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The dog who came to stay.., p.21
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       The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.21

           Hal Borland
 
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  I knelt, saw that it had him by two toes, and thanked heaven that it wasn’t a mink trap or a fox trap, but a relatively light muskrat trap. I tromped on its spring and released him. Then I jerked up the peg and flung peg, chain and trap far out into the deep water, damning all trappers.

  Pat whined his gratitude and licked his paw. I examined it as best I could in the dim light. No bones seemed to be broken. He got to his feet and scrambled back up the bank on three legs. I ordered him back, and he came, and I took him in my arms and put him in the boat. I got in, and we came home, I muddy as a ditch swamper, Pat looking like something hauled out of a flooded coal mine.

  Barbara was waiting on the porch. “Is he all right?” she called as we came up the walk, Pat still on three legs.

  “Got his toes pinched in a muskrat trap!” I said.

  “Is he hurt?”

  “I don’t know!”

  She held the door wide. We trailed in, still dripping. Pat plopped down and I crouched beside him and went over the injured foot. Pat watched me with a sheepish look. The foot was bruised and there was an ooze of blood around one nail, but there were no broken bones, not even an open cut. At last I stood up and said, “No damage. He’ll be all right in a few days.”

  Barbara had watched, tense. Now she exclaimed, “Thank goodness! I had visions of another dash to the vet, or even worse.” Then she looked at me, she looked at Pat, and she looked at the rug. “Get out of here!” she said. “Both of you! Go give him a bath, and take one yourself!” Then she laughed. “My nice clean rug. Well, thank goodness it is washable.”

  Pat limped around for a week. But the limp didn’t check his riverbank prowls when we went fishing, though I noticed that he was wary of the shallows and hadn’t much interest in frogs. And it didn’t much impede his woodchuck forays. But the woodchuck battles were less frequent now. Pat had cleaned out most of the chucks in the pastures. Now and then he went up onto the lower mountainside and I heard his battle cry and he came home with a trophy to ripen in the sun. But the only woodchuck in sight of the house, the only one we saw at all regularly at least, was old Gramp up there at the Resting Rock.

  I still wonder if Gramp and Pat hadn’t reached some sort of arrangement. They were both patriarchs, after all. If there wasn’t a deal between them, they had reached a state of mutual skill that resulted in a draw. Whatever their status, Pat spent hours stalking Gramp and Gramp spent hours taunting Pat, and Gramp always reached his rock-bound den a jump ahead of Pat.

  Spring flowered into summer and Pat gave up on Gramp, except for an occasional afternoon challenge. He moved his operations up the road, to the Trestle Lot, brought home four chucks from up there and seemed to have cleaned out that field too. I thought he would take a little time off after that and just enjoy life’s June leisure. But not Pat.

  We were eating lunch one late June day, all the windows open, when I heard the woodchuck battle cry in the distance. Or something that sounded like it. I glanced at Barbara and she nodded and smiled. I thought that in another hour or so he would be at home, napping on the front steps, and I would go out and find his trophy in the driveway by the garage. We went on eating.

  But that distant battle cry continued. It increased in urgency. Finally I went out on the front porch and listened. It sounded across the river and upstream. I shouted, “Pat! Get him, Pat! Go in and get him!”

  The echo died away, and Pat yelped louder than ever. He had heard me. He was calling, “Hey, Boss! Come help!”

  I came back in and took down the .22 rifle. Barbara asked where I was going and I told her what I had heard. “Maybe he’s got a bobcat,” she suggested. “Maybe he’s treed one.”

  “Could be,” I said. “I’m going up there and see.”

  There isn’t a good landing place for the boat over there, so I walked up the road to the railroad track and crossed the river on the trestle, shouting to Pat from time to time. He kept yelping back that he had something cornered. I cut down through the tangle of undergrowth to a patch of scrubby pines, and there was Pat, yelping at something he had treed. I worked in closer, and there was a whopping big woodchuck fifteen feet up a pine tree. The limbs grew close together and the chuck had gone up, apparently, as it might have climbed a ladder. It was hunched in a crotch, glaring and snapping its jaws. I shot it and it came down in a heap and Pat made sure it was dead. I praised him properly and ordered him back to the trestle with me. He went, reluctantly. But at the trestle he balked. Walk that thing? Never! He stood there watching while I made my way across, and then he went down to the river, waded in and swam over to join me. We came home.

