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The dog who came to stay.., p.6
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       The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.6

           Hal Borland
 
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  The man watched them, beaming. “Just look at those two!” he said. “Made for each other.” He turned to us. “You call the pup Mike? My boy’s name is Michael. Michael and Mike. Nice combination, huh?” he laughed.

  We watched small boy and small dog for several minutes, and I looked at Barbara. She was smiling, satisfied.

  The man said, “It looks right, doesn’t it. Looks like they were made for each other.”

  “Yes,” I said. “But I’ve got to be fair with you. Don’t expect too much of Mike. He’s not perfect.”

  “Who is?” The man grinned.

  “Sometimes he gets on the furniture, and—”

  “Our furniture is the kind it doesn’t matter, just as long as he likes the boy.”

  “He doesn’t chew rugs, but he’s swiped a hamburger or two.”

  “Michael likes hamburgers too. They’ll make a good team.” Then he asked, “Is he a fighter?”

  I glanced at Barbara, and she began to laugh. “You’d better tell him. He’d just as well know the worst.”

  So I told him about Mike and Sandy.

  The man laughed till the tears came. “There’s two or three mutts in my neighborhood,” he said, “that are just asking for it. I don’t like a quarrelsome dog, but I wouldn’t have a coward on the place. I guess he can take care of himself. … Well, Michael, what do you say, boy? Do you like the dog?”

  Michael came over to us, hauling Mike along by one of his long, silky ears. Mike yipped a time or two and gnawed at the boy’s fingers. Finally he nipped too hard and the boy exclaimed in pain and slapped him, then dropped to his knees, hugged him, and they rolled in the grass. The boy looked up, pushed Mike’s eager tongue away from his face, and cried, “I love him!”

  “Do you want him?” the father asked.

  “Yes, I want him! He’s mine!”

  I turned to Barbara. She said, “I guess there’s not much question about it, is there?”

  “Michael,” I said, “you’ve got a dog. A dog named Mike. Take good care of him.”

  Michael leaped to his feet, shouted, “Whee! Whoopee! Here, Mike! Here, Mike!” And he ran to the car, Mike leaping beside him. The boy opened the car door, Mike leaped in and onto the front seat. Michael climbed in beside him and beeped the horn.

  The man turned to us and shook hands. “You don’t know what this means,” he said. “Michael’s been lost without his dog. Didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to play. Nothing. Now look at him!” Then he asked, “Does he chase cars?”

  “No,” I said. “That’s one thing I can say for Mike, he doesn’t chase cars.”

  “Thank God! I’d take him anyway and try to break him of it, but if he doesn’t, that’s wonderful. Maybe he’ll be around for a while. … Well, I don’t know how to thank you, but—just look at those two!”

  We went with him to the car. He got behind the wheel, started the motor. Barbara shouted, “Mike! Good-bye, Mike!”

  Mike turned and looked at her, then at me. Then his tongue went out and he licked Michael’s ear. Michael hugged him, and Mike squirmed free and sat up and barked happily as they drove away. He didn’t look back, not once.

  We came back across the yard and I untied the rope from Pat’s collar. He shook himself and went out to the road and sniffed where the car had been parked. He looked down the road, and then he seemed to sigh. He turned and came back across the yard to us, and he touched my hand with his nose.

  I pulled up the tether stake, loosened the chain from it and tossed the stake into the woodshed. I hung up the chain and coiled the rope and put it away. I wasn’t sure, but I hoped and believed I wouldn’t need it again.

  We came into the house, the three of us, and Pat looked around, then went to the rug in front of the Franklin stove and lay down. He lay there a moment, then looked up, as though asking if everything was all right. He came to me and nosed my hand again, and he went to Barbara. She rubbed his ears and said, “It’s all right, Pat. You’re going to stay.” Then he went back and lay down.

  At supper Barbara said, “He was a tramp and a scamp, but a lovable scamp. I’ll miss him.”

  “Why,” I asked, “do women fall for the rascal type, the romantic heel?”

  “Do they?”

