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JT: Friendship among dogueros is very special particularly among the hunters. Any unforgettable hunting moments would like to share with us? … And memories on the great dogos that have been lost in the battlefield?
MF: Well, there are so many of them, that I wouldn't really know which one to choose...I have had sad moments (almost always related to the loss of dogs) and happy ones....let me think...
There is one that I always remember, and is actually written down in my website...one where there is neither heroe nor foe...no magnificent trophy or big tusker to brag about. It is a simple story that I believe synthesizes the essence of hunting, which is sacrifice, camaraderie, dependability, and faithfulness between man and dog. Because few people realize that the beauty of hunting with dogos is not the killing in itself, but the symbiotic, regressional, almost atavistic relationship that establishes between man and dog. The way we hunt, in those endless, wild and virgin lands, is almost like going back to those times when man and dog really needed each other to survive...back to the caves. This is no game; we couldn't do without the dogs, and they couldn't do without us. The balance in our hunts is very dynamic, and the baton passes alternatively from the human hunter to the dog. If the tracks are cold, the human hunter follows them; tries to use the environment so it favours the dogs; tries to circle the area where he thinks the boars are, in a way that he can make the wind play in favour of the dogs...when the dogs start to scent, the command of the hunt passes swiftly, fluidly, silently and with no transitional "bump" whatsoever, to them...if they lose the scent, command goes back to us and they go back to following us...it is almost too difficult to reflect it in words, at least for me. It simply flows, and it flows in complete silence. I firmly believe this type of hunting is one of the last remaining activities in which dogs are not simply a nice-to-have tool, or an animal expected to perform a routine destined to win a ribbon for his owner, but an absolute necessity and a complement without which we humans couldn't succeed.
Anyway: we had been hunting since noon of the previous day, and we had had no luck. It was almost 5 AM already...around 17 hours of non-stop hunting from the truck. The dogs had jumped out frantically over and over again during all that time...every jump we had done the same routine: Cut-off the engine, get off the truck, secure the knives in their sheaths, tucked behind our backs, and wait while we saw the white, ghostly shadows moving across the heavy brush, combing the area in which they had scented something that had awakened their senses. The wind had been blowing too hard, though, and that always means bad news for the dogs...they can scent from too far away, and they can pick up old scents like they are new. This can lead to lots of frustrated jumps.
We were 6 hunters; 2 of us (Abel and his father, Castillo), in the truckbed with the dogos, and the remaining 4 of us crammed inside the cabin of a single-cab, red Ford F100 4x4 truck: my friend Ricardo, Leo the joker, myself, and Luis...the ineffable Luis. The best hunter / tracker I have ever had the pleasure of hunting with, and a friend to match. His reputation is legendary among the rough region called Middle Valley of the Río Negro, in central Patagonia. Luis had had a working accident one week prior to the hunt; a horse had crushed his knee against a board from the corral fence, and it was swollen and big as a melon. He could barely walk, but he was there, nevertheless.
A little over 5 AM, the dogs jumped again...the same old drill. We waited with the engine stopped, standing in the middle of the brush, vegetation amost waist-high. The wind was blowing, still strong, from the direction the dogs had taken. We were hoping to hear the classical "torido", the deaf bark that precedes the catch...we were breathing hard in anticipation of what could be a long run...with such a wind, who knew where the hell dogs could end-up catching.
Seconds later, I started hearing sounds...the unmistakable noise of a dog coming back; the subtle cracking of branches and twigs, the white shadow, the panting. It was old Lihuel, and by the length of his tongue, I realized he had run a lot. I did a quick check on him for wounds, and there was none. I checked his mouth; no fur or hairs. He hadn't caught anything.
One by one, all the dogs returned...except Lanín.
Lanín was a good hunting dog, a massive dogo who was later to be the father of the immortal Allen, best dogo I have ever hunted with. Allen was killed in a fight with a rank boar in 2004, while trying to teach some green dogs how to fulfill their destiny...but that's another story. Like I said, Lanín was good...although he had that "whiner" thing (he used to whine from the truckbed in eager anticipation) that used to drive Luis nuts. But when the action unveiled, Lanín was a no-nonsense, bone-crushing, fearless dogo that made for an outstanding cavalry.
Only this time he didn't come back.
We waited for him and walked upwind a few hundred yards...I knelt and tried to hear, wind humming softly in my ears, otherwise, everything completely silent in the unlimited vastness. The sky was bolted with stars and it was a beautiful pre-dawn. It was cold, but not freezing, and overall, it felt so good just to be alive that I almost felt tears running down my eyes.
