S A KID, I
spent several summers on my grandparents' dairy farm in western Montana. The farm was a small holding in the Bitterroot Valley, about three
miles east of Corvallis. Life there was exactly what every young person should experience - milking cows, working with threshing crews and, of course,
My best friend had no first name. The family name was Sylvester. Grownups called him "that Sylvester kid," and those of us who were his own age
simply called him Sylvester. I was ten at the time of the story and I suppose he was a year or two older.
Most of us had dogs, of course, and mine was a border-collie-mix named Spotty. Spotty and I were inseparable, and we remained best friends throughout
his long life. One of the interesting things about Spotty was that he would smile - actually smile - when he was happy, which was most of the
time. And if you petted him really hard, he would just about grin his face off.
The thing that set Sylvester apart from the rest of us was the fact that he didn't have a dog. Instead, Sylvester had a twenty-pound tomcat named
Skunk that went everywhere with him. Skunk was a black-and-white ball of feline terror that was tougher and more ferocious than any dog that ever lived.
Sylvester and I were the only two people who could pet Skunk without coming away suffering from deep claw marks and terminal cat bites. Interestingly
enough, Spotty and Skunk were also best buddies. They would play and roughhouse by the hour, with none of the usual cat-and-dog hostilities.
At the beginning of my first summer on the farm, my granddad issued me a worn-out Hamilton .22 rifle and a box of Winchester .22 shells. My uncle had won
the Hamilton by selling packages of seeds to all the neighbors. Legend has it that the seeds were no good. I can assure you that the Hamilton, at
least by the time I got it, wasn't a whole lot better.
To the south of the farmhouse and barnyard was a section of rolling-hill pasture land. The hills broke into a coulee and beyond the coulee was the
Big Ditch. The gophers lived at the south end of the property, and their holes caused an enormous amount of soil erosion. The gophers virtually
made Swiss cheese of the field rim, and the soil simply crumbled into the coulee. If that damage had been left unchecked, my grandfather figured, he would
lose three acres of tillable land each year to the gophers. In later years, I've come to realize that my job as gopher warden was a very important one.
My grandfather struck a hard bargain. I was to hunt gophers only when I had no other farm chores to do. Also, my .22 shells would be replenished
on the following basis: I got one shell for every gopher tail that I brought him.
It didn't take long for me to realize that I had a tough job maintaining an ammo supply. I shot up the original box of .22's in a couple of days and had
only six gopher tails to show for the effort. Granddad, true to his word, gave me six Winchester .22 shells for the tails. Obviously, something
had to be done about this state of diminishing returns.
Sylvester came to the rescue. He was in charge of gopher control at his home place on the other side of the Big Ditch. Unlike me, he got
his .22's by the 500-round brick, and he graciously lent me a box of fifty. If memory serves, I believe we sealed the business deal by wiggling our toes
in the same fresh-dropped cow pie.
Also, Sylvester taught me a trick that he said was almost as much fun as shooting gophers. He gave me some fine copper wire that came from an old Ford
that was tipped-over in the lower end of the coulee. With the wire in hand, Sylvester proceeded to teach me the fine art of fishing for gophers.
"Fishing for gophers" probably isn't a proper description of the activity, but that's what we called it. Actually, Sylvester taught me the time-honored
Montana farm-boy art of hand-snaring gophers.
We found an active gopher mound, one with lots of wet dirt around the hole. Sylvester made a miniature wire lasso and put the loop around the
hole. Then we backed away from the hole, keeping a tight wire. After a few minutes, the gopher stuck his head out of the
hole. Seemingly all in one motion, Sylvester tightened the lasso and reeled him in like a calf-roping rodeo cowboy.
Sylvester had extensive experience in gopher-fishing and he made a fine teacher. With his guidance, it took me only a few days to master the process.
A few of the finer techniques are as follows: The loop has to have just the right amount of "slide" to close securely on the gopher's body. Anchoring the
loop with a little dirt helps to keep the lasso in exactly the right position. When the gopher shoves his head out of the hole, you have to wait for exactly
the right moment to close the loop. Then, you pull hard and keep a tight line or you'll lose him. When you have the gopher properly bulldogged,
you dispatch him and cut off his tail. The beauty of the whole episode is that it is great fun and it earns you a shiny new Winchester .22 shell.
The time spent waiting-out the gopher was well spent by the Steve-Sylvester team. This was quality time - time when you looked for pictures in the
clouds (I found lots of dragons), contemplatively picked your nose, or fooled with Spotty. Especially the latter, 'cause I sure loved to see him smile.
