Sherman in the Snow

April 13, 2009 § 2 Comments


It always snows on Easter in Montana. It doesn’t matter if there’s been a deluge of warm spring days. It doesn’t matter if it’s an early Easter, or a late one as it was that year. The weather gods care not if the City Fire Department colored 3000 eggs for the annual Easter egg scramble (and why they go on doing that since it always snows is a mystery to me) the forecast for Easter is always snow, and that Easter was no different.

Finishing up the last of dishes from Easter lunch, I grinned as I watched out the window at our old Chesapeake Bay retriever playing in the snow. Pushing 16, Sherman’s enthusiasm for the weather made him seem a young dog again. He loved being outside, in water if at all possible. Snow seemed a reasonable second. He stuck his nose in the juniper bushes, dislodging a small avalanche onto his head. He rolled and gamboled through the drifts.

My husband and I are hound people, and when Sherman came to live with us we had a kennel full of rescued coonhounds. When you read, “kennel full” you should realize that means they were in the house too: on the sofa, under the kitchen table, underfoot and in the way, vying with our toddler son for attention. 

Six years before that Easter Sunday, Sherman was my mother’s project. Daily, she passed by a trailer court where a dull brown dog was endlessly tethered to a doghouse. One afternoon before Christmas, she stopped in at the trailer and inquired if she could visit with the dog. Yes, they said, she was welcome to play with the dog, his name was Sherman and by the way, they were looking for a good home for him, if she knew anyone that might be interested. 

The neighborhood children who teased him at the end of his chain marked Sherman’s life at the trailer park. He’d been maced a few times by the meter readers. His pelvis had been crushed when he was hit by a pickup, but the owner thought enough of the dog that he paid to have him put back together again. Sherman was seven years old, the owner thought, but he might be eight or nine, even.

Rescued dog stories are supposed to have happily-ever-after endings, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. My mother already had a big male dog, a middle-aged golden retriever named Gus. Sherman and Gus hated each other on sight.  Mom kept a couple of horses out at our farm and she brought the dogs out with her in the afternoons. Gus in the back seat and Sherman behind the barrier, snarling at each other the whole way. 

Sherman would romp in the dog yard with the coonhounds while our son Julian threw tennis balls for Gus out front.  Only two years old, Julian couldn’t toss the ball far, but Gus didn’t mind. He retrieved the tennis ball faithfully each and every time. Occasionally a passing adult would lob it a greater distance to reward the dog for his patience.

One afternoon the gate to the dog yard didn’t get quite closed. Sherman came charging around the front of the house, tangling with Gus, fighting with serious intent. Julian was knocked to one side, fell down and began to cry.  Hearing the fracas, my mother came running from the barn.  The dogs didn’t kill each other, but they could have, had they been allowed to continue.

I saw the question coming weeks before she actually asked. Did we think that Sherman could stay with us for a little while?  The dog’s temperament made me somewhat anxious. Julian was only two and not entirely sensible about dogs. Sherman was a sweet dog much of the time, but we agreed we couldn’t trust him around our son, not after the treatment he’d had from the kids in the trailer court.

“Okay,” I told my Mom. “He can stay here with us for awhile. We’ll see how it goes.” And for the most part, it went pretty well.  Sherman was a little grumbly at times, demanding to be fed or let out with something that seemed a lot like ferocity.  We were careful around him, taking pains to avoid confrontation, never leaving him unsupervised, trying to keep him in a place where he wouldn’t get himself into trouble.

“You cannot touch him when he is eating or sleeping,” we told Julian over and over, with great emphasis. But Sherman thought Julian was great, just the right size to have his faced licked, while Julian giggled hysterically.

“Not so fun to throw the ball for Sherman as Gus, Mommy,” Julian said to me one day.

“Why is that, Jules?” I asked calmly, though my blood ran cold. When had Julian been throwing the tennis ball for Sherman?

“Oh Daddy lemme throw ball some times but Sherman dunnit like to give back,” he answered matter-of-factly. “Gus always drop ball on my foot, and slimy.” 

It was poor judgment to try to remove anything from Sherman’s mouth, and being a retriever he almost always had something in his mouth. Socks, a toy dinosaur, Julian’s tennis ball, an ornament off the Christmas tree, pens, pencils, pocket calculators, bags of pasta.

