Friday, May 30, 2008

Odie The Mule Shows Off

As promised (and by the emails received, much anticipated!), photos of Odie The Mule with his 13-year-old rider, Demi, at the recent Marin County Pony Club Horse Show.

Odie LOVES to jump, will jump just about anything, and is the ultimate "packer" over fences. Like many mules, he's a powerful, scopey jumper capable of much larger and more complex fences than these. With his former owner, he was shown over 3'9" courses.

Demi studies the outside course. She's nervous because Odie can be naughty on the cross country course. He once decided to go back to the trailer halfway through.

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Tired Odie enjoys one of many second place ribbons earned last weekend, surrounded by the usual throng of mule admirers. He's a real curiosity at shows! Does Odie tell Argus about his adventures away from home? I like to think so.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bedtime Stories

It's been a busy time here at the farm, with two horse shows back-to-back (pictures of Odie the mule jumping cross country to come). Argus felt good after his work with Dr. Guyton, and he's continued to straighten out and build muscle. He's a lot more in his body these days.

Argus has been rather naughty lately, but in a good way. A "normal" horse way, the way you'd expect a 2-year-old horse to be. He and Ridge escaped the pasture a few nights ago (I left the gate open), and spent one glorious hour wandering around the grounds at dusk, before my son said "Hey mom! There are two white ghosts in the yard!"

I ignored Ethan, because it was bedtime and he's famous for his diversionary tactics. We went back to reading "Giant Tales" and I nudged him under the covers. After a few minutes, Ethan peered out his window and said "I think there are horse ghosts in the yard." His eyes twinkled. I peered out to look: Sure enough, two faint white ghosts roamed the perimeter of the vegetable garden, plotting.

Outside, Argus and Ridge stood staring at my tomatoes. Argus, who could not see the chicken wire fence of the veggie garden, plunged half-heartedly into the fencing. My heart stopped as I calmly took off my sweatshirt, cooing to him. I was thinking: We've come too far to lose him to a vegetable garden accident!

Dear Argus stood with his characteristic quizzical expression while I wrapped my sweatshirt around his neck. He led back to the barn like this was part of our daily routine, Ridge shuffling shamefully alongside him. The two horses sighed, their adventure in the "outside world" cut short. They seemed relieved to go back into the pasture.

I wonder how curious Argus is about this outside world. I've written before about how excited he is to see the trailer now. Sunday was no exception. Early Sunday morning, we loaded Odie the mule and Ginger the Shetland pony for a show in Marin County. Argus watched calmly, now used to the appearance of the trailer on weekend mornings, the slow disappearance of his friends down the bumpy gravel driveway, and their long-awaited return at day's end.

When we returned late that evening after a long, dusty day, Argus greeted Odie warmly at the gate. Odie rolled, shook out the last of his braids, and high-tailed it out to pasture. Argus followed dutifully behind. I wondered what their campfire stories would be like that night, with Odie impressing his pasture mates with tall tales of monster jumps. Ridge, I am sure, was one-upping him with stories of his dressage career. Dueling old show horses in the field.

Argus, I can imagine, listened intently, his eyes wide, just like a little boy tucked under the covers enjoying a bedtime story.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Chiropractor Comes To Visit

Here on the farm, time has a funny way of slowing down, speeding up, and occasionally looping back in upon itself. Days sometimes seem to melt into each other, blurred by the business of life: the nurturing of a marriage, the care of four children, running the family business, caring for a multitude of animals and a hobby farm that always seem to be falling apart. In between, the the house must be kept clean, groceries purchased, violin lessons driven to. The girls stay busy with pony club and dreams of local horse shows. The boys divide their time between Shakespeare performances and an obsession with remote-controlled airplanes.

We are blessed with a rich and sacred life that sometimes overshadows the quiet experiences that make it so poignant. The turning of events, the way people and creatures come into our lives and shape them forever, fascinates me. I think back to that fateful phone call last December from a vet I had never met, asking for help with Argus, and wonder: Was this all for a reason?

