Signatures



Every morning, as soon as Penny stirred, Hope stretched and yawned and went to her sleeping bag and put his nose within a millimeter of her cheek and smelled whether she was awake. If she slept, he grunted and laid back down again. If she was awake, he licked her cheek, just once, and laid down and thumped his tail against her sleeping bag.

While she struggled into her clothes, he sniffed around the area, tail held high, reading all the messages posted since last night. SICK, OLDER DOG, WATCH OUT, one said. YOUNG NERVOUS DOG--BEWARE, said another. YOUNG LADY IN HER PRIME . . . and so forth. He overlapped a few messages of his own. DEVIL-MAY-CARE YOUNG DOG SEEKS LOVE AND ADVENTURE. That was Hope's customary signature.

Some mornings fog coiled among the gypsy encampment, blurring the outlines of the motor homes, the rows of pickup campers. A door would bang open and two or three dogs would hurtle out into the morning, and several would charge straight at Hope in a brusk and determined manner. Hope's hackles would rise and he'd stand fast until the other dogs were quite close before circling them, which is part threat (hindquarters being relatively undefended) and part politeness. The dog who stands straight and doesn't circle is itching for a fight.

Hope knew these dogs. Knew Ethel Conrad's crotchety old Tess and Bill Berhow's joking dog, Nick. Knew Barbara Ligon's quick Mirk and Roy Johnson's devoted Rosco.

Once the introductions were made, ("And how art thou, this morning?") dogs would provoke a chase and bound away full tilt, under the RV's, around the outskirts of the course, running because they were made for it, created by God for that purpose, and they had the joy of it in their legs, their dogginess in their dodge, their sheer pleasure at a new day.

Suddenly, Hope would be overtaken by a reminder from his own innards that he was full, full to bursting and he'd find a bush or some tall grass where he could squat safe with no one watching him, man or dog.

Though he and Bute traveled together, saw more of each other than any other dog, they weren't pals. When Bute came out of the crate in the pickup, he checked the other dogs' calling cards but was indifferent to all but bitches in heat. Bute's calling card read: BAD TO THE BONE. Once, out in Oklahoma, a young dog, startled by Bute's sudden appearance, lunged at him. Bute couldn't have been more astonished if he'd been hit by a meteor. He ran away and made fifteen yards, encouraging the young dog to a foolish pursuit. Then, he turned and threw the young dog over and held him by the throat and the young dog sobered instantly, the fight light going out of his eyes. "Sorry," he whispered. "Sorry." Bute considered killing him, but killing other dogs was not his work, so with a final growl, he stalked off and returned to the pickup, where Ransome had filled his bowl for breakfast.

From time to time, Hope offered to play with Bute, dropped down into the inviting puppy crouch that means: "After you, Gaston," or "After me, Alphonse," but Bute sneered and went about his business.

Like some humans, Bute came alive at his work, had displaced his soul into work. Once Hope asked Bute what he thought about Ransome: "He is the best there is," Bute said.

Before eight o'clock, the sun would burn off the fog, handlers would gather near the judge to hear his instructions and the faint sound of whistles on the course announced that men were putting out sheep. The dogs were tied beside the vehicles, and all day they'd doze, listening to whistles and commands on the course until their turn came.
Donald McCaig, Nop's Hope, pages 117-19

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