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Authors: Fred Gipson

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BOOK: Old Yeller
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A
couple of days later, I had another and better reason for wanting to get rid of Old Yeller. That was when the two longhorn range bulls met at the house and pulled off their big fight.

We first heard the bulls while we were eating our dinner of cornbread, roasted venison, and green watercress gathered from below the spring. One bull came from off a high rocky ridge to the south of the cabin. We could hear his angry rumbling as he moved down through the thickets of catclaw and scrub oak.

Then he lifted his voice in a wild brassy blare
that set echoes clamoring in the draws and canyons for miles around.

“That old bull’s talking fight,” I told Mama and Little Arliss. “He’s bragging that he’s the biggest and toughest and meanest. He’s telling all the other bulls that if they’ve got a lick of sense, they’ll take to cover when he’s around.”

Almost before I’d finished talking, we heard the second bull. He was over about the Salt Licks somewhere. His bellering was just as loud and braggy as the first one’s. He was telling the first bull that his fight talk was all bluff. He was saying that
he
was the he bull of the range, that
he
was the biggest and meanest and toughest.

We sat and ate and listened to them. We could tell by their rumblings and bawlings that they were gradually working their way down through the brush toward each other and getting madder by the minute.

I always liked to see a fight between bulls or bears or wild boars or almost any wild animals. Now, I got so excited that I jumped up from the table and went to the door and stood listening. I’d made up my mind that if the bulls met and started a fight, I was going to see it. There was
still plenty of careless weeds and crabgrass that needed hoeing out of the corn, but I guessed I could let them go long enough to see a bullfight.

Our cabin stood on a high knoll about a hundred yards above the spring. Years ago, Papa had cleared out all the brush and trees from around it, leaving a couple of liveoaks near the house for shade. That was so he could get a clear shot at any Comanche or Apache coming to scalp us. And while I stood there at the door, the first bull entered the clearing, right where Papa had one time shot a Comanche off his horse.

He was a leggy, mustard-colored bull with black freckles speckling his jaws and the underside of his belly. He had one great horn set for hooking, while the other hung down past his jaw like a tallow candle that had drooped in the heat. He was what the Mexicans called a
chongo
or “droop horn.”

He trotted out a little piece into the clearing, then stopped to drop his head low. He went to snorting and shaking his horns and pawing up the dry dirt with his forefeet. He flung the dirt back over his neck and shoulders in great clouds of dust.

I couldn’t see the other bull yet, but I could tell by the sound of him that he was close and coming in a trot. I hollered back to Mama and Little Arliss.

“They’re fixing to fight right here, where we can all see it.”

There was a split-rail fence around our cabin. I ran out and climbed up and took a seat on the top rail. Mama and Little Arliss came and climbed up to sit beside me.

Then, from the other side of the clearing came the second bull. He was the red roan I’d seen at the Salt Licks the day I shot the doe. He wasn’t as tall and longlegged as the
chongo
bull, but every bit as heavy and powerful. And while his horns were shorter, they were both curved right for hooking.

Like the first bull, he came blaring out into the clearing, then stopped, to snort and sling his wicked horns and paw up clouds of dust. He made it plain that he wanted to fight just as bad as the first bull.

About that time, from somewhere behind the cabin, came Old Yeller. He charged through the rails, bristled up and roaring almost as loud as
the bulls. All their bellering and snorting and dust pawing sounded like a threat to him. He’d come out to run them away from the house.

I hollered at him. “Get back there, you rascal,” I shouted. “You’re fixing to spoil our show.”

That stopped him, but he still wasn’t satisfied. He kept baying the bulls till I jumped down and picked up a rock. I didn’t have to throw it. All I had to do was draw back like I was going to. That sent him flying back into the yard and around the corner of the cabin, yelling like I’d murdered him.

That also put Little Arliss on the fight.

He started screaming at me. He tried to get down where he could pick up a rock.

But Mama held him. “Hush, now, baby,” she said. “Travis isn’t going to hurt your dog. He just doesn’t want him to scare off the bulls.”

Well, it took some talking, but she finally got Little Arliss’s mind off hitting me with a rock. I climbed back up on the fence. I told Mama that I was betting on Chongo. She said she was betting her money on Roany because he had two fighting horns. We sat there and watched the bulls get ready to fight and talked and laughed
and had ourselves a real good time. We never once thought about being in any danger.

When we learned different, it was nearly too late.

