A holiday and a puppy to mend two hearts
It wasn’t that Ben McInnes “wore a hard name,” which, in the Ozarks, is said about people either mean or dishonest. Ben was neither one. But what the McInnes name called up, when Chester Kiley mentioned it around the winter stove in the country store, was about as disturbing.
It was the last week before Christmas, when every neighbor stopped by the store before dark to talk about the snow, the price of gasoline, and to relive the deer season just past. Ben’s name came up because he had quit hunting after his wife and son left him. He had missed the deer season camaraderie and worse, never came to join the gathering at the store anymore.
“Now, I just don’t know what to tell you. I’ve known miserable folks in my time,” Chester said. “But Ben McInnes is the only one who works at it. He thinks if he gets pleasure doin’ a thing, like deer huntin,’ it must mean it ain’t work. I blame that for the downfall of his marriage.”
The strangeness of that idea sank in as the men thought of walking all week through the brown hollows and biting wind to earn a chance at winter meat. Even now they listened to the north wind playing the stove pipe and remembered what work it was.
Several of Chester’s listeners nodded, but Joe Case, the oldest of them, shook his head. “It ain’t so much misery as stubbornness,” he said. “Ben cain’t see but one side of a thing, just like his Pa. So he don’t understand why she left and it makes him miserable. Somebody should do something about Ben.”
“I don’t believe Ben McInnes can see two sides to a flapjack,” was Walter Cope’s comment, and that got a laugh. Joe Case grinned too, but his mind was still on what Chester had said about his old friend.
“Stubborn!” he repeated. “And look what it’s got him. His wife Julie’s left and took their kid with her.”
“Small wonder about that,” said Walter wryly, “Ben wants a family operation like his Pa’s—just him, her and when he gets his size, Cody—doin’ it all, tradin’ big work with neighbors, maybe some day save up enough for two farms.”
“Somebody should do something about Ben,” said Joe again, but the late deer hunters weren’t listening. Enjoying the stove’s heat, it was easier to just think about how stubborn Ben McInnes was—alone in an empty house.
Russell Phelps, who hadn’t said a thing, pulled a bent cigarette from his pocket and rose to light it from a box of wooden matches by the stove. A tall wiry man whose wife taught school in town, Russell always thought before he spoke.
“My wife and Ben’s are friends,” he began slowly. “Julie told her before she left, she didn’t mind Ben’s stubborn ways when it was just the two of them against the odds.”
He sat back down to reach the ash pan and flick his ashes. “But when Cody was born, she began to see how Ben being mule-headed could affect a kid; how could he grow up curious and open minded if his daddy had all the answers? How could he try a thing his way, if his daddy knew the only right way? How could his opinion count in that house?”
“Or,” said Walter, dryly from his corn sack perch, “how could he have a cute, no account puppy for a pet when his daddy wouldn’t have nothing but working dogs?
“So you knew about that, too?” said Russell. “My wife says it was kind of the straw that busted the camel down. Julie, she grew up on a farm and loved it, but never had an animal of her own. It had to be useful or productive or sold to pay its way. She didn’t want Cody to grow up thinking everything in life has a market value. She’s got a point there.”
“Seems to me she’s thinkin’ kind of a long way off,” said Chester, to nobody in particular.
“That’s what I said about Christmas a month ago,” said Joe. “And now here it comes and I believe somebody should do something about Ben.” Joe Case, in his own way, was as stubborn as anybody.
The next day, Joe Case showed up at the town animal pound.
“I want a friendly pup, don’t matter what make,” he told the girl attendant, “long as it likes people and kids.”
“Well, most of our puppies have found homes,” she said. “It’s so near Christmas. But we have a young dog, you might want to adopt, I think it’s part Keeshond, one of those little Dutch dogs that likes everybody. They call them, ‘The smiling Dutchman.’”
“Nobody stubborn as the Dutch,” growled Joe. “Let’s look at him.”
They went back in the building past pens of barking, jumping dogs to a pen that held a small scruffy looking dog who got up politely to greet them. “His name is Bear,” offered the girl.
Bear had tiny feet, a great mane of sand colored hair and a bushy tail that curled up over his back. His black ears perked up and his black mouth opened in a grin of interest. He looked at Joe with soulful brown eyes, sizing him up.
“That is the sorriest looking dog I ever saw,” said Joe, and at the sound of his voice, the dog’s tail made a slow, tentative wag. “What’s one of these ‘Case-honds’ good for?”
“Just good company I guess,” said the girl. “Sort of a common ‘for better or worse, richer-poorer’ dog. Bear’s old owner died last week and he’s about lonesomed to death.”
“I believe he’ll do,” said Joe.
It was late afternoon, Christmas Eve, and definitely looking like snow when Joe Case pulled his pickup into Ben McInnes’s driveway. He let out Bear, who was wearing a new collar and leash. The collar, red, with showy rhinestones, was startling peering out of that ragged mane, but Joe didn’t care. It was almost Christmas, his mind was set and it was starting to snow again. The little dog looked around at this new place in the world and sniffed with interest.
Ben McInnes came to the door showing signs of the wear and tear of new bachelorhood. He had dark circles under his eyes and his grip trembled some as he shook hands with his old friend. There were no lights on, no tree up and the house looked as dark and forlorn as the man.
“You look like a hammered cow pie,” said Joe to open the conversation. “I brought a Christmas present for you to take to town and give Julie and Cody,” said Joe. “This here is Bear dog. His only job is that he loves people. So do you, so you should get along.”
Ben McInnes took the offered leash in a daze and looked down to see Bear sniffing his shoe. The dog raised his head to observe this new friend and they looked each other over. Bear wagged his curled banner of a tail and smiled, and Ben, despite himself, smiled back.
“Well, thanks Joe,” he began, and the dog ran out his tongue at the sound of his voice, smiling even more around it. “But, Julie and me, we got some big... we don’t agree…well she needed to be by herself to… Anyway, thanks, but I don’t think a dog can solve our…” His voice drifted away as he bent to brush a giant snowflake from the dog’s nose.
“Course he can’t,” snorted Joe who was on his way back to his truck to beat the snow home. “But even a muleheaded fool like you can see he’ll make a good reason to start someplace!”
Longtime Today’s Farmer contributor Mitch Jayne passed away earlier this year. We run this reprint from 2004 in his honor.