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The dog who came to stay.., p.15
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       The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.15

           Hal Borland
 
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  A few minutes later he came up the road. The doe saw him about the time I did. She turned and faced him, ears alert, and I heard her snort. The fawns hurried to her side. Pat must have heard too, for he stopped, looked at the deer, sniffed the air. Then he came on, trotting along the roadside uninterested. The doe watched him, moved a little way, the fawns at her flanks, then stopped to look again. Pat glanced at them again but came on toward the house. He passed within fifty yards of them and though the doe kept watching him she did not turn and run. Pat came across the lawn and up onto the front porch, and the doe and fawns went back to the windfalls.

  Pat whined to be let in. I opened the door for him and stepped outside. The doe, with her sharp eyesight and uncanny hearing, must have seen and heard me, for she barked, spun around, flaunted that big white tail and galloped across the pasture. The fawns ran to her, then on ahead, their own white tails up and gleaming. I stood motionless, watching, and the doe stopped to look again. Then she uttered that barking snort once more, a sound almost like that of a gray fox, and she and the fawns went loping on across the pasture. They came to the fence and the doe paused while the fawns went over with their amazingly graceful leaps. Then she jumped the fence—actually, she seemed to glide over, it was so easy—and they disappeared in the brush.

  The doe hadn’t been afraid of Pat. Wary, but not frightened. When she saw me and perhaps got a whiff of my scent she knew it was time to go. And, even more important, Pat hadn’t been interested in the doe or the fawns. I felt sure at last that Pat was not a deer-chaser.

  October came and there were more windfalls under the apple trees. The deer came down to get them, seldom in daylight but almost every evening. When I went out to put Pat to bed I heard snorts and hurrying hoofs, and when I switched on my big flashlight I saw the dazzle of white tails as the deer fled, then the reddish gleam of their eyes as they stopped and turned to watch. It became a kind of game, to see how many deer I could count on any one evening.

  Then one evening when I went out and there was the usual rush, Pat sniffed a couple of times, yelped in excitement, and dashed off in the darkness. I couldn’t believe it. I swung the flashlight and its beam picked up half a dozen deer still running, dashing toward the brush. I searched among them for Pat, but there was no sign of him. The deer reached the far fence, glided over and were gone. I swung the light here and there and finally saw Pat, beyond the big chicken house. As I put the light on him he began to circle and bark. Then I saw twin eyes close together, eyes the most beautiful ruby-red I ever saw. And the glint of a silvery pelt. Pat had something cornered. I hoped it wasn’t a skunk.

  I climbed the pasture fence, put on the light again. The red eyes were gone, but Pat was still dancing and barking. I ran toward him, and he dashed in, nosed something, stood baffled for a moment. Then I saw that my mysterious animal was an opossum. It lay there, inert, eyes closed, utterly limp, long ratlike tail not even twitching. Its coat was a grayish-yellow, which accounted for the silvery look in the light from a distance.

  Pat nosed it again and looked at me, baffled. The possum’s ruse was complete protection, at least as far as Pat was concerned. He didn’t have to kill it. It was already dead. Or appeared to be dead. I have heard naturalists argue over what really happens when a possum does this. Some say it is nothing but an act. Others insist that the possum, faced with danger, actually faints, goes into a kind of coma. I am inclined to agree with the faint theory, for it seems to me that an opossum is so fundamentally incompetent, so ill-equipped for meeting a crisis, that its nervous system just quits at such times. Some biologist has reported that in this state the opossum’s breathing almost stops and its heartbeat slows to a kind of quiver. Left alone for ten minutes, it catches its breath, its heart throbs again and it revives. This makes sense to me.

  At any rate, this particular possum lay there as though dead, and Pat had no more interest in it. I decided to put him to bed, then come back and see what happened.

  He went willingly enough. I closed and latched the door of his house and returned to the pasture. The possum was still there on the ground. I stood with the light on it and waited. Less than ten minutes after it had gone into its trance, or whatever it was. I saw it catch a deep breath. Then it opened its eyes, lifted its head and looked around. It seemed unaware of the light. It got to its feet, looked around and trotted off toward the nearest apple tree. I followed it twenty yards or so away, keeping the light on it. Before it reached the apple tree it was busily searching for windfalls. It found one, took a bite, chewed it hastily and moved to another apple.

