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 dancing yet uproarious beside me on good firm land. Grabbing up a stick I waded into the frigid chest-deep pool, whacked the coon out of his saddle, declined his offer to climb me in retaliation, and sent him swimming for the other bank. But by then Pan was unconscious, and on shore I shook and pumped the better part of a gallon of water out of her before she started to wheeze and cough. Which didn’t keep her from tearing into the very next coon her brave, small, small, black friend sniffed out, though I don’t recall her ever following another one into water. She was not too rash to learn what an impossibility was.
If my less than objective interest in these violent matters is evident, I have the grace to be a bit ashamed of it, but not much. I have friends among the hound-dog men whose main pleasures in life lies in fomenting such pursuits and brawls, and some of them are very gentle people—i.e., I am not of the school that believes hunting per se makes worse brutes of men than they already are, or ever did or ever will. Though I still hunt a bit myself, I don’t hunt in that way, and these homeground uproars I seldom encouraged except occasionally much later, here at the cedar-hill pace, when Blue had become our only dog and had constituted himself Protector of Garden and Poultry. The toll of wildlife actually killed over the years was light, reaching a mild peak during the brief period after Blue was full grown and before Pan died, when they hunted and fought as a skillful team. Most chases would end with a treeing and I would go and call the dogs home with no bloodshed on either side. But Man the Hunter’s association with dogs is very, very longstanding and any man who can watch a slashing battle between his own dogs and something wild and tough, when it does occur, without feeling a flow of the old, visceral, reckless joy, is either quite skilled at suppressing his emotions or more different from me than I think most men are. (There being of course the additional, perhaps more cogent fact that in the country varmints around the house and barn and chicken yard are bad news, and the best help in keeping them away is aggressive dogs.)
Unable to find any males of Pan’s breed in this region, we mated her with one of those more numerous sheep dogs, similar in build and coat but colored white and black-speckled gray, known as Queensland Blue Heelers or more commonly just as Australians. Three of the resultant pups had her coloration and the fourth was Blue, marked like his sire but with less speckling and no trace of the blue “glass” tinge that many, perhaps most, Australians have in one or both eyes, sometimes only as a queer pale blaze on an iris. When the time came to choose, we picked him to keep, and as a result he turned out to be a far different sort of grown dog than he would have if we had given him away.
For Pan was an impossibly capricious, domineering mother, neurotic in her protectiveness but punitive toward the pups to the point of drawing blood when they annoyed her, which was often. The others got out from under at six or eight weeks of age, but Blue had to stay and take it, and kept on taking it until Pan died—run over, too, while nudging at the rule against chasing cars. Even after he had reached full size—at 75 pounds half-again bigger than either Pan or his sire—he had to be always on the watch for unforeseeable snarling fits of displeasure. I used to wish he would round on her and whip her hard once and for all, but he never did. Instead he developed the knack of turning clownish at a moment’s notice, reverting to ingratiating puppy tricks to avert the edge of her wrath. He would run around in senseless circles yapping, would roll on his back with his wiggling in the air, and above all would grin—crinkle his eyes and turn up the corners of his mouth and loll his tongue out over genially bared teeth. It was a travesty of all mashed-down human beings who have had to clown to survive, like certain barbershop shoeshine “boys,” some of them sixty years old, whom I remember from my youth.
These tricks worked well enough with Pan that they became a permanent part of the way that Blue was, and he brought them to his relationship with people, mainly me, where they worked also. It was quite hard to stay angry at a large strong dog, no matter what he had just done, who had his bobtailed butt in the air and his head along his forelegs on the ground and his eyes skewed sidewise at you as he smiled a wide, mad, minstrel-show smile. If I did manage to stay angry despite it all, he would most often panic and flee—which may have been another effect of Pan’s gentle motherliness or may have just been Australian; they are sensitive dogs, easily cowed, and require light handling. For the most part, all that Blue did require was light handling, for he wanted immensely to please and was the easiest dog to train in standard matters of behavior that I have ever had to deal with.
