Read an Excerpt
He tried his best to make a living there as a dairy farmer. In the five
years he worked the land, he cleared one twenty-five-acre field and drained
another, and he used the lumber from the trees he cut to build an outhouse, a barn, and a house, in that order. So that he wouldn’t need to go
outside to tote water, he dug his well in the hole that would become the
basement of the house. He helped raise barns all the way from Tannery
Town to Park Falls so there’d be plenty of help when his time came.
And day and night he pulled stumps. That first year he raked and harrowed the south field a dozen times until even his ponies seemed tired of
it. He stacked rocks at the edges of the fields in long humped piles and
burned stumps in bonfires that could be seen all the way from Popcorn
Corners—the closest town, if you called that a town—and even Mellen.
He managed to build a small stone-and-concrete silo taller than the barn,
but he never got around to capping it. He mixed milk and linseed oil and
rust and blood and used the concoction to paint the barn and outhouse
red. In the south field he planted hay, and in the west, corn, because the
west field was wet and the corn would grow faster there. During his
last summer on the farm he even hired two men from town. But when
autumn was on the horizon, something happened—no one knew just
what—and he took a meager early harvest, auctioned off his livestock
and farm implements, and moved away, all in the space of a few weeks.
At the time, John Sawtelle was traveling up north with no thought or
intention of buying a farm. In fact, he’d put his fishing tackle into the
Kissel and told Mary, his wife, he was delivering a puppy to a man he’d
met on his last trip. Which was true, as far as it went. What he didn’t
mention was that he carried a spare collar in his pocket.
THAT SPRING THEIR DOG, Violet, who was good but wild-hearted, had
dug a hole under the fence when she was in heat and run the streets with
romance on her mind. They’d ended up chasing a litter of seven around
the backyard. He could have given all the pups away to strangers, and
he suspected he was going to have to, but the thing was, he liked having those pups around. Liked it in a primal, obsessive way. Violet was
the first dog he’d ever owned, and the pups were the first pups he’d
ever spent time with, and they yapped and chewed on his shoelaces and
looked him in the eye. At night he found himself listening to records and
sitting on the grass behind the house and teaching the pups odd little
tricks they soon forgot while he and Mary talked. They were newlyweds,
or almost. They sat there for hours and hours, and it was the finest time
so far in his life. On those nights, he felt connected to something ancient
and important that he couldn’t name.
But he didn’t like the idea of a stranger neglecting one of Vi’s pups.
The best thing would be if he could place them all in the neighborhood
so he could keep tabs on them, watch them grow up, even if from a
distance. Surely there were half a dozen kids within an easy walk who
wanted a dog. People might think it peculiar, but they wouldn’t mind if
he asked to see the pups once in while.
Then he and a buddy had gone up to the Chequamegon, a long drive
but worth it for the fishing. Plus, the Anti-Saloon League hadn’t yet penetrated the north woods, and wasn’t likely to, which was another thing
he admired about the area. They’d stopped at The Hollow, in Mellen,
and ordered a beer, and as they talked a man walked in followed by a dog,
a big dog, gray and white with brown patches, some mix of husky and
shepherd or something of that kind, a deep-chested beast with a regal
bearing and a joyful, jaunty carriage. Every person in the bar seemed to
know the dog, who trotted around greeting the patrons.
“That’s a fine looking animal,” John Sawtelle remarked, watching it
work the crowd for peanuts and jerky. He offered to buy the dog’s owner
a beer for the pleasure of an introduction.
“Name’s Captain,” the man said, flagging down the bartender to collect. With beer in hand he gave a quick whistle and the dog trotted over.
“Cappy, say hello to the man.”
Captain looked up. He lifted a paw to shake.
That he was a massive dog was the first thing that impressed Edgar’s
grandfather. The second thing was less tangible—something about his
eyes, the way the dog met his gaze. And, gripping Captain’s paw, John
Sawtelle was visited by an idea. A vision. He’d spent so much time with
pups lately he imagined Captain himself as a pup. Then he thought
about Vi—who was the best dog he’d ever known until then—and about
Captain and Vi combined into one dog, one pup, which was a crazy
thought because he had far too many dogs on his hands already. He released Captain’s paw and the dog trotted off and he turned back to the
bar and tried to put that vision out of his mind by asking where to find
muskie. They weren’t hitting out on Clam Lake. And there were so many
little lakes around.
The next morning, they drove back into town for breakfast. The diner was
situated across the street from the Mellen town hall, a large squarish building with an unlikely looking cupola facing the road. In front stood a white,
three-tiered drinking fountain with one bowl at person height, another lower,
for horses, and a small dish near the ground whose purpose was not immediately clear. They were about to walk into the diner when a dog rounded
the corner and trotted nonchalantly past. It was Captain. He was moving in
a strangely light-footed way for such a solidly constructed dog, lifting and
dropping his paws as if suspended by invisible strings and merely paddling
along for steering. Edgar’s grandfather stopped in the diner’s doorway and
watched. When Captain reached the front of the town hall, he veered to the
fountain and lapped from the bowl nearest the ground.
