'Unique in all the world'

By

He was a hungry-looking, ruddy-brown, male hound, and for weeks after he arrived on our East Texas ranch that was his only identity. But in spite of the fact that I had no intention of claiming him for my own, I felt a name was in order.

Naming anything is a responsibility that sometimes gets lost in our desire to impress the world with our own originality. And naming pets often seems to bring out quixotic tendencies in the best of pet owners, especially if the pet has a pedigree longer than his owner. As Westbrook Pegler pointed out, rarely is there a blue-ribbon dog whose name is Fido, or Rover, or Sport. But try stepping to your back door and calling, "Here Champion Alexander of Clare o' Wind Holme! Here Champion Alexander of Clare o' Wind Holme!"

On the other hand, Robinson Crusoe said he named his man Friday because that "was the day I saved his life," a simple nononsense method of naming to which I heartily subscribe. And that's how Brown Dog came to have his name. Nothing literary or historic, and certainly not a people name. He was a dog and was brown, and it was a name he did not have to live up to or down.

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I first noticed him hiding in the gray brush of our late winter pasture, a position that marked the bounds of a periphery he maintained for many days. He purposely stayed as nearly out of sight of the house as possible, so he was easily ignored by me. I already had all the responsibilities I needed and figured if he got hungry enough or lost interest in our female dog he would return to wherever he belonged.

But as days stretched into a week I could see, even from the unsociable distance he still kept, that his ribs were painfully obvious. So I put out a pan of food and called.There was no response, so I went inside. Hours passed before the famished dog finally began creeping forward, making wide semicircle sweeps before each advance. Upon reaching the pan of food he nervously downed it with great gulps and then rushed back to his lonely post.

Another week passed while his wide circles around the house and food gradually diminished, until one day Brown Dog warily accepted my presence and came to eat while I stood quietly nearby. Another week and he sniffed my hand, and the day I briefly touched his head was a triumph for us both, even though he immediately dashed away, shivering with fear.

Since then I've wondered about this dog. He's a hunting dog, probably a red bone hound, and one of his long drooping ears has a deep slit. But there's nothing else to make him stand out from all the other country dogs in Texas. His voice, now that he's finally overcome his timidity enough to use it, has the hollow depth of an empty rain barrel, and it calls to mind dark nights through tangled trails of damp pine thickets, lit up now and then with a saucerlike flash of a coon's bright eyes. He's a fine-looking dog, now he's filled out, but somewhere in his dark past he was badly abused.

During the first months after Brown Dog came his timid overtures were constantly rebuffed by our female dog. Then she disappeared, perhaps an elopement with a more aggressive male. But Brown Dog stayed and assumed her duties as watchdog.

A year later I moved to the city, and since my brown friend was not a city dog, I left him behind on the ranch where he has remained. By day he busies himself chasing jack rabbits, which are plentiful, and I am told by my neighbors a mile away that by night he faithfully ululates with the coyotes that live on the hill. He has a warm dry bed in the barn which he uses in winter, but in summertime he prefers the cool depths of one of the numerous holes he has dug in my flower beds, or the favorable elevation of the front porch. He has plenty of good water from the stock tank nearby, and the man who tends the cattle also feeds him. For these minor considerations Brown Dog always rewards me, when I come, with the lash of his hard brown tail and many toothy grins, plus very vocal protestations of genuine canine affection.

Once Brown Dog overcame his fear of me he finally accepted my invitation to enter the house, though at first with obvious misgivings. But it wasn't long before he discovered the luxury of a warm fireside. One evening, however, after waiting until the very last minute to return to the city, I hastily packed the car and drove away, unaware that I had locked Brown Dog inside the house. Another week passed before I returned, and imagine my surprise when he leaped past me as I opened the door. He was exuberantly grateful to be freed from his prison, and outside of being very hungry, he was none the worse for his week indoors. But my house has never been the same. He had made himself quite at home during his confinement, drinking from commodes, sleeping on the sofa and beds, and relieving himself at random. However, since Brown Dog had no alternative and had magnanimously forgiven me my oversight, I accepted my cleanup job with as much grace as possible.

So, like St. Exupery's Little Prince and his rose on that faraway planet, I tamed this creature and he has become my friend. And like the Little Prince, I guess I'm responsible forever for what I have tamed. But his responsibility is not the usual pet-owner situation, and from it I've learned something about friendship and the possibilities of love. Friends, like birds, are not for holding. Brown Dog belongs to me and I guess I belong to him, but we make no demands on each other. He's free to go, just as he came, and maybe he will someday. And I'm also free to go, and free of any guilt should I, in my human busyness, neglect the material obligations of this friendship. It's a unique arrangement that Brown Dog and I have, a wide, loose framework of goodwill that tolerates each other's failings and takes pleasure in the love. And because of it, whenever I hear his sharp back claws on the wooden porch and the happy thump of his hard brown tail, and when his deep voice answers the wild ones on the hill, I know that he is unique, and also, indeed, that out of a thousand million dogs he is "unique in all the world."

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