The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.17Hal Borland
I still don’t know all his peculiar tastes. He doesn’t care for candy or any such sweets, but one day I caught him licking a discarded watermelon rind. Cheese, of course, is a treat, any kind of cheese, the riper the better. On occasion he will eat boiled onions. Baked Hubbard squash sometimes pleases him, but he has no use for summer squash. Carrots leave him cold, but boiled parsnips are a treat. In fact, his tastes are so unpredictable that he now gets all the table scraps, no matter how improbable they may seem as dog food. Barbara says he will eat anything with herbs in it, but that is an exaggeration. He doesn’t care for dill. But he will eat sauerkraut every day in the week, and lick up every last scrap.
Barbara cooked sauerkraut that day, and by late afternoon the aura of synthetic gardenia began to abate, defeated by the kraut. We feasted, that evening, and so did Pat. Only in the basement, around that south window, was there any noticeable reminder of the skunk. It persisted for weeks.
We didn’t have to fumigate the house again until March, when the skunks began to mate. Why the truculent males chose our dooryard as their battleground is a mystery to me, but they did. Twice their stench wakened us in the night, and once I went downstairs and watched the final round of a battle between two bloody and bedraggled skunks in the driveway out of the garage. They paid no attention to the flashlight beam as they staggered about, snapping, snarling, trying vainly to muster more ammunition for their exhausted spray guns. When I finally shouted at them they were both ready to call it quits. They staggered off in the pungent darkness. Fortunately there was an upriver wind that night, and when we opened the windows on the south side of the house the wind cleared and sweetened the air by morning. But the car, even inside the closed garage, had a noticeable aura for some time.
March passed, and April was almost gone, and I said confidently that the Year of the Skunks had passed. But I spoke too soon. The last week in April Barbara shouted from her study, “There’s another one! Out by Pat’s house!”
I hurried to look. She was as right as rain. There was a skunk sunning itself beside Pat’s house. I looked again, and several pieces clicked into place. Then I went downstairs and got the shotgun.
The old brooder house where Pat sleeps was built on concrete piers with its floor about six inches above the ground. Originally the space beneath was boarded up, but over the years the boarding began to rot away. There were a number of gaps in it. The previous summer a cottontail rabbit decided to live under the house. In some mysterious way I shall never understand, this cottontail reached an agreement with Pat. Unless I was around, Pat never chased that rabbit. I saw that rabbit hopping about the lawn half a dozen times, Pat lying unconcerned not fifty feet away. But if I appeared, Pat put on a great show, sniffing, finding the scent, yelping loudly, and always ending up in the raspberry patch. He yelped and thrashed about, and came back to me and as much as said, “No rabbit, Boss.” As I say, the whole thing was beyond me.
Then something happened. The rabbit must have broken the truce, for Pat went after it in earnest. He finally tried to dig his way underneath his own house to get at it. The rabbit took the hint and moved out, and I partly filled the hole Pat had dug.
I had thought there was a faint skunk odor around Pat’s house for some time, but until that morning I didn’t take it seriously. Now I knew. This skunk had taken up quarters under the brooder house, expected to bear her litter there. And it was almost time for her to give birth. She was sunning herself in the mouth of the hole Pat had dug. Pat fortunately was down at Albert’s, on his morning visit with Suzy.
I took the shotgun and went out the back door and around the house, keeping a big lilac bush between us. I didn’t know what to do, not wanting to kill her where she was and have her foul Pat’s house. She solved the problem for me. She got to her feet, heavy with young, and ambled off, across the barnyard toward the big barn. I followed her. She went around the barn, searching the grass for grubs, and out into the pasture beyond. I shot her there.
I was sorry to have to kill her. But she broke the rules. I have never killed a skunk on this place that wasn’t trying to set up residence where a skunk doesn’t belong. As long as they don’t try to live in with us, any of us, my truce with them holds good. Apparently Pat observes the same rules of armistice, for I have never known him to attack one or be skunked outside the limits of our private domain here in the dooryard.
I had the skunk buried by the time Pat came home. I took him out and showed him the place she had been sunning herself, and he sniffed and looked up at me and as much as said, “A skunk. So what? I knew she was there all the time.”
Maybe he had a truce with her, too, as he did with the cottontail.
I SOMETIMES WISH THAT Pat had a less vigorous sense of responsibility, or a more vigorous sense of self-preservation. Especially where armed men are involved, strange men. When it comes to strange dogs, Pat knows what he is doing, when to fight, when to bluff, and when to run. Usually he does.
There was the early fall afternoon when I was cutting down the stalks in the sweet-corn patch to give the late limas more light, and I heard a dog barking up on the mountain. A strange dog. Pat heard it too, and got up from the path where he had been watching me and looked and listened, his hackles lifted slightly. That was his mountain. What was a stranger doing up there? I said, “Skip it, Pat, Skip it. Just a stray hound.” He glanced at me and wagged his tail once or twice in acknowledgment, then went out the garden gate and started across the pasture. I called to him to come back, and he hesitated, listened again, and went on.
