The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.12Hal Borland
We got in the car again and drove up to Charley’s. We pulled into the yard and two dogs came running from down by the barn. Poochy and Pat. They dashed up into the yard and stood barking at the car. Pat, who used to recognize the sound of our car half a mile away, who used to come running down the road to greet us. Now he just stood there and barked, as at total strangers.
We got out of the car. I called to Pat, but he wouldn’t let me touch him. He approached with his hackles half up, suspicious. Barbara spoke to him. He hesitated, wagged his tail tentatively, then came and sniffed at her outstretched hand. He came and smelled me, and looked at me, and suddenly stood on his hind legs, his forepaws on my arm, and nuzzled his head against me. He whined softly.
Charley came up from the barn, where he had been preparing for the evening milking. He shouted a greeting, shook hands. And Elitha was at the door, calling, “Come on in where it’s warm! Welcome home!”
We all went inside and sat down. Pat came and nosed my hand, then went to Barbara, then lay down and watched us. Elitha got coffee and we sat and talked for a little while, and Charley said he shot ten rabbits ahead of Pat before Christmas. Hadn’t been out but once since then. Too much snow. No, they hadn’t found any of those big white rabbits, the snowshoes. Didn’t know what happened to them.
And finally we got up to go. “You may have to tie him up for a few days,” Charley said, “to keep him at home. But I’ll let you know if he comes back up here.” He leaned down and rubbed Pat’s ears fondly. He looked up at me. “If I didn’t have Poochy, I think I could persuade Pat to stay here. But one dog’s enough.” He grinned. “At least, we’ll keep him here in the valley.” Then he looked at Pat and shook his head. “Dangdest notional dog I ever saw! You know what he did? The week after Christmas he went down to Albert’s. I went down and got him, and he went right back. Decided he was going to stay with Albert. By Gosh, he stayed there almost a week! Didn’t come near this place. So I said, ‘All right, if you like the meals better down there, stay, drat you!’ But he was just visiting. After four, five days he came back here, and he’s been here ever since. But almost every morning he takes off and goes down there. To see old Teddy, or maybe the new pup Albert’s got. Gone for a couple hours, then comes back. He knows the whole valley, by now, thinks it’s all his, I guess.”
We went out to the car. Pat went with us. He got in between us on the front seat and sat there, serious as could be as we started home. Then he nosed Barbara’s arm and turned and shoved his nose under my arm and snuggled there, whining softly. And sat up, self-conscious, and stared at the road.
I put the car in the garage and we got out. Pat dashed to the front porch, barked at us happily, came piling down the steps and raced to us and around us, and back to the porch. I opened the door and he surged in, swept down the hallway, around through the living room, down the hallway again, his claws rattling on the bare floor. Then he went to the rug in front of the Franklin stove and lay down, claiming his place. Pat, too, had come home.
That evening the temperature dropped sharply. It had been only ten above zero when we arrived, and by eight o’clock it was down to five below and still falling. Nine o’clock, Pat’s bedtime, and Barbara said, “I think he had better sleep in the house tonight. It’s too cold out there in his own house.”
I agreed. He had been sleeping in the barn, up at Charley’s, with the heat of forty cows warming it up. So I spread an old blanket for him in the living room and told him that he was a very privileged character. But he didn’t seem to understand. We came upstairs and unpacked the big suitcase, and he followed us up, settled down in my study. I said, “All right, if that’s what you’d rather do, sleep there.”
We got ready for bed. Pat came to the bedroom door and whined. “What do you want, anyway?” I asked. He went to the head of the stairs and waited. “All right,” I said, “go on downstairs and sleep.” But he didn’t go.
“Maybe he wants to go out,” Barbara said.
“He’s been out.” But I took him downstairs, opened the front door for him. He turned away. He didn’t want to go outdoors. I took him to the blanket in the living room and ordered him to lie down. He lay down, reluctant, and I came back upstairs.
