Buck
by
Chris Maser


     There were some things that Buck had to learn without Xerxes' help. One was how to sleep on his back. While still a pup, he tried desperately to sleep on his back in the middle of the living-room floor, but without success. Then he discovered walls and doors. He soon learned, however, that supporting himself against a closed door was perilous at best. If he was against a door opening one way, he was pushed across the floor whenever someone entered the room; if the door opened the other way, he suddenly lost his support and rolled under the feet of whomever was entering the room, much to the consternation of both. He also had a great propensity to pass gas when sleeping on his back, which often resulted in his having a corner of the room entirely to himself.
     Buck loved to drink water out of faucets, hoses, and garden sprinklers. For some reason, he was indiscriminately fascinated with moving garden sprinklers and spent much time as a puppy snapping at the water as it moved past him. And then came the day he learned discrimination, a day I'll always remember.
     We were crossing the golf course near our house, when the big sprinkler started to come on, with its 90 pounds of pressure shooting water way out onto the grass. Buck, who was just about a year old and was running ahead of me, saw the trickle of water beginning to emerge from the sprinkler's head.
     Knowing what would happen if he tried drinking out of the sprinkler when it came on in full force, I called him, thinking I could protect him from himself, but he suddenly developed "tin ears." Running straight to the sprinkler, he began lapping the water just as it came out with the first full-force blast. The jet caught him with his mouth open squarely in front of the nozzle. It was one surprised pup that was lifted off of the ground and bowled over backwards, to say nothing of getting instantaneously soaked to the skin.
     Buck had another episode with water, but this time at the ocean, which he loved, and since we lived only 60 miles from the Pacific, we went there often. He knew when we were headed for the beach. I don't know how he knew; he just knew and got so excited after getting into the car that he began barking uncontrollably as long as he can look out windows. His bark was so high in pitch it hurt my ears, so I made him lie on the floor to save both my sanity and my ear drums while driving.
     The first thing Buck did on arriving at the beach was race into the ocean and begin drinking. For some reason, which totally escaped me, he loved sea water even though, having drunk his fill, he promptly vomited.
     One day, after his usual bout with sea water, he decided he was thirsty. So, trotting to the low, sandstone cliff forming the eastern edge of the narrow beach, he began drinking from a small fresh-water pool created by a tiny seep trickling down a steep slope through mosses and little ferns. He drank and drank, but the small pool kept filling up, which I could see was beginning to bug him. Then, over his face came a look I knew well--one of sheer determination.
     He stared at the pool for a minute or two and then set about drinking it dry, which meant he didn't stop with the pool. Straddling the trickle, he continued licking the water as it seeped through the cleft in the moss. He drank and drank until I was sure he was going burst, but still he drank as he moved up the slope. Finally, reaching the top, he took a few more licks and vomited all the water. However, satisfied with his great accomplishment of having drunk the trickle dry, he raced down the slope and along the beach.
     Buck had a third episode with drinking, only this time it wasn't water. In the early 1960s, my parents invited a group of people to our house to usher in the new year. As the new year approached, the champagne was opened. Finally, in the wee hours, as the party began to ebb, the glasses and dishes were taken into the kitchen and left, unwashed, on "TV" trays in the middle of the floor. And that was just too much temptation of any dog who likes food and drink as much as Buck did!
     No one noticed Buck slip quietly into the kitchen, where he proceeded to lick every dish and glass clean--without breaking a single one. He could do this because he had a very dexterous tongue due to much practice licking ice cream cartons, something most dogs probably don't experienced to the degree Buck did. Then, just as the party was breaking up, Buck, having salvaged all the leftover champagne, casually wandered--more accurately wove--back into the living room, emitted a gigantic belch that instantly got everyone's attention, let a tremendous fart, and passed out drunk as a lord in the middle of the floor.
     My father and one of the guests moved him to an out-of-the-way corner of the living room, and there he stayed all day, except for periodic, very slow and droopy trips to his water dish. The rest of the time he simply lay on the floor and groaned. Based on such compelling evidence, albeit from an admittedly infinitesimal sample size, I derived my medical theory that at least some animals besides humans get hangovers.
     When Buck was still young, we spend a vast amount of time together hunting, fishing, trapping, and wandering about the mountains. We stayed over night in small huts I made out of the pliable shoots of willow and the huge leaves of American skunk cabbage.