Which harks back to my description of him as the best dog I ever owned. He was. But it is needful at this point to confess that that is not really saying much. Nearly all the dogs I owned before Blue and Pan and Watty were pets I had as a boy in Fort Worth, a succession of fox terriers and curs and whatnot that I babied, teased, cajoled, overfed, and generally spoiled in the anthropomorphic manner of kids everywhere. Most perished young, crushed by cars, and were mourned with tears and replaced quite soon by others very much like them in undisciplined unworthiness.
The best of the lot was a brown-and-white mongrel stray that showed up already old and gray-chopped, with beautiful manners and training, but he liked adults better than children and stuck with my father when he could. The worst but most beloved was an oversized Scotty named Roderick Dhu, or Roddy, who, when I was twelve or thirteen or so, used to accompany me and a friend on cumbersome hunting and camping expeditions to the Trinity West Fork bottom beyond the edge of town, our wilderness. He had huge negative willpower and when tired or hot would often sit down and refuse to move another inch. Hence from more than one of those forays I came hiking back out of the bottom burdened not only with a Confederate bedroll, a canteen, a .22 rifle, a bowie knife, an ax, a frying pan, and other such impedimenta, but with 35 deadweight pounds of warm dog as well.
The friend’s dog in contrast was a quick bright feist called Buckshot, destined to survive not only our childhood but our college years and the period when we went away at the war and nearly a decade longer, dying ultimately, my friend swears, at the age of 22. A canine wraith, nearly blind and grayed all over, he would lie in corners and dream twitching of old possums and rabbits we had harried through the ferns and poison ivy, thumping his tail on the floor when human movement was near if he chanced to be awake.
With this background, even though I knew about useful dogs from having had uncles and friends who kept them for hunting and from having seen good herd dogs during country work in adolescence, as well as from reading, I arrived at my adult years with a fairly intact, urban, middle-class, sentimental ideal of the Nice Dog: a clean-cut fellow who obeyed a few selected commands, was loyal and gentle with his masters, and refrained conscientiously from “bad” behavior as delineated by the same said masters. I had never had one and knew it, and the first dog I owned after years of unsettled existence was the dachshund Watty, who was emphatically not one either. He started out all right, intelligent and affectionate and as willing to learn as dachshunds ever are, and with the nose he had he made a fair retriever, albeit hard-mouthed with shot birds and inclined to mangle them a bit before reluctantly giving them up. He was fine company too afield, or in a boat or a car, and we had some good times together.
But his temper started souring when I married, and grew vile when children came, and the job was finished by a paralyzing back injury with a long, painful recovery, never complete, and by much sympathetic spoiling along the way. As an old lame creature, a stage that lasted at least five years, he snarled, bit, disobeyed, stank more or less constantly and from time to time broke wind to compound it, subverted the good sheep dogs’ training, yowled and barked for his supper in the kitchen for two hours before feeding time, and was in general the horrid though small scale antithesis of a Nice Dog. And yet in replication of my childhood self I loved him, and buried him wrapped in a feed sack beneath a flat piece of limestone with his name scratched deep upon it.
While for Blue, than whom I will never have a Nicer Dog even if perhaps one more useful, there is no marker at all because there is no grave on which to put one.
I do think Wyatt knocked out of me most of my residual kid sentimentality about dogs in general—he along with living in the country where realism is forced upon you, and the experience of having the sheep dogs with their strong thrust and potential, never fully attained—to the point that I am certain I will never put up with an unmanageable dog again. I remember one time of sharp realization during the second summer after we had bought this cedar-hill place, long before we lived here any part of the year or even used it for grazing. That spring after the dachshund had been thrown from the pickup’s seat when I jammed on the brakes in traffic, I carried him paralyzed to the vet, a friend, who advised me frankly that the smart thing would be to put him away. But he added that he had always wanted to try to cure one of those tricky dachshund spines, and that if I would go along with him he would charge me only his actual costs. Though by that time Watty was already grumpy and snappish and very little pleasure to be around, sentimentality of course triumphed over smart. The trouble was that with intensive therapy still going strong after several weeks, “actual costs” were mounting to the sky—to the point that even now in far costlier times I can grunt when I think of them.