  I followed that possum among the windfalls for fifteen minutes, and kept the full glare of the flashlight on it. It seemed totally unaware of the light or of me. It took bites out of fifteen or twenty apples, never more than two bites from the same apple, and it was soon scurrying as busily as a rat. Once it found what looked like a fat white grub and ate it, then went on sampling apples. And finally, for no reason that I could guess, it turned and hurried off into the tall grass and out of sight.

  I never saw a possum among the windfalls again, and as far as I know Pat didn’t either. But they are still around. Now and then during the summer I see one dead in the road, killed by a car. And every winter I see one or two, wallowing in the snow, looking bewildered and incompetent, eyes rheumy, pink noses sniffly, bare paws stiff with cold. I always want to say, “Why did you ever leave Virginia? What are you doing up here?” They don’t belong here, but they persist, too stupid to know where they are, too fecund to die out.

  Morris came over and hunted partridges. Pat greeted him happily, would have gone along—and been a nuisance—if he had been invited. Then the deep frost came, and November, and I went out with Pat to attend to the rabbits on the mountain.

  For two weeks we went out for a few hours every other day. Pat would have run rabbits every day and all day if I had gone along, but I had other things to do, though the perfect fall weather made my study seem like a prison. Then it rained, one of those chill November rains, and we all were housebound for two days.

  When it cleared again I decided to go with Pat far up the mountain and see if we couldn’t put up one of those big white rabbits, the snowshoe hares. Pat didn’t understand, though. Rabbits were rabbits. He put up three cottontails in the first hour and I got two of them, and we still were only halfway up the mountain. I hadn’t the heart to put him on the leash. Then he put up a fourth rabbit, and instead of taking a stand I followed, hoping to intercept both rabbit and dog on up the mountain. The rabbit made a big circle to the left and ran in up there somewhere. Pat yelped his disappointment, then began to backtrack, looking for me. I finally shouted him to attention and he came to me. I let him rest, then went on.

  We had gone another quarter of a mile and were in a stand of big white pines. Pat was up ahead, working the brush beyond. I came to a particularly fine pine and saw a littering of bark fragments at its foot. I examined one of the fragments. It was freshcut and had tooth marks on it. I looked up and saw a big white scar thirty feet up the trunk. Then I saw another scarred tree, and another. I had a porcupine, and he was already on his winter diet.

  The porcupine eats leaves and field plants during the summer, turns to evergreen foliage in the fall, and in winter lives on inner bark of pines, hemlocks, sugar maples, even white birches. The worst of it is that porky wants only the bark from the best and biggest trees. He climbs to a comfortable perch, chips away the corky outer layers of bark, then settles down and gorges himself on the sweet cambium layer, the vital part of the tree. Often he girdles the tree, and though the tree may survive it dies from the girdled point upward. One big porcupine can play havoc in a grove.

  The porcupine has few natural enemies, in this area. Disease, chiefly tularemia, afflicts the porky and probably is the ultimate control. But the lynx, the bobcat, the red fox and the fisher do the job more quickly where man hasn’t cleaned them out as “predators.” We have foxes and bobcats, but they apparently had ove
rlooked this fellow who was working on my pines.

  I forgot about rabbits and began watching the upper branches of the trees. I wanted to get that porcupine before he ruined every tree in that stand of pines.

  Ten minutes later I was still there, searching for the criminal. Then I heard Pat. He was barking the alarm signal, in a shallow gully just beyond the pines. He barked and was silent. Then he barked angrily, a note I had never heard. Another silence. Then yelps of pain, followed by shrill, angry barking.

  I ran toward the gully.

  Pat was in the open, yelping frantically at a patch of low brush. He yelped, then stopped and pawed at his muzzle, then dashed toward the brush and yelped again. I shouted, and he turned and looked at me, and dashed toward the brush again. He had found the porcupine. His face was full of quills. Being Pat, he had attacked the porcupine, with the inevitable consequence.

