An Eye For an Eye
Hunting dogs - Damn, if there is one thing I've learned in 40 years of hunting, it's that a man is a long time between good hunting dogs. They come and go, some more quickly than others… The names may linger on, recycled for the good ones, to preserve the memory of those golden hunts of yesteryear. Other names remain unused, as useless as their previous recipient. Toby was one of the good ones, dead now these past few years. A painful end, which only now I can write about, as time has dimmed the anguish of his passing. More trouble than they are worth sometimes, who'd have hunting dogs?
Toby was the ugliest damned dog you could imagine and, by most, would have been voted least likely to succeed. Butt-ugly! A Boxer bitch mother, of amorous disposition, his father any one of a hundred village dogs, he was cute enough as pup, when I got sucked into ownership of him.
A little bastard of a dog, who ate good shoes, removed laundry from the clothesline with relentless enthusiasm, and dug holes a 4x4 pickup truck would be taking risks in. But he had character, and charm, and a clever poise and purpose on the hill. Not only that but, cunning as a shithouse rat, he only ate my wife's shoes. Never one of mine, which I found to be an endearing quirk, and earned him more leeway than a less discerning dog might have enjoyed.
We hunt wild boar, and Toby never really looked like a contender with his Boxer tan and white face, and my mates certainly never took him seriously, but I liked him. He always looked interested in proceedings, didn't mind gunfire, and was keen to get in close to a bailed or held pig and have a look. His first major breakthrough was early one morning, aged about 8 months, when I wounded a pig of about 50lbs. He bailed it, barking furiously, knowing by now that this was the object of the quest. This went on for 20 minutes, with great encouragement from me. I made such a big fuss of him, and he loved it. The next time out, he bailed up two lively ones in a clump of fern, all by himself! That was a shock, I tell you, as I thought he'd found a possum! Going in to drag him away, swearing and muttering, I near messed my pants when I was confronted at point-blank range by an angry sow, teeth snapping. Anyway, that was the start of his career. He grew to be the bravest, cleverest pig dog I've ever owned. To watch him standing on his hind legs, sucking the breeze in, and then sink slowly and purposefully down and trot away, was just beautiful. I'd have to watch him like a hawk, alert for any sign of interest, because once he scented pig he was off. Sometimes a mile or more, and he would rarely ever bark, just go straight in and grab an ear and hold on, waiting for me to arrive. The sound of a pig squealing in the distance, as you are struggling through the jungle, ripped and torn by vines and thorns, spurring you on, and we killed many pigs together.
He was brave to a fault, and suffered some terrible injuries. Several times I carried him home, once with a shoulder almost severed, six inch gashes from brisket to spine at front and back. His recuperative powers were amazing, and he would heal in a week, full of piss and vinegar, ready for the next sortie. Scarred and battle-ugly, but he just loved the fights he got into, he almost seemed to laugh with the sheer joy of it. He could count, and always knew when one had got away, in which case resting was not an option - this really pissed me off sometimes, as after the 3rd or 4th pig for the morning, I got tired of running uphill. He always singled out the biggest pig in the mob, and friends were often astonished to see him weave his way through a mob of a dozen or more pigs, unerring in his determination to nail the biggest boar!
His tongue belonged to a much bigger dog, and always lolled 8-10 inches out one side of his mouth, giving him a lascivious leer - I always remember one of my mates saying that he wished he had a tongue like that! Why? No bloody idea!
We were out hunting one morning with Shane and his team of dogs. Toby, as usual, got the jump on us, slipping away quietly on a strong wind scent. We spotted him working his way up hill through a steep gulley, and powered off in hot pursuit. The squeal of an angry pig soon pierced the crisp morning air as, lungs labouring, we struggled upwards. Shane's dogs bolted, and soon the gulley resounded to a full-on confrontation. Shane got there first, and the knife soon silenced the commotion. I put the pig across my shoulders, and set out onto the ridge to leave it laying in the open for later retrieval. At one point, ducking to avoid a heavy branch, Toby slipped through in front of me, alert. A lower branch of a thorny matagouri bush flicked back from him, lashing me across the face. Stuff you, Toby! Jesus Christ, that stung! Well, you know what its like when you get flicked in the eye, right? That one streams, the other one does so in sympathy, and then your nose runs too! Can't see a bloody thing, stumbling along through the jungle, cursing viciously…..