  “You just proved it. Mike, the lovable scamp. He was a thief, a fraud, and a coward when the chips were down, as they were with the bobcat. But he was affectionate when affection would get him what he wanted. He was a little outlaw who could, when he wanted to, be a charmer. Now you call him a lovable scamp, and say you’ll miss him.”

  “Mike,” she said, “wasn’t really a fraud. He just lived by a different code, that’s all. When he was bad he was impossible, and when he was good he was wonderful. When he gave me his heart he gave every ounce of it, even if he took it all back five minutes later. I guess you wouldn’t understand, being a man, the kind of man you are. But don’t just condemn him, and don’t say I fell for him just because he was a lovable little scoundrel.”

  Later that evening, sitting in front of the fire, she said, “I’ll bet he’s asleep in the best chair in the house right now.”

  “Full as a tick. They probably fed him right from the table.”

  “Undoubtedly. And he’ll sleep on Michael’s bed.”

  “Probably on Michael’s pillow.”

  “I wonder,” she said, “where he would have slept at Sandy’s house.”

  “In Sandy’s bed.”

  “Poor old Sandy.” She laughed. “I really felt sorry for him.”

  “Sandy,” I said, “will have nightmares, about little black dogs all over the place. He’ll yip and yelp and have a terrible night.”

  Pat sat up and yawned. He looked around the room, puzzling, then yawned again and came over and looked at me.

  “Bedtime?” I asked.

  He wagged his tail and turned toward the back door.

  I took him outdoors. He looked behind him, as though expecting Mike, then seemed to remember. He sniffed the air, looked across the pasture toward the mountain. Then he looked at me and went to the woodshed door. I opened it and he went inside, turned around twice and lay down. “See you in the morning, Pat,” I said, and I closed the door and went back in the house.

  “I do miss Mike,” Barbara said. “And I think Pat does.”

  “I miss him too,” I said. “The way I miss a headache when it stops throbbing. Maybe I can get some work done tomorrow.”

  “Tough guy.”

  “Hard as nails.”

  But that night I dreamed of Mike, dreamed I heard him howling. I wakened and was half out of bed before I realized that it was a dream. I lay back, and before I went to sleep again I blessed Mike and wished him well. Mike had loved Barbara, in his own way. He had given her affection, for whatever purpose, and he had taught her that dogs were people. Some dogs. I hoped that Pat, too, would love her, in time. And in Pat’s own way.

  CHAPTER 5

  DAVE, THE DOG WARDEN, was right. After we sent Mike away, Pat stayed at home. But for some time he was restless and uneasy. He would eat his breakfast snack, make a brief excursion into the home pasture or down the road, then come back and lie in the sun on the front steps or in the side yard. He would lie there, apparently napping, but from time to time he would lift his head or get to his feet and watch and listen. Barbara said he was like a mother whose only child has gone off to school for the first time. Sometimes he would go out into the road and stand and look. Then he would come back and lie down and nap once more, or he would ask to be let into the house. Inside, he would look around, stand abstracted for a few moments, then go back outside or come up here to my study. He came here more often than he had since he was recovering from his bout with the wild cat.

  He missed Mike, but I doubt that he missed him as a companion so much as he missed him as a responsibility. Pat is a most responsible dog. Mike was his ward, and it made no difference whether the wardship was thrust upon him, in some strange manner, or he assumed it voluntarily. And n
ow Mike was no longer here. There was a gap in his life and he didn’t quite know what to do about it.

  Afternoons, he would go for a walk with us, but on those walks he never wandered far. And he kept coming back to us, to thrust his nose into my hand as though for reassurance. And when I let him out of the woodshed in the morning he seemed so glad to see me that I wondered if he thought we might pack up and move away in the night. And before anyone exclaims that he was a victim of insecurity, I will say that Pat has always been the most inwardly secure dog I ever knew. By all the signs I could read, he was sure that he could take care of himself, no matter what happened. But he must have wondered what was going to happen. He had adopted a home, chosen to live with us. We had banished Mike, sent him away, and Mike hadn’t come back. Pat could be excused for wondering what would happen next.

