LONG BEFORE BRENT PICKED ZEKE FFROM THE LITTER AND GAVE HIM TO US, I had decided to name our family’s first dog Chet, as in Chet Lemon, the perpetually underrated and fleet-footed Detroit Tigers centerfielder who tracked down so many deep fly balls in 1984, the last time my favorite ball club won the World Series. In the weeks leading up to the pup’s arrival, I in fact walked round the house impersonating the late Ernie Harwell, who called Tigers ball games for 42 years: “And Chester Earl Lemon nabs another fly ball at the warning track!”
But our daughter Molly, four years old at the time, insisted the name was too “sporty” and said we should call the pup Loveheart. How about Loveheart for a middle name? I asked, and ever the shrewd negotiator, she pursed her lips and said she could abide that. Thus we were leaning strongly toward Chester Earl Loveheart Lemon—until the dog arrived.
“Zeke looked up as if to ask permission, then took off in instinctive pursuit, the dust between the rows of grain raising a trail.”
The pup landed in our living room with all the consuming energy of a newborn human but without much of the requisite worry. Chasing our girls through the house, sprinting across hardwood only to slide hockey-style into the couch, the pup, dusting himself off like a cartoon character, he elicited laughs not gasps from the peanut gallery. It was late summer and dog’s first day at home was long and hot, so we closed it with a dip in a nearby creek, the pup pawing gingerly at the cool swimming hole as Mary and I took turns going under.
When I came up dripping, I caught a forlorn look in Luca’s eyes.
“What is it?” I asked, spraying water from my lip. “I just don’t like Chet for the dog’s name,” he said, kicking at the wet stones. “I think we should name him Zeke.
You know, for Zeke.” Indeed I knew, but in the midst of puppy-bliss I’d neglected to remember: Luca’s friend from first grade, Zeke, had been killed the summer before in a biking accident, almost a year to the day.
“Well,” I said, drying my face with my shirt and looking over at Mary’s arched eyebrows, “we’ll talk about it.” But what was there to say? Given the chance to honor our son’s love for his fallen friend, how could we name the dog anything else? Mary nodded.
“Go ahead,” I told Luca. “Call him over.”
Luca looked at me to make sure.
“Zeke. Come here, Zeke,” he urged in a highpitched voice. “Come here, boy.”
Lanky four-legged frame wagging from tailtip to nose, the pup galloped over to Luca’s open hands, and Zeke it was.
TWO MONTHS LATER, Luca and I drove with Zeke to meet Brent and the gang in far Eastern Montana for the pheasant opener. All told, we were three generations of humans (Brent’s dad, Sid; Brent and me; and Luca) and four generations of setters (Zeke’s mom, older brother Grover, old Blue, and Zeke). The mass of tricolored dogs made antsy by the long drive wasn’t going to surprise any pheasants in the field, we joked, but at least they’d be wearing the same uniform.
It was still early enough in the morning for a few roosters to be out getting seed, the white priestly collars around their necks gleaming in the rising sun that licked frost from the cut grain, the stalks audibly crinkling. The scene should have had me scrambling for my shotgun, but I worried that Zeke might be gun-shy. I’d heard a story from a fishing client who’d purchased a bird dog of the finest pedigree only to find after a few months that that the sight of a shotgun shell made it soil its kennel. When I mentioned my trepidation, Brent called me a “nervous dad.”
“Zeke’s lived with three loud kids for a couple of months. Did he ever run under a table when someone dropped a plate?”
To the contrary, I said, “He’d rushed over to lick it clean.”
“Bring him here,” he said. He took a 20-gauge shell from his hunting belt and instructed me to head out into the field 30 paces, then fire a single round— said he’d be patting Zeke down while I shot. A few moments later as the Browning’s report rang out across field, I looked back at Brent and Zeke: the latter’s tail was waving like a rally flag. The rest of the dogs were on me before I could eject my shell, combing the cut grain for a dead bird.
