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The dog who came to stay.., p.4
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       The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.4

           Hal Borland
 
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  I waited a few minutes more. Pat and Teddy made their peace and went off together to explore the little upper pasture and I came back to the house. Mike was sulking on the front porch. I brought him inside and kept him there until Albert had finished his load and started for home, Teddy lumbering happily and noisily beside the truck. Pat went along down to the first bend in the road, then came swaggering home and sat on the front steps, apparently satisfied that he had told Teddy who was really the boss around this place.

  As far as I know, Pat and Teddy never had another row. Teddy came up with Albert from time to time, and Mike yapped at him, but Teddy paid him little attention. Teddy might be half deaf and almost blind, but he was a wise old dog. He and Pat had a lasting truce, and he knew that Mike was just a noisy nuisance.

  There were only two other big dogs in the valley, really big. One was a collie, a beautiful sable and a blooded dog. A man down the road, not a farmer but a professional man who worked in a nearby village, had bought him as a playmate for his children. As I heard the story, the collie was an ideal companion for the children for a year or two. Then something happened, nobody seemed to know just what. The collie just walked off and left the children. He went to a farm a mile or so away and announced that he was going to live there. The owner took him home a dozen times, pampered him, petted him, made a great fuss over him. The collie accepted it all with typical collie dignity, but after a day or two of lavish meals and high living he always went back to the farmhouse where he got scraps and a minimum of attention. Finally his owner gave up and stopped trying to lure him back.

  Now and then I saw this collie on my way to the village. If it was morning, he would be out with the farmer trailing the cows down the road to a pasture. He herded those cows with a sure instinct, nipping a laggard’s heels, barking softly when necessary, urging them past the wrong gate and into the right one. Then, the cows pastured and the barway closed, he walked back to the barnyard with the farmer, asking neither praise nor attention. If it was evening, he brought the cows from pasture to barn with the same sure instinct and quiet patience, urging the dawdlers, gently checking the galloping calves, firmly turning back the wanderers.

  I once asked the farmer if he had trained the collie to this job. He gave me a slow smile and a shake of his head. “The dog just likes cows, I guess. Collies are that way. I never trained him. He just knew.”

  The farmer had two dogs of his own, just country dogs. They played with his children but were no help with the cows or anything else. The collie tolerated the other dogs, sometimes lay in the sun with them, but he never seemed to play with the farmer’s children. Maybe he went up there to get away from children, and to be near cows.

  Once in a while this collie came up the road as far as our place. He always came alone. He was that kind of dog, a loner. The first time he came, Mike dashed down the road, yelping furiously. Pat followed at a little distance, barking his ownership bark. Mike strutted up to the collie and yelped all kinds of epithets, and the collie turned his head and gave Mike one look and didn’t break his stride. Mike shut up, like that, as though awed, and went to the other side of the road and trotted along, keeping pace with the collie but quiet, for a change.

  Pat came along and the collie paused and looked at him. Pat went up to him and they smelled each other. Pat bristled and the collie looked down his long, slim nose at him once or twice and trotted on up the road. He didn’t stop at Pat’s marking places and he didn’t go nosing along the roadside. He just kept trotting with the quiet, confident air of a casual passer-by, not an invader or a challenger. And Pat stood and watched.

  Then Pat loped back to his own yard, Mike at his heels, and they sat and watched as the collie trotted past, sedate and minding his own business. Ten minutes later the collie came back down the road, his visit up here ended. Mike dashed at him, yelping, and got the same cool, distant treatment as before, and gave up. Pat didn’t even get up from the grass.

  The collie came up this way only a few times, and always the same thing happened. Pat barked announcement of his coming, went down the road a little way, and they exchanged dignified greetings. Then Pat came back to his own yard and made no more fuss. Mike, however, was both furious and frustrated. The collie wouldn’t talk back, wouldn’t even acknowledge his existence by growling at him.

