The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.5Hal Borland
Then he looked at Pat and Mike. “Those two,” he said, “can give you some idea, when they get going after a rabbit. Sometimes when I come past I just have to stop the truck and listen. To that Pat dog especially. But that black one—” He shook his head. I knew what he meant. I knew what Charley thought of Mike. And as the weeks passed I found that I couldn’t honestly challenge Charley’s judgment.
I AM CONVINCED THAT some dogs, like some people, are corrupted by prosperity. I don’t know why, but perhaps it involves some quality in the moral fiber. It could be, of course, that we expected too much of Mike, more maturity and more stability or perhaps more adaptability than was his inherited lot. We and our ways were baffling to Mike, and his ways became more and more annoying to us.
When we had friends in for an evening, Mike charmed everyone for the first five minutes. He was cute. He was friendly. His black coat glistened, his eyes sparkled, he was full of life and friendliness. Pat, lying quietly in front of the fire, polite but reserved, got few second looks. Pat tolerated guests, but he never solicited or appreciated their attention. People glanced at him, said, “What a nice, quiet dog,” and turned to rub Mike’s long, silky ears. But five minutes of attention were never enough for Mike. Ignored, he licked hands, rubbed ankles, tried to climb into laps, until he was ordered out of the room.
We tried to excuse him, both of us, saying he was just a pup. Even the evening when he snatched a sandwich from a plate on the coffee table earned him only a slap and a night’s disgrace. But when he sneaked into the kitchen and stole a hamburger patty from the table he got a trouncing. He had been fed less than an hour before and he hadn’t finished his own meal.
Barbara exclaimed, “Mike, you are a thief!” And he was banished from the house for two days. Pat, with that strange streak of responsibility, insisted on banishment with him and wouldn’t come inside until Mike was admitted again.
Mike did have a sense of play that was missing in Pat. He loved a ball and would chase one as long as I wanted to toss it for him. And never was it mere ball-chasing. Show-off that he was, Mike made a performance of it, tossing the ball, somersaulting over it, growling at it, sometimes tossing it in the air and chasing it all by himself. Perhaps I could have taught him to do tricks, for he was undoubtedly both clever and intelligent; but dog tricks never appealed to me. I would rather have my dog be a dog, not a clown or an acrobat.
Mike loved all moving things. I have seen him stand and bark at a waving tree branch with one winter leaf still clinging to it. Not merely a bark, but a delighted bark. And he chased birds, not to catch them but to see them fly. All winter long he would sneak around the house and dash into a flock of unsuspecting juncos, then stand barking in sheer excitement as they scattered in the air. One early spring day I saw him standing in the yard, staring up and barking madly. I went out to see the cause of his excitement, and there was a red-tail hawk slowly circling just above the treetops. And when the first ducks arrived Mike spent hours on the riverbank. He would lie in the grass, waiting for the ducks to swim in toward the bank, then leap to his feet, bark, and watch entranced as they beat the water to a froth in their alarmed take-off.
Pat watched all such cavorting with a solemn look of detachment. I wouldn’t say he disapproved. He just wasn’t interested. Such capers, he seemed to be saying, were for children. I tried a few times to interest him in a ball or a thrown stick, but he gave me a look that said quite plainly, “If you want it, why did you throw it away? Go chase it yourself.” He made me feel so sheepish that I gave up such nonsense with Pat.
Both dogs liked children, though in quite different ways. Mike regarded them as fellow juveniles who would play tag, chase balls, frighten birds and romp all over the place. Pat regarded them as small, friendly persons to be watched over, protected and indulged. Perhaps it was a part of his protective nature, that strange sense of responsibility. A two-year-old could wallow him, pull his ears and tail, literally walk all over him, and the most he ever did was get up and walk away. Mike would yelp and sometimes nip at such treatment. Pat never, to my knowledge, nipped or snapped at a child.
