The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.11Hal Borland
It was a good day, bright sun that had not yet swept the dew off the grass. Mild as only a New England autumn day can be, the sky clear as glass. You could see twenty miles. I thought I could make out the individual trees on Canaan Mountain eight miles away, though it must have been clumps of trees that I saw.
The dampness made good trailing. The scent clung. And Pat’s nose was fresh and eager. He went belling up the mountainside, and the slopes threw back his voice in a wonderful assortment of echoes. Charley turned and grinned at me and shook his head, delighted. Then he stood and listened again to the music Pat was making.
We listened, knew that the rabbit was making a big circle, and we sat down on a rock in the sun to wait. Charley said that now Pat was up in the birches where they cut sawlogs ten years ago— “Those no-good gray birches, or whatever you call them.” Now he was in the hollow where there used to be a big fox den—“I trapped four big reds out of that den one winter.” Now he was on that low rise with the twin seep springs on the near side. “Used to be woodcock in there every year, but I haven’t seen a woodcock in a long time … Uh-oh! He’s turned! Rabbit’s made his turn and is coming toward us now. You ready? I’ll back you up. We’ve got to get him for old Pat!”
Pat’s voice was clear and true now, coming down the long slope. I was on my feet, gun ready. I moved to a spot where I could see the whole breadth of the clearing.
Closer and closer came Pat’s voice. He was only a hundred yards away now. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a movement off to my left. I swung around just as the rabbit hopped into the open. He hesitated, looked around. Charley was right behind me. “See him?” he whispered. “There he is!”
I had my gun at my shoulder. The rabbit started across the clearing. I swung the gun just past him, squeezed the trigger. The rabbit went end-over-end.
Pat emerged from the brush just as I shot. At the roar he yelped twice as loud. Charley shouted triumphantly, “You got him!” And then Pat was at the rabbit. He nosed it and turned to me, panting, almost grinning. I said, “Good dog. Good dog!” And he came over and nosed my hand and went back to the rabbit.
Charley said, “Well, that’s number one.” He picked up the rabbit, said, “Fat,” and handed it to me. I put it in the game pocket in my coat, and we went back to the rock and sat down to let Pat catch his breath. We discussed the fox-rabbit cycles, the way foxes increase steadily for a few years and pretty well thin out the rabbits, and then the foxes get rabies and other diseases and the off and the rabbits come back. The main cycle is about every ten years, with lesser cycles of around three and a half years. Charley said that seemed to tally out. A few years back there were foxes all over the place. They got so numerous he saw two out in his calf pasture beside the house in broad daylight one day and shot them both. “Scrawny things, mangy, looked half starved.” And the next year there just didn’t seem to be any foxes at all. And the rabbits began to come back. Now the rabbits were building up.
“The foxes are coming back too, aren’t they?” I asked.
“Yes. But not as fast as the rabbits.”
“Foxes don’t breed like rabbits. And they only have four or five kits in a litter, usually.”
“That’s right. And I suppose the foxes will come back and clean out the rabbits, and we’ll start all over again.”
Pat was on his feet, ready to go. We started on up the hillside. Charley said, “There used to be quite a few snowshoe rabbits up on the ridge here, but they got thinned out too. Suppose they’ll come back?”
“Wish Pat would put one of them up today. A snowshoe would give him a real run. But they’re away on up, if they’re here at all.” We climbed to the next shoulder of the mountain, and there, in a patch of shoulder-high briars, Pat put up another rabbit. He went yelping off across the next hollow and Charley and I climbed to a bare ledge where we could look down on the whole briary tangle. That rabbit made a small circle. Pat brought it back within ten minutes and Charley got it with one clean shot.
We hadn’t gone another hundred yards when Pat was off again in full tongue. We moved over to take a stand, and I heard Pat yelping in frustration. No trail cry, that. “He’s got something cornered,” I said, and Charley said, “Maybe.”
