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       Penny, p.4

           Hal Borland
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  I turned back toward home, and she was willing to do exactly as I did, turn when I did, walk at my pace. She was being Little Miss Perfection with absolutely flawless manners. We walked that way about halfway home and came to the railway embankment, where the stub line of the railroad that once ran from Canaan to Lakeville crosses the river and angles across our farm. The embankment was fifteen feet high and was bordered on both sides by hazel brush, bush dogwood and wild raspberries. A perfect hideout for cottontails, and a place where the red vixen who denned just up the slope often hunted. A place full of odors that were fascinating to a dog’s nose. We came to the embankment and Penny stopped, lifted her head, nosed the air. I had a hunch and reached for the leash. But I was an instant too late. Penny leaped from the road into the snow at the foot of the embankment and was plunging into the brush before I was able even to call, “Penny! Come back here!”

  I might as well have saved my breath. She didn’t hear me. Physically she may have, but emotionally she certainly didn’t. She smelled rabbit, or some combination of feral odors that simply couldn’t be resisted. Off she went. I followed, into the snow, through the brush, to the cleared roadway at the top of the embankment. I ran after her and caught one glimpse of her, leash dragging, as she dashed through the brush.

  I followed her maybe a hundred yards, first calling, then cursing, finally simply puffing. I heard her begin to yelp, in a voice remarkably like Pat’s. She had put up a cottontail or hit a warm trail. She was on her way up the mountainside. I stood and listened for a minute or two, both entranced by the sound of her voice and furious at her delinquency. And, even worse, worried about that leash. There it was, dangling behind her, dragging, with that open leather hand loop ready to catch on any stub. Or to slip down between two rocks and jam there. To snag Penny, trap her, make her a prisoner. And a chain, a metal chain, that she couldn’t cut with her teeth to get loose. I had visions of her halfway, two thirds of the way up the mountain, snagged by that chain. And me struggling up the snow-clad slopes, wallowing through the brush and the drifts, looking for her. Like as not, the little fool wouldn’t bark if she got trapped, wouldn’t make a noise that would guide me to her. She would just lie down and wait, quietly. And I would look, and look, and look.

  But not now. Now she had gone, was several hundred yards up the slope, in the woods. She would keep going till the rabbit ran in or she got caught, maybe an hour, maybe two miles. I said, “Nuts to you!” and turned and went back down the embankment to the road and went on home. My shoes were full of snow. My heart was full of resentment. And, of course, annoyance at myself. I shouldn’t have trusted her with that leash. If I had kept hold of it, this would never have happened. Angry at myself, I took it out on her.

  I came home, and to Barbara’s questions I said, “She ran away. Went up the railroad embankment, picked up a rabbit scent and was gone, like that. She’ll come back. I hope.”

  “I thought you had her on the leash.”

  “I did.”

  “What happened?”

  “She wanted to carry it, so I, like a fool, let her.”

  “Oh.” There was amusement, a trace of ridicule, just a tinge of accusation, in that one syllable.

  We ate lunch. I went to the kitchen door and listened. No sound of her up on the mountain. I kept listening, now wishing that she would bark, give some indication that she still was running that rabbit. Not a sound. I turned back into the kitchen, and Barbara, from the living room, called, “Here she is!”

  I hurried to the front door, thinking she was on the porch. No Penny. “Where is she?” I asked.

  “She was right here in the yard, a minute ago.”

  I went out onto the porch, called, “Penny! Come here, Penny!” And turned and saw her going down the road, past the mailbox, tail high, on a full-fledged spree.

  I came back inside for a coat and when I got to the door again heard her barking, somewhere in the middle pasture. I ran to the garage, got out the car and gunned it down the road. I knew I couldn’t catch her afoot. She was two thirds of the way down to Albert’s farm when I caught up. She was loping along, that leash dragging, just as though she hadn’t already run through the snow on the mountainside the better part of an hour and a half. I honked at her and she looked back, recognized the car, went to the roadside and waited, tail still high and waving. I pulled up beside her, opened the car door, said, “Get in here, you idiot!” And in she came, onto the front seat, where she sat down like an honored guest and looked at me, a half-questioning, half-defiant look. I jerked the leash in, looped it around my arm, slammed the door and turned around at the nearest barway. And came back home, giving Penny the silent treatment. Not one word of recognition.

