THE STRANGE DOG
Nick Brown had said that New York horse-buyers were in the neighborhood, so every night Father gave the four-year-old colts a special, careful grooming. The four-year-olds were already perfectly broken, and Almanzo wanted so much to help groom them that Father let him. But he was allowed to go into their stalls only when Father was there.
Carefully Almanzo currycombed and brushed their shining brown sides, and their smooth round haunches and slender legs. Then he rubbed them down with clean cloths. He combed and braided their black manes and their long black tails. With a little brush he oiled their curved hoofs, till they shone black as Mother’s polished stove.
He was careful never to move suddenly and startle them. He talked to them while he worked, in a gentle, low voice. The colts nibbled his sleeve with their lips and nuzzled at his pockets for the apples he brought them. They arched their necks when he rubbed their velvety noses, and their soft eyes shone.
Almanzo knew that in the whole world there was nothing so beautiful, so fascinating, as beautiful horses. When he thought that it would be years and years before he could have a little colt to teach and take care of, he could hardly bear it.
One evening the horse-buyer came riding into the barnyard. He was a strange horse-buyer; Father had never seen him before. He was dressed in city clothes, of machine-made cloth, and he tapped his shining tall boots with a little red whip. His black eyes were close to his thin nose; his black beard was trimmed into a point, and the ends of his mustache were waxed and twisted.
He looked very strange, standing in the barn- yard and thoughtfully twisting one end of his mustache into a sharper point.
Father led out the colts. They were perfectly matched Morgans, exactly the same size, the same shape, the same bright brown all over, with the same white stars on their foreheads. They arched their necks and picked up their little feet daintily.
“Four years old in May, sound in wind and limb, not a blemish on them,” Father said. “Broken to drive double or single. They’re high- spirited, full of ginger, and gentle as kittens. A lady can drive them.”
Almanzo listened. He was excited, but he re- membered carefully everything that Father and the horse-buyer said. Some day he would be trading horses, himself.
The buyer felt the colts’ legs, he opened their mouths and looked at their teeth. Father had nothing to fear from that; he had told the truth about the colts’ age. Then the buyer stood back and watched, while Father took each colt on a long rope and made it walk, trot, and gallop in a circle around him.
“Look at that action,” Father said.
The shining black manes and tails rippled in the air. Brown lights flowed over their smooth bodies, and their delicate feet seemed hardly to touch the ground. Round and round they went, like a tune.
The buyer looked. He tried to find fault, but he couldn’t. The colts stood still, and Father waited. Finally, the buyer offered $175 apiece.
Father said he couldn’t take less than $225. Almanzo knew he said that, because he wanted $200. Nick Brown had told him that horse-buyers were paying that much.
Then Father hitched both colts to the buggy. He and the buyer climbed in, and away they went down the road. The colts’ heads were high, their noses stretched out; their manes and tails blew in the wind of their speed, and their flashing legs moved all together, as though the colts were one colt. The buggy was gone out of sight in a minute. Almanzo knew he must go on with the chores. He went into the barn and took the pitch- fork; then he put it down and came out to watch for the colts’ return.
When they came back, Father and the buyer had not agreed on the price. Father tugged at his beard, and the buyer twisted his mustache. The buyer talked about the expense of taking the colts to New York, and about the low prices there. He had to think of his profit. The best he could offer was $175.
Father said: “I’ll split the difference. Two hundred dollars, and that’s my last price.”
The buyer thought, and answered, “I don’t see my way clear to pay that.”
“All right,” Father said. “No hard feelings, and we’ll be glad to have you stay to supper.”
He began to unhitch the colts. The buyer said: “Over by Saranac they’re selling better horses than these for one hundred and seventy-five dol-lars.”
Father didn’t answer. He unhitched the colts and led them toward their stalls. Then the buyer said:
“All right, two hundred it is. I’ll lose money by it, but here you are.” He took a fat wallet out of his pocket and gave Father $200 to bind the bargain. “Bring them to town tomorrow and get the rest.”
The colts were sold, at Father’s price.
The buyer would not stay to supper. He rode away, and Father took the money to Mother in the kitchen. Mother exclaimed:
“You mean to say we must keep all that money in the house overnight!”
“It’s too late to take it to the bank,” Father said. “We’re safe enough. Nobody but us knows the money’s here.”
“I declare I sha’n’t sleep a wink!”
“The Lord will take care of us,” Father said. “The Lord helps them that help themselves,”
Mother replied. “I wish to goodness that money was safe in the bank.”
