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       Penny, p.7

           Hal Borland
 
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  Penny left the farmhouse merely pleased at going for a ride. She loved to ride in the car. She slobbered on the window and slithered on the seat, smirked at the big black cat down the road and looked superciliously at the police dog just beyond. Then she lay down and dozed for ten minutes. She woke and sat up when we got to the top of the hill at the lake place. This was something new, a new woodland and, undoubtedly, brand new smells. She sniffed, at any rate, and watched with intense interest as I drove down the steep, winding road to the parking place just above our camp. When we got out she turned and looked at the lake, probably more water than she had ever seen. She stared at it, trembling. Then she went down the steps to the cabin with us, went in, looked around. At the two built-in bunks, at the chairs, at the two chaises. Then at us, with a “What’s this all about?” look.

  I opened the big front door to the deck. Penny watched, then hurried to see what was outside. A deck. A platform with narrow spaces between the floor boards, with a railing across the front. She went to the railing, took one look, almost sat back on her haunches. Then she edged forward again, looked at the tops of the gray birches, the shadbush, the mountain honeysuckle that grew beneath the deck, looked down at the dock with the sailboat lying on it, bottom side up, looked out across the water toward the far shore, almost a mile away. Then she looked up at Barbara, standing beside her at the railing, and wagged her tail tentatively. She looked at me. Obviously it was all right or I wouldn’t let Barbara stand there at the rail. Penny looked again, then turned and went inside and lay down in the sun. It was quite clear that she could take the camp and the lake or leave them, that she was not a spaniel or any other breed that loved the water. I was sure she could swim—any dog can swim, apparently—but I was equally sure that she would never go swimming just for the fun of it.

  Barbara changed to a suit and went down to the dock. I put on trunks and followed her. She swam. I got in the kayak and went out with her quite a way. Barbara is a fish, or an otter. The water is her element. I can swim, but I would rather not. A dry-land plainsman by birth and upbringing, I don’t trust water without a boat under me, and not all the way even then. I enjoy sailing a small boat or paddling a kayak, but swimming is a chore for me. So I accompanied her in the kayak, and after her swim, while she lay in the sun and basked, I took the sailboat out for half an hour.

  Coming back in, I heard Penny barking excitedly at the cabin. Barbara was still down on the dock. She called to Penny, tried to quiet her, but she seemed to be excited by the sailboat, that big expanse of white sail, maybe. She danced all over the deck, barking. I docked the boat. Barbara had gone up to the cabin. Penny was quiet. I heard Barbara say, “Penny, Penny, Penny,” gently scolding. I took in the sail and went up the steps to the cabin. Barbara had a rag and was mopping up a corner of the linoleumed floor. Penny sat across the room from her, crestfallen.

  “What happened?” I asked.

  Barbara shook her head. “She got so excited, apparently over the sight of the boat coming in, that she spilled. Just as I came in the door. She knew what she had done. She must have been trained not to wet the floor. She seemed to expect to be walloped, maybe with a rolled-up newspaper.”

  We got the floor dried, and I put away the sail and hauled in the boat, flipped it over on the dock—I don’t like to bail a boat, so I haul mine and turn it over on the dock, and let it drain. We dressed, closed the cabin and went up to the car. Penny was so glad to get away from the cabin and that frightening deck that she didn’t even use the steps; she went right up the slope, through a clump of ground hemlock, over a stump and around a big boulder. She was the first one in the car.

  We got home, and Penny didn’t even wait to come into the house. She got a drink at the cow trough, then went across the home pasture and up the mountainside. It was just before five o’clock. She was gone till almost eight, when she came home sopping, bedraggled and bushed. Whether it was a reaction to the trip to the lake or what it was, I had no idea. But she had to go, and she had to stay. And she had to come back looking as though she had spent half her life in a mudhole. She was a thorough mess.

