blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Jake is a tricolor, purebred, Llewellin setter with a profound sense of justice, a disdain for folly, and a partially missing tail.

I met him when he was just shy of one year old on a windy hillside in Virginia in a kennel with over two hundred other dogs, most of them English setters or Llewellin like himself. It was dog-bedlam, owned and operated by a thick-armed, sway-gutted, old bird hunter I’ll call Elbert, who had perhaps lived in the backwoods too long. Rusting bulldozers and backhoes from his off-and-on construction business were scattered about the weedy slope he called a yard. Near the center was a tacked-together house that no woman had set foot in for years. The whole time I was there the dogs barked in that frantic way penned dogs bark, racing about their twelve-by-twelve cages, throwing themselves against each other and the chain-link fences. Elbert said it took all the money from his construction work to pay for food and vet bills.

“Are they trained?” I said.

“Hell, no. I ain’t got time to train all them dogs, hunt ‘em either.”

“Why do you keep them, then?”

Elbert directed a puzzled look at the Virginia hills and shook his head.

“Just love ’em I reckon.”

The ground around the pens was muddy from a melted, late-March snow. Odors of damp, unwashed dog hair, shit-packed earth, and nervous, highbred urine hung in the air. Around the puppy pens these smells mixed with the softer scent of warm milk burped from bellies as swollen as Elbert’s, poking pink through tufts of black, orange, and white hair. But the dogs were beautiful. You could have put any one of them on the cover of Field & Stream.

Except for Jake. Jake was skinny, and so hunkered down in the tiny pen he had to himself it was hard to tell what he might look like standing—if he could stand. He lay curled, end-to-end, almost lifeless, with the stitched and shaved stub of his recently shortened tail reaching hopelessly for the tip of his nose to ward off the chill. If he could have, he would have covered his head with it.

Theories diverged over the cause of Jake’s missing one-third tail, and I got both versions as I walked about the kennels with Elbert and his two eleven-year-old grandson helpers who weighed close to 180 pounds apiece. Both theories involved a coonhound. One was that Jake had the misfortune to be the only dog out of the pen he shared with his brother and a few other dogs when the hound strayed through the kennel one night in a bad frame of mind. The coon dog took Jake’s tail off or at least broke it into a decided droop at the end. The other story—and the more likely one, it seemed to me—was that Jake was in the pen with the other dogs when the coonhound arrived and his tail got broken in the ensuing melee. A dog tail, being frequently in motion, doesn’t easily mend. The vet advised amputation.

Anyway, there was Jake (of course he had no name then) making himself as invisible as he could in his chicken wire rabbit cage—designed, according to Elbert, for puppies, and about three feet off the ground. Even the bottom of the cage was wire so the puppy poop could fall through. The only refuge was a three-sided plywood box at one end that backed into an overcrowded tool shed. I imagined Jake spent his nights in that box, curled with his too-short tail wrapped toward his nose and the cold wind blowing in the open side of his hooch.

I bent to take a closer look. Jake drew the coil of his body tighter. I asked about other dogs and puppies. There were gorgeous specimens all around me. Elbert recognized a city boy when he saw one and started pushing some black and white English setter puppies—his most recent litter. I left Jake to his misery and followed Elbert to the puppy cages. I held a couple of them, felt them squirm and kick against me, gave them back to their nervous mothers, and set out to get a closer look at the one-year-olds, bounding and yipping at me from nearby cages. “Take me! Take me!” they seemed to say. But my mind kept wandering back to the tricolor cringing in the rabbit cage.

“How much do you want for him?” I said.

Elbert looked about the pens of yapping dogs. “Which one?”

“The one back there. In the cage.”

He spread his fingers over his belly as if grabbing it before it fell and eyed me to be sure I was serious. “Well, guess I’d come off the price on account of the tail. ’Course, now, that don’t hurt him hunt-wise. Nose is fine. Make a good pet, too. You see how gentle he is. Ain’t climbing the fence like his brother over there. Won’t be trying to hump your female, either.”