Engaged that summer in some of the endless construction that has marked our ownership of the place, I was in and out every day or so with loads of lumber and cement and things, and paused sometimes to talk with a pleasant man who lived on the road I used. He had a heterogeneous troop of dogs around the yard, some useful and some just there, their ringleader a small white cur with pricked ears and red-rimmed eyes who ran cars and was very noisy, but was prized by the man’s children and had the redeeming trait of being, quote, hell at finding snakes. One morning as I drove in, this dog was sitting upright under a live oak fifty yards short of the house, with his head oddly high and askew. He had found one snake too many. His eyes were nearly shut and on the side of his neck was a lump about the size of his head; he didn’t acknowledge my passage as much as a stifled yap. Thinking perhaps they didn’t know, I stopped by the house.
“Yes,” said my friend. “He run onto a big one up by the tank yesterday evening and by the time I got there with a hoe it had done popped him good.”
“Did you do anything for him?”
“Well, we put some coal oil on it,” he said. “I was going to cut it open but there’s all those veins and things. You know, they say if a snake hits a dog in the body he’s a goner, but if it’s the head he’ll get all right. You reckon the neck’s the head?”
I said I hoped so, and for days as I passed in and out I watched the little dog under his oak, from which he did not stir, and checked with the family about him. They were not at all indifferent; he was a main focus of interest and they kept fresh food and water by him. The neck swelled up still fatter and broke open, purging terrible fluids. After this happened he seemed to feel better and even ate a little, but then one morning he was dead. Everyone was sad that he had lost his fight to live, and the children held a funeral for him, with bouquets of wild prairie pinks.
And such was my changing view that it seemed somehow to make more healthy sense than all that cash I was ramming into a spoiled irascible dachshund’s problematic cure….
“Good” country dogs are something else, and are often treated like members of the family and worried over as much when sick. This is not sentimentality but hard realism, because they are worth worrying over in pragmatic terms. There aren’t very many of them. As good dogs always have, they come mainly from ruthless culling of promising litters and from close, careful training, and most belong to genuine stockmen with lots of herding work to do. These owners routinely turn down offers of a thousand dollars or more for them, if you believe the stories, as you well may after watching a pair of scroungy border collies, in response to a low whistle or a word, run a half mile up a brush-thicket pasture and bring back 79 Angora wethers and pack them into a fence corner or a pen for shearing, doctoring, or loading into a trailer, all while their master picks his teeth.
Blue wasn’t that kind of dog or anywhere near it, nor was there much chance for him to develop such talent on a place like ours, where the resident cows and goats are fairly placid and few problems in handling them emerge that can’t be solved with a little patience and a rattling bucket of feed. For that matter, I don’t know nearly enough about the training of such dogs to to have helped him become one, though a livestock buyer I know, who has superb dogs himself and handles thousands of sheep and goats each year on their way from one owner to another, did tell me after watching Blue try to help us one morning that if I’d let him have him for six months, he might be able to “make a dog out of him.” I was grateful and thought it over but in the end declined, partly because I mistrusted what six months of training might do to that queer, one-man, nervous Australian streak in Blue, but mainly because I didn’t know what I’d do with such a dog if I had him, in my rather miniature and unstrenuous livestock operations. His skills would rust unused, and the real fact is that I don’t deserve a dog like that.
What Blue amounted to, I guess, was a country Nice Dog, which in terms of utility is a notable cut above the same thing in the city. These dogs stay strictly at home, announce visitors, keep varmints and marauding dogs and unidentified nocturnal boogers away, cope with snakes (Blue, after one bad fanging that nearly killed him, abandoned his mother’s tactics of headlong assault and would circle a snake raising hell until I came to kill it, or to call him off it was harmless), watch over one’s younger children, and are middling-to-good help at shoving stock through a loading chute or from one pen to another, though less help in pastures where the aiming point may be a single gate in a long stretch of fence of fence and judgment is required. Some learn simple daily herding tasks like bringing in milk cows at evening, though I have observed that much of the time these tasks involve an illusion on the part of the dog and perhaps his owner that he is making cows or goats or sheep do something, when actually they have full intention of doing it on their own, unforced.