     Starting at the small end of the hut, where I intended putting my feet, I stuck the willow shoot into the earth at both ends, making a semicircle above the ground. As I worked toward the opening, or head-end of the hut, the willow shoots became longer and thicker so I could form a semicircle high enough for me to sit upright and wide enough to accommodate both Buck and me. When I had all the willow shoots securely fastened into the ground, I cut even longer ones to interweave through the semicircles, tying them together and forming supports for holding the roof in place.
     To make the roof, I used skunk cabbage leaves, which often reach two and a half to three feet in length and one to two feet in width. I cut the leaves off close to the marshy ooze out of which they grew, so their massive stems would be as long as possible. Turning each leaf over so its bottom side was up, with the midrib acting like a reinforcing ridge running the entire length of the leaf, I bent the free portion of the stem toward the leaf's upper side until it broke, forming a "hook." Laying the leaf's tip downward over the frame, I kept it in place by hanging the broken end over the interwoven supports of willow.
     Because the underside of a skunk cabbage leaf has a large rib formed by the continuation of the stem, it acted like a shingle and repelled water. By starting at the bottom of the hut, I could thatch a roof that was both waterproof and windproof.
     The roof finished, I collected moss and made a five- to six-inch thick carpet on the floor of the hut. Then, with our gear inside and a small fire burning brightly in the entrance, we were set for the night. And many's the black, windy, rainy night through which Buck and I were snug and warm in our huts.
     Over a period of a month or so, the leaves wilting and, rotting slightly as they dried, began sticking together, forming a thin, paper-like covering. The covering, with periodic repairs, lasted all Summer and well into Winter's rain. So Buck and I had huts in a number of places to which we could go at will.
     Buck, who always covered ten miles to every one of mine, had one habit of which I couldn't dissuade him. Every now and then as we lay sleeping peacefully in one of our huts while the wind howled through the forest trees and the rain pelted down, he detected some sound or odor that sent him roaring into the night with a deep, fierce growl. He was sometimes gone fifteen minutes, sometimes two hours. When he came back wet, cold, and muddy, however, he always wanted to crawl into my sleeping bag--the mummy type. It made absolutely no difference to him that there was barely enough room for me, let alone both of us.
     This strange behavior only happened on stormy nights with so much rain that in the morning I couldn't track where he'd been. To this day, I'd like to know what he heard or smelled.
     As a youngster, Buck had one very uncomfortable experience in the mountains. He encountered a porcupine, and, unlike some dogs that never learn and get quills stuck into themselves again and again, for Buck this one encounter was enough. He never tangled with another porcupine, which, unfortunately, I can't say about his never-witnessed but always-smelled encounters with skunks.
     Porcupines are calm, methodical animals that retreat passively under cover or up a tree rather than confront an enemy, such as a barking dog. Porcupines neither attack nor "shoot" or "throw" their sharply barbed quills. If confronted in the open, their only defense is to erect their quills, giving the appearance of a gigantic, living pincushion. The combination of sharply barbed, loosely attached quills and a strong, flexible tail gives a porcupine ample defense in most instances. Should an adversary ignore a porcupine's weaponry and approach too closely, it flicks its tail strongly from side to side and up and down, depending on the need, driving the quills into the assailant.
     The defense afforded by the quills is a product of their design. Mature quills, much like feathers, are dead structures. The great reduction of the surface area of a quill's root, and the correspondingly reduced tension the follicle exerts on the root, is an important factor in the ease with which a quill becomes detached from the animal's skin. Furthermore, each barb or scale along the tip of a quill acts like a tiny anchor holding the quill in the tough skin or tissue of the adversary. The barbs also increase the penetration of the quill, because when they engage the enemy's muscle, the pulling action of the muscle against the backward-directed, overlapping barbs draws the quill farther into the tissue, at a rate of about one/sixteenth of an inch per hour.
     So, needless to say, I was not thrilled when Buck came back, after a two-hour absence near the crest of the Cascade Mountains, with a face full of porcupine quills. He came quietly and rather sheepishly to where I was sitting along the trail enjoying the sunshine and sat down in front of me looking utterly miserable, as I'm sure he was.
     Having known this would happen sooner or later, I carried a pair of needle-nosed pliers with me for just this occasion. Getting the pliers out of my backpack, I began jerking quills out of his face. He had them everywhere, even in his gums. It took almost an hour to remove all the quills because some were so deeply embedded I could hardly see them. All the while Buck sat trembling without making a sound. With each quill I extract, there came a small jet of blood, which served to clean the wound.