Lucy, my ten-year-old, spayed English setter, waited in Elbert’s parking area on her doggy bed in the back of my camper top pickup. She’d have no more tolerance for a humping male than would Margaret Thatcher.

“I don’t want a broken-spirited dog,” I said.

“Naw, you don’t want no basket case,” said Elbert. “But this dog’s Llewellin. They tougher than the English. Got more spirit. Let’s get him out the cage, see what he does.”

We walked back to Jake. Elbert opened the cage door. Jake raised his head. Elbert reached in. Jake slunk into a crawl and headed for the covered hooch in the back. Elbert reached further, grabbed Jake’s hind legs and dragged him toward the opening with Jake dug in, raking his forepaws into the wire floor of the cage every inch of the way. Elbert stooped, wrapped his arms around the dog, and pulled him against his chest and stomach. Jake’s hind legs hung to Elbert’s knees. His front legs dangled helplessly over Elbert’s forearm. His eyes were dull with terror. Slobbery strings of drool dripped on Elbert’s wrist.

We started toward a grassy area away from the cages. Every dog in the place was yelping and hitting the fences. “One dog out,” they seemed to say. Or in Jake’s case, the dog equivalent of “dead man walking.”

“Git the wing,” said Elbert over his shoulder to the fattest grandson.

Elbert set Jake down in a plot of grass a short distance from the pens. Jake dropped his head between his paws and slumped against the earth. I suspected it was the first time he’d been on solid ground since his operation and probably the first time he’d been on his feet out of a pen. The other dogs continued their frenzied chorus. Jake cringed, waiting for the sky to fall.

The nephew arrived with the “wing”—a sure-enough quail wing (Elbert raised quail, too) on an eight-foot string at the end of a four-foot stick.

“We ain’t never tried him out before,” said Elbert. “That wing might scare him.”

Elbert flipped the wing in the grass a few feet in front of Jake. Jake’s nose twitched and jerked upward. His eyebrows cocked. His eyes focused. The legs and shoulders came alive as he rose to a cautious crouch. The neck extended. The nose moved toward the wing. His body gathered muscle as if a primal force had entered it.

The bedlam around me—barking, yelping dogs; the crash and rattle of chain-link fences—receded into the silent, blue hills.

And then it happened—that sudden locking of joints and muscles, that startling focus and intensity—shoulders lowered, back straight, butt in a raised-but-ready-to-spring crouch, the naked tail with its untrimmed stitches pointing skyward. And power, bunched in every ready-to-spring inch.

He held the point a good thirty seconds. Elbert flipped the wing away. Jake straightened and watched it leave, lost sight of it, until Elbert flipped it back. Once again the crouch, the slow movement toward the wing, and Wham!—another dead-on point, exactly like the first one.

Elbert flipped the wing three more times. Jake went into a picture-perfect point each time.

I woke from my trance and looked up at Elbert. The clamor of the other dogs came crashing back. “I’ll take him,” I said, like a stunned bison walking over a cliff.

I have asked myself many times what happened in those few moments to lead a reasonably intelligent man to pay good money for a one-year-old hunting dog that had never been out of a pen before, never been handled by people, never petted, probably weaned too early (to allow his mama’s return to Elbert’s breeding lineup), pushed around by other dogs, and had just lost a third of his tail in some vague encounter with a coonhound. Besides, he was depressed as hell. Even I could see that.

Who knows why I did it? But I think Jake had just told me something about my own nature. I could not have put it into words, but I felt it all the way down to where the animal lives.


In Jake, the “animal” lives very deep. Llewellins are among the best bird dogs in the world. There’s a tragedy in that, which applies to all breeds of upland game, bird dogs, because in much of the United States—particularly in the Southeast where I live—there are fewer and fewer wild quail. You can go to a hunting preserve, buy a pen-raised quail, release it, hunt it down with a rented dog, and blow it from the sky. But that’s more like target practice than the good ole days of walking brushy fields and wooded bottom lands in taut, autumn air with a homebred-and-trained dog, hunting for the “real” thing.