It was already past chore-time, and Almanzo had to hurry to the barn with the milk-pails. If cows are not milked at exactly the same time, night and morning, they will not give so much milk. Then there were the mangers and stalls to clean and all the stock to feed. It was almost eight o’clock before everything was done, and Mother was keeping supper warm.
Supper-time was not as cheerful as usual. There was a dark, heavy feeling about that money. Mother had hidden it in the pantry, then she hid it in the linen-closet. After supper she began setting the sponge for tomorrow’s baking and worrying again about the money. Her hands flew, the bread sponge made little plopping sounds under her spoon, and she was saying:
“It don’t seem as though anybody’d think to look between sheets in the closet, but I declare I— What’s that!”
They all jumped. They held their breaths and listened.
“Something or somebody’s prowling round this house!” Mother breathed.
All you could see when you looked at the windows was blackness outside.
“Pshaw! ’Twa’n’t anything,” Father said. “I tell you I heard something!”
“I didn’t,” Father said.
“Royal,” said Mother, “you go look.”
Royal opened the kitchen door and peered in- to the dark. After a minute he said:
“It’s nothing but a stray dog.”
“Drive it away!” said Mother. Royal went out and drove it away.
Almanzo wished he had a dog. But a little dog digs up the garden and chases hens and sucks eggs, and a big dog may kill sheep. Mother al- ways said there was stock enough on the place, without a dirty dog.
She set away the bread sponge. Almanzo washed his feet. He had to wash his feet every night, when he went barefoot. He was washing them when they all heard a stealthy sound on the back porch.
Mother’s eyes were big. Royal said: “It’s only that dog.”
He opened the door. At first, they saw nothing, and Mother’s eyes got bigger. Then they saw a big, thin dog cringing away in the shadows. His ribs showed under his fur.
“Oh, Mother, the poor dog!” Alice cried. “Please, Mother, can’t I give him just a little bit to eat?”
“Goodness, child, yes!” Mother said. “You can drive him away in the morning, Royal.”
Alice set out a pan of food for the dog. He dared not come near it while the door was open, but when Almanzo shut the door they heard him chewing. Mother tried the door twice to make sure it was locked.
The dark came into the kitchen when they left it with the candles, and the dark looked in through the dining-room windows. Mother locked both dining-room doors, and she even went into the parlor and tried the parlor door, though it was always kept locked.
Almanzo lay in bed a long time, listening and staring at the dark. But at last he fell asleep, and he did not know what happened in the night till Mother told it the next morning.
She had put the money under Father’s socks in the bureau drawer. But after she went to bed, she got up again and put it under her pillow. She did not think she would sleep at all, but she must have, because in the night something woke her. She sat bolt upright in bed. Father was sound asleep.
The moon was shining, and she could see the lilac bush in the yard. Everything was still. The clock struck eleven. Then Mother’s blood ran cold; she heard a low, savage growl.
She got out of bed and went to the window. The strange dog stood under it, bristling and showing his teeth. He acted as though somebody was in the woodlot.
Mother stood listening and looking. It was dark under the trees, and she could not see anyone. But the dog growled savagely at the darkness.
Mother watched. She heard the clock strike midnight, and after a long time it struck one o’clock. The dog walked up and down by the picket fence, growling. At last he lay down, but he kept his head up and his ears pricked, listening. Mother went softly back to bed.
At dawn the dog was gone. They looked for him, but they could not find him anywhere. But his tracks were in the yard, and on the other side of the fence, in the woodlot, Father found the tracks of two men’s boots.
He hitched up at once, before breakfast, and tied the colts behind the buggy and drove to Malone. He put the $200 in the bank. He de- livered the colts to the horse-buyer and got the other $200, and put that in the bank, too.
When he came back, he told Mother:
“You were right. We came near being robbed last night.”
A farmer near Malone had sold a team the week before and kept the money in his house.
That night robbers broke into his house while he was asleep. They tied up his wife and children, and they beat him almost to death, to make him tell where the money was hidden. They took the money and got away. The sheriff was looking for them.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that horse-buyer had a hand in it,” Father said. “Who else knew we had money in the house? But it couldn’t be proved. I made inquiry, and he was at the hotel in Malone last night.”
Mother said she would always believe that Providence had sent the strange dog to watch over them. Almanzo thought perhaps he stayed because Alice fed him.
“Maybe he was sent to try us,” Mother said. “Maybe the Lord was merciful to us because we were merciful to him.”
They never saw the strange dog again. Perhaps he was a poor lost dog and the food that Alice gave him made him strong enough to find his way home again.