About seven years back, a friend called and asked if I'd rescue a hard-luck basset hound. The poor dog's people had moved out of their apartment and moved the dog to a farm. Problem was, this basset hound loved to chase cows, and he had run all the farmer's cows out of his pasture. He had one last chance: Come to my house, or get a one-way haul to the pound.I've got a soft spot for basset hounds, so I said I'd give that hound dog a try. The farmer's truck pulled into my driveway about a half-hour later. "I'm sorry," the farmer said. "I can't keep him. I like to never got all them cows rounded up."
I looked in the bed of the truck, and there sat hard-luck Rufus, 72 pounds of tricolor basset hound. He looked like a dog who knew what he liked and knew what he wanted. So don't you know, he walked straight to me and let me pick him up off the tailgate of the truck. Then he gave me one weak, wheezy bark — the kind of bark a dog gets when he spends his days chasing cows.
Just then, wife Brenda came running out of the house, sidled up to Rufus, and spent a few minutes rubbing his extra-large head. Brenda and I had raised a few basset hounds together, and she knew a good basset when she rubbed one.
So she jumped into her station wagon and drove to a big-box pet store. A few hours later, she came back with a king-size dog igloo. A blind man could read that sign. From then on, Brenda decided to let Rufus live at the Jowers house until the cows came home. And as far as Brenda was concerned, he could keep on chasing those cows away.
During Rufus' first few weeks at the Jowers house, he dug under the backyard fence every day or two and ran away. Every time he did it, he ended up sitting calmly in a neighbor's yard, taking in the sights. Then one of our kindly neighbors would spot Rufus and bring him back home.
I fixed all the holes under the fence, so Rufus couldn't run away anymore. While I was in handyman mode, Brenda insisted that I put in a dog door so Rufus could come and go as he pleased. So I put in a nice dog door. Soon after that, we started finding ruined underwear, socks, T-shirts and sweatshirts half-buried in our back yard. Apparently, Rufus liked to leave a little bit of his loot sticking up out of the ground, so he could find it and play with it later.
Back in the spring of '07, Rufus stole daughter Jess' high-school softball uniform, right out of her room. Somehow, he had managed to carry the uniform down the stairs, through the dog door and under our deck. We didn't find it until Jess finished high school.
Rufus had a big personality, and after a while, it started to show. Every morning, he climbed out of his bed, shook his head, jingled his dog tags and flapped his ears, then raced me down the stairs.
When I sat down for breakfast, Rufus sat at my feet. He studied what I ate and how I ate it. Every time I raised my fork, Rufus snuck up a little closer to me and gave me his "feed me" bark, a muted "burr." When he saw that I'd gnawed my food down to a one-inch square, he'd give me his full-throated baritone bark, and he'd jump — as much as his stubby legs would let him — until I said, "Last bite!" Then he'd open his mouth and catch his little bite of my breakfast.
Like Rufus, we Jowerses have our rituals. On Fridays, we like to get a little Chinese takeout. When we finish dinner, daughter Jess liked to pop open a fortune cookie, give Rufus a little bite of it, and then read him his fortune. I know, I know. But she told him these things anyway:
*You have a lively family.
*You have a friendly heart and you are well admired.
*You will have a long and wealthy life.
Rufus really enjoyed two things: eating and getting rubbed. Who doesn't? In our living room, we've got a sofa and an end table, with a foot-wide gap between the two. Whenever Rufus saw me on the sofa, he filled that one-foot gap and asked for an ear scratch and wattle rub. When he did that, I'd yell out, "Dog in the petting bay!" until he'd had enough scratching and rubbing.
We took his age on faith. Some months back, though, while Brenda was plundering the kitchen drawers, she ran across Rufus' AKC papers. "Hey Wally," she called. "Rufus' show-dog name is 'Ruthless Rufus.' And he's 14 years old."
"Well," I said, "we don't have to worry about him being a show dog. He had an empty scrotum when we got him, so he's banned from show-dog business." Then I stopped short. "Did you say 14 years old? That's 98 in human years. Rufus is one sturdy dog."
"Yep," Brenda said. "One sturdy dog."
Not long after that conversation, things started to change. Rufus came down with a case of bloat. For reasons nobody can explain, a big-chested dog can have his stomach fill up with gas. The pressure of the gas, and the twisting of the stomach and intestines, can kill a dog in less than an hour. When Brenda saw Rufus' belly distended like a balloon, she rushed him to the pet emergency clinic. The vets there were able to save him, but he had sustained some damage. The next time I took Rufus to his regular vet, I found out that he was anemic, his kidneys weren't working right, and he had a heart murmur.
Even so, Rufus seemed to be getting better. Even when he was tired, he was eager to walk around the neighborhood with me. Some days, he'd walk slowly, dragging his ears along the roadside. Other days, he'd break into a trot or even run a little. It was as if he were reliving his glory days.
But he wasn't the dog I knew. He started spending most of his time sleeping and he trembled sometimes when I gave him a rub in the petting bay. He got a little more tired every day. Rufus slept on my side of the bed, and since he'd slowed down so much, I checked him every morning, just to make sure he was still breathing.
Rufus' second bout with bloat came late on a rainy night last week. His belly blew up to the size of a football. He paced through the house, vomited twice, then went out through the dog door and settled down under our elm tree. I was pretty sure he had gone there to die. Just the night before, he'd begged for his leash, jumping like a young pup. I didn't know it would be his last good walk.
I coaxed him back into the house, and he paced all night. The next morning, Rufus was still bloated and still alive, but not so sturdy. He was worn out. He'd stolen his last article of clothing, and he'd eaten his last "last bite." It was time for him to rest.
Brenda took Rufus to his vet. I didn't go. I couldn't go, because I knew what was going to happen. Sure, I may look like a cross between Shrek and Broderick Crawford, but I'm a tenderhearted man. Nobody wants to see me when I'm sad.
Brenda stayed with Rufus while the vet tried repeatedly to decompress his bloated stomach. It didn't work, and we knew that Rufus couldn't withstand another surgery or sedation. So Rufus' vet, with her eyes full of tears, called Brenda and the vet techs into a room where Rufus curled up on the floor next to Brenda.
Back at the Jowers house, the phone rang. It was Brenda. "Wally," she asked, her voice quavering, "do you want to talk to Rufus?"
I didn't answer. I just blubbered. I couldn't speak without crying, gasping and caterwauling, even though I was likely to be the first man on the planet to tell his sweet old basset hound goodbye, in musician slang, over his wife's cell phone.
"Goodbye, big buddy," I said. "I love you, man. Long may you run. Long may you run."
Seconds later, Rufus got a sedative, and his big head began to droop. With a little help from Brenda and the vet, my big buddy, my friend, companion and jester for seven years, went to his rest.
Some years back my friend the Rev. Bob Cowperthwaite, a man who blesses animals as part of his calling, told me this: If there aren't any dogs in heaven, then it's probably not heaven.
So, you people in heaven, if you can read this, do me a favor. If you run across a sweet old tricolor basset who goes by the name of Rufus J. Dogfriend, please give him a rub for me, OK?
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