A premature season’s end…

The injury seemed minor and simple enough.  In fact, I did not realize it was an injury until I saw the swelling and felt the telltale heat of infection.  That was all a prelude to the appendage swelling to three times its normal size and the top of the second toe literally exploding open from the internal pressure and leaving a dime-sized porthole that gave a clear view of tendons and bones and from which blood and malodorous puss continued to ooze.

My second toe?  No, but I wish it had been or belonged to someone else, anyone other than Gus our beloved English springer spaniel who in the 36 hours since the injury was discovered Wednesday night has been to his Vet’s office three times, the subject of numerous phone calls and now lies in recovery from anesthesia following a thorough cleaning and installation of a drain in a right rear paw subjected to a remarkably aggressive bacterial infection.

Such I suppose are the risks posed to a bird dog that charges into steep agricultural drainage ditches filled with thorny and inhospitable plants and fetid water contaminated with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers along with the frequent piles of illegally dumped household trash and waste – not to mention the occasional rattlesnake.

But those ditches and the fields they drain are where the pheasants we pursue together in Imperial Valley are found, so that is where we must search for them.  And while we do so together as a team, it is Gus and others like him who must do the heavy lifting so that partners like me – if all goes well – can have a shot at a fleeing cock pheasant.  As our dogs fight their way throught the brush and cattails, the thorns and stickers, the mud and the putrid water and sometimes the dumped trash and broken glass – we take the high road which in most cases is a clear and open and well maintained ditch bank road used primarily by the vehicles of farmers, irrigation company employees and Border Patrol Agents.

If this seems an unfair division of labor between hunter and dog, be assured that it is the choice of the latter if it is what we call a “ditch dog,” typically a flushing breed that relishes getting down and dirty to find and flush a wild pheasant for the nimrod who strolls along the road above.

Such dogs are adept in the field as well, but it is their willingness to hit the ditches as part of their job that  sets them apart from most other hunting dogs and puts them at greater vocational risk.

Oddly enough, on Wednesday we had hunted the ditches exclusively until just before sunset when a big rooster chose to forsake the protection of a large ditch for a wide open field.  The alfalfa had already been cut, baled and on its way to a final stop as feed for livestock.

As the rooster strutted alongside an irrigation check, the re-sprouting alfalfa barely up to is spurs, my companion, who is relatively new to pheasant hunting wondered if he might be able to catch up to it for a shot.

“Sure, maybe,” I said, while knowing that such folly would provide a more memorable and meaningful lesson than my frequent reminder that “a gaudily colored three foot long rooster can find a place to successfully hide from a hunter on a billiard table.”

While the student began turning the pages on this particular lesson, Gus and I drove to the opposite side of the field to provide something of a “pincer maneuver.”  There are rare times, very rare times when a pheasant faced with such a strategy will hunker down between dirt clods in a bare field until such time as one of the pincers gets close enough for a shot before the bird realizes the hunters are too close for comfort and it is time to leave.

In any event, and as is customary, our strategy failed miserably and we never again saw the rooster, which most likely skulked down the edge of the irrigation check and exited the field without our notice.

As the sun set behind us, we walked back to the truck badly beaten, but with genuine admiration for our adversary and considerable anticipation for the cold beer that awaited us there.  Gus quartered in front of us and just before reaching the end of the field spun around, sat down and briefly chewed at his right rear paw – a very common and typical move necessary for the removal of a sticker or burr.

A moment later he jumped into his kennel for the two hour ride home and there was no sign that there was anything wrong or out of the ordinary.  It was not until our arrival that it was clear by his swollen paw that something was indeed wrong, possibly the result of a sting, a bite or something that had irritated or pierced his foot.

Inspection by his Vet with a magnifier Thursday morning failed to reveal a clue as to how the injury had come about.  There were no fang, stinger or bite marks  – only the presence of swelling, a fever to indicate that  infection was present, and calling for treatemet with antibiotics.  By this morning, an overnight blood culture confirmed the presence of a bacterial infection that will likely never be identified as to its source.

Whether Gus’ action in the field was in response to something that had just happened or had occured earlier and simply manifested itself at that time won’t be known either.

What we do know is that a tough and affectionate little guy who gets along with everyone and every thing is coming out of his anesthesia right now, has some recuperation time ahead of him, and will be even more disappointed than we are that his season has ended prematurely.


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