  I shouted, ordering him to come. He wouldn’t leave off the attack. I caught him by the collar, dragged him away from the brush and snapped the leash on his collar. I tied him to a tree and went back to the brush. There was a papery rustling, then a grunting and the snapping of teeth. I circled the brush and there he was, one of the biggest porcupines I ever saw. He looked at me with angry, piglike eyes and lashed his tail. It made a rustly, rattly sound. Every quill on his body was erect. He looked big as a bear. I lifted the shotgun and fired, and he quivered and seemed to ease down on his side with a rustle of quills. He tried to get to his feet and I fired again. He lay still, the quills slowly folding down like foam subsiding. He became just another porcupine, a dead porky, but still an exceptionally big one.

  Pat was yelping frantically. The shots had made him more determined than ever to get at this beast. I quieted him somewhat, and pulled what quills I could from his muzzle. Barbed as they were, they came out hard and painfully, Pat wincing and whining with pain. I got a dozen or more out of his face, and almost that many out of his lips. He was spitting, trying to get rid of those inside his mouth. He had really taken a mouthful. I opened his jaws and jerked another dozen quills out of his gums. But there were more, at least twenty, broken off short in his gums. I needed pliers or tweezers, or something, to get them.

  I made sure the porcupine was dead, then started down the mountainside with Pat on the leash. He was still so full of fight and indignation that his hackles were up and I had to drag him the first hundred yards. Then he gave up on the porcupine. But, wounded as he was, his mouth drooling bloody saliva, he wanted to explore every brush patch. If anyone thinks it is an easy matter to lead a dog on a leash down such a mountainside, let him try it! Pat seldom chose the same side of a tree that I did, so I was weaving and backtracking all the way. And when a cottontail jumped from a form right in front of me, Pat yelped his trail cry and almost jerked me off my feet in his lunge to be after it.

  It took almost an hour to get back to the house. There I got pliers and tweezers and went to work. Pat was patient, but I saw that the job was beyond me. I phoned the veterinarian, and he said, “Bring him over. We’ll get them out.”

  I put Pat in the car and went over. The vet took one look and said, “He really got a mouthful! I’ll have to knock him out with a shot and do a little operating. How about it, Pat?”

  Pat was quivering on the table, tense but quiet. He must have been in considerable pain, and he was apprehensive. I held him and reassured him while the vet got his syringe. Pat winced at the needle but didn’t make a sound. The vet said, “This will be fast,” and he helped Pat down off the table. Pat looked at me with worried eyes. The vet said, “He’ll still be a little groggy this evening, but you can get him after supper, if you want to.” He started to lead Pat away. Pat staggered and stumbled, caught himself and stood there trembling. He whined at me, then gave up and followed the vet. I went back to the car, damning all porcupines.

  Barbara, who had one look at Pat’s mouth before I took him to the vet, didn’t want to hear about either the vet or the porcupine. All she wanted was to have Pat home again, well and happy. I kept saying, “He’s all right. It’s just a simple operation.”

  “No operation is simple!” she said. “He could die on the table!”

  “It’s more like a dental job than an operation. Except that he won’t have any teeth pulled, or even filled.”

  “You know how sick novocain makes me! Pat’s human too!”

  “He didn’t get novocain. He got a general anesthetic.”

  “Gas or ether makes me even sicker!”

  We waited through the afternoon, Barbara tense and jumpy. We sat down to supper. And the phone rang. Barbara answered it.

  “Yes?” Her voice was taut. Then, “Oh!” It was a sigh. “He’s all right? Oh, thank you! We’ll be right over!”

  We drove to the village, parked at the vet’s office. I got out of the car, and a dog barked inside. Pat. I would know his voice anywhere. He had heard the car.

  We went inside. The vet came to the inner door, greeted us, and went back. And here came Pat, wobbly on his feet, crying like a baby. He came to me, stood on his hind legs, thrust his head under my arm, and would have fallen if I hadn’t caught him. He went to Barbara, nosed her hand, but remembered, groggy as he was, not to paw at her. Then he went to the door.

