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The dog who came to stay.., p.9
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       The Dog Who Came to Stay: A Memoir, p.9

           Hal Borland
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  It’s our river, as we say, and we thought, as Barbara said that evening, that Pat would catch up on his sleep that summer while waiting for us beside the dock. And we had no reason to change our minds the next time we went out in the boat, or the next. He watched us go and settled down to sleep, and when we came back he greeted us with a bored yawn.

  But the afternoon came when I went out to the garden with a fork and the worm can and he watched me, and when I had dug the worms and started down to the boat he went along. He watched as we stowed our gear, and when I had cast off I wondered why he hadn’t lain down for his nap. Instead, he was standing there, alert; and as soon as I headed the boat upstream he trotted up the riverbank, accompanying us.

  I watched him, wondering where he was going. We went half a mile upstream and he was still there on the bank, going along with us. We crossed to the far side of the river and anchored at a hole where the perch had been biting the last time we were out. Pat had disappeared in the brush. I decided that he had gone back home to wait for us. We baited our hooks and began fishing.

  The perch were there. Barbara soon brought in a fine fourteen-incher and I netted it. I caught a small rock bass and threw it back. Rock bass are a dime a dozen in the river. We were out for perch or big bluegills. Barbara got another nice perch. Then I had a strike and set the hook. As I began maneuvering it in close enough to use the landing net I knew that I had a big one. I was just reaching for the net when I heard a strange puffing noise nearby. I looked around and was so surprised I let my fish have two feet of slack line. There was Pat, not ten yards away, swimming the river.

  I felt my line go slack, my big perch gone. Barbara shouted, “There’s Pat!” and she missed a strike on her line.

  We sat and watched him, surprised, annoyed and amused. He was swimming easily, and he was making for a gap in the brush where the riverbank shelved down to the water. He glanced at us and swam on in, climbed up on the muddy bank and shook himself. Then he turned and almost grinned at us. He shook himself again and went up the riverbank and rolled in a patch of grass.

  We looked at each other and laughed. “Well,” Barbara said, “at least he didn’t try to climb in the boat. Did you know he could swim that way?”

  “No,” I said, “but all dogs can swim. He’s pretty good at it, though. And he judged the current just right.” I reached for the bait can. Pat began exploring the brush, apparently satisfied to be on the same side of the river with us.

  We fished for another ten minutes, but the perch had moved away. I hauled up the anchor, started the motor and we went slowly upstream to look for another likely hole. Pat heard the motor and came down to the water to see where we were going. He went along, following a game trail through the brush. I anchored again and Pat went off to explore a meadow that sloped down to the river. A few minutes later I heard him yelp that he had put up a rabbit. He trailed it noisily for a little while; then it either ran in or he tired of the chase. He came back to the riverbank, saw that we were still there, and settled down in the sun and watched us fish.

  We fished for another hour or so, moving from one place to another, and he accompanied us. Then we put the rods away and leisured upstream another mile, just looking. Pat went along, exploring as he went. Finally I came back to the home side of the river and we drifted on the slow current, back toward the dock. Pat watched us, then came down the far bank till he found a place to his liking, waded in, swam across, and headed for home.

  He was waiting beside the dock when we arrived. He greeted us as I tied up the boat, not the “welcome-home” greeting that we got when we had gone off in the car for half a day, full of pleased yelps and whines and prancing leaps, but a shared-adventure greeting. It was more an “I had fun, didn’t you?” sort of reception. Then he rolled in the grass, his ultimate gesture of pleasure. I have never seen another dog show an almost voluptuous delight in life as Pat does by simply rolling in the grass or the snow. He puts down his nose and makes a kind of shallow dive. He rolls on one side, then on the other, then lies for a moment in something like quiet ecstasy. Then, if he is on a grassy slope or in a snowdrift, he paddles with his forefeet, a kind of side stroke, and slides himself along, wallowing with some kind of sensual delight. Finally he leaps to his feet and stands as though tingling with pleasure and vitality.

