I’ve put the puppies in their stall this afternoon. We’re expecting a heat-index of 104 degrees, dangerous weather for the very old and the very young. Monarch and Motive live in an extra stall in our old bank barn, which was built, half-underground, near the turn of the 20th century. Like a Virginia cavern in the karst countryside around our farm, the basement of the barn is lined with limestone boulders, which help to keep it cool in summer and warm in winter. I scatter the stall with pine shavings and throw a couple of balls in there, along with an old horse blanket, a bowl of water and one full of puppy chow so that they can entertain themselves before I wake up every morning and during these hot mid-July afternoons.
Motive and Monarch have been here for a week now, and the introductions have been pretty smooth, except for Spud. I can and never will trust old Spud. He’s our pit-bull, rescued from the Ester Boyd Animal Shelter about eleven years ago this summer.
Ester Boyd is the patron saint of Frederick County animals. When we moved here twenty-six years ago, we had a lab-golden mixed retriever named Saco who wouldn’t fetch his own dinner, but he loved to roam. This was before electric fences became the ubiquitous dog-training tool and before the county had a shelter. There was a wire pen next to the county dump and a little wooden building with a sign that said “County Animal Control.” (I always thought it a horrible place for passed-over pets, next to the dump.) Later the County built a little one-story building up on the hillside, closer to the dump, with a bigger yard. But it was immediately outlived and undersized due to the great volume of inmates, kind of like the elementary schools at each of the county’s four corners that were too small from the day they opened. Still later the County found some extra land next to their new jail in an industrial park—another questionable place for misplaced animals, but better than the dump, I guess. All of these upgrades were due in part to Ester Boyd. She raised awareness and money to house forgotten and abandoned animals and she helped me find Saco more than once.
We rescued Spud and brought him home and gave him the potato name. Small dogs fit easily inside Spud’s enormous jaws and he has a switch in his block head that sometimes tells him to eat one, so I don’t really trust him around the puppies. Now that he’s old and gray and a little feeble, he’s slightly more trustworthy. Still, I worry.
In 2003, when Bill’s father passed away, we inherited his young German shorthaired pointer named Jake. Poor Jake is “as numb as a pounded thumb” as they say in Maine. He’s a hound dog too, but a bird dog—nothing but little birds flying circles within his brain. He’s not fond of the puppies because he’s normally the baby of the family and they rob him of his status. They are annoying little creeps in his opinion. He stays clear of them, but they usually pester him until he snaps. He’ll not bite them, just growl and bark, which they ignore.
Motive and Monarch love Ashie best. She’s the German Shepherd that Bill and our youngest son, Robert, found in the woods while camping one weekend around eight years ago. Just as they were pulling up tent stakes to head home, she bounded out of the woods, asking to come along. “You’d be mad if I hadn’t brought her home,” Bill said, though I knew that it was himself he couldn’t have lived with if he’d left her behind. She is all things Shepherd: loyal, attentive, considerate. She’s also a blond in the advanced stages of obsessive compulsive disease. When the puppies come to Green Spring Farm each summer Ashie takes over with benign resignation. She looks at me as they climb on her shoulders and nip at her lips, tug on her tail and bite at her feet, with patient and hapless eyes, forgiving me once again for subjecting her to her annual plight.
Robert built a new chicken tractor for the chicks we bought at Southern States this spring. The girls aren’t laying yet, but they’re enjoying being pulled around the yard within their new mobile home. The puppies are particularly happy about the chicken tractor, since each time we move the tractor they have a four-by-eight foot piece of ground covered with chicken droppings that they can roll in and consume.
Richard, my farrier, came this week to trim the horses and all the dogs are excited when he shows up—they get about a week’s worth of smelly foot-trimmings to chew. This is the type of thing that starts a fight, particularly when Spud wants something another has, so Spud goes in the house. Nevertheless, the puppies have spent the last several days scrounging around the paddocks for left-overs and hiding any they find. I watched Motive carefully dig a hole (in my garden of course) place a horse hoof in it and shovel several noses of dirt back on top. She hasn’t found it since.
I ran a few inches of water into the bottom of an extra trough to help the pups escape the heat when they woke from their afternoon nap. Ashie, Motive and Monarch took turns climbing in to cool off. Bridget, the donkey, took and interest in the little pests and, though I thought one would be kicked to the other side of the paddock, she made friends and seems to tolerate their hunger for her turds.
As evening came on, we took our daily walk to the pond. I use this walk to teach them to follow me and the other dogs, to learn their names and how to walk on a leash when we head for the barn on our return. The sky was darkening when we set out, but I didn’t give it much thought. It’s my favorite time of day. A few lightening bugs are still rising and blinking from the long grass and the sun’s glare that had washed the colors from the fields throughout the day, softens to deeper liquid shades along the tree lines edging the fields. Ashie leads, the puppies follow, Spud trips along as best he can, Jake is off chasing imaginary birds since there are no more quail in our countryside. Our pond is really just a big mud hole this time of year. Ashie takes the pups for a dip. Motive likes the water, but Monarch isn’t too sure.
As we climb up the bank of the mud-hole pond lightening strikes not a mile away. The sky above the Old Stone Church at the western edge of our property is dark purple and the rain is already coming down hard on its tin roof. Spud jumps at the sound of the crack as though he’s been hit. We’re alone and completely exposed in the middle of the hay field. I’m reminded of a friend’s horse who was hit by lightening in his own field and killed. “Run,” I yell.
I’m not a runner. I’m not built for it. I tried when I was younger, even ran a 10-K once, after which I hung up my running shoes, or rather I threw them in the back of my closet, and never ran “for fun” again. The sight of me running across the field with old Spud, Ashie dashing in circles wondering at the new game, and the two puppies in grass over their heads, trying to bound but tripping on their ears and tongues, must have made God smile.