Monday, January 18, 2016

A Dog's Sixth Sense


      In the same Psychology Today article that talked about animals love for one another, there was a reference to their unusual ability to sense the death of their masters. The article even spoke to the fact that dogs (but never cats) often stayed by the graves of their deceased human companions, often until they, themselves, died.
      One of the stories in my book is about such a instance. The story is true, and, yes, I was an early advocate of placing signs that announced the presence of steel traps. I hope you enjoy reading, "A Dog's Sixth Sense."
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I had no idea where Tom came from. He showed up in the backyard one morning looking intently at the back door, as though he would know whomever it was that emerged. When I emerged, I didn’t see him at first sitting by the pump house. I came to know of the gray and brown pointer when he walked toward me a few feet then sat and stared at me, tongue lolling as nerves came into play.  The movement caught my eye. I knew from experience stray dogs did not show up at the back door after enjoying a wholesome breakfast of steak and eggs. They were all hungry and all were looking for companionship. I offered both, but first there was the issue of breakfast.

      Tom came along a couple of months after Rufus disappeared. The only dog we had at the time was Daisy, who had nearly collapsed across the highway, after a long run failed to chase down those who had abandoned her, a mile or so south of Los Molinos. She was pregnant with four puppies, one of which I sold in order to buy a baseball almanac. The others were given away. Daisy had been taken in as the house dog by Mrs. H, and was no outside companion. Daisy was a lovable little creature, her main requirement a lap or a pillow on which to sleep. She had no interest in hunting and fishing and protecting Tehama County from rampaging Injuns or fearsome wooly mammoths.

I wondered if the highway had reclaimed Roof. I had walked both sides of the road for a couple of miles on either side of the house, but no Roof. There were other possibilities. Duryl Campbell, two farms north, carried a .22 rifle with him in his pickup, to keep dogs and coyotes away from his chickens. But Duryl knew Roof, and I doubted he’d shoot-to-kill him. Scare him, maybe. Other farmers may not be so kind.

      A coyote may have got him, but it would have to have been one good-fighting coyote. I’d watched as Roof got into a scrap with one of the wild creatures and took it to the woodshed, so to speak. Thing is, Roof was not afraid of them as were many other dogs. The lack of fear may have gotten him killed. My worse fear was that Roof walked into a steel trap, set in many areas of the foothills to reduce the number of coyotes. Not only chickens appeared on the predator’s menu but young animals such as spring lambs, newly born calves, and succulent piglets when they could be obtained. Poultry was a huge favorite with coyotes; there was no henhouse around that had not been paid a midnight visit. Squawking chickens were the farmers’ alarm systems, and most of them kept a rifle by the backdoor. Farmers shot coyotes on sight and laid traps for them. They were such a menace, the county had a one dollar bounty on coyote pelts. Not bad money if I guy wanted to do the work of skinning them out, drying the pelts and hauling them to Red Bluff, the county seat, for payment.

      I was leery of traps. A few times, while hiking through the foothills, I encountered them, lying partially hidden beneath limbs and leaves. People could also be victims of the steel jaws. I had suggested to one of the trappers that he set out signs to warn humans of the presence of traps. We were in the barbershop at the time, he in the barber’s chair, while I sat in one of the chairs along the wall awaiting my turn. He glowered something awful. A fearsome look that frightened me. Chuck Ramsey was a big man. In an attempt at humor, of which he possessed none, he let out a guffaw, and denounced the idea of doing such a stupid thing, his objective to make me seem stupid. He spoke with a crooked, evil smile curling his lips. One of his eyes became big and round in his anger, and struck me as if with a bludgeon. There were sagging sacks beneath his eyes that resembled Mrs. H’s used tea bags. Mr. Ramsey’s face reddened when Ed Briscoe said he didn’t think it was a bad idea and the other men agreed. Several had lost a dog to traps and none were particularly fond of the idea of having them around because of the lack of knowing what got trapped. The trapper left in a huff.

       “Whew-ee, Freddie, you sure know how to make a trapper mad,” opined Ed Briscoe, the barber. “I’ve never seen a man’s face become so, so . . . distorted, is the only word I can think of. I was you, I’d stay clear of that hombre.”

      “Yessir,” I replied, “that’s good advice, all right, and I plan to use it.” Like I said, that man Ramsey scared the bejesus out of me.

