The Falcon and the sage grouse (and an English Setter named Freckles)

Written by Christopher Boyce

You have to keep your eyes on the dog in the sage desert. My English Setter means more to me than most humans, but she becomes reckless when faraway hints of grouse scent come floating down the wind. For the sake of the dog, I have to stay focused on that black and white spot a quarter mile out that is Freckles. Too many hungry eyes are always watching from the rimrock, and bad things happen to soft-mouthed bird dogs in the desert. As for bad things, I have seen enough to last me.

Too many killings, too many blood puddles coagulating on the concrete. I thought I was done with everything but prison gore. And I never thought I would see another winter’s dawn in the sage lands. I thought all that was lost to me forever. And it was. It was until I met Cait.

Some people get saved by God. Some people escape by the hair of their chinny chin chins. Or by blind, dumb luck. I was saved by a fiery redhead with a surfboard in her jeep and four dozen pairs of Manolo Blahniks in her closet, a significant proportion of which were stilettos. I knew about her shoe thing before I met Cait. Because I looked. In her closet. Under her bed. At all her things. Because I let myself in. Because I was kind of creepy then. I’m younger than that now.

But this morning in the half-light, 30 years later, I was in the desert with my dog and my falcon hunting sage grouse 20 miles from nowhere. The cold was pinching down through my padded Carhartts to my red union suit and stamping my boots on the frozen ground did not make it any easier to feel my toes. After turning Freckles loose, I climbed back into my rig and headed into the wind down a rutted two-track.

The dog cast out to the right, running big with her nose up in the breeze. A quarter mile out she turned back in front of me, still just a black and white Setter speck, and crossed to the left. I did not take my eyes off Freckles. Every falconer I know has lost a bird dog in the sage lands. Mostly to coyotes.

Freckles is a small setter, just 37 pounds, but she runs big. She’s a nose on wheels. She can’t fight, she can only run, and she can’t outrun coyotes. So I get anxious when I can’t see her. Like when the ground rolls and she goes down into a distant coulee. I start to sweat until she comes back up into view again on the other side.

Bad things can happen to a bird dog when you can’t see them. And even when you can, they’re still just a tiny black and white speck a quarter mile out. So I never take my eyes off of Freckles. Cait would kill me if I didn’t bring her home.

Most falconers regard sage grouse as the premier game bird for falcons in North America. The cocks – which we call “boomers” – weigh up to seven pounds and the hens half that. No bird in the air can absorb a hit from a falcon like a boomer. And Freckles lives to find them. When she does, she locks up on point, her whole dog body quivering as she breathes in the scent of grouse. And if you watch her, about 30 seconds into her point, she’ll ever so slightly turn her head back towards me as if to say, “I found ‘em, boss! F’get that falcon up in the air!”

The scent of grouse coming down the wind is like a mystical spirit to me. I can’t see that scent, I can’t smell it, I don’t know it’s there. It’s only when my dog shows me that she has found the scent that I know: they are here; we have found grouse.

Freckles has one other passion in the sage lands. She loves to run antelope. And so a quarter mile off this frozen morning, she crossed down out of sight into a coulee and I lost sight of her. I waited and I waited, growing more and more anxious with each passing moment.

Come on, Freckles, where are you? Come on, Freckles, come up out of there!

And then out of the coulee came a big herd of antelope, at least 150 pronghorns. A big herd, the largest herd I have ever seen around here. My setter had jumped them from the far side so they were coming out my way. And as they got closer, they made a rumbling sound – 600 hooves drumming on the ground.

I had been headed north on the two-track and there was a barbed wire fence stretching out in the distance ahead of me. Most hunters will tell you that antelope do not jump fences, they scoot under the wire instead. But this fence had brush and tumbleweed piled up against it. As the herd rumbled my way, I cut my engine. My eyes were glued at what was coming.

Forty yards in front of me at full tilt, the lead antelope reached the fence. Instead of going under, she leaped over the wire. And the pronghorns running behind her leaped as well, over and over like a living river of antelope streaming over the fence. Like my trout river way downstream where the water is big and it flows over the boulders.

Over the herd went, until the last antelope cleared the fence. I sat there watching the herd rumble off across the sage to the east. They were literally running into the rising, red sun.

And as the sound of their passing faded I said, out loud, “Thank you, Cait.”

Christopher Boyce spent 25 years in federal prison for espionage. The story of his crime was told in the bestselling novel The Falcon and the Snowman and later turned into a critically acclaimed movie starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn. Christopher Boyce’s book, American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman, tells the story of his experiences in prison—including a daring prison break, a string of bank robberies, his recapture by U.S. Marshals, and his decades-long friendship with an ambitious paralegal named Cait Mills, who successfully petitioned for his parole and eventually became his wife. The book is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and other online booksellers.

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