The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.2Hal Borland
A little later I looked out on the porch. No dogs. I said hopefully, “We’ve probably seen the last of them.”
We hadn’t. They were back that night, and again they wakened us with their howling. And the next morning they were there on the porch. When I opened the door they leaped up, as usual, went around the house and off across the pasture.
After breakfast I decided to see where they were staying, up there in the brush. I put on boots and a heavy coat and followed their tracks. The tracks led through the fringe of brush and into a tight clump of pasture cedars at the foot of the mountain. There were the dogs, shivering in the dry grass. I called to them, tried to make friends. They would have none of me. The little black one was of two minds, but the black and white one left the cedars and retreated on up the hillside, and the black one followed. I gave up and came back to the house. They followed me, fifty yards behind, and before I had taken off my coat and boots, there they were on the porch again.
We stood at a front window and watched them huddle down together. “Do you suppose the spotted one is the black one’s mother?” Barbara asked.
“Both males,” I said.
“Father and son, then?”
“Different breeds. The black one has setter blood and the black and white one’s at least part foxhound.”
“They’re awfully thin.”
But I refused to get sentimental about two tramp dogs. I did the morning chores and went to my typewriter.
We had steak for dinner. Barbara denies it, but I still think she deliberately went through the steaks in the freezer and picked the one with the biggest bone and most gristle. When we had finished, there was that big bone and all the fat and gristly scraps. She looked at the scraps, then at me. I shook my head, but she said, “You aren’t half as tough as you pretend.” She put the bone and the scraps on an old pie tin, and I took them outside.
Only one dog was there, the black and white hound. He smelled the meat and looked at me, hungry and shivering, his nose twitching. But when I approached him he scuttled down the steps. He stood there in the yard, trembling, that mouth-watering smell still in his nostrils. I went down and set the pan in the snow. He backed away, and I returned to the porch.
He watched me for a long moment, then approached the pan, one wary step at a time, eying me. He grabbed a chunk of fatty gristle and gulped it. He wolfed another chunk, then picked up the bone. The black pup came around the corner of the house and I expected a fight over the bone. Instead, the spotted hound put down the bone and stood aside. The black pup grabbed it and began to gnaw as though he hadn’t eaten in a month. The black and white hound stood on guard, watching me, while the pup gnawed the bone clean.
I came into the house. Barbara had been watching from the window. “Did you ever see that happen before?” she asked.
“These,” she said, “are unusual dogs.”
When we went for our afternoon walk the dogs, instead of dashing off across the pasture and into the brush, followed us up the road. When we came back they followed us home and settled down on the porch again. It was bitter cold outside, warm in the house. As I took off my coat I knew that I could be tough just so long. I said, “How much milk have we got?”
“Only one quart.”
“I’ve got to go to the village anyway. I’m almost out of pipe tobacco.”
She brought the milk and put it in a pan to heat. She set out the last loaf of bread. I crumbled the bread into the warm milk and set it out for the dogs. It was gone in a dozen mouthfuls. I thought the dogs were going to lick a hole in the bottom of the pan.
I went to the telephone.
“What are you going to do?” Barbara asked.
“Call the dog warden.”
“See if he has any report of missing dogs.”
“What if he hasn’t?”
“He’ll come get them and dispose of them.”
“Look,” I said, “you can’t have tramp dogs running loose, vandals on the countryside.”
“So, you feed them, and then call the dog warden!”
I phoned the warden. The only missing dog he had listed was a one-eyed blue-tick hound. I described these two, told him the story.
“You could take them in,” he said, “and advertise them. If you don’t get an answer to your ad—”
I knew. If there was no answer we would have two dogs. I said, “I may call you back,” and I hung up.
“Well?” Barbara asked.
I didn’t answer. I went to the door and called the dogs. Everything that happened seemed to be throwing those two dogs into our lap. But before I took another step I wanted to know how they would act in the house, with people.