  I cleaned her off somewhat, we let her into the back porch and fed her, then I took her to the brooder house for the night. No loafing under the bench in the living room, and no family and fireside that evening. Off to bed she went, unwillingly but without too much complaint. She barked once or twice, but that was all. She was tired enough to sleep, and apparently she went to sleep very soon.

  That evening Barbara called Carol to ask a few questions about Penny’s habits. Yes, Carol said, Penny was easily embarrassed, and when that happens she usually goes off somewhere and sulks for hours. Tender feelings, in other words. Also, that she had a sweet tooth, would eat almost anything that had sugar on or in it. And, finally, yes, they missed her, but they were glad to be rid of the responsibility of a dog that might bite other people’s children. “You never know, when a dog gets that way, when it may turn on you. Or the baby, of course.”

  And that seemed to be that. Penny was embarrassed, you might say, by her accident down at the cabin. She wet the floor, and she knew that was forbidden. So when she got home to the farm she took off and was gone three hours. Sulked, maybe. Or maybe she just ran the rebellion out of her, soaked it out in the mudholes and came home a tired, dirty mess.

  She went to sleep, and we did too soon after. About eleven-thirty she wakened me with frantic barking, just as she had barked the night the loud-radio moron came past. I went to an open window and advised her to calm down. She did. I was so surprised, and so doubtful that it was more than a brief pause, that I lay awake almost an hour waiting for her to start up again. She never did. I finally went to sleep and slept the rest of the night.

  Eight

  Then began several weeks of relative quiet. Penny seemed to have got most of the contrariness, or whatever it was, out of her system. She ate like a starved child for another week or so, one day stowing away five cans of dog food before she had as much as she could hold. Her capacity was incredible. But after that spree she eased off to two cans of dog food a day, with two snacks of kibbled dry food, for another ten days. And finally she got down to normal rations, two meals a day, one a can of dog food, the other a bowlful of kibbles moistened with milk.

  She went down to the lake with us one more time but was obviously so bored and unhappy there, and so nervous about that deck and the sight of the sailboat, that we tried leaving her loose at the farm. That was just what she wanted. We went down to the lake nearly every afternoon, leaving her on the front steps. When we got home, at suppertime, she was here waiting for us, as glad to see us as though we had been gone a week. Usually she went for a prowl on the mountainside after we got home. Perhaps she also went while we were away; I never found out what she did. At least, she never seemed to get into mischief or wander far. With one exception.

  That exception occurred just two weeks after we brought her home to stay. We had been down at the lake that afternoon, and when we got home Penny was missing. No sound of her on the mountain. No sign of her anywhere. I wasn’t worried, though I was surprised. We kept watching and listening for her. Then, about six-thirty, the phone rang. It was Carol. Penny was at her house, had been for several hours. Carol had tried several times to reach us, but there was no answer. Barbara said we would be right over.

  We went, and we found Penny tied up at the garage. She was whining-happy to see us, begged to be let into the car. Carol said she just appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the afternoon. She looked out the window and saw Penny playing with the neighborhood children and couldn’t believe it. So she went out and called, Penny came to her and she tied her up.

  We brought Penny home, gave her her supper, ate ours, and she napped in her favorite place till nine o’clock, then went to bed quietly. We left her loose the next afternoon, as usual, and she was lying on the front steps when we came back from the lake.

  But there were other happenings, such as the big thun
derstorm. It came up a week or so later, in early afternoon. The sky had been so ominous that we waited at home instead of going to the lake. And a good thing we did, for it blew madly at the lake, we were told later. Here at the farm it was a typical explosive thunderstorm, and before it broke both Barbara and Penny were taut and jumpy.

  Barbara was apprehensive when the big, dark cloud began to rise in the northeast. Then she saw how nervous Penny was and she exclaimed, “You feel it too, don’t you, Penny? Well, we’ll just console each other. It’s good to have someone else who knows a storm is coming.”

  We were all out on the front porch watching that big cloud, black as a crow’s wing. But Penny wanted in the house. I let her in. Barbara stayed out on the porch with me a few minutes longer, but she too was nervous, keyed up. She asked, “Is it going to be a bad storm?” then went indoors before I could answer.

