Where are the dogs of yesteryear? They all seem to be some breed or another these days. They never used to be. Back in the forties, we had dogs that LEANED in one direction or another. Or maybe two or three directions at once. But we never went out and bought a specific brand of dog. Why would you buy a dog when the neighbors were giving away perfectly good pups for free, along with a jar of peaches and maybe some string beans?
It has always been hard to earn a living farming, and the animals on our Montana farm all had to have a use. The cats earned their living by catching the mice that ate the grain. The dogs earned their living, Daddy told us kids, by bringing in the cows at milking time.
Our dogs tended not to be real good at bringing in the cows, but we kept them anyway. Maybe because Daddy had a soft heart — which he did — but mainly, I think, because the dogs had a better understanding of what they were there for than we children did:
The dogs thought they were there to bark at every single car that went by.
Back when one or two cars came by in a day, we were glad to know that someone was coming down our hill, and, unless it was time for the mailman, we checked to see whose car it was.
The forties went by, then the fifties, and the number of cars increased. We no longer checked to see who it was. Which was not the fault of the dogs: they still barked at every single car.
By the sixties, I had left home but came back for vacations. And during one summer vacation I found out why we really needed that dog.
“There’s someone hiding in our shack,” said Daddy. “Whatever you do, don’t go up there. Don’t even go near it.”
The shack, which probably was built as a homesteader’s shack, was at the top of the hill by our house. It had one main room with a table and chairs, a cupboard with a few dishes, a wood stove, and a double bed. An outdoor toilet out back beckoned with open door.
In the forties and fifties, Grandma cleaned the shack each June. She washed the dishes in the cupboard, washed all the patchwork quilts on the beds, and put fresh kerosene in the lamp. All to prepare for the workers who came to hoe our sugar beets, under a contract between the Mexican government and the sugar beet company. Under that contract a good worker could make fifty dollars a day: excellent wages in the forties and fifties.
By the late sixties, Daddy no longer grew sugar beets, and the shack had for years lain empty. Then our neighbor Nina Davis telephoned. “Have you got someone in your shack across the road from us?” she asked. “Because we’re seeing a light in there at night.”
“No. No one’s supposed to be in there,” said Mamma. But neither our family nor the Davises went to the shack to investigate, nor did anyone suggest calling the sheriff. The Davises were also native Montanans who went by the same code of behavior we did. I’d learned about this code when I was little: one of our neighbors had a practice of stealing from other neighbors. “Why don’t we tell the sheriff?” I asked.
“If he got arrested, he might or might not get convicted. And if he got convicted, he’d get maybe six months in jail,” said Mamma. “And when he got out of jail, he’d come back to our neighborhood to live. And one night our barn would burn down. Or maybe our house. Or someone would shoot our cows or maybe even us. Something. So we leave that situation alone.”
Now that the rest of the country has discovered Montana and taken over a good chunk of it (the goodest chunk, in fact), people no longer think that way. The Bitterroot Valley has five times the population it had in my childhood. The sheriff has deputies, and according to the local newspaper they are busy day and night responding to complaints of barking dogs, domestic violence, and petty theft.
But, during that week in the late sixties, we and the Davises kept watch on the shack and did what we had been taught to do: nothing. “Look!” said Daddy, as our car drove slowly by one night. We looked, and, sure enough, a dim, grey light shone through the shack’s window, which window was pretty dirty now that Grandma no longer gave it her attention. “He’s lit the kerosene lamp.”
“Must be reading in there,” said Mamma softly.
That week we locked the doors of our house every night — something we had never done before — and Daddy slept with his pistol close at hand.
In case the dog barked in the middle of the night.
So that was why we’d put up with all that barking all those years, I realized. That and our family’s soft hearts and, where some of those dogs were concerned, our soft heads as well.
“The Davises tell me they haven’t seen a light in that shack for three nights,” Daddy said a few days later. “I’m going up with my pistol and investigate.”
He went up at noonday, stood like a Western lawman with his back to one side of the door, gun ready. He suddenly whirled to face the shack and kicked the door open.
He went inside, gun still at the ready. But the shack was empty. Our fugitive had fugited, leaving behind only a couple of well worn detective magazines and a pile of cigarette butts. And an unmade bed. Sure proof he hadn’t been brought up right, you bet.
And, in case you wonder, Daddy didn’t take the dog when he reconnoitered around the shack that day. Daddy was pretty fond of that little dog, and he didn’t want him to get hurt.