It didn't take long until I won back my original ammo supply of a full box of .22 shells. I also repaid Sylvester his loan. Soon, with a bit of
Sylvester's coaching, I found that you can tend two wires at a time. I experimented briefly with a three-wire technique, but soon found that it severely
cuts into your quality time.
On the day in question, Spotty and I were shooting and snaring gophers. We were sitting on a small ridge late in the day, watching a snare to the west
of us. After a while, I noticed something that was highly unusual. A large black-and-white critter, which I took to be Sylvester's tomcat,
was digging-out a gopher mound on the next hogback. I thought it was strange that Skunk would be out hunting alone, but I assumed that Sylvester would
be along directly. Sylvester and Skunk were always together, and I naturally assumed that Sylvester was probably in the next gully.
The gopher-fishing was a bit slow, so Spotty and I decided to go over and play with Skunk. So I rolled-up my gopher snares, grabbed the Hamilton,
gathered-up Spotty, and dipped into the coulee.
The ridge was short and steep. When we were about to break over the top, I could hear Skunk busily digging for gophers. From the sound,
the tomcat was just a short distance away, exactly in the direction of the setting sun.
We topped the ridge and there, just a few feet away, was a skunk. Not Skunk, the tomcat, but a real, live skunk. To make matters worse,
the critter had his tail up and was aiming his you-know-what right at Spotty and me.
It didn't take me long to thumb the Hamilton's hammer back and aim at the best available target. The rifle's sights settled at the round target under
the skunk's tail.
At the exact moment that I shot, I was aware of an ever-expanding white gaseous doughnut being shot our way. In a heartbeat, Spotty and I were in the
same condition: skunk-sprayed!
My eyes burned. I let out a gasp, and Spotty yelped and rolled. We just couldn't get away from the stinking, burning skunk vapor.
We set-out for home in the ever-gathering dusk. On our way through the barnyard, Granddad leaned out of the milk house, sniffed, grinned, and slammed
the door. With the wind to our backs, we approached the farmhouse. Apparently, our odor preceded us, because we were met by Grandma
before we could enter the warming porch. No way were we going to go into her house.
With the crustiness of a battle-hardened drill sergeant, Grandma had us do the following: first, I was to deposit my clothing in the old unused
outhouse. Then we were to submerge our bodies, our entire skunk-stinking bodies, into the little ditch that flowed between the chicken house and
the barn. And finally, we were to remain in the ditch until she determined that we'd soaked enough.
I'll never forget Spotty, there next to me in the ditch, with just his nose, eyes, and ears sticking out of the water. Spotty was a sorry
sight. In his dog eyes, I probably didn't look any better. For once in his life, Spotty wasn't smiling.
Grandma came down to the ditch after a while - it seemed like a century - and rubbed us down with warm raw milk. Then we washed-off in the
ditch again. Spotty and I were later treated to a vinegar-and-oatmeal bath that night.
Sylvester somehow got wind of the adventure and called while Grandma was bathing her errant children. He thought the whole episode was hilarious
and proceeded to call me Stinky. Regrettably, the nickname stuck for all of the remaining summers that I spent in the Bitterroot Valley.
Sylvester referred to the incident as the "shootout with the black-and-white cat." He further opined that the shooting match was a tie - both the skunk
and I got a kill that day.
Those days, fifty-odd years ago, make up several chapters in my mental "Hunter's Memory Book." I visit the memories often, because they carry a lot
of lessons. From Granddad, an old market hunter, I learned the value of a single round of ammunition. In the years since my Montana summers,
I've hunted all over the western United States, most of Canada and a good share of sub-Saharan Africa. Apparently, I learned Granddad's
lessons well. I simply don't squeeze-off a round unless I'm sure of a clean kill.
From Sylvester, I learned that the finest of friendships comes from a fellow hunter. Sylvester taught me the value of patience in hunting, the skill of
seeing pictures in the clouds, and dreaming about what is beyond the sky. He taught me that two friends can sit side by side for hours, not saying
a single word, yet communicating in a very, very special way.
From Spotty, I learned the unqualified love of a great dog. He died many years ago, doing what he loved to do - hunting. Spotty was chasing
a rabbit across the barnyard when his heart gave out on him. He collapsed, lingered for only a few minutes, and died in my grandfather's
arms. The old market hunter cried.
If there is a dog Heaven, Spotty is surely there. He is probably sleeping behind the wood stove, twitching and breaking wind, like he did in the warm
love-filled farmhouse of my youth.
I hope to meet Spotty again some day. I miss his smile.