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       Penny, p.6

           Hal Borland
 
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  I decided not to tell Barbara that Penny had been here. We went through the mail. One letter required an immediate answer, a business matter, so I went to the upstairs telephone and called New York. While I was talking I heard Barbara at the front door, then heard her shout, “Here is Pokey-Penny!” I heard her open the door, heard the rattle of claws on the bare floor of the hallway.

  I finished my call and went downstairs.

  “Look who’s here,” Barbara said, half triumphant, half annoyed. “I heard her whining on the porch and went to the door, and there she was.”

  “Where’s the white mongrel?”

  “What white mongrel?”

  “I saw the two of them, coming down the road together, when I came in the driveway.”

  Barbara shook her head. “She was all alone when I went to the door.”

  I went out onto the porch and around the house. No sign of that white dog. I came back in and Barbara had gone to the basement and got the dog food, put out a dish for Penny. She gulped down three handfuls, wagged her thank you and went happily into the living room and flopped in her favorite spot, beneath the bench.

  “Well?” Barbara looked at me.

  “What do you want to do now?”

  “Send her home, I guess. But it’s like—well, adopting a child and then sending it back to the orphanage.”

  “Oh, not exactly like that. She—”

  Barbara turned and went to the phone. She called Carol. “Penny’s here,” she said. There was a pause. Carol was talking. Then Barbara said, “I think you’d better come and get her,” and she hung up.

  “She says”—Barbara turned to me—“Penny wouldn’t eat her breakfast. They put her outdoors and ten minutes later she was gone. She thought Penny was over here, but she kept thinking she would come home.” She sighed. “She’ll be over.”

  Fifteen minutes later Carol arrived. “I just don’t know what to do if she keeps on like this,” she said. “We’ll have to do something.”

  “Let us know,” Barbara said, “if you have to get rid of her. Meanwhile, if she shows up here we’ll feed her and treat her kindly and either take her home or call you to come and get her.”

  “I guess that’s all we can do. But I do hate to impose on you.” She left, Pokey-Penny with her, rather shamefaced and sullenly obedient.

  Barbara turned to me. “What else could I do? What else could I have said?”

  “Nothing. You said the only thing there was to say.”

  Hindsight is easy, I know, and practically infallible. But I still say I knew then that the Pokey-Penny problem wasn’t solved. She was going to be in our lives awhile longer, no matter what we did or said. But for then it was settled and life could go on without her disruptions or distractions.

  The pear tree beside the garden came to dazzling white bloom, ten days ahead of the apple trees. The asparagus finally came up, blue with the cold. Nights persisted chilly, the temperature down in the 30s. We went hopefully down to the lake and found the water there was only 57 degrees. Barbara will swim in water so cold it gives me chilblains just watching her, and she thought, on May 18, with a bright sun and a breeze that had no obvious icicles on it, that she would take her first swim. She got into her suit and I, still fully clothed and wearing a heavy sweater, went down to the dock with her. She sat on the dock and dangled her feet in the water until they turned blue as the dungarees I was wearing.

  “It’s really not very cold,” she said, gripping one hand tightly with the other and practically hunching her shoulders up to her chin. “But,” she said, “I don’t think I’ll go in today. I’ve changed my mind.”

  “Darling,” I said, “you have occasional flashes of incredible wisdom. Why don’t we go back to the farm and heat up the pea soup and sit in front of the fire and eat soup. There’s always another day.”

  And, amazingly, that is exactly what we did.

  But on May 27, two weeks late, at least, we had shirtsleeve weather, the lake temperature got up to 60, and Barbara went for her swim. She didn’t swim far, but she went in and swam out and back, and lay in the sun afterward and thawed out and said she was a very brave girl. I said she was not only brave but foolhardy and suggested that she take both antihistamines and antibiotics when we got home. She called me a sissy, which I am, of course. Water colder than 80 degrees is unfit for human occupation, in my estimation, unless one is safely inside a boat that doesn’t leak and cannot be capsized.