He’s the only dog I’ve ever known that had a real yen for uncooked noodles. He’d sit in front of me while I was dropping spaghetti in a pot and beg for some. Left in the kitchen alone for just a few moments, he could open the cupboard, pull out a bag of egg noodles, consume half and leave the other half scattered across the kitchen floor in the two minutes I was gone.

In time we realized that Sherman would happily relinquish whatever treasure he had in his mouth for a dog biscuit. He was playing a game with us, of holding various objects ransom for a Milk Bone, and he’d trained us well.

Some nights, coming up hard on deadline, I often took Sherman with me when I went to the newspaper office. At first I took him because he looked and sounded ferocious enough to dissuade anyone who might show up with bad intentions. What I found is that he was good company, listening patiently while I read a story out loud looking for errors; sleeping peacefully when I needed to work without interruptions.

We’d had Sherman for two years when I took him with me up to a Forest Service cabin one October. I was working on a story about a long-lost route pioneers threaded through the mountains.  Sherman and I set off together in the little pickup truck, with the big brown dog riding shotgun for a few days in our own Walden.  Halfway up the mountain road, I stopped the truck and let him out to ride in the truck bed, driving ten miles an hour up the logging road to the cabin. He was ecstatic.

It was late afternoon when we arrived, and as I unlocked the door and pushed it open, Sherman rushed in, immediately seizing a box of rat poison left on the floor. I didn’t think about Sherman’s game. I didn’t think about his supposedly unpredictable nature. I put my hand straight down his throat and pulled that box of rat poison right out. He and I stood there and looked at each other, both of us just a little stunned.

I never again had a problem taking anything from Sherman’s mouth, though occasionally I would play along and give him a cookie for ransom.  He continued to buffalo the rest of the family for Milk Bones.

Sherman often slept beside our bed at night, and if I went to bed first, he would hop up in the bed next to me. When my husband came to bed, Sherman would growl at him. It sounded very convincing.  I had to get up, walk around to the other side of the bed, take him by the collar and say “Sherman, knock it off.” He’d grin up at me and clamber down off the bed, follow me around to my side and lie down on the floor.

Sherman and I often traveled together, retracing the steps of Lewis and Clark, covering the circuit of small town rodeos, searching out the western roots of long dead movie stars. He was an excellent companion. There’s something very nice about the loyalty of the sporting dog. Free from the tyranny of the nose that rules the hound, Sherman was happiest following alongside.

There were frequent inquiries: what kind of dog is that?  If you could cross a Labrador with a bear that might approximate the Chesapeake Bay retriever. Their coats rough and wavy, their bearing noble, their hearts deeply loyal. Generally polite, they can take awhile to warm up to strangers, but the devotion they show their owners knows no bounds. The bottom line for these dogs, for Sherman, is that he would give his life for mine.

In hotels and sheepherder wagons, forest service cabins and motor courts, when I lay down for the night, Sherman settled on the floor right next to the bed. He chose the spot where I’d have to put my feet should I get up while he was sleeping. He didn’t want me to slip away while he was in dreamland, and he stood between me and whatever went bump in the night.

Together we covered a lot of ground: up to British Columbia, along the Flathead lake shore, east to the plains, retrieving timbers from the Mighty Mo. We sat together atop a boulder in the Charles M. Russell National Wilderness Refuge having driven all day without seeing anyone. We went west to the Oregon coast, exploring lighthouses and rocky shorelines and the great wide sandy beach at Seaside. 

On the beach Sherman ran like a dog one quarter his age, crossing back and forth in and out of the surf. We shared cheeseburgers on the boardwalk, which meant trying to get his out of the bag and unwrapped before he ate it, and then trying to keep him out of my lap while I ate mine. He was certain I needed help with it.

Now, though, time was catching up with him. He had a persistent cough, not wracking, but there all the same. His vision was probably reduced to light and dark, basic shapes and forms. Sometimes you had to call him more than once.

“I need to take the old guy on one more road trip,” I thought, watching him playing in the late afternoon snow. Hanging up the dishtowel, I went to finish up a short article that was due on an editor’s desk in two days. Julian was sugared out on Easter candy, constantly appearing at my elbow to show me or ask me or tell me. His Dad was napping on the sofa in front of the television. 

