The first year on his travels had been a blur. From town to town; village to village Robert kept moving on. He wasn’t sure where he was going. All he knew was that he had to get further away from Ferndale Falls – from the memories; from the family who had shunned him and Annie when they needed them most. It was late autumn ‘59 when Robert hitched up at Mitch Dawson’s dairy farm, about two hundred miles north west of Bismarck. Heck, he hated farms and farming, but it was the only way he knew how to earn a living.
After another hot, tiring day in the fields Robert’s aching body needed out of the baking sun. Wandering across the farmyard he spotted an gnarly looking oak tree; dark patches of cooling shade within its canopy of twisting branches appeared just the place to grab some desperately needed sleep. Mopping his brow, Robert took a quick swig from his hip-flask before settling down with his back against the trunk. Within moments his eyes started to close.
Yip. Yip. Yip.
Robert eyes slowly re-opened. Glancing around he couldn’t see anything, or anyone. Then it came again. The noise. It sounded like it was coming from inside a timber outhouse a few yards from his oak tree. Crawling towards a knot in the wooden panelling he peered through. He couldn’t see much, a few bales of straw: they seemed to be forming some sort of barrier. Suddenly a pair of paws breached the straw horizon. Quickly followed by a head – a pup, and by the sounds of it there were plenty more. Robert watched for a few minutes before returning back to the shade. This time his eyes closed without interruption.
When Robert woke again all was quiet. The memory of the pups stuck with him though as he headed off to help with evening’s milking. The Belmonts had always had packs of working dogs on their farm; it was probably the one thing he missed about being on the road.
‘Howdy there Bob. Have a good snooze?’ enquired Mitch.
(Most folks called him Bob these days. He was happy enough with this – felt like he was shedding one more piece of baggage from his previous life.)
‘Yes, thanks Mr Dawson. Found a spot under the oak tree in the yard. Nice and cool it was,’ he said.
‘Ahh right, hope the critters in the outhouse didn’t keep you awake!’
‘Oh no, Mr Dawson. Sounded a lively bunch right enough. How many are there?’
‘Seven: their mother’s third litter. Got homes for most of them already. You a dog man Bob?’
‘We were when I was growing up. Never let you down dogs. Not like family can,’ he replied.
As milking was finishing Mitch Dawson tapped Bob on the shoulder.
‘Would you like to see the pups, Bob?’
‘Sure, Mr Dawson. I’d like that just fine,’ he replied.
Closing the outhouse door behind them they were greeted with the same excited yips that Bob had heard from the shade of his oak tree. Moving closer he could see the source of the noise. Labrador puppies. Seven, as Mr Dawson had said: three golden, three black and one brown.
‘Never seen a brown one before’ said Bob.
‘Yeh, the brownies always the last to go. Folks only seems to want the blacks and golds,’ replied Mr Dawson.
Over the next week Bob returned to the outhouse every evening. Quickly he had his favourite. While new owners came and went with their pups there was now only one left. Tomorrow he was hitting the road again – he’d miss the little brownie.
As the chill morning mist began to burn away Bob packed up his knapsack. His possessions didn’t amount to much but he had all he needed. Mr Dawson would already be out in the fields – he’d see him again next time he was up this way. Bob took one last look around the yard and turned to head down the long, dusty road back to the highway.
‘Bob, Bob! Wait up,’ came the cry.
Turning, Bob saw Mr Dawson jogging towards him. In his arms he appeared to be carrying a bundle of blankets. Mr Dawson had always been very kind to Bob.
‘Hey, no, I have enough blankets Mr Dawson. Honest, I’m fine.’
Mr Dawson laughed as he drew up to Bob. Buried deep in the blankets something was moving, yipping. Suddenly a head and then two brown ears poked out, blinking in the morning light.
‘Take him with you Bob. He’ll keep you company. I trust you to look after him.’
Before he could answer Mr Dawson had passed the wriggling bundle into Bob’s arms.
‘Just promise me one thing Bob, you’ll bring him back to see us on the farm from time to time. Will you do that?’
‘Err, of course, yes, yes of course’ he stuttered.
‘Good. Now I’ve got to go Bob. Take care of yourselves. See you again soon?’
With that Mr Dawson rushed off; Robert and his squirming bundle went on their way.
As dusk fell Bob made camp in woods near Jonesdale. His new companion was curled up snoring close to the crackling fire. Bob had to admit it was nice not to be alone. He hadn’t missed people so much, but he had missed company. Now though he wasn’t just looking after himself. There was someone else relying on him. He had to think where to go next. Where he and brownie were going next.
This is story 2 in an ongoing series of tales about the life of Hairy Bob and Mugwump.