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Authors: Fred Gipson

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BOOK: Old Yeller
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I guessed that I could handle things while Papa was gone just about as good as he could.

I
t was the next morning when the big yeller dog came.

I found him at daylight when Mama told me to step out to the dog run and cut down a side of middling meat hanging to the pole rafters.

The minute I opened the door and looked up, I saw that the meat was gone. It had been tied to the rafter with bear-grass blades braided together for string. Now nothing was left hanging to the pole but the frazzled ends of the snapped blades.

I looked down then. At the same instant, a dog rose from where he’d been curled up on the
ground beside the barrel that held our cornmeal. He was a big ugly slick-haired yeller dog. One short ear had been chewed clear off and his tail had been bobbed so close to his rump that there was hardly stub enough left to wag. But the most noticeable thing to me about him was how thin and starved looking he was, all but for his belly. His belly was swelled up as tight and round as a pumpkin.

It wasn’t hard to tell how come that belly was so full. All I had to do was look at the piece of curled-up rind lying in the dirt beside him, with all the meat gnawed off. That side of meat had been a big one, but now there wasn’t enough meat left on the rind to interest a pack rat.

Well, to lose the only meat we had left from last winter’s hog butchering was bad enough. But what made me even madder was the way the dog acted. He didn’t even have the manners to feel ashamed of what he’d done. He rose to his feet, stretched, yawned, then came romping toward me, wiggling that stub tail and yelling
Yow! Yow! Yow!
Just like he belonged there and I was his best friend.

“Why, you thieving rascal!” I shouted and
kicked at him as hard as I could.

He ducked, just in time, so that I missed him by a hair. But nobody could have told I missed, after the way he fell over on the ground and lay there, with his belly up and his four feet in the air, squawling and bellering at the top of his voice. From the racket he made, you’d have thought I had a club and was breaking every bone in his body.

Mama came running to stick her head through the door and say, “What on earth, Travis?”

“Why, this old stray dog has come and eaten our middling meat clear up,” I said.

I aimed another kick at him. He was quick and rolled out of reach again, just in time, then fell back to the ground and lay there, yelling louder than ever.

Then out came Little Arliss. He was naked, like he always slept in the summer. He was hollering “A dog! A dog!” He ran past me and fell on the dog and petted him till he quit howling, then turned on me, fighting mad.

“You quit kicking my dog!” he yelled fiercely. “You kick my dog, and I’ll wear you to a frazzle!”

The battling stick that Mama used to beat the dirt out of clothes when she washed stood leaning against the wall. Now, Little Arliss grabbed it up in both hands and came at me, swinging.

It was such a surprise move, Little Arliss making fight at me that way, that I just stood there with my mouth open and let him clout me a good one before I thought to move. Then Mama stepped in and took the stick away from him.

Arliss turned on her, ready to fight with his bare fists. Then he decided against it and ran and put his arms around the big dog’s neck. He began to yell: “He’s my dog. You can’t kick him. He’s my dog!”

The big dog was back up on his feet now, wagging his stub tail again and licking the tears off Arliss’s face with his pink tongue.

Mama laughed. “Well, Travis,” she said, “it looks like we’ve got us a dog.”

“But Mama,” I said. “You don’t mean we’d keep an old ugly dog like that. One that will come in and steal meat right out of the house.”

“Well, maybe we can’t keep him,” Mama said. “Maybe he belongs to somebody around here
who’ll want him back.”

“He doesn’t belong to anybody in the settlement,” I said. “I know every dog at Salt Licks.”

“Well, then,” Mama said. “If he’s a stray, there’s no reason why Little Arliss can’t claim him. And you’ll have to admit he’s a smart dog. Mighty few dogs have sense enough to figure out a way to reach a side of meat hanging that high. He must have climbed up on top of that meal barrel and jumped from there.”

I went over and looked at the wooden lid on top of the meal barrel. Sure enough, in the thin film of dust that had settled over it were dog tracks.

“Well, all right,” I admitted. “He’s a smart dog. But I still don’t want him.”

“Now, Travis,” Mama said. “You’re not being fair. You had you a dog when you were little, but Arliss has never had one. He’s too little for you to play with, and he gets lonely.”

I didn’t say any more. When Mama got her mind set a certain way, there was no use in arguing with her. But I didn’t want that meat-thieving dog on the place, and I didn’t aim to have him. I might have to put up with him for a day or so, but
sooner or later, I’d find a way to get rid of him.