  The vet laughed. “He didn’t make a sound till you drove up. Then he began to cry. I took thirty-two quills out of his mouth. Thirty-two! He probably won’t want to eat much for a day or two. His mouth’s pretty sore. And don’t worry if he’s a little groggy. It’ll wear off by morning.”

  In the car, on the front seat between us, Pat put his head first on Barbara, then on me, and he cried most of the way home. I had to help him up the steps at the house, he was so uncertain on his feet. He wanted nothing to eat, and he asked to be put to bed at eight o’clock.

  The next morning he heard me coming to let him out. He barked impatiently, rolled in the frosty grass, dashed to the house and demanded breakfast at once. I fed him and we watched him start down the road, tail high, head up, good as ever and proud as a peacock. Barbara laughed. “You know where he’s going, don’t you? Down to tell Suzy all about his operation!”

  CHAPTER 12

  OUR AREA IS NOT overrun by skunks, but we have our share of them. For the most part, they are good neighbors, making no demands except to be let alone. We let them alone, usually. When we don’t, we are sorry and make firm new resolutions. Even Pat does. A skunk’s spray is penetrating and incredibly persistent. But except in mating season, when the males wage bitter battles with every weapon they have, I have never known a skunk to make an unprovoked attack. All other creatures with any sense give them plenty of room. The only creature I know of that regularly kills skunks is the great horned owl, though a very hungry fox or bobcat sometimes kills and eats a skunk. I can’t imagine ever being that hungry.

  Skunks eat insects and all kinds of small animal vermin. They also eat an occasional bird, and if they get a chance they will raid chicken houses and become noxious nuisances. But one stray cat will kill more wild birds in a month than all the skunks that live on my place will kill in a season. So I have no quarrel with skunks, and I hope they continue to have none with me. Up to a point, Pat feels the same way. But he denies them the right to leftovers in his food pan and he thinks they should stay away from our compost heap. For a bright dog, Pat can be very stupid at times. Stupid, or stubborn—the result is the same when it involves skunks.

  Most farm dogs have periodic encounters with skunks which, no matter what steps are taken, leave a reminder that asserts itself when the dog gets wet. I am quite sure I could tell you whether any dog had spent even a week on a farm during the past year if I were allowed to dunk him and then sniff.

  The first time Pat swam the river I sniffed him while he was still wet. All he smelled of was river water, and I wondered at his history. He was an outdoor dog, definitely a country dog. Had he learned his lesson early? That was the only explanation I could find. Periodically I sniffed of him, and never d
id I get that rank, sulphurous smell of musk with an overtone of onions. At last I decided that he was really educated in this matter of skunks.

  I don’t know what happened to the skunks that winter. Maybe the hunting was poor, or maybe they decided to see how we felt about skunks. Anyway, they began to move in on us. The first sign of the invasion was harmless enough. I had fed Pat his supper and he had stayed out for a while. I heard him barking up on the mountainside a little way, probably at someone’s stray hound. I went to the back door to call him in. I switched on the outside light and opened the door to step outside when some movement there caught my eye. I stopped and looked down. Right into the beady black eyes of a glistening black and white skunk not two feet away.

  I froze where I was, scarcely even breathing. He stared at me for a long minute, then turned majestically and walked away. I waited till he was a full fifty feet away. Then I went on outdoors. I found that Pat had left a part of his supper in the pan and the skunk had been cleaning up the leftovers when I interrupted him.

  I switched on the flashlight and tried to see where he had gone, but he had disappeared in the tall grass of the pasture. So I shouted and whistled Pat in, and I watched where he came from. He didn’t see the skunk and apparently he didn’t get the scent until he reached the house. He sniffed his pan, bristled, growled, and was all ready to take off when I collared him. I brought him into the house and kept him here till bedtime, when I put a leash on him and took him out to his own house. It was well that I did, for as I started back to the house I turned the flashlight beam on the compost heap back of the woodshed and picked up a skunk busy there. He didn’t like the light in his face and he ambled off in the darkness.

 
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