Friday, July 23, 2010

Maggie, an Honorable Partner

As one of a large litter of pups left in a dog kennel to starve following the removal of their mother, Maggie, the only survivor, managed to squirm under the chain link fence and get rescued by a horrified neighbor. The lady happened to have a friend willing to care for her and when she was about six months old, a teenager in dog years, I answered the ad that read: “Blue Heeler needs a home” and Maggie came to the farm.

It didn’t take long for Maggie to become an integral part of the farm and within a year she was what you might call a full partner. My only requirements of her in the beginning were that she not leave the place and not to kill poultry.

Her only requirements of me were that she be allowed to stay as near me as possible as much as possible and that I would listen to “dog reason” occasionally.

She learned immediately that her boundary was the fence line and the open gate at the gravel road but the chicken killing thing was a hard lesson to learn and cost a lot of poor hens their lives that first year.

I learned immediately that she was a companion worth having and that I could depend on her. I also learned to listen to dog reason.

She was an extremely happy dog in those busy years and confident in her own importance and ability to hold up her end. Her favorite entertainment was walking the pasture, for whatever purpose, 15 feet ahead of me, tail brush wagging, pretending that she was the leader and I was the follower. Maybe she was. I never could figure out how she knew where we were going. If the plan was to check the gully off to the east for a missing heifer she struck off in that direction. If the idea was to run the south fence line checking for downed wire she headed straight for it.

I learned very soon that she had a few strong hatreds. She passionately hated pigs and her aversion to large sticks in my presence turned her into a totally different dog that you really would not like to meet. And she had a primeval hatred of guns.

We were both young then, in those years when my own strength and determination would be tested to the max, and the work was hard. In the beginning there were disagreements, as in any partnership, mostly regarding what Maggie thought was in my best interest.

She was determined to keep a safe zone between me and anything larger than me and at first this made caring for the stock a little difficult. However, as my hard-earned herd of sale barn heifers grew and the danger of being smashed or trampled as the individuals in the herd fought for the first bite increased, I learned to appreciate Maggie’s wisdom and depend on her protection. She never failed me.

She hated to see me climb and this battle, which I finally won because of the necessity of the thing, caused me a few bumps and scrapes. The cattle were separated from the hay storage side of the barn by an ancient stanchion topped by woven wire fencing and I had to stand on the stanchion and shove the hay bales over the wire fencing. To Maggie this was double jeopardy. I was not only three feet off the ground but at some risk of falling into the pen with the cows.

Her whimpering pleas ignored, she would brace her feet in the dirt of the barn floor, grab the cuff of my cover-alls and hang on with all her might while I did the haying as best I could with a 40-pound dog attached to my leg. More than once I lost patience and kicked out at her, cussing a blue streak, winding up flat on my back on the floor. This had to stop so I did win this one.

Maggie was a perfect mimic. She was like a canine mocking bird. I guess you would call her a mocking dog. More than once I jumped from my bed thinking I had coyotes right under my bedroom window only to see Maggie sitting there answering the yip yips of some far off coyote pack just for the fun of it.

Or I would hear the tinny bark of a very small dog by the barn and go out to see her sitting in the drive answering the neighbor’s terrier or a deep full bark of what I was sure had to be a St. Bernard in the neighborhood and it would just be Maggie woof woofing away.

I don’t know how she did it and am not sure why she did it but I think she just thought it was fun.

She did, however take her responsibilities very seriously. In fact she was a dedicated worrier. Beneath my bedroom window, guarding through the night, she could not keep her worries to herself and would often, when the coyotes were running or stray people were out and about, trouble my sleep with her pitiful grumbling, mumbling whimpers and this would go on and on only to be silenced by my loud shouts to “shut up that damn whining” and my banging on the outside wall by the window beneath which she slept.

Our only disagreement that seriously threatened our arrangement and Maggie's place at the farm involved a gun. Like I said she hated guns. The merest glimpse of a gun, or any facsimile of one, resulted in the morphing of a very gay, amenable, hard working companion into a rigidly intense, deadly serious canine stranger.

I kept a gun. It was a rifle and kept for the purpose of some emergency that might arise for a woman living alone in a rather isolated area. Of course and fortunately, no such emergency ever did arise and hasn't to this day.

The gun's actual use, with a few rare exceptions, had been confined to the two occasions when I, fortified with three or four ounces of Vodka mixed with a tablespoon of orange juice, performed necessary mercy killings. It had also been waved wildly at stray dogs and one errant fox seen carrying off a fat Peking duck five mornings in a row.

But a neighbor's dog, having made friends with Maggie, who was a total push over in that regard, had persistently ravaged and killed throughout the poultry population and was arrogant enough to come into the yard in broad daylight while I was standing there to repeat his acts of destruction right in front of me.

I looked at the bodies strewn across the yard and I had had enough. I got the rifle and standing in the driveway with the intention of either scaring the be jesus out of him or killing him dead which ever my aim served, was banging away while Maggie's wildly piteous pleadings and whimperings fell on deaf ears. As a last resort, from her way of thinking, she stood on her hind legs and clamped down on my left hand that supported the gun while my right worked away at the trigger.

I was stunned. First by the pain of it and then by the fact that she would actually do this to me. She did not bite, or tear..just clamped down hard and hung on, her whimperings and whining, louder and louder, ascending to a frantic pitch going up and down the scale while her grip stayed firm. I dropped the gun. She dropped to the ground and rolled belly up in one motion, crying so loud I could hardly hear anything else. Her despair was total. It was obvious that every instinct bred into her told her that this was a death warrant.

My hand hurt where one of her long canine teeth had met the lower teeth in the web of my thumb and forefinger. I stared at the fat puncture wound seeping blood. But I had had enough of killing.

"That's alright Maggie." I told her. "You were right, girl," I said, "We'll never use the gun again, but don't ever do that again either." and because she knew I had forgiven this unforgivable act, (which after all is what forgiveness is all about), and after at least thirty seconds of subdued body language..the head hanging the drooped tail..and so on, she became her old self again and was happy to go on with chores.

I never used the gun again and was eventually happy to find a home for it with one of the boys..I can't remember which one. As for Maggie, she kept her end of the bargain and never in eighteen years ever met a human being with anything other than friendliness and love.

Maggie was a fine, fine dog and an honorable partner.

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