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The dog who came to stay.., p.10
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       The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.10

           Hal Borland
 
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  I gave the motor full throttle, headed for shore and shouted to Barbara, “Grab the brush! Hold on and we’ll try to ease ourselves down to him!”

  The boat slanted toward shore. Pat had reached the brush, was trying desperately to get a foothold somewhere. But there was no footing anywhere and the brush was a tangled thicket; he couldn’t climb over it or through it. And he was gasping, coughing, very tired.

  The boat scraped the brush twenty feet above him. Barbara grabbed an alder, held on, and the boat swung around, stern downstream. I grabbed at an alder tip, missed, grabbed again. The current jerked at the boat. It spun around, and I held onto the alder stem until Barbara caught hold again. And again the boat swung out and around. I was within five feet of Pat. But Pat had given up trying to land there. He was swimming feebly, but he let the current carry him out again.

  I shouted to Barbara, “Let go! I think I can get him now!”

  She let go, the current caught the boat, and I leaned far overboard, got one uncertain handful of Pat’s scruff. I held on till I had hauled him a little closer, then got a better hold. And finally I got my fingers around his collar and knew I had him. But he was at the back of the boat, the motor was racing, and if I let him get six inches closer the propeller would chop his legs. With my free hand I cut off the motor. The boat bounced off the brush, the current caught it and we went end-for-ending downstream.

  I was still holding Pat by the collar, and the collar was choking him. He coughed, and shipped more water. I hauled hard, got him head and shoulders out of the water and he got his forepaws on the gunwale. But he hadn’t the strength to help beyond that. Then Barbara was there, and the two of us hauled him up, over the transom and into the boat.

  He stood there, coughing, water streaming from him, too tired even to shake himself, so tired he was trembling. The boat was out of control, being eddied one way and another by the current. We just missed one floating log, and I saw more logs coming downstream. And we were almost down to the Blackberry and its boiling brown current. If we hit that surging water broadside it could flip us over. I jerked at the starter rope, finally got the motor going again. I managed to meet the Blackberry’s current head-on and slice through its turbulence. We reached the somewhat calmer water beyond.

  Then we were approaching the railroad trestle and Pat had caught his breath. He gathered himself and shook, so vigorously that he rocked the boat. Barbara and I were drenched. I glanced at her, saw her wipe her face with her sleeve and meet my look with a wry grin. She reached out and rubbed Pat’s head and he licked her hand and feebly wagged his tail.

  The current carried us past the float and I put about and edged back and alongside. Barbara grabbed one cleat and I made fast, stern then bow. Pat was still shivering, but I was still tying up when he climbed over the gunwale onto the temperamental float. It tilted, almost dumped him in the water again, and he clawed his way up the makeshift gangplank and onto dry land at last.

  We followed him. He lay down in the grass and tried to roll himself dry, but he was too tired. He just lay there for a minute, then got up and started for the house. Barbara got an old towel and I rubbed him as dry as I could. He came in the house and lay down on the rug in front of the Franklin stove and stayed there the rest of the day.

  It was two weeks before the river had calmed down enough to suggest fishing. We went out, and Pat went along. But he didn’t swim the river. Once he waded in a little way, then hesitated, lapped a few mouthfuls of water, and went back. Another time he waded out and swam a little way, then turned and went back. I hoped he had learned his lesson, but at the same time I felt let down. Pat had never before been afraid of anything; and I suppose any man wants to feel that his own dog has all the courage in the world.

  The fishing wasn’t good. The flood had scoured the best holes and we had no luck. The season was getting late, too, and we didn’t go out fishing again that fall. We didn’t get in the boat again till after the first frost. Then we got out the pails and nosed the boat up the shore, picking river grapes for jelly. Pat went along, and I kept watching him. He didn’t make one gesture toward swimming, even when we crossed the river to come down the far bank.

  We drifted down, from one tangle of vines to another. The crop was generous, and I was so busy I forgot Pat. Half an hour passed. Then Barbara hissed for my attention and pointed with her head. I looked. There was Pat, swimming the river. He was just below us, within twenty yards of the shore. He didn’t even look around. He was swimming intently, hurrying. He reached the shelving bank, climbed out and shook himself. He stood there watching us. Then he barked, just once, a triumphant bark. “Look, Boss, I did it!” Then he went on up the bank, shook himself again, and rolled in the grass.