      Most of his traps were set south of the village, and from that day on, I made it a point to spring the traps I encountered. I was, of course, suspected of this treachery and warned against it. I thought about stopping the practice, only briefly. Realizing that if the traps remained unsprung after my warning not to meddle in things that didn’t concern me, it would be the same as admitting to my own guilt. I couldn’t stand for that, so the traps continued to get sprung on sight. Trappers were still not convinced that I was an innocent party, no matter how many times I denied the practice.

      My new friend was sitting patiently in front of me. He had no name yet that I knew about, so I called him Tom. He seemed to think that was okay. After I poured a bowl full of chow, I could have called him anything. He dove right into the chow, and I went back into the house to get my own breakfast. When I returned, he was gone.

       Tom showed up every morning for breakfast, but he didn’t hang around. Any hopes of acquiring a new friend to do stuff with were dashed when he cut out, back toward the foothills after partaking of my victuals. This went on for a couple of weeks. One morning I walked out the backdoor and saw him in the distance trotting along on the lane by the slough. I decided to follow. I got in behind him but lost sight around a bend in the tree row. I was moving along briskly in an attempt to keep him in sight.  I nearly ran up on him as I came chugging around a stand of cattails near the end of the slough. I immediately dropped to the ground, and he didn’t see me. I was sure that if he saw me, he would come over and want to play, but I wanted to know where he went every day.  He lit out in an easy lope I could not hope to match. Tom reached the end of the slough, turned north and began a trot along the foothills road. Just before I came to the road I saw him turn into the hills at a point where a gully that wandered down through the hills ended. The gully was dry at this time of year. The sides and bottom were rocky from the torrents that poured through it during rainstorms. Tom’s path was over these rocks.

      I began my climb across from the end of the slough and angled toward the general direction of Tom’s ascent. There was a copse of scattered oak trees ahead. It was a typically hot day, so I stopped for a moment in the shade. My Ked bumped into something under a pile of leaves. Sensing danger, I pushed the leaves away with a stick to reveal a trap, one much bigger than the ones used to catch coyotes. This was a bear trap. These traps are huge and immensely powerful. I’d heard it said one of these monsters could take off the foot of a person who stepped into one. It certainly looked like it could.

      Mr. H’s new hired man, Wes, mentioned a few days ago that a huge brown bear, it might be a grizzly, had been spotted in these hills. Farmers raising small animals were on guard and had taken to carrying hunting rifles in their pickup trucks. I had forgotten Wes’s warning, until I uncovered the huge trap. Suddenly, the two pieces of information came together and, as a flush of fear ran over me, I looked around for the bear. The chilblain zipping along my spine suggesting I might be surrounded by huge, hairy, snarling grizzlies. But as the adrenaline rush subsided and sanity returned, I saw nothing remotely resembling a huge, hairy, snarling grizzly. . I became absorbed with wondering what I would do should I see a grizzily and what to do if it came after me. Bears were capable of amazing foot speed for their size. I am very fast afoot, but could I outrun a grizzly? I thought not. What if I tripped and fell? Dan’l Boone had a big knife. I had a little pocket knife. Dan’l Boone climbed a tree. There were trees in the foothills, but there were large tracts where there were none. Could a grizzly climb a barbed wire fence? What a silly thought, I thought, it would be bothered not a whit but run straight through it, dragging the fence with it.

      So what do I do now? I am pledged to spring every trap encountered, but there is a dangerous creature in the vicinity, and what of this were the trap that stopped it from attacking a herd of cows, or a flock of sheep, or, heaven forbid, attacked one of the  farm children—or a farmer? Wes said grizzlies attacked without provocation, and were one of the most vicious animals on the North American continent. The very top of the food chain, he said. Apparently Wes knew a lot about bears, and he said nobody eats grizzlies; grizzlies eat everything else. That alpha bear is out there became stuck in my head.

      I looked out through the trees and saw Tom in the distance, still following the gully. I had decided I would not be responsible for the demise of any North American mammals residing in Tehama County, but this was different. So that the trap could be seen, I swept the remainder of the leaves away from the trap, all the while wondering of bears knew what a bear trap looked like and wouldn’t just go ahead and step in one left out in the open. At least the darned thing would be out where people could see it. I passed by one more before I walked out of the copse of trees. I brushed the leaves off of it.