On the whole, to be honest, Blue was pretty poor at herding even in this lax sense—too eager and exuberant and only occasionally certain of what it was we were trying to do. But he was controllable with single words and gestures and like his mother unafraid, and in his later years when I knew his every tendency, such as nipping goats, I could correct mistakes before he made them, so that he was often of some help. He was even more often comic relief, as when a chuted cow turned fighty and loaded him into the trailer instead of he her, or when a young bull, too closely pressured, kicked him into a thick clump of scrub elm, where he landed upside down and lay stuck with his legs still running in the air. When I went over and saw that he wasn’t hurt and started laughing at the way he looked, he started laughing too, at least in his own way.
For a sense of humor and of joy was the other side of that puppyish clowning streak which he always retained but which turned less defensive with time. The nervousness that went with it never left either, but grew separate from the clowning, ritualizing itself most often in a weird habit he had of grinning and slobbering and clicking his teeth together when frustrated or perplexed. He regularly did this, for instance, when friends showed up for visits and brought their own dogs along. Knowing he wasn’t supposed to attack these dogs as he did strays, Blue was uncertain what else to do with them. SO he would circle them stiff-legged, wagging his stub and usually trying to mount them, male or female, small or large, and after being indignantly rebuffed would walk about popping his jaws and dribbling copious saliva. I expect some of those visiting friends thought him a very strange dog indeed, and maybe in truth he was.
He was a bouncing, bristling, loud-mouthed watchdog, bulkily impressive enough that arriving strangers would most often stay in their cars until I came out to call him off. Unlike Pan, he had no real hostility toward them and never bit anyone, though I believe that if any person or thing had threatened one of us those big white teeth would have been put to good use. Mainly, unfamiliar people disconcerted him and he wanted nothing to do with them unless I was around and showed myself receptive, at which point he was wont to start nuzzling their legs and hands like a great overgrown pup, demanding caresses. Once when the pickup was ailing I left it at a garage in town and mooched a ride home with a friend whose car Blue did not know. No one in the family was there, and when we drove up to the house there was no sign of Blue, but then I saw him peering furtively around a corner of the porch, much as his mother had eyed me from those shin-oak bushes long before.
With his size, clean markings, silky, thick coat, broad head, alert eyes, and usual aspect of grave dignity, he was a handsome beast. Having him along was often a social asset with strangers, even if it could turn out to be the opposite if something disturbed him and he went to popping his jaws and grinning that ghastly grin and drooling. One day when he was young and we were still living outside Fort Worth, I was apprehended in that city for running a red light, though I had discerned no light on at all when I drove through the intersection. I explained this to the arresting officer, a decent type, and together we went back and watched the damned thing run through six or eight perfectly sequenced changes from green to yellow to red and back again. Blue watched with us and, attuned to the situation, accepted a pat from the cop with an austere but friendly smile. Against pregnant silence I said with embarrassment that I guess my eyes were failing faster that I’d thought, accepted the inevitable summons, and went my disgruntled way.
When I got home that afternoon, my wife said the officer had telephoned. More decent even than I had known, he had watched the light for awhile longer by himself and had finally caught it malfunctioning, and he told Jane I could get the ticket canceled.
She thought me off in the cedar hills and believed there was some mistake. “Did he have a sheep dog in the back of pickup?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” said Blue’s till-then secret admirer. “That great big beautiful animal was sitting right up on the front seat with him.”
We spent a tremendous lot of time together over the years, Blue and I—around the house and barn and pens, wandering on the place, batting about in a pickup (his pickup more than mine, for he spent much of each day inside it or beneath, even when it was parked by the house), or at farm work in the fields. When young he would follow the tractor around and around as I plowed or harrowed or sowed, but later he learned to sit in the shade and watch the work’s progress in comfort, certain I was not escaping from him, though sometimes when he got bored he would bounce out to meet the tractor as it neared him and would try to lead it home. Fond of the whole family and loved by al, he would go along with the girls to swim at the creek or on horseback jaunts across the hills, good protection for them and good company. But he needed a single main focus and I was it, so completely that at times I felt myself under surveillance. No imperfectly latched door missed his notice if I was indoors and he was out, and he could open one either by shoving or by pulling it with his teeth. Failing to get in, be would ascertain as best he could, by peeking in windows or otherwise, just where I was located inside and then would lie down by the exterior wall closest to that spot, even if it put him in the full blast of a January norther.
