TALE OF THE BEWILDERED BIRD DOG

Travis couldn't believe it when I fired and nothing fell, but I'd stashed a treat
December 10, 1990

In the mid-'70s, The Nature Conservancy planned to start a major program in Texas. I was director of The Conservancy's land acquisition staff in those days, and we realized that setting aside acreage in Texas was not going to be easy. Residents of the former Republic of Texas don't appreciate anybody telling them what to do with their land.

The strategy we decided to use to get the program started was to find a single influential Texan and sell him on our brand of conservation, rather than a general solicitation drive among owners of desirable sites. As land-acquisition director, it was my task to find that Texan.

It took me only a few phone calls to identify the person we wanted. He was big, even by Texas standards. He had inherited one fortune and made another. He supported habitat-preservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited, Boone and Crockett Club, and Safari Club International. Apparently nothing concerning conservation in Texas was undertaken without his approval. He was not a member of The Nature Conservancy.

When I called him, he seemed receptive. In fact, he invited me to go hunting. "Come down after the first of the year and we'll get some snows," he said. "Provided you ain't opposed to hunting?" He was testing me, obviously.

"That would be fine," I told him. "I enjoy hunting." Which was the truth. I did enjoy the one time in my life that I went hunting. Professional conservationists do not get many invitations to go hunting.

"Good. We'll go up to Eagle Lake," the Texan said. "Goose capital of the world. You've never seen anything like it."

Right after the New Year, I flew to Houston. Eagle Lake was about 50 miles west. My Texan met me at the airport. For the sake of this story, and my health, let's say he went by the initials, T.H. He was wearing big boots, a big hat and a big belt buckle and was smoking the biggest cigar I had ever seen. His big four-wheel drive was parked right in front of the door. It was filled to the roof with camouflage clothes, gun cases, boxes of shells and racks of decoys. A dog cage was nestled in the middle. Its door was open.

As soon as I got in, a young, enthusiastic Lab jumped into my lap and started licking my face. "That's Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis," T.H. told me. "I'm just breaking him in. I had his daddy for 12 years. Best retriever in all of Texas. I had to put him down last year, but this here dog, he's going to be even better." T.H. must truly have high hopes for this dog, I thought. Lt. Col. William Barret Travis commanded the Alamo, and his name is not bestowed casually in the state of Texas.

"Remember the Alamo!" I said, scratching Trav's ears. "You can't beat a good dog."

"Ain't that the truth," T.H. said. He floored the big vehicle, cut off a taxi and barreled out of the airport.

As we rambled through mile after mile of south Texas ranchland, I tried to steer the conversation toward conservation, but T.H. didn't want to talk about conservation. He wanted to talk about Travis. "OF Trav here, he's going to be a champ," T.H. said. "Smart as a whip, and there's nothing he can't find." According to T.H., Travis had the best nose, most brains, softest mouth and biggest heart of any dog in all of Texas.

"Good boy, Trav," I said, wiping a glob of drool off my blazer. It didn't take me 50 miles to figure out that being nice to Lt. Col. Travis would help me get a program going in Texas.

We pulled into Eagle Lake at dusk. It was, in fact, a one-horse town-there was a single hitching post in front of The Farris 1912. In its brochure, The Farris 1912 described itself as "A Step Back in Time ... the Queen of Early Texas Hotels." As we walked in, men in big boots, big hats and big belt buckles were sitting around, smoking big cigars. As far as I could tell, there were no women registered at The Farris 1912.

My Texan knew everyone. After a big country dinner, we settled into one of The Farris 1912's public lounges for some big drinks and some big Texas stories. Every story revolved around hunting. When they started comparing dogs, T.H. rambled on and on about Travis. "T.H., that dog's just a pup," noted a little Texan, who may have been trying to compensate for his size by the very big diamond ring on his pinkie. "Now his daddy, he was a retriever, but this dog hasn't shown us anything yet." The other men at The Farris 1912 agreed.

"You'll be believers by this time tomorrow," T.H. said as he stomped off to bed. Beautiful! This slight to Trav was the chance I'd been looking for. If I could help make the pup a star, we'd be set in Texas. I tossed down another big drink to celebrate my good luck. Now all I had to do was prove myself in the field.

