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       Penny, p.9

           Hal Borland
 
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  Barbara met me at the door. She had heard the uproar.

  “All right,” I said. “You win the bet. How much was it?”

  “A million dollars.… Shall I call Sybil?”

  “Not until Penny tires of this nonsense for five minutes and I can get a leash on her.”

  “I think she is stopping now.”

  I listened. All was quiet in the home pasture. I got the leash, went to the front door and waited, perhaps another five minutes. Then here she came, panting, looking almost smug and triumphant. She came up the steps, saw me in the doorway, hesitated, then flopped down on the porch and looked up at me with what seemed an almost malicious, defiant grimace. I went out and snapped the leash on her collar, fastened the other end to the ring on the porch post.

  I came back in and said, “First I want to call Tom or Carol.”

  Carol answered. Tom was at work. I asked her if Pokey-Penny ever chased cars while they had her. Carol hesitated. “Well,” she finally said, “yes. Toward the end she began to chase cars and trucks. I thought she did it just to plague me, but Tom said she would get over it. He scolded her, but it didn’t do much good. That’s the main reason we tied her up. And then she began snapping at the kids.”

  “Did she chase cows?”

  “I don’t think she ever saw a cow till she went over to your place.”

  “Would you take her back?”

  “No. Tom told you that.”

  “I thought you might have changed your minds.”

  “No.”

  “We may have to give her away.”

  “That’s all right. I don’t want her back, ever.”

  “Thanks. Tell Tom what I said, will you?”

  “I’ll tell him.”

  I hung up and told Barbara to call Sybil whenever she wanted to. She said, “Why wait?” and put in the call, got Sybil at once. Yes, Sybil said, her offer was still good. Bring Penny up and she would find a good home for her, where there weren’t any cows or highway trucks. She gave directions for reaching her place.

  It was almost lunchtime. Barbara started putting things on the table. I opened a can of dog food, put the contents in Penny’s dish.

  “She had her morning meal,” Barbara said.

  “The condemned prisoner always gets a last meal.”

  “This isn’t an execution, for goodness sake!”

  “Just banishment. But she gets that last meal, just the same.”

  “Now who’s being sentimental?”

  We ate, and Penny ate. I got out the car. Penny loved to ride in the car. She was eager to get in, but I kept her on the leash, tethered. I didn’t want her kiting off and making me chase her for half an hour.

  “All set,” I called from the front door.

  “I’ll be another ten minutes.”

  “Why?”

  “I’m getting the dog food together. We’re going to take it along, every bit of it, and give it to Sybil.”

  So I waited, and I took the carton of canned and kibbled dog food out and stowed it in the car trunk. Then I put Penny in the car. Barbara was ready. We headed up the road.

  Penny was as excited as a child going to the circus. She watched the roadside, sniffed at the dogs we passed, perked her ears and wrinkled her nose at the cats.

  “I feel,” Barbara said, “like a—a scapegoat. Or whatever it is that leads the sheep to slaughter.”

  “The Judas goat. But I believe you reminded me just a little while ago that Penny isn’t going to be slaughtered. She is going to a brand new home where she can show off and get everybody’s attention. For a while, at least.”

  After a moment Barbara said, “She is a lovable dog.”

  Penny sat there on the back seat, long ears pendulous, eyes innocent, sturdy legs braced, and seemed to be listening to every word. Barbara turned and put out a hand to pat her head, and Penny licked it with a slobbery tongue. Whatever lay ahead, she obviously had no qualms.

  Ten

  Sybil’s place was a gray farmhouse set well back from the road. There was a modest sign, “Antiques,” at the foot of the driveway. The farm had about two hundred acres of meadow and woodland, which was managed but not farmed, and Sybil dealt in antiques more as a hobby than a business.

  We drove in and parked, and I went to the side door, rang. After a moment a dark-haired, youngish middle-aged woman came to answer. She wore dark horn-rim glasses, a pink pullover sweater, dark slacks. She invited us in, said yes, she was Sybil.

  Barbara came, and I got Penny, still on the leash. At the door Sybil said, “Let her off the leash. Let her go where she wants to. She’ll smell my dogs.”

