After a string of twelve hour days at the mine, I felt as worn down and muddy as my old Chevy truck looked. As midnight marked the end of my shift that week, and the start of four days off, a stop at the Triangle Tavern in Bayard seemed appropriate before driving on into Silver City where I was renting a room from my sister.
Even though the late summer evening still was warm there was something on the light breeze blowing down from the high country that hinted fall was fast approaching and that gave me a bit of a shiver as I stepped from the truck in that dark parking lot. The thought of watching the sun breaking through the morning fog to illuminate the icicles hanging from my hard hat from the deck of that dredge was not something I looked forward to even though the money was far beyond good.
I was far to tired to mediate on winter at any length and instead set my sights on a cold beer to wash the dust from my throat and the taste of diesel from my mouth, and a couple of fresh tamales to quiet the rumbling in my stomach. It was a focus on that simple goal that kept me on my feet and moving forward and it was being distracted from that goal that set me off on a fit of carnality accentuated by a few well chosen words that a fellow shouldn’t use in mixed company or church.
I had walked around to the passenger side of the truck to roll up the window but as soon as the door opened, a moth eaten mutt about knocked me on my butt as he barreled past me to jump in the cab. I didn’t know it at the time but that was the beginning of an amazing friendship.
My efforts to extricate the tick infested, half starved pup were rewarded by the snapping of his weathered collar and the planting of my back side in a mud puddle. The evening was rapidly headed south.
It was at about this point that the fit of carnality went into high gear. I was about half way through a string of obscenities when that poor old dog jumped from the cab and began licking my hand.
At this juncture in life I was fairly rough around the edges with a damned hard shell and as a topper, I was on the back side of a pretty bad relationship. I was also about as empty as a fellow can get and still be waking up on this side of the grass.
Well, I gave that old dog a pretty good cussing and was rewarded with a tail wagging so severe he about fell over. There was little to do but laugh and right there the decision was made that I needed a dog even though I didn’t have anywhere to keep one.
I tossed his sorry butt in the cab and as we headed for Silver City, began to give thought on how to best sell my sister on the idea. At some point between the tavern and Silver, for no reason that I can figure, the pup was bestowed with the name Critter.
Well, as it turned out my sister and her husband didn’t object to having the dog around provided he got cleaned up before the kids woke up. So, instead of a cold beer and tamales, I whiled away the first hours of the new day by rounding up some food and flea soap, washing a dog and picking ticks.
My guess was that the dog was about six months old and there was ample evidence to indicate those months were very hard ones. I was also fairly certain there was a bit of wolf mixed in with that white shepherd and that he was going to become a very large dog.
Well, as it turned out Critter truly had a unique and gentle personality that was ideal for kids. Even better, he and my nephew hit it off immediately.
I had always thought that people who took their dog everywhere were just a bit tiched in the head. I still do. But Critter wasn’t really a dog, he was a true friend and companion in every sense of the word.
Before Critter came along I would often spend my four days off somewhere up in the Gila Wilderness or in the Black range in the shadow of Cooks Peak with some beer, books, and steaks. Now the long weekends were spent with a friend who enjoyed the walks along the headwaters of the Gila River, the adventures, that shared a beer, and that definitely loved the steaks well done or rare.
A cut back at work, and a rash of thefts from the remote job site at night, marked the beginning of a new chapter for Critter and I. On the midnight to noon shift we were down to a two man crew; six hours as an operator and six hours hauling fuel, fixing the pump packing, and moving the dredge across the tailings pond with cables and hand jacks.
I suggested, and the boss agreed, that Critter would be a good addition to the job site at night as a deterrent to the thefts. So, now that old dog and I were together twenty four/seven.
He loved the boat rides, eagerly patrolled the fuel dump, and had no problem curling up on the floor of the cabin during my shift as operator. As a cost saving measure I had purchased a camper for the truck and, as a watchman, moved to the job site using the showers at the nearby railroad siding.
http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0760332215&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrWith the first dusting of snow I shifted gears and the long weekends were spent in the deserts down along the Mexican border with an occasional foray into southern Arizona. It was on an excursion to the abandoned mining town of Old Hachita (as a shameless plug of self promotion you can read about the town in my book, Ghost Towns of the Southwest) that Critter came between me and a western diamondback rattlesnake.
I performed a bit of first aid and began the long drive to Lordsburg, the closest place with a vet, fearing that I was about to loose a very good friend. As it turned out Critter was as tough as a bunch of nails and after a lengthy recovery he regained the sight in his eye and with the exception of the loss of a patch of fur below the eye, was as right as rain in a few weeks.
That proved to be the first of many brushes with death for Critter. With each I was given a renewed sense of just how much that dogs friendship meant to me.
Once, we were on an excursion to the mining towns below Cooks Peak when he stepped into a trap set for coyotes or other small game. His quick reflexes resulted in the loss of a toe rather than a foot.
On another occasion near the remote border crossing of Antelope Wells in New Mexico, our campsite was raided by a couple of fellows who seemed to be on their way to a Pancho Villa look alike contest. Critter played a key role in what became a Mexican standoff that ended with a handshake rather than something a little more violent.
When the job at the mine came to an abrupt end shortly after snow began to stay on the ground for days at a time, Critter and I headed north to accept an odd ball job offer of employment from a friend working out of the old railroad town of Drake south of Ashfork in Arizona. Winter is a tough time to be living out of a camper and tent, especially in the high country of Arizona, and without Critter to hog the bed roll, I probably would have froze to death.
These were lean years and work was scarce but we kept our head above water with a dizzying array of temp jobs. Surprisingly, every one of them allowed for Critter to ride along; a few weeks of hauling pipe to Albuquerque, stringing wire for Cane Springs ranch out towards Red Lake, cutting cord wood near Seligman.
It was during these hard times I met a very special young lady, a pretty little gal who would become my wife and dearest friend. At first Critter wasn’t overly happy about having a third party involved in our evenings and excursions.
But my new friend won his heart and he won hers. We married and became a family of three a couple of years later.
Critter was with us on the honeymoon to Carlsbad in New Mexico, on the excursions across the deserts of Nevada, and up the coast of California to Oregon. He was a constant companion on our weekend camping trips, and he was there with his tail wagging when we brought our son home from the hospital.
The years clipped by and then one day Critter just couldn’t seem to get in the truck. He still enjoyed the rides and our walks but the spark just wasn’t there.
Then came the day when we set out for an evening stroll around the block and into the canyons behind the house. At the end of the driveway he stumbled and at the end of the driveway he fell and couldn’t get up.
But Critter was a friend to the very end. As I sat there on the curb with that old dog in my arms, he licked my hand and gave that winning smile that brought me back from the precipice of a very dark, very lonely place in the parking lot of the Triangle tavern so many years before.
I packed him back to the house, and with a family in tears, made him comfortable, and the next day took him to the vet. When I laid him to rest in the shadow of the Cerbat Mountains that he had loved to explore, I buried the last link to the man I once was and bid farewell to one of the best friends ever known.