Nelson nuzzled against my neck and licked me.
“Good morning, friend. Are you hungry?”
The sun shone through the window and hurt my eyes. I sat up and scratched at my scruffy hair, pushing out of my eyes. “It’s that late, huh? Damn, I slept in, didn’t I?”
Nelson wagged his thick tail and sat up too. He yawned and smiled his happy smile when my feet hit the cabin floor. He trotted after me and watched as I lit a fire first time round. I put the pan on for my coffee and reached for his bowl. Thump. Thump. I poured out kibble and threw on the leftover beef stew from the other night. Thump. Thump.
He ate. I sipped coffee and watched the woodstove. It was a good start to a winter’s day.
OCTOBER: STACKING UP
Anne and Graham drove ahead of us in their Toyota truck, which was piled high with twenty or more straw-bales. The road dipped and curved and washed away in places but Mark followed happily, telling me about his day in Santa Fe. He’d been posting flyers about wanting to join a band and also how he could help with the promotion side of things. He’d got into conversation with a couple of women who’d taken his new business card.
“Did you tell them about moving here with me?”
He grinned. “Oh no, of course not. I want the work, right? I reckon the one from New Orleans will call me next week; she’s in a local country band and wants to set up a tour in Tennessee and beyond. She has money too, or that’s my impression. Not a bad start to the new business is it?”
“That’s great, Mark, you’ll be good at it. And I’ll be getting some extra shifts now as one of the other baristas is pregnant and wants to cut back. Where did you end up going?”
Mark talked of coffee shops, bars, restaurants, a couple of used music and bookstores, and he’d even found a college on the south side of town. Mark was proud as punch.
The road veered off to the left, and we all pulled up at the rescue. Louisa was expecting us and had opened the gate in advance. I let Frida out but she jumped back in when I wasn’t looking. We drove up the slight hill and back past her cabin to the barn. Anne pulled over at the first gate and stepped out, Graham climbed down moments later with his bottle of water in hand as usual. He didn’t look so happy to be here. Anne had hardly spoken to the poor man when we’d gone to town to pick up the bales. Mark and he had wandered around the Feed store, admiring tools, and chatting away happily together. Anne had been all business with me, not her usual self.
Louisa walked up, her tanned arms highlighted by a dirty white tee shirt and pale blue jeans. She smiled widely and stretched out her arms.
“This is great. How did you get so many?”
My Subaru had two bales strapped to the roof and another three inside. Frida had ridden on my lap, much to her delight. Anne gave Louisa a hug and talked about Andrew’s health, and of course the upcoming event.
“You’ll be there, won’t you?” I asked as I pulled on my straw-hat.
Anne glanced at me and shook her head, “it’s not really Louisa’s thing is it?”
Louisa laughed. “I may surprise you yet, Anne. Don’t go telling me what I do and don’t do.”
They grinned at each other and the normally taciturn dog-whisperer chatted up a storm with her friend. I followed along as they walked over to the dog runs. The fenced area stood some hundreds of feet long and wide, with tee-posts and wire taller than me. Inside the yard ran ten of the biggest dogs, the newest ones to the rescue.
“Until they get used to being here, in the pack and on the land, I tend to keep them in here. It gives them a sense of home for a while and they can watch the others come when called, be fed, and find a routine. I have another run over there specifically for one on one training sessions. That’s what we do most mornings.”
I looked around fascinated. Mark had been a few times but I always met her and the dogs in town. This was a first for me. Louisa strode off to get back to work in the backfield, away from us. Ten or more of the dogs ran after her, sniffing at her heels and I heard her talking back to them, calling them by name. I turned in a circle admiring the work and the amount of thought that had gone into everything. There was a small wooden cabin near by with a screened in porch and a tunnel leading to a fully enclosed small fenced yard. For the little dogs that occasionally come here, Anne explained, it was for the aged poodles and numerous Chihuahuas that get dumped once no longer cute and more likely cranky in old age.
“Let’s go unload the bales over here, okay? Where are the men?”
Graham and Mark had disappeared down into the valley; we could hear them talking away.
“Typical, he always finds reasons to avoid the physical work.” Anne grumbled to herself on the walk back to the truck. She passed me some gloves. She climbed up and started to toss bales at me near me. I waited until Anne pointed me in the direction of a wheelbarrow.
“We’re taking these bales into the yard over there, and stacking them to make some shelters for the winter. Three long and two high. I’ll help you out in a minute.” She yelled down to me as she cut the ropes and worked her way through the pile.
I carried two bales at a time in the barrow and tried not to tip over. The path was gravel and none too easy to push on. I started on the first shelter when my friend, the husky came to say hello. I knelt down and he leaned against me, licking my sweaty arm.
“This is for you this winter, my friend. Want to help?”
His ears flicked forward and I stood back up. “Come on, Nelson, follow me.”