But Pat wasn’t really a house dog. He was an outdoor dog, and the pastures, the fields and the mountainside were his chosen province. Morning after morning he politely suggested that I go with him to explore that wonderful world. If I went, he investigated every grass clump and brush patch until he put up a rabbit. Then he was in his element. Once a rabbit was up, he uttered a quick series of announcement yelps and lined out on the trail, baying his course. I learned to know by his voice whether he was quartering for a lost scent, hot on the trail, or announcing that the rabbit had run into a hole and quit the game.
Mike, who always went along, made all the gestures, but whereas Pat was a professional, Mike was still an amateur. When a rabbit was put up, Mike yelped in ecstatic frenzy. On the trail he was shrill and continually excited. If a rabbit ran in, Mike often howled in juvenile frustration. And sometimes, even on a hot scent, Mike would stop to bark at a blue jay or a gray squirrel.
I was almost as much of an amateur as Mike, though I grew up hunting rabbits. But in the West we used dogs only to run the far-ranging jack rabbits on the plains. Cottontails, in that grassy, brush-free land, seldom ventured far from their holes, so we hunted them without dogs and snap-shot at them on sight. But the cottontails here in this brushy hill country were a different breed with different habits.
My friend Morris tried to explain it to me. “These rabbits,” he said, “run in circles like your western jacks, but smaller circles. And a good rabbit dog, our kind of dog, trails by scent, never by sight. All we want a dog to do is keep the rabbit moving, and he will circle back to where the dog jumped him. You can tell by your dog’s voice where he is and what’s going on. You take a stand near the place the dog puts him up and wait, and the dog brings him back past you. If the rabbit doesn’t run in. If he does run in, the dog tells you.”
Morris explained, and Pat demonstrated. When I went up on the mountain with him—and Mike; Mike always went along—Pat put up a rabbit, kept him going, told me by his voice just what was happening, and eventually brought the rabbit back past where I was waiting. Since I didn’t take a gun, it being off-season for rabbits, sometimes the dogs brought the same rabbit past me twice. And always Pat was so intent on the trail that he paid no attention to me. Mike, open to any distraction, always saw me and came frisking up, panting, waggling and begging for praise. Whether I praised him or not, he was soon off again, on Pat’s trail, or the rabbit’s, or to chase a bird or a squirrel.
But I had work to do. I couldn’t spend all my time up there on the mountainside. I came back to my typewriter, and the dogs went alone. They spent almost every morning keeping the mountainside’s rabbits on the jump and making the valley echo. But by noon they were home again, properly tired, and spent the afternoons dozing in the sun in the dooryard while Barbara and I, as spring slowly advanced, got air and exercise in the garden.
One sunny afternoon the last week in April a pickup truck stopped out front and a little man in dungarees got out and came over to where I was pulling quack grass out of the flower garden. The dogs leaped up and barked and he smiled at them and gave them an appraising look before he greeted me. It was Dave, the dog warden. He commented on the weather and he watched a bumblebee at a yellow crocus, and he spoke of the red tips of the peonies just coming through the ground. And then he said, “I hear your dogs like government beef.”
I didn’t understand.
“They’ve been running deer,” he said.
I was stunned. “Who said that?” I demanded.
“I had a report,” he said. “It’s fawn season, and when I get a report like that I have to do something about it.” He looked at me, then looked away. Dave is one of the most kindhearted men in the world, a man who makes friends of woodchucks, foxes and squirrels. And he loves dogs. He looked at me again, and he asked, “Those are the dogs you phoned me about
“You advertised them?”
I nodded. “There wasn’t any reply, so I licensed them. Look, Dave, they don’t run deer. They just run rabbits. And they don’t run rabbits anywhere except on my own land.”
“Deer,” Dave reminded me, “belong to the state.”
“But they don’t run deer!”
“I had a report that they do.”
I knew perfectly well that if the report was right the dogs were in trouble. Dogs running deer aren’t merely a noisy nuisance; they are outlaws. Any game warden or dog warden is authorized to destroy such dogs if they are caught in the act. And dogs that kill fawns are doubly guilty. And this was fawning season.