Once, more than four years ago, I went to the animal shelter to adopt some rats for our son, Drew. At the back of the shelter, in the heartbreaking "never for adoption" section, lay an ancient black and white dog, surrendered by his owners. I stood sadly in front of his kennel, where he never lifted his head to look at me. He had given up. His name was Snoopy. I brought him home that day, thinking we would give him a dignified death away from the pound.

$500 later, the vet said "this is a young dog! Only 8 years old. He has low thyroid and a messed up back from years of chewing at flea bites." We watched Snoopy age in reverse, from what looked like 16, and at death's door, to a dog with energy to rival a puppy. Thyroid medication and chiropractic care were the key to a second life.

So imagine my pleasure when Snoopy's chiropractor of the last 4 1/2 years, Dr. Suzanne Guyton, told me during one of Snoopy's monthly visits that she would like to work on Argus on a volunteer basis. I was thrilled! Dr. Guyton is a human Doctor of Chiropractic whose busy practice is devoted exclusively to horses, dogs and cats.

I had never seen Dr. Guyton work on a horse, but she did just that last Thursday, when she came to Watermark Farm to evaluate Argus.

Argus is sweet and loving, but can be shy with strangers. He has a hard time with men (I think because he has almost never been handled by a man) and people who try to "do things to him." If you take your time, and show him you are not going to hurt or force him, he is willing and cooperative. I knew that gentle Dr. Guyton, with her unobtrusive ways, would be a good match for him.

We were both curious as to what she would find. After all, chronically confined horses are not exactly growing on trees. Dr. Miller, Argus' vet, who has veterinary chiropractic training, had already adjusted Argus' atlas area (that's the area of the neck just behind the ears), and noted the various abnormalities in Argus' body. I was curious as to what Dr. Guyton could do. I prepared myself for nothing more than a thorough evaluation, not knowing if Argus could handle the intrusion of adjustments. Previous neck adjustments had been undertaken with sedation.

I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was Dr. Guyton able to throughly assess Argus, but she also performed adjustments from one end of his body to the other. He was WONDERFUL! I was proud of him! Of course, I fed him about 5 pounds of cookies in the process, but he got it! He understood that Dr. Guyton was here to help him, and he cooperated as if he was an old show horse getting his regular care. At times, he would take huge, deep breaths of relief. By the end, Argus was sleepy. Dr. Guyton said that the result of endorphin release.

So here's the scoop, here's the "train wreck" that Argus is:

Argus' 1st, 2nd and 3rd cervical vertebrae are a mess. These are the vertebrae at the top of neck, behind his head, the big chunky 1st cervical vertebra being called "The Atlas" because it's huge and it sits below the skull, kind of like the mythical Atlas who held up the earth. With Argus, you can see how the Atlas is pushed out to one side. When he first arrived, this area was exquisitely painful.

In addition, Argus' had painful fixation in the thoracic region (the area under the saddle; T9-11 for those who want to know) and the lumbar region (the horse's low back). It was the low back I was most interested in, because when you look at Argus, you are acutely aware that the back end of his body is not fully "alive."

Argus' entire pelvis is badly rotated, much worse than any other horse I've seen. Dr. Guyton commented that what she saw in him was often the result of an accident where the horse's hind end went out from under it. This is plausible, since Argus was kept in his pen all the time, but a few times over the years, he was said to have been let out into a small paddock, where he would "run like crazy" for a little bit before his owner put him back in. The damage done was massive. Argus' entire hind end is a mess.

Most likely, much of the damage in Argus' body stems from total confinement, and from the violent, neurotic weaving style he adopted in order to release energy and keep his sanity. Nature, with its magnificent adaptive ways, remodeled Argus' body in ways that shored him up to withstand the side-to-side motion of weaving. (Weaving is a vice most common in stabled horses where the horse stands and sways from side-to-side. It wreaks havoc on the body.)