It was 4:30 a.m. when we piled into the truck. There was no sign of daylight. I hadn't been able to eat my big country breakfast. My head was killing me from all the big drinks. Luckily, I'd remembered Travis and had stuffed my pockets with patties of spicy breakfast sausage.

We rattled through the darkness over gravel roads, splashing through puddles and potholes. "This land used to be the Garwood and Eagle Lake prairies," T.H. told me. He seemed to be in a better mood now that we had gotten away from The Farris 1912 and the little man with the big diamond pinkie ring. "In the late '40s and early '50s, Jimmy Reel, a rice buyer and a helluva hunter from Arkansas, convinced these landowners to spot their rice fields with ponds," he said, slamming the gears into four-wheel drive as we skidded onto a dirt track. Travis was crawling all over me, trying to get at the spicy sausage. "Jimmy figured if we had some water, all this rice would attract a lot of geese," T.H. continued. "He was right. Within 10 years, a million snows were wintering over, and Eagle Lake was calling itself the undisputed goose-hunting capital of the world."

"Interesting," I said, surreptitiously slipping Travis a sausage patty. I was having trouble concentrating on the history of the Garwood and Eagle Lake prairies. The smell of Travis's sausage-scented breath as he continually lapped my cheek was getting to me. Thanks to the sausage, Travis was becoming my best friend.

A faint glow was spreading from the east as we slid to a stop. T.H. dropped the tailgate and hauled out a huge sack and two gun cases. "You grab the guns, and I'll take the gear," he said, slinging the sack over his shoulder. "All right, Trav, it's time to show those boys back at The Farris who's boss." Travis ignored T.H. and stuck his nose under my down vest. "I can't believe it," said T.H. "Travis's taking to a conservationist. That's like licking Santa Anna."

We started to slosh through the rice furrows. A couple of inches of standing water separated each row from the next. Gobs of mud clung to my boots. My feet felt as heavy as cinder blocks.

We stopped next to a pond. The day was arriving overcast and unseasonably hot. I put down the gun cases and unzipped my vest. The rice fields stretched to the horizon in every direction. I was about to collapse when T.H. said, "We'll set up here. That way, we might get some ducks coming into the pond as well as geese feeding in the field. Travis likes them both. That's right, isn't it, boy?"

Travis didn't hear him. Or at least he didn't pay him any attention. He was too busy sniffing my pockets searching for more spicy sausage. When T.H. wasn't looking, I gave Travis another patty. It was gone in a single gulp.

T.H. dumped his bag on the ground. Much to my surprise, he pulled out two long, white surgical gowns and a big pile of diapers. "Here, put this on," he said, handing me one of the gowns. He had to be putting me on. Where was the traditional camouflage?

He put on his gown and picked up an armload of diapers.

"Diapers? What are they for?" I asked.

"Decoys," he said. "Ain't nothing that decoys snows better than diapers."

This was unbelievable. Diapers for decoys, white gowns as camouflage. T.H. had to be kidding.

He was dead serious. "Follow me and spread these out," he ordered. "The geese are going to be in the air right quick, and we're going to knock clown a bunch of them. Those boys back at The Farris are going to be eating their words tonight." T.H. started dropping diapers in the field. I squished after him.

Spreading the diapers was no easy job. There were hundreds of them. Sweat fogged my glasses and dripped off my nose. I kept tripping over my gown. My legs felt like jelly. Travis kept hounding me for more spicy sausage. "Daggone," said T.H., "I've never seen a dog take to anybody like that." I patted Travis on the head and snuck him another patty. He swallowed it and stared at me, begging for more.

I was so exhausted that it took me a moment to hear the honking. Geese, thousands of them, were getting up. A solid wall of birds was forming like a cloud. It began rolling over the rice fields toward us. "Let's go!" hollered T.H. He threw down the last of his diapers and sprinted back to where we had left the guns. I stood there, numbed by the sight. I'd never seen so many birds. "Come on!" T. H. shouted. A rush of adrenaline gave me a second wind. I plowed through the furrows after him.

"Here," T. H. said, unlatching the gun cases and handing me a beautiful over-and-under. "You shoot the 12. I'll shoot my 10." His 10-gauge was the biggest gun I had ever seen. It looked like a cannon. "I'll tell you when to shoot. First bird's yours."

