One cool, still Friday night last March, when the bitterest winter in decades was starting to slack its grip and the first few chuck-will’s-widows were whistling tentative claims to nest territories, the best dog I ever owned simply disappeared. Dogs do disappear, of course. But not usually dogs like Blue or under conditions like ours here in the cedar hills.
A crossbred sheep dog, he had spent his whole ten years of life on two North Texas country places and had not left the vicinity of the house at either of them without human company since the age of two or less, when his mother was still alive and we also had an aging and lame anarchic dachshund who liked to tempt the two of them out roaming after armadillos and other varmints. This happened usually at night when we had neglected to bring the dachshund into the house, or he had tricked his way outside by faking a call of nature or pushing open an unlatched screen door. The dachshund, named Watty (it started as Cacahuate or Peanut), had a very good nose and the two sheep dogs didn’t, and having located quarry for them he would scream loud sycophantic applause as they pursued it and attacked, sometimes mustering the courage to run in and bit an exposed hind leg while the deadly mother and son kept the front part occupied.
It was fairly gory at times, nor am I that much at war with varmints except periodically with individual specimens that have developed a taste for chickens or kid goats or garden corn. But the main problem was the roaming itself, which sometimes took them a mile or so from home and onto other property. In the country wandering dogs are an abomination, usually in time shifting their attention from wild pretty to poultry and sheep and goats and calves, and nearly always dying sooner or later from a rifle bullet or buckshot or poison bait, well enough deserved. To cope, you can chain or pen your dogs when they aren’t with you, or you can teach them to stay at home. While I favor the latter approach, with the three dogs on hand and one of them a perverse and uncontrollable old house pet too entwined with my own past and with the family to get rid of it, it was often hard to make training stick. At least it was until the old dachshund perished under the wheels of a pickup truck, his presence beneath it unsuspected by the driver and his cranky senile arrogance too great to let him scuttle out of the way when the engine started.
Blue’s mother was a brindle-and-white Basque sheep dog from Idaho—a breed said to be called Pannish, though you can’t prove that by me since I have never seen another specimen. Taut and compact and aggressive, she was quick to learn but also quick to spot ways to nudge rules aside or to get out of work she did not savor. She came to us mature and a bit overdisciplined, and if you tried to teach her a task too roughly she would refuse permanently to have anything to do with it. I ruined her for cow work by whipping her for running a heifer through the fence for the hell of it, and ever afterward if I started dealing with cattle when she was with me, she would go to heel or disappear. Once while chousing a neighbor’s Herefords out of an oat patch toward the spate-ripped fence water gap through which they had invaded it, I looked around for Pan and glimpsed her peeking at me from a shin-oak thicket just beyond the field’s fringe, hiding there till the risk of being called on for help was past.
Not that she feared the cows or anything else that walked—or crawled or flew or swam or, for that matter, rolled on wheels. She attacked strange dogs like a male and had a contemptuous hatred of snakes that made her bore straight in to grab them and shake them dead, even after she had been bitten twice by rattlers, once badly. After such a bout I have seen her with drops of amber venom rolling down her shoulder, where fangs had struck the thick fine hair but had failed to reach her skin. Occasionally she bit people too—always men, though she was nervous enough around unfamiliar children that we never trusted her alone with them. Women, for her own secret reasons, she liked more or less indiscriminately.
She was a sort of loaded weapon, Pan, and town there would have been no sense in keeping such a dog around, except maybe to patrol fenced grounds at night. But we were living then on a leased place just the western honky-tonk fringe of Fort Worth, where drunken irrationals roved the byways after midnight, and I was often away. There, what might otherwise might have been her worst traits were reassuring. She worshipped my wife and slept beside the bed when I was gone, and would, I am certain, have died in defense of the household with the same driven ferocity she showed in combat with wild things.
A big boar con nearly got her one January night, before she had Blue to help her out. The old dachshund sicced her on it by the barn, where it had come for a bantam supper, and by the time I had waked to the noise and pulled on pants and located a flashlight, the fight had rolled down to the creek and Pan’s chopping yap had suddenly stilled, though Watty was still squalling hard. When I got there and shone the light on a commotion in the water, all that showed was the coon’s solemn face and his shoulders. Astraddle Pan’s neck with an ear clutched in each hand, he was quite competently holding her head down despite her mightiest struggles; big bubbles rolled up as I watched with dachshund Watty