Vagneur: Walking valiantly into the darkness
He’d been in our family for years, a faithful servant, a willing worker and a sentry not afraid to nip the heels of strangers who dared darken our walk. If you came out of the house with spurs on, he knew immediately by the jingle that there was high adventure to be had, and he loved nothing better than running cattle through the chute on those days we worked them there. Whether we rode 30 miles or 1 in a day, he was right by our sides, ready to do what was asked of him. Many times, he didn’t need to be asked. If he trusted you, he’d curl up at your feet and let you rub his back. If he didn’t, he’d give a low growl and move away, creating a definitive barrier that few were foolish enough to cross.
The brightness of his mottled Australian shepherd coat had lost some of its luster with the arrival of advancing age, and the stiffness in his joints slowed him down more often than not, but the spark was still there in his eyes, the wag of his tail as eager as when he was a pup. He was old, and there were days we wondered how many more he would have.
And then, one morning, he was gone. His bed was as he’d left it, and there was a mouthful or two of food left in his dish. He’d never missed a morning pat on the head, not since he’d arrived at the ranch, and while the morning chores got done, there was a certain discontent brewing in our hearts. Oh, hell, he’ll probably be waiting for us on the porch when we get back, but that wasn’t the way it was. We spent the day looking for him as we worked, riding near that draw or this, or riding up a ridge we generally wouldn’t access, knowing with almost certainty what had happened but holding on to the knowledge that it’s not unheard of for dogs to sometimes disappear for a day or two but return home, seemingly no worse for the wear. We’d had other dogs do that, and you can hang your hat on thoughts like that, at least in the beginning.
Nature works us in ways we don’t always like and reflects our mortality back at us in an almost mocking fashion, reminding us that comfort can turn to despair rather quickly. Clarions of bad news, ravens hover along the ridges and valleys of our mountains, looking for the easy sustenance that comes their way with predictable frequency. And so it was, a couple of days later, that the coarse, collective call of an unkindness of ravens, messengers of death, drew our attention to a jack-oak-covered hillside about a mile from the house. There, lying dead, was our faithful dog, Freckles.
How can it be reasoned in the mind of an animal, crippled from arthritis and slow in reflex, to cast his fate to the open wilderness behind our ranch, knowing full well that predators would salivate over such an opportunity?
It is deep in mystery, as it likely was for Freckles, walking valiantly into the darkness from which he knew there could be no return. Maybe we don’t know the proper questions to ask, but for the dog, it was a commitment to a journey of unknown proportions, stoic and grim, for there was no one to discuss it with, no one to help him on his journey.
Did they dally with him, playing him for an unknowing victim and leading him on, or did they see the steel in his eyes, his nerve at invading their territory, and take him out quickly and mercifully? It’s a dance of death we can only imagine we understand, and however they did it, I’m sure Freckles left them wondering how tough their victory was.
For most of our lives, we manage to outlive our dogs, and puppies soon come around to fill the void created by a lost dog. The world moves on, diligently and without deference to our feelings. By necessity, we are left to hold many memories in our hearts, where we play them whenever we wish and share them only with the one we miss.
In the words of John Muir, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” Some of us like to think of it as the Rainbow Bridge, but I think Freckles claimed his rightful place in the whole of the universe.
Wayne Vagneur and Freckles were an inseparable pair. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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