  The entry room was a display room with low tables loaded with antique dishes and glassware. A fine place, I thought, for an exuberant dog to romp! Sybil held the door open and Penny went in, looked around, moved carefully, didn’t touch a table or disturb anything. She crossed the room ahead of us to the far door. There Sybil led the way along a short hall to the living room. Dogs elsewhere in the house sensed a stranger and began to bark. Penny perked her ears, paused to look and listen, but didn’t answer. But she was so excited that she spilled in the hallway. Sybil said, “It happens with any dog. Nervous, excited, in a strange place.” She brought a couple of paper towels, wiped up.

  Her dogs, she said, were safely in the other part of the house. Four dogs. An old female basset, a very old cocker, an old dachshund, and a young Cairn. “We’ll let Abby, my basset, in pretty soon. But first we’ll let Penny look around, find out where she is. After all, this is a totally strange place to her.”

  Barbara and I sat on the sofa, Sybil sat in a chair, and Penny looked inquiringly at an empty upholstered chair, remembered her manners and came and lay down on the rug in front of us.

  “You can get in the chair, Penny,” Sybil said. Then, to us, “In this house dogs can do whatever they want to. Get into any chair, go into any room, eat when they are hungry. Yes, I know it’s against the rules, but that’s the way we live around here. Mine aren’t show dogs. They live with us, not out in kennels. We do have a big run, on the far side of the house, and it’s well fenced. That’s where I’ll put Penny for a few days, till she gets used to the place.”

  “You’ll find a home for her?” Barbara asked.

  “Well, yes.” Sybil looked at Penny, who looked back with her most appealing air. “Four dogs is plenty, even for us! My husband said just the other day that when one of the old dogs dies we won’t replace it. He’s away for the day. He’ll be home tonight. I think I’d better put Penny out in the run before he gets home. He’s a sucker for bassets.” She laughed.

  I gave her the papers Tom had given me. She glanced through them, nodded. “Just as I thought, there’s a gap. Great-grandma must have had an affair with some wandering Lothario. A beagle, I’ll bet. Penny’s eyes are not quite bagged enough and her ears are just a trace too short for the perfect basset. But that’s all right. Penny. We love you just the same.”

  We talked dogs in general while Penny relaxed. Finally Sybil said, “Well, Penny, how would you like to meet Abby? I think it’s time you did. You two will have to get along somehow.” She turned to us. “Abby is a dowager, and she thinks she rules the roost around here. I guess she does, at that. The other dogs let her have her way. I’ll go and get her.”

  She went to another room and came back with Abby, a grizzled white and tan basset. She was fat, barrel-shaped. Her eyes were deeply pouched and red-rimmed. Her ears almost touched the floor. She came into the room, saw Penny, stopped, looked down her nose, obviously annoyed. Young Penny got to her feet, stood in front of us, her tail slowly wagging. Then the tail stopped. Some signal passed between them. Abby took a couple of steps toward her and Penny backed away, stood at Barbara’s knee. Penny growled a warning. Abby barked, a sharp, hoarse bark.

  “Abby,” Sybil said firmly, “now stop that. Behave yourself.”

  Abby paid no attention. She barked again, definitely a challenge.

  I reached fo
r Penny’s collar. “No!” Sybil said. “Let her go. They have to get this over with.”

  Penny barked, a different bark than I had ever heard, a defiant bark. Abby snarled, chomped her jaws, barked again.

  Penny moved toward the center of the room, barking steadily now, accepting the challenge. Abby took a couple of steps toward Penny, also barking. The uproar was deafening. The other dogs, behind closed doors at the far side of the house, began to bark. They knew what was happening, sensed it or perhaps knew what Abby was saying. And of course they heard Penny’s voice, the voice of a stranger.

  The two bassets, old dowager and young intruder, were in the center of the room, still two feet apart, Abby challenging, Penny defiant. I was on the edge of my chair, ready to leap in with that chain leash when they began to fight. Sybil sat there as taut and as ready as I was. Barbara shrank back on the couch, fascinated but dreading the clash that seemed inevitable.