I called them. The black and white hound scurried down the steps into the yard, but the black pup stood and watched me. I was tempted to shut the door and be done with the whole thing, but the bitter wind was rising again and snow was in the air. It was going to be another of those nights. “Not fit for man or dog.” I called to the black pup and he wagged a cautious tail and came toward me, step by hesitant step. He smelled the warmth inside. He came to the door, into the hallway. He looked around and whined.
I was still at the open doorway. The black and white hound heard the whine, perked his ears and came slowly up the steps. Watching me, walking almost on tiptoe, he came to the door, looked inside, tense, wary. Then he, too, came in. The two of them went into the living room, crossed to the Navaho rug in front of the open fire. I closed the door. The black pup lay down in front of the fire, sighed, stretched out as though he belonged there. The spotted hound stood for a few minutes, watching us, then lay down with his head on the pup’s flank, still on guard.
We sat down and watched them. The black pup slept. The hound closed his eyes, but every time I moved he opened his eyes and looked at me. At last I said, “They’ll have to sleep in the woodshed.”
“They can have the old brown throw-rug in the attic. Will they be warm enough out there?”
“Warmer than they’ve been out on the porch.”
“The black and white one is still shivering.”
“Nervous. Ready to run if we make one quick move.”
“Blackie’s already settled down.”
“Black Mike,” I said, “would sell his soul for a bone and a bed.”
“Mike!” Barbara exclaimed. “You’ve named them! Pat and Mike!” Then she said, “It was Christmas night when they came, so they’re a Christmas present. I never had a dog. I hope they like me.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. They may not stay. We’ve got to advertise them, and someone may answer the ad. Probably will.”
I went to get my coat and boots. The black and white hound, the one we had just named Pat, jerked to his feet, watching me. Mike, the black pup, opened his eyes but didn’t get up.
“Where are you going?” Barbara asked.
“To the village. What do we need besides bread and milk?”
“Bacon. I think that’s all.”
I called to the dogs. They got to their feet.
“Are you going to take them with you?”
“No. They’re going outdoors till I get back. We still don’t know them and I’m not leaving them in here with you alone. Come on, dogs, out with you!”
“What if they run away?”
I laughed. “You couldn’t drive them away, now. If they should go, though, I’ll take the bag of dog food back tomorrow.”
She smiled. “Don’t forget your pipe tobacco. That’s why you have to go to the store. Remember?”
The dogs went outside with me. They were still there on the porch as I backed the car out of the garage and headed for the village. As I drove through the sheeting snow in the lowering dusk I wondered how it is that hurt, lost creatures turn, as though by instinct, to a haven. Do they sense warmth and food and friendly protection? Do they know where soft-hearted people
THE ADVERTISEMENTS BROUGHT NO answers. Nobody in the whole area, apparently, had lost a black pup or a black and white hound. They wore no collars, had no registration tags, but they could have come from New York, Massachusetts or half a dozen nearby Connecticut townships. I asked everyone I knew, but nobody had ever seen the dogs before, not even skulking across the fields or raiding back-door garbage cans. It was as though they had come out of nowhere, with no history behind them. But wherever they came from, it had been a long, hungry journey.
We mixed panful after panful of warm dog-food mush and watched them gulp it down. That first evening they ate so much I thought they would burst. Then they came inside and lay in front of the fire and groaned in their sleep. When we went to bed they went to the woodshed and curled up on the old rug, and they probably groaned all night. But they didn’t howl. The next morning they roamed the fields for an hour, came back and stuffed themselves, lay for a time, went outside for another hour’s run, and came back and ate again. When they went with us for the afternoon walk they looked as pot-bellied as starving, rickety children. They were hungry again at suppertime.
It was the fourth day before we began to catch up with their appetites. After that the gullies between their ribs showed signs of filling up, and by the end of the week they were down to three meals a day. But it was several weeks before they tapered off to a normal diet. After that they got a handful of corn flakes in diluted canned milk for breakfast, to take the edge off their appetites and minimize their foraging, and a full meal at suppertime.