When I heard the ticking stopwatch theme of “Sixty Minutes” I realized it was time to feed dogs. I scooped kibble into stainless dishes, and then stopped, a little panicky around the edges. Where was Sherman? It was long beyond dusk, and Sherman had not come in. I opened the door and called his name into the still and snowy landscape. Surely he was just curled up against the house, or sleeping in the barn. I expected his smiling face to appear in a rush before me.

“Sherman,” I called. There was not even a rustle in the darkness.

“Have you seen the dog?” I asked my husband.

“Which dog?”

“Sherman. He was playing outside earlier.  Did you let him in?”

“I thought I saw him….” My husband’s voice trailed off as he moved through the house, calling the dog’s name. I shrugged into my winter jacket, laced up my boots, found hat and mittens and a flashlight and went out.

The snow had stopped and before me the world sparkled, a wonderland of smooth white frosting in the moonlight.  There were dog tracks around the house, lots of them from his afternoon antics, but none went off in any particular direction.

“Sherman!” I called. The driveway was smooth with a deep cover of snow, unmarred by tracks of any sort. The ponies blinked at me sleepily as my flashlight beam found them dozing in a corner of the pasture. “Sherman!” The aspens whispered, but no brown dog came barreling out at me.

In the distance I could hear my husband calling “Sherman, Sherrrmmannnn” I crossed the bridge over the creek, but it too was covered with undisturbed snow. I found tracks on the other side: deer, a small padded track, maybe a weasel, maybe a barn cat; but nothing, nothing that could have been a dog.  There had to be something. If not tracks, then some other sign of a disturbance, a struggle, blood; but the fields of unblemished snow stretched out endlessly. 

“Sherman!” I called, sliding down an embankment, brushing the snow off my jeans.  What if he needed me? What if he was hurt somewhere and couldn’t answer me? I searched along the creek banks, peered into gullies, struggled through briars, tearing my coat.  “Damn,” I said, inspecting the tear. “Sherman, where are you?” To the south, in Farrell Lloyd’s pasture, cows shuffled in the night air, stirring sleepily. Nothing was amiss but my missing dog. 

Years ago, we lost a small dog in the brush. She trotted off one morning and was never seen again. Months later, another of our dogs walked straight up to me and delicately dropped a tiny jawbone on my foot. The county coroner, a family friend, verified that it was indeed the jaw of a small dog. 

We knew that we had an elderly mountain lion living at the far end of the property. He had made a bad end for many of our barn cats, and we surmised that he had been Sadie’s last encounter too. I couldn’t help but think of the lion as I searched.

But cats and a 15-pound dog are prey of a certain order; Sherman weighed ninety pounds and was, even at his advanced age, able to summon ferocious bravado. Surely an old lion wouldn’t bother with such a struggle? Surely a lion wouldn’t come right up the house? I hadn’t seen any lion tracks among those in the snow outside the kitchen window.

The sleepy cows added some measure of comfort as when a predator is in the area, all the animals are on high alert, not dozing contentedly on a hillside.

Still, dread was beginning to form a lead ball in the pit of my stomach.  I peered into the long abandoned chicken coop, slogged my way through the snow to another outbuilding along the creek. Empty, and silent. 

“Sherman,” I called. “Where are you buddy?” The creek burbled.  Could he have stumbled in? Or jumped in intentionally, not realizing how swift and cold it was with the combination of spring melt and new snow?

He would cheerfully go into frigid waters after a duck, but I couldn’t think of anything that would have enticed him into the creek late in the afternoon. There was, after all, no one to retrieve for. And anyway, the creek was still shallow enough that his body could not have floated freely to the Yellowstone, it would have been snagged along the bank, here or here or here.

My wool mittens were wet and soggy from searching and my toes numb with cold; I hadn’t stopped to put on an extra pair of socks on my way out the door.

Along the banks of the creek, east of the house, in a grove of willows I found dog tracks.

“Sherman!” I called with renewed intensity. “Sherman . . .” A rustle, near the creek. “Sherman?”  A low bark answered me; my heart leapt. “Hey, old pal, what are you doing?” 

I still couldn’t see the dog, but I heard more rustling, another single woof. Finally, my flashlight beam lit on the figure of a dog climbing up the side of the ridge: our neighbor’s blue heeler, headed south towards home. I sat down in the snow and cried.