  She knew she was in disgrace. She came into the house—still on the leash, you may be sure—without a murmur, without complaint, and without one tail-wag. Barbara sensed my mood and purpose and said nothing to her. I put her on the back porch and closed the door. We let her sulk for half an hour, hoping she was thinking about her woefully reprehensible conduct. I doubt that she did that, though. What she had done was as natural to her as breathing.

  In any case, when we finally relented and gave her a can of dog food, she was neither sorry nor chastened. She accepted the dog food as her due, which I suppose it was, and gulped it like a glutton, which I know she was. She bolted it down, and when she looked at Barbara with that starving expression of hers, Barbara opened another can for her. She bolted that one too and indicated she was still hungry. My turn, so I got her a bowl of Purina bits with milk to see if she would eat it. Down that went, and still she wasn’t satisfied. She got another bowl of bits and milk. I couldn’t figure where she put it all, but she indicated that she could eat more yet, so Barbara brought out a lamb chop bone. We had had chops for lunch and Barbara saved the bones, saying, “Sybil said a basset can eat any bones except chicken and fish, so we’ll see.”

  She gave Penny a chop bone, and we stayed to see what happened. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. Penny took that bone, crushed it between her jaws, swallowed, chomped down a time or two, swallowed again, chomped once more with that awesome bone-crushing sound. By then it looked as though she had a sliver caught in the back of her mouth. I risked it—few dogs will allow you to take a bone away, and fewer still will let you reach into their mouths for a bone—I caught her by the lower jaw, forced her mouth open, reached in and pulled out not a sliver but the whole “heel” of that chop bone. She had merely been trying to get it into a better position to crush. She let me have it but wanted it back. I let her have it. She got it into the back of her mouth, came down on it with a crunch that was like the bite of a hundred-ton press in an auto body works. She crushed that heel of a bone, gulped a time or two, swallowed it and asked for more. Barbara gave her another chop bone. When she had crushed and swallowed that one, she went out into the sun on the back steps and lay there for an hour, probably digesting that gargantuan meal.

  Two footnotes to that day. Before she was put to bed that night she indicated that she was hungry and got two more bowls of bits and milk. And apparently she slept well. Certainly there were no whimpers or groans loud enough to waken us.

  And that day Barbara began calling her Honey. Barbara did. To me she still was Penny. Or any of half a dozen other names not suitable for repetition in the best of company, names that I thought up when she started that rabbit chase up the mountain.

  The next day she was a little logy, which was not at all surprising to me. She lay around the house and out on the front porch, and when I went for a walk in midafternoon she went along but without her usual enthusiasm. I really wouldn’t have needed the leash, but I wasn’t going to have another episode like that of the day before. We walked, she came home looking tired out, and she lay under the bench and grunted for an hour.

  By the second day, however, she was her usual ebullient self. That was a Sunday, and I had just returned from the village after picking up the Sunday New York Ti
mes when the phone rang. Barbara took the call. It was from a young woman who said she understood that we had a stray basset. Barbara asked where she heard that, and the woman said there was a story about it in the Waterbury paper. Barbara said yes, a dog had adopted us, a lost dog. And the woman said she thought our dog might be theirs. Barbara asked about their dog, and the woman said it was a basset, a spayed female just a little over two years old. Evidently she said it was black and tan, because Barbara laughed and said, “Aren’t all bassets black and tan?” Then she asked, “Any other identification?”

  By then I had got on the upstairs extension so I could hear what was said at both ends. “Well,” the woman said, “she may be scarred on her right side. I guess you call it her flank. She got cut a month or so ago and had to be sewed up. By the veterinarian.”