The mutual relationship between a dog and a household is a rather subtle matter. It varies, of course, with the personalities involved, with their habits and ways of life and their mutual needs. Most dogs come into a household as puppies or, if they are grown, as relatively known quantities. The pup grows up adapting to an established way of life and trained in the ways that best fit into that life. The grown dog’s background is usually taken into account and the advice of the breeder or previous owner can be followed or adapted.
But here were two totally strange dogs, with no known background, coming into a household that neither expected nor really wanted them. Pat, the black and white hound, was an adult dog. I guessed his age at about four years. Pat’s habits were established, his character already formed. Mike, the black pup, was probably about a year old. His habits, while less firmly established, were already formed, and he had his own personality. Barbara and I were accustomed to living our own lives and having our house to ourselves. We had never had a dog in our household, and now we had two.
At first we told ourselves that the dogs weren’t going to stay. Even though there was no response to the ads, someone would eventually claim them. Meanwhile, we wouldn’t become too attached to them. We would see that they had food and shelter and give them a minimum of attention until their owner appeared. There would be no sentiment about them, no nonsense.
Pat’s attitude indicated that he felt the same way. He acted the courteous, well-mannered guest, accepting comfort and a certain amount of attention but never demanding them. He wasn’t exactly biased but he was a dog-of-the-world. He had been around. Mike, on the other hand, was full of young eagerness and emotion. He yelped with joy and he howled with heartbreak. He had no notion of being a guest, anywhere. He made himself at home, immediately and completely, wherever he set foot and found anything approximating a welcome.
Toward the end of the first week Barbara said, “Pat is a gentleman. Just watch the way he walks.” We were out for the afternoon walk and Pat trotted along head high, tail up, self-proud and independent. He kept a watchful eye on Mike, who was scurrying everywhere, busy in every roadside clump. Now and then Pat turned to see that we were still coming, but only with polite interest. “Mike,” Barbara went on, “is somewhat raffish and very much the small boy. A headstrong youngster without Pat’s character or upbringing. Pat worries about him. I wonder why.”
I wondered too, and I still do.
Both dogs were perfectly housebroken, but Pat had manners and Mike didn’t. Pat knew from the start that the dining room was off bounds, that the kitchen was to be used only as a passageway to the backdoor, and that the couch and chairs belonged to us, not to him. Mike had to be told those things, and sometimes the telling had to be emphasized with a rolled-up newspaper.
The rolled-up newspaper was nothing new to either of the dogs. They had been disciplined that way before. They respected it and obeyed it, but they weren’t afraid of it. Pat, however, had known brooms and mops, apparently had painful acquaintance with them. If Barbara or I picked up a broom, Pat cowered or ran. Mike merely scuttled out of range and waited.
We soon learned this difference between them, this fear of Pat’s when either of us picked up a broom, and Barbara said, “He and Mike didn’t come from the same house. Pat must have known some woman who chased him with a broom. Some spick-and-span housewife who didn’t want him around.”
“Or some maid,” I said. “I’ve got a hunch he grew up with someone who had several dogs, a place with a private kennel and a big house and hired help. He was allowed in the house only when the man who owned him was there.”
“Could be,” she said. “He’s a man’s dog. No doubt about that. But Mike has had the run of the house, somewhere.”
My theory seemed to be bolstered by the fact that Pat wasn’t afraid of a walking stick or any outdoor tool, spade, rake or anything with a handle like a broom.
But we never found an answer, even for ourselves, to the question of Pat’s worry about Mike, his deep-seated sense of responsibility for Mike’s conduct. When Mike was scolded, Pat winced. One day I clouted Mike off a forbidden chair and Pat, lying in front of the fire, yelped as though I had slapped him. Mike didn’t make a sound. He merely scurried out of reach and looked insulted.
