Tribute to an Old Pal

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: DOWN-HOME


Elderly farmer carves in wood his old pal, a bulldog/lab mix, which has sickened in old age and is close to dying.


TRIBUTE TO AN OLD PAL

Painting and Story by Virgil Dube’ – Copyright 2017

 

Finished with his business, tall and lanky Clem ‘Tiny’ Blackmon stooped to exit the outhouse. The chilly air this November morning 1896 greeted him two weeks after he turned fifty-seven years of age. Farming his entire life his six-foot-seven-inch body of incredible strength and good health resulted from hard work, country diet, and good-natured attitude toward his fellow man.

Clem paused to maneuver his overalls suspender straps over his broad shoulders. He tucked in his cotton shirt and buttoned his overalls at the waist. Removing his floppy hat from the nail beside the outhouse door he had just latched, he shoved back his silvery-grey hair and placed it lightly on his head, then looked searchingly about the pasture and barnyard.

“Where’s old Tater,” he murmured.

Gazing skyward to inspect the prospect of good or bad weather for the day, the morning sun set aglow his aged yet pleasant face. The warmth felt good to offset the nippy air. He caught sight of his aged farm hound rounding the distant wood-frame house corner, then laying on the back porch, his muzzle extended over the planked edge. Normally, his old pal hardly left his side while he was working about his ten-acre farm.

Now fourteen years old, Tater has become arthritic and looking worse each new day. I fear he’s nearing his end, Clem sadly accepted the truth after observing Tater’s change starting right after his own birthday.

Clem began walking the weedy clay path toward his house. As he strolled the short distance, an uneasy feeling stirred within him to blend with extended sadness experienced over two years beginning with the sudden death of his wife Susie to a mysterious illness. During that period, both of his grown sons had moved on to become partnered hardware merchants in nearby Gainesville, Georgia. Joel and Mack had steadfastly remained in touch. They alternated to come around and lend him a hand, especially when he called on them for extra help, such as butchering a hog, or cow, harvesting and preparation for market, and on rare occasion, to haul heavy machinery by wagon to wherever.

At the porch steps, Clem bent over to pet Tater. The large hound of bulldog mix was once one of the finest hog dogs in the county. He responded to Clem’s touch this day, not with his usual lick of his master’s hand, and pleasurable moan, just a subtle wag of his tail and slight lift of his head. He finally turned with some effort on his side for a rib rub, which Clem treated him with extra affection.

“You’re not looking too spunky today, old boy.”

Tater moaned.

Clem stepped onto the porch. At the hand pump and wash pan located on a wide board atop the rear banister, he pumped water into the beat-up galvanized pan. Using homemade lye soap, he washed his hands, and dried them on a towel hanging on a post nail. Stepping inside his modest three-room farmhouse, a loft serving as an extra bedroom for Joel or Mack when they visited, he prepared a lunch in the kitchen and packed it in a basket. Ten minutes later, he reappeared on the porch with the basket in hand. About to step from the porch to begin chopping stove wood, a much-needed chore, a sound from around the house alerted him he had a visitor. Clearly, a wagon had pulled into his front yard. He walked around the house to meet neighbor Fred Conner sitting atop his two-horse-drawn wagon. Fred wasn’t just a respectable farmer; he was also a good friend going back many years. Both his and Fred’s grandfathers fought together against the British under Commander George Washington.

“Howdy, Tiny; thought I’d drop by … see how you and Tater are gettin’ along.”

“Hello, Freddy; I’m fine, Tater not so good.”

“Sorry to hear that. Do you need anything from town? I’m headed to your son’s hardware, then to Lawson’s Mercantile to get items on Katherine’s list.”

Pausing, rubbing his chin briefly to think, Clem answered, “Not especially, Freddy.” Then snapping finger and thumb, he added, “Except maybe cornmeal. I’d appreciate you picking up a sack for me.” He pulled money from his overalls pocket, stepped to the wagon and handed it to Fred reaching down. Feeling a nudged on his leg, he looked down to see Tater leaning against him, wearily, yet interested enough to leave his spot on the porch to investigate the visitor.

