The old man in the beaver skin cowboy hat moved toward Loki, looking just to the side with his hand extended. Folks who understand dogs know you don’t look them in the eye right way — might lead to a misunderstanding.
Loki and I sat on the restaurant patio, close by the entrance — not quite in the way, but close.
“You’re a good dog,” said the cowboy conversationally. He was tall as a ponderosa and moved with an easy grace under the cloak of age.
Loki stood alertly, furry ears swiveled forward, with the suggestion of a wag of his furry tail. Loki’s a husky, way overdressed in Payson. I wasn’t going to ever have another dog, out of respect for Lobo — my soulmate of a wolf hybrid. But the kids had pressed Loki on me after a Chinese exchange student discovered she couldn’t take him home to China. Lord knows what the furry beast would have done in China. The girls figured I needed a dog — and Loki needed winter on the East Verde.
Loki immediately set to colonizing my heart, with his wicked smarts, his alert attention and his appreciation of a good scratch behind the ears. He’s independent and a natural born thief, but he leans into petting in the most satisfying manner. Besides, he’s the most articulate dog I ever met — carrying on elaborately modulated conversations on issues like dinner time, walk time and where-the-heck-you-been.
The old man ruffled the silky black and white fur between Loki’s oversized ears, each able to point in different directions to echo-locate mice in the long grass.
“That’s a handsome dog,” said the cowboy. “Reminds me of Rex,” he added wistfully.
So, we got to talking.
Bob’s 82 and spent most of his life raising cattle and ranching.
Once upon a time, he had 160 acres and a grazing permit. Now, he’s down to an acre and mostly putters about. He’s had three wives, raised his family, made big mistakes, taken the blows. He’s lived a long, eventful, honorable life of hard work and consequences. He’s learned to take a fall, get up and get to work.
Now he’s got that wry, self-mockery of a self-made man with his fair share of wins and losses, like the patina on an old, gold pocket watch. He’s doesn’t have regrets — exactly. More like a tendency to laugh ruefully about all the dumb things he’s done.
And after all that long life, he still gets misty eyed about Rex — the German shepherd who saved him 50 years ago.
Bob grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Missouri, doing hard work for a hard man. His stepfather was a drunk who beat Bob just for the hell of it. Bob does not say this with any particular heat and certainly no trace of self-pity. Beatings come to you, like tornadoes and hard frosts. You just take them and move on.
But his stepfather was a long piece of bad luck. He’d get drunk and take some irrational offense and order Bob to come over and bend over for his beating — sometimes administered with a stick. No sense complaining about it: That’s just the way of the world.
Bob used to ramble, partly to see what he could find out there. Partly to stay out of his stepfather’s way.
Rex lived on the ranch next door.
Those two hit it off — the 12-year-old boy with his bruises and the 100-pound dog with his canines. They’d roam around. Ranch boys and ranch dogs don’t pay much mind to fences once they get the chores done.
Rex started loping off to find Bob next door at odd hours of the day and night. So the fellow who owned the ranch next door finally brought Rex over.
“Here you go,” he told the boy. “You might as well have him.”
So Rex and Bob partnered up.
Now, here’s an odd thing that happened.
Rex adopted that boy as his own. And soon after Rex moved in, the dog was laying on the floor when Bob’s stepfather came barreling back from town, drunk and nasty.
The man’s malevolent eye fell on Bob, who looked away, tensing for the beating. The stepfather glared and looked around for a stick as he advanced on the boy.
Rex stood up and let loose a long, low, rumbling growl.
The stepfather stopped and stared at the dog.
Every hair on Rex’s back stood straight up. Bob noticed for the first time that Rex had wild eyes, predator eyes, gleaming.
The stepfather sized up his chances. Bullies will do that.
“Worthless, stupid kid,” the man muttered, brushing past the boy and on into the house.
He never laid a hand on Bob again.
Well, that was more than half a century ago.
Bob lost Rex after about 10 years. Best friend ever. He reeled off a whole string of Rex stories, as he ruffled the hair on Loki’s head. Bob’s got three dogs on his ranch now. Good dogs, you know. Hell, they’re all good dogs. But they’re no Rex.
Loki lay down at Bob’s feet.
We just laughed and talked while my eggs got cold.
Maybe that’s why I love Rim Country so.
Folks here understand dogs.