  Sybil was talking to them. “Abby, Abby, ease it up now, Abby. Penny! Take it easy, Penny. Easy, easy. Now, Abby. Now, Penny.” Her voice almost droned at them, soothing. But neither dog seemed to be listening.

  Abby made a rush, pushed Penny with her shoulder. But she didn’t nip. Teeth bared, eyes blazing, she nudged Penny again, then retreated. Penny didn’t slash back, as I had thought she would. But she didn’t retreat. She took the pushing, and she edged forward as Abby retreated. They were almost nose to nose. Abby retreated another step. Penny followed her, so angry now that there were flecks of white foam on her lips.

  At that point Sybil stood up, said sharply, “That’s enough! Shut up, both of you! Abby, be quiet! Penny, stop it! Stop it, I say!” And she stepped between them. Abby backed away, and Penny backed away. I let out a long-held breath. Sybil shooed Abby toward the door, opened it, crowded her into the other room, closed the door. She came back and sat down with a let-out breath that whistled. “Well,” she said, “that’s over.”

  Penny had come back and stood beside my knee. Her lips were still flecked with foam. She was quivering and her heart was racing; I could see the throb against her ribs. I was so proud of her I could almost have changed my mind, brought her back home. Almost.

  Sybil was saying, “I guess Penny can stay. She can take care of herself.”

  “You’re not afraid they will fight?” Barbara asked.

  “I don’t think they will now. They’ve had it out. Abby knows Penny won’t be bluffed. And I think Penny knows where Abby stands around here. They’ll make their peace, somehow. They may get noisy about it a few times, but I doubt that they will fight.”

  “I thought they’d tear each other to pieces,” Barbara said. “I could see blood all over the place!”

  “To tell the truth,” Sybil said, “I wasn’t sure myself, for a time. If Penny had snapped at her when Abby rushed her—But she didn’t. Penny, you are a good dog, a very good dog. You’ve got the courage of a blue-ribbon basset, whether Great-grandma was indiscreet or not. In fact, I think you are quite a dog, Penny.”

  There wasn’t much to say after that, or much reason to stay. I went out to the car and got the carton of dog food, brought it in and left it in the hallway. We talked another ten minutes and said we’d go along. I gave Sybil the leash and she put it on Penny, who seemed to have the idea that she was going with us.

  As we went down the hallway, there was Abby at the box of dog food, taking a milk bone from the open box.

  “Find something you like, Abby?” Sybil asked.

  Abby turned and went into the other room, the milk bone in her mouth.

  “One thing about Penny,” Barbara said, “she doesn’t snitch food. You won’t have any trouble with her that way.”

  Sybil smiled. “As I said, the dogs around here eat whenever they think they are hungry. There’s always something around for them to eat.”

  We went back through the display room and out to the car. Sybil came with us, and Penny, on the leash. Penny expected to get into the car, but Sybil said, “No, Penny. You are staying here. Right here, with us.” We got in and closed the doors, and Penny, for the first time I ever saw it, looked disappointed.

  They were still standing there, Penny watching, still looking disappointed, when we looked back from the foot of the driveway. Then we were on the highway and heading home.

  We drove a couple of miles before Barbara said, “Penny is going to have a lot of new experiences. She won’t be bored, for a little while at least.”

  “Penny,” I said, “is going to be a busy dog. She has to make a place for herself in a household that already has four dogs. Every one of those four is a rival.”

  “Do you think Sybil will find a home for her?”

  “Who knows?”

  “I don’t think so. I’ll bet Penny stays right there. She said her husband likes bassets.”

  “Maybe he only likes fat old bassets. Didn’t Penny look young and slim beside Abby?”

  “Like a puppy. Like a teen-ager!”

  “And didn’t she stand up to Abby’s noise and bluster?”

  “I thought they were going to tear each other limb from limb. I thought they were going to wreck the place.”

  “If Penny had snapped at Abby just once, they would really have gone at it. And I don’t think Penny would have got the worst of it, either. You know, when she stood up to Abby that way I was almost sorry we were giving her away.”

