The continuation of a short story about our beloved lab, Buck, whose life was much too short. Continued from Part One:
He had around his neck a dirty old blue bandana that had been folded up like a collar and tied on when he was but a pup. That bandana was like an announcement that clearly said he belonged to someone. Probably one of the local Salish families here on the Rez. But whoever it was hadn’t noticed, or cared, that the puppy they’d strapped that thing to was not a puppy any more and now the damn thing was nearly choking him to death. It’s a wonder he could even swallow; that thing was so tight around there. Kinda irked me to see it, but he wasn’t yet sure of me and I thought twice about pissing off the wrong person.
Anyway, those dogs finally stopped to take a breather and yellow decided he would just sally forth and check out the old homestead so long as he was already in. We had a few words in the doorway and I assured him I wasn’t going to hurt him, but he kept his distance all the same. He was definitely wary of his surroundings and the new humans who happened to be here, but he went right on in through the open front door like he was home.
He gave the lower portion of the cabin a thorough inspection – all 400 square feet of it – before he found the stairs. I suppose he figured he ought to see it all and just headed on up. What he didn’t know was that my husband, Dean, was up in the tiny little attic room writing. I decided to let them introduce themselves, since yellow seemed so friendly.
It wasn’t long before I heard Dean holler somethin’ and here comes that yellow dog tearin’ down the steps like a woman with bats in her hair. Dean was right behind him, his eyes searching the room. When he saw me laughin’ he said, “Did you see that dog!? He just came up the stairs and grabbed my lunch right off the plate!” So I told him what had happened and we had a good laugh, but by now yellow had hit the road and was nowhere in sight.
The next day, sure as not, ol’ yellow comes back for another go at it. While he and Milo frolicked around the yard couldn’t stop thinkin’ about that dirty blue bandana around his neck. It hurt my heart to think that sooner or later that thing would just strangle the poor creature to death if no one took it off. It was a wonder he could breathe the way it was and who knows, maybe I’d never see him again. I didn’t have to contemplate that scenario for long before I was up and headed for the cabin to fetch a pair of scissors.
I came out and coaxed yellow to the side yard where there was no one to witness what I was about to do. He was suspicious of this sudden move and I had to fetch him up by that nasty collar to keep him from bolting. Once I had a good hold on him, he settled down. I knelt down in front of him and said, “I don’t care whose dog you are, this isn’t right.” And with some elbow grease, I managed the blade up underneath the filthy rag and began to saw at it.
When at last it fell free, the most incredulous look came on his face – somethin’ like joy, relief, and surprise all rolled into one. He stood there lookin’ at me for a second then set up a jumpin’ around like somebody set his feet to fire and, like lightnin’, he was off. I knew right then and there that we would always be friends.
Nearly every day after that, yellow came by the house. And every day he stayed longer and longer. Sometimes we would see him way off down by the lake all by himself, chasin’ shore birds and geese up and down the water’s edge. A time or two we saw him out on the highway that passed through the village, crouched like a tiger waiting to spring out on unsuspecting semi trucks like they weren’t anything more than the geese down by the lake. We never fed him, except for Dean’s sandwich, which doesn’t really count because we didn’t give it to him, he just took it. And we never coaxed him to stay with us or shut him in the yard so he would, and he always came back.
One day, many weeks later, we were hangin’ out in the yard watching yellow and Milo play when a couple of local Indian boys walked by on the dusty road. One of ‘em eyes yellow and says, “Hey there. That yer dog?”. “No,” I said, “he just comes by every now and then. Do you know who’s he is?”
The other boy stepped forward a bit and says, “Yeah, he lives over there.” and points to the east across the highway towards the powwow grounds and a cluster of about twenty houses. “Yeah?” I say, thinkin’ fast, “Well what’s his name?” A moment of hesitation from the first boy as he thought on it. “I don’t know that one’s name, but he’s got a brother-dog that looks just like him.” said another, older boy, taking over for the first.
The first boy was not to be outdone, and added “Yeah, I don’t know that one’s name, but that other one’s name is Buck. But that ain’t Buck, though. I can tell.” “How can you tell?”, I asked. The boy replied, “Well he ain’t got a blue bandana, that’s how. They tied a blue bandanna on Buck so’s they could tell the two of ‘em apart. So that one there ain’t Buck, but I can’t remember his name.”
