Dove season in South Texas pushes summer off the back porch and welcomes fall in the front gate. The 100-acre cornfield where we hunted doves was all stubble – enough to shield us a bit from the gray-tufted rockets that shot across the sky on the leading edge of a blue norther. So there we were – me with my .410 pump, and Dad with his Browning 20-gauge. He was so proud of that gun.
He was also proud of “Cutie,” our young bird dog. He spent weeks training her to hunt quail. She was pretty good about holding a point – until we started hunting doves. When she saw a bevy of Whitewings headed our way, she would start trembling. As they neared, she would paw the ground and whimper, wishing for a pair of dog wings that would let her chase them around the sky.
It was a beautiful fall afternoon, and I really didn’t mind waiting for the doves to show up. I was with Dad. The air was a little balmy, but a norther was due in, and you could smell woodsmoke coming off the smoldering brush piles in the adjoining field. Perfect hunting weather.
Dad was sitting across from me with Cutie beside his left knee. His Browning rested across his lap, the muzzle pointing away to Dad’s left, my right. He was staring at Cutie, waiting for her to tense. Suddenly, she raised her head and gave a low “ruff.” Her bright golden eyes were fixed on the northern horizon. Dad and I followed her gaze and located the approaching cote – flying low and moving fast, about to pass right over our heads on a sudden north wind. The combination of the sudden temperature drop, the low flying birds, and bird dog genetics conspired to make resisting a lunge impossible.
Cutie leapt up from her sitting position toward the birds. Instantly, Dad grabbed for Cutie’s collar. The muzzle of the 20-guage swung around so that I was staring down the barrel.
And it fired.
A bright orange flame erupted from the muzzle not five feet in front of me. In that split second, Cutie stretched out in mid-air, and took the full blast of the explosion. She yelped and collapsed to the ground between Dad and me. Dad paused. Then he lifted her into his lap and held her like a baby, softly stroking her head, and whispering words of comfort. She whimpered, then closed her eyes and she was gone. I looked up to the sky and saw her soul rising up to heaven in the form of a translucent gray cloud that would remind most grownups of gun smoke. But I knew.
Dad didn’t say a word. I started crying and singing, Popeye, the Sailor Man over and over. All the way back to the car. Most of the way home, until Dad said to stop.
We never talked about it. He came within a microsecond of shooting his only son at point-blank range with a 20-gauge shotgun. He never said a word.
But it changed me. Even as an 8-year-old kid. It gave me an immediate, irreversible awareness of being alive. More particularly, that God had spared my life. Yep. Even at eight. Even without Dad saying anything. I knew.
A few months later I heard the gospel and was floored by the fact that God’s only Son loved me enough to die in my place. To step in between. I thought of Cutie and how much I appreciated her unwitting sacrifice – and Jesus’s much greater sacrifice. Because He knew what He was doing, and He didn’t flinch. He took the shot for all of us.