By Al Gray
English Setter "Jake" circa 1978
Calla Jean produced one fine litter of pups in the spring of 1960. In dog breeder parlance, Calla was the dam and Pal was the sire. When the pups arrived, Stevens Creek Road had been paved a scant 4 years. Eisenhower was still President. Folks in Augusta knew the Old Fruitland Nursery. The Masters was dispensing tickets to all. Down the hill there was Bowen Pond, but no West Lake, only about 850 acres of Rhodes family and friends’ land which would become the pups training ground.
Nell, Bullet, Rock, Sand, Penny, King, and Bronco were lemon and white English pointers from a long line of the breed that had served the Rhodes family for decades. They came up during what was perhaps the heyday of quail hunting in East Central Georgia.
Penny turned out to be ours; or rather we were hers, especially my father. She was the first respectable quail dog he had owned, despite having a father, Allie Gray, who loved quail hunting about as much as he did gospel quartet music. I would never say this to my father, but Penny had a couple of faults. First, she fancied herself a rabbit dog and you never wanted to encourage her by shooting a cottontail, because that would mean getting rabbit points the rest of the day. You could usually tell when she was pointing a rabbit, because her tail would have a crook in it. If it really was pronouncedly crooked, that probably meant a snake. If you didn’t encourage Penny to snake and rabbit hunt, she was a very good quail dog, too.
Her brother, Bronco, would turn out to be the stalwart bird dog of the litter. He belonged to my great uncle Land Rhodes, who did more quail hunting than anyone else in the family and even most anyone in the state. He took Bronco all around, starting with the usual trek from the gate into Bowen Pond, up to Mr. Skinner’s old hog farm, over to Baston and Furey’s Ferry Road, where his cousin Sterling Rhodes ran a small store. (This is the corner where the First Citizen’s Bank now sits.) There Bronco and the other bird dogs could be watered while the hunters took their own refreshments while gossiping with Sterling. The return trip carried the party back through what is now Watervale subdivision and on home on Stevens Creek Road. It was a half-day hunt. In that day, the hunters could bag a couple of dozen on that hunting trek.
Other hunts took our family of hunters to McBean, Girard, Stoney Bluff, Millen, Hephzibah, Vidette and Sylvania. Mostly we hunted out of my father’s mechanical Broncos from the Ford factory.
Land Rhodes with Junior Gray (looking back from Bronco window)
Bronco, the English Pointer, purely loved to hunt. He was also a wizened master of the hunt and nonverbal communication. Many were the times that we made a turn, missed seeing Bronco, then found him standing expectantly at the corner of an adjacent field on the other side. He would be ‘saying’ “I got ‘em down here in the lespedeza patch, fellas, where did y’all go?” After he knew we had seen him he would dutifully trot back and remake the point that we had missed. Sometimes we would not even have to turn around, because Bronco would stand unmovable at an intersection of a field with his head high, until we noticed his resolute beckoning style and hunted his way.
Those were the days. Moonshining was not remotely dead in rural Georgia in the early 60’s and thrived until growing marijuana displaced it. Liquor stills were in the middle of the densest parts of the woods along branches and creeks. It was not uncommon to encounter one quail hunting. Old Bronco was part of one visitation. He had pointed a single bird on the edge of a corn field in sparse blackberry briars. Uncle Land was up to shoot with this writer as back up. The bird erupted from the broom straw and sailed into a high, twisting flight over the top of the more towering blackberries close to the creek. BAM! The quail tumbled out of sight. We gingerly walked around the briar patch until we found a path – a recently used path – that led to the fallen bird. After stooping under vines and briars for about 20 yards, we came to a clearing, in the midst of which stood an operating still. Not wanting to tarry, the search for the downed quail resumed in earnest. Turning to leave empty-handed, Land spied the quail – belly up in a vat of sour mash!
The years passed and Bronco began to lose a step. His range, never great, diminished. Along came the trio of Go Boy, Rusty, and Freedom, all of whom had greater range and complimenting abilities. The day came in which there were hard decisions on which dogs to carry in the aqua Bronco, with Bronco the Hunting Fiend increasingly relegated to the half-day hunts. The old warrior became a yard dog, an old, decrepit relic of glory days past.
He didn’t like that one bit. He did not hide it well either.
He liked it less when he was left behind even on those short hunts. He was left pacing the yard twice, I think, before The Day. It was early one morning, shortly after daybreak, when we pulled into Uncle Land’s yard. We began to load Go Boy, a young pup and Rusty into the bog box with Freedom and another dog of mine, who had already settled in for the next leg of the ride. I left the passenger side door of the aqua wagon open to load coolers, guns, and ammunition.
The implausible happened. There was the sound of loose gravel. I turned to see a lemon and white blur LEAPING through the air and through the open truck door! Old Bronco had had enough. He was going today, thank you very much. The old boy clambered atop the dog box from the inside, laid down, and had his graying head facing the front. I made a motion to grab him by the collar.
It was a very serious growl in Bronco’s life-long history of nonverbal communication. It said “Sonny-boy, we go way back. I remember when you got on the school bus every day. You didn’t want to make that trip. This trip is different. I am going hunting today…..or do you want to lose your face?” Yep, all that came out – loud and clear – in that growl.
I backed out and called for help. Uncle Land, Bronco’s master, was ready to go and wasn’t going to tolerate nonsense from a canine retiree occupying the space where the cooler was supposed to go. He reached up a grabbed Bronco’s collar. Well, it is a good thing the dog was dull and gapped toothed because Bronco was in no mood to be trifled with. He bit Land hard.
Old Bronco went hunting that day. The cooler got strapped onto the tailgate.
After then, it got to be a game. We knew to avoid leaving the door open and we knew to block the doors into the dog box, but yet again, Bronco managed to leap through. We learned that you could not let him even get onto the tailgate, for if you did, you had a snarling fiend on your hands.
After the season, we redesigned and rebuilt the dog box to prevent a dog from wriggling to the top of the dog box from the outside.
Bronco the English Pointer, who morphed into one very mad dog when it became necessary, set the example for the other dogs and was indispensable in training them. Eventually even the headstrong Go Boy and Freedom learned the trick of coming back for misdirected hunters. None other ever went to such lengths to go hunting as old Bronco.
We should all be like that, never giving up the hunt, leaping at opportunity, and hanging on for all the glory we can embrace.
Sometimes this old scribe has occasion to journey to some of those hunting haunts of so long ago. In places, the fields are much as they were 40 years ago. The last time I was down below Girard, upon turning down the River Road, a glance out of imagination saw a statuesque lemon and white pointer, head erect, saying in his old style “Sonny-boy, there are quail down in the broom straw field………”
The next time I will make sure I am driving this vehicle of mine.
The 1969 Ford Bronco in July 2012
One day maybe Bronco will bring along these two fellows in my vision.
Land Rhodes & Junior Gray approach a pointing bird dog circa 1978
That will be one fine day, even if Bronco bites me.