A different kind of hunting story
Summer of the Skunk
My younger sister named the small black dog Mugsy Megatron, after a minor character on the Jetsons cartoon show. Marcia was about nine years old and had a creative flair for animal names (one of our milk cows was named Feathery Flower). Dad had brought the half-grown pup home with him after a night out with friends. He’d do that sometimes when people were giving something away, or offering a great deal to raise money for their next round of drinks. I remember my older sister getting an orphaned lamb once, and I got a Montgomery Ward mini-bike that way when I was twelve.
Mugsy Megatron was sort of poetic, but a little long for daily use, so I just called him Mugs. Wherever it came from, the name fit the little guy well. Mugs was one of those dogs with a cheerful ‘take on the world’ attitude, and he always seemed to have a cocky grin. He was obviously a mongrel, mostly black with a white patch on his chest and around each front paw. His coat was slightly curly, neither long nor short, and he was a little less than knee high, weighing in at maybe 35 lbs. Dad’s drinking buddy told him that Mugs was a blue heeler and border collie cross. That seemed to fit, he was intelligent, affectionate and had a lot of energy, with well-developed hunting instincts. He’d chase a ball sometimes, just for fun, but wasn’t really much for retrieving. All in all, he was a pretty good family dog. And, while it didn’t occur to me to try to teach him tricks, he did teach me one.
My family lived on a small ranch and we weren’t allowed to keep a dog indoors as a house pet, but Mugs liked to be with his people and would follow along as we did chores or played outside. He’d even chase behind the tractor when we were putting up hay in the summer or feeding cattle in the winter. He was too busy hunting mice and exploring the fields to simply ride on the wagon. Mugs really loved it when we reached the bottom of a winter haystack to reveal the mouse colonies that were always burrowed underneath. He was a terror to the small rodents who were unlucky enough to catch his attention.
The field mice would also create tunnels under the crusted snow during our long, cold Montana winters. I don’t know if Mugs could smell them, hear them, or read minds, but he definitely tracked them as they scurried along. I’d see him come to attention, with his ears cocked high, and then make a stiff-legged pounce with his front paws close together. It was amazing how often he’d strike a mouse hidden under the snow. Then he’d nose through the disturbed area and snatch up his trophy to show it to us.
One of my summer chores was moving sprinkler pipe. We had two handlines on the ranch to irrigate both the hay fields and the pasture land. They were fed by a mainline that ran for more than half a mile on the long side of the property. Each handline ran for a quarter mile across the property with a sprinkler head on each of the 30-foot sections of pipe. The pipe fittings are cleverly designed such that you can grab a pipe at its center point and push, twist, and pull to disconnect it. It’s then carried 60 feet to the next ‘set’ position and the push-twist-pull is reversed to reconnect the pipe.
We used 12-hour sets, so I would get up and move pipe in the early morning chill at 6 am and again in the evening heat at 6 pm. Each aluminum pipe section weighed about 20 lbs., so it wasn’t extremely strenuous, but it was a good workout, and it was always wet. I soon learned that rubber boots were of little use. Water from the tall grass in the hayfield would just soak through my jeans and seep into the boots. It seemed best to just accept being wet and wear some old sneakers. It could get really miserable on a day with wind and rain.
The work was seven days a week during irrigation season, and only a real thunderstorm with lightning provided enough of an excuse to avoid going out. The worst part was that my things didn’t really dry out in 12 hours, so I was always putting on damp work clothes to go move pipe. The hard exercise would warm me to some extent, but in the morning my hands were often chilled to the point of feeling numb. And then in the evening, the pipes could soak up the sunlight and become uncomfortably hot. Oh, the joys of the rural lifestyle!
Mugs was my faithful companion, at least when I was moving pipe across the pasture. The cattle cropped that grass short enough that moving pipe was easier and Mugs could roam around without getting very wet. One day, he started a furious barking and yelping about forty yards from where I was trudging along with a pipe. I wasn’t too concerned at first, but when his tone became more desperate, I put down the pipe and went to investigate. I found Mugs standing over the body of a dead skunk, whimpering, but proud of his kill. He’d been thoroughly sprayed during the encounter, but hadn’t given up. I shook my head with grudging respect for his stubborn determination, but it wasn’t very bright.
“You dumb dog! Don’t you know enough to leave a skunk alone? I hope you learned your lesson.”
I was more exasperated than angry; skunks were common in our area and we considered them an unpleasant nuisance. The problem was my poor pitiful dog, eyes squeezed shut in pain and reeking of skunk spray. He rolled and rubbed his muzzle on the ground, but to little avail. We still had to finish moving pipe, but then I took Mugs home and put him into a washtub of warm water. I did my best with liquid dishwashing soap, gagging and retching all the while. Mugs endured my efforts stoically, accepting that he was to blame and that I was only trying to help. I even tried using some canned tomato juice that I swiped from the cupboard. It annoyed my mother when she found out, but it didn’t really help Mugs very much. The only real cure for a case of skunk is time and distance.
Mugs was actually very smart and I thought he would surely learn to avoid skunks in the future, but he couldn’t let it go. That skunk had ignited a burning hatred that wouldn’t die and couldn’t be ignored. A few days later I heard him going after another one while we were out moving pipe again.
“Mugs, you stupid dog, get away from that skunk!”
I was sure that he’d get himself sprayed again, but I should have had more faith. This time he knew what a skunk could do and which end did it. When I arrived on the scene, he was dancing circles around the irritated skunk, making sure that he avoided the ‘business end’. The skunk wasn’t sure which one of us to aim for and just sort of froze halfway between. Mugs looked at me expectantly and barked, feinted a couple of steps toward the skunk, then looked at me again. He could hardly have been more clear about what he wanted.
“Yeah right, there’s no way I’m gonna mess with that skunk.”
Mugs kept circling the skunk as I backed away and called him, hoping he’d give it up. But he continued to bark and feint, using his eyes to plead with me for help. Finally, I came up with an idea. Throwing rocks was a standard pastime for us country kids and I was pretty accurate. There were some chunks of dried mud nearby that were conveniently sized and I decided to give it a try. It took only a couple of throws to get the range and for Mugs to catch on to my plan. Skunks aren’t all that large under their thick fur and bushy tails. A direct hit knocked that skunk off its feet and Mugs had it by the throat in about a tenth of a second. He shook it like a rag doll and then dropped the limp carcass back on the ground. He trotted toward me in glorious triumph, grinning his thanks for my help.
“Okay, you got your revenge, let’s call it even.”
But Mugs wasn’t satisfied with even. He couldn’t rest until his entire world was skunk-free. And training me was the key to his success. I soon realized that a 30-foot sprinkler pipe would work even better than a dirt clod to overturn a skunk. And every time I knocked one off its feet, it took only a fraction of a second for Mugs to finish the grisly job.
It turned out to be quite a summer. I’d never realized the size of the local skunk population. The ones that we saw smushed on the road were only the tip of the iceberg. Mugs did his best to whittle down their numbers. He developed his own special bark for a skunk sighting, and I learned to come when called. Mugs killed more than a dozen skunks over the course of that summer, and I could almost picture him carving notches on his doghouse wall.
It wasn’t always an unqualified success. Sometimes I missed my mark a bit, and sometimes the skunk was too quick and agile. Almost all of the skunks managed to release a final, desperate volley. The overspray would sometimes reach Mugs or drift my way, but he was never again as bad off as that first time. As for me, I often had to leave my shoes outside (and sometimes my pants), but I was a very good boy and always performed my human trick on-command.
Author's note: ▼