  Then we had a summery weekend, really summery, with the air temperature up to 85 and the water temperature all the way up to 70. Morris helped me take the boat down to the lake and launch it, and I went for my first sail of the season. Barbara swam. It was a beautiful weekend.

  And here at the farm summer had arrived. Lilacs were in full bloom, so fragrant we could smell them inside the house, apple blossoms were just past their prime and the petals had begun to fall on the grass like the snow we had had only two or three weeks earlier. The brooksides were purple with violets and the old meadow down the road where it hasn’t been mowed for three years was covered with bluets.

  That was Memorial Day weekend, and we spent two whole days at the lake, coming home to sleep only because the beds here are more comfortable than the built-in bunks at the boathouse. And both evenings when we came home at dusk Barbara stopped and looked at the front porch before she went up the walk.

  The second evening I asked, “What’s the matter? What are you looking for?”

  “Nothing,” she said, and we came on into the house. But a few minutes later she said, “I have a feeling that she will be back.”

  “Oh?”

  “I didn’t want to say anything, but—”

  “Look, Cassandra, put away the crystal ball. Ask me. I have known since—oh, ever since the first day she came here—that she will be back. The Bad Penny. There’s no escaping it. But she ain’t back yet! … Forget it, kid, till she yips at the door.”

  “I still have the feeling—” She sighed.

  There was work to be done in the woods down at the lake, and George had promised to get at it as soon as he finished another job. George is a professional forester and one of the best men in the woods that I know. I phoned him, and he said, “I tried to reach you an hour ago.”

  “When can you come?”

  “Tomorrow morning.”

  “Meet you there, pal. What time do you get going?”

  “How about eight o’clock?”

  “As you say. Eight A.M. tomorrow.”

  The next morning I was at the top of the hill at the lake place thirty seconds ahead of George. He had his truck with chain saw, hand saw, axes, ropes, gear. His man would be along, he said. We drove down to the boathouse and George and I began ranging the property, George marking trees that needed to be taken out with a squirted X from a spray can of yellow paint.

  “We’ll burn the brush in the driveway,” George said.

  His man arrived and set to work on the marked trees. George and I finished the lower hillside, and I said I’d like a couple of cords of firewood saved. Then I came home, knowing the job would be done right. George would save every good seedling and sapling possible, and he would cherish every clump of ground hemlock, as we call it. He would know the yellow lady’s slipper plants and protect them. He would take as good care of that hillside as I would, maybe even better.

  I came home, and I was barely in the door when Barbara said, “We’ve got a dog.”

  “What? Again?”

  “For good this time. Carol phoned about an hour ago, said they have to get rid of her and would we please take her. I said yes.”

  “Of course.”

  “I said you were down at the lake and we would be over and get her as soon as you got home.”

  “All right, put on a jacket and come on.”

  She hesitated. “Are you sure?”

  “Aren’t you?”

  “I think so. I know we have to take her now. Something’s happened. She’s been snapping at t
he youngsters over there.”

  “Ohhh. Teasing her, I’ll bet.”

  “That’s all she said, that Penny-Pokey has turned vicious. She snapped at the kids and almost bit a little girl, their next-door neighbor.”

  She had her jacket. I went to the garage for the car. Barbara got in, and I went back to the house, found the leash. Then we went to get our dog.

  Seven

  She was lying in the driveway, tethered by the long chain and as far from the house and garage as she could get. When we turned into the drive she looked up but didn’t move. I stopped the car, got out, and she gave me a “What are you doing here?” look. It was almost an “I hate the world” look, too. Then I noticed that several children were standing across the yard, watching silently.

  Barbara came around the car and said, “Penny!” and Penny looked at her, a kind of “So what?” look. Then she got to her feet and went back toward the garage, dragging the chain, which jingled softly on the concrete.

  Tom came to the door, invited us in. Barbara said, “No thanks. We haven’t much time.” Carol came and repeated the invitation, got the same answer. Tom went back into the house. Carol said the same things that had been said over the phone, about her turning snappish, almost biting one of the neighboring youngsters.

