I was young in a time and place that, looking back, seems far away. In the next few paragraphs you will think of it as a harsher place and time, but it wasn’t. It was just different.
We were living on a farm on the prairie, a pretty place with wide gardens and open pastures. On late summer mornings our three small daughters would push thatches of hay through the corral fence slats feeding the weaning Jersey cow calves bleating for their mothers. Twice a week the kids would chase the chickens under the roost so that fresh eggs could be gathered. It was a good time and place for three little girls and a mother and father.
We had a dog, a puppy really, in dog years younger than our eldest girl, Lisa. His name was Casey. He was a farm pup. He was the runt of a litter. One day while visiting a nearby farm the kids pulled him out of the straw caked clay and begged to give him a chance at life. He slept in the shed or on a burlap mat curled beside our back door. In winter he rolled up into a ball with a barn cat. Despite sub zero temperatures neither would come into the house to sleep. They were outdoor animals. In their minds they weren’t owned by us, or anyone.
There were rules on the farm. Rules that kept animals fed, rules that kept kids safe, rules that kept parents secure in their knowledge that tonight, for that moment, all was well. One of the rules was that pets did not stray into livestock pens disrupting their routines. Farms run on routines. Animals need them, maybe people too, more than we like to acknowledge. The previous year a tenant on the farm had owned two huskies. Most dogs, when provided the opportunity, will revert back to the pack animals they came from. They are hunters. One night, under the cloak of darkness, their purpose clear and cold as the full October moon above them, they sniffed the still air and their instincts told them to run free, to no longer be someone’s pets. They killed over a hundred of the farmer’s chickens that night.
A year later we brought Casey home. I stood by the gate beside the idling tractor and told the silent farmer I would destroy the puppy if he ever showed signs of repeating this nightmare. Although life and death are common on a farm, taking of life is not celebrated as a trophy. It is part of the whole. Death is necessary for life to continue. We were men, two figures silhouetted against a darkening sky. We both fell silent for a time, looking across the landscape to the horizon. We shook hands and parted that night, an uneasiness settling around us.
Casey had been raised to follow along down to the paddock, trailing behind the kids to feed the chickens and fetch home the fresh eggs, or just to run and explore the many hidden places close by. This was something he had done from the first week he was with us. Several months later our phone rang late one afternoon and I was told that Casey had killed some chickens, maybe ten in all. Why, no one will ever know, perhaps boredom, perhaps mischief? The familiar voice on the phone paused, coughed softly to clear his throat, and quietly intoned what had to be done. Did I want him to do it? I mumbled “no” that Casey was ours. It was my job. That evening months before, up at the gate, we had shook hands on it.
I took my rifle from its case and walked the short distance around the farmyard, across the paddock to the narrow space where the scrub willows bunched up close to the back of the barn. I leaned against the loading chute leading up to the hay loft. I remember the loft doors were open, the barn swallows darting in and out. Casey followed, as he did every time I walked the property. It was his way of staying close to me. I stood and slipped four bullets into the clip of the rifle. Casey sat by my knee watching, expectantly sniffing the air. I pushed the magazine into place and released a bullet into the chamber. I patted the dog’s head and whispered how sad I was that he was who he was and I was who I was and that we had both found ourselves in this sorry situation. A Killdeer called from across the stubble field. The barley had been poor that year, the wet crop taken off early. I remember this because we worried for the children with so many large sloughs of standing water pock marking the range. A local kid had drowned. I raised the gun and fired one blunt round into the back of Casey’s head. He yelped and tumbled forward, his head held down scraping along the dirt of the yard trying to clear the confusion and fear from his brain. I stood rigid, the rifle pressed hard into my shoulder.
Looking back now, over forty years ago, I still see him and feel the deadening sense of betrayal from us both. I should have left him to run until he dropped, far from that place, far from me. I remember the wind stirring up a dust devil across the way, churning itself around in a frenzied circle, like a pet chasing its tail.
I called to him. He scrambled to my side, looking to me for help, protection. The second report from the gun rattled off the fence rails out across the yard, swallowed within the silent fields beyond.
Back then I was obedient to a code, and he was obedient to a blind trusting love. Maybe unquestioned faith and honour aren’t the virtues we make them out to be? They didn’t serve either of us well that day.
There are rules on a farm.