Sherman wasn’t asleep in the barn. He wasn’t waiting for me by the door. He wasn’t resting under the junipers. He wasn’t drowned in the creek. There were no tracks up to the road, but I went up there anyway and walked along the highway, looking for a huddled form. There was none. Where could he be? He wouldn’t have gotten into a car with a stranger. He wouldn’t have trotted off to town. Everything he loved was in the house at the end of the drive.

Inside the house, I shed coat, hat, and mittens and called the Sheriff’s dispatcher. “Has anyone reported finding a dog? Or the body of a dog?”  No one had. I left a message on the answering machine of the Humane Society. Many times through the evening I went to the door and called.

Julian went to bed, asking as I tucked him in: “Do you think Sherman is okay?” 

I kissed my eight year old on the forehead and said, much more brightly than I felt “I bet Sherman will be here in the morning when you wake up.”

But he wasn’t.  Sleep makes you forget, but as soon as my eyes opened grim reality flooded in. Sherman! He was missing. Driving Julian to school, I scanned the horizon for the dog or for something that might have been the dog. There was nothing. My husband went to work, I kept searching.

My heart leapt when the Humane Society called, but they just wanted more information about my missing dog.  “Yes, he had a collar,” I told them. “Yes, he’d been wearing tags. No, he wouldn’t have gone with anyone, and besides if anyone had approached the house the other dogs would have gone bananas.”  My mother came over to help me look.

“Sherman!” we called, our voices trailing away in the Montana wind.  The other dogs barked and fussed. After some consideration I let one of them, a blue tick hound named Sophie, out to help look. Delighted with her newfound freedom, Sophie took off full-tilt for the pastures and meadows behind the house and headed towards the mountain range.

One day came to an end and another began, without a sign of our woolly dog. I continued to search. Sophie, the errant hound, returned grinning. As we drove down the driveway after school on Tuesday afternoon, I spied something in the west pasture. A dark brown fuzzy heap collapsed in the snow.

“Oh no,” my husband said sadly.

I got out of the car wordlessly, walking towards the mound in the snow, tears welling in my eyes. I couldn’t quite comprehend how my wonderful old dog, my brown clown, had become this bundle in the middle of the pasture. Perhaps a heart attack felled him in his tracks. Had he been caught up somewhere and used the last of his life forces to extricate himself, dying on his way home? As I drew near I began to laugh. It wasn’t Sherman in the snow at all. It was the head of an enormous buffalo.

Our neighbor to the west was new to country living. No doubt he’d bought the head of a domestic buffalo from a slaughterhouse and left it outside to “cure,” as he had so many other things. Sophie must have found the head, gnawed the ears and horns and tried to drag home her treasure.  I left it there in the pasture; let the neighbor draw his own conclusions.

The Humane Society never had a dog that matched Sherman’s description or even a sighting of one. The Department of Transportation didn’t find him by any roadside. None of the neighbors found him in any of their outbuildings, or pastures or creek sides. There was never a single call on the any of the “lost” ads we ran in the local papers. We never found a trace of Sherman.  Not a bone, not a scrap of fur. Sherman was simply gone.

In time, we constructed a plausible story to explain the end of his life, saying simply that we’d lost him to heart problems; the coughing, he was fifteen after all.  We always say how he’d been playing in the snow in the hours before he died, an example of the Chesapeake zeal for life.  With close friends we examined the mystery, how had the dog simply disappeared? Maybe he’d crawled into the brush and died, I just hadn’t been able to find him.

Maybe that was it.  Because people look askance if you told them what you knew to be the truth: that your great old dog, your truest friend and your protector went straight up to heaven, leaving no tracks in the snow behind him. 


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§ 2 Responses to Sherman in the Snow

  • Bart says:

    Sherman sounds like he was a quite the Chessie, As I read the the story, fergs my chessie was at my feet, and she sleeps right next to my bed so that my feet have to hit her every morning, you explained her strategy to the tee.

  • Susan says:

    I read this in pieces – couldn’t take it all in at one sitting … absolutely beautiful story and it will remain in my “things to read” often and well. All brown dogs at my house (which, by the way has grown by one more) will benefit from me having read Sherman’s story.

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