After more than an hour, we decided to turn on the engine of the truck (a magnet for our dogs), and a few fruitless minutes later, we started to drive through the dusty path we had been riding before. Luis had found a few prints he believed were from Lanín, and he started tracking from the interior of the truck, using the dim light of the vehicle as the only light-source, looking through the cracked windshield with an unwavering concentration that is already a part of his personality, developed after many years of solitary existence in the woods.
Every now and then Luis would ask Ricardo to stop the truck and he would limp down, flashlight in hand, silently checking the path ahead of us, sometimes walking in circles. I was able to spot some dog-prints myself, but I couldn't say it they were Lanín's or not and besides, there were rocky areas where I would simply lose them, while Luis always seemed to know where the dog was heading. It looked like there was an invisible string attached to Lanín on one end and to Luis on the other, guiding the latter towards the former.
It was late, colder now; and tiredness has that unique characteristic of enhancing the cold...I took out my faithful flask, and we all shared a round of cognac. It was a regular Argentine cognac, but in those circumstances, it tasted better than any French vintage could possibly have....context, I thought. Everything in life is context. In THAT context, that cognac was a liquor from the gods. In that context, the Dogo Argentino fitted like the last piece in a puzzle...although in this case it was missing, and that brought me back from cognac-heaven to Lanín and what we were doing. Suddenly, Leo, who was half asleep over my arm, broke-off one of the filthiest farts I have ever had the disgrace of having to bear. It sounded like something was tearing inside him, and the smell, inside a crammed truck cabin, was hideous. We all started insulting and hitting him with our flashlights while he was releasing one of his famous hyena laughters...meanwhile, we came to a closed gate, and I vividly volunteered to get down and open it. The fresh air was a blessing; I was opening the gate while I could still hear Ricardo cursing Leo inside the truck. I got back in and we all ended with tears in our eyes...I don't know if it was the laughter, or simply gas-related.
Leo's fart served the purpose of revitalizing us, and we kept on with the same routine, which lasted for several hours; dawn broke and we were still following prints that, by this time, only Luis could see. We had been searching for over 4 hours, but we would never quit, and we all knew that; it didn't even need to be said.
At about 9 AM, and with the sun already completely over the horizon, we finally reached a Y turn over a hill. The road to the left led down the hill to other huge, limitless pieces of land. The road to the right was blind from the position we were, since it kept going up the hill. Without hesitancy, Luis pointed to the right. I remember asking why. He said something like..."We've followed Lanín's tracks until a few hundred yards back. It has been a long night, and Lanín is probably thirsty. There is a old water-mill and tank about 1 mile down the hill, through the road to the right. The wind is blowing from that direction. I am sure Lanín has smelled the water and is probably trying to reach the tank".
We drove a couple hundred yards through the path to the right, and when we reached the hill's summit, the scene was glorious. The road went down eastwards, so we could see the sun coming up in the horizon, giving everything a golden glow, a surreal tinge. The tank and the windmill were clearly visible, about 1 mile down, like Luis had said. And in the middle, between us and the tank, the white silhouette of Lanín could be seen trotting towards the water. He was about 700 yards from us. We smiled, turn the engine on, and honked. Lanìn's big head turned to us; he hesitated a bit, and then turned around, coming back to us with a slow pace that gradually turned into a trot. He reached us; happy but at the same time, with a sinful look in his eyes....like he knew he had made us work all night to find him. I knelt and grabbed him by his big cheeks, hugged his head, and said something. Ricardo noticed the incredible sun in our backs, and hushed me to sit with Lanín on top of that hill so he could take picture of both. Luis was watching, standing casually with his elbow against the truck, showing no emotion. His usual, inscrutable face. He didn't greet Lanín (he never pets dogs, but that's for another story), nor did he punish him. I was sure, at that time, that Lanín knew exactly what was in my friend's mind...and I knew it too..."try not to do it again, old friend".
We geared up, put Lanín into the truck, and headed back home. It had been almost 24 hours non-stop. We needed some food and some rest. We had several hunting days ahead of us.
This is a story that might seem ordinary to those who have never hunted, since there is no gore, no trophies, seemingly no action. To me, it is a symbol of what Spanish writer Ortega y Gasset wrote when he defined hunting. His phrase, translated to English, would be..."we...we don't hunt for the kill....we kill..just to have hunted"
Now Lanín is no longer with us; gone a long time ago, dead. His best son, Allen, was also killed by a rank boar a few years later, in 2004. Yet, they all live in our memories and in our hearts...