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Authors: Fred Gipson

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BOOK: Old Yeller
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After all that, I guess you can see why I nearly died when a man rode up one day and claimed Old Yeller.

T
he man’s name was Burn Sanderson. He was a young man who rode a good horse and was mighty nice and polite about taking his hat off to Mama when he dismounted in front of our cabin. He told Mama who he was. He said he was a newcomer to Salt Licks. He said that he’d come from down San Antonio way with a little bunch of cattle that he was grazing over in the Devil’s River country. He said he couldn’t afford to hire riders, so he’d brought along a couple of dogs to help him herd his cattle. One of these dogs, the best one, had disappeared. He’d inquired around about it at Salt Licks, and Bud
Searcy had told him that we had the dog.

“A big yeller dog?” Mama asked, looking sober and worried.

“Yessum,” the man said, then added with a grin, “and the worse egg sucker and camp robber you ever laid eyes on. Steal you blind, that old devil will; but there was never a better cow dog born.”

Mama turned to me. “Son, call Old Yeller,” she said.

I stood frozen in my tracks. I was so full of panic that I couldn’t move or think.

“Go on, Son,” Mama urged. “I think he and Little Arliss must be playing down about the creek somewhere.”

“But Mama!” I gasped. “We can’t do without Old Yeller. He’s-”

“Travis!”

Mama’s voice was too sharp. I knew I was whipped. I turned and went toward the creek, so mad at Bud Searcy that I couldn’t see straight. Why couldn’t he keep his blabber mouth shut?

“Come on up to the house,” I told Little Arliss.

I guess the way I said it let him know that something real bad was happening. He didn’t
argue or stick out his tongue or anything. He just got out of the water and followed me back to the house and embarrassed Mama and the young man nearly to death because he came packing his clothes in one hand instead of wearing them.

I guess Burn Sanderson had gotten an idea of how much we thought of Old Yeller, or maybe Mama had told some things about the dog while I was gone to the creek. Anyhow, he acted uncomfortable about taking the dog off. “Now, Mrs. Coates,” he said to Mama, “your man is gone, and you and the boys don’t have much protection here. Bad as I need that old dog, I can make out without him until your man comes.”

But Mama shook her head.

“No, Mr. Sanderson,” she said. “He’s your dog; and the longer we keep him, the harder it’ll be for us to give him up. Take him along. I can make the boys understand.”

The man tied his rope around Old Yeller’s neck and mounted his horse. That’s when Little Arliss caught on to what was happening. He threw a wall-eyed fit. He screamed and he hollered. He grabbed up a bunch of rocks and went to throwing them at Burn Sanderson. One
hit Sanderson’s horse in the flank. The horse bogged his head and went to pitching and bawling and grunting. This excited Old Yeller. He chased after the horse, baying him at the top of his voice. And what with Mama running after Little Arliss, hollering for him to shut up and quit throwing those rocks, it was altogether the biggest and loudest commotion that had taken place around our cabin for a good long while.

When Burn Sanderson finished riding the pitch out of his scared horse, he hollered at Old Yeller. He told him he’d better hush up that racket before he got his brains beat out. Then he rode back toward us, wearing a wide grin.

His grin got wider as he saw how Mama and I were holding Little Arliss. We each had him by one wrist and were holding him clear off the ground. He couldn’t get at any more rocks to throw that way, but it sure didn’t keep him from dancing up and down in the air and screaming.

“Turn him loose,” Sanderson said with a big laugh. “He’s not going to throw any more rocks at me.”

He swung down from his saddle. He came and
got Little Arliss and loved him up till he hushed screaming. Then he said: “Look, boy, do you really want that thieving old dog?”

He held Little Arliss off and stared him straight in the eyes, waiting for Arliss to answer. Little Arliss stared straight back at him and didn’t say a word.

“Well, do you?” he insisted.

Finally, Little Arliss nodded, then tucked his chin and looked away.

“All right,” Burn Sanderson said. “We’ll make a trade. Just between you and me. I’ll let you keep the old rascal, but you’ve got to do something for me.”

He waited till Little Arliss finally got up the nerve to ask what, then went on: “Well, it’s like this. I’ve hung around over there in that cow camp, eating my own cooking till I’m so starved out, I don’t hardly throw a shadow. Now, if you could talk your mama into feeding me a real jam-up meal of woman-cooked grub, I think it would be worth at least a one-eared yeller dog. Don’t you?”

I didn’t wait to hear any more. I ran off. I was
so full of relief that I was about to pop. I knew that if I didn’t get out of sight in a hurry, this Burn Sanderson was going to catch me crying.

