Friday, July 28, 2017

The Disappearing Collie

     Emms, John - Collie In A Landscape 
Chip was my first collie.  I was eleven years old and I lived on an egg farm in west Texas.  Chip had come to us through a trade. 

Our original dog, Shorty, was an enthusiastic and opinionated terrier/ wiener-dog mix.  He was a short-legged yellow dynamo who loved to accompany my stepfather as he went about his business on the farm.  

The problem was that Shorty did not like to ride in the pickup.  He would tear along behind the truck in a choking cloud of dust, running as fast as he could – but he just couldn’t keep up.  

Our old pickup didn’t have air conditioning.  If you didn’t want to suffocate on hot Texas afternoons you had to roll the windows down.  But if you rolled the windows down Shorty would leap out of the truck – and he didn’t care if the truck was standing still or doing 60.  

Besides the egg business we also had nearly 160 acres in wheat and grain sorghum, and 5 acres of tomatoes.  Tooling around to see to all that land meant Shorty was logging far too many miles on his stubby little limbs.  It was starting to tell on him – but he refused to ride in the pickup.

Before my mother married her second husband she and I had lived in a little town called Canyon.  When she and Scooter tied the knot, we moved to the egg farm.  But when we had lived in town there was a poor family living across the street from us.   The family owned a large young collie named Chip.  Unfortunately there was barely enough food to feed the family’s kids, and not much left over for a growing collie.  Chip was very thin – you could easily count his ribs through his thick golden fur.  

When we moved to the farm we thought about what a glorious place it would be for Chip.  It seemed a fitting setting for the big sable collie, and we were struck by a thought.  Why not see if the family would trade Chip for Shorty?  The rations that were so inadequate for Chip would be more than enough for Shorty.  And Shorty would be less likely to die an untimely death by leaping from a truck or collapsing from running behind one. 

We put this proposal to the family, and though they said they would miss Chip, they could see it would be the best thing for him, and Shorty was more the size for a town-living family dog.  The deal was struck, and Chip came to the farm.

I was delighted – and Chip probably thought he had died and gone to heaven.  For the first month he lived with us Chip had a dozen raw eggs mixed into a large bowl of kibble every day.  His ribs grew a healthy layer of muscle and fat, and his coat grew soft and glossy.  

Chip was in his element.  He quickly took upon himself the job of watchdog, and patrolled the boundaries of our land morning and evening.  He was magnificent.  All my hours watching “Lassie” on TV had given me high expectations for a collie.  And Chip did not disappoint me.  His one misstep occurred about a month after he arrived.  He killed a chicken.  

On a farm – especially an egg farm, this was a transgression that could not be overlooked.  There were two remedies.  One was to shoot the dog.  But a penalty this severe was usually reserved for repeat offenders.  Chip was a first-time killer.  The treatment he received was simple, but worked well.

Using a piece of stout rope, the dead hen was bound about Chip’s neck.  He could not reach it to tear it away, and in a very short time it began to smell very bad indeed. 

 For over two weeks Chip carried the dead chicken.  At first he came to each of us, imploring us with his sad brown eyes.  Would we help him be rid of his malodorous burden?  But we shunned him.  He was driven away with cries of disgust, receiving neither help nor sympathy.  He skulked about, lonely, miserable and an object of scorn.  His healthy appetite vanished and he ate almost nothing for the time it took for the rotting carcass to fall, bit by bit from his neck.  But at last the ordeal was over.  He gratefully received a thorough scrubbing and was welcomed back to the bosom of his family.  He made up for his missed meals in short order and never so much as looked at a chicken again.

One other incident stands out in my mind, and that was the day my stepfather shot a coyote that was lingering about the chicken house.  He had seen it while driving back home from setting irrigation tubes in the tomato field.  The wind was blowing from the direction of the house toward the laying shed, and so Chip did not scent his canine cousin as he descended from the cab of the pickup.

My stepfather went quickly into the trailer and emerged with his 30/30 deer rifle.  Slipping a shell into the chamber, he raised the rifle to his shoulder, took careful aim and fired.  It was a good shot.  The coyote dropped down dead.  Chip was frightened by the thunder of the rifle, but that was nothing to the agitation he showed when my stepfather walked out and then dragged the dead coyote back to the house by the tail.

Chip went along and on the way back he circled both the man and the bloody dead creature.  His hair stood up all along his back and he dodged in and took tentative bites at the coyote – growling and whining all the while.  It was clear that he was greatly impressed with the whole performance, and he showed even more respect to my stepfather than he had before.   The gun he would not approach, and was distinctly uncomfortable whenever he saw it. 

