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The Story of a Free-Soul Basset Hound
By Hal Borland
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Hal Borland
All rights reserved.
It was March, with a foot of snow on the ground, and we were hungry for spring. It was only two more weeks till the vernal equinox, and change was inevitable; but we wanted warm days and opening buds and singing birds. This day had started out cold again, with no sign of that thaw we wanted. I went out after breakfast and filled the bird feeders again, for the chickadees and tree sparrows were parading their hunger, the chicks coming to the kitchen window and as much as demanding a handout. So I filled the feeders and came back indoors and we started going over the market list. I had a couple of errands in the village and might as well do the marketing while I was there. And Barbara glanced out the window and asked, "Whose dog is that?"
I looked and saw a black and tan dog, long as a beagle but with even shorter legs and longer ears. It was standing in the snow beneath the old apple tree where I had just filled the bird feeders. "Darned if I know," I said. "Stranger to me." And I wondered why she is the one who always sees the unusual, the unexpected. Long ago I learned to look first when she says, "What's that out there?" and ask questions, if any, afterward. She saw the woodcock beside the woodshed and the wood duck in the apple tree. She saw the snowy owl in the pear tree not twenty feet from the window. She saw the wild turkeys out in the pasture, and the family of otters looping along the pasture fence on their way over the mountain from the river to Twin Lakes. Now I looked, then asked, "Why don't you ever see ordinary dogs, or birds?"
"Isn't that an ordinary dog?"
"Well, it is a dog, I'll admit that. But —"
"It's cute. What kind is it?"
"Looks like a basset hound, I'd say."
"Funny looking. What is a basset hound?"
"A hunting dog. Away back, in England, they used them to hunt badgers. Maybe that's where the name came from — badger, basset. I don't really know. Nowadays they hunt rabbits, like beagles. But their legs are so short they can't run very fast."
The strange dog was looking hopefully up at the suet can, hung from a wire in the apple tree. But it seemed to know there wasn't a chance of getting that suet. It turned and looked at the house. It had a face something like that of a bloodhound, but not so wrinkled. The tan and white markings on its face made it look almost clownish rather than sad. Bloodhounds always look sad and worried.
I looked at the market list again. "What does 'black puppie' mean? Spelled with 'ie' instead of 'y.'"
Barbara looked at the notation. "Black pepper," she said. "You've got dogs on your mind." We went through the list, I got my coat and when we looked out again the strange dog had disappeared. The furrow it had plowed in the snow — you couldn't call it a set of tracks; that short-legged dog almost had to swim through the snow — led around the house to the driveway and disappeared on the freshly plowed road. When I went out to the garage I looked up and down the road and saw no sign of a dog. Nor did I see any but the familiar dogs of our neighbors as I went to the village. That dog had vanished as though into thin air.
I did my errands and the marketing and came home, and the day went pretty much as usual. By midafternoon the sun went under a cloud cover and it turned chilly again, so instead of going for a walk we settled down to a game of Scrabble. About five-thirty Barbara went to the kitchen and put a pot of vegetable soup on to heat. On the way back to our game she passed the front door, paused there a moment and exclaimed, "Oh, here's your friend again."
I couldn't imagine which friend she meant. I got up and started to the door, and before I got there she opened it and in came the black and tan dog we had seen under the bird feeders that morning. It came in head up, tail wagging, like an honored guest accepting hospitality. It didn't cringe or skulk or even hesitate. It came in expecting to have a great big welcome, maybe a speech and a banquet.
I stopped and stared, and it looked at me with those big brown eyes and a face that was absolutely self-possessed. It practically said, Here I am, you lucky people!
Barbara looked at me, and I said, "It's all yours. You let it in."
"I just opened the door and he came in! But he's hungry. You can see that. He probably hasn't had a thing to eat all day."
"So you want a dog, huh? You didn't tell me."
"No, I don't want a dog! This one isn't a tramp. Somebody owns him and probably is out looking for him right now. See, he even has a collar."
She was right. It had a red leather collar. I bent down to look at the license tag, but there wasn't any tag on the collar. The dog licked my hands. I lifted one long ear, then the other, looking for a tattoo mark that might identify it. There wasn't a mark. It was totally anonymous. I wondered why the owner of a dog obviously of good stock, by no means a mongrel, hadn't put some identification on it.
I stood up, and Barbara said, "I'm sure somebody owns him." She spoke to the dog. "Hungry? Want something to eat?" and the dog wagged enthusiastically, licked its chops.
"See! He's starved!"
"She," I said. "It's a bitch."