“Are you going to take them and destroy them, Dave?” I asked.
He shook his head slowly. “Not on hearsay evidence.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Tie them up till after fawning season, at least. Maybe tying up one of them would do it. Unless he’s a real killer, a dog seldom runs deer alone. Or maybe you could give one of them away.”
“Do you really think these dogs are deer-killers?”
“I don’t know. If I knew they were, I’d have no choice. I’d have to destroy them. It doesn’t take a very big dog to kill a fawn.” And he went back to his truck and got in and drove away.
Barbara was in the house. I came in and told her, and she exclaimed, “I don’t believe it! They don’t even kill rabbits, so why should they kill deer?”
“I don’t believe it either,” I said, “but we’re going to have to tie one of them up.”
“Who reported them?” she demanded.
“Dave wouldn’t say. It doesn’t matter. With all the noise they make, it could be someone on the other side of the mountain.”
“And he said to tie one of them up? Why only one?”
I told her that Dave had said a dog seldom runs deer alone. And I said that Mike would be tied up tomorrow morning.
“Mike is the one who always says, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
“This,” she said, “will be something to watch.”
The next morning I got a quarter-inch rope and tethered Mike to a stake in the side yard. He looked at me as though I were the most despicable of sadists, then sighed and lay down on the grass and watched me go into the house. Pat watched, then went to a sunny spot and lay down and went to sleep.
I came to my study and went to work. But little work was done that morning. First Mike began to howl. I let him howl for ten minutes, then shouted him quiet. Five minutes of silence, then he began to whine. The whines became heartbroken cries. I opened the window and shouted him to silence once more. Ten minutes of silence and Barbara shouted up the stairs, “He’s trying to commit suicide!” I looked out. Mike was leaping at the end of his tether, leaping madly as though trying to break his neck. Twice he was jerked into a complete somersault. But after every two or three leaps he paused and looked at the house, hopeful.
I went downstairs and Barbara and I watched him from the window and she agreed that it was all an act. But after a few minutes Mike went to the very end of the rope, stretched out and lay down, the rope taut. He began to whimper and heave his ribs as though slowly choking to death. He almost fooled me, and he did fool Barbara. She dashed outdoors to rescue him. As soon as he saw her, Mike got to his feet, whimpered, crept to her, licked her hands and begged for freedom. She came back to the house, indignant at being so taken in.
After that there was half an hour’s silence. Then Barbara shouted up to me, “He’s gone! Both of them are gone!”
I went downstairs and outdoors and even before I looked at the rope I heard them yelping on the mountainside. Mike had simply cut the rope with his teeth and away they had gone.
That afternoon I went to the village and bought a five-foot dog chain. Next morning I snapped it on Mike’s collar and tied the other end to the tether. Mike went through his whole routine of the day before. Then, about eleven o’clock, he was gone again. Both dogs were gone. Mike had worked his way down that chain, testing it link by link, then had cut the rope.
I went up the mountain after them. I had no trouble finding them for the dangling chain had tangled in the brush. Mike, tethered more securely than I had had him here at home, was yowling for help. Pat was lying in the sun nearby, waiting.
For the next two days I kept Mike at home by wiring the chain to the stake. But he made such a distracting uproar that I finally let him loose and tied Pat up to see what would happen. Pat was insulted, but he engaged in no melodramatics. He settled down and all was peaceful. For just about an hour. Then I heard Mike yelping the mountainside alone.
Barbara said, “I guess that settles Mike. You can’t spend your time chasing him up on the mountain, and I can’t spend my time guarding the food and policing the furniture.”
Mike came home, looking both guilty and defiant, just after noon, and I chained him up. Then I went to the village and put a classified ad in the weekly newspaper. “PUPPY TO GIVE AWAY. Black puppy one year old, affectionate, housebroken, needs children for company in a good home.”