We hurried off to see, and we found Pat at an old stone wall, trying to tear the wall apart. He wasn’t getting very far, for it was one of those old walls built of big stones, some of which must have weighed a good half ton. The rabbit had a hide-out there, and not even a bear could have reached it. I found a stick and poked in, but it was no use. We gave up, and finally we persuaded Pat to give up.
As we went on up the mountainside I said I couldn’t figure how even a bull-shouldered farmer could move such stones and build a wall like that. “They levered them onto a stone sled,” Charley said. “Or if they couldn’t do that they hooked a chain around and dragged them out with two or three yoke of oxen.”
“That must have been a long time back,” I said. “There haven’t been any oxen used around here in your lifetime, have there?”
“Sure have,” Charley said. “Just over the ridge, on the slope of Cooper Hill, the Nowell brothers worked cattle up into the 1920s.”
Pat had put up another rabbit, and while we waited at the stand Charley told me about the Nowell brothers. Later I pieced out the story from others who remembered the Nowells, crotchety, hermit-like brothers who worked a small farm on the Massachusetts-Connecticut line only three or four miles from my place.
The Nowells, John and Matthew, hadn’t much use for modern ways. They lived in a well-worn house and kept apart from the world. They farmed with oxen and lived on what they grew or hunted. Now and then one of them would hitch up a span of oxen and take a few bags of oats to Canaan and trade for salt and coffee, but that was their only contact with the twentieth century.
Then Matthew died and John lived on there alone, more than ever the hermit. Until, one winter night, all of Cooper Hill and probably Tom’s Mountain echoed with the bellowing of the Nowell oxen. They made such an uproar that neighbors went the next day to see what was wrong. They found John Nowell dead in his house, several days dead, and the oxen were starving for water. There was a little flock of chickens, wild as partridges. And there was a clowder of cats, twenty or more of them, spitting, clawing and threatening everyone in sight. But finally the neighbors got things in hand, took John Nowell’s body out of there and gave it a decent burial. Whether he liked it or not, John Nowell had his last ride in a motor-driven hearse. And that was the end of farming with oxen around here, though the Jacobs brothers, Hyman and Pepoon—I think that’s a wonderful name, Pepoon—kept oxen on their small farm in the edge of Canaan a few years after that and occasionally yoked them to a plow. But that, apparently, was mostly to entertain outlanders, who were coming up here for vacations even then.
Pat brought another rabbit around, and I got it. Charley said, “I wish we had time to go on up and see if he could find one of those snowshoes, but it’s getting toward noon. Anyway, it’ll be better for snowshoes when there’s snow on the ground.” So we started back.
Pat found another rabbit and brought it around for us on the way down the mountain, and Charley got it. Pat was getting tired, but he made it quite clear that he thought it had been a wonderful morning. And we had done exactly what he expected us to do. We had got four rabbits in front of him. Pat was proud of us.
We went home, and Charley said, “We get a light snow, we’ll have to go out again. After snowshoes. See if they’re still up there.” He stopped to rub Pat’s ears, almost as proud as though he owned him. “Don’t know that I’ve ever run rabbits with a better dog.” Then, as he was getting in his car, “Ever want someone to take him off your hands, just let me know.”
Two weeks later I got word from an editor asking if I would go down to Florida on a writing assignment. Barbara and I talked it over. It was a job I wanted to do, and we could drive down and make a pleasant trip of it. There
The next day I drove up to see Charley. I told him we were going to have to make a trip and I wondered if he would keep an eye on the house. He said sure he would and he asked when we were going. I said not till after Thanksgiving.
“How long you going to be gone?”
“A month, maybe six weeks.”
Charley looked disappointed. “Then we won’t get a chance at those snowshoe rabbits.” He thought a moment, then asked, “What you going to do with Pat? Take him along?”
“I thought of putting him in a kennel.”
“Kennel?” Charley snorted. “Pat in a kennel?” He laughed. “He’d get out the first night, if he had to tear the kennel apart. Why don’t you bring him up here?”
“You mean that, Charley?”