And while we sat there a-jawin’ over things, I smiled to myself knowin’ what I knew about this other brother dog without a bandana on his neck. As soon as the boys left I knelt down close to yellow and said, “Well, Buck, it’s nice to meet you”.
Well, Buck dog hung around the place for several months. Coming and going as he pleased, but staying longer and longer every day. Sometimes I’d look out and see him chasing shorebirds along the desolate bank of Flathead Lake, but more often than not he would be camped out somewhere around the house. Him and Milo had a serious thing between them. They were two of the most cast-off, unsociable creatures I ever did meet when it came to other humans and strange dogs, but when they were together, they were complete. Naturally, I began to fret over what would happen to Buck when our time here on Flathead Lake came to an end. But as it turned out, I wouldn’t have to wait long for the answer.
A few short days later I walked over to the tiny Elmo post office, which was a little window inside the convenience store in town. Naturally, Buck followed me over. As I came out of the store, a big, rough-looking Salish man came out behind me. Without a word to me, he hollered at Buck to “Get in the truck!”. Buck jumps in. I sidled up to the truck door as he started the engine and asked if that was his dog. He gave me a dark look and rudely said “Yeah, he’s my dog. What’s it to ya?” Without thinking, I asked him if he’d wondered where his dog had been for most of the last three months, ‘cause he sure wasn’t at his house. The man’s reply was simple, straightforward and cruelly earnest. He said, “I don’t give a shit where he’s been!”. Well all right, I thought, that works for me.
Eventually the summer came to a close and it was time for us to head on down the road. We spent a few days slowly packing up our stuff and putting things into the van while Buck watched. There wasn’t anything we could do to pry him off our front porch. He didn’t want to play or go home or chase birds. He was staying put. Now we hadn’t exactly discussed takin’ Buck with us, but we had thought of little else. The morning came to go and Buck was still sitting on the porch. After the last bit of loadin’ was done and we were ready to roll, he sat there lookin’ at us with the saddest big ol’ brown eyes. Dean and I looked at each other with questioning eyes and I said, sarcastically, “The man said he didn’t give a shit where he was…”. Then Dean hollered, ‘Hey, Buck, you wanna…” and Buck was in that rig before the words finished echoing off the side of the house.
That was near twelve years ago and not one of us has ever looked back. We loved him as much as anyone could and he loved us back. From the day they met, he and Milo were an inseparable pack of two. But time goes on and Buck is about to leave us all.
A lot of folks never took time to understand ol’ Buck’s wily ways. Few knew the wilderness that lived in his heart and the one’s that did were a bit scared of it. He was the best judge of character and if he didn’t take a shine to someone we knew right away to avoid them ’cause they weren’t worth havin’. Buck’s a strong and brave soul who would have died to protect us from harm. And he’s given us the best twelve years a dog ever had to give. And that’s a truth that can’t be denied.
Just last night as I was trying to walk him, he slipped off his lead. Bein’ about half out of his mind, I had to chase him out across the yard. Ever since the seizures started, he can only walk in circles. We’ been calling him “lefty” cause he just circles left, and circles left… No, it ain’t funny, I know that; but this here dog has a sense of humor. He’d be bummed out if we started to cry now. Our cryin’ days are comin’ fast enough as it is, so until then we’ll just rearrange the furniture and watch him every minute of the day and night until he walks out of this shadow world into the light. He’s been watchin’ out for us for twelve straight years now – it’s the least we can do.
Yeah, this dog’s got a sense a humor that’d kill most folks if they got it. Take the ball for example. You figure a bird-dog like him’d be wild for fetchin’. When we first saw him he was chasing birds all over the place. But you could throw a ball to Buck and he’d go and get it, then he’d run back to you with it and just as you’d reach out to grab it, he’d veer off in the other direction. He’d sort of sidle all around you, teasin’ everyone with that damn ball. Even if you did get a hold of it, you pretty near needed a crowbar just to get it out of his jaws. Milo now, oh, he loved to fetch. He’d do it all day long and bring it back to you and release it in your hand or drop it at your feet on command. But Buck? Not on your life. It was a lot of fun for him to tease humans for a change, to see people scramble after him and occasionally give chase. He’d sidle up to you all sweet like he was gonna do it this time, and every time someone’d reach down to take it and as he turned his head away, you could see the glint of mischief in his eyes. He was laughin’.