I watched as he crossed to the foot of the mountain and stopped to bark a challenge. There was no answer. He strutted along the fence and scratched grass in that defiant he-dog gesture, and went into the brush. I went back to my corn-cutting. Being Pat, he had to go and see. He would be back in his own time.
A few minutes later I heard the strange hound again. Then I heard Pat, the challenge, the warning, the “get off my land” bark. Silence, then Pat’s angry bark. And a defiant yelping from the stranger. I stopped and listened. This sounded like trouble.
Another minute’s silence. Then Pat’s angry barks were followed by snarls, yelps and yowls. I couldn’t be sure whether the yowls and yelps were Pat’s or not, but the trouble I had feared was in progress. I put down the corn knife, came to the house and got the stout ash stick I use as a walking stick on the mountain. It makes a handy club, light but strong. And I started across the pasture.
The fight had subsided. Nothing but silence up there. But before I had gone fifty yards it was on again, this time among the trees just beyond the brush that lines the pasture fence. Most of the yowling was by the strange dog, I was glad to hear.
Then that ruckus ended. I hurried on.
I was halfway across the pasture when Pat burst from the brush, running full tilt. It wasn’t like Pat to run that way. Then, ten yards or so behind him, a long-legged black hound crashed into sight, trying to catch Pat. Pat glanced back, saw that the black hound was gaining on him, and turned to face him. The black hound closed with Pat and Pat somehow knocked him off his feet, though the stranger must have been ten pounds heavier. Pat was on him in an instant, snapping at black legs and throat. He was winning the fight, but he glanced at the brush, then turned and ran again. And a big brindle dog, heavyjawed and twice Pat’s weight, burst from the brush and lumbered toward him.
So! This wasn’t a row with another hound. This was a gang fight, and Pat was fighting a delaying action. The black hound could outrun him, but he could fight the black to a standstill. The big brindle was slow on his feet but he could have shaken Pat as Pat shakes a woodchuck.
Pat ran. The black hound scrambled to his feet and resumed the chase, the big brindle now almost at his shoulder. Pat was only two or three jumps ahead of them.
I yelled and ran to meet them, clubbing my walking stick and wishing I had brought a gun. Pat heard me and raced toward me, gasping for breath, long ears flying. I th
I thought Pat could take care of the black hound, for the moment anyway, if I could keep the big brindle from getting into it. He was closing fast. I yelled again and the brindle saw me and hesitated just long enough for me to get within reach and swing my club. I caught him alongside the head with it. He roared in pain and surprise, gathered himself to make a leap at me, and I brought the club down again, right across his muzzle. That took the fight out of him. He turned and I got in one more whack, across his rump. Then he was on his way.
Pat was on his feet, wallowing the black hound. But Pat had fought his fight. Fought his fight and run his race. He eased off, the hound squirmed to his feet, and I gave him one rap with the club. He yelped and scuttled away, saw the big brindle loping toward the road, looking back anxiously and shaking his head in pain. The black followed him.
Pat stood panting, exhausted. He looked up at me, wagged his tail and caught a deep breath. Then he trotted after the retreating enemy and barked, hoarse but defiant. He scratched grass. Then he came back to me and practically said, “Thanks, Boss. I guess we showed those tramps who owns this place!” And we came back to the house.
The black hound had bloodied one of Pat’s ears a bit and he must have cracked a bone in Pat’s left foreleg, because he limped painfully for two weeks. But except for that and a sore stiffness for a few days, he was unhurt. We never saw the black hound or the big brindle again. They must have been strays, for neither of them wore a license tag or a collar.
Then it was hunting season again, and Pat had other things than stray dogs to worry about.
Like almost any rural area, we have our troubles now and then with invading hunters. With poachers, too; but poachers are a special breed of outlaws. Pat is suspicious of invading hunters, but he hates poachers. How he distinguishes between them I don’t know; but he does.
Rural and village hunters, as a rule, are careful, friendly folk who watch where they shoot, make sure of their kills, put up bars, close gates and are courteous people. It’s the outsiders— mostly from the urban areas, I am sorry to say—who cause the trouble.
One summer Saturday two affable strangers stopped at Charley’s place and asked if they could hunt woodchucks. Charley was overrun by woodchucks that year, so he told these men he had cows up in the woods and he told them which fields they could hunt in and bade them good luck. They used up a lot of ammunition and reported that they had killed eight woodchucks. And they asked if they might come back the next weekend. Charley said all right. The next Saturday they came back with two friends, fired twice as much ammunition and had a noisy afternoon. After they had left Charley found two gates open, a broken whiskey bottle in the lane, and footpaths all through his best alfalfa. Charley didn’t like it, naturally.
The next weekend they were back, this time seven men in two cars. They parked and began unloading arms and ammunition. Charley went out and told them the party was over. No more hunting, woodchucks or anything else, on his land. They wanted to argue. Charley said, “Get out.” And he was abused in loud and vulgar language. But he sent them packing, then went out and put up more “No Hunting” signs.
