Cowboy, our big yellow dog, the mutant labrador, the dainty little waif who talks like Chewbecca and steals hearts like a master thief: Cowboy is no longer a young dog. Tonight, after a weekend in Nowheresville, he lays at my feet. Occasionally he moans. If I talk to him, he answers in what could best be called a wail. It wasn’t such a tough weekend for him, comparatively, but every weekend of physical activity is hard now. The temperature stayed cool, which helped, and we walked more than ran, which did, too, but the end result was the same: an old arthritic dog heavy on his feet and feeling the passage of every day.
Once upon a time, Cowboy ruled the rainforest of St. Croix. He was master of his domain and pack of six dogs at Estate Annaly. He ate up the 10-mile runs with Eric and me along Scenic Road overlooking North Shore on the West End of the island. He lived the life, man, he lived the life. He had his own swimming pool out back and pond out front, with trips to the beach every weekend. He regularly made the magic hike up the stream to Caledonia Springs. How could it get any better?
Then we moved him to Houston, to a city-sized backyard whose ponds were barely deep enough for wading. He was little more than a captive there. “Don’t worry,” we told him, “we promise this isn’t the end. We’ll find you a new home to rival Annaly, someday.” He wagged his vase-breaking bass drum mallet of a tail in understanding. He trusted us to make it right.
Oftentimes, though, we would pull up in our driveway to see his huge mournful head behind the bars of the gate, only his long nose sticking out. Even if he went for a run, it was on a leash, feet pounding the concrete. Years passed this way. He made the best of it. He held it in. But he had lost so much, and the clock ticked forward steadily.
We bought 16 acres in Nowheresville, a beautiful place. He would cry with joy when we pulled the old Suburban up to its gates. From our earliest days there, though, it was clear he had lost a step. The charm of the place wore thin after a few hours. He’d limp around on city paws. He would stay curled up in the shade rather than join Layla in a game of Chase-the-Suburban or in one of her forest explorations. He lost in a fight with a water mocassin, although even that couldn’t stop him for long.
We plan to build our someday house there and make a permanent move when our youngest child Susanne graduates from high school, Susanne as in the Dog Whisperer, as in Cowboy’s best friend. Only one problem though: Cowboy will be nearly 14 years old by then, which is 98 in normal dog years, and nigh impossible in giant mutant labrador years.
Only a few months ago, we had allowed him to join us on a 7-mile run. It was 6:30 a.m., but it was summertime Texas. 90-degrees and humidity were too much for him. He crawled under our Suburban, which we had parked at the halfway point, and lapped up all the water and ice out of our open cooler. Layla galloped along beside us. He watched, making no sound, licking his sore paws, and panting in the heat. Another time that same summer when we had left the Suburban at our trailer aka the Quacker, he simply laid down in the road and would go no further, three long miles from home. We had no way to help him except to continue on without him back to our vehicle, then return to cart him home. We found him one and a half miles from our property, laying in the muddy bottoms of a nearly-dried up pond. Eric coaxed him back to the Suburban and lifted his limp, stank, and steamy 125-pound body waist high and into the truck bed.
And just last weekend, he had stumbled along in the loamy trail behind me, behind Layla the “canine muscle” and accomplished runner, who was in turn lagging well behind Petey, the 16-pound distance terrier who had churned out the canine-equivalent of a ten mile run to our five on two consecutive days over the Christmas holidays. Petey, the dog I had thought too small to run more than a mile or two with us. Petey, with his one eye and giant swagger, was, in a twist of fate so painfully ironic that the angels wept, the heir apparent to the kingdom of the giant yellow dog who had stolen Petey’s eye. To the home Cowboy was to have at Nowheresville, the home that should have replaced his beloved Annaly but maybe never will. Layla will grow old there. Petey will spend his prime there, a runty little dog no match for a coyote or wild pig. But Cowboy, who in his best days could have kicked the coyotes’ ass and still had enough left in him to give the hog a thrashing? These shorts visits may be all he has.
For Cowboy, the dog that ran rings around life and all of us on St. Croix, is running out of time.
So, God, my God and the God of all creatures great and small, if I could ask for just one thing of you for our old friend: Please let him stay with us long enough to spend peaceful evenings in front of a Nowheresville fireplace, knowing he has made it full circle back to the promised land of a home fit for a kingly beast, a real home at last.