  This went on for a week or more. Then one morning when I let him out of the woodshed and met that “Oh, you’re still here” look, I told Barbara that I was going to move his sleeping place to the little brooder house, give him a house of his own. I swept out the brooder house, which hadn’t been used in ten years but which was dry, well ventilated and had four big windows. I built a frame of one-by-eights in one corner and flaked a bale of oat straw into it. Then I called Pat, and he inspected it, indicated that it would be acceptable, and went back to his nap on the lawn. And I knew that a fresh bedroom wasn’t going to solve his problems.

  I came back to the house, said I was going up on the mountain, slung the field glasses around my neck, and went outdoors again. I called to Pat. He looked up. I said, “I’m going for walk. Want to come along?” He was on his feet in one leap, a changed dog. I headed for the back gates and Pat took the short cut through the fence and out into the pasture. He looked back to see that I was coming, barked when I opened the gate, and headed for the mountainside. But he stopped half a dozen times and looked back, to be sure I was still coming. Then we reached the far fence and the brush beyond, and he got down to business, more eager, more excited, than I had ever seen him. In that walk across the pasture he seemed to have dropped five years. He was a young dog as he began working the brush patches. Half an hour before that he had been an old dog full of care and worry, the burdens of the whole dog world on his shoulders.

  Within five minutes he yelped his signal. He had put up a rabbit. He was off, baying the fresh trail. It was almost two weeks since I had heard his voice, and even running rabbits with Mike it never had the ring it had now.

  I went over to where he had started the rabbit and I sat down on a rock and waited. Unless the rabbit ran in, took shelter in a hole or among the safe crannies of an old stone wall, Pat would bring it back to me as he kept it running in its habitual circle.

  It was a mild May morning, mild and sunny. The birches were in catkin and small leaf and the maples were in flower, the swamp maples deep crimson across the river, the sugar maples in front of the house a warm amber yellow. Beside the rock where I sat was a clump of pale purple dog violets, and nearby was a single plant of the round-leafed yellow violet. Half a dozen blooms were out, blossoms of warm, golden yellow veined with rich purple.

  The rabbit had led Pat over the first rise into the hollow beyond and his voice was muted. I listened, trying to guess where he was, and then I heard a high-pitched hum close by. Changing my focus, both aural and visual, I saw four tiny bees at the purple dog violet clump beside me. They were so small and so busy gathering pollen that I could only guess that they belonged to the Halictus family, among the earliest and busiest patrons at the violets’ lunch counter.

  I watched the bees, there within a foot of my knee, and I thought of the beds of Tertiary fossils at Florissant, Colorado. Among those fossils, fifty or sixty million years old, were bees not essentially different from those buzzing here beside me. In a sense, those bees I was watching had flown directly out of the fossil beds, ancients indeed. And here was I, a relative newcomer on this earth, one of a species probably no more than a million years old, sitting on a rock in the sun, watching them. Getting a glimpse into the remote reaches of time.

  I watched the bees, and the warmth of the midmorning sun crept into my bones, and it was good to be alive and up there on the mountainside. I looked down across the pasture and saw the glint of the river through its fringe of elms and basswood just opening leaf bud with that soft green that comes so slowly and vanishes almost overnight. The river danced and sparkled, live water forever on the move. In another two weeks the river would be out of sight from up here, flowing through a green canyon treetop deep. May is a month of swift change.

  In the pasture I could see birds searching the grass. Emerald-green grass almost ready for grazing. The birds looked like meadow larks, seemed to strut the way a meadow lark does. I hadn’t seen a meadow lark here in Weatogue Valley, though once or twice I had heard songs that roused echoes from my boyhood in the meadow lark country of Colorado. Not quite the same song that I remembered from boyhood, for the meadow larks sing different phrases, east and west; but near enough to be tantalizing. I lifted the field glasses and watched those moving specks in the pasture grass. Sure enough, there was the pudgy body, brownspeckled, the short tail, the long beak, the yellow throat and breast with the dark band across it. And the larks did strut, just as I remembered. Robins strut, and grackles strut, and meadow larks strut, but each in their own manner, unmistakable.

  I was still watching the meadow larks when Pat’s voice brought me back to the hillside. The rabbit had made its turn and was coming back down the slope to close its circle. Pat was not more than two hundred yards away, telling me with eager voice that he was coming my way.

