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The Barge Dog’s Turf

The barge dog’s turf—the territory he defended—comprised our little valley from the governor’s getaway house on the north to halfway up the steep road on Nancy Hill. Save for us it was uninhabited, surrounded on three sides by hills and on the fourth by a quiet blue cove.

This was his God-given fief and from his throne on the top step of the doorway to our old West Indian house he could survey all traffic through his domain. Goats, donkeys, fowl and most vehicles he tolerated with lordly ennui so long as they kept their distance from the house. Cats and mongooses he ran off as a matter of course. But what really got him frantic was a beige Toyota pickup…in the back of which rode a huge rotweiler named Rasputin.

Rasputin was an expensive animal of distinguished pedigree who had received a good education at dog school in Miami. Phlegmatic, to all appearances dumb as a stick, obedient to a fault, he was the opposite of Santos in every way. He had been trained to be his owner’s personal bodyguard. In town he sat in the cab to guard its occupant and his money. Amory’s restaurant was thriving, and he thought a big dog would be better all-round protection than a pistol.

Amory was a neighbor who, fairly or not, many people considered arrogant and supercilious. We had no complaint about him—he was always good for a ride if our truck was broken down, and his conversation was informed. He did hold himself aloof, though, and visibly prided himself on the possession of the finer things in life—such as pure bred guard dogs and classic yachts. Ironically it was these that brought him ridicule. On its maiden voyage, Amory wrecked his new boat on the Anegada reef, a total loss. His dog lasted longer but met a similarly undeserved fate.

Rasputin’s job was to intimidate people—but he didn’t intimidate Santos. Every morning and evening the beige truck drove by with Rasputin seated dutifully in the back looking out lugubriously over the tailgate. Santos could recognize its engine long before any of us could even hear it. He might be snoozing or even eating but the instant he heard that sound he’d drop everything and sprint towards the road, barking at the top of his lungs. He tried to meet the truck and chase it through and out of his territory. His bandy legs pelted the blacktop, his muzzle corrugated back in hate, he bared his teeth, he snarled maniacally and barked hysterically—the virulence of the 11-lb. dog was awesome.

Meanwhile 120-lb. Rasputin, jaws the size of Santos’ torso, would occasionally incline his head bemusedly over the tailgate, take in this absurd display, and give one deep-throated, resonant "woof!"

Amory hated our little dog for making such a public spectacle of his daily passage. It was kind of humiliating to have such frenzy attend one’s every appearance. It cast one as fall guy in a farce, the foil to a comically brash egocentric. When he heard that maniacal barking, Amory would grimace and gun the engine hard, and Santos would give it even more, go past in a blur—a shriek with a Doppler effect—then come trotting back, exhausted but deeply-fulfilled, his spent body still emitting occasional reflexive yelps, like hiccups.

This display repeated itself twice a day, upon Amory’s going and his coming. Santos lived for it, lay waiting for the sound of that engine. Every day the big dog intruded and every day Santos went head to head with him, instantly and ferociously.

Even if Rasputin weren’t in the truck Santos attacked it with no less fervor—the truck was Rasputin’s symbol, maybe even his power. Who knows what goes on in dogs’ minds? Certainly vehicles had an aura of the divine for Santos, who reveled in riding them. His favorite place—the only place that would do—was the front seat. He would invariably worm his way into one’s lap and stand with his head out the window, thrusting his muscular hind legs restlessly against a thigh. He had to be firmly restrained from jumping out of the moving vehicle when we passed other animals. Twice he succeeded in launching himself from the window, once to fall like a bolt of lightning on a browsing herd of goats which leaped in total terror, and another time as we passed a rival cur.

To fully convey Santos’ passion over Amory’s truck, we have to recount the first time Santos broke his leg We were walking by Haulover Bay in the late afternoon, about a mile from home, when the Lieutenant Governor drove up, stopped to chat and then drove off. Santos, who had been investigating the underbrush for a mongoose, impetuously dashed after his car in full paean and disappeared around a curve.

We called frequently as we walked home but he didn’t appear, nor was he back at the house.