 

Mama cooked the best dinner that day I ever ate. We had roast venison and fried catfish and stewed squirrel and blackeyed peas and cornbread and flour gravy and butter and wild honey and hog-plum jelly and fresh buttermilk. I ate till it seemed like my eyeballs would pop out of my head, and still didn’t make anything like the showing that Burn Sanderson made. He was a slim man, not nearly as big as Papa, and I never could figure out where he was putting all that grub. But long before he finally sighed and shook his head at the last of the squirrel stew, I was certain of one thing: he sure wouldn’t have any trouble throwing a shadow on the ground for the rest of that day. A good, black shadow.

After dinner, he sat around for a while, talking to me and Mama and making Little Arliss some toy horses out of dried cornstalks. Then he said his thank-yous to Mama and told me to come with him. I followed with him while he led his
horse down to the spring for water. I remembered how Papa had led me away from the house like this the day he left and knew by that that Burn Sanderson had something he wanted to talk to me about.

At the spring, he slipped the bits out of his horse’s mouth to let him drink, then turned to me.

“Now, boy,” he said, “I didn’t want to tell your mama this. I didn’t want to worry her. But there’s a plague of hydrophobia making the rounds, and I want you to be on the lookout for it.”

I felt a scare run through me. I didn’t know much about hydrophobia, but after what Bud Searcy had told about his uncle that died, chained to a tree, I knew it was something bad. I stared at Burn Sanderson and didn’t say anything.

“And there’s no mistake about it,” he said. “I’ve done shot two wolves, a fox, and one skunk that had it. And over at Salt Licks, a woman had to kill a bunch of house cats that her younguns had been playing with. She wasn’t sure, but she couldn’t afford to take any chances. And you can’t, either.”

“But how will I know what to shoot and what
not to?” I wanted to know.

“Well, you can’t hardly tell at first,” he said. “Not until they have already gone to foaming at the mouth and are reeling with the blind staggers. Any time you see a critter acting that way, you know for sure. But you watch for others that aren’t that far along. You take a pet cat. If he takes to spitting and fighting at you for no reason, you shoot him. Same with a dog. He’ll get mad at nothing and want to bite you. Take a fox or a wildcat. You know they’ll run from you; when they don’t run, and try to make fight at you, shoot ’em. Shoot anything that acts unnatural, and don’t fool around about it. It’s too late after they’ve already bitten or scratched you.”

Talk like that made my heart jump up in my throat till I could hardly get my breath. I looked down at the ground and went to kicking around some rocks.

“You’re not scared, are you, boy? I’m only telling you because I know your papa left you in charge of things. I know you can handle whatever comes up. I’m just telling you to watch close and not let anything—
anything
—get to you or your folks with hydrophobia. Think you can do it?”

I swallowed. “I can do it,” I told him. “I’m not scared.”

The sternness left Burn Sanderson’s face. He put a hand on my shoulder, just as Papa had the day he left.

“Good boy,” he said. “That’s the way a man talks.”

Then he gripped my shoulder real tight, mounted his horse and rode off through the brush. And I was so scared and mixed up about the danger of hydrophobia that it was clear into the next day before I even thought about thanking him for giving us Old Yeller.

A
boy, before he really grows up, is pretty much like a wild animal. He can get the wits scared clear out of him today and by tomorrow have forgotten all about it.

At least, that’s the way it was with me. I was plenty scared of the hydrophobia plague that Burn Sanderson told me about. I could hardly sleep that night. I kept picturing in my mind mad dogs and mad wolves reeling about with the blind staggers, drooling slobbers and snapping and biting at everything in sight. Maybe biting Mama and Little Arliss, so that they got the sickness and went mad, too. I lay in bed and
shuddered and shivered and dreamed all sorts of nightmare happenings.

Then, the next day, I went to rounding up and marking hogs and forgot all about the plague.

Our hogs ran loose on the range in those days, the same as our cattle. We fenced them out of the fields, but never into a pasture; we had no pastures. We never fed them, unless maybe it was a little corn that we threw to them during a bad spell in the winter. The rest of the time, they rustled for themselves.

They slept out and ate out. In the summertime, they slept in the cool places around the water holes, sometimes in the water. In the winter, they could always tell at least a day ahead of time when a blizzard was on the way; then they’d gang up and pack tons of leaves and dry grass and sticks into some dense thicket or cave. They’d pile all this into a huge bed and sleep on until the cold spell blew over.

They ranged all over the hills and down into the canyons. In season, they fed on acorns, berries, wild plums, prickly-pear apples, grass, weeds, and bulb plants which they rooted out of the ground. They especially liked the wild black
persimmons that the Mexicans called
chapotes
.