  That afternoon we went fishing. Pat seemed more than usually eager to go along, and he swam the river at the first chance. He prowled in the brush, out of sight, most of the time we fished. Finally we drifted back down toward the dock, to come in.

  We had just passed the trestle when I saw Pat come down to the water’s edge with a woodchuck in his mouth. A whopper of a chuck, bigger, I thought, than the one he had treed and I had shot for him. It was so big he half dragged it. I said, “So, he’s got another one. Found virgin territory over there, apparently.”

  We watched as he came down the river, looked around, then made his way to the next opening in the brush. There he took a firmer grip on the big chuck, dragged it into the water till it was water-borne. Barbara exclaimed, “He isn’t going to try to swim the river with that thing!”

  “I guess he is,” I said, and I started the motor, just in case he needed help.

  But he needed no help from me. He knew what he was doing. He swam confidently, but slowly, across the river, pushing that woodchuck ahead of him like a tug pushing a barge. He chose his landing, waded ashore, laid down his cargo and caught his breath. Then he picked it up again and half carried, half dragged it up the bank and across the road into the upper pasture.

  We came on down, docked, and carried our gear up from the boat. I was fileting the fish when Pat appeared, strutting. His nose was brown with dirt, and his forepaws were muddied. There was no doubt what he had done. He had taken his big chuck into the pasture, chosen a bare spot somewhere, dug a hole, and buried it to ripen.

  I write a column once a week for the daily newspaper in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a column mostly about country matters. For the next week I wrote a column about Pat, telling a little of his history and his achievements and concluding with the story of his treed woodchuck and his swim with that big one in his mouth. Pat had appeared in the column before, so he was known to the readers by name at least. But this time the editor wanted to use a picture of him with the column. The picture was provided and the column appeared, picture and all.

  The day after the column was in print I had a telephone call from Great Barrington. A woman’s voice. “You have our dog!” she exclaimed. “I know, from the picture, and he sounds just like our dog.”

  I was astonished. I asked when they lost their dog. The date she gave me didn’t tally, by several months, with Pat’s arrival here. I asked a few other questions, but my caller said, “It doesn’t matter. Really it doesn’t. My husband doesn’t know I called, and he would be mad if he knew about it, but I just had to call and know he’s all right!”

  “Of course he’s all right,” I said. “And if he’s your dog, come on down and—well, we’ll do something about it. Give me your name, and I’ll—”

  But she had hung up.

  I told Barbara. She said, “I don’t believe it! We advertised him, and— When did she say they lost him?”

  I told her.

  “April! Why, he came here on Christmas night!”

  “O.K.,” I said. “So she’s mistaken. They lost a black and white dog. Years ago. Now she sees a picture of a black and white dog, and—”

  I remembered the time we sent Pat away, over to New York State, and he came back here. I remembered all the other times he could have gone back to an earlier home, and didn’t. It all seemed too circumstantial.

  “Forget it
,” I said. “She said it didn’t matter. And she didn’t give me her name.”

  “If it does matter, she’ll call again.”

  “Yes.”

  “And we’ll have to ask her down.”

  “Yes.”

  “And then she’ll know she’s mistaken.”

  “Then she’ll know,” I said.

  CHAPTER 16

  THE WOMAN DIDN’T CALL again. I decided it was one of those instances where someone loses a dog and later sees a picture of a dog the same color and is sure it must be the one she lost. Memory is fallible and can be shaped to hope’s convenience. The fact that Pat was a homeless dog when he came to us made this woman’s hope not only plausible but inevitably true, to her. But, charitable as I might be, I couldn’t get around the fact that Pat was not a woman’s dog and, as far as I could see, never had been.

  So the woman must be mistaken. I wished there was something I could do about it. I thought of putting a note in my column asking her to send me her name so that I could go and see her, perhaps take Pat along so she could see him and know she was mistaken. But that seemed cruel. If, as seemed inevitable, he wasn’t the dog she had lost the old wound would be reopened, the hurt and the remembering. She had said it didn’t matter now. Perhaps it was better to let the situation lie. If it did matter to her, she would call again.