It keeps the setters, pointers, and brittanys occupied—at least for the time being in isolated places—but you can tell from my purchase of Jake (I gave up bird hunting long before the quail vanished) and from Elbert’s overcrowded pens of unsold dogs, where things are headed for the hunting breeds of America. Allan Gurganus describes it in an essay from the Best New Stories from the South 2006:

The family farm has been reduced to a single designer hunting dog cohabiting some tiny studio apartment in Atlanta . . . [a] neurotic creature . . . trotted out . . . twice daily and then on a leash . . . vigilant in its bloodlust, if only now for squirrels in the park.

The genetic history of Llewellins like Jake is an intriguing story of evolutionary regression. There is an ongoing debate among both owners and pedigree police about whether Llewellins are distinct from English setters—the primary stock from which Llewellins were developed. Having owned both, I come down squarely on the distinct breed side.

As the story goes, R. Purcell Llewellin, an Englishman, searching in the late nineteenth century for the perfect bird dog, bought a couple of Edward Laverack’s setters, a line of English setters Laverack had developed over the years from the “belton” strain which was derived in turn by numerous breeders over a period of four hundred years from a mixture of Spanish pointers, large water spaniels, and springer spaniels. Laverack’s dogs made a name for themselves among huntsmen as the quintessential English setter. But as he developed the breed, he began to value looks over performance, favoring the tall, regal-headed, much-feathered setters coveted by the “bench” and show dog owners of today. My dog, Lucy, is in that class. She owes much of her genes to Laverack’s patient efforts.

R. Purcell Llewellin judged the hunting performance of Laveracks to be spotty. He sought to develop a more consistent nose, stronger hunting instinct, and more stamina. He tried various combinations, mixing Laverack’s line with other types of hunting dogs, and finally found what he was after when he purchased two dogs—Dan and Dick—at a field trial in Shrewsbury. Dan and Dick are what are known as the “Duke-Rhoebe line.” Duke (the father) was considered one of the best hunting English setters in England—though apparently he was not a Laverack. Rhoebe was half English setter, one-quarter Gordon setter, and one-quarter South Esk (a now extinct breed). Mr. Llewellin bred Dan and Dick to his own Laveracks, and the Llewellin line was born.

Llewellins are smaller than their Laverack cousins (at 40-60 lbs. vs. 55-75 lbs.). Their hair is shorter and less given to tangles from briars and thick brush. Their noses are usually keener, their hunting instincts more intense. One wonders what that distant ancestor, the South Esk, was like. Every ounce of flesh on a well-kept Lewellin is muscle made to hunt. The front legs are slightly bowed at the shoulders (considered a defect in the Laverack strain). Their movements are quick: fast, big-pawed runners, light as deer on their feet. Their noses are in the air when they jump from the hunter’s pickup and on scent when they hit the ground. Track, circle, backtrack, sniff the ground, test the air, back on scent. The tail wags like a pom-pom. The dogs transcend to another world.

The line that Llewellin wound up with was supremely suited to task—seeking and finding quail, pheasant, and other game birds over hectares of land, “pointing” them out for their masters, holding the point for the master to prepare himself for the “flush,” and then, on signal, flushing the birds (the final, lunging, killer’s leap). The shot signals the dog to retrieve the prey and present it to the master without a tooth mark on it. (It is accepted lore that Llewellins show quick disdain for a shooter who misses more than once.) Mr. Llewellin’s setters could hunt all day, drop into a coma at night, and rise at first light, eager to go again.

J. Purcell Llewellin had, through breeding “downward” or “backward” for the most basic hunting instincts imprinted in the genetic history of canines, developed the closest thing modern man had seen in the bird hunting world to the ancient hunter of the past. The main difference between a Llewellin setter and an English (or Irish, or Gordon) setter is that the latter are setters bred for the softening ego of man. The Llewellin is an ingenious (and perhaps lucky) reach into the primal past, to the instincts that preserved the canine species, and beyond that to the fundamental instinct for survival itself.

This was the animal I took so casually into my care from Elbert’s cages.