  The other big dog, really big, was a black Newfoundland, all black, not even one white paw. He was almost as big as a bear and twice as deliberate. In fact, he was mistaken for a bear a couple of times by outlanders, and when a black bear actually visited the valley a few years later the reports of his presence were laughed at by a good many people who were sure it was just the old Newfoundland ambling along a back road at dusk. The bear never stopped in here and I never saw him, but he was properly identified as a bear. And a day or two later he vanished from this area and was seen on the other side of the ridge, then ten miles away. He was traveling somewhere, apparently, and kept on going.

  The Newfoundland also lived some distance down the valley and usually stayed close to home. But one day he wandered up this far. Pat saw him first and went down the road to meet him, barking madly. Mike had been chasing birds, or some such nonsense, but when he heard Pat he, too, went tearing down the road.

  Pat reached the Newfoundland first, circled him cautiously, and the Newfoundland stared at him and wagged his long tail. Pat went up to him and tried to nose him and the Newfoundland thrust out a tongue big as a veal tongue and slobbered Pat’s face. Pat sneezed and went to the roadside and kicked grass and came back and strutted on tiptoe, looking like a pigmy beside the big fellow. He could almost have walked beneath the Newfoundland’s belly and never touched a hair. The big dog grinned at him and trotted up the road like a sway-backed plow horse.

  Then Mike arrived, ears flying, yelling like a hellion. The Newfoundland looked at him as though in amusement and Mike braked to a stop. I think he was astonished that this really was a dog. He probably had never seen so much dog in one skin. He crept forward cautiously and strained up to sniff the Newfoundland’s nose, then jerked back and barked. The Newfoundland sat down ponderously and opened his huge mouth and panted. Mike just stared. Then he yelped and danced around, looking at the Newfoundland from all angles. He apparently decided that this was a dog, after all, and cavorted playfully. To my astonishment, the Newfoundland wanted to play too. He also cavorted, and it was like a circus elephant dancing.

  They romped up the road and Pat came on home, looking back now and then as though disgusted. Mike dashed between the Newfoundland’s legs and yipped happily, and the Newfoundland loped about, chasing him, until he was tired out. Then they went over to the riverbank and lay down in the grass, a mountain of black fur and a molehill of black fur, and the Newfoundland stared at Mike like a long-eared Bert Lahr.

  Finally the Newfoundland got to his feet and started back home. Mike cavorted beside him down to the bend of the road. But playtime was over. The Newfoundland probably remembered that it was time for his five pounds of noonday meat. He padded down the road and Mike came home. He lay in the yard all afternoon, looking wistfully down the road as though wishing he could go to the circus all over again.

  The Newfoundland never came back, and as far as I know Mike never went down to see him. Maybe he was content to let it be a dream, a fantastic experience that never could have really happened.

  The other dogs were just dogs, as far as Pat and Mike were concerned. They didn’t matter either way. The sleek-haired black one and the uncombed yellow one came and looked and were chased and didn’t come back. There was a row or two, mostly noise and nobody hurt. And there was a rat-tailed yellow one that came past one afternoon, from I don’t know where. He was nondescript looking, a cur-dog type. And he was a curious creature, stopping at all the marking places and nosing into all the roadside bushes. Pat resented that. Pat barked a time or two and Mike yelped, and they set off down the road, truculent as could be. The stranger took one look, then turned and trotted away
. Pat took after him. I thought Pat was going to catch him and fur would really fly. Pat could run pretty fast. But as he began to close in on the yellow dog the stranger took off. He ran like a whippet. He made Pat look like a third-rater. Pat chased him a hundred yards and lost ground at every jump, and Pat just stopped and stared. That ungainly-looking dog could have outrun a fox.

  One afternoon a beagle pup came wandering up the road. He was obviously a stranger and lost. He couldn’t have been more than six months old and was still all big paws and long ears and good nature. The dogs barked and charged out to challenge him, and he wagged his tail and woofed happily, as though welcoming canine company in this strange, alien world. He took all the gruffness out of them in an instant. They came back up the road, a congenial trio, and within five minutes Mike was like a country cousin showing the city boy all his special tricks and treasures.