  Barbara and I discussed it and I decided to wait.

  Ten days later we were eating supper and Pat was lying in the living room when I heard a car come down the road and pull into our driveway. Pat growled and began to bark, his “Strangers are here” bark. I told Pat to quiet down and went to the front door. Pat came and stood bristling beside me.

  A man got out of the car and came up the walk, a big, pleasant-faced man in work clothes. He came onto the porch and stopped and stared at Pat, inside the screen door with me, and he smiled. He said, “Hello,” and he told me his name. I didn’t recognize it. He said, “My wife phoned you last week. I had to come to see the dog.” He looked at Pat again, and he said, “That’s him.” He drew a sigh, as though a long wait had ended.

  I invited him in. Pat sniffed at him, still bristling, and the man said, “Hello, Skippy.” Pat made no response and I told him to go lie down. He went, reluctantly, and lay down on his rug in the living room, watching the man suspiciously.

  Barbara came and I introduced them, and she asked the man to have supper with us. No, he said, he had eaten. But he would have a cup of coffee while we finished eating. So we went out to the dining porch and sat down.

  Barbara got coffee for him and I said, “Tell me about your dog.”

  “Well,” he said, and he hesitated. “It’s quite a while back,” he finally went on. “But when that picture was in the paper, and what you wrote about him, my wife saw it and she was sure it was Skippy. So she called you, and then she thought she shouldn’t have called, and she didn’t want to make any trouble, so she hung up on you. And the next day she told me and showed me the picture. And—well, I just had to come and see for myself.” He smiled. “She doesn’t know I’m here. I don’t want her to know. Not now, anyway.”

  He sipped his coffee and he looked at his hands, the strong hands of a workman. He thought for several minutes, then said, “We were hunting rabbits, a friend and I, over in Monterey. Skippy was the best rabbit dog I ever had, one of the best I ever saw. It was a mean day, raw and cold and spitting snow.”

  “When was this?” I asked.

  “Let’s see. Seven years ago. Seven years last winter.”

  “What month?”

  “Gosh, it’s hard to say. February, I think. Could have been earlier than that, though. Maybe December, but it seems like it was February.”

  I nodded. “Go on.”

  “Well, we hunted all afternoon. It was a Saturday. He put up plenty of rabbits, and they really ran. It was getting late and I said we’d get just one more, then go home before the roads got too bad. And Skip put one up and went up the mountain, up into one of those birch hollows. And he didn’t come back. We waited around there for an hour, hollering and calling, and finally I went up the hollow and my friend stayed on the stand. And not a sign of old Skipper. Not a yelp. Then it began to get dark and we had to go home.”

  He drew a long sigh and waited and drank another gulp of coffee. “I went back there the next day,” he said. “Spent all afternoon on that mountain, looking for him. And there wasn’t a sign, not a trace of him.”

  He paused again, and looked at me, then looked away. “I went over there every weekend, looking. For months, every time I was over that way I looked, hoping I wouldn’t find a pile of bones and a patch of black and white hair. Hoping, to tell the truth, that somebody else had found him and given him a good home. You hate to think a dog got caught in a trap, maybe, or in the rocks somewhere and just—well, just died. You like to know, one way or another. That’s why I had to come down here tonight.”

  We had finished eating. We all went into the living room. Pat glanced up, then lay back and napped again. The man stared at him and slowly shook his head. “I still can’t believe it. It’s like seeing a ghost. But every mark’s right. I’ve got snapshots at home I could show you.”

  Barbara said, “When your wife called, she talked as though it was her dog that was lost.”

  He smiled. “You know how it is. She raised him. I got him as a puppy and she raised him, housebroke him, taught him his manners.”

  “With a broom?” Barbara asked.

  “No! With a rolled-up newspaper. She loved him, darn near made a house dog out of him. And he thought the world of her. But he had beagle blood in him, a nose. I made a rabbit dog out of him.”

  “You say he had beagle blood?” I asked.