  I turned and watched, and a few moments later the cottontail, already in dark summer pelage, came out of the brush less than fifty yards away. He loped across the clearing, not really hurrying, just keeping safely ahead of the dog. He came directly toward me. I sat stock-still and the rabbit passed me not ten feet away. He turned his head and glanced at me, as though thinking that there wasn’t a stump there half an hour before, certainly not a stump wearing a tan windbreaker and a red beaked cap. But he didn’t pause to look closer. He hopped on across the clearing and into a patch of hazel brush. But I had seen his big brown eyes and the pink veining in his ears with the sunlight behind them.

  Then Pat was yelping excitedly almost in my own ears. He was hurrying along the hot trail, nose to the ground and in full voice. I called to him, but if he heard he paid no attention. He loped on past and into the hazel brush, and as he vanished over the rise just beyond his voice faded again in the distance.

  I waited, hoping Pat would come back, content with having brought the rabbit full circle once. I should have known better. Pat was going to run that rabbit as long as the rabbit kept going. He was like the legendary coyote in New Mexico who chased a jack rabbit all one blistering day and when last seen was still at it, though both rabbit and coyote were so tired they were walking.

  I waited, and Pat’s voice was a faint, distant echo, and at last I went on up the mountainside. Overhead a red-tailed hawk was circling on a thermal updraft, wings set, probably watching the chase and hoping for a kill and a share in a free meal. I left the lower clearings and came to the first stand of white pines, which were steadily creeping down the mountainside and taking more of the old hay fields year by year. At the outer edge the seedling pines were no more than knee-high, still competing with the grass for living space. Then they were high as my head, and the grass was giving way. Then ten feet tall and thick as my wrist. And then the grove of parent pines with trunks a foot through and more, with no grass at all but only the thick mat of needles beneath my feet.

  I was just emerging from the pines when there was a rush and a roar of wings almost at my feet. Two ruffed grouse went rocketing away. I had only a blurred glimpse of them before they were lost among the trees, but there was no mistaking what they were. That rush of whirring wings can never be forgotten, once known.

  Before they were closely hunte
d with gun and dog, grouse were known as “fool hens” because they were so unwary. Several of them would sit together in a tree and let a man shoot them one at a time, taking no alarm unless the hunter wounded a bird instead of killing it outright. Then the flutter and fuss put the others to flight. But the grouse’s “fool hen” days are only a memory of old men now. I have yet to see one before it takes wing, up in my woods, and once it is flushed it is gone before I get more than a quick glance at it. We speak of grouse as partridges or just “birds,” and almost every time I spend an hour on the mountain I put one up. But always the rush and roar startles me. And Pat, who isn’t a bird dog in any sense, seems to be equally startled. When a “bird” zooms out of a patch of brush Pat is exploring he sits back on his haunches in surprise, then looks at me, wags his tail sheepishly, and almost asks, “Did you know that thing was in there? I didn’t.”

  I flushed the grouse and left the pines and went around a sharp gully and on up the slope. I was in the edge of a stand of gray birches that have overgrown an old clearing when I heard Pat down the hill behind me, yelping a strange call. I turned and listened, puzzled. I had never heard him yelp that way. I watched and waited, and he came out of the pines and around the gully, nose to the ground. Then I realized that he was following my trail. I was in plain sight every foot of the way after he left the pines, but he didn’t see me. He was following my scent trail and he didn’t look up until he was within twenty yards of me. Then he came to me, nosed my hand, accepted my praise, and lay down, panting.

  That was the first time I ever heard his “I’m coming, Boss” yelp, but I came to recognize it as far as I could hear his voice. I might go half a mile from where he left me, but when he quit the chase he would go back, pick up my scent, and follow me. And I always knew, from that note in his voice, that he was coming to find me.

  I sat down in the grass and waited for him to catch his breath. He lay there, his ribs throbbing and his tongue dripping, looking at me from time to time with a gleam in his eyes, a look that seemed to say that this was a good world and a good life and we were fortunate indeed to have a part in it. But there was something more in his eyes, something intimate and personal and yet universal. The closest I can come to explaining is to say that it was an unspoken statement of companionship, of something shared beyond friendship.

 
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