It got to where we’d have to lock him up in the house so Milo could play fetch, because if Buck got the ball, and he often did, the game was over for good. The next time you saw that ball, if you ever did see it again – because he was partial to buryin’ things, too – it’d be locked tight in that massive maw or layin’ right up close to his nose so that if you went’ to grab it, he’d always get it first. He loved that game more than just about everything but food and goin’ for rides in the car. I ‘spose we could’ve tried to make him fetch properly, but we’d’ve had to beat him with a stick, he was so set in his ways. And we didn’t want to make him, anyhow. It just wasn’t important. He had a lot of fun with that game and the twinkle in his eyes would make us laugh every single time. That was worth more than makin’ him do some trick for us so we could show off to the dog society, or somethin’.
Buck was always game for something fun. If you were goin’ anywhere, Buck wanted to come along, even if it was just out to the mailbox and back. He loved to go for rides anywhere, on anything. I have to laugh when I think back onto the time he fell out of the car. It was right after we left Montana for Arkansas. We were headin’ out to the backwoods to try our hand at homesteading. We found a little place near Eureka Springs, way back in the Ozark hill country. One day we went down the long, straight, paved road that lead to the lake. It was real hot that day and we were going swimming. The boys knew it,too.
Because we didn’t have any A/C in our old green Plymouth Valliant, the windows were all rolled down. Buck’s got his head out the window, like a good ol’ country dog. I usually don’t let them do that, but we were only going about 40 mph and it was just so darn hot! Buck had his front feet up on the window and was leanin’ hard into the wind. He was so happy, his tongue was all hangin’ out and his ears were flappin’ in the wind. Anyway, I kinda had an eye on the two of them back there when all of a sudden Dean had to swerve just a bit to miss a big chuckhole in the road.
All I saw was a flash of yellow as Buck lost his balance and went head first out of the window. It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to say, “Stop!” before Buck hit the road, rolled head over heels about three times and, without missing a beat, jumped up and made a bee line for the car. Dean had just got the car stopped when Buck caught up with us and without so much as a second thought, jumped right back into the window he’d just fallen out of, like it was somethin’ he did every day. He stood there lookin’ at us like, “Well, what’cha waiting for? Lets go!” I gave him a good once over and he didn’t have a scratch on him.
He always pulled those kind of stunts. Although he was a smart dog, there were times when his coordination was lacking. I think he wasn’t so good at fetch because you could toss something at him to catch and it’d hit him in the forehead or he’d miss it altogether. Buck filled many of our days with laughter. He and his brother were a comedy routine that never seemed to quit.
Course, we aren’t laughin’ much right now, ‘cause whatever got hold of his brain isn’t letting go. Even the twirling in circles is gone and Buck is just laying on a pallet on the living room floor starin’ into space. There’s no more question of saving him, or helping him do anything but die as gracefully and painlessly as we can. And while Buck’s old body is completely shut down, his heart is soaring. His eyes are somewhere back in the shimmering fields of Flathead Lake, back down to the shore of his birth where he can chase geese for hours on end. He is unchained, unfixed, and free, and can bark at all the hoo-doo’s in the woods day and night and nobody hollerin’ at him to stop it. He’s running along a mountain trail, veering wildly through the trees like the wind. I can see all that in his unflinching eyes.
We are at his side the moment he decides to really fly. After laying motionless for five days, he just sits up like there ain’t a thing wrong with him. He looks directly at us all one by one and a big, happy, goofy Buck grin breaks out on his face. Then, just as suddenly, he collapses into Dean’s arms. His body but a shell and his spirit set free.
Now, I’ve loved lots of things in my day and have had my fair share of hurt and disappointment to go along. But I never thought in a million years that I could love a near-wild animal as much as I have loved ol’ Buck. His leaving was sudden and we have truly been rocked by it. Milo stands alongside us at the grave, silent and mournful as we say our last goodbye’s. If he could cry, I’m sure he would. But as we walk away, our tears turn to laughter as we remember his wily ways. Buck truly lived long and well. But for those of us he left behind, his life was much, much too short.
© 2015 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.