Sometimes, too, they’d eat a newborn calf if the mama cow couldn’t keep them horned away. Or a baby fawn that the doe had left hidden in the tall grass. Once, in a real dry time, Papa and I saw an old sow standing belly deep in a drying up pothole of water, catching and eating perch that were trapped in there and couldn’t get away.

Most of these meat eaters were old hogs, however. Starvation, during some bad drought or extra cold winter, had forced them to eat anything they could get hold of. Papa said they generally started out by feeding on the carcass of some deer or cow that had died, then going from there to catching and killing live meat. He told a tale about how one old range hog had caught him when he was a baby and his folks got there just barely in time to save him.

It was that sort of thing, I guess, that always made Mama so afraid of wild hogs. The least little old biting shoat could make her take cover. She didn’t like it a bit when I started out to catch and mark all the pigs that our sows had raised that year. She knew we had it to do, else we couldn’t tell our hogs from those of the neighbors. But she
didn’t like the idea of my doing it alone.

“But I’m not working hogs alone, Mama,” I pointed out. “I’ve got Old Yeller, and Burn Sanderson says he’s a real good hog dog.”

“That doesn’t mean a thing,” Mama said. “All hog dogs are good ones. A good one is the only kind that can work hogs and live. But the best dog in the world won’t keep you from getting cut all to pieces if you ever make a slip.”

Well, Mama was right. I’d worked with Papa enough to know that any time you messed with a wild hog, you were asking for trouble. Let him alone, and he’ll generally snort and run from you on sight, the same as a deer. But once you corner him, he’s the most dangerous animal that ever lived in Texas. Catch a squealing pig out of the bunch, and you’ve got a battle on your hands. All of them will turn on you at one time and here they’ll come, roaring and popping their teeth, cutting high and fast with gleaming white tushes that they keep whetted to the sharpness of knife points. And there’s no bluff to them, either. They mean business. They’ll kill you if they can get to you; and if you’re not fast footed and don’t keep a close watch, they’ll get to you.

They had to be that way to live in a country where the wolves, bobcats, panther, and bear were always after them, trying for a bait of fresh hog meat. And it was because of this that nearly all hog owners usually left four or five old barrows, or “bar’ hogs,” as we called them, to run with each bunch of sows. The bar’ hogs weren’t any more vicious than the bars, but they’d hang with the sows and help them protect the pigs and shoats, when generally the boars pulled off to range alone.

I knew all this about range hogs, and plenty more; yet I still wasn’t bothered about the job facing me. In fact, I sort of looked forward to it. Working wild hogs was always exciting and generally proved to be a lot of fun.

I guess the main reason I felt this way was because Papa and I had figured out a quick and nearly foolproof way of doing it. We could catch most of the pigs we needed to mark and castrate without ever getting in reach of the old hogs. It took a good hog dog to pull off the trick; but the way Burn Sanderson talked about Old Yeller, I was willing to bet that he was that good.

He was, too. He caught on right away.

We located our first bunch of hogs at a seep spring at the head of a shallow dry wash that led back toward Birdsong Creek. There were seven sows, two long-tushed old bar’ hogs, and fourteen small shoats.

They’d come there to drink and to wallow around in the potholes of soft cool mud.

They caught wind of us about the same time I saw them. The old hogs threw up their snouts and said “Woo-oof!” Then they all tore out for the hills, running through the rocks and brush almost as swiftly and silently as deer.

“Head ’em, Yeller,” I hollered. “Go get ’em boy!”

But it was a waste of words. Old Yeller was done gone.

He streaked down the slant, crossed the draw, and had the tail-end pig caught by the hind leg before the others knew he was after them.

The pig set up a loud squeal. Instantly, all the old hogs wheeled. They came at Old Yeller with their bristles up, roaring and popping their teeth. Yeller held onto his pig until I thought for a second they had him. Then he let go and whirled away, running toward me, but running slow.
Slow enough that the old hogs kept chasing him, thinking every second that they were going to catch him the next.

When they finally saw that they couldn’t, the old hogs stopped and formed a tight circle. They faced outward around the ring, their rumps to the center where all the squealing pigs were gathered. That way, they were ready to battle anything that wanted to jump on them. That’s the way they were used to fighting bear and panther off from their young, and that’s the way they aimed to fight us off.

But we were too smart, Old Yeller and I. We knew better than to try to break into that tight ring of threatening tushes. Anyhow, we didn’t need to. All we needed was just to move the hogs along to where we wanted them, and Old Yeller already knew how to do this.