  I said, “Good dog,” and reached for another bunch of grapes. I felt almost as good as though I had swum the river myself.

  CHAPTER 8

  A COUPLE OF MILES UPSTREAM is what we call the Half River area, a low-lying plot in an old loop of the Housatonic left as a slew some years ago when the river cut across the neck and changed its channel. It is rich, fertile land and Charley farms it most years. When the river behaves itself he gets big crops off it. That year he had corn on the Half River lot, and in August he said it would make two hundred bushels to the acre. Then the high water came, covered the corn four feet deep, and when I drove past there two weeks after the water went down it was still a muddy mess. “Not worth trying to get the picker in,” Charley growled. “I’ll be short of corn, with only the ten acres here at home and about fifteen acres up on Cooper Hill.”

  A few days later Charley stopped on his way to the village, so mad he sputtered. “What’s the matter now?” I asked.

  “Why can’t they eat that Half River corn?” he demanded. “Plenty of corn there, and plenty good enough for them! Why do they have to get into the corn right here at home?”

  “Who?” I asked.

  “They pulled down at least an acre of corn last night. And this morning I was up on Cooper Hill and they’re in that too. Damn coons anyway!”

  “Coons?”

  “Yes, coons! Must have been a dozen of them, the way it looks!”

  Pat had heard us and came to see what was going on. Charley shouted at him, “Pat! You chase coons, Pat?”

  Pat was busy marking the tires of Charley’s truck.

  “Probably not,” Charley said. “He’s a rabbit dog. But all those woodchucks he killed, he might chase coons. We’ll try him out and see.”

  “When?”

  “Tonight! Bring him and come up about eight o’clock.” And Charley slammed the truck into gear and went roaring down the road, still muttering to himself.

  That evening I put Pat in the car and drove up to Charley’s. Charley was waiting, with his shotgun and flashlight. And Poochy. Poochy was a shaggy-haired black dog about Pat’s size but fatter. Charley thought he had some cocker blood in him, but I couldn’t see it.

  I let Pat out of the car. Poochy yapped at him and began to walk stiff-legged. Pat growled and his hackles went up. Charley snapped, “Shut up, Poochy!” and I ordered, “Pat, behave yourself!” The dogs nosed each other with grumbling growls. We started to walk across the yard and I thought we were going to make it without a fight. But suddenly they went at each other. Before I could even make a grab they were down, rolling over and over, yipping, yelping and yowling. Charley tried to grab a dog and I tried to grab a dog and we both missed. Then they were on their feet again, snarling and snapping, and I caught Pat by the tail. Charley caught Poochy and we hauled them apart.

  Charley said, “Some day they’ll have to have it out. But not tonight. Think they’ve had enough?”

  Pat was still quivering with indignation and growling deep in his throat. Poochy made a pass at him and Charley slapped Poochy across the muzzle. I took Pat to the car and put a leash on him. Charley slapped Poochy again and said, “Let’s go.”

  We walked up the road to his cornfield. Charley flashed his light down the fir
st two rows. Not a coon there. “Coon!” he said to Poochy, and Poochy forgot all about fighting. “Go get us a coon, Poochy!” And Poochy vanished in the corn. Pat whined, wanting to go along, but I kept him on the leash.

  We walked down along the corn. Here and there a few stalks were down, the husks stripped back and half the yellow kernels eaten off the ears. “It’s worse on in,” Charley said. “They took down at least half an acre of it.” He was revising his estimate. He stood and listened for Poochy. But Poochy was silent, out of sight. We went on.

  We reached the corner of the field. Charley flashed his light again. No coons. Then Poochy yelped, a hundred yards away in the darkness. Charley listened. “Drat that dog! That’s a rabbit,” he announced. “Don’t let Pat go or they’ll be gone all night.” He listened again. Poochy yelped another time or two, then was silent. “Maybe not,” Charley said. “But it isn’t a coon.”

  There was a late moon, but the stars were bright. I could make out the corn rows, the ground beneath our feet, even the trees beyond the field along the river bank. Pat was whining, fussing at the leash. “Suppose he smells coon?” Charley asked. Then he asked, “Does he chase cats?”