I lay down and loaded my gun. T.H. and Travis nestled in behind me. The geese now had Travis's full attention. He had forgotten all about the spicy sausage. His mind was riveted on retrieving.

T.H. produced a goose call and started honking. A couple of dozen birds immediately peeled off from the main flock and were decoyed right to the diapers. Travis whimpered as he watched them coming in. "Steady, boy, steady," T.H. softly crooned. Honk! Honk! Honk! "Steady." Honk! Honk! The geese circled in right on top of us. "Now, "T. H. said.

I sat up, took aim, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. "Damn," I said, fumbling with the safety.

"Shoot! Shoot!" yelled T.H. The flock wheeled and flew off across the fields. I clicked off the safety, raised my gun and fired. At the sound, Travis burst past me. "Whoa! Whoa!" screamed T.H., knowing that the geese had far outdistanced the pellets I had sent their way. Travis ignored his master. He splashed across the furrows, trustingly expecting a bird to fall. He must have run half a mile before he stopped and watched the geese fly out of sight. I could see he was confused. Why hadn't any fallen?

T.H. was red-faced from blowing his dog call. "Back, Travis, back!" he hollered. "Back, boy!" He whistled some more. When Travis finally returned, he was caked with mud. Saliva foamed in his otherwise empty mouth. He didn't look like much of a star. He flopped into my lap, obviously expecting at least one patty for all of his effort. "Damn. That dog has got a big heart," T.H. marveled. "I'd of bit you if you had done that to me."

"I got mixed up with the safety," I apologized. "I've never shot this type of gun before."

"Never mind," T.H. said, scanning the sky. "Quick, get down. Here come some teal."

I looked up and watched a flock of blue-winged teal drop from the sky and sweep in low over the pond. They were wingtip-to-wingtip. It was like watching a precision flying team. "Shoot! Dammit, shoot!" hollered T.H. I rolled up to a sitting position and fired wildly into the formation. Travis was off at the flash. He plunged into the pond. I prayed at least one bird would fall. None did.

T.H. pulled out his recall whistle again. Tweet! Tweet! "Back, Travis! Back!" Tweet! Tweet! Travis paddled on, unmindful of T.H.'s frantic calls. He wasn't about to surrender. Lieutenant Colonel William B. would have been proud of his namesake. "There's no bird, daggone it!" screamed T.H. "Travis! Come back, boy! The damn Yankee missed again!"

Travis's tongue was dragging as he struggled up the bank. It had been a long swim. He stopped next to me, shook himself and plopped his head into my lap. Surely, there'd be a treat this time.

"I swear, I can't believe this," said T.H., looking at his ever-forgiving retriever.

"These birds fly faster than the ones I'm used to," I said lamely. "I haven't been leading them enough." My explanation was for the birds, and T.H. knew it.

"Get set," he said. "Here come some more geese." Honk! Honk! Travis looked up and started to whine. The sky was white with geese. Even I couldn't miss.

BOOOOM! I was so startled by the sound of the 10-gauge that I dropped my gun. Two geese immediately folded and tumbled to the ground. I could see T.H.'s hubris settle as Travis instinctively marked both birds. He fetched one, then flawlessly went back and picked up the other. It was a perfect retrieve, one that had all the markings of a great story.

T.H. beamed with pride as Travis pranced past me with the second bird. Travis didn't even give me a glance. My spicy sausage couldn't compete with the natural taste of warm goose. This dog was a born retriever, a guaranteed star.

"I'm sorry, son," T.H. said, removing the second bird from Travis's mouth. "But I had to shoot. You were wrecking my dog."

I've never been back to Texas. After my trip to Eagle Lake, The Nature Conservancy hired someone specifically to run our Texas program. He was a crack shot and did an outstanding job selling The Conservancy's brand of conservation to the sportsmen of Texas. He told me they remember me at The Farris 1912; that I play a lead role in one of T.H.'s best "dawg" stories. T.H. can't figure out what Travis ever saw in me. Maybe someday I'll call him and tell him about the sausage. It will add spice to his story.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSMICHAEL THIBODEAU

The author hosts "Good Dirt," an environmental program on WAMU, in Washington, D.C.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)