I got out into the open ground on the ridge, and dumped the pig on the ground. Blowing my nose, and dabbling at my eyes, I discover that Shane has disappeared off the face of the earth. Just then, Toby bolts off down into the next gulley, and latches onto another boar, a tussle which rotates through the fern and matagouri, tumbling into the creek below. I dropped the Winchester 30-30 on top of the dead pig, and floundered down the hill to the action, armed only with the Puma White Hunter. Which, if you permit a small digression, is perhaps one of the worst hunting knives ever made. Speaking as a pig hunter, you understand, and no reflection on Puma, who also made the very best knife I ever owned, a Puma Hunters Companion, which I lost on a canoeing trip many years ago. Toby had the boar by the ear, in a pool in the creek. I'm still nearly blind, and completely misjudged the situation - the depth of the water, the size of the pig, which I managed to grab by the tail as he swum past, with canine accessory locked in place on his ear . Now up to my balls in icy water, with a nasty little boar of around 120 lbs by the tail, and what does Toby do? The bloody dog lets go, heading off up the creek at full pace. I told you he could count, right?
What a pretty pickle, knife in one hand, very angry pig with razor-sharp tusks in the other, doing the waist-deep waltz, and blind as a bat. The language would have curdled milk! I managed to stab the knife into an overhanging tree as we wheeled around the pool, giving me a fighting chance to terminate a seriously out of control situation. Reaching down and through, I grabbed an off-side front leg, and pulled the boar onto his back, and suddenly I have a semblance of control! A quick retrieval of the knife, a savage thrust to the throat, and the pig rapidly loses interest in proceedings. I collapse on the bank, shaking with adrenalin overdose. Still can't see, and not feeling great about that, I gut the boar and carry him up to the first pig. Shane has still not materialised, and my eye is stinging like hell, still streaming profusely. I sit there, hands over my eyes, wiping away the tears, then comes the sickening realisation that my eye is going flat! Actually deflating! Shit, I'm terrified, and nearly vomit with the shock and horror. Stuff Shane, the dogs and the pigs! I start running back to the truck, heading for medical attention. I’ve been hunting since I could walk, some 40 years now, and have been shot, fallen off motor bikes, had the odd car crash, and even walked unscathed from the wreckage of a light plane crash. None of that compared to the fright of a flat eye, I tell you I was so bloody scared and nauseous I nearly died of it. And bloody lucky too, I was. The thorn had pierced my eye, going right through to the back, into the retina. Luckily, it traveled at an angle, hitting off centre, and I suffered no permanent injury and minimal visual impairment. A contact lens bandage for a couple of weeks, and things were pretty much back to normal, but I will never forget that particular experience. Poor Shane also had a shit of a day, as he’d disappeared up the hill to kill a third pig, returning to find I’d completely vanished. By the time he’d carried all three back to where the truck should have been, and Toby had tormented him by finding a 4th one back up the hill, he was ready to collapse!
Hunting Dogs Part 2: For an Eye
Returning to that Puma White Hunter, I am mystified how anyone could have designed such a knife. Big and heavy, lovely steel, but a bloody great thick bit on the end, I think for hitting with a rock to cut bone etc, and practically no point on it at all. I got it in a trade it for a fly fishing reel in a moment of stupidity, and regretted it until finally I took it into the county workshop. The big grinder, the little grinder, and a shit-load of sparks later, it more closely resembled a pig-sticker. Actually, it became a favourite weapon, until another bad day happened along.
