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       Penny, p.2

           Hal Borland
 
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  We never knew just how old he was, but we guessed he was at least twelve, maybe fourteen, when his book was published. He lived another year and a half, wearing his age like a badge, gray around the face, stiff in all the joints every morning, but never admitting, if he ever knew, that he was an old dog. Active till the end, he died peacefully, and we knew what a privilege it had been to know him. But we had no intention of ever having another dog. Our lives involve occasional trips, usually on business, and Pat hated to be left behind, disliked even the best of kennel keepers. Besides, we didn’t think it would be fair either to us or to another dog to compare the new dog with Pat, as we inevitably would. So we said a firm no to those who insisted we must get a dog to replace Pat. But it took some time to make our friends and quite a few friendly but unknown readers accept our decision and stop urging very special puppies on us.

  That is why we were not really disappointed when the basset walked off and left us without so much as a farewell. We didn’t want to become involved simply by doing a good turn for a lost dog.

  She left us on a Friday. Saturday was bright and sunny, and the snow in our dooryard began to melt, at last. I went for a long walk, looking for migrant birds, and didn’t see one. It was still too wintery, too cold and too much snow, for the robins or even the redwings to arrive. Sunday was sunny too, and we drove past Twin Lakes and down to Lake Wononscopomuc, where we have a small camp. But the ice hadn’t even begun to break up on the lakes. It would be another two months, six weeks at least, before I could put my boat in the water. Monday we went to Pittsfield and were caught in snow flurries. Winter just wouldn’t let go. Tuesday was warm again, and for the first time since December the ice began to break up on the river. A channel of open water had cleared by early afternoon. The next day was Barbara’s birthday, so when I went to the village to have the car greased that morning I bought a toy stuffed dog as a gag present for her. It wasn’t a basset, but it did have long, floppy ears and I thought it would give her a laugh. Soon after I got home the florist delivered the bunch of violets she always gets from me, and I decided to add the laughs ahead of time. I gave her the toy dog. She was properly amused, said it was more welcome than its live counterpart because it didn’t have to be fed and it never would bark in the night. “This is exactly the kind of dog I wanted.”

  That afternoon we went for a walk up the road beside the river and found the first signs of spring—the red osiers were blood red, the riverbank willows were quickening, their withes almost amber in color, and the buds on the shadbush were very fat, getting ready to burst into foamy white blossoms. We walked, and we talked of spring, of bluets and anemones, and of scallions and dandelion greens. We came back down the road, home. And here, sitting on the front steps just as though she belonged here, was the basset. Waiting for us. Expecting us to return and welcome her with open arms. She stood up as we started up the walk, wagged her tail slowly, confidently, watched us with that “Here I am, you lucky people” look again. And Barbara exlaimed, “Well, look who’s here!” And then, “She came back for my birthday!”

  The dog greeted us with happy but restrained little barks, danced but remembered not to leap at Barbara, and was at the door before we were. She came in ahead of us, romped through the living room and into the kitchen, where she waited expectantly at the refrigerator. Barbara warmed milk, gave her a bowl of corn flakes. While the dog was gulping that down Barbara decided it was meager fare and certainly not in keeping with a birthday, so she opened a can of corned beef hash. That, the dog made it quite clear, was more like living. That was something that would stick to the ribs. She finished the corned beef hash and clearly indicated that she could eat another can of it, maybe two more. But Barbara, the commissary department, decided that one was plenty.

  When she had eaten, I put the dog outdoors. She was back within five minutes, ready for more food. She didn’t get it and went to the living room, to her chosen place beneath the bench. She made it quite clear that she felt she had come home. We left her there and went to the library and started a game of Scrabble. Within fifteen minutes, here came the dog, obviously wanting to be with people. She looked things over and lay down beside Barbara’s chair. Five minutes and Barbara sniffed and asked, “What smells?” I couldn’t smell anything special. But she sniffed again and announced, “It’s the dog. She gets a bath tomorrow.” And she sent the dog back to the living room and closed the door.

  Suppertime came and, to my surprise, the dog stayed in the living room. No nosing around the kitchen begging for a snack while Barbara was cooking, and no begging at the table while we ate. I chalked up a couple of good-conduct marks for her.