He wandered along side me, ignoring a black lab that wanted to play with him. Frida came over and I watched as they sniffed each other out and began to wag cautiously. I hauled more bales and fixed up one shelter, but for the roof. What was I meant to do for that? I’d kept one side completely open so the dogs could lie there and watch the road down below. Mark walked up as I took a break. He grinned widely. Ah, stoned again, that made sense. Graham and Anne came over with another bale each. She stacked them across the top of my new shelter by using lumber to give structure and strength to the little buildings. She checked out the direction and agreed that having a view of the driveway and the home was important for the dogs to feel safe and included.
“The spring winds come from over that hill, so the next doghouse can take that into consideration, okay? We’ll orient it to face the East.”
I nodded, impressed by how tactful she was. Louisa called out to us from the barn.
“Do you need any water? Lemonade?”
Anne strode off with Mark following her smiling but saying little. He had the munchies, I could tell. They walked over to the house and all went inside.
“Did she tell you?”
“Tell me what? Who? Louisa?” I turned to face Graham.
He shook his head and sipped from his water. “No, Anne. She’s kicking me out, or we’re talking about it. She’s talking about it like it’s a done deal, but – ”
I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say. “Separating? You’re separating? But why?”
He shook his head slowly. “I shouldn’t have said anything, I guess. But I didn’t want you to think badly of me.”
We wandered over to an unfinished doghouse. I sat down and he stood there, his bottle hanging loosely. He stared over to the house. Frida and Nelson lay in the shade together, close but not touching. They both watched me carefully. The sun beat down on me but I felt I had to listen to him talk.
“She accused me of having an affair. I’m not. Not really anyway.”
I sat and listened. Graham talked as if to himself. I’d wished Mark would hurry back. Anne. The dogs. Someone.
“She thinks it’s the new volunteer but it’s not. I like her, sure, we go out and check the back roads together, but there’s nothing more than that. Not really,” he repeated.
I didn’t know what to say or to do. I did nothing. He talked of another woman in town, a musician, someone else that Anne suspects of sleeping with her husband. He kept saying it was nothing, not really. He described going out of town for a day trip with the new friend, and how when he got back from hiking in the mountains, Anne had been waiting for him at the tavern. They’d had plans for dinner and he was late. He’d invited the friend to join them.
“It didn’t go over too well, with either of them.”
“Well, what were you thinking?” I blurted out loud.
He flinched. “It’s not like we’re monogamous or anything. Anne and me, we’re best friends, friends with benefits. You know? Right?” he turned to me with his wide eyes and the innocent little insecure smile and I saw how easily he could get whatever he wanted. I don’t like Lost Boys though.
I shrugged. “No, not really. Mark and I, well, we’re not into playing around. I don’t need to. He’s happy. We’re both happy, I guess. I can’t imagine being with anyone else. So what happened?”
Graham finally sat down with his back against a straw-bale and told me of a fight when they’d got home. She’d been jealous. He’d spent the last week, trying to do his best by all of them. He carried on and on but I saw Mark beckoning us over to the porch. I stood up.
“Drinks.” I practically tripped over myself to get away.
“What’s that about?” Mark whispered as I hugged him tightly.
“I’ll tell you later, promise. Just keep next to me, okay?” I watched as Graham came up. I prodded Mark and he spoke.
“Oh, hey, Graham, Anne’s got you a glass in the kitchen. We’ll be there in a minute.”
Graham thanked him and walked past me, giving me a small sad smile as he took off his boots and headed in to his wife. I leaned back and coughed first and then giggled.
“My god, what a mess. Have I got a story for you when we get home.”
He passed me the lemonade and I drank deeply before finding an armchair to claim as my own. Mark joined me and sat near by. He raised his eyebrows but said nothing and I shook my head. I pointed at the dogs instead.
Frida and Nelson had come out into the sunny courtyard following me over when one of them began to run in circles, nipping and barking. Frida yelped once and sank to her belly, tail wagging, and suddenly they were off, running and chasing each other through the trees, cars, trucks, straw-bales, ladders, and even the other sleeping dogs. They were oblivious of everything but speed, with Frida taking shortcuts and catching Nelson under the one tall pinion tree two or three times. Mark and I sat watching in amazement at Frida playing so easily, and we laughed loudly, cheering them both on. I finished my drink and chewed on the ice.
Frida lost steam first and came bouncing over to us, panting wildly, her ears flopping and tail gently wagging back and forth. Nelson wandered closer to Mark and licked his hand once before collapsing in a happy heap at his feet. Frida joined me, sprawling her little terrier body over my boots. The dogs panted in unison. I sat back and relaxed.
“Come on. We need to get this done.”
Anne walked over to us and kicked my boots gently. “Come on lazy bones, only ten more bales to move, and I offered to stack some of the wood closer to the house. What do you say?”
“Well, thank you doesn’t pop to mind, but okay, let’s go. Where’s Graham?”
She grinned. “He’s helping Louisa out back, raking the dog yard. A perfect job for him right now.”
Mark laughed uneasily and stood up. “Well, ladies, I think I’ll help you both instead of joining him. Gloves anyone?”