  He rolled, leaped to his feet, and he frisked beside me as I took the string of perch to the bench beside the garage to clean them. But his new-found pleasure in the river did not include an interest in the fish. When he saw what I was doing he turned and went to the house. I fileted the fish, took the refuse to the garden and buried it between the corn rows, and we had fried perch for supper. There were a couple of filets left over, and Pat got them. He ate them without enthusiasm. They were just so much crisply fried food to him, and he had already had his customary supper of canned dog food. One thing I could be sure of: Pat would never catch a fish, or dig a carcass out of the garden, and leave it on the front lawn.

  Thus Pat established his own pattern for our river trips. He wasn’t interested in the boat, except that it was our conveyance on those excursions. He never made a gesture toward getting in the boat. In fact, he has been in the boat only twice, both times in emergencies, and he was uneasy then. He doesn’t even like the dock, which sometimes sways, and he will have none of the float to which I moor the boat. The float is a small platform supported by two oil drums. It rises and falls with the water level, and it is somewhat tricky as to footing; and Pat is unhappy even on the bed of a moving farm truck.

  I don’t think Pat likes to swim. He swims to get across the river, not for fun. Just a little way up the river is a railroad bridge on which he could cross, a stone-piered trestle of stringers, ties and rails over which a locomotive and a few freight cars run every other day. But as far as I know, Pat has never crossed that bridge. Perhaps the gaps between the open ties present more of a hazard to him than the water itself. But I know that he has swum across the river only two or three times when we weren’t along.

  After that first trip with us, he never let us go without him. He knew what it meant when I went to the garden with the worm can. He would wait beside the gate till I had dug the worms, then accompany me down to the dock, plainly announcing that he was ready to go. Somehow he even sensed when I was going alone and when Barbara was going along. If she was coming, he went back and waited for her. If she wasn’t going, he sat and watched me roll back the canvas boat cover. And it wasn’t long before he recognized the word “fishing.” If he was in the house and either Barbara or I said, “Let’s go fishing,” he got to his feet and was as eager to go as when one of us said, “Let’s go for a walk.”

  Any intelligent dog acquires a workable vocabulary of words that he understands. Some say it is a vocabulary of inflections rather than of actual words, but I doubt that. One day Barbara called to me from downstairs, “Pat thinks you have neglected him this morning. He is looking abused.” And I remembered that I hadn’t yet given him his breakfast snack. I went downstairs. Pat was sitting in the living room with his most forlorn stepchild look. Simply as a test, I asked, “Do you want to go outdoors, Pat?” He glanced at me and looked away. He didn’t want to go outdoors, and he knew that I knew it. And he wasn’t playing games. Then I said, in the same tone of voice, “Do you want your breakfast, Pat?” He came to me, tail wagging, and he yawned with a sound that is nothing but a long, “Unnn-rrr,” but which does approximate “hungry” if the listener is properly understanding. He makes that sound only at mealtime, and usually in response to the question, “Are you hungry?” A coincidence, perhaps; but a strange coincidence to me. Anyway, he made it quite clear that he didn’t want to go outdoors and that he did want his breakfast. So I got his small budget of corn flakes and milk and gave it to him on the back step. He ate it, asked to be let in again, and went to sleep in my study.

  I have no intention of going into a doting account of Pat’s vocabulary. All I say is that he appears to understand a goo
d many words, as any well-trained dog does. Most of them are connected with his daily habits and our routine, but I suspect that there is something more involved. For example, one winter day when the river was iced over and fishing was obviously not on our schedule, I said, “Do you want to go fishing, Pat?” He looked at me, puzzled, and made no move. Then I asked, “Do you want to go for a walk?” He was on his feet in an instant. We don’t fish in the winter, but we do go for walks. It seems clear to me that Pat does not think the two words, “fishing” and “walk,” mean the same thing, an outing; and it seems equally clear that somehow he associates the word “fishing” only with the times when we customarily go out in the boat. When I use the word in the winter he seems to know that it has no immediate significance for him. All dogs are practical rather than imaginative in their mental processes, and Pat is as practical as an alarm clock.