  After supper Barbara phoned Morris, told him the dog had come back and asked what he knew about bassets. Even from where I sat I could hear his laugh. Barbara hung up and said, “He’s coming over. He wants to see her.”

  When Morris arrived the dog looked up at the sound of his car in the driveway. When he slammed the car door she got up and was all attention. When he came up onto the porch she barked, a remarkably deep, thoroughly challenging bark. Morris came in and she was there in the hallway, demanding to know who he was and why he was intruding. He laughed at her and I said, “It’s all right. He’s a friend,” and she calmed down.

  “Hey,” Morris said, “you’ve got yourselves a watchdog. As well as a rabbit hound!”

  We went into the living room and the dog went to Morris, sniffed. She smelled dog on him, his own foxhound, Lady. He squatted down and rubbed her ears, let her put her forefeet on his knee, inspected her broad chest, her short, stocky legs, her big feet. “Nice dog,” he announced. He ran his hand over her sleek skin and felt something in her right flank. I looked and saw that the hair was shorter there, and when he parted the hair there was a scar and the mark of several stitches. She had had a gash several inches long, and somebody had thought enough of her to take her to a vet and have the wound taken care of properly. Morris examined it and said, “I wonder if Dr. Vince did this job. I’m going to find out.” He went to the phone and called his neighbor in the village, a veterinarian, but there was no answer. Dr. Vince was out. I said we would call him in the morning, and we went back to the living room and talked dogs for another half hour. Morris agreed that the basset was probably pedigreed, certainly of excellent blood, and was young enough to train as a rabbit dog. “You won’t even have to train her,” he said. “Just take her up on the mountain and let her go. She’ll put up a rabbit and away she’ll go. Second nature to a basset.”

  When Morris left I tried again to reach Dr. Vince, but still there was no answer. Then I tried the veterinarian in Great Barrington, fifteen miles to the north. No answer there either. Evidently it was veterinarians’ night out. We called it a day, put the dog out for ten minutes, then bedded her down on the enclosed back porch as before. She was content, and we went upstairs to go to bed ourselves.

  “I don’t know whether I want another dog or not,” Barbara said.

  “Nobody asked you,” I said. “This one just took it for granted that you wanted her.”

  “Well, if she stays she’s not mine. She’ll have to be ours.”

  “Then you want to keep her?”

  “I said I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.” And a moment later she asked, “What would be a good name for her?”

  And there it was. She had made her decision. You don’t name a dog you don’t expect to keep.

  I couldn’t think of a good name for a basset. Not offhand. And I didn’t try very hard that night. Plenty of time tomorrow, I decided.

  The next morning I was of two minds about letting the dog out after I gave her a snack of breakfast. I didn’t want her to go kiting off before at least greeting Barbara, even if she couldn’t really wish her a happy birthday. But I let her out, and she was back within ten minutes, insisted on being let in. It was not a morning that invited casual strolls. The forecast had been for light rain, but up here in the hills it came as snow. More snow, which
we certainly didn’t need.

  The dog came back in, and when Barbara came downstairs a few minutes later and I chanted, “Happy birthday, dear Barbara,” the dog seemed to sense celebration. She danced happily, softly barked a greeting and galloped about the library, then into the kitchen ahead of Barbara. And skidded on the linoleum, went sprawling and got to her feet with an absolutely clownish gesture of nonchalance. We laughed at her and she barked again, seeming to enjoy the laughter, even at her own expense. Most dogs act shamefaced or indignant when they are laughed at. Pat resented such laughter. Maybe this dog had a sense of humor, we decided.

  Barbara got her coffee, looked out at the falling snow, gave up on the weather. When she was really awake we got breakfast, and about nine she phoned the veterinarian in Barrington. Yes, Dr. Gulick said, they had had two bassets in for surgery in the past month. One of them only ten days ago, so obviously not the dog at our house; but the other back in February, about the right timing. He gave Barbara the name and phone number of the owner, a woman in Monterey, Massachusetts. That seemed a coincidence. The man who thought Pat might have been his dog had lost his hound on a mountain in Monterey. Barbara tried to reach the basset owner in Monterey, got no answer. So she called Dr. Vince in Canaan, and he said he didn’t remember treating a basset recently, but he would like to see this dog. Were we coming to Canaan this morning? Barbara said yes, we probably would, and he said to bring the dog over to his office, let him look her over.