Mama must have guessed what was going on in my mind, for she kept handing me sober looks all the time she was getting breakfast.

She fed us cornmeal mush cooked in a pot swung over the fireplace. She sweetened it with wild honey that Papa and I had cut out of a bee tree last fall, and added cream skimmed off last night’s milk. It was good eating; but I’d had my appetite whetted for fried middling meat to go with it.

Mama waited till I was done, then said: “Now, Travis, as soon as you’ve milked the cows, I think you ought to get your gun and try to kill us a fat young doe for meat. And while you’re gone, I want you to do some thinking on what I said about Little Arliss and this stray dog.”

A
ll right, I was willing to go make a try for a fat doe. I was generally more than willing to go hunting. And while I was gone, I might do some thinking about Little Arliss and that thieving stray dog. But I didn’t much think my thinking would take the turn Mama wanted.

I went and milked the cows and brought the milk in for Mama to strain. I got my rifle and went out to the lot and caught Jumper. I tied a rope around his neck, half-hitched a noose around his nose and pitched the rest of the rope across his back. This was the rope I’d rein him with. Then I got me a second rope and tied it
tight around his middle, just back of his withers. This second rope I’d use to tie my deer onto Jumper’s back—if I got one.

Papa had shown me how to tie a deer’s feet together and pack it home across my shoulder, and I’d done it. But to carry a deer very far like that was a sweat-popping job that I’d rather leave to Jumper. He was bigger and stronger.

I mounted Jumper bareback and rode him along Birdsong Creek and across a rocky hogback ridge. I thought how fine it would be if I was riding my own horse instead of an old mule. I rode down a long sweeping slope where a scattering of huge, ragged-topped liveoaks stood about in grass so tall that it dragged against the underside of Jumper’s belly. I rode to within a quarter of a mile of the Salt Licks, then left Jumper tied in a thicket and went on afoot.

I couldn’t take Jumper close to the Licks for a couple of reasons. In the first place, he’d get to swishing his tail and stomping his feet at flies and maybe scare off my game. On top of that, he was gun shy. Fire a gun close to Jumper, and he’d fall to staves. He’d snort and wheel to run and fall back against his tie rope, trying to break loose.
He’d bawl and paw the air and take on like he’d been shot. When it came to gunfire Jumper didn’t have any more sense than a red ant in a hot skillet.

It was a fine morning for hunting, with the air still and the rising sun shining bright on the tall green grass and the greener leaves of the timber. There wasn’t enough breeze blowing for me to tell the wind direction, so I licked one finger and held it up. Sure enough, the side next to me cooled first. That meant that what little push there was to the air was away from me, toward the Salt Licks. Which wouldn’t do at all. No deer would come to the Licks if he caught wind of me first.

I half circled the Licks till I had the breeze moving across them toward me and took cover under a wild grapevine that hung low out of the top of a gnarled oak. I sat down with my back against the trunk of the tree. I sat with my legs crossed and my rifle cradled on my knees. Then I made myself get as still as the tree.

Papa had taught me that, way back when I was little, the same as he’d taught me to hunt downwind from my game. He always said: “It’s
not your shape that catches a deer’s eye. It’s your moving. If a deer can’t smell you and can’t see you move, he won’t ever know you’re there.”

So I sat there, holding as still as a stump, searching the clearing around the Licks.

The Licks was a scattered outcropping of dark rocks with black streaks in them. The black streaks held the salt that Papa said had got mixed up with the rocks a jillion years ago. I don’t know how he knew what had happened so far back, but the salt was there, and all the hogs and cattle and wild animals in that part of the country came there to lick it.

One time, Papa said, when he and Mama had first settled there, they’d run clean out of salt and had to beat up pieces of the rock and boil them in water. Then they’d used the salty water to season their meat and cornbread.

Wild game generally came to lick the rocks in the early mornings or late evenings, and those were the best times to come for meat. The killer animals, like bear and panther and bobcats, knew this and came to the Licks at the same time. Sometimes we’d get a shot at them. I’d killed two bobcats and a wolf there while waiting for deer;
and once Papa shot a big panther right after it had leaped on a mule colt and broken its neck with one slap of its heavy forepaw.