“Come on,” his buddy said. “I’m starving.”
From along the alley beside the town hall came another dog, trailing a
half-dozen pups behind. She and Captain performed an elaborate sashay,
sniffing backsides and pressing noses into ruffs, while the pups bumbled
about their feet. Captain bent to the little ones and shoved his nose under
their bellies and one by one rolled them. Then he dashed down the street
and turned and barked. The pups scrambled after him. In a few minutes,
he’d coaxed them back to the fountain, spinning around in circles with
the youngsters in hot pursuit while the mother dog stretched out on the
lawn and watched, panting.
A woman in an apron walked out the door of the diner, squeezed past
the two men, and looked on.
“That’s Captain and his lady,” she said. “They’ve been meeting there
with the kids every morning for the last week. Ever since Violet’s babies
got old enough to get around.”
“Whose babies?” Edgar’s grandfather said.
“Why, Violet’s.” The woman looked at him as if he were an idiot. “The
mama dog. That dog right there.”
“I’ve got a dog named Violet,” he said. “And she has a litter about that age right this moment back home.”
“Well, what do you know,” the woman said, without the slightest
note of interest.
“I mean, don’t you think that’s sort of a coincidence? That I’d run into
a dog with my own dog’s name, and with a litter the same age?”
“I couldn’t say. Could be that sort of thing happens all the time.”
“Here’s a coincidence happens every morning,” his buddy interjected.
“I wake up, I get hungry, I eat breakfast. Amazing.”
“You go ahead,” John Sawtelle said. “I’m not all that hungry anyway.”
And with that, he stepped into the dusty street and crossed to the town
WHEN HE FINALLY SAT DOWN for breakfast, the waitress appeared at
their table with coffee. “If you’re so interested in those pups, Billy might sell you one,” she said. “He can’t hardly give ’em away, there’s so many dogs around here.”
She turned and gestured in the direction of the sit-down counter.
There, on one of the stools, sat Captain’s owner, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the Sentinel. Edgar’s grandfather invited the man to join
them. When they were seated, he asked Billy if the pups were indeed
“Some of them,” Billy said. “Cappy got old Violet in a fix. I’ve got to
find a place for half the litter. But what I really think I’ll do is keep ’em. Cap dotes on ’em, and ever since my Scout ran off last summer I’ve only had the one dog. He gets lonely.”
Edgar’s grandfather explained about his own litter, and about Vi, ex-
panding on her qualities, and then he offered to trade a pup for a pup. He told Billy he could have the pick of Vi’s litter, and furthermore could pick which of Captain’s litter he’d trade for, though a male was preferable if it was all the same. Then he thought for a moment and revised his equest: he’d take the smartest pup Billy was willing to part with, and he didn’t care if it was male or female.
“Isn’t the idea to reduce the total number of dogs at your place?” his
“I said I’d find the pups a home. That’s not exactly the same thing.”
“I don’t think Mary is going to see it that way. Just a guess there.”
Billy sipped his coffee and suggested that, while interested, he had
reservations about traveling practically the length of Wisconsin just to
pick out a pup. Their table was near the big front window and, from
there, John Sawtelle could see Captain and his offspring rolling around
on the grass. He watched them awhile, then turned to Billy and promised he’d pick out the best of Vi’s litter and drive it up—male or female,
Billy’s choice. And if Billy didn’t like it, then no trade, and that was a
Which was how John Sawtelle found himself driving to Mellen that
September with a pup in a box and a fishing rod in the back seat, whistling “Shine On, Harvest Moon.” He’d already decided to name the new
pup Gus if the name fit.
Billy and Captain took to Vi’s pup at once. The two men walked into
Billy’s backyard to discuss the merits of each of the pups in Captain’s litter
and after a while one came bumbling over and that decided things. John
Sawtelle put the spare collar on the pup and they spent the afternoon
parked by a lake, shore fishing. Gus ate bits of sunfish roasted on a stick
and they slept there in front of a fire, tethered collar to belt by a length
The next day, before heading home, Edgar’s grandfather thought he’d
drive around a bit. The area was an interesting mix: the logged-off parts
were ugly as sin, but the pretty parts were especially pretty. Like the
falls. And some of the farm country to the west. Most especially, the hilly
woods north of town. Besides, there were few things he liked better than
steering the Kissel along those old back roads.