     It was during the de-quilling that I got a glimmer of just how much Buck really trusted me. He was totally submissive, not like many other dogs needing help yet fighting it. He emitted not a whimper. When I had extracted the last quill, he gave me a quick lick of thanks on my nose and sped off up the trail as though nothing had happened.
     Buck had a fantastic sense of smell, one that always amazed me. My father was a fan of the Oregon State University football team, and he and my mother went to the home games held on campus, about three miles from our house. On two or three occasions, they went to games minus a particular dog and come home, much to my surprise, with Buck. Somehow he knew where they had gone and not only found the stadium but also found them during the heat of the game in the midst of at least a couple thousand people.
     Buck loved children, especially little girls. He'd go to the bus stop just down the street from our house every morning to see the grade-school children safely onto the schoolbus, and he met the bus every afternoon at three o'clock, after which he spent about an hour walking the little girls home.
     One third-grade girl in particular loved Buck. She'd saved the crusts of her sandwiches for him, which she'd feed him as soon as she was off the bus. In fact, she'd sometimes take the cloth belt off her dress and, tie it around his neck, and take him home with her. So, if Buck wasn't home by supper time, I knew where to get him.
     In 1962, my parents threw their last New Years party at the old house, where I grew up. It was quite a bash. As the party began drawing to a close, my mother took the champagne glasses, some still partially full, into the kitchen and placed them on a television tray. As it turned out, the tray was just low enough to enable Buck to lick dry every glass--and, I might add, without breaking a single one.
     Then, just as the party was breaking up, Buck wandered into the living room and let a gigantic fart as he passed out in the very middle of the carpet. Anyone who has ever lived with a dog can imagine just how foul the odor was. Suffice it to say, the guests' departures were suddenly accelerated.
     The next day, Buck lay along the living-room wall, with little movement except, for a periodic groan. The only time he mustered the energy to roust himself was to get a drink of water or to pee--such was his hangover.
     In 1963, my parents move to a new house just south of the one I grew up in. My parents' new house was situated amidst a beautiful woodland of white oaks, which posed an immediate problem for Buck. Although we had in years past spent much time hunting, trapping, and exploring this area, it had not been necessary for Buck to defend it as his territory. This all changed, however, when my parents move.
     Until Buck figured out how to mark the boundary of his new property, which had far more trees than the old, he ran out of piddle about half way around. This meant that, while he dutifully hiked his leg against the trees along the other half of the property, there was nothing left with which to mark them. It took him some months of trial and error to work out just how many trees he could mark and how much to give each tree before he can make it all the way around and do the job properly.
     Then, there was the woodpile that occupied the back corner of the lot, about 50 feet from the house. I don't remember when the big male Beechey ground squirrel (known locally as a "gray digger") moved into it, but he drove Buck nuts hour after hour for two or three years.
     The squirrel would sit on top of the woodpile and sun himself, all the while keeping a wary eye out for Buck. The squirrel took no chances, disappearing into the woodpile every time Buck came too close.
     From the time Buck discovered the squirrel, he kept careful tabs on the woodpile. He would crawl on his belly to the corner of the house and lay in wait. But try as he might, the squirrel always saw him before he reached the woodpile. Then a very frustrated Buck circled the woodpile, climbed on top of it, tried to dig under it, and finally jammed his nose into whichever opening between the pieces of wood was closest to the chattering squirrel, which was always just out of reach. The squirrel knew exactly how to drive Buck to the very edge of emotional distraction.
     The scene I still see most often in my mind is Buck, his nose shoved as far as possible into the wood pile, barking himself hoarse, which I was sure would eventually deafened the squirrel. All the while, Buck's tail was going in a wide, wild circle, looking like a propeller that would at any second lift him off the ground rump first. Meanwhile, back in the woodpile and just out of reach, the squirrel fanned the flames by chattering at Buck every time he showed the slightest sign of giving up. Buck, therefore, constantly had scabs on his nose because he didn't give them time to heal before he would tear them off again.
     Buck never learned that he couldn't get the squirrel, which reminded me of a beautiful Scottish Highland Collie I knew while I was working on a ranch in Colorado. Her name was Bonnie, and she had a certain jackrabbit that she tried all one winter to catch. The rabbit lived by one of the haystacks from which I got hay to feed cattle. It used an abandoned badger burrow as refuge every time Bonnie went after it. The amusing thing was that the burrow had a back door, which Bonnie never figured out. So the rabbit ran in the front door and right out the back, where it stopped and sat watching Bonnie, who, with her head and shoulders stuck in the front door, was barking herself hoarse. After watching Bonnie long enough to make sure it was safe, the rabbit hopped away, leaving Bonnie with her head in the ground.