I hoped I’d get a shot at a bear or panther this morning. The only thing that showed up, however, was a little band of javelina hogs, and I knew better than to shoot them. Make a bad shot and wound one so that he went to squealing, and you had the whole bunch after you, ready to eat you alive. They were small animals. Their tushes weren’t as long as those of the range hogs we had running wild in the woods. They couldn’t cut you as deep, but once javelinas got after you, they’d keep after you for a lot longer time.

Once Jed Simpson’s boy Rosal shot into a bunch of javelinas and they took after him. They treed him up a mesquite and kept him there from early morning till long after suppertime. The mesquite was a small one, and they nearly chewed the trunk of it in two trying to get to him. After that Rosal was willing to let the javelinas alone.

The javelinas moved away, and I saw some bobwhite quail feed into the opening around the Licks. Then here came three cows with young calves and a roan bull. They stood and licked at
the rocks. I watched them awhile, then got to watching a couple of squirrels playing in the top of a tree close to the one I sat under.

The squirrels were running and jumping and chattering and flashing their tails in the sunlight. One would run along a tree branch, then take a flying leap to the next branch. There it would sit, fussing, and wait to see if the second one had the nerve to jump that far. When the second squirrel did, the first one would set up an excited chatter and make a run for a longer leap. Sure enough, after a while, the leader tried to jump a gap that was too wide. He missed his branch, clawed at some leaves, and came tumbling to the ground. The second squirrel went to dancing up and down on his branch then, chattering louder than ever. It was plain that he was getting a big laugh out of how that show-off squirrel had made such a fool of himself.

The sight was so funny that I laughed, myself, and that’s where I made my mistake.

Where the doe had come from and how she ever got so close without my seeing her, I don’t know. It was like she’d suddenly lit down out of the air like a buzzard or risen right up out of the
bare ground around the rocks. Anyhow, there she stood, staring straight at me, sniffing and snorting and stomping her forefeet against the ground.

She couldn’t have scented me, and I hadn’t moved; but I had laughed out loud a little at those squirrels. And that sound had warned her.

Well, I couldn’t lift my gun then, with her staring straight at me. She’d see the motion and take a scare. And while Papa was a good enough shot to down a running deer, I’d never tried it and didn’t much think I could. I figured it smarter to wait. Maybe she’d quit staring at me after a while and give me a chance to lift my gun.

But I waited and waited, and still she kept looking at me, trying to figure me out. Finally, she started coming toward me. She’d take one dancing step and then another and bob her head and flap her long ears about, then start moving toward me again.

I didn’t know what to do. It made me nervous, the way she kept coming at me. Sooner or later she was bound to make out what I was. Then she’d whirl and be gone before I could draw a bead on her.

She kept doing me that way till finally my heart was flopping around inside my chest like a catfish in a wet sack. I could feel my muscles tightening up all over. I knew then that I couldn’t wait any longer. It was either shoot or bust wide open, so I whipped my gun up to my shoulder.

Like I’d figured, she snorted and wheeled, so fast that she was just a brown blur against my gunsights. I pressed the trigger, hoping my aim was good.

After I fired, the black powder charge in my gun threw up such a thick fog of blue smoke that I couldn’t see through it. I reloaded, then leaped to my feet and went running through the smoke. What I saw when I came into the clear again made my heart drop down into my shoes.

There went the frightened, snorting cattle, stampeding through the trees with their tails in the air like it was heel-fly time. And right beside them went my doe, running all humped up and with her white, pointed tail clamped tight to her rump.

Which meant that I’d hit her but hadn’t made a killing shot.

I didn’t like that. I never minded killing for meat. Like Papa had told me, every creature has to kill to live. But to wound an animal was something else. Especially one as pretty and harmless as a deer. It made me sick to think of the doe’s escaping, maybe to hurt for days before she finally died.

I swung my gun up, hoping yet to get in a killing shot. But I couldn’t fire on account of the cattle. They were too close to the deer. I might kill one of them.

Then suddenly the doe did a surprising thing. Way down in the flat there, nearly out of sight, she ran head on into the trunk of a tree. Like she was stone blind. I saw the flash of her light-colored belly as she went down. I waited. She didn’t get up. I tore out, running through the chin-tall grass as fast as I could.

When finally I reached the place, all out of breath, I found her lying dead, with a bullet hole through her middle, right where it had to have shattered the heart.