"All right, She. How about it, She? Come on," and Barbara led the way through the living room. The basset followed, curious about everything but most mannerly, like a princess inspecting a strange hostelry. I was glad to see that she seemed to approve. They went through the hallway to the kitchen, and the basset saw the refrigerator. She went to it and stood waiting, obviously expecting Barbara to open it and work magic — produce marvelous things for a dog to eat. She knew refrigerators and what they meant.
"Something warm," Barbara said, "on a day like this," and she got out a carton of milk, poured a pint or so into a pan and set it to heat. The basset watched as she took an old bowl from the bowl closet, poured corn flakes into it and waited for the milk to warm. Then she asked me to bring a newspaper, put it on the floor in the enclosed back porch, poured the warm milk over the corn flakes and set the bowl out for the dog. The basset ate as though she had been starved for a week, licked the bowl clean, then went back to the kitchen. When she got no second helping she returned to the living room. We watched to see if she would try to climb onto the couch or the chairs, forbidden territory to any dogs in this house. She didn't. She explored the whole room, finally found the place she wanted and lay down on the rug under a bench that stood against the wall. She stretched out, sighed deeply, closed her eyes and settled into a nap, completely at home.
We closed the living room doors, went back to the kitchen and took trays and bowls of soup to the library. We talked as we ate. No, we agreed, we didn't want a dog. And we agreed that we hadn't just acquired a dog. We had done an act of charity, taken in a lost dog, warmed, fed and sheltered it for the night. If we couldn't find the owner in the next few hours we would find someone who knew where the dog belonged by tomorrow. A dog like that certainly would be reported missing.
When we finished eating I called my friend Dave, the local dog warden. No, Dave hadn't any report of a missing basset hound, but he would take a note of it. He asked about color, markings, any identification. We discussed bassets. Not many of them around, so it shouldn't be hard to locate the owner. Dave would be in touch.
Then I called the Little Guild of St. Francis, which cares for lost dogs and cats and finds homes for strays and waifs. No, they didn't have any report of a lost basset either. But if the owner didn't turn up they would be glad to take the dog and find a good home for it. Bassets were even-tempered, gentle around children. A little inclined to wander, but good pets for all that. And we, too, discussed bassets.
Finally I called the town clerk. It was after hours, so I called her at home. Lila issues dog licenses, and I hoped she would remember who in town owned a basset. But her memory wasn't that good, she said. Offhand, though, she couldn't think of anyone. However, she would check the records in the office tomorrow. Meanwhile, how had we been and what had we been doing? What were we going to do about this weather? We talked for ten minutes and hung up.
By then it was after nine o'clock and our bedtime. We decided that the dog could sleep on the enclosed kitchen porch. I got an old Navy blanket, folded it into a square and put it out there. The dog inspected it. She found nothing special to object to, but she made it quite clear that she would have preferred to sleep in the living room, under the bench. You don't quarter visiting royalty on the kitchen porch, do you? Yes, we did.
But before lights out I took her outdoors and wondered if she might take off and be gone. She didn't. Not her! She wallowed about in the snow in the dooryard, found a place that suited her, did what she was supposed to do and came lunging back to me beside the kitchen door. And when told that she was going to sleep on the porch, positively, not maybe, she lay down on the blanket, looked at me with a lightly veiled air of annoyance, indicated that she would make the best of plebeian accommodations for the night, at least, and began to lick her legs dry. I closed the kitchen door, turned out the lights and went upstairs. To read in bed for an hour or so and then, if all was quiet, go to sleep.
All was quiet.
I was up as usual the next morning soon after five. The minute I reached the kitchen I heard the dog. She didn't bark, but she whined loud enough to be heard the first time. No barking. Simply a dignified but insistent demand that she be allowed admission to the bosom of the family. I opened the door to the porch and she was one big wiggle, tail to nose tip, and one big prance with those short, stocky legs and big feet. She danced, a rather elephantine dance, and gave me a greeting, less than a bark, more than a whine, a throaty kind of dog-talk that reminded me of the rather sultry, smoky voice of one of the better blues singers. She licked my hands, would have licked my face had I allowed it. I told her to calm down, not wake Barbara, contain herself and act like a grownup. She subsided somewhat, and while I set the coffee to perk for myself I warmed milk for her. I gave her a bowl of bread and milk, apologizing for the absence of anything more substantial. We hadn't been expecting canine guests, and we don't keep dog food on the pantry shelves as a general rule. She accepted both the apology and the bread and milk, and I assured her that she would be back home before the day was out and would undoubtedly have her share of the fatted calf. Then I closed the porch door and took my coffee to the library.