  We had to do some marketing, so we got ready and went to Canaan in midmorning. Lacking a leash, I took a long leather thong and tied it to the dog’s collar. She thought I was playing some kind of game, and she wanted to play too. She grabbed the thong from me and dashed from kitchen to living room to hall to library. I finally cornered her and persuaded her to stop romping, took her to the garage, put her in the car. And we went to Canaan, to Dr. Vince’s office. There she wanted to resume the chase-me game but quieted down and became interested in all the marvelous dog smells. Dr. Vince came out and she thought he was a nice man, went with him to the back room and let him put her on the examining table. I wondered how she would react, if the stitches in that flank wound had been painful enough to make her suspicious. Not a bit of that. She was curious about what was going on, but that was all. He examined her, said the wound was well healed, removed the remaining two stitches, said it looked like a Dr. Gulick job, and we told him what Dr. Gulick had reported. He went on with the examination, said she seemed to be spayed, for her glands were very small, seemed to be inactive. He guessed her age at about three years. Barbara said she wanted the dog to have a bath, to be sweetened up a little, and Dr. Vince said that was easy; just to leave her there while we did the marketing.

  So we went down to the market and to the other stores, bought the groceries and household supplies—including an assortment of canned dog food. And I stopped at the hardware store and bought a chain leash and a black leather collar. I wanted no more of this nonsense of chewing a leather thong just for the fun of it. Then we went back to the vet’s office. The dog was ready to go, still damp but smelling clean, slightly perfumed. Dr. Vince had even trimmed her nails. She barked happily at us and pranced out to the car. Her car. There were three cars parked there, and she picked the right one the first time. I opened the door and in she went and onto the back seat. And so we came home. It was still snowing, light, slushy snow. Somehow a snow like that in mid-March doesn’t seem proper, possibly even illegal.

  At home we got old towels and rubbed the dog virtually dry, then let her lie on the rug in front of the hot air register in the front hall. Half an hour there and she came and found me and insisted that she wanted to go outdoors. I put on a jacket and cap and went out with her. She barked at the falling snow and went dashing up the road. I ran after her, calling, ordering, demanding. She ran a hundred yards, turned and came back past me, turned again and was off up the road once more. Games, still playing games with me. I didn’t want to play games in that snow. But I followed her a couple of hundred yards. Then she darted off, headed for the woods on the mountainside. I hurried after her, got my shoes full of snow, used all my strongest words and after five minutes decided to let her go. I turned and came back to the house, breathless and angry. And started to tell Barbara what an impossible dog that little bitch was, and how little I cared whether she ever came back. I had barely started my recital when the whining at the front door indicated that she was back. Barbara let her in, told her that she was a very thoughtless dog, chided her for getting all wet and getting her feet and legs and belly muddy, right after having a bath. The dog didn’t even bat an eye. She allowed herself to be wiped off again and went to her refuge under the bench in the living room.

  We ate lunch, a roast pheasant that we had saved in the freezer for such a special occasion, and when we had finished, right through the angel food cake and ice cream, we played a couple of new records and decided to go for a walk, since it had stopped snowing. So we went, the three of us. This time I put the dog on the new leash, and Barbara tried to hold her in check. It was like trying to check a headstrong ox—she almost pulled Barbara’s arm from its socket. How so small a dog managed so much pulling power was a mystery until I began trying to calculate the strength of those stocky legs and the leverage she had in their short length. Finally I took the leash, and she almost dragged me off my feet before I slowed her down. At last she tired of that game and walked at our pace, and when we turned back after half a mile up the road she was content to walk with us, not try to break any speed records.

  Home again, we read a while. And Barbara called the woman in Monterey. That time she got an answer. “We hear,” Barbara said, “that you have a basset hound. A female.”

  “That’s right,” the woman said. “She is right here beside me this very minute.”

  Barbara exclaimed, “Oh, thank goodness!” And went on to tell her about the dog we had.