     It was February 1968, and my father was in the hospital dying of cancer. My mother was going to sell the house and move when my father died, but couldn't deal with Buck. And I couldn't take him with me. Buck who by then was 14 years old, deaf, and stiff with arthritis in his hind legs, would have no one to care for him. So, I knew it was time for him to join his ancestors--and his brother, shot while still a pup for killing chickens. And yes, I remembered my promise to Xerxes. It was some days, however, before I could deal with it.
     I'd trained Buck to obey both voice commands and hand signals so we could hunt together without making noise. Such silent training proved to be invaluable in Buck's later years, because, even though he was deaf and stiff and spent most of his time sleeping outside in the sun, as soon as I strapped on my pistol, went to the car, and motion, "Buck, come," you'd have thought that the years had fallen away and he was again a young dog. His pains seems to disappear as he trotted to the car and climbed in.


Buck when he was fourteen years old.

     So one day in February we went to the top of Marys Peak, the highest peak in the Coast Mountains. We had spent many days in bygone years living off the land on Marys Peak, sleeping in our huts. Now, we set off for a walk through the grassy meadow crowning the peak and through the forest surrounding it.
     It was a most beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon on the mountain--a day like the whole month of February seemed to be every year when I was a boy. The breezes, rising from the valleys surrounding the mountain, were balmy and gentle. The sky was a deep, clear blue, and far to the east were the snow-capped peaks of the High Cascades. This high, mountain world had an odor of Winter dying and of Spring birthing, although both were still in the future. But that afternoon, the world rested in perfection.
     Time passed swiftly, as only time can, and with the sun beginning to set over the Pacific Ocean, which I saw as a golden ribbon, I heard Buck barking a little way down the mountain side. I knew from the sound that he was at a magnificent little waterfall next to which we had often sat in days of yore, and he was waiting there for me.
     I sat next to him, and together we watched the sun set over the ocean. Just as the last rays fad beyond the horizon, I unobtrusively pull out my pistol, quietly cocked the hammer, slowly slipped the muzzle behind his left ear, and gently squeezed the trigger. Buck dropped to the ground, blood oozing from his ear and trickling from his nose. The red river of his live mingled with the water and plunged over the falls.
     Buck went from life to death with no pain by the hand of the person he most loved and trusted, but my agony began. With unbelievable despair and grief, I stood up and, in a pit of desperation, emptied my pistol blindly into his lifeless body, for I could no long see through my tears well enough to aim. "Xerses, I've kept my promise to you, but I feel like I've just murdered Buck, which is almost more than I can bear. Now you're both gone. I didn't know I could feel so empty and alone."
     I don't know how long I sat by his body, but it was dark when I left him at the head of the waterfall we'd found so many years ago and about which only we knew. We'd worked our way up the stream's treacherous little canyon from the bottom, only to find our way blocked by the waterfall. It had then taken us hours to find a way up the waterfall's cliff to the top. Once there, we'd followed the stream to its source, and over the years, by starting at the stream's source, we could find our way down to the waterfall.
     "Buck, how can I ever say 'Thank you' for all the miles of trails we shared over the years; all the sunrises and sunsets; all the clear, warm, sunny days and starry nights, all the stormy days and nights in our huts? How can I thank you for being there when no one else was? How can I tell you how much I love you, when I have no words? Do you know how much I love you? Oh, Buck. . . Buck. . ."
     I couldn't grieve for the loss of Buck and the irreplaceable years his departure represented. And I couldn't grieve for having killed him because I didn't know how. So, as I'd been forced to do all my life in order to just survive at home, I stuffed my feelings of terrible pain and guilt. Then one night in 1969, I had a dream in which I kill Buck again, and I awoke crying uncontrollably and yelling "I'm a murderer; I'm a murderer." I cried for hours before all the feelings of grief and guilt spend themselves, and I was finally at peace for having loved Xerxes and Buck enough to keep my promise to Xerxes.
     Although I've been on Marys Peak a number of times since I shot Buck, I've never gone back to the waterfall, and today I could no longer find it. But in my mind's eye, I can still see us sitting side by side at the edge of the rushing water atop of our favorite waterfall as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.
     These few episodes represent but a glimpse into the lives of two animals I love with all my heart. I have written more about Buck, because the proverbial story of a boy and his dog is true. We were inseparable and spent many days together, just the two of us, in the forests and high country of the Pacific Northwest--days I'll always remember.


© chris maser 2002. All rights reserved.

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