The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.3Hal Borland
By the time we came here, Tom’s Mountain and the whole ridge knew the bark of the foxes again, and the cry of the bobcats. A herd of deer wintered there among the hemlocks and came down in summer dusk to graze the far edge of the pastures and in the crisp fall dawn to eat windfall apples in the orchard.
Charley talked about the foxes he had trapped on the ridge only a few years before. A telephone man who came to install a dial phone stayed to tell about hunting coons up there. And Morris, of the eager boyish heart and laughter, talked about the grouse and the bobcats as well as the coons and foxes.
Morris works for the power company, but he has roamed these hills, hunting and fishing, since he was a small boy thirty years ago. His eyes glow and his voice is eloquent as he talks of the woods and the waters and imitates the whirr of a grouse, the bark of a fox, the snarl of a bobcat. He keeps foxhounds. “My dogs,” he said, “lost a fox up there on the ridge last fall and put up a bobcat. Ran him all over the hillside, and I was afraid they would corner him in the rocks and get clawed to ribbons. But he wouldn’t corner and he wouldn’t tree. There are several families of cats up there, but this one was the real grandpappy. When you go up there, keep an eye out for him. He’s something to see.” He turned to our two dogs. “I’ve heard that black and white hound running rabbits up there. He looks like a good hound. You’ll have to hunt him, come next fall.”
Everybody in the valley had heard the dogs, who had begun to run the mountainside every morning. Their voices echoed every day in the chill January air. Pat had a baritone voice that would please any hound man. Mike’s voice was higher and tended to become a series of shrill, excited yaps. I soon learned to follow them, by ear, all over the mountainside. And one mild day I went part way up the hillside to listen to their music and watch them run. Before I came back to the house they had brought two rabbits past where I stood.
I came back across the home pasture and saw Charley waiting for me at the barway, waiting and listening to the dogs. When I joined him he said, “It sounds like you’ve got that rabbit dog.”
“Two of them,” I said.
Charley shook his head. “Just one. That black pup’s not worth a hoot. All noise and no sense.” He listened and smiled. “But that Pat hound is all right. Next fall we’ll take him out and have some fun.”
I wondered if Pat would still be here next fall. I began to hope he would.
The mild spell continued through the last few days of January. But February came in with a sharp change. The temperature dropped to eight above zero and I thought the dogs would be ready to stay at home. Pat would have, but Black Mike gulped his breakfast snack and headed for the mountainside. Pat hesitated, then followed. Ten minutes later I heard them, Mike’s shrill yelping and Pat’s deep voice, on a rabbit trail, and I thought: That’s one way to keep warm.
I came in and worked at my typewriter all morning. From time to time I heard the dogs, far up the mountain, and wondered why they were out so long. Then, just before noon, I heard them a long way off, up among the ledges. Mike’s high-pitched voice was almost frantic with excitement and even Pat’s deep voice was full of urgency. I opened a window and listened. There were a few yelps of pain or anger, I couldn’t tell which. Mike’s voice shrilled. Then there was silence.
I went downstairs. Barbara was getting the noonday meal. She too had heard the dogs, and she asked, “What’s happening up there on the mountain?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The dogs seem to have tied into something. If they’re not back in another hour or so I’ll try to get up there and see what’s going on.”
“You don’t suppose they are hurt, do you?”
“Look,” I said, “they’ve been up there, day after day, running rabbits. They probably know more about that mountainside right now than I’ll know in years. And they should know how to take care of themselves. I’m not going to worry about those two dogs. They’re not even ours!”
She looked at me with a smile and said nothing. But all through dinner we kept listening. We didn’t hear a sound except the wind in the trees.
It was almost one-thirty and I was just getting into my heavy coat when Barbara called from the kitchen, “Here they come!”
I went to the window. There they were, coming across the pasture. Mike was in the lead. Pat was limping and his head was down. He would come a little way, stop, rest, come on again.
“Pat’s hurt!” Barbara exclaimed.
I went outdoors. Mike bounced around the woodshed, frisked past me, then turned to look back. There wasn’t a mark on him. Then Pat appeared, walking slowly, painfully. His head and shoulders were caked with blood.
Pat looked up and saw me and tried to wag his tail, almost apologetic. I saw a long gash across his muzzle. His left ear was slit. The white of his chest and left shoulder was dark with dried blood. No telling what wounds he had beneath that blood.
Mike bounced up the steps and into the house. Pat came up painfully, step by step, and into the kitchen. He lay down on the linoleum floor, heaved a deep sigh and began licking his left foreleg. It had the only wound he could reach with his tongue.
Barbara brought warm water and clean cloths. I washed the blood from his head and neck. The gash across his muzzle was not very deep, a long rake of a razor-sharp claw, probably, that had missed his eye by half an inch. His left leg was ripped open, painful but not serious. But his left ear had been slit more than half its length. Apparently a claw had caught that long houndear and slit it like a knife. It was that wound which had bloodied him the most.