  They talked for half an hour, about basset lore, food, habits, temperament, sickness—everything one could imagine. Before they had finished they were on a friendly first-name basis. And when she finally hung up, Barbara said, “Sybil says that bassets are just about the best dogs in the world. Gentle and loving and sturdy and healthy. They do tend to be wanderers, she says, but they come home. Her basset is ten years old and pretty well over the wandering stage. Sybil has four dogs, but her basset is her favorite, apparently. She said to call her any time a problem comes up.”

  And a few minutes later she asked, “What would be a good name for her?”

  So we discussed names, everything from the facetious to the pontifical. Pain-in-the-Neck to Queen Elizabeth. Ariadne to Chloe. Birthday Girl to Iris March. None of them seemed quite right. We took a recess from the naming and I built a fire in the Franklin stove. The dog stood and watched the flames a few minutes, then sat on the rug in front of it, watched the fire intently and lay down, facing it, and went to sleep. And Barbara said, “I wondered, when she took off this noon while you were out, if she would come back.”

  I said, “She’ll always come back now. Just like a bad penny—she’ll always come back.”

  “Penny,” Barbara said. “That’s it.” She called to the dog, drowsing in front of the fire, “Penny. Penny, come here, Penny!”

  The dog lifted her head and yawned, looked around at Barbara.

  Barbara said again, “Come here, Penny,” and the dog got to her feet, stretched and went to Barbara. “There,” Barbara said to me. “That’s her name, and she already knows it. I wonder what her name really was. Emmy, maybe. Or Jenny. Something with that ‘any’ sound, I’ll bet.”

  We got supper and ate, and Penny got her evening meal. We sat in front of the fire for a time, talking, and I put Penny outside and she came back and was put to bed on the back porch. Barbara said it had been one of the nicest birthdays she could remember. We sat and watched the embers fade and begin to die, and finally we went upstairs to get ready for bed.

  I was half undresse
d when I heard Johnny arrive. Johnny is the dairy farmer up the road who plows the snow out of our driveway every winter. The snow had stopped in midafternoon after giving us another eight inches, but Johnny had his evening milking to do and his barn chores. Then he ate his supper and relaxed a bit, and now he was here to plow out our driveway.

  He hadn’t much more than started when I heard Penny, all the way downstairs on the back porch. She was growling, the most furious growl you ever heard from a small dog. She barked baritone, but she growled basso profundo. It would scare the living daylights out of a prowler, I thought, for it sounded like the warning of an angry mastiff, maybe a full-grown lion. I listened and I smiled, wondering what she thought was going on outside. Then she began barking, that baritone bark. Threatening, challenging. She barked half a dozen times, waited, barked again. And I, in a robe, went downstairs and tried to make her understand that all was well, that the noise was normal in the circumstances. As long as I stayed there talking to her, she accepted my explanation. The minute I went back upstairs she barked her challenge again.

  She barked all the time Johnny was here plowing. When he had finished and gone home she continued to bark. She didn’t like the sound of the snowplow; she didn’t like the silence, either. And when I went downstairs again to explain the situation to her, she burst past me the moment I opened the door to the porch, raced through the kitchen and library to the front door and stood there barking. There was no way out of it—she had to be taken out and shown. So I went back upstairs, pulled on my pants, came down and put on my storm coat and boots, snapped the new leash on her collar—I wasn’t taking a chance on her bolting—and opened the front door. Her lunge out onto the front porch almost took me off my feet. But I held her somewhat in check all across the dooryard and took her to the driveway and garage to show her what all the noise was about. Near the garage she smelled dog—Johnny’s dog must have been with him. She sniffed the tracks and wanted to dash right up the road after them. I discouraged that. She marked all three places Johnny’s dog had marked. She sniffed the tracks of Johnny’s jeep. She inspected the whole apron in front of the garage. And finally I persuaded her to return to the house. We had a bit of an argument at the front steps—she wanted to go back to the garage, probably up the road to Johnny’s farmhouse. But I finally got her indoors, locked the front door, took her to her own bed, removed the leash, got out of my boots and storm coat and went upstairs.

 
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