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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.