Jake slobbered like a B-grade movie monster as Elbert carried him to the back of my pickup and shoved him in with Lucy who began to growl as soon as she understood that this quivering specimen was her new housemate. To make it worse, he still had testicles, though given Jake’s state of mind, they would have been hard to find. I paid the money. Elbert produced the pedigree papers, retrieved a syringe with pink stuff in it from somewhere nearby, grabbed a handful of flesh on Jake’s back, and jabbed the needle in, professing to give him all the necessary shots in one punch. We shook hands, and I headed out the four mile driveway to the paved road which would take me home to North Carolina. Lucy quieted down as soon as the pickup gate was shut. Jake hunkered, whined, and slobbered. He puked somewhere near the Virginia/North Carolina line. When we pulled into my driveway, he was curled as far as he could get into the corner of the truck bed. I had to climb in from the rear, drag him toward the tailgate, work my hands and arms under his frozen body, and lift him to the ground. There he stayed until I got a leash on him and dragged him into the house.

Then the war began.


For the first week or so, Jake’s primary defense to the outside world was his cowering, shutdown state. He stayed that way most of the time. There were two exceptions to the crouch-and-hunker. One was the bark, whine, yelp, and crash gambit, which he exercised every evening in the “extra large” sleeping crate I hauled off the top shelf at Walmart. The second exception was the run-for-the-hills trick, an option he reverted to whenever he sensed a truck ride coming. He’d bolt to a distance of about fifty yards, stand with his tail between his legs, and look at me. I knelt, coaxed, and beckoned, flourishing treats in his direction. He stood and watched with that wild, frantic look in his eyes. I advanced cautiously, leash in hand. He bolted another fifty yards. Finally it became a matter of ignoring him and waiting it out. And Jake was as good at waiting as he was at running.

I’ve had experience at dog training, and I trained our two previous setters and Labs in the lessons of obedience with relative ease. I’d read the experts’ advice: be firm, show the dog who’s the alpha; give him plenty of exercise; demonstrate patience and affection. I used all of this with Jake. None of it worked. He clung to me almost every minute—I suppose because he saw me as his last, desperate hope against the horrors around him: coffee grinder, dish washer, vacuum cleaner, and television set (which he barked at for at least ten minutes when he first saw it turned on). Sooner or later he returned to the crouch-and-hunker even through repeated demonstrations of affection. My wife, Betsy, is better at this than I am. He even cold shouldered her. The few times that Lucy deigned to look at him, it was the look a tigress might give a starving cat.

After the first week, we took him to a beginner dog training session. I lifted him from the pickup and carried him into the sawdust arena where the other dogs waited with their masters who were seated in chairs arranged in a circle for the welcoming talk. Jake locked immediately on the furthermost empty chair, slunk under it, and curled himself into his standard position. As we went around the circle for introductions of ourselves and our dogs, one desperate-looking woman with a huge chocolate Lab, panting, fidgeting, and straining at his leash to play with every dog there, glanced over at Jake and said, “I need one like that one.” Jake spent the rest of the class under the chair. The trainer, having run through every brand of treat in her treat bag, recommended private lessons.

But lessons of any kind for Jake weren’t easy. He did not recognize rewards. Punishment or reprimand only made it worse. He refused any food he didn’t like, which was everything but Big Red dog food, Elbert’s favorite brand. He declined all treats. The leash option, even with a choke chain, was to drag him, feet planted, belly locked to the ground, across the grass or floor, until he started to wretch. He rose from his self-imposed cocoon to pee and poop in selected spots around the house, showing a preference for anything with deep a pile in it. He finally quit howling all night, but he began at first light every morning with the most nerve-scraping moan I’ve ever heard. A bottle of Wild Turkey and a lethal dose of Valium wouldn’t have gotten me through it.

So I was becoming more and more sleep-deprived—not good for my daily work as a writer or my new-found avocation as a non-trainable dog trainer. I spent the day with my nose and one ear alert for Jake’s bathroom schedule. When I finally was able, after days of coaxing, to get him to rise from his shutdown position, I walked him on a leash on a mile-long path through the woods around our house. He slunk along, flinching at everything that moved. After a few days of this, I risked letting him off the leash. Jake straightened up, took one look around, and was gone. I’ve never seen an animal move that fast. It took the better part of the afternoon to get him back. By then I was not a patient man.