  Pat watched them like an indulgent uncle until they began digging in the edge of the flower garden. He hurried over and growled them away and lay down to guard the place. Not, I am sure, because he knew it was a flower garden. He hadn’t yet learned that. He probably had a bone buried there and wasn’t going to let two happy-go-lucky kids appropriate it.

  Mike and the brown and white pup romped away and rolled in the grass and chewed each other’s ears and chased each other’s tails. Mike found a spruce cone and tossed it in the air and chased it and waited for the beagle to try to take it away from him. The pup didn’t know that game, and Mike wasn’t much of a teacher. He forgot the cone and led a race out to the barn. They played there for a while, then a haphazard game of tag took them into the middle pasture. The pup, with his beagle nose, found a rabbit scent, yelped shrilly and bounded off on the trail. Mike went along. They were gone almost two hours, yipping the lower mountainside. Then they came home, worn out, and lay in the sun and napped.

  Finally a top-down convertible came cruising up the road, very slowly. Pat announced that it had stopped here and I went to the door. A youngish man in brand new khakis came up the walk. Mike and the pup had been wakened by Pat’s barking and came around the house to share the excitement. The man saw the pup and exclaimed, “Leslie!”

  The pup ran to him, one big waggle, and the man picked him up in his arms. The pup squirmed with pleasure and licked the man’s face and the man laughed and said to me, “I’ve been looking for this little guy for three hours. Thanks for taking him in.”

  We talked a few minutes. The man was from a city forty miles from here. A girl friend had given the pup to him a month ago and he had named him after her, since the name seemed to be not strictly feminine. “It seemed a nice day to let him get a sniff of the country, so I drove over this way. Let him out of the car a couple of miles down the road to romp a bit, and he took off after a rabbit and didn’t come back.” He laughed. “I didn’t think he was old enough to know what a rabbit smelled like, but I guess it’s born in them.”

  He looked around. “You’ve got a beautiful place here. But it must be lonely. Not another house in sight!”

  I wished I could explain loneliness to him, the loneliness that can break a man’s heart in the midst of a crowd. But he was young. He would have to learn about such things himself, the way we learn all the really difficult lessons. But I did smile at his saying this place was beautiful. The house is just an old farmhouse, architecturally stark. Maybe he meant the mountainside, though, and the river. And the contrast with the city.

  “We like it,” I said. And he went back to his car, put the pup on the seat beside him and drove back the way he had come. Mike stood and looked after them for a long time. Mike hadn’t had such a carefree playmate in months, if ever. I think Mike would have happily gone along, if invited. When he finally turned away and went and lay down beside Pat he looked at him as though saying, “It isn’t that I don’t like you, Uncle Pat. But I wish you were a puppy, once in a while. You really think life is awfully serious.”

  The most challenging dogs were those who ran the tangled woods across the river. Pat and Mike resented them. So did we, especially when they yelped and yowled and bellowed in the night, as they sometimes did.

  The woods over there are brushy second growth, ideal cover for deer and rabbits and grouse. I knew little about those woods at the time, but during the fall I had heard hunters banging away over there and heard their dogs almost every day. They were after rabbits, but now and then the dogs got out of hand.

  One afternoon there was a particularly loud uproar, several hounds in on it. I went out on the porch to watch and listen. For a time I heard two men, far off, shouting at the dogs, trying to call them in, but the dogs paid no attention. The chase continued, loud and excited. Then there was a crashing in the brush directly across the river and a chorus of dogs just beyond. Suddenly a big doe came through the brush, looked back, and lunged down the bank and into the water. She swam toward our shore, low in the water and obviously tired. She had swum only about thirty feet when three big hounds burst from the brush and saw her and howled in frustration. The doe looked back and swam faster. The dogs charged up and down the muddy bank, but none of them went into the water after her.

