River Dog, a short story

By: Tom French

Volume 17, Issue 8, August 2022

Most say he roamed into town in late June, about the same time I arrived for the summer.  Some think he came in from the Cape, others believe he was from the Bay or further downriver, maybe Montreal or Quebec, though he could have been from Watertown or Syracuse, as far as anyone knew.  A few said they recognized him from when he was a pup – that he’d returned to his old haunt one last time, before moving on.

I first saw him while fishing off Eagle Wings Shoals on my day off from the Chateau – a job I figured I’d sustain one last summer after college, while I figured things out. A couple of punts came off Calumet, where some guys had been re-roofing the shake on the old water tower.  The dog was standing on the bow of the front boat.

Someone must have pulled a prank because the boat behind was aggressively accelerating with oars for wings – two guys, one on each side of the boat, tapped oars on the water creating fountains that flashed like raptor feathers as they chased the first boat, the dog with his nose high in the air, enjoying the breeze better than if his head was sticking out a truck window.

When the two boats were neck and neck, with the spray from the starboard oar splashing the other boat, the driver of the dog’s boat pushed his tiller quickly all the way to the left. The boat veered, and the driver slid across the seat, over the gunnel, and into the river.  Somehow, the dog held on.  He looked from side to side trying to figure out what’d happened, but he was one smooth puppy. The boat had slowed, the throttle having sprung back as soon as it was let go. He got his footing, then wobbled over the seats to the stern and turned the boat off.  He must have hit the kill switch with a paw or his nose. The bow dropped into the water and the wake washed through the boat.

The other boat rescued the guy in the water, who was lucky not to have been run over by his own boat circling around. They hauled his wet ass out of the river by grabbing his pants and dragging him over the side until he flopped into the bottom like a caught fish.

The dog picked up the bow rope with his mouth as if to toss them the line, lifted his nose into the air, and bellowed two long blasts like a ship in a fog.

The River Dog [Illustration by Marie-Anne Erki, ©2022, Kingston, ON]

I spotted the dog again a couple days later at the bait shop. He was sniffing around the tanks.  That’s when I learned he was a stray. The owner said he came and went as he pleased.

To look at the dog, you’d think he was a golden retriever, but you’d be wrong.  He was a mix if there ever was one – part retriever, St. Bernard, collie, and I figured a host of others breeds based on everything he did.

I saw him jump off the wharf in front of the depot at Frink Park, dive into the water head first, and disappear beneath the waves. Some kid had thrown a rock, and of course, the dog rushed after it – right into the river. I almost scolded the kid. What did he think was going to happen?  And now the dog was in the water, three or four feet below the edge of the pier.  It wasn’t like anyone could just reach down and drag him up by the collar.

The scary thing was you couldn’t see him! A few bubbles sprinkled the surface. We all thought he’d drowned – damnedest thing I’d ever seen, a dog drowning so quickly like that. You’d think he could at least swim around in circles for a little while. I was a bit shocked by the sad event.

But all of a sudden, his head popped up, and he had an old brass prop in his mouth. He’d seen that thing down there and recognized the value of it. He hadn’t jumped for the rock. He was too smart for that.

And he didn’t waste any time panic-pawing at the high dock, trying to get out of the river. No sir. He headed right on over to the floaters at the town dock, gave himself a good push to drop the prop on the dock, and then hauled himself out.

He even performed mouth-to-mouth at a party out on Basswood, a real drunken shindig. It started as a barbecue that turned into a pig roast – someone dug a big, huge pit before they were too lit. But the spit was a homemade affair that didn’t turn well. Eventually, people gave up and the pig only cooked along its back. Someone noticed it wasn’t cooking evenly and tried to spin the thing again. It snapped and the pig fell into the fire and that was the end of that. Some people scavenged small pieces of meat that might have been cooked, but not the dog. He knew better than to gnaw on raw pork.

Later, fireworks were set off. They exploded over our heads and the Milky Way filled the sky as the moon rose to the east over the mainland. It was a glorious night, but then the dog started howling. He swung around us and nipped at heels until he’d herded us across the island. People cursed and yelled at the dog, but he was relentless.

Then someone shouted, “It’s Billy Bailey. He’s out cold!”

And he was soaking wet too, lying along the shore as if he’d been in the water. No one’s exactly sure what happened, but I think I know – Billy tripped and fell into the river. Maybe he hit his head or maybe it was the booze, but he was unconscious. And seeing Billy floating in the water, the dog knew there wasn’t any time to dawdle, so he jumped in.

