Photo by by Rachel Cudmore

Photo by by Rachel Cudmore

Author David James Duncan lives with his family in western Montana, where he is working on a novel that combines his loves for Asian wisdom traditions and the land and people of the
American West.


February 2005:  Yesterday afternoon I was working away on my novel (clickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityclickityy) BORING!, when I heard a sound at the door of my study.  “Errn, errn, errn."

I keep a curtain over the French pane door so that if I'm writing a scene that moves me and am sitting here crying, Adrian can't suddenly look through the glass and make me feel pathetic!

I went to the door and opened up. There sat our charming mutt without a tail, Bruno, looking up at me with his big Cleopatra eyes. “Errn, errn, errn!” he repeated emphatically.

“Earn earn earn back atcha, buddy. That’s what I’m trying to do here. Wussup? You’ve never interrupted my work and come to my study and spoken to me like this before.”

Errn! Errn errn errn! Errn!" said Bruno, looking excited and sad at the same time..

"Errn, errn, you say? Well, shit man. I'm sorry to hear it. But I still don't know what you're talking about. But...hey! You're soakin' wet! How'd you get wet? You're freezing! Is that why you came up here?"

"Errn errn errn!"

He was soaked all right. And though it was sunny, it was 20 degrees out. I took him in the house, then shut him in his little doggie crate so he could warm upon his smelly old doggie pad. But even in his crate he kept looking at me and anxiously repeating, "Errn errn errn errn!"

“That may be,” I said, "but I gotta get back to work."

"Errn Errn!" Bruno said one last time as I headed out the door.

On my way to my study, though, I heard something. Barking in the distance. There is a kennel on the hillside across the creek to the south. They raise labradors and board other people’s dogs too. There's always barking up there. I thought nothing of it. As I climbed the stairs to my study, though, I saw Bruno’s wet paw prints on the landing, marveled at his persistent repetition of the Errn word, and so paused, before I shut myself up in my study for the day, cocked my head, and listened one more time. In doing so I noticed that this barking wasn’t quite coming from the kennel  to the south. It was coming from somewhere up the frozen creek to the southwest.

I tried to put two and two and two together: Bruno soaking wet + Errn errn!  + Barking on creek. I got zero. I'm stubborn when I work, and stupid about things outside the work. I was also in my shirt sleeves. Twenty is cold. I decided Bruno’s word meant nothing, and opened my study door. But the day was very still. I could hear acutely. Listening once more, I realized I didn't recognize the voice of the dog up the creek. Was a dog from up the highway chasing a deer? Was an indoor dog outside and lost and freezing? I decided to run back and check before losing myself in work.

I jogged over frozen ground through the yard, hopped the back fence, and the closer I got to the water the weirder the bark sounded. It was weak. So weak I’d thought it was coming from a distance: the meaningless, automatic kind of barking some dogs do in the night. But the closer I got to this bark the more obvious it seemed that this weakness came of desperation. I began to run.

When I reached the crest of the high bank over the creek, there, up to her neck in deep water, clinging to a fragmented ice sheet of ice over the pool we call The Swimming Hole, was our Dalmatian Clara. Only her head and front paws sticking out. So cold she could barely hold on. Her bark a pale shadow of its obnoxious self. Cuts on both forelegs from fighting to grip the broken edge of ice. The white ice before her smeared with blood in two crimson lines.

I ran down the riprap, lay face down on the ice, and flattened my body out wide. I knew that if little Clara had crashed through, I easily could. But I spraddled my arms and legs, making like a 180 lb. water-strider, then scooted my way toward Clara---who just kept barking weakly, very close to sliding under the ice sheet and washing under it, downstream. A woman had recently drowned on Flathead Lake not long ago trying to save her dog from a situation just like this. But there was an opening at the shallow, downstream end of the pool. If I crashed through the ice near Clara, I figured,I’d grab her collar, dive under the ice sheet, drag her downstream under the ice with me, and stand back up when we reached the opening. We’d need a hot bath in a hurry. But it beat leaving her to drown out of cowardice.

The Water-skipper technique got me close. I grabbed Clara’s collar with one hand. If the ice was to break, it would happen as I slid her from the water forward onto the bloodied ice sheet. The sheet held. Keeping myself spraddled wide, I dragged her back across the ice to shore. There were some loud cracking sounds, but the sheet held.

I hauled Clara up the riprap and set her on dry ground. Safe now, but her back legs wouldn't work. Thrilled to be saved, she wanted to show it by running circles around me but kept falling over on her side. I have to say, this changed the way I feel about her from then on. Her Half-Cop, Half-Princess manner had occasionally made we half-wish a pack of wolves would find and eat her. Her bloodstrained forelegs and collapsing back legs despite her joy, erased that half-wish forever. 

When I got her in the house I heated a can of hot chicken noodle soup and poured it over a bowl of her dog food. My daughter Ellie and I wrapped her in towels and massaged her while she wolfed the soup. We let Bruno out of his crate and he wagged his tail stub wildly to see Clara was safe. We kept telling him he was our hero as we held Clara in sunshine, turned up the heat, and took turns massaging her. She kept shivering violently for more than two hours.

Thanks to Bruno she lived five more years, to age 15.

Bruno lived eight more, to age 12.

They’re buried side by side near the swimming hole.

Errn Errn Errn!

Bruno’s last day. September 6, 2013

Bruno’s last day. September 6, 2013

An Atlantic Salmon Fly in Response to a Marin County “Fishing” Movie

An Atlantic Salmon Fly in Response to a Marin County “Fishing” Movie