Saturday, January 29, 2011

This Dog’s Life

Note: I am posting bits of my random writings for the Mad Hatters - my writing/critique group. Of course anyone is welcome to read and comment!

My life didn’t turn out quite the way I’d expected it to. Sometimes you play the hand you’re dealt, sometimes Lady Luck has other ideas.  I was originally assigned to be a cow dog on the Grant Ranch, a large property in Southeastern Wyoming.  It was a pretty cherry assignment, and any dog worth his salt would have been delighted with it.

The Grant's run a heard of just over 1000, Black Angus and Charolais mostly, on 30,000 acres of prime High Plains land.  The Grant’s have a solid reputation in the West; they pay the cow-hands a fair wage and treat their dogs well. At the Grant Ranch I could expect fresh beef for breakfast and supper, fulfilling work of a day and a nice comfy bed by the wood stove in the bunkhouse at night. It would have been a good life.  I'd been at my post for just a day when Robert Grant loaded me in the truck and took me over to the Graves place to show me off. What happened there changed my life.

Ol’ Bob was bragging about me to the humans on this other ranch, and I was might proud to be described as a prize-winning cow dog, and worth my weight in gold - I knew that I would do all in my power to live up to such high praise.  About the time my head had got plumb swollen from all the compliments that were being heaped upon me, someone stepped in the bed of the truck.  She was a mere wisp of a human girl child with white blonde hair braided into twin tracks curving back from her forehead around graceful pink ears, and twisting like ropes all down her back. She smelled of chickens, fresh hay, horse, and sticky sweet maple syrup.  She was pale, but her skin had been kissed by wind and sun and she glowed with health. Her clothing was a typical Wyoming blend of homemade and hand-me-down utility, except for her fire-engine red cowboy boots. They were brand, shiny new and she had thrust her jeans into them proudly displaying the gaudy color and daring anyone to make comment. It was the defiance of this gesture combined with the light in her eyes that attracted me.  I soon learned that it was her birthday and the child had pestered her father until he relented and bought her the impractical footwear.  Other than those boots, she was a rather unremarkable girl, similar to hundreds of rancher's daughters across the West, sturdy, smart, hard working.

A couple of things caught my attention right away - first was that tantalizing medley of smells – it spoke to me of the numerous places this child had been that morning, breakfast table, chicken house, barn and stables.   She smelled like someone who liked to cover territory, an explorer, and adventurer, my type of kid.  Her scent was just a snare though; it was her eyes that were the bear trap.  An intense teal greenish blue, with an amazing golden corona around the pupil, her eyes expressed a sense of curiosity that was larger than the landscape of the Great Plains.  It was like looking into the ocean those eyes – an unexpected sight in Wyoming.  When that child rubbed my ears and gazed into my own humble brown peepers I swear she looked in my very soul.

The girl respectfully asked Bob if she could take me out of the truck bed to play and Bob told her he would be staying through till supper, so as long as she had me back in the truck by then I was free.  We spent the whole day together; exploring the forest floor of the mile-long wind-break, climbing to the hay-loft in the barn and sliding down the sweet smelling, sneeze inducing pile of hay, testing the ice on the creek, hiding out in the root-cellar and generally getting to know each other. I learned the child's name was Eddie Louise and that she was the 4th child of 5 - the second girl. I learned all about her family, the 19 cousins, the Uncles and Aunts, the Grandparents. I learned that the only life she'd known was here on the Ranch.  She was filled with that particularly Western sense of her place in the scheme of things.

I didn't have a name yet - Mrs. Grant hadn't gotten around to choosing it, and Eddie wasn't satisfied with that so she named me Festus in honor of her favorite character from the TV show Gunsmoke. “I’ll call you Festus,” she said, “because he is good-hearted, and always willing to help, and funny. Festus because I love him, and I love you.”

I’m sure you are aware of the powerful magic that exists in the naming of things. Not just in the slapping on of labels, but in the actual naming of a thing's essence - the identifying of the soul. By naming me, Eddie created a bond between the two of us; but that alone would not have been enough to encourage me to desert my ordained duties. No, it was the truths she revealed after she named me.