Suddenly I wasn’t sick any more. I felt big and strong and sure of myself. I hadn’t made a bad shot. I hadn’t caused an animal a lot of suffering.
All I’d done was get meat for the family, shooting it on the run, just like Papa did.

 

I rode toward the cabin, sitting behind the gutted doe that I’d tied across Jumper’s back. I rode, feeling proud of myself as a hunter and a provider for the family. Making a killing shot like that on a moving deer made me feel bigger and more important. Too big and important, I guessed, to fuss with Little Arliss about that old yeller dog. I still didn’t think much of the idea of keeping him, but I guessed that when you are nearly a man, you have to learn to put up with a lot of aggravation from little old bitty kids. Let Arliss keep the thieving rascal. I guessed I could provide enough meat for him, too.

That’s how I was feeling when I crossed Birdsong Creek and rode up to the spring under the trees below the house. Then suddenly, I felt different. That’s when I found Little Arliss in the pool again. And in there with him was the big yeller dog. That dirty stinking rascal, romping around in our drinking water!

“Arliss!” I yelled at Little Arliss. “You get that nasty old dog out of the water!”

They hadn’t seen me ride up, and I guess it was my sudden yell that surprised them both so bad. Arliss went tearing out of the pool on one side and the dog on the other. Arliss was screaming his head off, and here came the big dog with his wet fur rising along the ridge of his backbone, baying me like I was a panther.

I didn’t give him a chance to get to me. I was too quick about jumping off the mule and grabbing up some rocks.

I was lucky. The first rock I threw caught the big dog right between the eyes, and I was throwing hard. He went down, yelling and pitching and wallowing. And just as he came to his feet again, I caught him in the ribs with another one. That was too much for him. He turned tail then and took out for the house, squawling and bawling.

But I wasn’t the only good rock thrower in the family. Arliss was only five years old, but I’d spent a lot of time showing him how to throw a rock. Now I wished I hadn’t. Because about then, a rock nearly tore my left ear off. I whirled around just barely in time to duck another that would have caught me square in the left eye.

I yelled, “Arliss, you quit that!” but Arliss
wasn’t listening. He was too scared and too mad. He bent over to pick up a rock big enough to brain me with if he’d been strong enough to throw it.

Well, when you’re fourteen years old, you can’t afford to mix in a rock fight with your five-year-old brother. You can’t do it, even when you’re in the right. You just can’t explain a thing like that to your folks. All they’ll do is point out how much bigger you are, how unfair it is to your little brother.

All I could do was turn tail like the yeller dog and head for the house, yelling for Mama. And right after me came Little Arliss, naked and running as fast as he could, doing his dead-level best to get close enough to hit me with the big rock he was packing.

I outran him, of course; and then here came Mama, running so fast that her long skirts were flying, and calling out: “What on earth, boys!”

I hollered, “You better catch that Arliss!” as I ran past her. And she did; but Little Arliss was so mad that I thought for a second he was going to hit her with the rock before she could get it away from him.

Well, it all wound up about like I figured. Mama switched Little Arliss for playing in our drinking water. Then she blessed me out good and proper for being so bossy with him. And the big yeller dog that had caused all the trouble got off scot free.

It didn’t seem right and fair to me. How could I be the man of the family if nobody paid any attention to what I thought or said?

I went and led Jumper up to the house. I hung the doe in the liveoak tree that grew beside the house and began skinning it and cutting up the meat. I thought of the fine shot I’d made and knew it was worth bragging about to Mama. But what was the use? She wouldn’t pay me any mind—not until I did something she thought I shouldn’t have done. Then she’d treat me like I wasn’t any older than Little Arliss.

I sulked and felt sorry for myself all the time I worked with the meat. The more I thought about it, the madder I got at the big yeller dog.

I hung the fresh cuts of venison up in the dog run, right where Old Yeller had stolen the hog meat the night he came. I did it for a couple of reasons. To begin with, that was the handiest and
coolest place we had for hanging fresh meat. On top of that, I was looking for a good excuse to get rid of that dog. I figured if he stole more of our meat, Mama would have to see that he was too sorry and no account to keep.

But Old Yeller was too smart for that. He gnawed around on some of the deer’s leg bones that Mama threw away; but not once did he ever even act like he could smell the meat we’d hung up.

BOOK: Old Yeller
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