Late in the morning he found himself navigating along a heavily
washboarded dirt road. The limbs of the trees meshed overhead. Left
and right, thick underbrush obscured everything farther than twenty
yards into the woods. When the road finally topped out at a clearing, he
was presented with a view of the Penokee range rolling out to the west,
and an unbroken emerald forest stretching to the north—all the way, it
seemed, to the granite rim of Lake Superior. At the bottom of the hill
stood a little white farmhouse and a gigantic red barn. A milk house
was huddled up near the front of the barn. An untopped stone silo stood
behind. By the road, a crudely lettered sign read, “For Sale.”
He pulled into the rutted drive. He parked and got out and peered
through the living room windows. No one was home. The house looked
barely finished inside. He stomped through the fields with Gus in his
arms and when he got back he plunked himself down on the running
board of the Kissel and watched the autumn clouds soar above.
John Sawtelle was a tremendous reader and letter writer. He especially
loved newspapers from faraway cities. He’d recently happened across
an article describing a man named Gregor Mendel—a Czechoslovakian
monk, of all things—who had done some very interesting experiments
with peas. Had demonstrated, for starters, that he could predict how
the offspring of his plants would look—the colors of their flowers and
so on. Mendelism, this was being called: the scientific study of heredity.
The article had dwelt upon the stupendous implications for the breeding
of livestock. Edgar’s grandfather had been so fascinated that he’d gone
to the library and located a book on Mendel and read it cover to cover.
What he’d learned occupied his mind in odd moments. He thought back
on the vision (if he could call it that) that had descended upon him as
he shook Captain’s paw at The Hollow. It was one of those rare days
when everything in a person’s life feels connected. He was twenty-five
years old, but over the course of the last year his hair had turned steely
gray. The same thing had happened to his grandfather, yet his father was
edging up on seventy with a jet black mane. Nothing of the kind had
happened to either of his elder brothers, though one was bald as an egg.
Nowadays when John Sawtelle looked into the mirror he felt a little like
a Mendelian pea himself.
He sat in the sun and watched Gus, thick-legged and clumsy, pin a
grasshopper to the ground, mouth it, then shake his head with disgust
and lick his chops. He’d begun smothering the hopper with the side of
his neck when he suddenly noticed Edgar’s grandfather looking on, heels
set in the dirt driveway, toes pointed skyward. The pup bucked in mock
surprise, as if he’d never seen this man before. He scrambled forward to
investigate, twice going tail over teakettle as he closed the gap.
It was, John Sawtelle thought, a lovely little place.
Explaining Gus to his wife was going to be the least of his worries.
IN FACT, IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for the fuss to die down. When he
wanted to, Edgar’s grandfather could radiate a charming enthusiasm, one
of the reasons Mary had been attracted to him in the first place. He could
tell a good story about the way things were going to be. Besides, they
had been living in her parents’ house for over a year and she was as eager
as he to get out on her own. They completed the purchase of the land by
mail and telegram.
This the boy Edgar would come to know because his parents kept
their most important documents in an ammunition box at the back
of their bedroom closet. The box was military gray, with a big clasp
on the side, and it was metal, and therefore mouseproof. When they
weren’t around he’d sneak it out and dig through the contents. Their
birth certificates were in there, along with a marriage certificate and the deed and history of ownership of their land. But the telegram was
what interested him most—a thick, yellowing sheet of paper with a
Western Union legend across the top, its message consisting of just six words, glued to the backing in strips: OFFER ACCEPTED SEE ADAMSKI
RE PAPERS. Adamski was Mr. Schultz’s lawyer; his signature appeared
on several documents in the box. The glue holding those words to the
telegram had dried over the years, and each time Edgar snuck it out,
another word dropped off. The first to go was papers, then re, then
see. Eventually Edgar stopped taking the telegram out at all, fearing
that when accepted fluttered into his lap, his family’s claim to the
land would be reversed.
He didn’t know what to do with the liberated words. It seemed wrong
to throw them away, so he dropped them into the ammo box and hoped
no one would notice.
In the year 1919, Edgar’s grandfather, who was born with
an extra share of whimsy, bought their land and all the buildings on
it from a man he’d never met, a man named Schultz, who in his turn had
walked away from a logging team half a decade earlier after seeing the
chains on a fully loaded timber sled let go. Twenty tons of rolling maple
buried a man where Schultz had stood the moment before. As he helped
unpile logs to extract the wretched man’s remains, Schultz remembered
a pretty parcel of land he’d spied north and west of Mellen. The morning
he signed the papers he rode one of his ponies along the logging road to
his new property and picked out a spot in a clearing below a hill and by
nightfall a workable pole stable stood on that ground. The next day he
fetched the other pony and filled a yoked cart with supplies and the three
of them walked back to his crude homestead, Schultz on foot, reins in
hand, and the ponies in harness behind as they drew the cart along and
listened to the creak of the dry axle. For the first few months he and the
ponies slept side by side in the pole shed and quite often in his dreams
Schultz heard the snap when the chains on that load of maple broke.