Lookout! – Part 1

Stories from the Driftless

By Mike Byrne –

In the late spring of 1976, after graduation from college, I moved from my small town apartment to rural Wisconsin.  College seemed like only a dream a few weeks later.  I settled on a piece of mother earth and tamed an acre of her with an old mower and an axe, planted a garden, hauled water from a spring to my cabin, and gradually got to know the neighborhood.

My piece of heaven was by chance right in the middle of an Amish community.  Some seventy families strong, they worked hard and were warm and friendly, yet reserved and cautious.  Since I too shunned electricity, relied on wood for heat, and hauled my own water, the Amish liked me—they opened up a bit, and I was invited in to eat lunch once in a while.

There were many images I have cherished from that summer, mostly the realization that Amish folks are really genuine and honest.  They are absolutely committed to what they hold dear.  I learned that even though Amish people don’t go out of their way to mingle with the modern world, they are aware of it, and sample ideas from it, adopting knowledge when it doesn’t conflict with what they believe to be right.

One of the teenagers next door brought home a little beagle puppy one fall day, and it was, of course, a really cute little thing.  Beagles, like any other pups, are curious and impulsive, and given to wandering around the countryside a bit.  So it wasn’t unusual for the pup to be nowhere in sight at times.  But one day the pup didn’t come home. 

For several days everyone looked for him.  After the third day a tearful Amish boy told me, “Dad says the coyotes got ‘em.” 

“Let’s take Cindy and Ananda out and check again,” I said.

So Cindy and Ananda and I walked increasingly larger circles around the Amish farm with a couple of their kids.  Now Ananda was a big, rangy Irish Wolfhound, and he could cover a lot of ground.  Cindy was a little Rat Terrier who couldn’t resist sticking her head down every hole she ever came across.  Around 2:30 that afternoon, we heard Ananda barking ahead of us.

When we caught up with him, he was standing with his legs spread wide and little Cindy underneath him, digging furiously.  Every time Cindy got tired, after digging 2 or 3 inches, she’d step aside and Ananda would dig in and really make the dirt fly.  I pushed them both aside and got down on my hands and knees, trying to look down the hole.  When I got down close to the hole, I heard an unmistakable whine.  Sure enough, it was that beagle pup, and he was way down in that hole. 

I sent the Amish boys home for a shovel…you never saw boys run so fast.  But by the time they got back, that big Wolfhound had dug so far I was able to stick my arm down there and pull the pup out. 

Unfortunately his back leg was held by a trap—probably set to catch a fox—and the trap had ruined that leg.  When the Amish boys saw the trap, the older one, Amos, declared, “There’s my cousin’s missing trap.” 

The other boy shook his head, “It’s lucky he’s not here, ‘cuz I’d like to shove him down that hole!”  We rushed the pup into the veterinarian in town, and the whole vet office flew into action.  A surgical team was arranged, and soon the pup was lying on the table knocked out cold while the doctor amputated the leg. 

It was all over in an hour, but the pup was out all afternoon.  As soon as he was beginning to wake up we took him home.  The boys carried him to a makeshift convalescent room at the back of their shed—Amish dogs never enter the house.  One of the younger boys spent the night with him.  It was lucky it wasn’t the dead of winter. 

Over the next few weeks they changed bandages, assisted him in making his way around the yard, and spoiled him to death with table scraps.  They complained later that he refused his regular dog food, but by then he felt he was pretty special. 

Having survived, he spent the summer demonstrating how he could get along on three legs.  If he got cold at night, he’d sleep with the pigs in some hay in a little lean-to they had.  For some reason the big sow, Tiny, didn’t mind him there.  In fact, she sort of adopted him.  Wherever the big sow went, that dog was not far behind.  He used to sit on the lean-to roof watching for anything amiss, so they came to call him ‘Lookout.’  If he saw anything, he’d let out with that classic Beagle sound—on a windless day you could hear that dog baying through the hills, all the way down in my front yard!

All that summer Lookout would come to greet me warmly whenever I was around, and I always brought some dog biscuits for him, and carrots or apples for his friend the old sow.  She seemed such a big gentle hog, and smarter than you think, which is why she kept her eye on the whole farm along with Lookout.  The two of them were quite a sight. 

Fast forward to Christmas Eve, when I happened to find myself alone, for reasons not necessary to detail.  So the Amish boys came down around noon and announced, “Ma an’ Pa would like you to come up this evening for dinner!” 

Now, normally, the Amish keep to themselves, so this was a big deal.  After I got myself cleaned up I lit out walking through the dusky woods toward their house.  On the way there I saw an owl fly across the valley and for some reason the hair stood on the back of my neck for a second before I brushed it off.  Nature is full of prophetic symbols, and if you are paying attention, they sometimes jump out at you.  Owls are supposed to inspire caution, according to an old Native American man I know.  The journey up to the Amish takes about 25 minutes when you can see where you’re going, and the last part of the trail is very steeply uphill.  I never thought about what it might be like in the dark, after all, it was mostly my own woods, wasn’t it?

It was a long and pleasant evening, and even Mother Nature cooperated with the Christmas spirit and arranged a brisk snowfall.  We sat in the living room and told stories while it snowed, and threw logs on the fire.  Around 11:00, which was way past a typical Amish bedtime, father Jake announced, “We best be goin’ to bed, we still gotta milk in the mornin’.”

Oldest son Ben offered to give me a buggy ride home, but I turned him down because I knew how long it would take to harness up the buggy horse and pull the poor horse out of a warm stall in the middle of the night. I was imagining the snow would make for a beautiful walk home.  When I stepped outside and felt the wind and realized the snow was really piling up and drifting, I almost went back in and reconsidered the offer.  But it was just back home to my place; I’d done it a thousand times.  So I clenched my teeth and started down the path between the barn and the hogpen.  When I passed by the lean-to I heard one muffled woof from Lookout.  “Just me!” I called out, “Go back to bed!”  There was no answer, so I knew he understood. 

A few more steps and I was out in the fields behind the farm buildings.  Now I knew how bad the wind had become.  It blew the snow so hard it stung my cheeks.  I bend my head down, turned up my collar and trudged through the snow.  It was already about five inches deep on the level ground, but drifts were much higher.  When I stepped into one it went over my big army surplus boots, the snow packed into them and down to my ankles instantly.  I regretted not wearing better gear for the journey.  Several times I tried to skirt a drift, changing course to do so.  Once I backtracked and plunged through because I knew it was the only way. 

Lookout Part 2 Continued….
I began to regret the journey altogether.