  There was a low, distant rumble of thunder. The cloud was rising swiftly. It covered almost half the sky. There was a flicker of lightning on the horizon and, almost half a minute later, another roll of thunder, far off. Barbara came to the door and said, through the screen, “Penny feels it, just the way I do.” The words were hardly spoken when a flash of lightning nearby seared the sky, and less than ten seconds later a crash of thunder bounded from hill to hill and seemed to shake the very rocks.

  The dark cloud was boiling now, and I looked for the green that could mean hail or the twist that could shape itself into a funnel. We seldom have hail here and tornadoes are rare, but with such a storm there are always those possibilities. I saw no green and no twist, only that big, dark cloud that was ripped repeatedly by jagged lightning, followed by thunder that jolted the house and made the windows rattle.

  Barbara came out onto the porch again, watched the clouds a minute or so and said, “I wish it would rain buckets and get it over with! How much longer will it be before the thunder and lightning stop?” And again she was gone before I could even say I didn’t know. But almost as though in answer to her, another blast came, lightning that blinded me and, almost immediately, a crash of thunder like a gigantic explosion just across the river. A near miss.

  Then I heard the roar. It was uncanny after the silence, a silence so deep you could hear a few birds twittering out in the pasture, though there hadn’t been a bird song for half an hour. The roar was like a great rush of wind. It came from up the valley and far up on the mountain. I saw the silvery curtain. It was on the mountain, and it was up the river. I could see how it covered the trees, how it moved, coming slowly, steadily down the mountain. Then I saw it coming down the river. It came down the river with a watery roar, almost the roar of a waterfall. And the river seemed to be foaming under the silvery curtain.

  Barbara was at the door, and I said, “Here it comes! We’re going to get it now!” And as though I had been prophesying, another bolt of lightning ripped the sky, so close I could hear a faint sizzling noise, and almost immediately the crash of thunder jolted the whole house. Then the silvery curtain was crossing the pasture and the river was leaping and dancing and foaming. The rain struck the house as with a million hard, wet hammers, a thunder of rain, a momentary cloudburst. And one more blast of lightning and thunder, so close together they were virtually one, whose echoes were softened and dampened by the roar of the rain.

  Barbara and Penny both came out onto the porch, even while the echoes of that last terrific blast were bouncing about the hills. “Whew,” Barbara said. “That was a close one. But the tension is broken. Isn’t it, Penny?” And Penny looked up and wagged her tail in total and relieved agreement. Maybe Penny too had a headache, as Barbara does, when those atmospheric pressures build up to a big thunderstorm.

  So we three stood there, getting slightly damp, all of us, as an occasional gust blew a sheet of rain across the porch. We watched that first terrific downpour pass. The overflow of the eavestroughs stopped and there was only the surge and gurgle in the downspouts. The lightning eased away; those terrific atmospheric tensions dissipated. And the rain slackened. The rain no longer foamed but merely dimpled all over as the raindrops fell individually. The big maples no longer roared; now their leaves pattered under the individual raindrops. The spate at the roadsides relaxed into simple rivulets as the rain diminished from a flooding downpour and began to sink into the grass and the ground.

  Then the sun was out again, cutting through clouds that had faded from black to pearl gray. Every tree was spotlighted, greener than it had been in days and spangled with raindrops. The rain still falling was pure, gleaming crystal against the clear blue sky in the east.

  And at last the storm ended. Penny went down and rolled in the wet grass of the lawn, leaped to her feet, shook herself vigorously and turned and looked at us still on the porch. She seemed to be saying, See, I’m not afraid of water! Not as long as I can keep my feet on the good old earth.

  And Barbara said to me, “She’s not as much of a comfort to me as Pat was, but she’s a help.”