We were out in the North Meadow by that time, wending our way through snow banks heading for the copse of cottonwood trees on the far side. There was a hidden gulch behind the trees that contained a small cave, one of Eddie's favorite 'thinking places'. When we had wriggled our way past the sagebrush blocking the cave entrance and settled ourselves into comfortable positions she told me how her siblings and cousins all teased and made fun of her for various things – for telling too many stories; for always repeating the jokes she'd heard on the television; for still sucking her thumb even though she was 5 years old; but mostly because she was afraid of an invisible bear.

For as long as Eddie could remember, there had been a bear in her basement. Her room was in the far back corner, and when she needed to get upstairs she had to walk down a long hallway, turn left through the laundry room and climb the wide back stairs up to the kitchen. During the day it was alright, but at night there was a terrible bear in hiding there that would lunge up behind her as she stepped out of her room, roar horribly, and attempt to bite her on the ass. Eddie would have to run as fast as she could down the hall, through the laundry room and up the stairs into the safety of the kitchen lights, always a mere hair's breadth from being bitten. She was teased mercilessly about her bear, but she explained to me that it didn't matter because nobody understood. The flight from her room was exhilarating - her heart pounded, her senses screamed, she was truly alive! Every night that bear reminded her of how precious the blood in her veins was, of how well her strong young body could respond to the demands placed upon it, of the fact that just because you can't see something don’t mean it ain't there.

In the Native American tribes of the Great Plains a precocious imagination is recognized as a gift, and the elders encourage exploration. Spirit Guides appear to usher the child into adulthood without losing their sense of wonder. It was rare, but not unheard of for a Paleface to have a Spirit Guide, but Eddie's guide, as powerful as the bear spirit is, was confined somehow to her basement. The thought that this child might someday 'put away childish things' and grow out of her sense of wonder was heartbreaking.

I felt a great sense of honor to be trusted with her secrets and so, I made my decision. When Eddie took me out to Bob Grant's truck after supper I refused to get in; scrabbling and whining, willing Bob to understand. Eddie had tears cascading down her face, but she kept pushing me into the truck.  The harder I struggled, the harder that stubborn little girl fought to do the right thing. Bob had a funny look on his face as he watched the struggle, and as I was still no more than a pup he could have easily just grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and tossed me into the bed of the truck – but he didn’t.  Eddie was saying, "You've got to go Festus, I promised." 

I think, in the end, it was the name that did it. "What did you call him?" Bob asked. "Festus," Eddie said, "but that’s just what I named him for today. You don't have to call him that. He's your dog." "No, actually little Miss," Bob said, "I think all the evidence is pointing to the fact that this is your dog. Happy Birthday." And with that Robert Grant released me from his service.

From that moment on I was Eddie’s constant shadow.  I slept at the foot of her bed, accompanied her on chores, played and worked by her side.  That ol’ bear in the basement now chased two of us up the stairs.  When the yellow school bus came into the yard to take her away I walked her to the drive, and watched until she was out of sight.  I would try and make myself useful to Mama or Daddy, but come 3:15, when that bus was due, I’d take up my post at the drive to greet Eddie’s return.

Like all ranchers’ kids, Eddie had chores to do. That meant getting out of bed at 5 am each day.  Being’s as she was only five years old the chore she was doing when I first joined the family was egg collecting.  Each morning she’d take a bucket down the trail to the chicken house, reach gently beneath each of the broody hens and gather the warm egg under each of them.  By the time Eddie had turned six we had figured out how I could do her egg-collecting for her.  She introduced me to the laying hens gradually, first by having me sit outside the chicken-house door, then inside, then follow her on rounds, and finally by direct contact.  The hens grew used to my presence and I became skilled at extracting the eggs from beneath them with no disruption at all.  I would deposit each egg carefully in the bucket at Eddie’s feet. I liked the feel of the warm silky shells on my tongue and was oh so careful never to break a single one.   While I collected eggs Eddie sat reading aloud under the heat lamp for the baby chicks.  She read to me of little engines climbing hills, of cats in hats and little red tugboats.  Chore time was fun!  Of course, when Mama found out what we were up to she changed our chore duty.  She yelled at Eddie about ‘egg-sucking dogs’ and irresponsible little girls, but neither Eddie nor I could quite figure out what had her so upset – we never broke a single egg!