So one day I said to hell with it, threw his ass in the back of my truck and took him on a three hour ride to a small farm my wife and I own in the Shenandoah Valley. I gave Jake one Dramamine to fortify him against the rigors of the journey. “Puke your head off,” I said as I pulled out our driveway. “See if I care.”

Our Shenandoah Valley place is an eighty-year-old, clapboard, Sears and Roebuck house surrounded by rolling fields and wooded mountain sides. (You’ve seen these houses before—down some winding dirt driveway, two-story front, kitchen off the back, sagging front porch.) When Jake finally got the nerve to jump from the open tailgate of the truck, having covered much of the truck’s bed with drool and urine (but no vomit—the Dramamine worked!), I had the feeling for the first time that he wasn’t afraid. He prowled about cautiously, sniffing everything in sight, jumping backwards if it moved. He leapt sideways at least three feet when the heat pump clicked on. But around him lay open country—broom sedge fields, hardwood forests, bramble thickets. Curiosity was gaining on fear and anxiety.

I put the leash on and took him walking. He strained at the leash like a draft horse pulling a sledge. I staggered along behind.

“Okay,” I said. “Here goes.”

I jerked him into a sitting position and knelt to slip the leash over his head as he sat quivering. Freed at last, he crept slowly forward, back lowered, tail trailing behind, nose tentatively searching the air. He paused for a moment, raised his head, and was off, muzzle to the ground, tail wagging, darting wherever his nose took him. There are game trails everywhere in that country—deer, turkey, grouse, rabbit, raccoon, opossum, fox, and coyote. Even the occasional bear ambles through. I stood and watched him work. And there it was again for the first time since that fatal moment at Elbert’s kennel when I said, “I do”—the energy and focus, the confidence and poise, the movement of an animal full in his blood.

From that moment, things began to change. The more Jake got out in the woods and fields and found the smells—the more he did his “thing”—the more he gained confidence. Back home in North Carolina, he still hid from the TV but no longer felt the need to challenge it. He pranced about the house on his own, lunged at butterflies in the backyard, pointed doves at the bird feeder, and stalked squirrels. He tried to play with Lucy (a lost cause for sure), making up for lost puppy-time. He began to develop a will that grew stronger every day.

But something told me this was not the end of our struggle, merely the beginning of a new one. The “who’s the alpha” question had not been decided. Given Jake’s low self-esteem when we first got him, I did not think it would even come up. But before my eyes, that was changing.

I remember resting his muzzle in my hand about then, looking into his eyes, and seeing something that was a bit unnerving. Half of Jake’s face is black, and half is white. One black ear, one ear mostly white. And while his eyes are black ovals set in pools of amber-brown, the yin-and-yang coloring of his face gives them an eerie, psychic look—as if two demons are staring back at you. The black-eyed demon is deep, silent, and mysterious. The white-eyed one is kinetic, electric. (When I’m not looking at him, I fancy that eye an iridescent blue.) Together they deliver a quiet but uncompromising message: We are smarter than you; we know secrets you will never know; and we are going to make sure this dog lives life on his terms. Jake was challenging my world as much as I was challenging his.

Thus commenced our mutual training sessions.

I won’t go into the details of Jake’s side of it except to say that it took a lot of time and work, a lot of patience, oft repeated showings of approval and affection, and careful exposure to things new and challenging: visitors to the house, the garbage truck with its backup beeper, the trill of a cell phone. It became a half-time job. The problem was that the half-time was scattered without any predictable pattern through the day.