Suddenly, Chongo quit pawing the dirt and flung his tail into the air.

“Look out!” I shouted. “Here it comes.”

Sure enough, Chongo charged, pounding the hardpan with his feet and roaring his mightiest. And here came Roany to meet him, charging with his head low and his tail high in the air.

I let out an excited yell. They met head on, with a loud crash of horns and a jar so solid that it seemed like I could feel it clear up there on the fence. Roany went down. I yelled louder, thinking Chongo was winning.

A second later, though, Roany was back on his feet and charging through the cloud of dust their hoofs had churned up. He caught Chongo broadside. He slammed his sharp horns up to the hilt in the shoulder of the mustard-colored bull. He drove against him so fast and hard that Chongo couldn’t wheel away. All he could do was barely keep on his feet by giving ground.

And here they came, straight for our rail fence.

“Land sakes!” Mama cried suddenly and leaped from the fence, dragging Little Arliss down after her.

But I was too excited about the fight. I didn’t see the danger in time. I was still astride the top rail when the struggling bulls crashed through the fence, splintering the posts and rails, and toppling me to the ground almost under them.

I lunged to my feet, wild with scare, and got knocked flat on my face in the dirt.

I sure thought I was a goner. The roaring of the bulls was right in my ears. The hot, reeking scent of their blood was in my nose. The bone-crashing weight of their hoofs was stomping all around and over me, churning up such a fog of dust that I couldn’t see a thing.

Then suddenly Mama had me by the hand and was dragging me out from under, yelling in a scared voice: “Run, Travis, run!”

Well, she didn’t have to keep hollering at me. I was running as fast as I ever hoped to run. And with her running faster and dragging me along by the hand, we scooted through the open cabin door just about a quick breath before Roany slammed Chongo against it.

They hit so hard that the whole cabin shook. I saw great big chunks of dried-mud chinking fall from between the logs. There for a second, I thought Chongo was coming through that door, right on top of us. But turned broadside like he was, he was too big to be shoved through such a small opening. Then a second later, he got off Roany’s horns somehow and wheeled on him. Here they went, then, down alongside the cabin wall, roaring and stomping and slamming their heels against the logs.

I looked at Mama and Little Arliss. Mama’s face was white as a bed sheet. For once, Little Arliss was so scared that he couldn’t scream. Suddenly, I wasn’t scared anymore. I was just plain mad.

I reached for a braided rawhide whip that hung in a coil on a wooden peg driven between the logs.

That scared Mama still worse. “Oh, no, Travis,” she cried. “Don’t go out there!”

“They’re fixing to tear down the house, Mama,” I said.

“But they might run over you,” Mama argued.

The bulls crashed into the cabin again. They
grunted and strained and roared. Their horns and hoofs clattered against the logs.

I turned and headed for the door. Looked to me like they’d kill us all if they ever broke through those log walls.

Mama came running to grab me by the arm. “Call the dog!” she said. “Put the dog after them!”

Well, that was a real good idea. I was half aggravated with myself because I hadn’t thought of it. Here was a chance for the old yeller dog to pay back for all the trouble he’d made around the place.

I stuck my head out the door. The bulls had fought away from the house. Now they were busy tearing down more of the yard fence.

I ducked out and around the corner. I ran through the dog run toward the back of the house, calling, “Here, Yeller! Here, Yeller! Get ’em, boy! Sic ’em!”

Old Yeller was back there, all right. But he didn’t come and he didn’t sic ’em. He took one look at me running toward him with that bullwhip in my hand and knew I’d come to kill him. He tucked his tail and lit out in a yelling run for the woods.

If there had been any way I could have done it, right then is when I would have killed him.

But there wasn’t time to mess with a fool dog. I had to do something about those bulls. They were wrecking the place, and I had to stop it. Papa had left me to look after things while he was gone, and I wasn’t about to let two mad bulls tear up everything we had.

I ran up to the bulls and went to work on them with the whip. It was a heavy sixteen-footer and I’d practiced with it a lot. I could crack that rawhide popper louder than a gunshot. I could cut a branch as thick as my little finger off a green mesquite with it.

But I couldn’t stop those bulls from fighting. They were too mad. They were hurting too much already; I might as well have been spitting on them. I yelled and whipped them till I gave clear out. Still they went right on with their roaring bloody battle.

I guess they would have kept on fighting till they leveled the house to the ground if it hadn’t been for a freak accident.

