Authors: Fred Gipson
For my father and mother
Beck and Emma Gipson
whose memorable tales of frontier dogs
supplied me with incident
and background for this story
We called him Old Yeller. The name had a sort…
It was the next morning when the big yeller dog…
All right, I was willing to go make a try…
A couple of days later, I had another and better…
That Little Arliss! If he wasn’t a mess! From the…
Till Little Arliss got us mixed up in that bear…
I did considerable thinking on what Lisbeth Searcy had told…
The man’s name was Burn Sanderson. He was a young…
A boy, before he really grows up, is pretty much…
With hogs ranging in the woods like that, it was…
It looked like I’d never get back to where I’d…
For the next couple of weeks, Old Yeller and I…
I was like Mama. I didn’t think Lisbeth Searcy would…
We couldn’t leave the dead bull to lie there that…
It wasn’t until dark came that I really began to…
Days went by, and I couldn’t seem to get over…
e called him Old Yeller. The name had a sort of double meaning. One part meant that his short hair was a dingy yellow, a color that we called “yeller” in those days. The other meant that when he opened his head, the sound he let out came closer to being a yell than a bark.
I remember like yesterday how he strayed in out of nowhere to our log cabin on Birdsong Creek. He made me so mad at first that I wanted to kill him. Then, later, when I had to kill him, it was like having to shoot some of my own folks. That’s how much I’d come to think of the big yeller dog.
He came in the late 1860s, the best I remember. Anyhow, it was the year that Papa and a bunch of other Salt Licks settlers formed a “pool herd” of their little separate bunches of steers and trailed them to the new cattle market at Abilene, Kansas.
This was to get “cash money,” a thing that all Texans were short of in those years right after the Civil War. We lived then in a new country and a good one. As Papa pointed out the day the men talked over making the drive, we had plenty of grass, wood, and water. We had wild game for the killing, fertile ground for growing bread corn, and the Indians had been put onto reservations with the return of U.S. soldiers to the Texas forts.
“In fact,” Papa wound up, “all we lack having a tight tail-holt on the world is a little cash money. And we can get that at Abilene.”
Well, the idea sounded good, but some of the men still hesitated. Abilene was better than six hundred miles north of the Texas hill country we lived in. It would take months for the men to make the drive and ride back home. And all that time the womenfolks and children of Salt Licks would be left in a wild frontier settlement to
make out the best they could.
Still, they needed money, and they realized that whatever a man does, he’s bound to take some risks. So they talked it over with each other and with their women and decided it was the thing to do. They told their folks what to do in case the Indians came off the reservation or the coons got to eating the corn or the bears got to killing too many hogs. Then they gathered their cattle, burned a trail brand on their hips, and pulled out on the long trail to Kansas.
I remember how it was the day Papa left. I remember his standing in front of the cabin with his horse saddled, his gun in his scabbard, and his bedroll tied on back of the cantle. I remember how tall and straight and handsome he looked, with his high-crowned hat and his black mustaches drooping in cow-horn curves past the corners of his mouth. And I remember how Mama was trying to keep from crying because he was leaving and how Little Arliss, who was only five and didn’t know much, wasn’t trying to keep from crying at all. In fact, he was howling his head off; not because Papa was leaving, but because he couldn’t go, too.
I wasn’t about to cry. I was fourteen years old, pretty near a grown man. I stood back and didn’t let on for a minute that I wanted to cry.
Papa got through loving up Mama and Little Arliss and mounted his horse. I looked up at him. He motioned for me to come along. So I walked beside his horse down the trail that led under the big liveoaks and past the spring.
When he’d gotten out of hearing of the house, Papa reached down and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Now, Travis,” he said, “you’re getting to be a big boy; and while I’m gone, you’ll be the man of the family. I want you to act like one. You take care of Mama and Little Arliss. You look after the work and don’t wait around for your mama to point out what needs to be done. Think you can do that?”
“Yessir,” I said.
“Now, there’s the cows to milk and wood to cut and young pigs to mark and fresh meat to shoot. But mainly there’s the corn patch. If you don’t work it right or if you let the varmints eat up the roasting ears, we’ll be without bread corn for the winter.”
“Yessir,” I said.
“All right, boy. I’ll be seeing you this fall.”
I stood there and let him ride on. There wasn’t any more to say.
Suddenly I remembered and went running down the trail after him, calling for him to wait.
He pulled up his horse and twisted around in the saddle. “Yeah, boy,” he said. “What is it?”
“That horse,” I said.