I cleaned him and examined the wounds and salved them. He took it all without a whimper. The bleeding had stopped, clotted during the long, cold trip down the mountain. When I had finished, he licked my hand, got to his feet and went into the living room and lay down in front of the fire. Mike began licking the wounds.
I phoned the veterinary. He said it sounded as though they had tangled with a bobcat. “Is he pretty badly clawed up?”
I described the wounds, told him what I had done, asked if I’d better bring him over to the vet’s office.
“They’re not your dogs, you say?”
“No. They’re a pair of strays that came and adopted us. Should that ear be given a few stitches?”
“Wouldn’t do much good. Cartilage, and it won’t grow back together. He’ll always have a slit ear. How about the other dog?”
“He’s not even scratched. He’s licking Pat’s wounds right now. He’s licked off all the salve I put on.”
“His saliva’s probably better than your salve. Bring him over if you want to, but all I could do would be to clean the wounds. And you say you’ve already done that. The other dog will keep them clean and he should heal all right. Farm dogs are tough. If he shows signs of infection in a few days, call me. I doubt that he will.”
He didn’t. For two days he lay in front of the fire, eating little and sleeping most of the time. Mike licked the wounds a dozen times a day, and when I examined them they had begun to heal from beneath, as they should. Then, the third morning, Pat limped upstairs and into my study. Partly, I think, to get away from Mike. He settled down there and slept, and occasionally he yipped in his sleep, as if in pain, and his legs jerked fiercely. He would snap his jaws and waken himself and look at me sheepishly. Then he would sigh and shift his position and go back to sleep.
All dogs dream, and Pat must have had nightmares about that encounter on the mountainside. I never knew how it came out, but the following summer when I was up among the ledges I found a heap of bones and a few tufts of coarse fur the tawny color of a bobcat. Whether that was the cat Pat tangled with, I do not know, but it could have been. It was a big cat, but not the one Morris called Grandpappy. We saw Grandpappy up there two years later, still alive and snarling.
I often wondered why Pat had a fight with a bobcat when he and Mike presumably were out running rabbits. Bobcats don’t attack dogs if they can avoid it. I am quite sure that Mike was the one who instigated that
Pat was laid up for two weeks. He spent most of that time here in my study. Looking back, it seems to me that those two weeks marked the turning point in our relationship, his and mine. The change began there in the kitchen, when I cleansed his wounds and he thanked me with a few licks of his tongue. It deepened as I recognized the courage and toughness in him, and as I suppose he found some response in me, some compound of admiration and compassion. I can’t define it further, but I know that enduring matters were decided between us during those convalescent days we spent together here in this small room.
After the first two or three days of acute discomfort, when he wanted only to lie in front of the fire and sleep while nature made initial repairs, he evolved a simple routine. He would eat his breakfast snack, go out in the pasture or down along the riverbank for fifteen minutes or so to sense the morning world and tend to his own affairs. Then he would return to the house. I would hear him at the door and let him in. Mike would be in the dooryard, hoping to lure Pat for a further trip afield. Mike didn’t want to be let in. Pat would limp upstairs and settle down in my study. I would go to work at the typewriter.
Half an hour later Mike, not knowing what to do with himself, would demand to be let in. He would station himself at the head of the stairs, lonely and restless. I would work and Pat would sleep and dream and rouse and look at me. I would say a word or two, he would thump the floor with his tail and go back to sleep. Occasionally Mike would come in, waken Pat and lick his wounds, then go across the hall and into Barbara’s study. She would order him out and he would go downstairs. Barbara would go down on some errand and I would hear her exclaim, “Mike!” and know she had caught him on a chair. The door would open, Barbara would come back to her study, and soon we would hear Mike barking at the juncos in the yard or whining at the door to be let back in.
Afternoons, when the weather was not too bitter to face, we walked, all four of us as soon as Pat’s wounds began to heal. Mike would frisk all over the roadside fields. Pat would limp ahead of us, watchful of Mike but never far from us. From time to time he would wait till we caught up, then touch my hand with his cold nose and limp along beside me. Evenings, when we sat beside the fire, reading or talking or listening to music, Pat would lie at my feet.
Of such small matters are man-dog relationships evolved. I didn’t talk to him, particularly, certainly showed him no special attention. And except for those small gestures—his nose in my hand now and then and his evening nap at my feet—he made no bid for my affection. But Pat never did wear his heart on his sleeve.
Then one day Barbara said, “Pat used to be The Dog Who Walks Alone. Now he wants to walk with you.”
“He’s decided that he’s your dog. You know that, don’t you?”
“No,” I said. “It’s the other way around. He seems to have decided that I’m his man.”
“There’s a difference, then?”
“Yes, a big difference.” But I didn’t try to explain.
February passed, blustery and raw, and Pat’s wounds healed. He still walked with a limp, but it was diminishing. His left ear was and always would be a mitten ear, with that long slit. The gash across his muzzle healed with scarcely any scar. He still came to my study for a morning nap, but by mid-morning he wanted out. He and Mike began to prowl the fields again and I heard their voices echoing from the lower mountainside.