  “I’ve never seen him chase a cat. Why?”

  “Any cat-killer,” Charley said, “will make a coon dog. That’s how I got Poochy. A friend of mine down in Bridgeport phoned me one day that there was a dog in the pound that had killed six cats, and did I want him for a coon dog. I said yes, so he got him out of the pound and I went down and got him. Poochy’d never seen a coon, but first time I put him on a coon track he knew what to do. He got me six coons that fall. But his nose isn’t as good as it used to be. Last year he tried to take on a porcupine and got a whole faceful of quills. That must have done something to his nose.”

  Poochy was yelping again, deep in the corn. This time it was excited yelping, and he kept it up. “He’s got one!” Charley exclaimed. “He’s put up a coon!” He listened. “Bringing him this way!” He played the light along the ground at the edge of the corn.

  We watched and listened to Poochy. A cottontail hopped out of the corn and into the light fifty yards away. Its eyes gleamed red in the light. Back in the corn, Poochy was yelping. The rabbit scurried away in the tall grass and Charley yelled, “Poochy! Come here, you dang fool! It’s a rabbit! Come here!”

  A few minutes later Poochy came out of the corn and panted up to us. Charley said, “Can’t you tell a rabbit smell from a coon any more, Poochy?” Poochy lowered his head in shame. But Charley wasn’t scolding. He reached down and rubbed Poochy’s ears, and Poochy licked his hand; and Charley said, “All right, let’s try again.” His voice was gentle. “Come on.” And he walked down the end of the cornfield a little way and started back between the rows, Poochy at his heels. In the corn, Charley ordered, “Now go get us a coon!” And Poochy trotted off into the rustling darkness.

  We walked the length of the corn rows, and Poochy didn’t put up a thing, not even a rabbit. Charley sighed and called Poochy in, and we went back to where we had started, where the coons had taken down the corn the night before. Charley said, “Let’s see what Pat can do.”

  I took the leash off Pat and Charley snapped it on Poochy’s collar. We took Pat to the down stalks and Charley said, “Coon, Pat. Coon! Go get us a coon!” Pat sniffed at the half-eaten ears and wagged his tail eagerly. “By golly!” Charley exclaimed, “I think he’s got the scent! Go get ’em, boy!”

  Pat started down the corn row, sniffing loudly. Poochy whined, wanting to go along. “You just let Pat have his chance,” Charley scolded. “You didn’t get anything!” And we waited.

  Pat vanished in the darkness. We stood there listening. Five minutes. Ten. Then, from off across the field, Pat began to yelp. Charley listened, then turned to me. I said, “Rabbit.” I listened as Pat’s voice rose in his trail cry. I shook my head. It was the same cry I’d heard a hundred times on the mountainside.

  We hurried down through the corn to the far end once more. Pat was still crying trail out in the corn. Then he was coming toward us. Charley switched on the light, played it along the edge of the field. Another minute, and there was the cottontail, caught in the light as it hopped out of the corn and scurried across the grass. Twenty yards behind came Pat, nose to the ground, yelping eagerly.

  I shouted at him. “Pat! Come here, Pat!”

  Pat paid no attention. He was on a rabbit trail. Charley added his voice to mine, but it was no use. Pat vanished in the darkness. His voice thinned away in the distance.

  Charley looked at me and grinned. We went out into the grass and sat down to wait. Charley lit a cigarette and I filled my pipe. And Charley talked about coon hunts in the past. About the time Poochy ran a big old buck coon all over the valley in the moonlight and finally up onto the ridge. Charley was about to give up when Poochy yelped that he had something treed. So Charley climbed the ridge, and up there he found not one coon but three treed in the same tall pine. And he told about the night when Poochy ran a coon into a hole among the rocks on the ridge, and Charley got up there and urged him on and Poochy went right on in. “There was the dangdest row you ever heard. Sounded like seven tomcats fighting in there. Then one coon came tearing out of there, and I shot him. And before I could reload, here come another one, Poochy right after him. That one treed close by, and I got him too. Oh,” Charley said, “Poochy’s earned his keep, all right. Haven’t you, Poochy?” And he rubbed Poochy’s black nose.