The first lesson I had to learn from Jake was to see him as a dog rather than my human idea of a dog, and not only that, but a particular breed of dog with special skills and instincts—for example, the priority of smell in the order of senses (higher in hunting breeds and particularly in hounds and bird dogs). When he disappeared from sight on our walks through the woods, and I called for him, Jake would run all over the place, sometimes covering a mile or more before he located where I was. A hunter friend of mine explained it: hunting dogs rely primarily on scent. (Some of them are deaf in one ear as well. You guessed it: positive in Jake’s case.) When Jake’s good ear heard my call, his impulse was to find my track, and perhaps Lucy’s as well, and when he found it, of course it ran in at least two directions. Jake was as likely to head backwards as forwards. He’d follow the backward trail until he realized Lucy and I weren’t on it and then turn and backtrack his own route and ours until he found us. I learned not to lurch off on some useless search, thrashing through woods and brambles like a bleating sheep, but to wait patiently (well, with at least one foot tapping) while he completed his search.

When one’s view of the world is dominated by sense of smell—particularly if one is a hunter—it leads to practices which those of us bound to the clean-scrubbed, shower-a-day urban life may not appreciate. More than any other dog I’ve known, Jake wallows in shit and decaying matter: deer carcasses, crustaceans washed up in seaweed, varmint droppings, even recent discharges from other dogs. Dog experts say this is a holdover from life in the wild, a playing out of the instinct to disguise oneself (one’s odor) from possible prey or predators. Perhaps, but in Jake’s case it rises to the level of religious fervor. There’s “rolling in shit,” and then there’s “Rolling in Shit!”—as if he is performing a ritual compelled by an inner god. So devoted is he that I sometimes wonder how far back the instinct goes: do we all, in the dark depths of our animal gene pool, have the urge to roll in shit, real or metaphorical? Okay, not something we need to answer here. But in Jake’s case, there was nothing metaphorical about it. And to help him complete his ritual, I began to administer a baptism: cold water showers at the outside faucet with ample doses of soap, roughly applied. So far, it has had no effect except to serve as further proof that Jake approaches the world through a set of skills more primitive (or perhaps more advanced in his view) than mine.

True enlightenment was beginning to seep in—to me. The war between us wasn’t really a war. It was merely a situation with two sides to it, and for the sides to reconcile, there was going to have to be readjustment by both. This realization might seem elementary to most dog owners, but it caused me some anxiety. Things were going deeper than I’d bargained for. Basic values were in play. There would be self-examination and adjustment. There would be change. I was a retired lawyer and judge in my mid-sixties. I’d done my time on the therapist couch. I thought I had left most of that “inner-self” stuff behind.

To understand the process of my re-education, it is necessary to return for a moment to the discussion of Jake’s breeding. Jake is an outdoors dog—lots of outdoors. True, by this point he was housebroken, liked to curl at Betsy’s feet as we sat for supper or watched a late night movie on TV. He liked attention. He’d become friendly to people and other dogs. But he came truly alive when he prowled the woods and fields. His spirit rose in a magnificent way—so magnificent that as I watched him, I was filled not only with admiration but envy.

I began to understand the message of those inner demons now. They are the glimmer from Jake’s animal past—the still-shining lights from Duke, Rhoebe, and the mysterious South Esk; from the wildness in the even dimmer Great Beyond—the shaggy packs that roamed the forests of Europe and the plains of Asia and Africa.

So we came to terms: basically, I went over to Jake’s side. The discussion went something like this:

Jake: “You think I’ve got problems? Let’s sniff around the weed patch of your life. Ah, here we go—first clue: that itch you get when you’ve been at the computer too long—you don’t scratch it. The ache in your gut when you’re stuck in traffic—you just sit there with your tail between your legs. The lost, empty feeling when you cross a supermarket parking lot or stand in the checkout line—like being on a leash. How about those bouts of claustrophobia, hemmed in by driveways, fences, and the boundary lines of neighbors? Might as well face it: you’re like me—an outdoor creature in an indoor world, the neurotic creature Mr. Gurganus is talking about. You not only love the outdoors, you’re desperate for it.”

Pause. Testicle lick.

“Any of this sinking in?”

Me: “Hmmm. You may have a point. Something comes alive in me when I’m out in the woods and fields. Not quite sure what it is.”

Jake: “Yeah, it’s the great Mystery. But why question it? It’s there, like fall air or the scent of quail. Stick with me, and I’ll take us as close as we can get to it. I’ll get you out of this chain-link life you’ve made for yourself. I’ll break your ass free.”

