My mother remarried when I was nine years old, and for the next six years, for varying periods of time I had the privilege of living under the auspices of a stepfather. Those periods varied because several times during those years, for one reason or another, he banished his new family to other pastures. I suspect that each time he had accumulated enough of a grubstake to make it on his own for awhile without having three millstones around his neck, namely a wife and two children, he would precipitate a ruckus that would drive us away, in one instance a ruckus that included these remarks:
“Come on back to the house, kids, I won’t hurt you,” a sentence shouted from the front porch to the two children standing out in the road, poised to run. That supplication was followed by a louder and very sinister shout. He said very forcefully, “I’m going to get my shotgun,” and with that exclamation he disappeared into the house and the two kids disappeared down the road. That was the only time my sister ever managed to outrun me—she managed that by running so fast that she kicked up gravel in my face—yes, Virginia, it was a graveled road. I may possibly be exaggerating a bit, but only a bit—that she outran me is factual—I can neither explain nor deny it. We ran a short distance on the road alongside a pasture to a point where the woods began, then plunged into the forest and hid in the bushes and the underbrush.
And now I will leave my legions of viewers in suspense, undoubtedly wondering what started the fracas and how that episode turned out. I’ll finish that story in another posting because it was not the original subject for this posting, my shaggy dog story.
This is how it began:
My stepfather mandated that everyone in the family be gainfully employed, a mandatory requirement that extended to animals. He allowed no pets—no cats on the hearth and no lapdogs—he felt that if an animal did no work it was not entitled to be fed, and that included human animals. He would feed and groom, and if necessary medicate, a working dog but only as long as it produced. If a watchdog didn’t bark to ward off intruders, it shortly disappeared, ostensibly a runaway. If a hunting dog slacked off noticeably in its production of game, whether rabbit dog, squirrel dog or bird dog, that dog would also disappear and be labeled a runaway.
I have a memory, one dear to my heart and closely held, of a particularly lovely autumn day in the sovereign state of Mississippi. On that day I went squirrel hunting with my stepfather. We were accompanied by a small black-and-white female Cocker Spaniel named Lady, a beautiful little dog my stepfather had borrowed from a fellow hunter. The dog’s owner claimed that Lady was the finest squirrel dog in the state and perhaps the finest in the entire nation. At my stepfather’s request, the owner left her at our house some weeks before the scheduled hunt, and my stepfather courted her religiously during that period—he petted her and groomed her and hand-fed her, constantly assuring me that Lady, or any dog, would work best for a person they loved and trusted.
From this point on, the posting will be brief and brutal . . .
We entered the woods with Lady and began the hunt. For those not versed in the intricacies of squirrel hunting with a squirrel dog, the dog is trained to range far and wide through the woods to pick up the scent of a squirrel on the ground, then follow that trail to whatever tree the squirrel has ascended, and bark furiously until the hunter arrives and blasts the squirrel out of the tree. Our little hunter, however, stayed right at our feet, so close that we had to walk carefully to avoid stepping on her, and she completely ignoring my stepfather’s exhortations to, “Hunt—hunt, damn it, hunt!”
He finally spotted a gray squirrel running along a high branch, and when it stopped to check us out my stepfather downed it with a blast from his 16-guage Browning, and with that roar our squirrel dog disappeared—we never saw her again. We tramped the woods for hours, but no amount of calling, whistling and cussing (that’s southern for cursing) could bring her back. The calling and whistling soon tapered off, but the cussing went on for an interminable length of time.
I was not privy to whatever agreement my stepfather reached with the dog’s owner, but armed with the knowledge that owners of great squirrel dogs take great pride in the dog and therefore sometimes place an inordinate value on it, I suspect that my stepfather paid handsomely for not returning Lady to her rightful owner.
That’s my shaggy dog story, and I’m sticking to it.