Gus getting belly scratches in his glory days.
Halloween is only a few weeks away. Spooks, goblins, ghosts and jack-o-lanterns adorn houses all over in anticipation of trick-or-treaters. Suspected paranormal activities and plain old hooliganism makes the news. And I’m haunted by a dead dog.
Not just any canine corpse, but our neighbors’ beloved English Springer Spaniel, Gus.
The fall is always a time for picking up trash here at the farm. The leaves are falling off the trees and the underbrush has been browsed down by the goats. In the crisp autumn mornings after chores, I walk through the pines and pastures picking up the trash that the wind has blown on to the farm throughout the year.
Plastic bags, paper plates, potato chip bags—I’d hit the mother lode as I filled my plastic pale with assorted wrappers and faded packaging sticking up through the carpet of drying leaves. Tromping through the pine trees, I stepped on something squishy.
An aged tennis ball. Gus.
When we moved to the farm eight years ago, Gus was the first sentient being to officially greet us. He bounded across the road, his entire body wiggling with anticipation of sniffing the butts of the new mutts on the block. The ringlets of his pale liver and white coat giggled as he snorted vigorously with those scent-catching jowls, never once showing a hit of aggression. An intact male, he peed on my tire, but my two spayed females barely gave it a glance. We met his owners soon thereafter and everyone, including Gus, became openly welcome in our home throughout the years.
Gus was an everyday staple in our lives. Each morning he would head down into the woods behind the barn for his morning constitution. His owner joked that was less dog poop for him to pick up or hit with the lawn mower.
When hunting season rolled around every year, good ol’ Gus was in his element. He flushed out many a ringnecks in the local State Gamelands that ended up on my table. I had many scrumptious meals thanks to Gus.
Believe it or not, around here they actually stock pheasants. The morning after the opening of pheasant season one year I heard Gus's high-pitched whimpering. There he stood in his front yard trembling and looking at me in anticipation. I thought something was terribly wrong with him until a flash of color in another neighbor’s yard caught my eye. There stood a ringneck cockbird and two hens. Gus was ready to go and eagerly awaiting the command to flush his quarry.
“Get ‘em,” I whispered. He exploded in the direction of the birds sending them into the sky. He pranced on his hind legs waiting for the shot, but I realized that I had let him down. There would be no feathered prize today. Feeling guilty, I fed him a patty of organic grass-fed ground beef as a consolation.
Over the years, Gus became our surrogate dog as my own dogs, an elderly shepherd mix and Whippet crossed over the Rainbow Bridge. But time spares no one and the years took their toll on Gus as well. Even after his hearing was long gone, his coat had begun to fade and the cataracts were clouding his eyes, Gus lived for retrieving tennis balls. He would tirelessly chase the green balls for as long as anyone would throw them.
Warm summer nights, our neighbors and us would share a cold beer while sitting in their garage, all of us taking turns firing the saliva-drenched balls out across the lawn. Rarely a day went by that I didn’t toss Gus a tennis ball at least once. Going out early in the morning to do chores, Gus was always there, ball in mouth, waiting for a few tosses before I began feeding my hungry mouths.
But then one day Gus didn’t want to cross the road anymore. He was going blind. Even with the loss of his hearing and sight, he still had his nose. As long as the tennis balls were in his yard, he’d seek them out and find his way back to me, although slowly. Slower and slower he got until one day he didn’t want to play anymore. From there, it wasn’t long until the neighbors showed up at my door one night with tears in their eyes.
“Gus is gone.”
He wasn’t my dog, but he felt like it sometimes. I’d let him hang out in the house and watch TV with me in the evenings when his family went out of town and I had agreed to feed and water him. When another neighbor’s dogs attacked him, I carried him bleeding to my truck and drove him immediately to the veterinarians’ office. Even when he killed one of my Araucana hens I couldn't fault him since it did look like a pheasant.
It’s been a few years since Gus has passed away. When I’m walking through the pines and come across a tennis ball, I know that it's Gus haunting me, in a good way.