Here, you can see the unlevel sacrum:
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Still, Dr. Guyton let out a joyful cry when she discovered that his hind end had "movement," meaning she could adjust it. Craggy arthritis hasn't yet dug its claws in.

Dr. Guyton also pointed out something interesting, something I had wondered about. She noted that Argus' left hip, specifically the region of his ileum (part of the pelvis), was a strange shape. I have since researched the ileum a bit, and now wonder if Argus' has an old, healed fracture of the ileum? This is a common place to have a non-displaced pelvic fracture, and it can heal with time ---- and confinement ----- which Argus had plenty of. Injuries of the ileum can occur with a fall or running through a narrow gate.

I took some pictures, so you can see what it looks like. If there is anyone out there who knows about old injuries like this, please post a comment. I would appreciate your input.

This is the left hip. See the indentation?

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This is the right hip, for comparison.
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This shot shows the indentation in the left hip even better:

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This shot shows Argus' rump, and its asymmetry:
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For comparison, here are Ridge (right) and Argus side-by-side, in nearly the same position. Although they are different horses, with different conformation, you can see how wasted Argus' hind end tends to be when you compare it with Ridge's:

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I asked Dr. Guyton to pose for a photo with her two patients. See how sleepy Argus is? This was taken after the adjustments (Dr. Guyton was able to make headway in every area, by the way).

That's Snoopy, our dog. He LOVES Dr. Guyton. Snoopy has only seen Dr. Guyton at her office, so he was pleasantly surprised and excited when she drove into the farm the other day. He gave her a hearty greeting. When I went to take this photo, Dr. Guyton said "I think Snoopy would like to be in the picture." Look at these two pictures and the way Snoopy is smiling as he snuggles against Dr. Guyton, his friend:

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Argus spent the rest of the day snoozing in his paddock. Later on, when I walked through the barn, he stood in the stall, watching me. I heard the tiniest muffled sound, confirmed by the brief flutter of his nostrils. He was nickering at me. Only the second time ever.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Argus Takes A Real Nap

On Monday morning, I headed down the driveway with a carload of kids. Far away, at the edge of Neighbor Jim's pasture, stood two horses. At their feet in the soft dry grass were two large lumps, one white and one tan.

"Oh look," I said, "Odie and Ridge are taking a morning nap." I squinted my eyes and noticed that the gray horse standing had a full-length tail. It was Ridge.

I slammed on the brakes. It was as if I'd been hit with an electric bolt. "Did you see that? The tail?" I demanded. My poor confused children were asking me "Mom! What's wrong?" At this point, fat tears were already making their way down my face. A world record for crying.

The white horse sleeping in the grass was Argus.
Flat out.

Argus has lived here for more than 5 months, and in this time, I've never seen him lay down except to roll. I've seen signs that he's slept, but have been very concerned all along that he had somehow lost the ability to truly lie down and rest. Life in prison had robbed him of that. After all, it's scary to lay down in a 12 foot wide pen when you are afraid your stiff body will not let you get back up.

So back to the two sleeping lumps. Laying flat out in the pasture, obviously napping, Odie the mule and Argus were nestled in the tall grass, the only sign of life the occasional tail and ear flick. Half Pint and Ridge stood guard over them in a state of relaxed alertness. It was the way I had hoped Argus would learn to sleep --- as a horse does in nature with his herdmates to watch over him and sound the danger alarm.

Deep sleep happens even in horses, even though they are famous for sleeping standing up; to achieve deep, restful sleep (REM sleep) they must lay down. In fact, a well rested horse needs about 20-40 combined minutes of REM sleep in a 24 hour period. They do this in bits and pieces: 2 minutes here, 10 minutes there. Sure, they can go days, and, in Argus' case, months or years without adequate REM sleep, but a price is paid.