  So he discovered the river, on those fishing trips of ours; but he made the river valley his in his own peculiar way. In a sense, he made it an extension of his pastures and mountainside, and he remained what he had always been, a dog of the woods and fields. He explored the riverbanks and the nearby pastureland. He followed every game trail through the brush. He startled frogs and turtles, and was startled by them; and he poked his nose into a black duck’s nest one day and roused a commotion that sounded like a fox in a farmyard. I hurried over to see what was going on and arrived just in time to see the mother duck chase Pat all the way up the riverbank, her wings flailing and her squawks almost hysterical, and Pat utterly chagrined. Ducks obviously were a brand new experience to him.

  There was the day, too, when we heard him just down the river from where we were fishing, yelping his “I’ve got him cornered” yelp. Thinking he had a woodchuck at bay, I eased the boat down to where he was. And there, in the low grass beside the water, Pat was dancing around a great blue heron, barking excitedly. The heron, three feet or more tall, stood in awkward indignation, first on one foot, then on the other, and darted its long, sharp beak at him, threatening. It didn’t seem really alarmed; it was—well, indignant, angrily indignant. And Pat wisely kept his distance. I brought the boat in toward the shore, and the heron heard the motor. It took one darting look, spread its wings and flapped into the air. And Pat just stood and looked, amazed. This strange, gawky creature he had come upon, this peculiar animal that didn’t turn and run but just stood there, defying him with that long neck and sharp, darting beak, could fly! He watched it flap down the river, then nosed the mud where it had stood, probably cataloging the scent. Then he looked at me, still baffled, and walked away. Apparently he had never seen a great blue heron. The little green herons, which are much more common along the river, never stood and faced up to him. They took wing when he appeared.

  The bird that most annoyed him—and that he seemed to take delight in annoying—was a male kingbird. This kingbird and his mate nested for several years in a willow that slanted out over the river. Father kingbird was typically truculent. The kingbird is one of the toughest, most persistent fighters on wing. Ironically, the only bird that I’ve ever known to put a kingbird to flight was a ruby-throated hummingbird, a mere smidgen of a bird but one that darted like a bumblebee and utterly routed a kingbird that, not half an hour before, had driven a redshouldered hawk to cover.

  This particular kingbird, the one that nested in the willow, resented anything, man, beast or other bird, that came within fifty yards of his nest. He spent hours on a nearby telephone pole screaming at blue jays and crows. His single-handed attacks on the crows finally drove those that flew up and down the valley to skirt the mountain, a quarter of a mile away. And when we fished anywhere near his nest he warned us off vocally and if we didn’t move he began dive-bombing us. He never actually attacked us, but we, like the crows, began detouring his nest area. Pat, however, refused to be intimidated. Whenever he was in that area he prowled the underbrush right up to the foot of the nesting tree. He never detoured, and the kingbird never stopped screaming at him and trying to drive him away. One day the bird caught Pat in the open and attacked like a demon. How he missed Pat’s eyes is a mystery to me. He drew blood on one of Pat’s ears, and Pat yelped and snarled and danced as though he had blundered into a hornet’s nest. But he didn’t run. He snapped and pawed and barked his threats. And the kingbird retreated to the tree and screamed at him while Pat resumed his exploration of the brush.

  All that summer they kept up their feud. Pat insisted on his ground rights. Father kingbird screamed and threatened and made token attacks. But to my mind, Pat was the victor. At least he never admitted the kingbird’s right to tell him to stay away from that tree and the nearby brush.

  We fished and watched the dawn from the water and made a few moonlit excursions on the river, and Pat always went along, always swam across to be near us as we moved from one side to the other. At first I watched when he swam across, thinking he might get into trouble with an unexpected current or submerged brush or that he would miscalculate and come in where the overhanging brush was so thick he couldn’t get ashore. But he seemed to know the currents and he always gauged his crossing so that he landed in an open space. I decided that he didn’t need my worry.