We went to bed. Half an hour later Pat wakened us, whining. I put on a robe and slippers and went downstairs. He greeted me happily and went to the back door. “Want to go out?” I asked. No response. He looked at me as though I were being very stupid. And then I asked, “Do you want to go to bed?” He wagged his tail and made it quite clear that was what he wanted. He didn’t want to sleep in the house. He wanted to go out to his own house, his own bed, cold or not.
I went back upstairs, pulled on my pants, put on my boots, threw a coat over my robe, and took him out to his own house. The snow was up to my knees and so cold that it whined under my feet. I opened the door, flashed the light inside, saw that there was plenty of straw. Pat went in, nosed into his familiar nest in the straw and lay down, content. I closed and latched the door and went back to the house, looking at the thermometer at the back steps. It showed nine degrees below zero.
It was eighteen below when I got up the next morning, one of those brittle winter dawns when the sky looks like ice and the whole world seems ready to crack if you gave it one sharp blow. The ice on the river was booming from time to time. The sun came up accompanied by brilliant sun dogs, patches of frosty rainbow set on each side of it close to the horizon.
I dressed and set the coffee to cook. Then I pulled on my boots, buttoned my heaviest coat and went out to Pat’s house. He heard the crunch and whine of my footsteps and began to bark, the eager greeting bark. I opened the door and he dashed out, raced in a circle on the heavily crusted snow, flung himself headlong and rolled and slithered down the little slope toward the driveway, then leaped to his feet and raced me back to the house. His breath made steamy little clouds in the frigid air. We came inside and he went to the foot of the stairs and lay down in front of the hot-air register to soak up the heat.
Half an hour later I gave him his breakfast snack. And forgot all about tying him up. He ate and went out to the road, and I remembered. I went to the door to call him, but he had already started down the road, toward Albert’s. His tail was high, his head alert. He owned not only this valley but the whole world. I didn’t have the heart to call him back and tether him. Anyway, he wasn’t going up to Charley’s. I let him go.
Two hours later he was back, at the front door asking to be let in. He came up to my study and lay down, just as he had been in the habit of doing before we went away. I wondered if he was telling us, in the only way he could, that if everything was the same with us, he was glad to have things unchanged with him. He was willing to take up where we left off if we were. And that afternoon when we had to go to the village for grocery staples he stood on the front porch and watched us go with no sign of doubt that we would soon come back.
On the way, we stopped at Albert’s to say hello to Albert and Ruth, his wife. They asked about the trip and we discussed the weather. And I saw their new pup, Suzy. She was gangling, all legs and tail, but puppy-cute and affectionate. I asked if she was a German shepherd, and Albert said, “No! Her mother was a black and white hound, looked a little like Pat. I don’t know where Suzy got that color.” And he said he’d had her spayed.
Ruth said, “Speaking of Pat, he was the cutest thing. That week he came down here to live, we thought he’d decided to stay here till you got back. Charley came down and took him home, but he came right back here. So we fed him and he played with old Teddy and Suzy. Then after about a week he moved back to Charley’s. But he came down every morning to visit. He was here this morning for an hour or two.”
“He gets along all right with Teddy?” I asked.
“Oh, you know Teddy,” Albert said. “He makes a lot of noise, and sometimes they wallow around, but they get along.”
“If Pat makes a nuisance of himself,” I said, “let me know.”
And Ruth said, “I don’t mind him at all. He comes, and if Suzy isn’t out, Pat comes to the door and whines for her. I let her out and they go romping in the snow till Pat decides he’s visited long enough. Then he goes back home.”
“I hope,” Albert said, “that Pat teaches Suzy to catch woodchucks, come spring. How many did he get last year?”
I told him, and he said, “More than I got with the gun.” He laughed. “Send him down here next summer, will you? The woodchucks in that patch of alfalfa across the road will keep him busy all summer long.”
