mossy Swamp in the Depression was a small firm in Birmingham that made explosives for the mining industry. It was incurring big losses until Hitler came to power when the British and Russians began to want munitions and the firm switched from mining explosives to artillery propellant. By the extended due date of the Mossy Swamp mortgage the firm’s profits had restored the family’s fortune and provided the cash to pay the debt in full, principal and interest. Jake was an old dog now but still the one put down on Harmony Plantation at four on those days when quail were elusive.