Argus is chronically tired, you can see it. He starts to collapse when he sleeps standing up. He will drift off, head sinking lower and lower, until his front legs buckle slightly and he wakes up again. He has chronic "bedsores" on his fetlocks from this. But now that I think of it, I haven't seen him do this in a while. Could it be that he's finally getting some REM sleep under cover of darkness, out in the pasture?

I felt proud of my horses Ridge, Half Pint, and Odie --- Argus' teachers ---- for showing him so many horse skills that he never learned, and that I could not possibly have taught him. They have taught him about body language, play, where to find the best grasses, how to flirt with a girl....and how to take a morning nap. They treat him with a patience and compassion that's unusual for horses. To these three geldings, who somehow seem to know that Argus is special in a way different from all others here at Watermark Farm, I extend my deepest gratitude. You are Argus' teachers, and you are my teachers, too.

I think I'll go take a nap now.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Big Boy Haircut

Argus is curious about the horse trailer and the mysterious comings and goings of Ginger the pony, Ridge and Odie, the three who trailer out the most. This morning, as we left for a Pony Club mounted meeting, he called wistfully to the lone Odie as we rattled down the bumpy gravel driveway, following our progress by running alongside the fence until he ran out of pasture. He stood and watched sadly as we disappeared from view.

Hours later, when we returned, the same process, but in reverse. Argus ended up making his way from the farthest corner of Neighbor Jim's pasture back to the barn, where I had parked the trailer. He watched Odie unload. It made me wonder what they talk about when a horse returns from a trip off the property. Does Odie entertain the horses with tales of Pony Club rallies and horse shows? Does Ridge brag about his great dressage scores? Does Half Pint bore them with tales of his 3+hour trailer rides to the lameness specialist in Oakdale?

Today, I decided to take Argus to visit the horse trailer ---- just to take a look-see. He blew suspiciously at it, and shook a little. I threw a hay bag onto the ramp, encouraging him to eat and relax. He spooked a bit at the hay bag (never seen one before) and peered inside the trailer. I patted him and chattered away happily, telling him what a wonderful thing our trailer can be. We investigated the tack compartment (scary), and Argus took a meek step on the ramp (WAY scary), after which he took a big sigh and looked bored. That was our first trailering lesson.

Next, we tackled tying. For five months (that's how long Argus has been here), I have been teaching Argus to lead, and to respond to halter pressure lightly. That's the cornerstone of successful tying. Many times, we have "pretend" tied, me looping his lead rope loosely through a tie ring, and holding the stray end, ready to let go if panic hits. Working up to being tied is a big deal. I have seen so many horses injured permanently by a bad pull-back accident (that's where they panic while tied and pull back in a violent fit.) So I'm a bit conservative in the typing department these days: I use safety halters, and we tie to baling twine loops. Horses learn to lead, and lead well before they are tied hard.

Feeling ready, I brought Argus into the barn aisle and casually looped his lead through a baling twine loop. I picked up some brushes and went to work. He pulled gently against his leadrope, and to my great pleasure, moved forward nicely each time he felt resistance from the halter and lead. So for the first time ever, Argus stood tied today for grooming.

A thorough brushing, and a mane trim. Competition horses have their mane properly pulled. Here at the farm, once you are retired from all that, you get "the scissors." Manes are shortened the quick and dirty way: by cutting.

This was the first time since Argus' first day out of prison that he's had his mane trimmed. It had grown out nearly SIX inches since December, making him look a bit scruffy and in need of a "big boy haircut." While Argus stood tied quietly, I combed and brushed and snipped. Then I trimmed his fetlock hair (that's the knobby joints just above the hooves) and brushed out his stumpy, but recovering, tail (we found out recently that it was a local VET who cut off his tail when he became entrapped in it while still in prison. SHAME on that vet for not reporting this to the authorities!! I also found out that it was only two months before Animal Control finally extracted Argus from prison that his tail was removed).

Argus stood happily. He loves attention, and he LOVES LOVES LOVES to be groomed. A bodyworker who came to see Argus told me that in Traditional Chinese Medicine, such a deep love of touch is a sign of deficiency. At any rate, Argus will stand quietly all day if you are touching him. He has a wonderful mind, and tries so hard to cooperate.