Pat settled down without a lapse and without any hesitation that I could see. It surprised me, since he had been a wanderer before he came to us. I would have been disappointed, but would have accepted it, if he had chosen to go back to Charley’s after we got home. I would have understood if he had gone down to Albert’s to live. But apparently he had made his choice, and despite our desertion of him for those long weeks he had accepted the situation and was going to continue to live right here. At least when we were here.
I can only guess at what goes on in a dog’s mind, and I doubt if anyone can do much more. But if I can judge by Pat I would say that a dog’s sense of home is primarily linked with the person or the people who live there. Cats, I believe, have less of a sense of personal loyalty, though cat-lovers may, and are quite welcome to, dispute me on this point. But once a dog has established his loyalty to a person, he will go anywhere with that person, and it is that person’s presence which seems to stand for “home.” The place factor seems to me secondary, though as long as it is associated with the person it remains the dog’s property, too. Pat, for instance, obviously considers this house not only ours but his as long as we come back to it regularly. If we are gone for a week or more and he is staying somewhere else, his ownership somehow is canceled for that time.
Albert stows hay, straw and other things in our big barn. Charley uses our corncrib to store his excess. Both Charley and Albert are here every day or so on some errand, and when we are here Pat announces them with his usual announcement barking, then goes to greet them. He knows and likes them both. If we are away overnight, however, and either of them comes here and even approaches the house, Pat acts as though they were total strangers. He warns them off, bristles, even threatens them. How Pat knows the difference between an overnight trip and an absence of a week or more, I don’t know, unless he knows that when we take him to either Charley or Albert and drive away we won’t be back for a while.
Whatever goes on in his active mind, he knew that we had come back to stay, and that this was home again, for all three of us. He went up to visit Charley every now and then, but never stayed more than an hour or so. He went down to Albert’s almost every morning. But he came home for meals and he stayed at home nights. In his own house. He didn’t mind the cold out there. He certainly preferred it to what we considered the comfort here in this furnace-heated house when it came to be bedtime. Nine o’clock in the evening and if we were alone he got up from his rug, stretched and came to me and indicated that it was his bedtime. If we had guests in for the evening he would wait till nine-thirty before he made his move. Sometimes he would even wait till ten. But if they were not gone by then he would get up, stretch, yawn ostentatiously, and come over to me. If I tried to ignore him he went back and sat down and looked bored. Sometimes he stared at the guests as though asking, “Don’t you know enough to go home?” It became a joke with our close friends. When he got restless or sat there staring at them, someone would say, “Pat is telling us it’s time to go home.” With this lack of tact, he has cut short a few pleasantly leisurely evenings. He has also put an end to a painfully dull evening, now and then.
So Pat established this new pattern for himself. This was home again, but every day he went visiting, down the road or up. And as the winter wore away he made most of the valley his own. One day I took the back road up past Bartholomew’s Cobble to Ashley Falls, in Massachusetts, and up there in the woods, three miles from home, I saw him trotting along the road ahead of me. He was obviously just out for a look at the country, taking his time and stopping to investigate the whole roadside. I slowed the car and loafed along a quarter of a mile behind him for a way. Then he heard the motor and turned and looked. As I drove closer he began to wag his tail. He moved off to the roadside and waited till I came up. Then he greeted me politely, as much as said he didn’t want a lift, and I drove on. When I looked back he was coming up the road again, still exploring. I didn’t see him when I came back that way, but he was at home before noon, his jaunt completed.
Everyone in the valley knew him by then. I asked various ones if he was making a nuisance of himself. They said no. “Once in a while he stops past, and if we are outside he says a polite hello. But he never stays more than a few minutes.” Then they laughed. “He’s a very busy dog. He seems to think he has to patrol the whole valley.”