We were ready for bed before he came back—limping severely—and crawled surreptitiously into a dark corner. Dorothy tried to examine him but he growled at her—an unprecedented thing. He wanted to be left alone. In the morning we found him ashen with pain. His leg had been broken in two and was hanging by mere skin. We were amazed to think of him fighting off shock as he forced himself back, over steep hills, past the enemy dogs at the Anthony’s house, up the porch steps, all the while dragging that poor dangling leg.

We rushed him to Dr. Andy Williamson’s clinic in St. Thomas where the good vet operated immediately and pinned the bones together with a stainless steel bolt. Three days later Santos came home with his rear right limb in a cast which he carried well off the ground as he hobbled around on three legs. At 500 bucks the repairs were a great bargain, but the most we’d ever shelled out for an animal. As he slept under the table his first morning home we were savoring breakfast and discussing his mishap.

"Well at least the experience will finally persuade him not to chase cars again," I declared with conviction.

No sooner had the words left my mouth than Amory’s truck crested the hill. Santos’ ears pricked up, he scrabbled to his feet and shot out the door like a jet catapulted off a carrier’s deck.

"Santos! Stop! Come! Damn!" I bellowed, to no avail.

I chased after him in time to see the truck fishtail around a bend, tires screeching, hotly pursued by a three legged dog stumping frantically down the road, his right rear leg in a cast held high. We finally had to tie Santos up mornings and evenings ‘til Amory had passed by, in order to protect our investment in that leg till it healed. And when it did, East End’s David and Goliath show resumed unabated.

Santos’ great moment came one sultry day in September when a hurricane was heading for the Virgins. We got in the pickup and drove over to Princess Creek where we had anchored Breath, to check on her and put out another anchor. The "creek" was a pool of deep water with a sandy mud bottom bordered by mangroves and landlocked within green hills. There were four such coves, known collectively as Hurricane Hole, and they offered the best refuge in the islands against severe weather. But Princess Creek additionally had the advantage of a paved road running by its shore, so that when a storm was in the area, boat owners who lived or worked ashore could leave their boats anchored here and get back and forth while waiting to see whether the storm would hit.

Amory had recently replaced his wrecked boat with a sleek and pricey Swan which was currently anchored at Princess Creek. He happened to be aboard it with Rasputin, and his truck was parked next to the dinghy landing, a break in the thick mangroves that lined the shore. We parked just behind his vehicle. So it was that Santos came upon the opportunity of a lifetime, the stuff of dogdreams. For the first time ever, Rasputin’s truck was parked…and unattended!

The little dog instantly took it all in. He wasted no time. Trembling with excitement, with his hackles raised ‘til he looked like a black porcupine, he approached the beige truck on stiff legs, growling low. Very deliberately he lifted his leg on the right rear tire, changed his mind, lifted his other leg, shifted and fidgeted ‘til he found the precise pose and exact angle of fire—then he gave it a long squirt that left an unmistakable trail down the dusty rim.

After sniffing it carefully and finding that it was good, Santos did each tire in turn, painstakingly, then went around once again for good measure, totally absorbed in his work. Then turning towards the bay, Santos gave an insufferably triumphant bark.

Right away a deep-throated and unprecedentedly agitated "woof woof woof!" rolled back over the water like thunder. The normally-imperturbable Rasputin sensed that shame had been brought to his ride, and he was balanced precariously at the edge of Amory’s fine yacht, about to fall in, looking anxiously shorewards—much to Amory’s annoyance.

Sad to say, not long thereafter and much to Santos’ regret, poor Rasputin met an untimely end due to no fault of his own. Amory, aristocrat of dog owners, one day absent-mindedly left his expensive animal locked in the cab of his truck, parked full in the noonday sun—with the windows rolled tightly up. Since it was a new Toyota, thus air tight, poor Rasputin asphyxiated or died of heat stroke—a sad death.

He wasn’t forgotten though. For years after Rasputin’s death Santos continued to chase Rasputin’s truck with undiminished fury. The image of the big dog, the great adversary, lived on in Santos’ mind til the very day Amory sold the truck and departed the island.

And who knows? Perhaps even ‘til the end of his days—when the old schipperke whimpered in a dream and his legs jerked—he saw Rasputin peering over the tailgate and heard his deep woof.

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