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Back in the early '30s, the finest dog in Alabama was a big spraddlelegged tan-and-white pointer named Buster. Buster swept a field as if he were jet-propelled. He responded to hand signals instantly, and he marked down singles in a scattered covey like no other dog I have ever seen before or since. But Buster had one grievous fault. He had been taught retrieving by being rewarded with the heads of birds he fetched, and being a smart dog and always anxious to get on with his job of finding birds, he began snapping off the heads of birds before he delivered them. Buster's master reacted to this horrendous faux pas as might be expected. He whaled the tar out of him. It didn't do the slightest bit of good. Buster had decided quail heads were one of his fringe benefits, and he refused to be intimidated. Finally, since he was a man of intelligence, Buster's master realized that he might break the dog's spirit before he broke his habit. Eventually he became proud of Buster's failing, even bragged about it. When Buster would lay decapitated birds at his feet he would exclaim happily: "Look it that. If I fed him the feathers, I bet the ole fool would pluck them for me."
An uncle of mine once owned a dainty little setter named Lady who couldn't be broken of the habit of pointing rabbits. She was scolded and beaten, but Lady just liked rabbits. Fortunately, she wouldn't chase them. She would point them until they broke cover and ran, and if they were too slow about it, she would reach out and slap them into action. Although nobody else could detect any difference in her point, my uncle could always tell when Lady had a rabbit. He would look a little shamefaced as if excusing the action of a spoiled child. "She's just playing a joke," he would say. If somebody laughed—and his friends usually did—he would get belligerent. "Hell, she's got a right to have a little fun, hasn't she?"
Of all the eccentric dogs I have known, I am prepared to give first place to the first one I ever owned, a long-tailed tan-and-white pointer named Bob. From the time he was 12 weeks old Bob pointed everything that flew, buzzed or had feathers. We were proud of Bob's penchant for pointing flies, wasps and chickens until we also discovered that he was an idiot. For like Blind Tom, the gifted Negro pianist who astounded concertgoers at the turn of the century by showing no intelligence until he was led to a piano, Bob hadn't a glimmer of intelligence when he wasn't hunting birds. And Bob wanted to hunt all the time.
It was impossible to let him out: he would run wildly until he found an open field and start searching for birds. It was also almost impossible to keep him penned up. By the time he was a rangy one-year-old, Bob could scale the highest fence, and when we built him a covered runway Bob always found a way to burrow under it. The sight of a shotgun or a hunting coat would send him into a frenzy. He would begin to yelp and run around in tight circles until he collapsed, twitching and sometimes even frothing at the mouth. At first we thought Bob had running fits, but after the vet had wormed and re-wormed and checked and rechecked him for every conceivable parasite or ailment, he broke the news to me one day. "Son, this dog is just plumb crazy. You can either shoot him or hunt birds with him. Don't expect to get much satisfaction otherwise."
Bob was a mighty hunter. Whenever we started out on a hunt we had to fasten a 20-pound chain to his collar until he settled down, but after half an hour he always became the steadiest, best-disciplined dog in the field. If I said "dead" very softly, Bob would search a field until he found a dead bird or until he was dragged away. Bob held a point as if he were carved from granite, and in the field he had that trait rare in any dog, the power of deduction. He invariably retrieved crippled birds before dead ones, even when the dead ones were closer to him. I never knew him to overrun a bevy, and he was too much of a gentleman to reproach me for a bad shot as so many dogs do.
Getting Bob home from the field was quite a chore. Along about sundown when the shadows began gathering and the scattered quail began whistling one another up, he usually tried to sneak away and hide. We always had to drag him struggling to the car.
Other hunters used to laugh at my crazy dog, but there wasn't a man in town who hadn't offered to buy him. Since Bob was so unusual, I guess it was likely that he should meet an unusual end. In an effort to break Bob of his habit of jumping fences, I fastened a short heavy block of wood to his collar with a chain. One night I put Bob in the chicken yard with this contraption, and he tried to jump the fence and hanged himself. I was heartbroken and swore I would never forget Bob. And I haven't because, of course, you never do forget the difficult ones.