  “I don’t know what’s got into her, I really don’t. But Tom finally said we’d just have to get rid of her. So—”

  Tom came back and handed me an envelope. “The papers. Everything is there, I think.” He shook his head, started to say something, then stopped. “At least, there aren’t a lot of kids over at your place for her to snap at.” Then he added, “But she never snapped at us. Never.”

  I got the leash from the car, unsnapped the chain from her collar, fastened the leash. She got to her feet, almost resignedly, and went to the car with me. I opened the door and she got in, settled herself on the back seat. Barbara said good-bye to Carol, I shook hands with Tom, and he said, “If you can’t do anything with her—well, do whatever you think best. She’s yours now.”

  The neighbor youngsters were still watching, now wide-eyed and grinning, as we backed out of the driveway and started home. Penny sat up and stared out the window, but she didn’t look back. She looked sad, almost surly, and she was very thin.

  Barbara said, “Carol told me she hasn’t been eating. Didn’t want the dog food and wouldn’t eat bread and milk any more.”

  We got home, and the minute she got out of the car she headed for the front porch, dragging the leash. I put the car away. Barbara let her in and when I got to the house Penny was on the back porch eating kibbled dog food moistened with milk. Eating like a starved child. She cleaned up one dishful and we gave her another. She put that away and started on a third before she was satisfied. Then she went in and lay down in her favorite place, under the bench.

  She slept for an hour, then went to the front door and wanted out. I let her out. She went down the walk and took off up the road. I thought she would soon be back, but half an hour passed and no Penny. We got out the car and drove a mile up the road, watching and listening. No sight or sound of her. We went down the road a mile and a half to the little bogland where we always hear the peepers first, and still no Penny. “Well,” I said, “that’s that. Nice knowing her. I hope she enjoyed that meal.”

  “I hope,” Barbara said, “that she has a great big tummy ache! She’s an ungrateful little brat!”

  “Tut! I’m the one who calls her names.” And we managed to laugh. “Maybe she just has to prove her independence,” I said. “She has been badgered and scolded, and she has been chained up. And probably teased by those neighborhood kids. She got snappish and stubborn as a mule. So now she has to run away from us, just to prove that she can do what she wants to.… How’s that for animal psychology?”

  “Oh, very good indeed. Where did you learn so much about canine reactions?”

  “Studying my own, of course.”

  Barbara laughed. “You can supply the obvious reply to that!”

  We were almost back home. I thought I heard something, so I stopped the car and turned off the motor to listen. Sure enough, up on the hillside beyond the home pasture a dog was barking. Penny. Barking “treed,” which with Penny would mean she had something cornered on the ground. I hoped it wasn’t a porcupine. Or a skunk.

  I started the motor and drove on home, got the .22 rifle and struck out across the pasture and up the hillside. Sure enough, Penny had cornered a young woodchuck. Evidently she saw me coming and mustered the courage to close in just before I got there. She had made her final rush, with a flurry of yips and growls and squeals and a snapping of teeth, just as I rounded the last clump of bushes. There she was, shaking the dead woodchuck.

  I praised her, thinking maybe we had another Pat—he was a famous woodchuck hunter. She wagged her tail at the praise but didn’t trust me. She carried her kill down to the edge of the pasture, rolled on it, grabbed it and hauled it away when I tried to take it from her. But after two more rolls she let me put the leash on her and went home with me without any fuss, though she did want to go back to the dead ’chuck a couple of times. A huntress, that’s what she was, by blood and inheritance. And she’d had no chance to get it out of her system.

  She was in the house only half an hour when she wanted out again. We let her go, remembering that she had to assert her independence That time she went down on the riverbank and found a fine place to wade, a very special place. She came back ten minutes later smeared with sticky black river muck. So I got a pail of water and gave her a bath. She didn’t appreciate the bath, wouldn’t even let me dry her off with an old towel. She rolled in the grass and dried herself to her own satisfaction. Then she lay on the front steps for a time.