  We sat for twenty minutes, and Pat didn’t come back. Twice I heard him, up the valley, and each time his voice died away. At last I heard him behind us, over toward the ridge, yelping a trail again. “Well,” I said, “Pat’s a good rabbit dog, but—”

  “But no coon dog,” Charley said. He got to his feet. “Let’s go back to the house. He’ll come in, when he gets tired.”

  So we went back to Charley’s house, and we sat and talked for an hour, and had coffee, and waited. At last Poochy, who had been asleep there on the floor, lifted his head and barked once. He got to his feet and went to the door. Charley turned on the outside light. There was Pat, muddy to his ears. He barked happily when he saw me. Charley said, “He’s been up in the Half River. He couldn’t get that much mud anywhere else! Want a rag?”

  I wiped the worst of the mud off of him, got the old Navy blanket from the trunk and put it on the car seat. As I let Pat in I said, “Well, now we know. Pat’s not a coon dog.”

  Charley grinned. “How about we take him out after rabbits next week? Up in back of your place.”

  I got behind the wheel and we drove home. Pat nosed my hand and seemed to think he deserved praise, not censure, and I agreed, at least in principle. As I took him out to his house I told him it didn’t matter about the coons. Poochy, I said, didn’t find one either, and Poochy was a real coon dog. I heard Pat’s tail thumping, satisfied. Then he settled down in the straw.

  Barbara came downstairs to have a before-bed snack with me. “How many coons did you get?” she asked. “Enough for a coat?” “Pat,” I said, “chased rabbits for an hour and a half. And Poochy’s nose wasn’t working tonight. Not one coon.”

  She laughed. “I’d rather have sheared beaver anyway.”

  “If Pat and I have to catch it,” I said, “you’ll have to settle for lapin.”

  “Beaver or nothing.” Then she said, “I’m glad Pat didn’t chase any coons. He’s got enough to do around here now, what with woodchucks as well as rabbits.”

  One morning the next week Charley phoned and said, “Good day for rabbits. How about it?” I told him to come on down. I changed to old khakis, put a handful of shells in the pocket of my canvas hunting coat and took down the shotgun to run a clean rag through the barrels. Pat heard me and came to see what was going on, all eagerness and excitement.

  I don’t know whether Pat can smell a gun or just senses it when I take a rifle or the shotgun down from the pegs in the old pantry that we use as a catch-all closet for outdoor clothes. But all I have to d
o is take down a gun and here he comes. Even if he is upstairs in my study, somehow he knows what I am doing. I can no more sneak out of the house with a gun than I can open a can of dog food without his knowing it. He has ears like a fox, or he has some sixth sense.

  He came and sniffed the gun and whined and danced with joy. He dashed to the door, then back to me, then to the door again. I put away the wiping stick and went out on the front porch with him, but he couldn’t contain himself. I said, “We’ve got to wait for Charley.” But Pat didn’t want to wait for anyone. He raced around the house, toward the pasture, then came back to see what was keeping me. I sat down on the steps in the sun. Pat sat down in the grass. But he couldn’t sit still. He went out to the road, around the house again, back to me, sat down, got up, rolled in the grass.

  When Charley arrived Pat greeted him with a flurry of barking. Charley got out with his gun and Pat sniffed it and raced for the pasture, circled, came back, and raced off again. “Full of beans,” Charley said. “He sure wants to go, don’t he?”

  We started across the pasture, Pat racing ahead of us, then coming back, then hurrying off once more. He could hardly wait. But once he was assured that we were really going, he settled down and began working. There wasn’t much chance of putting up a rabbit in the pasture, but he wasn’t missing any bets. He worked every grass clump as we went. Then we were at the brush on the far side, and anything could happen. Just beyond the pasture fence is a tangle of wild blackberry, hazel, viburnum, goldenrod, chokecherry and seedling pasture cedars, perfect cover for rabbits. But there wasn’t any rabbit there that day.

  We crossed the fence and started up the mountain, past the first few big pines and the tall sumac tangle just beyond. We were just emerging from the sumac when Pat sounded off. I have never heard him quite so loud and triumphant. He had put up a cottontail. I saw the rabbit, just for an instant, a hundred yards on up the slope. Then it was gone in the brush. And Pat was racing after it, yelping magnificently.

 
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