  That, to me, cinched it. But Barbara asked, “Anything else?”

  “She had a red leather collar.”

  “What was the number of her license tag?” Barbara asked. She was playing for time, or hoping for some impossible loophole. I knew that.

  “She didn’t have any tag. We kept meaning to get one, but Tom never got to it, and I couldn’t, with the baby and all.”

  Barbara asked where the woman lived, and she told her. Only four miles or so from our farm, in a group of houses on the other side of the river and near the village. Barbara said, “I’ll let you talk to my husband,” and I took over.

  The woman told me substantially the same things, identification marks and all. Finally I said, “The dog we have may be your dog. I think you’d better come over and see. See if she knows you, at least.” And I gave her directions, since she didn’t know our place.

  I hung up and went back downstairs. Barbara was almost in tears. “I guess she’s their dog,” she said. “The description fits, even to the red collar and the scar on her flank. But why did they have to wait till now? Till Penny got all settled in here, and we got fond of her!”

  “The story wasn’t in the Waterbury paper till last week.”

  “They must have known she was gone, for heaven’s sake! Why didn’t they report her missing, to the dog warden or somebody?”

  “They just didn’t. After you got off the phone, she said their dog has wandered off from time to time before. Sybil said bassets are wanderers, didn’t she? But she always came home. Till this time.”

  “How long has their dog been gone now?”

  “She didn’t say.”

  “Penny was starved when she got here, and she shouldn’t have been if she’d been treated right at home. You know that.”

  “I know. But I’m wondering about the baby.”

  “Hmmm. Maybe that’s the answer. A baby. Penny felt neglected, needed love. Could be, you know.”

  “No, I can’t buy that. When I was a kid every family had dogs and babies, and I don’t think either the dogs or the babies felt neglected. But that was before Spock.”

  “Well, it does explain why Penny looks in every room each time she goes upstairs. She’s looking for the baby. Every house has a baby, of course—that’s what she would think, wouldn’t she?”

  A car pulled into our driveway. I went to the door. It was Willis and his wife Bobbie, friends from down the valley. Out to get their Sunday paper and stopping in just to say hello before they went home. Barbara came to the door and we hailed them, invited them in. We needed, Barbara did at least, to talk to someone, and these friends knew about Penny, though they hadn’t yet met her.

  They came in, loved Penny at sight. And Barbara said, “We just hung up a phone call from someone who says she is their dog.”

  “Oh, no!” Bobbie exclaimed. “You mean they didn’t miss her until now?” Bobbie is softhearted about dogs, though she did say that Penny seemed to be a very small excuse for a dog. She owned a Great Dane for a number of years, one of the biggest and gentlest Danes I ever knew. Daisy was so big she could stand in the middle of a living room and sweep the ash trays off every end table in sight when she wagged her tail, so big that when she got affectionate one day and put her forepaws on my shoulders I had to look up to see her face. Daisy was a super-dog, and when she died of a cancer Bobbie said she never would have another dog. And she has kept the promise. But no wonder she thought Penny wasn’t much of an excuse for a dog.

  Penny made her own way, however, as she did with everyone. In five minutes Bobbie was down on the floor talking to her. Meanwhile Willis had to hear the whole story, of her arrival, her personality and finally of the phone call. At last he said, “I think we’ll stay awhile, if you don’t mind. I’d like to see this confrontation. Of the dog, I mean, with these people who think she is theirs. A dog’s emotions aren’t very obscure. Granting, of course, that a dog has emotions, and I am sure most dogs do. Daisy did. And old Pat did.”

  Bobbie looked up and laughed. “Penny is just one little bundle of emotions. Don’t you think so?” she asked me.

  “Well, she hasn’t much sense, if that’s what you mean. Intelligence, yes, but sense, no.… Yes, to answer your question, she is an emotional creature. Like so many of you women.”