  She swam on across, hauled herself wearily ashore just below my dock, came up the bank and stood at the edge of the road, quivering and breathing hard. She looked back, at the dogs still yelping the far riverbank. She was directly in front of the house and I was in plain sight, not a hundred feet from her. But she showed no fear of me if, indeed, she even saw me. She had escaped the dogs. What greater danger could I present? She caught her breath, then walked up the road past my garage, crawled through the wire fence and walked slowly across the upper pasture. She was too tired to leap the fence, or the one beyond. She crawled through the second fence and vanished in the brush on the mountainside. The dogs had run her hard and a long way.

  The dogs that ran her weren’t a pack of wild dogs. They were probably rabbit dogs, not particularly well trained. They had put up this doe, one of them had taken after her and the others had joined in the excitement of the chase. Some hunters are careless and lax in discipline, apparently not knowing, or not caring, that when a dog starts chasing deer that dog will soon become a worthless hound, one that will chase anything in the woods.

  We’ve never had a pack of wild dogs in the valley that I know of. Some rural areas do have them, and they are death not only on deer but on calves and sheep. They are worse than wolves because they can go unrecognized for weeks. Then they have to be hunted down, and they are usually crafty as well as vicious. A few years later three or four strange hounds ran the ridge together for a short time, and we thought we would have to take high-caliber measures. But that was later.

  There was no hunting, of course, that first spring after Pat and Mike came here. But stray dogs, or wandering dogs, ran the woods across the river every few days. And on an occasional night. Our dogs resented them, noisily.

  There was one with a booming voice and I thought, hearing him, that he must be a regular mastiff of a dog. One April day he was roaring away over there, coming closer and closer to the river, and both Pat and Mike went down to the riverbank and barked challenge. I went out to watch, hoping to get a look, at last, at this behemoth of a dog. The deep bellow echoed all across the valley and Mike became especially frantic, dashing right down to the water’s edge. But never wetting his feet. Mike hated the water. Pat stayed up on the bank, bristling, barking a warning from time to time.

  Finally a short-legged brown hound not much bigger than Mike came out of the brush and down to the water’s edge on the far side. I waited for the big dog to appear. And this little brown fellow sniffed and looked around and began to bellow. I couldn’t believe it. He had a voice like a basso profundo. I began to laugh. Pat barked a time or two, just his way of saying, “Don’t come over here or there’ll be trouble. I own this place.” Mike yelped, but not with real conviction.

  The little brown hound bellowed another time or two, lapped a few mouthfuls of water and went back
into the brush. Every time after that when I heard that deep, echoing bellow I had to smile. Such a big voice for such a small dog. If he had been a foxhound, I know men who would have bid high for him, just to hear that voice on a fox trail in November.

  I never heard him after those few weeks in April. Maybe some foxhunter heard him and got hold of him and taught him the things any dog with a voice like that should be taught.

  Inevitably, there was the counterpart for that big-voiced little hound. There was the brown and white hound, bigger than a setter, who had a hysterical soprano voice. He was even more shrill than Mike at his shrillest. He prowled those woods, baying like a banshee, for days. Chasing rabbits, apparently, for I never heard the crashing of brush ahead of him that meant a deer in flight. I especially resented him at night, and he was also a night-runner. That voice of his was hair-raising to one wakened from sleep, for he achieved a sound, at least in the moonless darkness, that was like the scream of a frightened child.

  Those dogs never crossed the river. I doubt that it was because of Pat’s warning, or Mike’s. Their warnings were more or less routine. Pat’s were, at least. I sometimes thought Mike yelped just to hear the echo of his own voice, and sometimes I am sure he yowled to get an answer. But I never saw one of those dogs cross the railroad trestle just up the road or swim the river.

  I mentioned this to Charley one day. “Good thing they don’t,” he said. “If they came over here and started to run the deer, we’d have to do something.” Then he grinned. “If you think they’re noisy you should have been here a few years back. We used to have quite a few coon dogs, and some pretty good fox dogs, too. We kept them at home daytimes and we didn’t let them run at night unless we went out with them. But when we took them out there was a lot of dog music. You got here too late to know what this valley can sound like with the coon dogs really running in the moonlight.”

 
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