The following is excerpted from Jon Katz’sThe Second-Chance Dog: A Love Story which is being published next week by Ballantine Books.
I heard the barking as soon as I pulled into the gravel driveway of the sprawling old farmhouse on a country road about five miles from my farm. The noise was coming not from the house but from a barn behind it.
It was the deep-throated, door-rattling roar of the guard dog, and there was something undeniably frightening about it. A dog with a voice like that had to be huge and powerful. I had never heard a roar quite like it. None of my dogs ever barked in such a furious, almost panicked way. It was a bark to be taken seriously, very seriously, and I was reminded of the raptor in Jurassic Park busting out of its prison.
I was not looking for trouble from a dog. My life, at this point, was in upheaval. I was spectacularly disconnected from the world and attempting to stave off a crack-up. I tried to soothe my internal turmoil by focusing on fixing up my collapsing Civil War–era farm and barns, at least three of which were about to topple over into the road. Barns were collapsing and being torn down all over Washington County, N.Y., where I lived, but I was determined that my four would be saved. This project was horrifically expensive and complicated, but I couldn’t bear to see these beautiful old structures disintegrate.
I wanted some old windows to put in one side of my big dairy barn so that the grand old red silo housed inside the barn (an unusual feature) could be seen from outside. No real farmer would consider such an insane thing. But at the time, I was not sane. An HBO film crew had just finished making a movie of my trek upstate, and the very air was suffused with unreality.
So, I had come to this place because I’d been told that the couple restoring this farmhouse had some old windows. A thin, wiry woman with short brown hair, wearing tattered jeans, a paint-splattered shirt, and sandals, came out of the door and approached me. As we stood in the drive, she began urging the dog to calm down. “Ssssssh, Frieda, quiet,” she said. Her voice was so soft and tentative I knew she didn’t really mean it, and the dog surely knew she didn’t. She was concerned that I might be frightened, but I can tell when somebody means to change a dog’s behavior and when they don’t.
“We can’t have many people over.” She smiled, tilting her head back toward the frenzied roaring and charging coming from the small barn.
There was something melancholy about this woman. She was so quiet and reserved. She shyly explained that she and her husband were living in a small barn while they fixed up the farmhouse close by. “Who is that?” I asked, gesturing toward the barn, whose door was still rattling from the force of the dog inside throwing herself against it.
“That’s Frieda,” she said, surprising me with a radiant smile.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “I’m Jon.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m Maria. I have to confess,” she continued, “I haven’t read any of your books.” She was small, frail, almost elfin. But I knew I saw some humor in her eyes, attitude, pride. She was restoring houses with her husband, she said, adding almost under her breath that she was also an artist.
“That’s OK, most people haven’t. Anyway, I can give you one,” I said, reaching into the car. I had brought a paperback with me.
I don’t know why I’d brought a copy of that book—it was The Dogs of Bedlam Farm—for Maria. She looked at it and laughed, and would soon put it aside.
Maria invited me into the barn, into the small room she was living in while working on the farmhouse. I hesitated.