  “And,” Bobbie said, ignoring the jab, “she probably ran away because of an emotional problem. Daisy wasn’t jealous, but if someone came to the house with a child and everybody made a fuss over it, Daisy would go off in a corner and sulk. She never ran away, but there were times when I’m sure she wanted to.”

  “Well,” Barbara said, “you know as well as I do that we don’t want another dog. But she adopted us, and she’s been here years and years, two weeks at least. It’s not so easy just to say good-bye and good riddance.”

  Penny left Bobbie and went over to her as she was talking. She stood, tail wagging, eyes wide and adoring, waiting for an affectionate word or a friendly pat. Barbara stared at her, frowning. “No, I won’t! Go on away. Go lie down.”

  Penny watched her, baffled.

  “Penny!” she said severely. And Penny’s ears drooped, her tail sagged and she turned away, the personification of friendless dejection.

  “Penny!” Barbara said again, and this time it was a heart cry. She was on her knees, hugging the little dog, hiding her tears.


  Penny looked up when she heard the car pull into our driveway and stop. She barked once but stayed where she was, under the bench. I went to the door. A tall, slim, dark-haired young man and a very thin girl with a small baby in her arms came up the front walk. I stepped out onto the porch, greeted them. His name was Tom. We came into the living room and I introduced them. The girl sat down but Tom remained standing. Barbara asked how old the baby was and the young mother said two months. Tom reached into his coat pocket and handed me a sheaf of papers. I leafed through them—a pedigree and registration, two bills from a strange veterinarian, three color snapshots of Penny.

  I glanced at Penny, still there under the bench but head up, looking from one person to another. Willis was watching Penny, and later he said, “She had the most baffled look I ever saw on a dog’s face. I could almost hear her saying to herself, ‘What do I do now, with two sets of people?’” She glanced at me, seemed almost to plead for an answer. But I didn’t have the answer.

  Tom was saying, “I guess there’s no question about who she is, is there?”

  “No,” I said. “She’s your dog.”

  He shook his head. “She was mine, but—well, look. If she won’t stay home, if she wants to live here, then she’s yours.” Then he asked, “What do you call her? We called her Pokey.”

  Barbara had been listening. Now she said, “Go ahead and call her. See if she comes.”

  Tom hesitated just a moment, then said, “Pokey, come here.”

  She got to her feet and wagged, almost embarrassed, and she went to him. He didn’t touch her. He just said her name again, “Pokey,” with deep warmth and affection. And the dog almost smiled, then went to Tom’s wife and stood up, her paws on the girl’s knee, and licked the baby’s face.

  That broke Tom do
wn. He squatted on his heels and patted her and talked to her, and she talked back very softly. Tom began to talk about her. She had all the shots and, yes, she was spayed. A kind of an accident, that was. One of the shots went wrong, he said, and she got an infection in her ovaries, so the vet had to do what amounted to a hysterectomy. The gash on her flank? As near as he could figure, she got that on barbed wire. She really belonged to Tom’s wife, Carol. He gave the dog to her as an anniversary gift. But he had done most of the training.

  “In training her,” I asked, “how did you punish her?”

  “Punish her?” He was aghast. “Oh, I didn’t ever punish her. I just talked to her till she knew what I wanted, and she did it.… Here, Pokey. Here. Right here.” And she went to him, lay down where he was pointing his forefinger. He rubbed her ears, fondly. He had proved his point.

  “We both worked till a few months ago,” he said. “Pokey was at home alone all day. We’ve got a playroom in the basement and she stayed there. Then Carol got too pregnant to work and she quit, and Pokey was with her all day. But after the baby was born she began wandering. Some days she would come all the way down to the plant where I work, two miles from home, and wait for me at my car. And sometimes she went down to the horse barn—you know, the training track about half a mile from where we live—I guess because something was going on down there, horses and men, activity. She would stay there all day, sometimes. Now and then she even stayed overnight.” He shook his head. “And then about two weeks ago she just left and didn’t come back. That’s when she came over here, I guess.”

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