      I had lost sight of Tom. I walked uphill, generally to the north, to intersect the gully. This area of hills was steeper than further along, and after a brisk walk, my breath become short and my legs burned. I stopped to rest for a moment, hands on knees, when I saw Tom headed along a crest, going south! I moved behind a bush and watched as he trotted past my position, soon veering into the higher hills, and disappearing.

      I managed to get my tired legs beneath me and attempted a sprint up the remainder of the hill. Higher up, there was any number of gullies Tom could turn into to get to a higher level. By the time I reached the first crest he was well ahead. I thought it must be nice to have four legs to elevate one’s body ever upward. Where on earth could Tom be heading?

      I looked around at unfamiliar territory. My past incursions into the forbidden lower range of the Sierra Nevadas ended at the first rise. I had been told, rather firmly, not to venture across the foothills road because of the coyotes and whatever else out there that might grab a young boy to use as a chew toy. It was surely good advice, but where else is one to go after he’s been told not to go there? Don’t go here, don’t go there places are places that become evermore interesting than places it’s okay to go. Places to which it’s okay to go are . . . well, safe! And certainly not as interesting as forbidden ones.

     A half hour later, I came to a level place with a cabin sitting on the edge of a small forest of evergreen trees. The place showed all of the signs of prior life. The door was open. There was a small corral attached to the residence. A crossbuck rested on its side near the door. There were curtains in the windows. Weeds covered the garden spot. It had all the trappings of having been lived in, but not for a while. The aura of abandonment haunted the scene. But there was something else.

      To the right of the cabin stood a lopsided grave marker. The cross, formed from two pieces of old barn wood, stood at the end of a mound of earth. Nothing was there with a name on it. Beside the grave lay Tom, asleep; my arrival provoked his awakening. I expected a friendly tail-wagging greeting but did not get one. A deep, threatening warning to stay away rumbled from his throat. The old pointer rose to his feet, head down, hackles up, There was nothing of the friendly face looking for breakfast about Tom now. I took a step toward him and he snarled, baring his teeth. I decided this was not the time to continue our fledgling friendship.

      In the past I had been able to get on the good side of cranky dogs by waiting them out. I took a seat on a nearby rock and looked out across the valley. I could see the house below, the farm spread toward the west and northwest. The tree line indicating the banks of the Sacramento River was in the distance. Another place I was told not to go. Champlain Creek started somewhere in the hills outside Los Molinos, meandered across the several farms south of the village, bending around to flow southwest across Mr. H’s property and emptying into the river. I knew mostly every nook and cranny along the creek south of the village and the slough that ended at the bottom of these hills as well. I found all kinds of places to occupy as long as it wasn’t the house. That house was not a home.

      I ignored Tom, who continued to growl and was walking toward me, actually walking at me. Dogs don’t ordinarily like to be ignored. They’re people creatures and need to be involved with humans. It wasn’t that way with Tom now. He didn’t want me around. I turned to make my way down the hill. I got no more visits from Tom after that.

 

     A few days later, I rode into town on Jenny to visit with whoever was available. I reined the mule around the corner off Main Street onto Mill St. and down half a block to the alley that divided the block in half. The Downey’s yard was the first on the right. I’d heard the three kids playing as I passed the house. From the alley I saw the two boys playing house with their sister. I kept going. Jimmy’s house was next. His mom was hanging wash and said he wasn’t home. On I went along the alley. I came to the corner of Center Street and reined right. Through the window of Ed Briscoe’s barbershop across the street, I saw several older men sitting around jawing; I pulled over, dismounted, went in and took a seat against the wall. It became apparent that the biggest news of the day had to do with some guy I didn’t know from Gerber landing a sixty-pound catfish. I had caught fifteen eight and nine pounders one day down at the cove and remembered what great battles catching them had provided. And there was the eighteen pounder I’d pulled from Champlain Creek. I couldn’t imagine hooking a sixty-pounder. It was the stuff of legends . . . and lies.

     Talk of the huge fish wound down, until the men were sitting staring at their boots with nothing to say. Ed Briscoe broke the ice, asking, “What’s going on with you, Freddie?”

     I related the story of Tom, and when I finished, all the men sat transfixed. Because of my penchant for coming up with some decent barbershop stories, Carl Ranchek leans toward me and asks, “You just making this up are ye, Freddie?” sounding serious.