The last day I spent with Chip was nearly two years later.

That summer evening we were sitting in our dining room eating supper.  It was beginning to get dark out, and we could see the tall buffalo grass waving through a large picture window by the table.  Occasionally we would hear the sound of a vehicle passing on the road, fifty yards from where we sat.  Chip was outside having his own supper. 

As usual, there wasn’t much in the way of dinner conversation at our house.  We had all worked hard and were hungry.  We filled our mouths with food rather than words.  But the silence was shattered by two sounds that came in rapid succession.  One was the sound of a rifle being fired from fairly close at hand, and the other was the thud of a bullet striking the wood frame above the picture window. 

We all acted instantaneously.  My stepfather leaped toward the bedroom door, and crouching low went for his own rifle.  My mother and I dropped to the floor.  

As I slid from my chair, I peered over the window sill and took in the scene in a moment.  Outside in the gathering darkness was a pickup parked at the edge of the road.  Two men stood before it, and one held a rifle.  The other thing I saw was my collie, running silently through the buffalo grass, heading for the parked truck.

My stepfather darted out of the trailer and he too ran silently toward the men, bent over low in the three-foot tall grass.  But Chip arrived before him and sprang at the man who held the rifle.  

over the window sill I saw the flash of Chip’s white ruff as he bore the man down.  The rifle flew from his flailing hands as he was knocked over backward.  My stepfather shouted and raised his rifle, pointing it at the other man.  I was sick with fear for my collie.  I jumped up and ran out the door.

But it was not my dog that was in danger.  As I ran up, I saw my stepfather wrench Chip off the fallen man and throw him backwards toward me.  The collie snarled savagely at the two strangers, and my stepfather said. “Take him back and shut him in the house!” 

I saw blood on the front of the shirt of the man Chip had felled.  The man was terrified and shrank back against a wheel of his truck.  I did as I was told.  Chip obeyed my order to follow me to the house, but he bristled and growled the whole way, throwing malevolent glances back over his shoulder as he walked.

My mother had called the sheriff’s office and in a surprisingly short time a cruiser arrived and took the two men into custody.  The bullet hole over the dining room window was the only evidence of what had transpired. That, and the shooter's torn neck and bloody shirtfront.

The next morning my stepfather went into town to see what had been done with the men.  It seemed that they had been charged with malicious mischief and been released on bail.  They would have to show up for court and pay a fine, but they would be unlikely to do time.  Two days later my collie disappeared.

I waited, hunted and called for my dog for weeks, but at last hope faded.  The wind blew through the dry grass and with the onset of winter the weather grew cold. Not until then did I at last give up sitting on the porch waiting – hoping against hope that my collie would return.  But he never did.

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Wolf’s Head
 A long time ago in a distant country, was a village. It was called Valdansk.

Valdansk was nestled in a green valley and hemmed about by a ring of mountains so lofty that they bore snow the year round. The ring of peaks was pierced at its east and west ends by a swift river, beside which ran a road. There were often strangers to be seen on this road, and an inn with a tavern stood in Valdansk to accommodate travelers who could afford such things. The inn was called the White Ram, or more commonly The Ram.

In Valdansk a boy named Dan was born. At the age of ten he was neither tall nor short, neither burly nor thin, and his parents were no more anxious about him than parents usually are. The boy had a shock of straight, tawny hair that projected out over his forehead, shading his eyes which were usually described as hazel. This was a polite fiction however, for his eyes were nearly colorless. When Dan looked at a person, they often had the curious feeling that his eyes did not really see them. Instead, they seemed to look right through one, and fix on a point some distance beyond one’s head.

Although Dan was an only child, he had many friends and was well liked. He went about the streets of the village whistling happily, and was friendly with both the townsmen and the shepherds who came into Valdansk for supplies and mugs of brown ale at The Ram.

Most boys go through a time in their lives, before they become immersed in curiosity about the opposite sex, when their thoughts turn frequently to tales of monsters, executions and the bloody deeds of war. In this Dan was like other boys, but it was at this stage of his life that a mischief was done to him. Like much of the mischief done in this world, it was an act of simple carelessness by an ordinary man in a foul mood, but it would change the boy forever.

It happened one afternoon when Dan’s mother sent him to The Ram to buy a pitcher of ale. Dan carried the pewter vessel into the tavern and set it on the counter. He asked for the ale and laid down his coins. Then he turned around to look over the company in the tavern.

As usual there were faces of townsfolk he knew. And there was a shepherd who had come down from the mountain slopes with lambs to sell to the butcher.

