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A well of questions

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – October 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE CARCASS LAY at the bottom of the rock-walled well, undoubtedly hand-dug by an early settler. Our new neighbors had found the well and the carcass this summer after purchasing the land. They suspected the dead animal to be a deer.

At first look I could tell the animal was not a deer. The rib bones were round rather than flat. The rump had a shape different from that of a deer. It looked more like a dog.

It was only about 12 feet to the bottom of the well. A few inches of murky water stood to one side of the well’s bottom, along with some black muck and a few chunks of timber. The carcass was lying off to one side. It looked to be mummified, but at the same time it also appeared to be almost liquefied, like wet paper maché.

With an aspen pole I probed and found a collar around the animal’s neck. But the carcass was so deteriorated that it was tough to say how long it had been there or what type of dog it was. I walked away wondering.

Almost two years ago to the day, our dog Golden strangely disappeared without a trace. On the day that he disappeared a nearby landowner had been shooting. This weekend warrior had recently made purchase of a lot about a half mile away and had immediately turned it into his own private shooting range. When he was there, the gunfire began at dawn and ended at dusk. My parents were visiting and we went to town for breakfast. When we returned Golden was gone. Vanished. I often thought that Golden’s two main phobias were gunfire and confinement and that maybe he had run away from the noise.

For days afterward I searched the area. I drove around and asked neighbors if they had seen him. I ran the trails and looked down abandoned mine pits. I called out loud for him. I bought ads in the local newspaper.

It occurred to me that perhaps Golden had decided to get away from the gunfire and then something had happened, perhaps coyotes or another predator. This country is tough on pets. Or maybe someone picked him up along the road, though that made little sense since he was wearing a collar.

I had found Golden on the highway after a late night at my part-time newspaper job eight years prior. He was just a puppy lost in the night. He was sitting by the highway and when I drove up he ran away and hid behind a bush. I had to chase him down to catch him. But I couldn’t bear to leave him out in the night. I brought him home and he hid beneath my desk that first night.

I had just lost my dog Frisco, a black-and-white Australian shepherd with blue eyes, to lymphoma that summer after 8 years. Frisco was another highway dog that I had found during my travels as a young newspaper editor.

I was on my way to a new job in Frisco, Colorado, when I found him. I had no intention of keeping Frisco, but when the boss, who was also providing a room, said “no dogs,” I decided to keep the dog, name him appropriately, and put the new job up for adoption. So it goes.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES of finding Golden were so remarkably similar that the possibility Frisco had been reincarnated struck me several times. When Golden grew up to be an Australian shepherd and gold lab cross with all of Frisco’s character traits, I had little doubt.

Both Frisco and Golden were runners, and their excitement whenever I headed for the gate was unbounded. Golden would jump in the air and spin circles at eye level. For weeks after his disappearance I found myself looking as I left for my daily exercise to see where he was and if he was about to jump in my face. It was almost as if his ghost were there, excited to go for a run. I would turn to look for him and nothing would be there.

Then there were the dreams. I would dream about this dog, especially that he returned home in the middle of the night, awakening me.

But I would get out of bed and go to the door, and Golden was never there.

By and by, the realization that I would probably never know what happened to Golden set in. The feelings of his invisible presence evaporated. The dreams quit occurring. Every now and then I would see Golden in a photograph and wonder again what happened to him.

The carcass in the well pit haunted me all afternoon. Finally I decided I had to know. I went back to the well with a rope and tried to loop it around the tail and leg of the carcass. But every time I managed to get the loop around something it slipped free.

Then I got the long aspen pole and tried to hook the collar with it. With a great deal of effort I managed to get the collar free from the carcass. But fishing it out was even more difficult. Several times I lifted it only to catch it on the rock wall and watch it fall back to the bottom.

I considered climbing down the hole to get it, but finally I managed to loop the collar around a knot in the pole and lift it out.

IN THE EARLY EVENING LIGHT, I laid the collar in the dry grass. I got down on my knees and looked at it. The collar was black and it smelled awful, but a slight breeze made it tolerable. The tag was covered in black sludge. I wiped one side off and the name of the local vet appeared. I turned it over and began cleaning the other side from right to left and slowly it sank in. First “den.” Then “Gol.” This was Golden lying in the bottom of the well pit.

Time had tempered the loss, but could not make up for the sadness of what had befallen Golden. And while I now knew where he died, I still did not know exactly how it happened. The notion that Golden may have been escaping one fear, gunfire, only to meet his end by the other, confinement, was complete in its irony.

Once he had fallen into the well, what horror had he endured? It had been a wet year with heavy winter snow followed by torrential summer rains; maybe there was more water in the well. Maybe he drowned.

Or did he die more slowly, of starvation only a few hundred yards from his home? Did he cry or bark? I couldn’t have possibly heard him – the well is just over a low rise several hundred yards from my home and downwind. But could he hear me calling him? If I had just known this well pit was there would I have checked it? Would it have made any difference?

Now instead of having just one question, I have several. And I will never know the answer to any of them, including the most enduring question of all, the one about the karma and souls of dogs.

When not slaving away on his monthly prose for Colorado Central, writer Hal Walter of Westcliffe makes a living in the dog-eat-dog world of free-lance writing and editing.