We threw bales into the wheelbarrows and raced each other back and forth, trying to build a second shelter in half an hour. Anne found more pieces of random lumber and laid them across the bales for a roof to rest upon. She tore one bale into pieces, stuffing the ground inside both for more insulation. Frida and Nelson watched but didn’t help this time. Mark got into the spirit of things and wanted us to go fetch another load for the other dogs. Anne shook her head.
“One thing at a time. If Louisa felt we were taking over, she’d throw a fit and the fundraiser would be a waste of time. She’d not accept a cent if she got her back up. This is enough for now. Next month maybe?”
Mark nodded. “I get it. Once a month we could help out, bring stuff and work, is that what you’re thinking?”
Anne told him about watching Louisa’s rescue grow over the years, with one more dog at a time, and how her income is shot now, what with no more movies –
“Yeah, didn’t you know? Louisa, she was a producer in LA with her husband as the director. They were quite the team for a while there.” Anne looked around. “She doesn’t talk about him anymore, but they were married thirty-one years before he left her. You never know, do you? You just never know what will happen.”
Anne turned back to the dogs at her heels and I glanced at Mark. He shrugged and winked. I smiled nervously. I whispered to him, “Is this what small town life is like? Divorces and separations and affairs?”
“I don’t know, Jenny. We’d better not get married, eh? Anyway, I like waking up and saying Good Morning, Girlfriend.”
I laughed quietly, “you’d better.” I tugged at my hat and stood with my back to the sun. My arms ached. One good thing though, I noticed that my lovely pink skin had turned copper. I had a tan. Finally, I had a tan. Wait until I told my mom.
Anne knelt down and stroked one of the older male dogs, he was belly up and smiling at her. His dark brown chocolate fur was covered in dust and the tail stirred up yet more. I began to sneeze.
Louisa stirred up the coals on a barbeque and Mark waited next to her holding a plate of onions, garlic, and zucchini all thinly sliced. The hotdogs were kept out of temptations way in the cooler at his feet. He held an open beer for them both. Louisa poked once more and laughingly gave him some space. They chatted easily about all kinds of things, projects to be done, priorities of hers, mostly though she taught him how to think of this lifestyle as a process. I’d noticed that we both got caught up in our lists and deadlines. Then we’d come visit Anne and Graham, or with Louisa, and suddenly the idea of taking ten years to make a dream home wasn’t as overwhelming. It made sense. To me.
“I’d always wanted to live in the mountains, I just pictured tall trees, and creeks and wild flowers, not this high desert and dogs.”
Louisa stretched out her long legs and we watched as a few of the dogs decided to give chase to the birds. Ravens flew down near us, settled on a low hanging branch, talked to whoever was nearest, and then sprang into the air with only seconds to spare. Over and over, they messed with the pups, squawking happily.
“They do this all the time. I think the ravens are deliberately playing this game. They’re having fun, aren’t they?”
They were too; they were playing with those clumsy canines. I grinned at the thought. I looked around us. Frida had followed her new friend over to the Subaru and they’d crashed out underneath in the shade. Mark asked again about the fundraiser despite Anne’s shaking head. He wanted to know how best he could help on the day. She wanted to avoid the subject.
“Are we still doing the adoption event in the afternoon? Do you need my help?”
Louisa passed him the mushrooms and corn to grill before answering. Anne gave him a furious look but he ignored her and handed Louisa her bottle of beer. Graham had gone home already, but Anne wanted to drive back with us. Perhaps she wished she’d gone already? She held back from saying anything to Mark and waited nervously. She was so protective of her friendship with Louisa that it made me wonder why. Louisa stood up and looked at her pack of dogs. All thirty of them roamed free, but for the three small guys up safely ensconced in their own run. She checked on where shy sweet Nelson was and then looked back to me.
“What do you think? Would it be a good idea? We don’t have the volunteers who know these dogs. Jenny?”
I sipped the water and took a moment. “Yeah, let’s do it. We can ask a few people to commit an hour or so, and I’ll be there for one dog at least. Who else can we ask?”
Anne piped up that she could round up three others and would that be enough?
“Yes, I don’t like bringing more than four or five at a time. We’ll bring Nelson, and Cadbury and his sister Twix, the labs you were petting earlier. I’ll try to think of who else is ready. Probably one of the small critters, that corgi mutt perhaps, and that albino pit mix, Angel, she’s a sweetie. Okay, let me organize it with the other volunteers in town. Maybe one or two of them would want to come out here since we won’t be in Santa Fe that weekend.”
“When’s everything starting?”
“Four or so is what I was thinking. The yard sale and the adoption, perhaps we should begin that at two and end at five though.” Anne offered her thoughts.
Mark talked about how he could come out to the land and prepare the dogs to come to Oliver, walk them to wear them out, that kind of thing. Midday for him. Two pm for us.
“The bands are planning on the first set at six, to catch the dinner crowd and keep them around. We’ve still got enough tourists passing through that the place will be packed. What else do we need to organize?” Anne pulled out her notebook before adding, “apart from another dinner?”
Mark looked down to find that the mushrooms had shriveled up and the zucchini blackened. The onions smelled great though.
“Oh, right. Hotdogs anyone?”