The shepherds were generally quiet men. They sat alone at tables quietly drinking their mugs of ale. Their surly black sheepdogs crouched at their feet, surveying the room with suspicious eyes. This shepherd and his dog were no different.

As the innkeeper set Dan’s brimming pitcher on the bar, a stranger wearing an enormous oilskin coat came into the tavern and strode to the bar not three feet from where Dan stood. The stranger ordered a flagon of ale and stood glaring about him as he waited for his drink. His voice was rough and he seemed out of humor as he gave his order and slapped his coin down on the bar. Dan looked at the red-faced and muscular man, seeing that his large rough hands were clenched into fists as he stood waiting.

When the ale was brought, the stranger enclosed the flagon in one ham fist and stalked toward an unoccupied table in the darkest corner of the tavern. As he crossed the room he trod on the white-tipped tail of a shepherd’s dog. The beast rounded on him with a snarl and showed its teeth. This seemed to infuriate the stranger, who aimed a vicious kick at the angry dog and shouted, “Thou, wolf’s head! I’ll kill you!”

The dog easily eluded the big man’s boot, and crouched with hackles raised, staring and growling at the man who had tried to kick him.

Of the dozen or so people in the room, all but one were rendered immobile by the savagery of the stranger’s outburst and his fierce appearance. The shepherd seized the collar of his furious dog, and without a word drew him quickly back. Turning and throwing a backward glance of mixed fear and anger, he hauled his growling beast to the door and departed from the tavern.

The stranger stamped to the corner, kicked a chair away from the table and sat down with a thump. He turned his face from the room and drank a long pull from his flagon.

Silence reigned.

Now, it should be understood that what shocked the observers of this bit of drama into silence was not so much the stranger’s towering rage or even his brutal kick at the dog. It was the phrase wolf’s head, which was the strongest malediction that could ever be heard in this quiet and peaceful place. It was an oath reserved for only the most dreadful utterance, and was rarely spoken. It was more than a common oath; it was something in the way of a curse.

Certainly it had never been uttered in Dan’s hearing, but it made a profound impression on the boy. In the first place, he was instantly alive to the effect that its pronouncement had had on the men in the tavern. Secondly, it painted a most savage and vivid picture in his mind; a picture that remained with him and did not grow dim.

He saw in his mind’s eye, the severed head of a wolf, lying in clean white snow, crimsoned with blood. Every detail leaped out at him; the blackened and protruding tongue, the glazed yellow eyes, and the array of bloodstained teeth in the pale gums of the dead mouth. He saw the tips of its frost-rimed hairs bending in an icy blast of wind, and the dried nose and lips, shrunken and corrugated in the rictus of death.

He was enveloped in a delicious wave of adolescent terror. His skin rippled with gooseflesh, and the hair on the back of his neck sprang erect. He thought about the awesome power of the oath to bring about this tempest inside his mind. He shivered with delight. Taking the pitcher of ale in his trembling hands, he left the inn and went quickly home.

Although it was never revealed to Dan, the shepherd, or any of the others present that afternoon, the man who had uttered the shocking words which were to work such great and wicked changes in the boy was not an evil fellow. He was simply a soul in turmoil.

He was riding home in great haste, changing horses every few hours, tormented by his own fears. He had received word that his beloved daughter, seven years of age, had been knocked down and trampled by a team of runaway horses left insecurely tied. An overzealous sheepdog had caused the horses flight. The dog had been sent to collect a stray sheep, but the ewe, dodging the pursuing collie, had blundered into the hind legs of the team. They had pulled their tether and run away. As a result, the life of the injured girl now hung in the balance. The distraught father had paused in his flight to rest for a few moments while a fresh horse was made ready for him. The agony of his fear for his child made the man wild, and he neither knew nor cared what he did or said when he changed forever the life of the boy, Dan.

As for Dan, he hugged the words wolf’s head to him as if they were some fabulous treasure he had found lying in the road. At first he only said them in his mind, but gradually he began to whisper them when no one was near. The thrill they produced began to fade, however, and he longed to say them to someone. He wished to wield their power to shock. He wanted to see traces of their power on the face of another. But he was only a boy afraid of being punished, and so he kept quiet.

One day he climbed far up the slope of a mountainside not far from the town. He climbed until he was exhausted and then threw himself down on a carpet of turf and wildflowers. He lay on his back looking up at the fleecy clouds floating above him. As his breathing again grew regular, he began to smile. His eyes grew bright. Arching his back, he drew a deep draught of the pure mountain air, and then bellowed out, “Wolf’s head!”