  “Now I suppose you are going to get sentimental about her. You, the tough guy, who could take a dog or leave it go!”

  “I’m not at all sentimental about her. I just admired her courage. She’s gone; good riddance. She’s a whimsical bitch who won’t stay home, doesn’t know the meaning of the word. I’m glad we took her in, and I’m glad we got rid of her.”

  “Well, I think I am too. I don’t know. I kind of wish she would be waiting for us there on the front steps.” She paused. “The way she was at first, I mean. Not the way she is now, chasing cows and trucks and raising cain just for the uproar!” Another pause. “But Penny was a darling when she was good.”

  “And a hellion when she was bad.”

  “I loved her.”

  I refused to commit myself. Not aloud, at least. I was the tough guy. I could take her or leave her. We had just left her. Good riddance! But she was a lot of dog, had a lot of guts.

  We stopped in Barrington to buy a few groceries. But mostly to go into a store and not buy any dog food. I knew it. Barbara knew it. But neither of us said it. We walked right past the dog food shelves and didn’t say a word.

  We came on home, and as we came down the back road I thought: She won’t be on the front steps, waiting. She won’t bark the greeting bark and come down to the car, wagging from nose to tail tip, glad to see us. Then I thought: And she won’t wait till we get indoors, then go out to the watering trough and chase the cows, just to create an uproar.

  We pulled up in front of the garage. It was not quite four o’clock. “Let’s go on down to the lake,” Barbara said.

  “All right, let’s.”

  “In a few minutes. A couple of things I want to do first.”

  We went in the house and Barbara went to the living room, picked up the throw rug under the bench where Penny chose to lie and nap. She handed it to me. “Take it down and put it in the washer, with half a cup of detergent.”

  I took it down to the basement, started the washer, put the detergent in, and the throw rug, left it to go through the full cycle. Upstairs again, I found Barbara on the back porch. “Take the blanket outdoors,” she said. “Throw it over the line, let it air. We’ll take it to the cleaner’s tomorrow.”

  I took the old Navy blanket outdoors. When I came in again she had mopped the floor where Penny’s food dish stood. She moved the trash basket, put it where the dish had been, handed me a big paper bag. “The dish,” she said. “Put it out with the trash in the garage.”

  She washed her hands. “All right, let’s go. Now we can come home to our house. After we watch the sun go down at th
e lake.”

  We drove down to the lake, to the camp. She changed to her bathing suit. I put on my trunks. We went down to the dock and sat there dangling our feet in the cool water.

  “It’s just about time for the cows to go home to be milked,” she said.

  I nodded.

  “How about going for a swim with me? Feel big and strong today?”

  I shivered but said yes. She let herself down into the water, pushed off from the dock. “Come on, sissy!”

  I waited till she was safely away from the dock, then I dived in, the only sensible way to get into the water. Get wet all over in one big splash. I went in like a dog diving, not a porpoise, and I came up blowing and snorting. But I swam after her. I couldn’t catch her, otter that she is, but I followed. Out maybe a hundred yards. Then she waited for me and we rolled over and floated. She said, after a few minutes, “She will be top dog there within a week.”

  “She is right now.”

  “And he won’t let Sybil give her away.”

  “She’ll miss the cows.”

  After a moment she said, “You will miss her, won’t you?”

  I tried to make an emphatic answer, got a mouthful of water and sputtered like a sick geyser.

  “I will,” she said. “You all right? Let’s go back and sit in the sun. Just sit and be Indians.”

  I got my breath. “Indians eat dogs.”

  “We’ll eat hot dogs.”

  We swam back to the dock and lay in the sun and dried off. And went up and lay on the chaises on the deck and didn’t even want to bother to go for a sail. It was wonderful, just lying there in the late afternoon sun. After a while she went to the little kitchen and put water on to heat. When it boiled she took frankfurters from the refrigerator and put them in the pot and set it aside. I sliced and buttered buns and opened the relish. We mixed drinks and carried trays out onto the deck, where we ate and watched the sun go down, and stayed there till the first stars came out.

 
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