We had a heavy two-wheeled Mexican cart that Papa used for hauling wood and hay. It
happened to be standing out in front of the house, right where the ground broke away in a sharp slant toward the spring and creek.

It had just come to me that I could get my gun and shoot the bulls when Chongo crowded Roany up against the cart. He ran that long single horn clear under Roany’s belly. Now he gave such a big heave that he lifted Roany’s feet clear off the ground and rolled him in the air. A second later, Roany landed flat on his back inside the bed of that dump cart, with all four feet sticking up.

I thought his weight would break the cart to pieces, but I was wrong. The cart was stronger than I’d thought. All the bull’s weight did was tilt it so that the wheels started rolling. And away the cart went down the hill, carrying Roany with it.

When that happened, Chongo was suddenly the silliest-looking bull you ever saw. He stood with his tail up and his head high, staring after the runaway cart. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out what he’d done with the roan bull.

The rolling cart rattled and banged and careened its way down the slope till it was right beside the spring. There, one wheel struck a big boulder, bouncing that side of the cart so high
that it turned over and skidded to a stop. The roan bull spilled right into the spring. Water flew in all directions.

Roany got his feet under him. He scrambled up out of the hole. But I guess that cart ride and sudden wetting had taken all the fight out of him. Anyhow, he headed for the timber, running with his tail tucked. Water streamed down out of his hair, leaving a dark wet trail in the dry dust to show which way he’d gone.

Chongo saw Roany then. He snorted and went after him. But when he got to the cart, he slid to a sudden stop. The cart, lying on its side now, still had that top wheel spinning around and around. Chongo had never seen anything like that. He stood and stared at the spinning wheel. He couldn’t understand it. He lifted his nose up close to smell it. Finally he reached out a long tongue to lick and taste it.

That was a bad mistake. I guess the iron tire on the spinning wheel was roughed up pretty badly and maybe had chips of broken rock and gravel stuck to it. Anyhow, from the way Chongo acted, it must have scraped all the hide off his tongue.

Chongo bawled and went running backward. He whirled away so fast that he lost his footing and fell down. He came to his feet and took out in the opposite direction from the roan bull. He ran, slinging his head and flopping his long tongue around, bawling like he’d stuck it into a bear trap. He ran with his tail clamped just as tight as the roan bull’s.

It was enough to make you laugh your head off, the way both of those bad bulls had gotten the wits scared clear out of them, each one thinking he’d lost the fight.

But they sure had made a wreck of the yard fence.

T
hat Little Arliss! If he wasn’t a mess! From the time he’d grown up big enough to get out of the cabin, he’d made a practice of trying to catch and keep every living thing that ran, flew, jumped, or crawled.

Every night before Mama let him go to bed, she’d make Arliss empty his pockets of whatever he’d captured during the day. Generally, it would be a tangled-up mess of grasshoppers and worms and praying bugs and little rusty tree lizards. One time he brought in a horned toad that got so mad he swelled out round and flat as a Mexican
tortilla
and bled at the eyes. Sometimes it was
stuff like a young bird that had fallen out of its nest before it could fly, or a green-speckled spring frog or a striped water snake. And once he turned out of his pocket a wadded-up baby copperhead that nearly threw Mama into spasms. We never did figure out why the snake hadn’t bitten him, but Mama took no more chances on snakes. She switched Arliss hard for catching that snake. Then she made me spend better than a week, taking him out and teaching him to throw rocks and kill snakes.

That was all right with Little Arliss. If Mama wanted him to kill his snakes first, he’d kill them. But that still didn’t keep him from sticking them in his pockets along with everything else he’d captured that day. The snakes might be stinking by the time Mama called on him to empty his pockets, but they’d be dead.

Then, after the yeller dog came, Little Arliss started catching even bigger game. Like cottontail rabbits and chaparral birds and a baby possum that sulked and lay like dead for the first several hours until he finally decided that Arliss wasn’t going to hurt him.

Of course, it was Old Yeller that was doing the catching. He’d run the game down and turn it over to Little Arliss. Then Little Arliss could come in and tell Mama a big fib about how he caught it himself.

I watched them one day when they caught a blue catfish out of Birdsong Creek. The fish had fed out into water so shallow that his top fin was sticking out. About the time I saw it, Old Yeller and Little Arliss did, too. They made a run at it. The fish went scooting away toward deeper water, only Yeller was too fast for him. He pounced on the fish and shut his big mouth down over it and went romping to the bank, where he dropped it down on the grass and let it flop. And here came Little Arliss to fall on it like I guess he’d been doing everything else. The minute he got his hands on it, the fish finned him and he went to crying.