Toby and I were having a little walk, up the Waipara River bed, thinking maybe we’d find a pig lurking in some swampy river flats. Sure enough, the plan worked well, and it was not long before Toby’s nose was in action, as he stood tall and drank in the wind from upriver. Sinking down without a glance at me, he jumped up into the jungle of gorse and broom under the willow trees, and disappeared. I stood alert on the edge of the riverbank, half expecting a pig or two to leap out into the open trying to escape the dog. Quiet reigned for a few minutes, just the cicadas rasping away, and the water rolling over the rocks. After about 10 minutes, a squeal upstream about 100 yards, and we are in business. I sprinted up the riverbed, spray flying, and ready for action. Nothing broke cover, and as I drew level I could tell it was not big, maybe 60-70 lbs, and only a few yards in from the bank.
Leaning the 30-30 against a rock, I drew the Puma and began crawling on hands and knees through the thorns and vines, knife firmly clutched in my left hand, eyes wide open and ready for action! Its hot, and the sweat is pouring down before long, as the pig keeps slipping free and gaining a few more yards before the dog can anchor it again. Eventually, I’ve got it in sight at about 5 yards and, waiting until its looking away from me, I lunge for a grip on a back leg. Once I’m locked on, its gets easier, and I can wrestle it, catching an opposite side front leg, and flicking it onto its back.
Doing this with a knife in one hand is not so easy, but between me and the dog, we’ve kinda got the situation in hand. Except for the Puma, which proves to be so blunt, I could ride bare-assed to bloody London on it. Push as I may, I can’t push it thought the skin on the pig's neck. The dog lets go, to get his breathe back, grinning as he does so. I quickly raise the knife, stabbing hard to drive it home. Toby, on instinct, senses the pig is making a break, and pounces on its throat just as the knife arcs down. He’s so damned quick I can’t pull the hit, and he takes the knife in the head, hard. I’m appalled, and Toby whines in agony, the knife buried in his eye socket, jammed into the bone. Bloody hell, what a shocking thing to happen. I wrench the knife free as he staggers, bleeding and whining, and pull him close to comfort him. I’ve taken his eye out, the poor bastard, and the tears stream down my face. I’m gutted, I think maybe this is one of the worst days hunting I’ve ever had in my life. We are even, true, but I certainly had never wanted retribution for the injury he’d inflicted on me the year before. Out comes a field dressing to cover the oozing eye socket, some elastoplast to hold it in place. To hell with the pig, I’ve let it go, and we jog off down the riverbed to the truck, dog at heel, head cocked to one side, and emitting the occasional whimper. Back home, and round to the vet, who is shocked at the injury.
After an operation to tidy up the damage, Toby is soon back home to recuperate. Sad to say, he was no good after that, the knife having penetrated his nasal cavity, impairing his scenting abilities. He tried hard, running with his head to one side, clumsy at first but soon mastering the impediment. Few more pigs were added to his tally. Steadily, his judgement diminished, and before long he’d pull over a sheep by mistake, a sin of enormous magnitude, and quite unpardonable. He became untrustworthy, mean-spirited, and disobedient, and thus brought about his own end, an action that was at the time easy, standing as he was over the fresh-killed carcass of a farmer's ewe and lamb.
||Toby was the best, one of a kind, and I remember every detail of his life, every shoe, every hole in the back yard, every scar, and every pig he found, bailed and fought. In honour of him, in remembrance, I will never have another Boxer, never another Toby in my kennel. I still feel the prick of tears, thinking of the fights we had, the pigs we killed, and miserable end I brought him too.
Hunting dogs come and go. That’s all behind me now, years ago it happened, and a few dogs have come and gone since then. Nowadays, its me and black Labrador "Luke" who hunt them, and he’s showing promise, not far from his first lone find. But Toby’s never far away, and never will be, and I’d still appreciate a chance to make amends one day.
Shit does happen, as I know only too well. And when you hear some guy say "A bad day's hunting is still better than a good day's working," maybe you could ask him to read this story, and think again. All I know is, I wish I'd gone to work that day!