  A few days later Penny showed a playful streak that she hadn’t shown since the day I bought the rawhide bone and the rubber ball for her. It was an afternoon when we didn’t go down to the lake, and I was doing yard chores, mowing the grass, trimming the bushes, cleaning up the litter from the thunderstorm. Penny had been watching me but without special interest. Then I found an old red rubber ball under the bridal wreath bush and I tossed it toward the porch. Penny, on the front steps, watched the ball bounce a couple of times, then came down the steps in one leap and was after it. She chased it, caught it, threw it into the air, chased it again. She turned to watch me. But I wasn’t playing games. She played by herself till she worried the ball down onto the riverbank. A final toss flung it into the river, and that was the end of the ball game.

  She came back across the lawn. I had taken off my work gloves and my red beaked cap when I got around into the shade of the house. She saw them, grabbed a glove and ran with it. I tried to catch her, but it was no use. She chewed the glove, made a game of the chase, and when I quit the game she dropped the glove and dashed ahead of me to grab the cap. She got it, and I knew the cap was lost. But it was no great loss, for it was old, worn and sweat-stained. I chased her a couple of times, then went back to work. She chewed and tossed and chased and chewed again for another ten minutes. The cap was reduced to a rag and I thought she had worked out her prankishness.

  I came in for a cold drink, decided to quit raking, and Barbara and I went out to sit on the porch and watch evening come. Penny had hidden the cap somewhere and came and joined us. And a few minutes later the cows started for home and the milking barn. They were Albert’s cows. His farm borders ours and he leased our pastures. The cows had been on the grass since the tenth of May, the day Albert insists is the time to put cows out to pasture, no matter whether the season is early or late. It’s a kind of personal tradition. Those cows had been here and had gone home to be milked every day at five o’clock. After milking they would come back, to drink spring water at the old Salisbury kettle, to lie in the grass and chew their cuds, maybe to sleep. They were big black and white Holsteins, and there were fifty-odd of them.

  Penny had seen those cows every day, had watched them graze, drink, lie and chew their cuds, go home to be milked, come back for the night. She hadn’t so much as sniffed at them. But for some reason, that evening she took special notice of them. She watched as they started their leisurely walk down the pasture toward home. And then, before I knew what was happening, she went down off the porch the way she had gone after that old red rubber ball. Off the porch, across the lawn, around the house into the pasture, barking furiously. The cows heard her and turned to look, possibly wondering what that little bit of a dog was making so much noise about. They stood and watched as she dashed at them. The nearest one turned and trotted away. Penny was at her heels in an instant, barking and nipping. The cow broke into an awkward lope. The others hurried after her. Penny was almost hysterical. She had put the whole herd to flight.

&nb
sp; Play is play, and maybe it started as play, though I have my doubts. But when a dog starts chasing milk cows it is not amusing. Not in dairy country. I went after Penny, across the back yard and through the gate into the pasture. I called to her, got no response. I ordered her to come back, still got no response. The cows continued to run. Penny continued to chase them. I chased Penny.

  I don’t know how long I chased her, more angry every minute. She didn’t stop, but finally I got close enough to make a flying leap and catch her by one hind leg. Luckily, I had brought the leash. I got it on her and told her firmly that we were going home. She insisted she was going to continue chasing those big black and white cows. I was bigger than she was. We went home, Penny holding back and complaining almost every foot of the way.

  I tethered her to a ring on the front porch and sat down to catch my breath. If I had half the stamina of that dog I could build an Egyptian pyramid single-handed.

  “Well,” Barbara said, “you two had a nice little jog, didn’t you? Do that every day and—”

  “And you will be a widow.”

  “What do we do now?”

  “Lock her up for the night.”

  “And tomorrow?”

  “I can’t think that far ahead.”

  “Maybe she’ll have forgotten all about the cows by tomorrow.”

  “Want to bet? When it comes to deviltry, that dog has a memory that makes an elephant look absent-minded.”

  As soon as I stopped puffing I took Penny to her house and locked her in, two hours early. She didn’t like it. But she must have known she wasn’t in high favor, because her heart really wasn’t in her complaints. She yowled for twenty minutes, then shut up.

 
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