March brought snow and deeper cold. The river was frozen over again, bank to bank. A late spring, Charley said. The snow piled up, a foot, then eighteen inches, and the cold held it.
Mike didn’t like snow. When I let them out in the morning Mike would wrinkle his black nose in annoyance and scurry up the path to the house, eager to get in and away from that unpleasant white stuff. Pat loved snow. He would stand nosing the morning air for a moment, then take a few steps and literally dive into a snowdrift. He would roll and wallow, almost ecstatic, and leap to his feet glistening from black nose to white tail-tip with gleaming crystals. He would shake himself and look at me as much as to say, “Wonderful!”
But not even Pat could prowl the fields in the deep snow. He would trot down the shallow canyon that was the plowed-out road, puffing steamy breath and investigating the state of this glistening world. He would be gone for an hour or so, checking on all the night visitors, marking all the canine sign posts, visiting all the familiar roadside places. Then he would come back and spend most of the day in my study or in front of the fire.
Finally March blew toward its end. I saw a notice in the local newspaper that April first was the deadline for licensing dogs. On the last day of March I drove down to the town clerk’s office in the village.
The clerk asked questions. I said I would have to guess at most of the answers. She said she guessed that would have to do. So we set down the required data. “Mike, black setter, aged one year … Pat, black and white foxhound, aged four years.” Mike did look vaguely like a runty setter pup. Pat probably had foxhound blood. Their ages could have been those I guessed. It didn’t seem to matter. The clerk gave me two brass tags and I went to the hardware store and bought two leather collars.
I came home and put the tags on the collars and buckled them on the dogs. Every time they moved about the house those tags jingled, reminding us that we now were a household of four. We owned two dogs. I had said so publicly, legally.
THE SIMPLEST WAY TO take a dog census in any rural area is to get a dog or two of your own. Dogs are like boys. If a new boy, or a new dog, moves into a neighborhood they all make excuses to come around and see what he looks like, whether he will take an insult or resent it, whether he will fight or turn and run. They have to know. The newcomer must prove himself.
But most of the dogs here in the valley stayed close to home during the winter and the deep snow. The first one to come was Teddy, and he didn’t come until a raw April day when Albert and his helper drove up in the big truck for a load of the hay Albert had stored in my big barn.
Teddy was a big, very woolly old sheep dog with a querulous bass voice. I saw him down at Albert’s when we first came here to live, usually snoozing in the sun. Whenever I stopped to talk, Teddy barked furiously and came to nose me, his tail wagging. I never took Teddy seriously. If he made too much noise, Albert would say patiently, “Teddy, go lie down and be quiet.” And Teddy would lumber off after Albert had shouted at him a time or two. Teddy was half deaf, Albert explained, and he was so old he had a film of cataract over both eyes. “Used to be quite a fighter,” Albert said, and his tattered old ears showed it. “But he hasn’t got a tooth in his head any more. He was my father’s dog.”
This day Teddy came up with Albert in the truck. Pat and Mike were outdoors and I soon heard Mike’s shrill voice yelping insults. I decided to go down and see what was going on. I hadn’t seen Albert in a couple of weeks. The dogs were making so much noise I couldn’t work, anyway. Old Teddy, too, had begun to woof.
Albert was in the mow, passing bales down to his helper on the truck. He saw me and shouted a greeting and went back into the mow for another bale. All three dogs were stiff-legging it about the barnyard, old Teddy grumbling deep in his throat, Mike yapping indignantly at Teddy and getting no attention at all, Pat scratching dead grass with his hind paws, that he-dog gesture of defiant masculinity.
I don’t know whether my presence touched things off
Teddy was big enough to make two of Pat, but Pat scrambled to his feet and plunged in, jaws snapping. He couldn’t get a tooth-hold in Teddy’s thick fur and toothless Teddy couldn’t get a hold on Pat, but they made lots of noise. In the confusion, Mike sneaked in and grabbed one of Teddy’s hind legs with his sharp little teeth. Teddy bellowed and Mike dodged away again. Teddy seemed to think Pat had done it. He tried to grab Pat by the neck and shake him, but all he did was gum him and slobber him up.
Albert shouted, “Teddy, you old fool!” and began to laugh. But he jumped down onto the truck and on down to the ground. He and I began slapping the dogs apart with our leather gloves. We finally put an end to it and Albert straightened up with a grin. “Those two,” he said, “could wallow all day and nobody’d really get hurt. But they make so much noise you’d think they were chewing each other’s ears off, now wouldn’t you?”
Pat and Teddy still rumbled threats but neither seemed to mind having the fight interrupted. Albert climbed back into the mow and Pat and Teddy were almost agreed on a truce when Mike crept back. He was all waggles of friendship, but I didn’t like the look in his eye. I tried to intercept him but he snarled and leaped at Teddy again. I slapped him across the muzzle with a glove and he yelped and scurried toward the house. Teddy rumbled and glared, but Pat wasn’t in the range of his dim eyesight. Nothing happened.
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