“Old Tater does appear under the weather today,” Fred, observed.

Clem did not reply, just nodded.

Fred’s eyes moved from the dog to his dejected master, sensing what his friend also suspected. “Well, my friend, I gotta head on, get things done before the day gets farther along. I’ll drop your bag of cornmeal late this afternoon; take care.” He waved goodbye, and Clem returned the gesture.

Fifteen minutes later, Clem began chopping wood from a pile he hand-sawed after downing a dead oak tree on the hilly backside of his farm, where the expansive rolling pasture supported fifteen cows. Breaking after a half-hour, he pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped sweat from his face, aware Maggie the sow had wandered close by, but not so close flying wood chips might harm her. One of his many hens pecked the ground nearby clearly oblivious to his hammering ax.

Laboring steadily another half-hour, Clem decided he would break for lunch. He drank water from a canteen, then enjoyed a smoked-ham sandwich. Katherine Conner had given him the homemade yeast bread. Enjoying the first of two apples for desert, his hunger was for the present satisfied. He withdrew a whittling knife from his lunch basket, and piece of cherry wood he had previously transformed into a figure. He pinched some tobacco from a tin and packed it into a pipe he had fashioned from a dried corncob and hollow reed. Striking a red phosphorus match, and lighting his pipe, he settled on the woodpile to begin work on a woodcarving he had started weeks prior and was now putting the finishing cuts, a tribute to his old pal, Tater.

Soon, Tater sauntered up, flopped on his side and laid his head across Clem’s left boot. Clem decided he would continue to carve and remain in place for however long to allow his old sick pal to rest. When Tater had settled on the ground, Clem noticed his breathing increasingly labored, and a soft wheezing sound more distinct, which alarmed him.

Minutes passed. A mockingbird squawked as it flew above Clem. A colorful butterfly alighted briefly on his right shoulder, and then fluttered away. Clem held the carving up to observe it critically, and in chorus, reach his hand down affectionately to pet and comfort Tater. His old pal seemed restful, duly settled. Except for minute flicks of wood chipped from the carving, and natural sounds thereabout, quietness prevailed, and Tater apparently had fallen into a deep sleep. Hence, Clem resumed his work with more-refined cuts, and within minutes, felt he had finished his carving.

Tater hadn’t moved, or made any sound in some time. Gently, Clem lifted his right boot expecting Tater to respond to the cue and move to allow him to stand. When he failed to respond, and the weight of his head seemed heavier than ever, Clem placed the carving and his whittling knife carefully aside on the woodpile. He bent over to check on Tater, noticing him not breathing. He placed his hand over Taters’ nostrils and felt no breath of air.

Clem’s big shoulders slumped as he sat up straight, and whispered mournfully, “No … my old friend, you have gone and left me alone.”

Clem removed his hat, and sighed deeply. Finally, he stood slowly not to disturb his dog’s body. He placed his hat on the ax handle end, the tool’s blade wedged in the chopping block. Settling on both knees and hands on the ground; he leaned down to rest his head on Tater’s chest, and wept.

A length of time passed, perhaps a half-hour. Slowly, Clem stood up. He replaced his hat on his head and went to his house to get an old blanket off the floor that Tater slept on at the foot of his bed. He carried the blanket to the woodpile and wrapped it around the body. Increasingly distraught with each stride, he carried his old pal to the pasture, where he laid him gently on the ground under a hickory tree. Fetching a shovel and ax from the tool shed, he cleared the ground of fallen leaves and began to dig the grave, curious cows grouped and remaining a respectable distance.