“What horse?” he said, like he’d never heard me mention it before. “You mean you’re wanting a horse?”
“Now, Papa,” I complained. “You know I’ve been aching all over for a horse to ride. I’ve told you time and again.”
I looked up to catch him grinning at me and felt foolish that I hadn’t realized he was teasing.
“What you’re needing worse than a horse is a good dog.”
“Yessir,” I said, “but a horse is what I’m wanting the worst.”
“All right,” he said. “You act a man’s part while I’m gone, and I’ll see that you get a man’s horse to ride when I sell the cattle. I think we can shake on that deal.”
He reached out his hand, and we shook. It was the first time I’d ever shaken hands like a man. It made me feel big and solemn and important in a way I’d never felt before. I knew then that I could handle whatever needed to be done while Papa was gone.
I turned and started back up the trail toward the cabin. I guessed maybe Papa was right. I guessed I could use a dog. All the other settlers had dogs. They were big fierce cur dogs that the settlers used for catching hogs and driving cattle and fighting coons out of the cornfields. They kept them as watchdogs against the depredations of loafer wolves, bears, panthers, and raiding Indians. There was no question about it: for the sort of country we lived in, a good dog around the place was sometimes worth more than two or three men. I knew this as well as anybody, because the summer before I’d had a good dog.
His name was Bell. He was nearly as old as I was. We’d had him ever since I could remember. He’d protected me from rattlesnakes and bad hogs while I was little. He’d hunted with me when I was bigger. Once he’d dragged me out of
Birdsong Creek when I was about to drown and another time he’d given warning in time to keep some raiding Comanches from stealing and eating our mule, Jumper.
Then he’d had to go act a fool and get himself killed.
It was while Papa and I were cutting wild hay in a little patch of prairie back of the house. A big diamond-back rattler struck at Papa and Papa chopped his head off with one quick lick of his scythe. The head dropped to the ground three or four feet away from the writhing body. It lay there, with the ugly mouth opening and shutting, still trying to bite something.
As smart as Bell was, you’d have thought he’d have better sense than to go up and nuzzle that rattler’s head. But he didn’t, and a second later, he was falling back, howling and slinging his own head till his ears popped. But it was too late then. That snake mouth had snapped shut on his nose, driving the fangs in so deep that it was a full minute before he could sling the bloody head loose.
He died that night, and I cried for a week. Papa tried to make me feel better by promising to
get me another dog right away, but I wouldn’t have it. It made me mad just to think about some other dog’s trying to take Bell’s place.
And I still felt the same about it. All I wanted now was a horse.
The trail I followed led along the bank of Birdsong Creek through some bee myrtle bushes. The bushes were blooming white and smelled sweet. In the top of one a mockingbird was singing. That made me recollect how Birdsong Creek had got its name. Mama had named it when she and Papa came to settle. Mama had told me about it. She said she named it the first day she and Papa got there, with Mama driving the ox cart loaded with our house plunder, and with Papa driving the cows and horses. They’d meant to build closer to the other settlers, over on Salt Branch. But they’d camped there at the spring; and the bee myrtle had been blooming white that day, and seemed like in every bush there was a mockingbird, singing his fool head off. It was all so pretty and smelled so good and the singing birds made such fine music that Mama wouldn’t go on.
“We’ll build right here,” she’d told Papa.
And that’s what they’d done. Built themselves a home right here on Birdsong Creek and fought off the Indians and cleared a corn patch and raised me and Little Arliss and lost a little sister who died of a fever.
Now it was my home, too. And while Papa was gone, it was up to me to look after it.
I came to our spring that gushed clear cold water out of a split in a rock ledge. The water poured into a pothole about the size of a wagon bed. In the pothole, up to his ears in the water, stood Little Arliss. Right in our drinking water!
You get out of that water.”
Arliss turned and stuck out his tongue at me.
“I’ll cut me a sprout!” I warned.
All he did was stick out his tongue at me again and splash water in my direction.
I got my knife out and cut a green mesquite sprout. I trimmed all the leaves and thorns off, then headed for him.
Arliss saw then that I meant business. He came lunging up out of the pool, knocking water all over his clothes lying on the bank. He lit out for the house, running naked and screaming
bloody murder. To listen to him, you’d have thought the Comanches were lifting his scalp.
Mama heard him and came rushing out of the cabin. She saw Little Arliss running naked. She saw me following after him with a mesquite sprout in one hand and his clothes in the other. She called out to me.
“Travis,” she said, “what on earth have you done to your little brother?”
