The following is an excerpt from my novel Needle & Thread. All text is copyrighted and may not be reproduced. Enjoy reading!!
"Hard to believe that one night more than sixty years ago, during a dance that had turned rowdy, someone hit Lawrence Welk over the head with a brick in Hague, North Dakota."
- Ian Frazier, Great Plains
The dog quivered, eyes wide and body frozen as he stared into the grass. Landon crouched behind him, grasping the check cord with two hands. He was caught in the rapture of the moment, his lips spreading open and a faint smile steadily growing on his face. The dog was on point.
It was nine in the evening; at this latitude in early June, the sun’s warmth glowed on Landon’s skin. He closed his eyes while the dog held steady, statue-like, immersed in the moment. He breathed deeply and slipped into non-time, the realm of the transcendent. Although the sun’s heat continued to resonate through him, distant clouds obscured the day gradually, like theater lights dimming, signaling the commencement of a play. He opened his eyes and looked at the dog, whose eyes gaze was still fixed and remembered the work at hand.
As a trainer, Landon’s job was to hone the dogs’ instinct to point. This was to instruct them to resist the temptation to break their trance and flush the game prematurely. He thought hunting with pointing dogs for upland game birds as more an art form than a necessity. Anyone could buy frozen chicken breasts from a grocery store. Taking the time to find, shoot, clean, and cook a wild bird was a luxury, primitive yet elegant. The dogs’ passion to find birds was beautiful; bounding and leaping to find the game, the sudden stillness of a dog standing point took his breath away.
The pointing instinct never failed to amaze him. A vestigial behavior from ancestral wolves, medieval dog breeders took the trait and refined it. Generation after generation each dog inherited the wolf’s instinct to stare down their game the location of the quarry. For pointing dogs, this instinct was amplified so the dog would freeze up when he smelled any trace of game to signal his pack leader – the human hunter.
Breeders developed this trait in dogs as a strategy to capture game. When a bird or a rabbit felt threatened, there were two ways it might react: one response was the animal would run; the other instinct was to bury itself in cover and freeze, hoping the predator will miss it. Pointing dogs were the trump card for the second response. They could find and pin down the location of the game so the hunter could bag it. While the Thirty Years War raged in central Europe, breeders quietly developed this breed of dog. The hunters tossed their nets in front of the dogs’ noses and gathered the day’s table fare for their lords.
As technology progressed, hunters exchanged their nets for firearms. The dogs, whose progeny developed into dozens of breeds, assisted the new generation of hunters. Instead of throwing a net, the hunter would kick the grass and shrubs concealing the bird in front of the spellbound canine. Then, bursting in a flurry of wings, the pheasant, woodcock or grouse exploded into the sky just as the shooter took aim.
Landon imagined the medieval hunters felt the same pride and fascination with their dogs’ ability that stirred in his heart. Holding the check cord firmly, he repeated the whoa command and stroked the dog’s sleek fur. As the pigeon took wing, he couldn’t help but think that the dog’s cocked ears and outstretched tongue signaled a smile.
The trainer stood from his crouch and released the check cord. The dog vaulted into the open prairie, content that he had done well. Tall, puffed clouds continued to shroud the fading sunlight in the west as Landon looked into the broad vista of his training ground.
“Looks like rain,” Landon said as lightning flashes silently threatened in the distance.
The Badlands of the northern plains were in thunderstorm season. The gods of summer frolicked in pyrotechnic insanity, meandering across the prairie sky, emptying their chalice, whose mix was both life and destruction on the plain—precious water, flame, or flood.
The clouds were white and bright. Tall, leaning themselves into the eastern blueness, they seemed like gods imposed on the infinite canvas of grass and buttes and sky that was Dakota.
“See that one?” Landon pointed. “That’s a cumulonimbus.”
“You mean the one that looks like a big-damn-white wall of death?”
Landon raised one eyebrow, turned his eyes toward his assistant, Wade, with a bit of contempt and amusement, adding, “Yeah, that one.”
He loved this time of year. Training was underway, grass was green, and the storm season was upon them. He liked thunderstorms in the Great Wide Open of western North Dakota. A transplant from the east, he never got over how big everything seemed. And how small he felt within it.