  I didn’t miss her until I heard her up on the mountainside again about five-thirty. This time it was her trail bark, not the “treed” or “cornered” bark. She barked from time to time for an hour or so, then was silent. I made no move to go and get her, decided that she would come back when she felt like it or not come back at all. Or maybe stay out all night and come home in time for breakfast. She was silent for a long half hour, then barked the trail bark again. Apparently she had put up another rabbit. Then silence once more. And finally, about a quarter to eight, she came back, tired and filthy again—evidently she had found and wallowed in every seep spring and mudhole on the whole mountainside. I wiped her off and brushed her a bit, and we let her in, fed her two more dishfuls of dog food. Then she lay down under her bench and slept the sleep of the utterly weary. About eight-thirty I took her out to Pat’s old place, the little brooder house, and put her to bed on a fresh pallet of straw. It was obvious that she didn’t appreciate it. I don’t know what she wanted, maybe wall-to-wall shag rug, with a special pad for a mattress. Anyway, she let me know, even before I closed and latched the door, that she didn’t think this was much of a place to quarter a dog of her standing. I didn’t agree. I came back to the house. And I was barely inside when she began to bark, an impatient bark, then an imperious bark, then a defiant bark and finally a most piteous bark. Barbara looked at me, and I looked at her, and we both shook our heads. And about nine o’clock Penny settled down and shut up.

  We were sleeping soundly when a car woke me up about half past twelve. Some idiot came up the road with his car radio on full blast. It was bad enough to wake people, but it was inexcusable to wake sleeping dogs. Penny came to with a roar of indignation and warning. It sounded as though she would tear down walls to get at this intruder. Not only tear down walls but stop the car and haul the driver out and dismember him, maybe disembowel him. I never heard a more peremptory challenge. It was a performance that would make lions quail.

  But by then even the echo of the radio-loud car had died, and soon Penny’s performance subsided to ordinary barking. That eased to spasmodic barking, the spasms just far enough apart that one could almost doze off between them. Almost, but not quite. This went on for twenty minutes, by the clock—it
seemed two hours—and I was tempted several times to get up and go out and tell her to stop it before she got a case of hiccups or something. But each time, she shut up before I even got out of bed, and finally she stopped altogether. I lay awake another half hour, waiting for the next spasm, and finally drifted off to sleep. And we slept the rest of the night.

  Apparently she got most of the “I won’t” out of her that one day. She was her familiar friendly self when I went to let her out. She frolicked ahead of me to the house, ate a big bowl of breakfast, went outside for ten minutes and came back and asked to be let in. She was the perfect house dog. I had to go to the village in midmorning to do several errands, and Barbara said Penny wouldn’t let her out of her sight while I was gone, as though Barbara was her special responsibility.

  That afternoon she napped in the house for an hour, went for a long walk with us, then lay on the front steps till about five o’clock. Then she went out across the pasture and prowled the mountainside, barking trail from time to time, for almost an hour. When she came back she hadn’t wallowed in one seep spring, hadn’t been down in the river mud and wasn’t in a nasty mood. She came back, asked to be let in, ate her evening meal, napped in the living room till nine o’clock. Then she went off to bed in the brooder house without a whimper. And she slept all night, apparently. At least she didn’t rouse us with any tantrums.

  The next morning Barbara said, “Penny seems to have got hold of herself. I think she’s going to settle down all right.”

  Two days later we took her down to the place at the lake.

  It was a beautiful June day, sunny and warm and with just enough air in motion to be comfortable. The camp there is a cabin with a living room, a tiny kitchen and two small dressing rooms. It has a six-foot deck across the front facing the water. The lakeshore there is precipitous, with a drop of about twenty feet from the deck to the water’s edge. A series of steps go down over the ledge to the dock. There is a ten-foot overhead glass door opening onto the deck, so one gets the feeling of being right outdoors and, on the deck, suspended in midair.

 
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