The first phone call was from a woman who lived ten miles away. She had two small boys. The older boy had a dog of his own and the younger boy wanted one. They had a big place and they loved dogs. I told her to come the next afternoon, with the boys, and see how they and Mike got along.
I had scarcely hung up when another call came, from a man who lived on the other side of the village. He had a six-year-old boy whose puppy had been killed by a car only a few days before. The boy was heartbroken. Please, couldn’t he have this dog? I explained the situation and said I would phone him the next afternoon.
The woman arrived with her two boys. I let Mike off the chain and, with his incredible intuition, he went at once to the smaller boy and practically said, “Where have you been all my life?” Barbara had said to me only that morning that she was sure Mike knew what was up and that he would probably be an absolute darling when the people came to look at him. “Mike,” she said, “is one of those people who always land on their feet.” Now, as Mike and the little boy romped about the lawn, she gave me a knowing look and a meaningful smile.
But Mike, for all his sins, had a place in Barbara’s heart. She asked the mother, “You have another dog, haven’t you? I wonder how he and Mike will get along. After all, we want Mike to be happy.”
The woman smiled. “Sandy,” she said, “can get along with any dog. He never fights. He’s the most good-natured dog alive.”
“I wish you’d brought him,” Barbara said. “Is he a big dog?”
“A collie. Collies are never quarrelsome.”
“I’d like to see them together. Just to be sure. We don’t want Mike to be bullied or unhappy.”
I smiled to myself but kept my mouth shut. There probably were dogs somewhere who could bully Mike. This might be one.
The woman drove home and came back with Sandy. Sandy was a beautiful dog, a sable collie big as the one down the road. He got out of the car, majestic and curious but polite as only collies can be. He looked around, came over and was introduced to us, and he looked with friendly curiosity at Pat, lying watchful in the sun at the edge of the yard. I had tethered Pat to keep him in the background while we settled Mike’s future.
Mike had greeted the boys again with all his wriggling delight, but as soon as he saw Sandy he seemed to stiffen. I saw his tail go straight, his ears lift to a half-cock and his eyes glint. He came over to Sandy, his stiff tail wagging slowly, walking almost like a cat. I hoped Sandy would be cool and remote, as the other collie had been. Mike came up to Sandy and they touched noses. No, Sandy was doing it all wrong. He was being friendly. They sniffed. And suddenly Mike rasped, “Rrrrr-awr!” and leaped at Sandy’s throat.
Sandy went back on his haunches, startled and insulted. I made a grab for Mike’s collar, and missed. Sandy ran for the car, his tail between his
I dragged Mike over to the stake and chain, but I took my time about snapping the chain to his collar. I was trying to put down my laughter. Then I heard the woman say to Barbara, “I never saw such a vicious little mongrel! Why, he could have killed poor old Sandy! … Come on, boys.” And they left in a cloud of indignation.
When they were out of sight I asked, “Which dog was it you didn’t want to have bullied?”
Barbara smiled, then looked at Mike. He was watching her with a hangdog expression, his tail down but wagging hopefully; and I was sure I saw the scheming look in his eyes. He knew that at that moment it wouldn’t take much to make Barbara, and possibly me, change the decision about his fate. But I didn’t give him a chance. I caught Barbara’s hand and said, “Come on in. I have to phone that man with the little boy.”
I made the phone call, and when we looked out the window a few minutes later Mike was working his way down the chain, testing it link by link with his teeth. He sensed us watching him and dropped the chain and lay down, all injured innocence and resignation. The critical moment had passed. Mike had sealed his own sentence of banishment.
The man and the little boy arrived about five o’clock. He was a stocky little dark-haired man with smiling eyes, and the boy was a stocky little dark-haired boy with a solemn face. They got out of the car and the boy’s face lit up with laughter the moment he saw Mike. I let Mike off the chain and boy and dog ran to each other and went galloping about the yard, friends immediately.
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