We split the field: Zeke and I with Sid and his dog Ruby, and Brent and Luca (too young to legally hunt but armed with a good camera) along with the bulk of the pack. In the weeks leading up to this day, I had employed the clichéd pheasant wing and worked with Zeke on a few basic commands (whoa, come, and hunt ’em up), but I knew that such a curriculum would be rendered worthless as soon as the pup scented his first wild bird. For a few hundred yards in the first field, Zeke hugged my thigh as Ruby cast back and forth like a needle on a sewing machine. Again falling into my “nervous dad” role, I asked Sid, who had trained setters for decades if I needed to worry about Zeke’s “range.”
“Think of it this way,” he said, “at least he’ll make a decent grouse dog.” I stopped in my tracks, and Sid laughed. “Trust me, someday you’ll wish you never uttered the word ‘range’ in his earshot. Where’s Ruby, now?”
It took a few moments, but we found Ruby locked down at a rough corner of the field the rancher had left uncut. Sid offered me the shot, but in rare abstinence I declined, hoping to observe Zeke’s behavior during the action. Sid strode toward Ruby’s nose and flushed the young rooster, which cackled with a cracking, adolescent call before meeting the load of seven and-a-halves Sid dispensed through his 20 gauge. The bird dropped and Ruby went to it; Zeke broke free of my grip, sprinted to the bird, and struck a trembling point over it. On Sid’s command, Ruby fetched the rooster and brought it to hand, with Zeke nipping at its short waving tail.
“Good boy, Zeke,” Sid called. He turned to me: “You’ve gotta praise him for everything he does well.
And for now, forget about the stuff he doesn’t do so well.” Sid was sliding the bird in his game pouch when another bird wild-flushed at our feet, headed into the sun. Thinking hen, I left the over-under open, but Sid hollered, “Rooster!” and by the time I closed the gun, the offered shot was long, if irresponsible. I took it anyway and folded the bird’s wings. It hit the field with his landing gears in working order and tore eastward. From my side, Zeke looked up as if to ask permission, then took off in instinctive pursuit, the dust between the rows of grain raising a trail. After a hundred-yard, figure-eight chase and a yelp-eliciting spur to the muzzle, Zeke pinned the bird with his jaws and a single spotted paw, not exactly the picture of retrieving prowess but the epitome of pride, to be certain.
By day’s hilt, the young dog would point his first pheasant and bump half a dozen more; back other points with modest dependability; get shocked twice by the same electric fence; retrieve a cripple from a badger hole; and range so far afield that I was forced to drive the truck to the far end of the property and have Luca bribe him with beef jerky just to get him leashed and kenneled.
Early that evening as we cleaned birds on the motel’s back stoop, my cell phone rang: my friend Dan Lahren calling to ask how Zeke had done in the field.
“He did pretty well,” I said, wiping my hand on my pant leg, “pointed a couple of birds, made a heckuva retrieve on a cripple—but I’d sure like him to stay closer.”
“Yeah, well, that’s kind of like saying you’d like your wife to give you a hundred-dollar bill every week and tell you to spend it at a strip club. Ain’t gonna happen. Be happy with the points and retrieves. Sounds like you got yourself a bird dog,” Dan said, and hung up.
It began to lightly hail, small curds dropping from an unseen cloud through the tall Eastern Montana twilight. Beneath a large cottonwood, the dogs in their disheveled pile slept soundly— all but Zeke, who stretched up from his kin and trotted to my side. He scented the air and looked up at the sky, at what fell from it, then cocked his head and shot me a most curious look, his eyes brimful of wonder, the entirety of him experiencing something in the physical world for the very first time, as was I.
Chris Dombrowski’s most recent book is the memoir Body of Water (Milkweed Editions, 2016). With his feral family, he lives in Missoula, Montana, where he writes, guides, and directs the Beargrass Writing Workshops.