When I was done with my scissors and brushes and comb, I stood back to admire my work. Before me stood a stately grey sporthorse who looked so proud of his haircut. Half Pint stood in the fatty stall, watching, his nose to Argus. They seemed to be deep in some silent horse conversation. About what, I do not know.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Twelve Thousand Words

It helps to compare periodic photographs, especially shots of the legs and hind end. I see Argus every day, so I don't always notice the changes. Here is Argus last week. Look at his MUSCLES! Look at his gaskin (the area above the hock joint), and then look above that. Compare this picture with the one below to see the changes:

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This is a picture of Argus taken about 6 weeks after he left prison:

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And here's a shot of Argus the day after he left prison. It doesn't really convey just how straight his legs looked. Everyone commented that his legs looked "like sticks." Rehabbing a horse like this is a new adventure for everyone involved ---- vets, farriers, and, of course, me. No one really knows the full effect of so many years of confinement:

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One of the things I remember the most about Argus is that the muscles in his hind end, especially on either side of the tail (what are those called?), felt like soft, gooey bread dough when he first came to me. I would press my hands into these muscles and memorize the feel, because I had NEVER EVER felt anything like it. Today, his muscles feel like regular horse muscles, firm and with substance.

Here is Argus playing "follow the leader" with Ridge. Can you see how it's getting harder and harder to tell them apart from a distance?
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Argus keeps his front right leg bent a good deal of the time. The tendons are hard and contracted in that leg. They have relaxed and stretched some (for example, his leg no longer shakes when he stands quietly), but only time will tell if they ever become normal. I massage these tendons with my hands. They are as hard as concrete. I am hopeful and amazed that he hasn't injured or bowed a tendon on this leg. It's one of the reasons I had to be so careful about turning him out in deep or muddy footing
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A tangle of white Thoroughbred legs. These two are good friends.

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Bookends. Can you tell which one is which?
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Argus and Half Pint strut their stuff. It's good to see Half Pint trotting. He's a rescue horse, also. He was a PMU foal who was rescued at auction by a friend. Sadly, he's had many health issues during his 7 years of life (colic surgery, severe lameness). He has been severely lame over the past two years, despite many trips to see "Uncle Dr. Black," a lameness specialist at Pioneer Equine Hospital. A last-ditch attempt to help him be pasture sound was undertaken last fall, when Half Pint had a bi-lateral neurectomy. For the first time in two years, Half Pint is able to trot and canter around our pasture. It's good to see him enjoying life again.

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Which is which? That's Ridge on the left, Argus on the right.
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He's finally starting to look like a regular horse! Head down, grazing, and look at that hind end. It's not so badly tucked under now. See the lack of muscling in his butt? It makes his back end look like a triangle.

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Argus stops to investigate the crazy photographer (me) who is laying in his field, taking pictures. "What are you doing down there, food lady?" he seems to be saying.
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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cows, Mares, Hoof Trims and Sunset Hugs

Argus is enjoying blue skies and the first golden grass of summer. He spends his days wandering our three fields with his three friends, his head down in a grazing position nearly all the time now. He stares off into the distance less and less.

Our neighbor's beautiful Black Angus heifer just gave birth to a tiny black calf. The next day, our neighbor went out and rescued a newborn male Brahma calf who was destined for auction. The black cow with her "twin" babies --- one tiny black heifer and the even tinier white Brahma calf --- have caught Argus' attention and fascination. He watches them over the fence as Mama cow tandem nurses both babies (she accepted the Brahma without fuss, almost as if she knew his life depended on her kindness) and stands protectively over them. Argus, too, stands protectively a few feet away, on the other side of the fence. He will have nothing of Ridge's silliness about cattle.