Back he went, right up into their faces, where he pestered them with yelling bays and false rushes till they couldn’t stand it. With an angry roar, one of the barrows broke the ring to charge him. Instantly, all the others charged, too.

They were right on Old Yeller again. They were just about to get him. Just let them get a
few inches closer, and one of them would slam a four-inch tush into his soft belly.

The thing was, Old Yeller never would let them gain the last few inches on him. They cut and slashed at him from behind and both sides, yet he never was quite there. Always he was just a little bit beyond their reach, yet still so close that they couldn’t help thinking that the next try was sure to get him.

It was a blood-chilling game Old Yeller played with the hogs, but one that you could see he enjoyed by the way he went at it. Give him time, and he’d take that bunch of angry hogs clear down out of the hills and into the pens at home if that’s where I wanted them—never driving them, just leading them along.

But that’s where Papa and I had other hog hunters out-figured. We almost never took our hogs to the pens to work them any more. That took too much time. Also, after we got them penned, there was still the dangerous job of catching the pigs away from the old ones.

I hollered at Old Yeller. “Bring ’em on, Yeller,” I said. Then I turned and headed for a big gnarled liveoak tree that stood in a clear patch of
ground down the draw apiece.

I’d picked out that tree because it had a huge branch that stuck out to one side. I went and looked the branch over and saw that it was just right. It was low, yet still far enough above the ground to be out of reach of the highest-cutting hog.

I climbed up the tree and squatted on the branch. I unwound my rope from where I’d packed it coiled around my waist and shook out a loop. Then I hollered for Old Yeller to bring the hogs to me.

He did what I told him. He brought the fighting hogs to the tree and rallied them in a ring around it. Then he stood back, holding them there while he cocked his head sideways at me, wanting to know what came next.

I soon showed him. I waited till one of the pigs came trotting under my limb. I dropped my loop around him, gave it a quick yank, and lifted him, squealing and kicking, up out of the shuffling and roaring mass of hogs below. I clamped him between my knees, pulled out my knife, and went to work on him. First I folded his right ear and sliced out a three-cornered gap in the top
side, a mark that we called an overbit. Then, from the under side of his left ear, I slashed off a long strip that ran clear to the point. That is what we called an underslope. That had him marked for me. Our mark was overbit the right and underslope the left.

Other settlers had other marks, like crop the right and underbit the left, or two underbits in the right ear, or an overslope in the left and an overbit in the right. Everybody knew the hog mark of everybody else and we all respected them. We never butchered or sold a hog that didn’t belong to us or marked a pig following a sow that didn’t wear our mark.

Cutting marks in a pig’s ear is bloody work, and the scared pig kicks and squeals like he’s dying; but he’s not really hurt. What hurts him is the castration, and I never did like that part of the job. But it had to be done, and still does if you want to eat hog meat. Let a boar hog get grown without cutting his seeds out, and his meat is too tough and rank smelling to eat.

The squealing of the pig and the scent of his blood made the hogs beneath me go nearly wild with anger. You never heard such roaring and
teeth-popping, as they kept circling the tree and rearing up on its trunk, trying to get to me. The noise they made and the hate and anger that showed in their eyes was enough to chill your blood. Only, I was used to the feeling and didn’t let it bother me. That is, not much. Sometimes I’d let my mind slip for a minute and get to thinking how they’d slash me to pieces if I happened to fall out of the tree, and I’d feel a sort of cold shudder run all through me. But Papa had told me right from the start that fear was a right and natural feeling for anybody, and nothing to be ashamed of.

“It’s a thing of your mind,” he said, “and you can train your mind to handle it just like you can train your arm to throw a rock.”

Put that way, it made sense to be afraid; so I hadn’t bothered about that. I’d put in all my time trying to train my mind not to let fear stampede me. Sometimes it did yet, of course, but not when I was working hogs. I’d had enough experience at working hogs that now I could generally look down and laugh at them.

I finished with the first pig and dropped it to the ground. Then, one after another, I roped the
others, dragged them up into the tree, and worked them over.

A couple of times, the old hogs on the ground got so mad that they broke ranks and charged Old Yeller. But right from the start, Old Yeller had caught onto what I wanted. Every time they chased him from the tree, he’d just run off a little way and circle back, then stand off far enough away that they’d rally around my tree again.

In less than an hour, I was done with the job, and the only trouble we had was getting the hogs to leave the tree after I was finished. After going to so much trouble to hold the hogs under the tree, Old Yeller had a hard time understanding that I finally wanted them out of the way. And even after I got him to leave, the hogs were so mad and so suspicious that I had to squat there in the tree for nearly an hour longer before they finally drifted away into the brush, making it safe for me to come down.

BOOK: Old Yeller
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