The woeful job done, Clem gathered the food basket and carving. He returned to his back porch, where he placed the carving on the porch bannister. Then he sat in a rocker gazing at Tater’s favorite resting spot, switching between the spot and his carving, reflecting the years he shared with his old pal, one incident swiftly following another … countless flashes sweeping through his mind. Tater’s death was bad enough. The harsh reality of quiet prevailing across his home and farm distressed him to taxing level. Three o’clock rolled around, he remaining seated on the porch and reflecting the good and bad times with Tater. Periodically, he wept, wanting to take back incidences when he had scolded his old pal for some misdeed, like when he was a puppy chasing and killing Susie’s favorite egg-producing hen. Around four o’clock, he heard a horse whinny as Freddy’s wagon arrived on his front yard. Jadedly, he stood, stepped from the porch, and walked around his house to greet Freddy and get his sack of cornmeal.

Fred stood from the wagon seat to stretch. As he focused on Clem approaching, and had reseated himself, he said, “Tiny, you look awful … something has happened.”

Clem nodded, “Tater died just before noon. I buried him in my pasture under the hickory tree.”

“I’m sorry to hear that my friend. I know how much that dog meant to you. This doesn’t surprise me after seeing him earlier this morning. Perhaps this might sound overly concerned; however, I want to know how you are doing here alone?”

Clem shrugged, his big shoulders rising then settling to a noticeable slump.

Fred handed him the sack of cornmeal, then remained quiet briefly, as did Clem, though he Fred was considering an idea. Convinced he was doing the fitting thing, he twisted around. Stretching an arm over the seat backboard, Fred reached his big hand under a canvas on the wagon floor exposing a large wood box. He half stood and extended his hand under the lid and into the container. Immediately, soft whines and yapping assailed the air, puppies disturbed from sleep. He fiddled a moment, and finally withdrew one particular male pup a blend of tan and white. Reseating himself, he placed it on his lap, petting it to ease its protests.

“Tiny, Randal Bowden was in your son’s store. He mentioned his bitch hound gave birth to eight hound-bulldog pups two months ago. He asked if I wanted my pick from the litter he brought to town to give away. I picked three, this one looking much like Tater when he was a pup. Would you like to have him? I know this is somewhat sudden, maybe inappropriate, especially at a time you would rather pay proper respect to Tater departed.

Surprised, Clem hesitated, then attempted a smile. Finally, he stepped forward and reached up to receive the puppy handed down to him. He cuddled the wiggly licking pup to his chest, the little fellow a sudden ball of energy. As the puppy, a replica of Tater ages ago, lapped his face, and was fully awake and yapping happily, Clem’s face brightened. Finally, he replied, “Freddy, I accept your generous gift, and feel that my new pal Spud … yes, that’s what I’m gonna name him, is an omen to better times ahead for me. My best of friends, I thank you greatly for your kindness … your heartfelt generosity.

The following day, Spud followed his new master everywhere. Oftentimes, and mischievously, he got in the way, chasing hens, and hogs. Randy the goat sometimes turned the table and chased him, which in all his mischief imitated Tater at his age, and cleansed Clem of depression. At 11:30 a.m. just before lunchtime, and twenty-four hours following Tater’s death, Clem carried Spud high on his chest to the gravesite, and said, as the puppy passionately licked his chin, “Tater, I want you to meet Spud. Old pal, life must go on and a new era has begun. Better times lay ahead for me and Spud; thanks for your faithful companionship before and especially after Susie died.”

Long after sunset and darkness enveloped the farm, and Clem lay asleep in his bed under heavy cover, a lonely howl from the farmhouse pierced the quiet void.  Spud lying on his new blanket at the foot of Clem’s bed had legitimately claimed his new domain.

Nearby, and permanently on Clem’s chest of drawers, rested the woodcarving that would forever be a shrine to partnership between a down-to-earth and humble big man and his once best of pal’s.

 

THE END


Submitted: December 16, 2017

© Copyright 2021 Virgil Dube. All rights reserved.

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