The Annie Oakley of Harris County

PINE MOUNTAIN – I found my way here to visit good friends, an aging couple who are not about to succumb to Father Time, at least not willingly.
The sun was setting over their two-acre pond where John Sale, 87, still fishes for bream and bass. Irene, who has had 90 birthdays, was smiling at the reminiscing of her husband, who was recalling his days as a quail hunting guide at Callaway Gardens.
“We’ve done got old and that is all there is to it,” Irene said. “But we are making do, and we are not giving in.”
She is a woman who has had to give up her passion for gardening and green thumbing her flowers — but get this — she can still shoot a shotgun when she needs to or wants to. The owner of the property across the road often hosts pheasant hunts. The birds are thrust airborne by a contraption that sends them flying in the direction of eager hunters who miss their mark more often than not. When a stray pheasant shows up on the Sale property, Irene doesn’t miss, which is why she often serves pheasant for dinner.
“She can still shoot,” John smiled. “I wouldn’t want to mess with her.”
I got to know John Sale while hunting with Hal Northrop at Callaway Gardens years ago. Hunting with John always lifted my spirits. I seemed to shoot better, but what I enjoyed was watching John work the dogs. John loved dogs and dogs loved John.

He abhorred the idea of using shock collars, as some trainers do, to train bird dogs.

“You have to communicate with a dog to get him to do what you want,” John said as the sunlight bounced off the autumn leaves of the sugar maples in his yard. “If you take the time and if you are patient, you can learn to talk to a dog.”

At one point a few years ago, more than 25 dogs had taken up with John and Irene. They then lived out their lives with the Sales, who buried them in their back yard. There were slabs and markers and touching epitaphs. Like with his favorite coon dog, Grady, about whom John scribbled in the concrete, “A true and trusted friend. He loved us and we loved him.”

For a favorite house pet, Mandy, John etched into her slab, “We hope to see her again someday.” Made me wonder — when we all get to heaven, will our pets be there? John and Irene certainly think so.

When I showed up, John and Irene were waiting for me. I hugged them both, overwhelmed with emotion. My eyes became wet as I whispered my expression of joy in seeing them again.

“This makes my day,” John said softly.

I could only smile, but inside I was choking up. It is times like these when I appreciate the beatitudes.

“Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.”

If the Earth belongs to John and Irene Sale, then justice is done.

John and Irene are the salt of the earth. They have no evil in their makeup — if you will excuse them for their enmity for hawks and owls who prey on the 200-plus martins that flock to their spread on Pole Bridge Road each spring.

“We can’t shoot a hawk or an owl,” Irene says, “but they can attack our marlins, and we can’t do nothing about it. Tell me what’s fair about that?”

Irene, the Annie Oakley of Harris County, could take matters into her own hands but says with law-abiding resignation, “Live and let live.”

During my hour-long conversation, which seemed more like minutes, I was enveloped by the warmest of feelings. People who love dogs and take in strays should be rewarded in the hereafter. As I thought about that, Sadie, the Sale’s chocolate lab, was licking my hands. Somebody dropped Sadie out at the Sale’s “Never Done” acreage when she was a puppy. Her ribs were showing, she was hungry, and she had been abused, her nerves on edge. Apprehensive and suspicious, she, nonetheless, was fortuitously in the hands of someone who loves dogs like a farmer loves rain. John gained Sadie’s confidence and soon she was eating out of his hands. Literally.

John and Irene Sale, God’s gift to stray animals.

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