  Then, in September, we had a week of rain. The runoff upstream swelled the river, raised its level four feet and doubled the speed of its current. Several of the brooks up stream were flooded, and every hollow in the pasture was a pond.

  Then the rain ceased. I went down to the riverbank to see about the boat. It was still safely moored to the float, its wet canvas cover taut. But there was no sign of the dock. It was under three feet of water. I hauled in on the mooring lines and pulled the float over to the bank, right over the submerged dock. I got an eight-foot plank which would serve as a gangplank, and I told Barbara I was going out in the boat to see the flood upstream. She said, “Not alone, you aren’t. I’m going along.” Barbara is an excellent swimmer. I’m one of those dry-landers who can stay afloat but shouldn’t be trusted too far from land in troubled waters.

  So we put on old dungarees and sneakers and I rolled back the boat cover, helped Barbara aboard and prepared to cast off, first making sure the motor would start and the oars were aboard. Then I saw Pat. He was there on the bank, watching, all prepared to go along. Barbara shouted, “Pat! You’d better stay at home!” He wagged his tail eagerly. I shouted, “You stay here! Understand?” He lowered his tail and looked disappointed. I repeated the order, “Stay! You stay home!” And I cast off.

  There was quite a current, but the motor took hold and began to fight back. We edged upstream. I watched the currents, found that the flow seemed less in midstream, and worked my way out. We began to make headway. I looked back. Pat was watching but still standing there beside the dock.

  We went up under the railroad bridge and fought our way through the strong current boiling in from the Blackberry, normally a tame brook but now a brown surge of foamy water with a good deal of floating debris, mostly small trash. We got through to the quieter water beyond and made our way on upstream. Then Barbara glanced at the left bank and exclaimed, “That dog!” I looked, and there was Pat, tail high, nose eager, following us up the river.

  I shouted at him, but he didn’t hear me or ignored me. It seemed silly to turn back, just because he insisted on coming along. If he stayed there on the bank, everything would be all right. So I decided to stay on his side of the river, at least not cross, and give him no excuse even to try to swim.

  We went another mile upstream, and Pat was with us all the way, having a grand time. Then I had to edge out toward midstream to avoid a current that swept around a jutting bank. I didn’t like the look of that current. But before I knew it another current had caught us and carried us toward the far bank despite all I could do. The five-horse motor couldn’t make headway against that new current. We were two-thirds of the way across the river when I shouted to Barbara that I was going to put about and work my way back and head for home. The motor had enough power to cut acr
oss that current on a long diagonal.

  I had just started to put about when I saw Pat at the water’s edge. He watched us. We were within fifty feet of the far bank as I turned, and we were still drifting in. He must have thought we were going to stay there or come down that side. He waded in and began to swim, and the current caught him. He turned to face it, fighting his way, but he couldn’t make it. He kept trying, but he was carried out from the shore and swiftly downstream.

  By then I had the boat headed downstream and was slowly working back toward the other bank. But the current was carrying us faster than it was carrying Pat. I tried to make a course that would intercept him, but it was no use. We were already below him and losing ground. So I put about again, trying to hold against the current. By then Pat had been carried out to the middle of the river. I saw him turn his head and look at us and try to swim toward us. But he couldn’t make it. He gave up, turned back and swam with the current, edging his way on across.

  But he was tiring. I could see that. Fresh, he swam with his tail-tip out of the water, waving grotesquely from side to side. Now only his head was in sight, and it was low in the water. He was swimming desperately, but making slow headway. He was only two-thirds of the way across, with an even stronger current ahead.

  I swung back across the stream and finally got upstream from him. I eased the motor, hoping to drift down and make a grab for him. But the current caught the boat, swung it broadside and away. I raced the motor, felt the propeller bite, and had headway again. Now Pat was within ten yards of shore. But the shore he was approaching was a solid wall of alder brush and red osier dogwood flooded four or five feet deep. If he tried to land there he would get tangled in the brush, and, tired as he was, be sucked under.

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