The whole valley has been posted for some years, and that’s the reason. The careful, courteous hunters suffer for the sins of the careless, arrogant minority. And we all take abuse for it.
One Saturday that fall I saw a station wagon cruising up the road. Pat, who was inside the house, announced that it had stopped here. I went to the door just as two of the four men in the car stomped onto the porch and announced, “We’re going to hunt here. It’s all right, isn’t it?”
Pat bristled, and so did I. I grabbed Pat by the collar, and I said, “No, it’s not all right. This land is posted.”
The spokesman exclaimed, “Everything around here is posted! We buy hunting licenses, then you won’t let us hunt! What kind of a deal is that?”
“There isn’t any deal,” I said. “I own this land, I pay the taxes, and I say no hunting here.” And I closed the door.
They went back to the car and drove slowly up the road. I let Pat out. A little later they came back down the road, and soon after that Pat began to bark. I looked out and saw all four men, in their brand new gear, walking across the lower pasture toward the woods. I went out and shouted at them, and Pat ran toward them, barking. One of them lifted a gun and pointed it at Pat, and I shouted another warning. He lowered the gun, and they went on. I got out my car and drove down the road to where their station wagon was parked, out of sight of the house but within ten feet of a “No Hunting” sign. I followed them across the pasture. They waited at the edge of the woods, defiant. I didn’t know whether they would threaten me with a gun, or shoot Pat, who was still barking angrily at them, or what, but I ordered them off. I had to tell them that my wife was calling the State Police—which turned out to be the truth—before they went back to their car and left the valley.
A couple of weeks later I was working in the yard when two rifle shots from up on the mountain crashed into the big barn not a hundred feet from the house. Pat went charging across the pasture, barking furiously, and I followed him, just as angry. Only a few hundred yards up in the woods we found two happy go-lucky fools who said they were lost and had been shooting squirrels. With .30-30 rifles, no less! Guns that will kill a deer at a quarter of a mile or more. I made them unload their guns and I escorted them down here and back to their car, parked just up the road. Practically under a “No Hunting” sign.
Such hunters are nuisances. They are dangerous, usually, only because of ineptitude or carelessness. They are the reason for the “No Hunting” signs. But the poachers are something else again.
Connecticut has no open season on deer. A farmer, if he has a permit from the State Game Commission, may take deer on his own land, and he may apply for permits for his employees or close relatives to take a limited number of deer on his land. Beyond that, all deer hunting is illegal here. But there seems to be a year-round black market for venison in certain restaurants in nearby states. I am told that the going price at the moment is seventy-five dollars apiece for fresh-killed deer. So we have poachers.
The poachers usually work in teams of two men. Occasionally they make a kill in daylight, but usually they work at night. This calls for jack-lighting, a crime in itself; but the poacher is already an outlaw, so the added crime makes little difference to him. Deer are dazzled and briefly fascinated by a bright light thrown on them. Such a light is called a jack-light, though it may be only a big flashlight or even a car’s headlights. Deer caught in such a light can be shot like sitting ducks.
A team of poachers cruises the back roads, usually at dusk, looking for roadside fields where the deer come down to feed. Having marked such deer meadows, the poachers return after dark, do their jack-lighting, kill a deer, drag it to the car, shove it in the trunk, and get away. If it’s a deserted road with no occupied houses nearby, only game wardens or State Police can check the poachers.
If there are houses nearby or if the deer meadow is on a road where cars are passing from time to time, and if the poachers still want to take a deer there, one man may be left off with a gun and a flashlight, usually at dusk. He waits in the meadow for the deer to come down, and his partner drives away. When the deer appear, the man in the field jack-lights one, turns off his light and drags the carcass into hiding near the road. Eventually his partner comes back in the car. If the coast is clear he gets a signal, stops the car, helps load the carcass, and away they go.
Poachers hate dogs. And Pat hates poachers, as I said before, and he has some way of knowing poachers from ordinary hunters and from fishermen. Occasionally during late summer and fall fishermen drive up the road at dusk, park their car and go down to the river to fish for bullheads. When they have oil lanterns I kno
For some years now the State Troopers have been patrolling our valley road at night during the fall months, and last year the game wardens also patrolled it. All of us who live here watch for those suspicious cars and take down their license numbers, and if we hear shooting we phone each other, spread the alarm, and get busy. Last fall the Troopers and the wardens, with modest help from us, caught several jack-lighters. Fines running into the hundreds of dollars were levied and word seemed to get around to the outlaw fraternity. The poachers moved out. I hope we have discouraged them.
But during the fall I am writing about the poachers were still bold and there were quite a number of wandering hunters. Pat and I had a busy fall.
Usually when I feed Pat his evening meal he stays out no more than half an hour, then comes to the door and asks to be let in for the evening. But that fall he would be gone for an hour or more almost every evening. I would hear him at the foot of the mountain, barking, or up along the tracks, or in the Trestle Lot. It was his warning bark, his challenge, and I didn’t like it.
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