“I told you if you ever wanted anyone to take him off your hands just to let me know, didn’t I?”
“Not for keeps, Charley.”
“All right. But you let me have him while you’re gone.”
“I’ll pay his board.”
Charley laughed at me and walked away.
EVEN BEFORE WE BEGAN packing for the trip south, Pat became uneasy. I don’t know how he senses these things, but when we talked about details in the evening he lay there staring moodily at the fire and listened to us instead of stretching out and napping. He cut short his morning excursions and spent more time at home. He followed me upstairs and down. When I went to the village on some errand he watched me off, apprehensive. When Barbara and I both went he showed every sign of being worried, and when we returned he greeted us with special fervor.
Then I brought down the suitcases from the attic and Barbara began putting clothes into them, and Pat sulked. I packed the car, and he stood and watched with a downcast look that was close to accusation. That evening he didn’t want to go out to his house to bed. I urged, then ordered, and he went, but with every sign of hurt and disappointment.
The next morning when I put the leash on him he said very plainly that he knew he was being abandoned and that though he might forgive me, in time, he would never forget. He got in the car with a sigh of resignation and a look as sad as a homeless bloodhound. I took him up to Charley’s.
Charley greeted him with delight. “Well, Pat! Going to live here for a while, are you? Come on, boy.” And he rubbed Pat’s ears. Pat didn’t respond at all. “We’re going to get us some of those big white rabbits,” Charley promised. Still no response.
Poochy appeared, saw Pat and bristled. Poochy yapped. Pat glanced at Poochy, then dismissed him. He was watching me, his eyes accusing. Poochy came over to him, growling. Pat didn’t even get to his feet. His hackles rose a little, but he didn’t make a sound.
I got back in the car. “Don’t worry about Pat,” Charley said. “Have a good trip.”
I came back home, got Barbara and the last of the luggage, and we took off. She asked how Pat had liked it up at Charley’s. “He accused me of abandoning him,” I said. “Did everything but call me a louse.”
“I almost wish we’d brought him along.”
“A dog’s a nuisance on a trip.” Then I added, “I won’t be bullied by a dog. Or tied down by one!”
Barbara glanced at me and smiled. I said, “Forget Pat. This is a fun trip as well as a work trip. Nobody asked him to move in on us. After all!”
We drove all day through the wintry countryside. Several times Barbara mentioned Pat, and I said, “Forget him. He’s all right.” Once, in a little town in Delaware, I saw a black and white dog that looked so much like Pat that I turned and stared, and missed a road marker. I had to go back and find the route. And Barbara laughed at me and said, mocking me, “Forget him. He’s all right.”
That evening we stopped at a motel in Maryland. After we had eaten and returned to our room I said, “I’m going to call Charley.”
“About the back door. I’m not sure I locked it.”
“I’m sure you did. I saw you.”
“I think I went out that door later, for something.”
“Well, go ahead and call. Make sure.”
I put in the call. Charley’s wife, Elitha, answered. As soon as she knew who was calling she laughed. “Calling about Pat, I’ll bet. Well, Pat’s all right. He’s here in the kitchen right now. Wait a minute. Here’s Charley.”
Charley came on the phone. “Hello. So you’re worrying about Pat. Well, stop worrying. He and Poochy had a set-to, like I said they would some day. Poochy jumped him and Pat gave him a roughing up. Lots of noise but no blood. I guess they got things settled. I’m taking him out after those white rabbits tomorrow. How’s the weather down there?”
When I had hung up, Barbara said, “Everything’s all right?”
“Fine,” I said. I told her everything Charley and Elitha had said.
“And the back door—”
“Oh, I forgot all about that. Well, I must have locked it, as you said. Charley will go down in a day or two, and he’ll find out if I didn’t.”
Then it was nine o’clock, Pat’s bedtime, and I started for the door before I remembered. I picked up a road map from the dresser and went back to my chair, and we planned the next day’s drive.