I said, “Nothing yet. But if he doesn’t keep out of our drinking water, I’m going to wear him to a frazzle.”
That’s what Papa always told Little Arliss when he caught him in the pool. I figured if I had to take Papa’s place, I might as well talk like him.
Mama stared at me for a minute. I thought she was fixing to argue that I was getting too big for my britches. Lots of times she’d tell me that. But this time she didn’t. She just smiled suddenly and grabbed Little Arliss by one ear and held on. He went to hollering and jumping up and down and trying to pull away, but she held on till I got there with his clothes. She put them on him and told him: “Look here, young squirrel. You better listen to your big brother Travis if you want to
keep out of trouble.” Then she made him go sit still awhile in the dog run.
The dog run was an open roofed-over space between the two rooms of our log cabin. It was a good place to eat watermelons in the hot summer or to sleep when the night breezes weren’t strong enough to push through the cracks between the cabin logs. Sometimes we hung up fresh-killed meat there to cool out.
Little Arliss sat in the dog run and sulked while I packed water from the spring. I packed the water in a bucket that Papa had made out of the hide of a cow’s leg. I poured the water into the ash hopper that stood beside the cabin. That was so the water could trickle down through the wood ashes and become lye water. Later Mama would mix this lye water with hog fat and boil it in an iron pot when she wanted to make soap.
When I went to cut wood for Mama, though, Little Arliss left the dog run to come watch me work. Like always, he stood in exactly the right place for the chips from my axe to fly up and maybe knock his eyeballs out. I said: “You better skin out for that house, you little scamp!” He skinned out, too. Just like I told him. Without
even sticking out his tongue at me this time.
And he sat right there till Mama called us to dinner.
After dinner, I didn’t wait for Mama to tell me that I needed to finish running out the corn middles. I got right up from the table and went out and hooked Jumper to the double shovel. I started in plowing where Papa had left off the day before. I figured that if I got an early start, I could finish the corn patch by sundown.
Jumper was a dun mule with a narrow black stripe running along his backbone between his mane and tail. Papa had named him Jumper because nobody yet had ever built a fence he couldn’t jump over. Papa claimed Jumper could clear the moon if he took a notion to see the other side of it.
Jumper was a pretty good mule, though. He was gentle to ride; you could pack in fresh meat on him; and he was willing about pulling a plow. Only, sometimes when I plowed him and he decided quitting time had come, he’d stop work right then. Maybe we’d be out in the middle of the field when Jumper got the notion that it was
time to quit for dinner. Right then, he’d swing around and head for the cabin, dragging down corn with the plow and paying no mind whatever to my hauling back on the reins and hollering “Whoa!”
Late that evening, Jumper tried to pull that stunt on me again; but I was laying for him. With Papa gone, I knew I had to teach Jumper a good lesson. I’d been plowing all afternoon, holding a green cedar club between the plow handles.
I still lacked three or four corn rows being finished when sundown came and Jumper decided it was quitting time. He let out a long bray and started wringing his tail. He left the middle he was traveling in. He struck out through the young corn, headed for the cabin.
I didn’t even holler “Whoa!” at him. I just threw the looped reins off my shoulder and ran up beside him. I drew back my green cedar club and whacked him so hard across the jawbone that I nearly dropped him in his tracks.
You never saw a worse surprised mule. He snorted, started to run, then just stood there and stared at me. Like maybe he couldn’t believe that I was man enough to club him that hard.
I drew back my club again. “Jumper,” I said, “if you don’t get back there and finish this plowing job, you’re going to get more of the same. You understand?”
I guess he understood, all right. Anyhow, from then on till we were through, he stayed right on the job. The only thing he did different from what he’d have done with Papa was to travel with his head turned sideways, watching me every step of the way.
When finally I got to the house, I found that Mama had done the milking and she and Little Arliss were waiting supper on me. Just like we generally waited for Papa when he came in late.
I crawled into bed with Little Arliss that night, feeling pretty satisfied with myself. Our bed was a corn-shuck mattress laid over a couple of squared-up cowhides that had been laced together. The cowhides stood about two feet off the dirt floor, stretched tight inside a pole frame Papa had built in one corner of the room. I lay there and listened to the corn shucks squeak when I breathed and to the owls hooting in the timber along Birdsong Creek. I guessed I’d made a good start. I’d done my work without having to
be told. I’d taught Little Arliss and Jumper that I wasn’t to be trifled with. And Mama could already see that I was man enough to wait supper on.