He waited. Nothing happened. No angry adult thrust his face into the boy’s circle of vision. The clouds continued to pass over him. He sat up. He was alone. A grin of delight overspread his features. “Wolf’s head!” he shouted again. He giggled.

Again and again he shouted the words. Between shouts he would savor the delight of uttering such wickedness. The afternoon passed, and soon he realized that he must start home. He began the walk down, and as he descended the sun rolled down the sky, reddened and sank behind a far off peak.

Dan was not afraid of the coming dark. He well knew the way home. Soon he would reach the road by the river, and a half-mile more would bring him into town. The darkness gathered, and upon reaching the road, he began to hear the creaking of harness and wheels. In the dim evening he made out a group of tall wagons accompanied by goats, children and young horses. A few men were there too. It was a band of Lowara. Having passed through the town, they were no doubt moving toward the evening’s campsite. Dan curled his lip. Gypsies, he thought.

At once he felt a surge of excitement. Slipping behind the gnarled trunk of an oak, he watched the cavalcade approach. The caravans drew abreast of him and passed slowly by, followed by several small carts pulled by stout black ponies. The wagons’ bright colors could barely be seen in the fading light. Voices raised in a plangent song blended with the sounds of wheels, hooves and creaking leather. Brasses gleamed softly on the harness of the tired horses.

Suddenly the Lowara’s yellow dogs caught Dan’s scent as they trotted busily along. At once they ran and circled him, snarling and barking. He stooped for a stone and they fell back. Emboldened, he flung the stone at the nearest dog. The barking ceased, but although the milling pack gave ground, they did not give up.

Dan stooped for another stone, and as he looked for a stationary dog at which to throw it, he saw an old woman approaching. Without thinking, he flung the stone. It struck the voluminous skirt of the woman, doing her no harm, but it precipitated an avalanche of imprecation. Dan did not understand the words, but the emotion behind them was clear. The crone gesticulated with a short pipe that she had been smoking. The dogs continued to circle, and a few ragged children paused to watch the outcome of the encounter.

Dan gathered three more stones and then an idea sprang into his brain. A lupine smile curled his lips. He filled his lungs with night air and shouted out, “Wolf’s head!”

The old woman stopped scolding and the dogs stood still. Dan was delighted. A feeling of limitless power welled up in him and again he yelled, “Wolf’s head!, Wolf’s head!”

The Lowara woman leaned toward him. She began to speak again, but this time she spoke softly in a sort of a chant. The dogs faded away into the gathering darkness, and the children scattered, making for the last pony-cart which was now passing the oak.

The old woman continued her chant, and Dan felt his elation draining away. In its place came a sense of dread. With the dread came a burning feeling about his head, especially in the region of his mouth and nose. His ears too, felt a hot prickling

sensation. His neck itched horribly and his teeth ached. It seemed to him that he was overwhelmed by smells. He was assailed by the smell of the grass, the tree, the river, the woman, and the dogs and horses. Everything smelled so potent. He raised his hand to scratch at the awful itching on his neck and face, and felt hair. No, he felt fur. A strangled cry came up from his throat, but somehow turned into a yelp. He tried to shout the talismanic phrase wolf’s head, but what came out was a long, shuddering howl.

At last the reality burst upon him. He had a wolf’s head! His fingers flew to his face, and there he felt the muzzle, the damp nose, and the sharp fangs of a wolf. Again he howled. He howled in terror and this time there was no joy mingled with the fear. He was simply, terribly, afraid. And in his terror he did what frightened boys the world over have done since the beginning of civilization. He turned for the lights of the village, his home, his mother, and he ran.

The Lowara woman watched him disappear down the road, and then turned to follow her family.

What more there is can be simply told. The boy had become a monster. He found no safe harbor in the arms of his mother. His family felt only horror at the sight of him. Clutching their rosaries and brandishing knives, his parents drove him from their house. He fled from the village and up into the eternal snows of the mountaintops. There he was brought to bay by the village hunters and their hounds. He was killed, and his head - his wolf’s head, was struck off and left for the crows. His body was carried back down the mountain. But of course it could not be buried in the churchyard.

The girl child of the angry stranger lay in a coma for a week. When at last her eyes opened, she held up her chubby arms for her Papa. She remembered nothing of her accident, but was well enough just two weeks later to pick blackberries with her Mama.

The frozen wolf’s head remained on the mountain, lying upon the snow, crimsoned with blood, and the cold mountain wind and the beaks of crows soon made an end of it. 

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