It wasn’t until we reached St. Augustine that I stopped thinking, involuntarily, that nine o’clock was Pat’s bedtime. Then the beach, and the sun, and the job I had gone down to do took over. We went inland to Orlando and visited friends, and I gathered more material. Over to Daytona and on down the coast, and finally back to the Orlando area again, to a cypress cottage on Lake Sheen near the village of Winter Garden. We settled down to do the job we were there to do.
Christmas passed, a strange Christmas and very different from the one the year before. The only Christmas tree we had was a conventionalized little pine I outlined on a window with green Scotch tape. We decorated it with tiny balls taped to the fake branches. The Christmas cards from up North only made us homesick. The card from Charley and Elitha said, “Plenty of snow and cold. Better stay there till spring!” Then a P.S.: “Pat’s fine.” We read it and laughed, then were silent. Finally I said, “I wonder if he’ll know us when we get back.” And that evening we remembered last Christmas, there in the valley, the snowstorm, the howling dog; and Barbara said, “My Christmas present —the dogs!”
We went back to work at the typewriter the next day. Before the week was out the job was finished. We were tired, so we decided to stay on for another month, for a vacation. After all, it was, as Charley and Elitha had said, cold and snowy up home. Down here we had a cabin on a lake, good bass fishing, and a boat. It was one of Florida’s chilly winters, but we had a fireplace and a small gas heater. We fished. I fed the fireplace. And the chill rains came. We wearied of fishing. We watched the weather reports from up North and kept telling ourselves how lucky we were.
Then, one morning when the fireplace was utterly inadequate and the fog from the lake hung thick and dank, I said, “I’m going in and have the car greased and the oil changed.”
“Why?” Barbara asked.
“Well, it’s almost time to change the oil, and—”
“I’m ready to go any time you are,” she said.
“You want to go home, too?”
“Of course! I didn’t want to mention it if you wanted to stay, but—”
“I didn’t either, if you wanted to stay. … Start packing. I’ll help when I get back with the car.”
We headed north the next morning.
We struck the first snow in Maryland, just enough to whiten the ground. By the time we reached New Jersey it was four inches deep. We crossed the George Washington Bridge and headed north, and there was six inches of it, with dirty drifts flung up at the roadsides by the snowplows. Then
We came to the broad valleys where the hills stand apart, and we made the turn at Millerton, crossed into Connecticut, passed Lake Wononscopomuc at Lakeville, a glittering expanse of virgin snow ten inches deep that lay like a gigantic frosted mirror among the wooded hills. On to Salisbury village.
We stopped in the village to buy milk and eggs and butter and bread, and chops for supper. And Barbara said, “Dog food. Don’t forget that.” It was our first reference to Pat since we had left Florida, and even then we didn’t speak his name. We hadn’t had word from Charley or Elitha in three weeks, not since Christmas, and the thought was in both our minds that even if nothing had happened to Pat he might not want to live with us any more.
I bought half a dozen cans of dog food, and we put the groceries in the car and came on up over Smith Hill, where the whole of the Taconic range can be seen. The mountains gleamed in the late afternoon sun, majestic and enduring as time itself. Ahead lay the long ridge of Canaan Mountain. Then we saw Tom’s Mountain, with its peculiar knob at the top, the gray shadow of its naked trees dancing with the glitter of snow beneath. Then left, up Twin Lakes road to Weatogue, and up our own valley. Past Albert’s farm, with the snow a foot deep in his fields and the barn faintly steaming with the warmth of his dairy herd. Past our own lower pasture and along the iced-in river sealed in snow and looking like a white, winding, multilane highway. And there stood our own red buildings, our big gray barn, our towering Norway spruce like an enormous green candle flame beside the house. Home.
I got out the key to the front door, carried in the groceries, turned up the thermostat and listened for the furnace to go on. Barbara was bringing in an armload of the miscellaneous duffle that accumulates in the back seat on any long trip. The house was cold, down in the fifties. I said, “Let’s let it warm up.” She said, “Let’s.” Still we didn’t mention him by name.
The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes