By Jeff Carter
In the time of 100-acre farms in Ontario, families usually kept a dog or two. Ours was no different.
I remember four. A faint remembrance of Underpants, a blonde lab perhaps, named by my older sisters for the look of its posterior as it shambled along the lane. There was a puppy, too, a little bundle of fur with bright dark eyes that lasted but a day, falling victim to a tethered dry cow settling herself down for the night.
Patches was the elder dog as I remember her, a rough-coated border collie of red and white with keen-eyed intelligence while Sponger the younger, named for taking that object from the bucket used to wash the cows’ udders, was large yet lean, part German shepherd for sure by the colouring of his coat.
Sponger was always father’s dog and Patches her own. Together they would deal with some of the woodchucks on the pastureland though I suspect Sponger was only a hindrance in this matter. I saw Patches in action once. She spotted the creature, not far from the edge of the woodlot, came to an abrupt stop and then proceeded with incremental steps, lowering her profile in the process. Some minutes later a dash and sudden violence, the woodchuck gripped by the throat and flipped, betrayed by the bulk of its clover-fat body.
Of their sport following a successful hunt I will not speak. Suffice to say it was an odorous play.
Patches was also a useful companion who would fetch the cows from the pasture for milking. I too had that job but unlike the dog, was far less successful. The cows would divide themselves into two groups, perhaps led by the instruction of the lone, three-teated Guernsey in the herd. Progress could be made in driving one group forward but the second would linger and when I turned back to bring them forward as well, the others would return to their original position, and so back and forth I’d stride and, from the corner of my eye, I swear I could see that Guernsey grinning.
When I began moving beyond the farm’s boundaries, Patches would follow me at a discreet distance, keeping to the ditch as I biked up the road to the bridge that ran over the creek where the fishes lay sheltered from the summer’s heat in a shadowed pool. I thought I was alone and there she appeared, paddling across the creek, buoyed by her thick coat and extended tail, my guardian angel.
One never messed with Patches, neither human nor fellow canine. Her eating bowl was sacrosanct and never did I remember an altercation with other dogs.
For Sponger, it was a different matter. The two dogs from down the road and up the hill had him in their sights.
Mickey was the eldest, a muscular specimen, square-jawed with a blaze of white across an otherwise black coat, a dog that moved with an easy, confident trot. Blackie was another collie, a rare all-black specimen and tailless since an encounter with a pickup along the road. He resembled a little black bear, capable of hurtling down the road at tremendous rate – fastest dog in the neighbourhood.
The two lived on an expansive, iron-scored, rocky clay knoll around which the creek curled through the flats where the tall corn grew. There was built the most modest of modest farms in the neighbourhood. It was a square stone house with a plywood stoop and open loft, aging bank barn and outbuildings in various stages of decay.
The herd of dairy cows having been dispersed, Mickey and Blackie amused themselves by defending their turf. Salesmen braving the plank bridge and the rutted lane beyond that rose sharply between two lines of old, fat maples to the farmstead above exited their vehicles with care and trepidation, if they left them at all.
A snowplow operator who had been waging a war on the mailbox at the end of the lane at every passing once stopped and moved to the rear of the machine to survey the damage. There he was confronted by Blackie’s fury and scrambled back to his cab, the seat of his pants in ribbons.
Mickey and Blackie observed the rich green of the neighbouring farm from the height, noting the new arrival, a lanky young creature not yet fully grown. Of Patches they were long familiar. She was avoided, out of a grudging respect, perhaps, for a queen in her declining years.
Their attitude toward Sponger, though, was a different matter. A foolish dog, they reckoned, naïve and young, in need of a lesson.
The confrontation came following the harvest of the first cut of hay. Patches was nowhere in sight, likely sunning her aging bones in a quiet sunlit place. Sponger was there to investigate the visitors, a slight hesitancy in his step.
Mickey ambled forward, ruff bristling, and then launched himself forward, teeth bared. It might have gone differently if it had been just the two of them. Sponger, though still months away from full strength, responded instinctively, his lean form lunging in turn, jaws snapping, joining the staccato dance, each seeking purchase.
That’s when Blackie came on, attacking from the rear with strategic darts, white teeth snapping, forcing Sponger beneath a hay wagon, his head slamming to the boards above, again and again.
“That’s enough! Mickey, go home! Blackie, go home!”
Mickey and Blackie, turned about, trotted away with barely a backward glance, tongues lolling. The two boys from the hill were pleased, and spoke of the battle, the strategic value of Blackie’s attack, of Mickey’s brave frontal approach, and of Sponger’s inability to counter.
When I remained silent, considering the truth of their words, one offered, “Well, it was two against one.”
We had played hockey the previous winter, the boys from the hill and I, upon one of ephemeral ponds that freezes following a thaw, they a duo in skates two sizes too large and I alone with imagined grace, speed and glory.
Sponger gained weight, experience and acceptance within the neighbourhood as he ran with little Frisky, who knew little shame.
Most of the time, though, he stayed at home, loping to the road on occasion with a speed nearly matching that of Blackie’s. He could leap a five-foot, woven wire fence from a standing start but was terrified of storms. He had an easy and friendly way, once greeting the manager of the school bus fleet, a tall man, standing on his hind legs, front paws upon the man’s chest and then licking his face with a stretch.
Of Mickey and Blackie’s fate I know not.
Patches passed, her hind quarters having failed her some weeks before, lying peacefully in the sun by the porch. The cousins who happened to be there that day wept copiously but I felt comforted that her pain was over.
Sponger, I visited, after some years away from the farm. The new people had cared for the dog, now old. He ambled forward, looked with some interest at a vehicle passing along the concession a quarter mile away, made a few, tentative steps in that direction to offer a barked comment and then turned back to me. I touched his head, scratched behind each ear, wished him well, and remembered our times together. ◊