Me: “So, when you do all this stuff—work a field, circle a thicket, and freeze into that sudden point, we’re sort of doing it together. That leap skyward for the grouse as it breaks cover, I’m right there. My heart leaps with you. I forget about digital watches, cell phones, and the bumper stickers on the car stuck in traffic ahead of me. It’s a real emancipation.”

Jake: “Exactly.”

Me: “But what about this rolling-in-shit business?”

It was as if a ghost from my aboriginal past had groped its way through the ages and knelt to resuscitate me. I understood the sorrow and loneliness I’d seen in Jake as he lay curled in his rabbit pen—the utter despair in it. I knew now what I needed to be alive—really alive: I needed to admit my own nature, find a truer-to-self center as Jake was doing, and go about it without apology or compromise.

I learned a second lesson from Jake that was necessary to fully realize the first. It has to do with what we humans would call personal integrity and elemental concepts of justice. There is something old-timey in it, and old-timey words come to mind: straight-dealing, self-respect, and honor. It reminds me of what my grandfather said about accepting the responsibility and pain of being a man: “Don’t look into your brain; look into your heart. It’s right there next to your guts.” Philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls it a “primitive sense of the just.” Jake and I made a deal on it.

Jake: “Okay, let’s talk about the other side of this bargain. You’ve got this human agenda you are convinced we have to live by to get along. I can do that—up to a point. You play fair about what you want me to do; I’ll give it my best, doggone shot. But when we get down to this basic instinct thing, that’s where I draw the line. I do what I do, and I’ll take the licks fate dishes out. I expect to be respected for that. It’s what you owe me.”

Me: “Owe?”

Jake: “I’ve quit messing the rug, haven’t I?”

It was not about bargaining for freedom and privileges. It was about knowing the point where you will not bargain at all, knowing what is bred in the bone, imprinted on the soul.

My tobacco farming, bird hunting Uncle Percy owned numerous Llewellins during his ninety-two years. One was named Jeff, about Jake’s size and white as a bale of cotton with a touch of pink about the eyes. Like a lot of Llewellins, Jeff hated snakes, and he killed two or three copperheads a summer. Every year one bit him. I’d pass Percy’s woodshed on the path from my grandparents’ house to his, and there would be Jeff, head swollen to twice its normal size, lying among the wood chips in the August heat, fighting off another dose of poison.

“What’s wrong with Jeff, Uncle Percy?”


“Aren’t you gonna take him to the vet?”


“But what will happen to him?”

Percy was a short, stout man with a cowlick of gray-black hair and a mole over one eyebrow that twitched whenever he gave anything serious thought. He looked down at Jeff. The mole made a couple of dips.

“Hard to tell. Big one this time. He might not make it.”

I don’t know if Jeff understood the words or saw the mole twitch, but he knew the score. Do what you do and expect no quarter from any quarter. Jeff “made it”—he always did. As soon as he was back on his feet, he went after the next copperhead.

So, I finally came to terms with Jake. And I understood for the first time in my life that at its core, personal justice involves more than a list of claimed rights or even how one treats other people. It involves an acceptance of self and the basic truths and consequences that implies. For some reason, from somewhere, I inherited Llewellin-like genes. I have a shaggy side, a personality that does not like boom boxes and beeping garbage trucks and that picks up burrs easily. I’ve an incurable outdoors itch. I may as well honor that and make what peace I can with it. If I need to bite the copperhead, I should do it and live with the consequences. And I should grant the same respect to other copperhead-biters of the world like Jeff and Jake. It was the only choice I had, other than a constant war with Jake and ultimately a resentful, cowed, and ruined dog (or a penned and eternally frustrated one like those in Elbert’s kennel).

I looked across the bargaining table at Jake and saw the dog, not the demons. I offered my hand. Jake offered his paw. We had a good shake on it.

He’s asleep at my feet now, under my computer table, having just gotten his early afternoon belly rub. In a couple of hours, when the day cools, we’ll wake up Lucy and head for the hills and fields.

Soap and water will be waiting when we get home.  end 

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