It must have been quite a workout for that little dog to manhandle Billy, but he managed somehow. I’m not sure if he grabbed Billy’s hair or flipped him on his collar, but he wrestled Billy so he was face up and dragged him onto the rocks along the shore. Then the dog corralled us.

Brian Johnson was in the fire department, so he jumped down and confirmed Billy was still breathing. They hauled him up on shore, and he revived a few minutes later, insisting he was fine.  I watched him leave with the dog, lit first by the floods on the dock, and then by the green and red running lights, the dog riding shotgun, feet on the dash, head above the windshield scanning the river, ready to bay at the first sign of danger.

He was an independent fellow, who developed a daily routine as he made his rounds around town. He must have had an arrangement with the police because they never gave him a hard time about a leash. He had his rabies tags, and that was good enough.

He could have a temper, though. That fall, after I should have found a real job and moved on, I was at the Lost Navigator, a little dive of a bar that’s been a feature of Clayton under one name or another for decades. The place was filled with the usual crowd for a Sunday afternoon, two different games on the TVs, and the dog was at the bar. I’ll never forget the image of the dog, sitting on a stool, lapping up a beer like he was a regular customer.

It all seemed pretty relaxed for the longest time, with occasional cheers from one group or another as one team scored or took a hit. Different factions occupied different corners of the bar with occasional banter and badgering – all good-natured jesting. Later in the afternoon, after everyone had probably had too much to drink, the old dog stuck his nose in the air. He’d gotten a whiff of something, and the sides of his mouth curled and his teeth began to show as he growled this low guttural snarl that startled everyone. Silence enveloped the room except for the commentary of the games on the TVs. The guy next to the dog caressed the scruff of the dog’s neck lightly and consoled the dog with a “Whoa, it’s okay, boy.” But the dog turned his head and barked ferociously, as he leaped off the stool like a bullet beelining for the door.

Outside, a Rottweiler was parading by, strutting his stuff. He might have even stopped, stuck his head in the door, and taunted the dog. But before you could say Whiskey Island, the two were at each other’s throats, right on the threshold, sparring with each other.

It was a boiling blur of fur with the screen door being whacked around before they brought it in from the street. And, of course, it was over a girl, and people took sides and the next thing you know it was a full-blown bar brawl with people throwing punches and chairs getting knocked over and glass breaking. Word traveled quickly on the street because a bunch of other dogs showed up, too. You had people, good people, on both sides taking punches and pot shots. Finally, the police arrived, and it didn’t take long after they’d cuffed some people for things to break up and the dogs scattered, leaving Brock, the bartender, to pick up the mess.

Within minutes, it was all over Facebook, how a stray had started a fight in the Lost Navigator and something needed to be done. The police were looking for him, “for questioning,” they said. But I knew it was to collar him. Too many people had been bitten, so a posse was organized.

They chased him down out along the East Line Ridge Road. When they found him, he was all excited, jumping around and running in circles. Maybe he thought they were going hunting, until someone took a shot at him. But crikey, didn’t the gun misfire or something – threw the shooter right back to the ground!

The dog must have been startled too, hell, with that gun going off a few yards behind him unexpected like that, not a deer or target in sight. The bullet might have even grazed him. He jumped and he ran. He was smart enough to know that bullet was meant for him. Last anyone saw of the dog, he was climbing over the cliffs of that ridge.

I left shortly after that too, when my parents turned off the water at camp.  My mother said, “You can’t make a living there,” though people clearly do if they love it or are lucky enough.

I get back as much as I can. I’m told the dog does too, disguised as a Doberman or a German Shepherd. He’s a River Dog. Nothing can keep him away.

By Tom French

Tom French is at least a 5th generation River Dog from Thousand Island Park.  He splits his time between the Adirondacks and the Thousand Islands from his home in Potsdam.  He is a regular contributor to the Adirondack Explorer.  He has written two award-winning books about life along the River.  River Views — a History of the 1000 Islands in 3-D explores the photographic history of the region from the 19th century.  Wind Water Waves — River Stories, a collection of short stories, was a finalist in the 2021 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  Both books are available at local venues such as the Little Book Store, Ringers Gallery, Bay House Artisans, the Novel Idea, or at tom-french.net.

Click here to see other Tom French TI Life articles. and see TI Life book reviews in "Stereoviews - A New Book Features River History in 3-D Review in June, 2011 TI Life; and Wind Water Waves, Short Stories by Tom French, July 2020.

Illustrated by Marie-Anne Erki, TI Life's  illustrator. See more about the artist and read her artist statement here.

Posted in: Volume 17, Issue 8, August 2022, STORIES+, Fiction

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