At one friend’s house in town that he and I used to visit often, he would, if left outside, go through the attached garage to a kitchen door at odds with its jamb and seldom completely shut. Easing through it, he would traverse the breakfast room and a hall putting one foot before another in a tense slow motion, would slink behind a sofa into the living room, and using concealment as craftily as an old infantryman, would sometimes be lying beside my chair before I even knew he was in. More usually, we would watch his creeping process while pretending not to notice, and after he got where he was headed I would give him a loud mock scolding and he would roll on his back and clown, knowing he was home free and wouldn’t be booted back out, as sometimes happened when he was shedding fat ticks or stinking from a recent battle with some polecat.
But there were places he would not go with me, most notable among them the bee yard, his first apicultural experience having been his definite last. It happened one early spring day when I was helping a friend check through a neglected hive someone had given him and Blue had tagged along as usual. The thing was all gummed up with the tree sap bees use for glue and chinking, and the combs in the frames were crooked and connected by bridge wax so that we had to tear them when taking them out, and on that cool day all thirty or forty thousand workers were at home and ready to fight. They got under our veils and into all cracks in our attire, and those that didn’t achieve entry just rammed their stings home through two or three layers of cloth. They also found Blue, a prime target for apian rage since they hate all hairy things, probably out of ancestral memory of hive-raiding bears. With maybe a hundred of them hung whining in his hair and stinging when they found skin, he tried to squeeze between my legs for protection and caused me to drop a frame covered with bees, which augmented the assault. Shortly thereafter, torn between mirth and pain, we gave up and slapped the hive back together and lit out at a run, with Blue thirty yards in front and clouds of bees flying escort. And ever after that when he saw me donning the veil and firing up my smoker, he would head in the other direction.
He did work out a method revenge, though, which he used for the rest of his life despite scoldings and other discouragements. Finding a place where small numbers of bees were coming for some reason—a spot on the lawn where something sweet had been spilled, perhaps, or a lime-crusted dripping faucet whose flavor in their queer way they liked—he would stalk it with his special slink and then loudly snap bees from the air one by one as they flew, apparently not much minding the occasional stings he got on his lips and tongue. I suppose I could have broken him of it, but it was a comical thing to watch and for that matter he didn’t get many bees in relation to their huge numbers—unlike another beekeeper friend’s Dalmatian, afflicted with similar feelings, who used to sit all day directly in front of a hive chomping at everything that emerged, and had to be given away.
Maybe Blue considered bees varmints. He took his guardianship of the home premises dead seriously and missed few creatures that came around the yard. Except for the unfortunate armadillos, which he had learned to crunch, the mortality inflicted on their ranks was low after Pan’s death, as I have said, for most could escape through the net yard fence that blocked Blue’s pursuit and few of them cared to stay and dispute matters except an occasional big squalling coon. We did have some rousing fine fights with these, usually nonfatal, though I suppose I’d better not further sully my humanitarian aura, if any, by going into details. During the time when cantaloupes and roasting ears were coming ripe and most attractive to coons, I would leave the garden gate open at dark and Blue would go down during the night on patrol. There was sometimes a question as to whether a squad of coons given full license could have done half as much damage to garden crops as the ensuing battles did, but there was not question at all about whether the procedure worked. After only two or three brawls each year, word would spread around canny coondom that large, hairy danger lurked in the Graves’ corn patch, and they would come no more, much to Blue’s disappointment.
I talked to him quite a bit, for the most part childishly or joshingly as one does talk to beasts, and while I am not idiot enough to think he “understood” any of it beyond a few key words and phrases, he knew my voice’s inflections and tones, and by listening took meaning from them if meaning was there to be had, responding with a grin, a sober stare, melting affection, or some communicative panting according to what seemed right. Like most dogs that converse with humans he was a thorough yes type, honoring my every point with agreement. Nice Dogs are ego boosters, and have been so since the dim red dawn of things.