But in most matters Pat seemed to make the decisions and Mike generally followed his lead. Pat chose the Navaho rug in front of the fire as their downstairs station. The first time they came upstairs Pat chose another Navaho rug at the head of the stairs as their place up there. Later Pat came to prefer my study as his upstairs retreat; but that wasn’t until he and I had decided that we were more than passing acquaintances.
Mike had to explore the whole house before he accepted the fact that he had to stay out of certain rooms. But over the years I never knew Pat to go into Barbara’s study, just across the hallway from mine. He never went into the guest room. And the only times he went into our bedroom were when one of us was sick abed. Then he would come to the door tentatively, almost apologetic, to see what he had sensed was wrong. He would come in, wag his tail uneasily, look his sympathy, then quietly return to the rug at the head of the stairs to await the doctor’s arrival.
For one thing, though, I blessed Mike: He liked Barbara. When the dogs came in from a prowl in the pastures he went to her, all wriggles and delight, demanding attention and offering affection. When she occasionally went for a walk alone, Mike barked his delight and started off, frisking beside her. He always deserted her after the first hundred yards or so, to explore the fields, but somehow he managed to get home when she did, to bark a welcome and come in the house with her. It was warm inside. Besides, she usually rewarded him for going along by giving him a puppy biscuit when she got back.
I knew what Mike was up to, but I wondered if she did. Then one day she said, “Mike doesn’t miss any bets.” She laughed. “I know he’s a little schemer. But a charming one. And he knows that no woman can resist attention and at least the gestures of affection. You notice that he doesn’t waste much affection on you. You never give him puppy biscuits!”
We made our adjustments, all of us, and our gradual compromises. Whether we intended it or not, the dogs became a part of the household. But we spoke of them as “the dogs,” not “our dogs,” and each morning when I let them out and gave them their breakfast snack and watched them take off across the pasture I bade them a
But, day after day, they roamed the pastures and the mountainsides and came back.
Our mountainside—it is called Tom’s Hill locally, but on the older maps it is Tom’s Mountain—is a rather steep, rocky slope with a thick stand of second-growth timber, a scattering of oak and maple and hickory, a good deal of birch and ash, with pine and hemlock on the higher shoulders. The mountain rises abruptly from the far side of the pastures, which are the grassy flatland that once was the river’s narrow flood plain. Several springs feed brooks that flow down the mountain. The biggest spring of all feeds the springhouse from which water is piped a quarter of a mile to the house.
Above the springs the mountain rises in a series of eroding ledges, old rock that was stripped clean by glaciers of the last ice age. Over the centuries enough soil has been built up to support brushy growth and a sparse stand of trees on the ledges. At the foot of each ledge is a jumble of weathered rock, pried loose by frost and ice. At the top of the mountain the backbone of the whole ridge lies bare, tough gray granite and gneiss that the lichens, the frost and the persistent roots of determined bushes are constantly trying to tear apart.
When the first white settlers came here, in the 1730s, there was a Mohican Indian village just down the valley from our house. The Indians grew corn in the valley and hunted game on the ridges, deer, elk, panthers, bobcats, raccoons, foxes, rabbits. The white settlers also farmed the valley land and hunted the ridges and fished the river. In time, they cut much of the virgin timber on the hills, some for lumber, some for firewood, some to make charcoal for the iron furnaces of early Salisbury and Amesville. In the cutting they opened hillside fields. Some of those fields were tilled as recently as twenty or thirty years ago.
During the energetic farming period the elk vanished, the panthers were killed off and the deer retreated to the more rugged hills to the north and west. But eventually the upland fields were farmed out and the farmers retreated to the more fertile valley land. Second-growth timber grew on the ridges again and the deer came back, the deer, the bobcats, the raccoons and the foxes. The rabbits had never gone away. Rabbits persist even in the weedy back lots of a city’s fringes.
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