But he wouldn’t turn the fish loose. He just grabbed it up and went running and squawling toward the house, where he gave the fish to Mama. His hands were all bloody by then, where the fish had finned him. They swelled up and got
mighty sore; not even a mesquite thorn hurts as bad as a sharp fish fin when it’s run deep into your hand.

But as soon as Mama had wrapped his hands in a poultice of mashed-up prickly-pear root to draw out the poison, Little Arliss forgot all about his hurt. And that night when we ate the fish for supper, he told the biggest windy I ever heard about how he’d dived way down into a deep hole under the rocks and dragged that fish out and nearly got drowned before he could swim to the bank with it.

But when I tried to tell Mama what really happened, she wouldn’t let me. “Now, this is Arliss’s story,” she said. “You let him tell it the way he wants to.”

I told Mama then, I said: “Mama, that old yeller dog is going to make the biggest liar in Texas out of Little Arliss.”

But Mama just laughed at me, like she always laughed at Little Arliss’s big windies after she’d gotten off where he couldn’t hear her. She said for me to let Little Arliss alone. She said that if he ever told a bigger whopper than the ones I used to tell, she had yet to hear it.

Well, I hushed then. If Mama wanted Little Arliss to grow up to be the biggest liar in Texas, I guessed it wasn’t any of my business.

All of which, I figure, is what led up to Little Arliss’s catching the bear. I think Mama had let him tell so many big yarns about his catching live game that he’d begun to believe them himself.

 

When it happened, I was down the creek a ways, splitting rails to fix up the yard fence where the bulls had torn it down, I’d been down there since dinner, working in a stand of tall slim post oaks. I’d chop down a tree, trim off the branches as far up as I wanted, then cut away the rest of the top. After that I’d start splitting the log.

I’d split the log by driving steel wedges into the wood. I’d start at the big end and hammer in a wedge with the back side of my axe. This would start a little split running lengthways of the log. Then I’d take a second wedge and drive it into this split. This would split the log further along and, at the same time, loosen the first wedge. I’d then knock the first wedge loose and move it up in front of the second one.

Driving one wedge ahead of the other like that, I could finally split a log in two halves. Then I’d go to work on the halves, splitting them apart. That way, from each log, I’d come out with four rails.

Swinging that chopping axe was sure hard work. The sweat poured off me. My back muscles ached. The axe got so heavy I could hardly swing it. My breath got harder and harder to breathe.

An hour before sundown, I was worn down to a nub. It seemed like I couldn’t hit another lick. Papa could have lasted till past sundown, but I didn’t see how I could. I shouldered my axe and started toward the cabin, trying to think up some excuse to tell Mama to keep her from knowing I was played clear out.

That’s when I heard Little Arliss scream.

Well, Little Arliss was a screamer by nature. He’d scream when he was happy and scream when he was mad and a lot of times he’d scream just to hear himself make a noise. Generally, we paid no more mind to his screaming than we did to the gobble of a wild turkey.

But this time was different. The second I
heard his screaming, I felt my heart flop clear over. This time I knew Little Arliss was in real trouble.

I tore out up the trail leading toward the cabin. A minute before, I’d been so tired out with my rail splitting that I couldn’t have struck a trot. But now I raced through the tall trees in that creek bottom, covering ground like a scared wolf.

Little Arliss’s second scream, when it came, was louder and shriller and more frantic-sounding than the first. Mixed with it was a whimpering crying sound that I knew didn’t come from him. It was a sound I’d heard before and seemed like I ought to know what it was, but right then I couldn’t place it.

Then, from way off to one side came a sound that I would have recognized anywhere. It was the coughing roar of a charging bear. I’d just heard it once in my life. That was the time Mama had shot and wounded a hog-killing bear and Papa had had to finish it off with a knife to keep it from getting her.

My heart went to pushing up into my throat, nearly choking off my wind. I strained for every
lick of speed I could get out of my running legs. I didn’t know what sort of fix Little Arliss had got himself into, but I knew that it had to do with a mad bear, which was enough.

The way the late sun slanted through the trees had the trail all cross-banded with streaks of bright light and dark shade. I ran through these bright and dark patches so fast that the changing light nearly blinded me. Then suddenly, I raced out into the open where I could see ahead. And what I saw sent a chill clear through to the marrow of my bones.