I could leave him alone and untied at the place for three or more days at a time, with dry food in a bucket under shelter and water to be had at the cattle troughs. Neighbors half a mile away have told me that sometimes when the wind was right they could her him crooning softly wolflike, lonely, but he never left. When I came back he would be at the yard gate waiting, and as I walked toward the house he would go beside me leaping five and six feet straight up in the air in pure celebration, whining and grunting maybe, but seldom more—he saved loud barks for strangers and snakes and threatening varmints and such.
Last winter I slept inside the house instead of on the screened porch we shared as night quarters during much of the year—unless, as often, he wanted to be outside on guard—and I hadn’t moved back out by that March night when he disappeared. He had been sleeping on a horse blanket on a small unscreened side porch facing south, and I had begun to notice sometimes he would be still abed and pleasantly groggy when I came out at daybreak. He was fattening a bit also, and those eyes were dimmer that had once been able to pick me out of a sidewalk crowd of jostling strangers half a block away in town, and track me as I came toward the car. Because, like mine, his years were piling up. It was a sort of further bond between us.
He ate a full supper that evening and barked back with authority at some coyotes singing across the creek, and in the morning was gone. I had to drive two counties north that day to pick up some grapevines and had planned to take him along. When he didn’t answer my call I decided he must have had a squirrel in the elms and cedars across the house branch, where he would often sit silent and taut for hours staring up a tree at a rodent, oblivious to summonings and to everything else. It was a small sin that I permitted him at his age; if I wanted him I could go and search him out and bring him in, for he was never far. But that morning it didn’t seem to matter and I took off without him, certain he’d be at the yard gate when I drove in after lunch, as he had invariably been over the years that mounted so swiftly for both of us.
Except that he wasn’t. Nor did a tour of his usual squirrel grounds yield any trace, or careful trudges up and down the branch, or a widening weeklong search by myself and my wife and kids (whose spring vacation it used up and thoroughly ruined) that involved every brush pile and crevice we could find within half a mile or more of home, where he might have followed some varmint and gotten stuck or bitten in a vein by a rattler just out of its long winter’s doze and full of rage and poison. Or watching for the tight downward spiral of feeding buzzards. Or driving every road in the county twice or more and talking with people who, no, had not seen any dogs like that or even any bitches in heat that might passed through recruiting. Or ads run in the paper and notices taped to the doors of groceries or feed mills, though these did produce some false hopes that led me up to thirty miles away in vain.
I ended up fairly certain of what I had surmised from the first, that Blue lies dead, from whatever cause, beneath some thick heap of bulldozed brush or in one of those deep holes, sometimes almost caves, that underground water eats out under the limestone ledges of our hills. For in country as brushy and wrinkled and secret as this, we can’t have found more than half of such places round about, even close.
Or maybe I want to believe this because it has finality.
And maybe he still will turn up, like those long-lost animals you read about in children’s books and sometimes in newspaper stories.
And dogs are nothing but dogs and I know it better than most, and all this was for a queer and nervous old crossbreed that couldn’t even herd stock right. Nor was there anything humanly unique about the loss, or about the emptiness that came in the searching’s wake, which comes sooner or later to all people foolish enough to give an animal space in their lives. But if you are built to be such a fool, you are, and if the animal is to you what Blue was to me the space he leaves empty is big.
It is partly filled for us now by a successor, an Old English pup with much promise—sharp and alert, wildly vigorous but responsive and honest, puppy-clownish but with an underlying gravity that will time I think prevail. There is nothing nervous about him; he has a sensitivity that could warp in that direction if mishandled, but won’t if I can help it. Nor does he show any fear beyond healthy puppy caution, and in the way he looks at cows and goats and listens to people’s words I see clearly that he may make a hell of a dog, quite possibly better than Blue. Which is not, as I said, saying much…
But he isn’t Blue. In the domed shape of his head under my hand as I sit reading in the evenings I can still feel that broader, silkier head, and through half-boisterous, half-bashful, glad morning hello I still glimpse Blue’s clown grin and crazy leaps. I expect such intimate remembrance will last for a good long while, for I waited the better part of a lifetime to own a decent dog, and finally had him, and now don’t have him anymore. And I resolve that when this new one is grown and more or less shaped in his ways, I am going to get another pup to raise beside him, and later maybe a third. Because I don’t believe I want to have to face so big a dose of that sort of emptiness again.