      “No, sir, that old dog is likely sitting up there next to the grave right now. Leastwise, he was day before yesterday.”

      “That’s the most amazing story I’ve heard,” said the barber. “How could it be?”

      “What do you mean?” I asked. “It’s just an old dog sitting beside a grave. The buried person was probably his owner.”

      “You’re right, Freddie, he belonged to my brother Malcolm,” Mr. Ranchek said. “He died about a month ago, had a heart attack up to the auction barn in Red Bluff. He told me he wanted to be buried on his new property—he’d lived there only a few days. I bought a coffin and hired some men to help carry Malcolm to the cabin—it’s a bit of a hike from the mining road above the place. We buried him two days after he died. What makes this a fascinating story is Sam—that’s the dog’s real name—was at my place over in Corning when Malcolm moved into the cabin. He and I had been hunting pheasant like we did every year. He had no way of knowing that Malcolm was dead, once more where he was buried. He had never been to the cabin.”

      “What?” I asked jumping up from my chair, wide-eyed with surprise. “How can that be?”

      “He couldn’t have known,” said Carl Ranchek, “but, thinking back, I think he may have sensed something was wrong. He moped around and kept looking in the direction of Malcolm’s cabin, although naturally he couldn’t see the place. It’s ten, twelve miles, easy.”

      “I’ve heard where animals have the ability to sense things we don’t,” opined Ed Briscoe.

      “What say we head up there and have a look,” suggested Mr. Ranchek, who had the fire in his eyes of someone who had to know something. Ed Briscoe closed the shop; all the men found a ride and a cavalcade of two cars and a pickup truck headed for the hills.

      The mining road was seldom used and had not been graded in many years. Ed Briscoe’s pickup bounced over the potholes like a stone skipping across a pond. Riley Welch’s Ford sedan hit so violently after a bounce, it slid off the road and tipped over. We all helped to lift it back on its wheels, laughing and joking about the driver’s keen ability to keep his wheels on the road. We headed off again and bounced another half mile or so before we saw Malcolm Ranchek’s cabin sitting below, at the edge of a stand of trees..

      The footpath from the road down to the cabin was not well-traveled. It was steep in places and overrun with brush the whole distance. It was hot and bugs flew everywhere around our heads and in exposed body openings. After an adventure of stumbling down the rutted and rocky hill, we arrived on the small plateau upon which the cabin had been built.

      Thirty yards away the mound where the body of Malcolm Ranchek was buried could be seen. I expected Tom—or Sam—to pop up from behind the grave and challenge the intruders. But there was no dog. Mr. Ranchek asked me if this was the place I had talked about, and I assured him it was.

      We began to look around for the dog. A few minutes later, a voice called out, “Got ’im.”

      We all crowded around the man who had found Sam, on the other side of the grave mound. The animal was dead; the old hunter’s neck and head had been viciously torn into as if he had been in a fight with a large creature. Etched into the earth around the grave was evidence of a struggle. One man said it could have been a bear. Then Carl Ranchek hollered, “Holy cow, look at this, fellas”

      We all gathered around where Carl pointed at a huge bear paw print. The paw was immense with huge claw marks dug into the ground. “Grizzly,” said Ed Briscoe, “I heard one had been seen up this way.”

      I walked over to look at Sam, lying dead, his body torn by a huge bear while he tried to protect his dead master, whose grave he couldn’t possibly have known the location of. In fact, he couldn’t have known the man was dead. Yet he died protecting his grave. Go figure.

      I hung around Carl Ranchek, expected a pat on the back or told, “Good job, Kid.” In light of all that happened that day, not the least of which was my information that had brought us all here, I felt praise was due. I guess I was a bit needy that way. But there was none coming. In the world of men, sometimes the niceties got kicked into a corner.

 

      Seeing the old hunting dog dead and the huge paw print of the creature that had killed him brought a chill to my spine. Here lay silent evidence of the real link between hearing about something scary and actually seeing that it existed. The false sense of security we all hear about tells us there is nothing to worry about—it won’t happen to me. Then one sees the substance of the scary story and the picture becomes life.
      The incident with Tom and the bear caused me to rethink the issue of laying traps. It was evident now why the traps were used. I thought it would have been a good thing if the bear had stepped in one of the traps that lay in the trees downhill from us, and old Sam would still be around to protect his master’s grave. But I still think they should post signs letting people know they are there.

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