Spring is in the air, but for the rather asexual Argus, it means little in the way of love. While the other geldings are "feeling their oats," Argus is having his first taste of romance in the form of Angel, a crippled and beautiful mother horse rescued from a feedlot last year. Angel, who was once an emaciated, used up broodmare...(Here she is at the feedlot in April 2007, her baby hiding behind her)

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is now a shiny and stunning bay who limps around our yard, napping in different locations according to the time of day. Here is Angel in March 2008:

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Over the fence, she and Argus have become friends, and something more. Argus is learning the fine art of courtship, with hussy Angel directing him. He has no idea what he has gotten himself into.

Angel sashays up to the fence separating them (they've been together in turnout, too, but Angel's crippled legs can't hold up to much playtime), presenting herself to the confused Argus, who clearly has no idea what she means with her friendly winking. He rests his head on her back and closes his eyes, breathing deeply of her smell and the warmth of her mirror-like coat. She is love-starved; he just wants friendship. Somehow, they seem to meet each other's needs.

Argus saw the farrier last week. It was his third trim since his rescue, and the first full-fledged trim without drugs! I was so proud of Argus, who at first regarded farrier Mare (yes, that's really her name) with so much suspicion, I thought we would be out of luck. Mare, who is preparing to take her Journeyman farrier exam, had spent the morning forging shoes by hand. She arrived reeking of burnt hooves and forge fire. Argus recoiled at her smell, but relaxed once he saw the cookies in her hand. He politely accepted one, and let Mare get to work.

First one foot, then the other. Our hard work, Argus and mine, is paying off. Lately, we have been playing farrier together. I strap on some chaps (the closest thing to a farrier's apron I own), and make a big production with my rasp and nippers. I pick up Argus' front feet and practice holding them between my legs. I bang and rasp a bit, dropping tools and making clanking sounds. Argus snorts at me and jerks his leg back. I stroke him quietly and start again. It's hard work, and it makes me appreciate the farrier's back.

For Argus, it's curious work, too, and he cooperates nicely, even though sometimes it's scary and he doesn't quite understand. I don't own a stand, so Argus is learning to place his foot on a bucket for more "pretend" rasping. I am amazed at this horse. He is nicer and more willing than many other horses I have worked with. He loves to learn, and he learns quickly.

It all paid off during Mare's visit. She was able to do a decent trim on all four feet. Sure I was at Argus' head plying him with a bucket of alfalfa meal, but we got it done without drama or upset, and Argus ambled slowly away when it was over. I smiled so hard my face hurt afterward, and I must have told him "I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!!" fifty times. I wondered if the farrier thought I'd lost my mind. But then again, I suspect she has thought this about me, with my odd collection of crippled and unwanted horses, for a long time. But then again, she's a soft heart like me, and she understands my ways.

Next week, Argus starts chiropractic treatment with a horse chiropractor who has volunteered to treat a horse in the CHANGE program (which helps fund Argus' care --- I am eager to see what she thinks about Argus' physical condition.

For a while, I felt discouraged about Argus. He seemed to stay skinny, his ribs showed, he looked perpetually curled up like a shrimp. Sometimes I go back and look at my own blog entries to remind myself of his progress. I realized one day that he'd only been out in group turnout for four weeks, and here I was frustrated because he didn't look better. Argus' blog helps his foster mom in more ways than one.

But this week, something is changing for sure. I can see less of Argus' ribs, and his pelvis is less tipped under. More and more, I see Argus and his white companion Ridge far out in the field, and I have to look hard to see who is who (the tail length always clues me in). Sometimes at dusk, when I walk out into the pasture to bring one last horse in for the night, I stand with Ridge and hug him and tell him I love him, only to look closely and see that famous bloody shoulder. It's Argus who's mistakenly the object of my near-dark affection. It makes no matter. I hug him again, give Ridge my love, and head back toward the warmly lit windows of the house. I can feel Argus watching me go, then walking toward Ridge, as if to say with disbelief: "Can you believe that, man? She thinks I'm YOU?!"