I settled down to read the previous day's New York Times. It comes by rural mail delivery around noon, gets a quick front-page glance and is left till the next morning for a real reading. News is news, I say, until I have heard or read it. I was back to the first sports page when the dog demanded further attention. She whined, and when that got no results she barked discreetly. Finally she barked insistently, and I let her into the kitchen and told her to shut up. She did shut up, but her spirits weren't so easily dampened. She frisked and pranced and did her best to entertain me. I wasn't in need of entertainment at that time of day and told her so rather firmly. She stopped prancing, and I returned to the library and my newspaper. She evidently explored the living room, found nothing there to amuse or entertain and finally came and lay down at my feet under the library table. What she wanted, apparently, was human company, and I couldn't begrudge her that. She lay quietly and I read my newspaper.
When Barbara came downstairs soon after six she got an even more eager welcome than I had. The dog danced on her hind legs, pawing at Barbara with those big forefeet. She had to be scolded down. "No! Not in this house. No! We don't like dogs who jump on people!" The dog seemed to understand. She stopped jumping and began playing cat — she rubbed Barbara's ankles, then slapped her legs with her tail, whack-whack-whack, until Barbara stopped that. And the dog sat down with a baffled, forlorn look, so sad that Barbara laughed at her. The laughter only inspired more prancing, though at a little distance, and a series of barks. Her voice was surprisingly low in pitch and full in volume, the bark of a dog twice as big. So that was one reason for that deep, broad chest — big lungs for a lot of voice.
She got another breakfast. Barbara fed her corn flakes before I knew she was doing it, and the dog lapped them up. Then she was put outdoors. She wallowed in the snow, shook herself and went out into the road. Then she vanished. I thought she was really gone this time, but half an hour later there she was at the door, whining to be let in.
As soon as it was a decent country hour to call people, eight-thirty around here, we began phoning again. I called my friend Morris, a fox hunter and hound-dog man who knows every dog for miles around. No, Morris said, he didn't know of anyone with a basset. Oh, wait a minute. A man over near Norfolk used to have one, but that was five or six years ago and the dog was an old dog then. No, he didn't know anyone with a young basset. Then he said, with a chuckle, "Maybe you've got yourself a rabbit hound again." He has been at me for five years to get another hound.
Barbara called the dog warden in the next village to the east, but he had no record of a missing basset. Then she called the postmaster in Ashley Falls, just over the line in Massachusetts. Christine is a personal friend, and she knows everybody in that area. Finally Barbara said, "Say that again." She listened, then she laughed, and she turned to me and said, "Try calling her Hannah."
"Calling who Hannah?"
I tried. "Here, Hannah. Come, Hannah. Hannah, Hannah!" No response whatever.
Barbara said to Christine, "She doesn't seem to respond at all. Thanks anyway. 'Bye." And she turned to me. "Are you sure she doesn't know the name Hannah?"
"You try," I said.
Barbara tried. No reaction except a polite show of attention. Then I said, "Mary!" and the dog looked at me. I said, "Jane!" and got exactly the same response. Barbara said, "Hannah!" again, and we knew it was no use. Then Barbara told me about Hannah.
"The folks who live in the old Hardy place used to have a basset, but she wouldn't stay home. So they gave her to the cleaning woman who worked for them. She lives away over on Clayton Road, but the dog comes back to the Hardy place now and then, and of course that's only about three miles up the road from here. And," she finished the recital, "that dog is named Hannah."
"Good try," I said. "But I don't think we've got Hannah. Do you?"
Back to the phone. Barbara called all the neighbors. Nobody had — or knew anybody who had — a basset. But one neighbor said he had heard a missing-dog report on the Barrington radio that morning. A black and tan she-dog, as he called her, named Susie. We tried Susie on the dog in our living room. She wasn't Susie either, or if she was she wasn't admitting it.
So Barbara called the Barrington radio station, but the girl who answered said the missing-dog announcer had left the studio, she didn't know when he would be back and she didn't have his phone number. She was very sorry not to be of more assistance.
Then I took over, called the Barrington police department and got a sergeant there who evidently read my books. He listened to my questions, said, "Nope, no lost dogs of any breed. You've got a basset, they're a good dog. Keep her. Maybe you've got a dog to take old Pat's place." And that was that.
By then it was midmorning, and the dog decided she wanted to go out again. I opened the front door; she went out onto the front porch and stood there nosing the air. She went down the front steps, down the front walk, turned and looked at the house, then trotted up the road. We waited half an hour, but she didn't come back. Finally we got lunch and ate, and still there was no sign of the dog. Midafternoon and we went for a walk, up the road that winds beside the river. No sign of the basset, either on the road or at the house when we returned.
"Well," Barbara said, "I guess that is that. Just a transient who stopped in for a meal and a bed and didn't even say thank you."
Excerpted from Penny by Hal Borland. Copyright © 1972 Hal Borland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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