It was all ok though, because our next chore was a lot more fun!  We were put on milk cow duty.  Twice a day – 5 am and 5 pm – we had to hike the front pasture, find the milk cows and bring them back to the barn to be milked.  We’d walk together out past the windbreak and Eddie would find a nice comfy place to snuggle up with her book and flashlight while I went out into the pasture to retrieve the cows.  Those old Bossy’s were none to happy to have me nipping at their heels, but they came along smart enough with the right kind of encouragement!  We had that job for about a year, until Eddie’s older sister Lynn complained that the cows were coming in winded and the milk, when it did let down, was practically curdled.  “It is no good have the cows riled up like that.” Mama grumbled, “Whatever were you thinking child to send a dog after milk cows?”

As Eddie got older she took on more responsibility and chores at the ranch.  We spent many hours each day horseback, ranging for miles across the property – checking fence-lines, making stock counts, setting salt blocks and scratching posts, and moving stock from one pasture to the next to protect the grazing land.  We spent those years exploring the wilds of her family’s 20,000 acres on foot, by horseback and occasionally by bike.  We camped out, climbed mountains and trees, swam in lakes and rivers and raced everywhere, the thrill of the wind in our hair and the scent of freedom in our noses.

Everywhere we went Eddie’s books accompanied us.  When we weren’t reading we were playacting - we were Red Injuns, Desperados, Highwaymen and Pirates.  We traveled the universe in a broken down ol’ tub of a space ship and had tea with the Queen.  We followed our friends through a wardrobe and fell down a rabbit hole; we lived in a Little House on the Prairie, and triumphed at the battle of Little Big Horn.  We shivered under the gaze of Long John Silver and hee-hawed right along with Bottom.  As Eddie grew older, that bear in the basement still chased her, but now it was an old friend, no longer threatening, just exhilarating.  Over the years I watched Eddie embrace her imagination, and now the teasing of her cousins had become nothing more than a spur urging her onto greater flights of fancy.  There was no limit to where imagination could take us until I ran into that damned snake.

Eddie was about 12 years old and we were racing our bike with her brothers and cousins up and around the ½ mile track of the circular drive.  Hearts were racing; blood was pounding, when out of nowhere reared up this 4 foot long monster of a rattler that had thought to sun itself upon the warm gravel of the drive.  That snake was darn angry about havin’ it’s siesta interrupted by a bunch of howlin’ kids on bikes and it struck with deadly intent aiming for Eddie’s older brother Charlie who was oblivious in the heat of the race. 

Luckily, I’d seen the monster and without pausin’ to think I threw myself between it and Charlie’s pumping thigh.  The bite on my eyebrow did not really hurt, but the dust that was flung in my eye was irritating, and the weight of that snake latched on to me made me angry!  I shook my head furiously trying to dislodge the devil, throwing it back and forth across my face like some kind of demented pendulum - finally the damned thing let go.  I pounced on it immediately and with two quick bites I killed the sombitch.  Eddie had leapt from her bike and was at my side immediately, which was good, ‘cuz I was feelin a little woozy.  There was a great deal of shouting and noise and I heard Eddie’s Daddy say “Holy Lord, there are 14 buttons on that rattle!”

I don’t remember much after that.  At some point I overheard the Doc saying that he wouldn’t be able to save me, the poison had gone straight to my brain – the best he could do was make me comfortable.  He also told the folks that they had been darn lucky the dog had been there because as much poison as there was it would have killed Charlie for sure had it got him. Eddie took me home, and trying to hide her tear-stained face from me she pulled me up into bed with her.  Some time later I was awakened by the smell of fresh meadow clover; I knew it was my time.  I inched my way up the bed to lick my girl’s face one more time.  She turned to me, wrapped me in her arms and said “Oh Festus, you are such a hero.  I love you.” And with that I gave up the ghost. No dog has ever died happier.


Stacia said...


Rose said...

Oh man, what a story! Festus sounds like an amazing dog. I love the chance to read his heroic tale from his point of view. I love his unique voice!!

Anonymous said...

I love dog stories. You gotta have a sequel. 'Dog Heaven'--come on. I love your voice.