At six years old, there's not a lot of life experience to build stories around, so you rely on TV shows and comic books and stuff your mom and dad read to you when you were younger. That's the raw material you throw into the air when you go outside and make up your own adventures with whatever comes down. And, if you're lucky, there's a dog around, somebody like Boots Prosch, who adds that secret ingredient, that dash of real world experience, that will become so important later on when you sit down to write.
He was Cavendish to my Lone Ranger, Joker to my Batman, roving Hyborian Age monster to my Conan.
He was twice my age with ten times my wisdom, a friend and first mentor. A border collie whose origins are lost to obscurity, Boots belonged to my grandma and grandpa and lived on their Nebraska farm all of his twelve years. Dad thought he was the son of a neighbor's dog, a big fellar called Shep. Somebody else said Boots showed up as a stray, a pup barely weaned tumbling in on the gully-washing waves of a spring thunderstorm. From the very beginning he inspired stories.
In my first memories, he was a working dog, a responsible farm hand. With Boots around, it was easy enough to buy into the trained antics of Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. Even Snoopy's imaginary escapades didn't seem quite so outlandish when compared with the equally improbable antics of Boots. Every morning he was left by himself to stand watch at an open yard gate while my grandpa fed silage to two dozen cattle. Doesn't sound so tough with the cattle more interested in breakfast than rushing the gate? Think again. Boots didn't watch for escaping beef. His job was keeping in three dozen feeder pigs that also shared the yard. And brother, he was good at it.
He could climb ladders. He would carry a thermos of coffee by the handle when Grandma took lunch to the field. He loved to play fetch. With rocks.
He was a tough ol' guy.
But gentle too. I called him "Bootie," and he answered to it naturally enough. In after-school roughhouse, he taught me how to take a punch (a head-butt, really) and how to duck and weave. My afternoon dodgeball coach, Bootie eventually made me king of the third-grade playground. Our contests of "Get That Dog" or "Bootie's a Kitty" were good-natured if seemingly fierce to friends or relatives who didn't know the score.
He never bit to break the skin, but from a distance he mauled me. I never hurt him, but always came away with fistfuls of his shedding black and white coat. We played hard and fought fair, always clear there were boundaries we shouldn't cross: he wasn't allowed in the house. I wasn't allowed near his food dish when he was eating.
And he was a trusty sidekick. He loped along into the woods, trailed me through the corn fields, chased my bike on dirt roads. And all the while, I talked to him. Sharing hopes, worries, dreams.
Making up stories.
Boots taught me the difference between the real character of a dog, and a dog as a character. Watch almost any family movie or flip through a young reader book and you'll see plenty of the latter. Dogs penned in as emotional fodder, put through their paces (or killed outright) by reprehensible hacks with too little understanding of real canine nature. Boots never saved my life. Neither did he die heroically. Or tragically. He never foiled a real life crime or tracked down a villain. Unlike his family friendly counterparts, he didn't molly coddle kittens. Bunnies and squirrels, he killed.
He was a real dog.
As different from other dogs as people are different from each other. He was an individual with his own life.
Through his everyday actions, he taught friendship. And loyalty. And forgiveness. Watching him guard the cattle gate, I learned about responsibility. Watching him kill a squirrel, I learned about nature. We spent a few years together, but I've kept him with me always, and he shows up in the characters I write. He lives on as an old man who knows all the hidden truths in "Joe Dokes" and a crusty old saddle pard in HOLT COUNTY LAW. He's part of a ten year-old kid, Frog Carpenter, in the Jo Harper young reader novellas, and in "Branham's Due," he's a dog.
After Boots, there were other dogs. Each of them taught me something. Each of them had personality and quirks that show up in my writing. There was Tuffy, a German Shepherd feared by most of my friends, who only bit the people who asked for it first (and I can recall a half dozen of those, including myself). There's Fred Bogart, a basset hound who was the most self-willed of them all. And Moses McGee, another basset, as different from Fred as could be, who taught me real patience. They all show up, and will continue to show up, in the writing.
But it began with Boots, and I can't imagine writers who never had a similar companion. Thinking about it, maybe it's why the witches and wizards and magicians of folklore and fairy tales always have cats or birds or some sort of familiar. It's with just such a companion where the magic begins.
In my Holt County stories, Deputy Sheriff Whit Branham is friended by a dog named Leonard. This story, Leonard in Jail, was directly inspired by Boots Prosch. Read it here, and please let me know what you think.
After growing up on a Nebraska farm, Richard Prosch worked as a professional writer, artist, and teacher in Wyoming, South Carolina, and Missouri. His western crime fiction captures the fleeting history and lonely frontier stories of his youth where characters aren’t always what they seem, and the windburned landscapes are filled with swift, deadly danger. In 2016, Richard roped the Spur Award for short fiction given by Western Writers of America. Read more at www.RichardProsch.com