  “Beagle and foxhound. His mother was a blooded beagle and his father was a black and white hound. He took after his father.” He looked at Pat. “He’s got a white spot about the size of a half a dollar on his right hip, right? That hip’s all black except that one little white spot.”

  Pat was lying on his right side. I spoke to him, ordered him to get up. He got to his feet, came to me. I knew the spot was there.

  “There!” the man exclaimed. “There it is!”

  I told Pat to lie down again.

  Pat lay down facing the man. He said, “He’s getting old. Grizzled around the muzzle. His brows used to be coal black. Frosty-looking now.” He shook his head. “When he was just a pup the kids played with him all the time. Threw a ball for him to chase, that kind of thing. And he followed them all over town on their bikes.”

  “Your kids had bicycles?” I asked.

  “Sure. What kid hasn’t?”

  “Pat hates bicycles.”

  “What?”

  “He hates bicycles. He doesn’t chase cars, but he hates bicycles.”

  “That’s funny. I wonder what happened to change him that way.” Then he said, “But just let me show him a gun and he forgot the kids, and the balls and everything else. He loved to go hunting. If I didn’t take him out, he went on his own, after woodchucks, just like you wrote. We’ve got a place something like yours, situated like yours, a mountain in back. He ran that mountainside and cleaned out the woodchucks. Lord knows how many he killed.” Then he laughed. “And cats! You don’t have cats, do you? Not with him around!”

  “No,” I said, “we haven’t any cats. Never did have. Now and then a big tom from up the road comes down and spends a week or so in the big barn, cleaning out the rats and a few of the squirrels.”

  “And I’ll bet Skip—the dog—makes it hot for him.”

  “This is a pretty wise old tom, and fast on his feet. They seem to get along as long as the cat doesn’t come into the dooryard.”

  “He’s changed, then. The cats I buried! I had a private graveyard for cats that he killed. It got so that I hated to face the neighbors when I came home at night. Every time someone got a new cat, he put it out of business. There was one big old tom down the street that held out quite a while. Skipper
put him up a tree pretty near every day, though, and he finally got him. That was one thing I never could break him of, killing cats.”

  “Did you ever try to run coons with him?”

  “Coons? No. He never seemed interested, and I didn’t push him. I never knew a good rabbit dog that would run coons. Not unless he’d run everything that came along.”

  “I’ve heard that cat-killers make good coon dogs.”

  “I don’t know. All I know is that he never ran coons. Does he now?”

  “No … How long did you have Skippy? How old was he when you lost him, over there in Monterey?”

  “How old? Oh, let’s see. A little over six years old.”

  “And when was it you lost him?”

  “Seven years ago. Seven years last winter.” He looked at Pat, then turned to me. “That would make him thirteen! Thirteen years old!” There was awe in his voice. “No wonder he’s getting grizzled. That’s getting old, for a dog.”

  “Tell me,” I said, “did he like to swim?”

  “Swim? Sure. He swam when he had to, and he didn’t seem to mind it. Pretty good swimmer. Not like a Chesapeake or a spaniel, but— I never tried to get him to retrieve. Have you?”

  “No. I don’t hunt ducks.”

  “I thought there were ducks on the river, down this way.”

  “There are, a few. But I don’t hunt them. We fish the river.”

  “Pretty dirty, isn’t it? Not many fish.”

  “It’s not very bad down here,” I said. “From Barrington up it’s filthy, I know, but it’s reasonably clean by the time it gets down here. If you fellows up in Massachusetts would do something about it, you could have a decent river up there too, instead of an open sewer. But nobody seems to care. … You said you had kids. And they were fond of the dog.”

  “They’re grown up, now. Anyway, he was my dog, not theirs. Mine, and the wife’s. She raised him, and I trained him.” He looked at me, and he said, “I didn’t come down to get him. I just had to come see. You know how it is. And to see if he had a good home, and—” He hesitated, and I saw the fight going on in him. You have a dog, and you lose him, and you keep wondering. Then you see a dog that you’re sure is the dog you lost. You think maybe it could be the same as it used to be, you and your dog, and you know it can’t. The years come between you. But there’s the tug at your memory, and your heart, the wish to recover that man-dog relationship again.

 
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