But only on our side of the river. There is a highway bridge about three miles below us, but nobody beyond the bridge ever reported seeing him. And though he usually traveled by road, he was careful about cars. Only twice have I known him to be in danger on the road, and both times it was my own fault. Once we were walking along the road and a big truckload of gravel approached, hurrying. I didn’t think Pat saw the approaching truck, for his back was to it, and I called to him. He turned to look at me, and I shouted, “Pat, come here!” He heard the alarm in my voice and started across the road, right in the truck’s path. The driver hit the brakes, tires squealed, and Pat, thanks to quick reflexes, leaped almost from under the crushing wheels. The other time we were walking just at a bend in the road and Pat was sniffing some scent in the road. Again his back was to the car that came whooping around the curve, and I shouted at him. He looked at me instead of the car, and once more he was saved only by his quick reflexes. The car brushed him as he leaped away, just nudged him. After that I stopped trying to warn him. I only confused him when I shouted that way. And never since then, to my knowledge, has he had a close call.
He explored the valley, and January passed and February brought a touch of warmth. The snow thinned to a crust, the ice went out of the river, and before the first of March the sap had begun to flow in the maples. I knew the sap was beginning to move even before I saw the first sap buckets out because the red squirrels were busy in the big sugar maples in front of our house. And after the squirrels came the chickadees. The squirrels, following some calendar of their own, knew when to nip the latent buds on the maples and open tiny taps on the branches. They ate the buds, as spring salad I suppose, and then they sat and licked the sap as it oozed out, drop by sweet drop. And the chickadees, perhaps by watching the squirrels, knew what was happening. They followed the squirrels and got their own spring sweetening from the little oozing wounds on the maple branches.
March blew and blustered toward the equinox. April was at hand, and the first crocuses showed color and the early bees were out. One sunny day I took the boat out of the garage and cleaned it out and sanded the bottom and gave it a first coat of paint. Charley came down with a spreader full of manure for the garden, but said it was still too wet to plow. The swamp maples were in crimson flower and there was a thin haze of delicate green on the white birches on the mountain and the elms beside the river.
I noticed that Pat had curtailed his trips up and down the valley. Now he was limiting his trips to the morning visit down to Albert’s, to see Suzy. He had more urgent business here at home, though I didn’t realize it until the day, the first week in April, when I saw him lying on the front steps, looking smug and triumphant. Sure enough, when I went out to the garage, there was a dead woodchuck on the lawn. Spring was here. The woodchucks were out and foraging, and Pat was back at work.
SPRING IN NEW ENGLAND is seldom much to boast about. Robert Frost summed it up when, speaking of an April day, he said that if the sun is out “you’re one month on in the middle of
So, the year I am speaking of, we endured April. Pat brought in the first woodchuck, and the next day it snowed. Charley spread the load of manure on the garden, and it was two weeks before he could get in with the plow. I tried to fork up a row for Barbara to plant peas, and I found frost still in the ground four inches down. She planted them anyway, and somehow they sprouted. I painted the boat and slid it over a scum of ice at the river’s edge to launch it.
Then it was May, and the next thing we knew the temperature was in the eighties and the pear tree was showing white and the apple trees were all pink and green. The ducks were quacking on the river, Barbara saw four bluebirds and we had our first mess of milkweed greens. Albert began planting field corn.
Pat’s visits down the road, at Albert’s place, lengthened from an hour or so to most of the morning. Then I heard him running the lower slope of the mountain, not back of the house but down the valley, back of the lower pasture. I asked Albert if he knew what was going on. He said he wasn’t sure, but Pat was coming down there every morning, getting Suzy, and going off somewhere. Yes, he had heard Pat on the mountainside. And yes, it was fawn season. He didn’t know whether Pat was running deer or not, or if Suzy was running with him.
I went down there to watch. Sure enough, Pat and Suzy were running the mountainside together. But only the lower slopes, and apparently they were running rabbits. Suzy, slim and young, ran like a deer, but she ran without a sound. It looked to me as though she were just running with Pat, and Pat was doing all the trailing. But it still bothered me. I remembered what Dave, the dog warden, had said, that one dog alone seldom will run deer but that two of them together might.
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