Fergus was a king among dogs, big and gentle and funny and strong.
Fergus wasn't born king, and in fact, didn't even look like prince material when he came to live with us. My mom and I even commented that he'd never be the leader our beloved Tim had been; Ferg was just too much the eternal puppy. He broke through screen doors and scrambled over fences and ran around the property with wild and gleeful abandon. He didn't oversee the other dogs, he aided and abetted them in wickedness and pranks.
But one day I noticed a certain regalness in the way Fergus was carrying himself... just a hint of kingliness, and then it was gone. Now and then, as he lay in front of the fireplace, I saw a crown flickering on his brow, only to blink and see nothing but his tousled gray head.
Fergus was a show dog, and while he did quite a bit of winning as a young dog, I stopped showing him because he liked it just a bit too much. The first day of a three day show weekend he'd be wonderful, noble and strong and moving with grace and elegance. The next day he was likely to try to start a game of "catch me" with the other dogs in the ring, and by the third day he thought that perhaps the judge might like to play, too? Despite that, he did some impressive winning, including our national club's Supported Entry two years in a row.
Fergus was a father, too, and sired both field and show champions. As a breeder, of course, those things mean a lot to me. But my most treasured memories of Fergus as a father are of him first meeting his tiny babies, while they were only a few days old and still in their whelping box. Their mother allowed Ferg - and ONLY Ferg - to get in the box with her babies. Although still a young and somewhat coltish dog at the time, he was careful to the point of delicacy when he moved around the puppies. When they got a bit older, he taught them to run, making tiny little mincing steps and watching over his shoulder as they streamed behind him like ducklings.
I don't know when I first consciously realized Fergus had become the leader of our pack. One day he was not, and then one day he was. The females, who had been running things since Timmy died, accepted Fergus quietly and without contention.
Fergus ruled with a velvet glove, peacefully eating and co-existing with our other unaltered male dogs, like a proper deerhound should. It helped that his sons and grandson wouldn't have dreamed of challenging him, having grown up knowing Ferg was king, even though I didn't figure it out until later.
Fergus took his job of protecting me and my mother seriously, coming to stand strongly at our sides when the younger dogs got too rowdy, protecting us from an accidental crash landing as the youngsters flew around at top speed. "Chicken" is a favorite deerhound game, and Fergus (who had played it with us himself at one time) made it his job to be between us and them. He also protected the older females in the same way, herding them over to us and protecting us all. I never saw one of those flying dogs crash into Fergus.
Fergus was diagnosed in January of 1998 with megaesophagus, a condition that impedes swallowing and makes dogs susceptible to aspiration pneumonia. We almost lost him that winter, and in the fight to overcome this terrible disease, I bonded with Fergus in the way you only do when you fight death and win.
He wasn't the athlete he had been before a series of bouts with the lung infection wore him down, but he wasn't about to let the kids know. Running at the head of the pack, and finding himself beginning to tire, he would stop, pretending to have sited a deer over the fence, or smelled something fascinating on the edge of the woods. The kids never caught on, stopping and riveting their eyes where his gaze was fixed, or smelling eagerly at the spot that had attracted Fergus' attention.
Although I won the contest with death at first, in the end, as is always the case, death was the victor. Fergus fell down a flight of stairs in October 2000, and we lost him at the age of eight. I did not get to say goodbye, and I refuse to say it now.
Wait for me at the Bridge, Ferg.