There was Little Arliss, down in that spring hole again. He was lying half in and half out of the water, holding on to the hind leg of a little black bear cub no bigger than a small coon. The bear cub was out on the bank, whimpering and crying and clawing the rocks with all three of his other feet, trying to pull away. But Little Arliss was holding on for all he was worth, scared now and screaming his head off. Too scared to let go.

How the bear cub ever came to prowl close enough for Little Arliss to grab him, I don’t know. And why he didn’t turn on him and bite loose, I couldn’t figure out, either. Unless he was
like Little Arliss, too scared to think.

But all of that didn’t matter now. What mattered was the bear cub’s mama. She’d heard the cries of her baby and was coming to save him. She was coming so fast that she had the brush popping and breaking as she crashed through and over it. I could see her black heavy figure piling off down the slant on the far side of Birdsong Creek. She was roaring mad and ready to kill.

And worst of all, I could see that I’d never get there in time!

Mama couldn’t either. She’d heard Arliss, too, and here she came from the cabin, running down the slant toward the spring, screaming at Arliss, telling him to turn the bear cub loose. But Little Arliss wouldn’t do it. All he’d do was hang with that hind leg and let out one shrill shriek after another as fast as he could suck in a breath.

Now the she bear was charging across the shallows in the creek. She was knocking sheets of water high in the bright sun, charging with her fur up and her long teeth bared, filling the canyon with that awful coughing roar. And no matter how fast Mama ran or how fast I ran, the
she bear was going to get there first!

I think I nearly went blind then, picturing what was going to happen to Little Arliss. I know that I opened my mouth to scream and not any sound came out.

Then, just as the bear went lunging up the creek bank toward Little Arliss and her cub, a flash of yellow came streaking out of the brush.

It was that big yeller dog. He was roaring like a mad bull. He wasn’t one-third as big and heavy as the she bear, but when he piled into her from one side, he rolled her clear off her feet. They went down in a wild, roaring tangle of twisting bodies and scrambling feet and slashing fangs.

As I raced past them, I saw the bear lunge up to stand on her hind feet like a man while she clawed at the body of the yeller dog hanging to her throat. I didn’t wait to see more. Without ever checking my stride, I ran in and jerked Little Arliss loose from the cub. I grabbed him by the wrist and yanked him up out of that water and slung him toward Mama like he was a half-empty sack of corn. I screamed at Mama. “Grab him, Mama! Grab him and run!” Then I swung my chopping axe high and wheeled, aiming to
cave in the she bear’s head with the first lick.

But I never did strike. I didn’t need to. Old Yeller hadn’t let the bear get close enough. He couldn’t handle her; she was too big and strong for that. She’d stand there on her hind feet, hunched over, and take a roaring swing at him with one of those big front claws. She’d slap him head over heels. She’d knock him so far that it didn’t look like he could possibly get back there before she charged again, but he always did. He’d hit the ground rolling, yelling his head off with the pain of the blow; but somehow he’d always roll to his feet. And here he’d come again, ready to tie into her for another round.

I stood there with my axe raised, watching them for a long moment. Then from up toward the house, I heard Mama calling: “Come away from there, Travis. Hurry, son! Run!”

That spooked me. Up till then, I’d been ready to tie into that bear myself. Now, suddenly, I was scared out of my wits again. I ran toward the cabin.

But like it was, Old Yeller nearly beat me there. I didn’t see it, of course; but Mama said that the minute Old Yeller saw we were all in the
clear and out of danger, he threw the fight to that she bear and lit out for the house. The bear chased him for a little piece, but at the rate Old Yeller was leaving her behind, Mama said it looked like the bear was backing up.

But if the big yeller dog was scared or hurt in any way when he came dashing into the house, he didn’t show it. He sure didn’t show it like we all did. Little Arliss had hushed his screaming, but he was trembling all over and clinging to Mama like he’d never let her go. And Mama was sitting in the middle of the floor, holding him up close and crying like she’d never stop. And me, I was close to crying, myself.

Old Yeller, though, all he did was come bounding in to jump on us and lick us in the face and bark so loud that there, inside the cabin, the noise nearly made us deaf.

The way he acted, you might have thought that bear fight hadn’t been anything more than a rowdy romp that we’d all taken part in for the fun of it.

BOOK: Old Yeller
5.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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