Lad, A Dog/Chapter VI
Four of us were discussing abstract themes, idly, as men will, after a good dinner and in front of a country-house fire. Someone asked:
“What is the saddest sight in everyday life? I don’t mean the most gloomily tragic, but the saddest?”
A frivolous member of the fireside group cited a helpless man between two quarreling women. A sentimentalist said:
“A lost child in a city street.”
The Dog-Master contradicted:
“A lost dog in a city street.”
Nobody agreed with him of course; but that was because none of the others chanced to know dogs — to know their psychology — their souls, if you prefer. The dog-man was right. A lost dog in a city street is the very saddest and most hopeless sight in all a city street’s abounding everyday sadness.
A man between two quarreling women is an object piteous enough, heaven knows. Yet his plight verges too much on the grotesque to be called sad.
A lost child? — No. Let a child stand in the middle of a crowded sidewalk and begin to cry. In one minute fifty amateur and professional rescuers have flocked to the Lost One’s aid. An hour, at most, suffices to bring it in touch with its frenzied guardians.
A lost dog? — Yes. No succoring cohort surges to the relief. A gang of boys, perhaps, may give chase, but assuredly not in kindness. A policeman seeking a record for “mad dog” shooting — a professional dog-catcher in quest of his dirty fee — these will show marked attention to the wanderer. But, again, not in kindness.
A dog, at some turn in the street, misses his master — doubles back to where the human demigod was last seen — darts ahead once more to find him, through the press of other human folk — halts, hesitates, begins the same maneuvers all over again; then stands, shaking in panic at his utter aloneness.
Get the look in his eyes, then — you who do not mind seeing such things — and answer, honestly: Is there anything sadder on earth? All this, before the pursuit of boys and the fever of thirst and the final knowledge of desolation have turned him from a handsome and prideful pet into a slinking outcast.
Yes, a lost dog is the saddest thing that can meet the gaze of a man or woman who understands dogs. As perhaps my story may help to show or perhaps not.
• • • • • • • •
Lad had been brushed and bathed, daily, for a week, until his mahogany-and-snow coat shone. All this, at The Place, far up in the North Jersey hinterland and all to make him presentable for the Westminster Kennel Show at New York’s Madison Square Garden. After which, his two gods, the Mistress and the Master took him for a thirty-mile ride in The Place’s only car, one morning.
The drive began at The Place — the domain where Lad had ruled as King among the lesser folk for so many years. It ended at Madison Square Garden, where the annual four-day dog show was in progress.
You have read how Lad fared at that show — how, at the close of the first day, when he had two victories to his credit, the Mistress had taken pity on his misery and had decreed that he should be taken home, without waiting out the remaining three days of torture-ordeal.
The Master went out first, to get the car and bring it around to the side exit of the Garden. The Mistress gathered up Lad’s belongings — his brush, his dog biscuits, etc., and followed, with Lad himself.
Out of the huge building, with its reverberating barks and yells from two thousand canine throats, she went. Lad paced, happy and majestic, at her side. He knew he was going home, and the unhappiness of the hideous day dropped from him.
At the exit, the Mistress was forced to leave a deposit of five dollars, “to insure the return of the dog to his bench” (to which bench of agony she vowed, secretly, Lad should never return). Then she was told the law demands that all dogs in New York City streets shall be muzzled.
In vain she explained that Lad would be in the streets only for such brief time as the car would require to journey to the One Hundred and Thirtieth Street ferry. The door attendant insisted that the law was inexorable. So, lest a policeman hold up the car for such disobedience to the city statutes, the Mistress reluctantly bought a muzzle.
It was a big, awkward thing, made of steel, and bound on with leather straps. It looked like a rat-trap. And it fenced in the nose and mouth of its owner with a wicked criss-cross of shiny metal bars.
Never in all his years had Lad worn a muzzle. Never, until to-day, had he been chained. The splendid eighty-pound collie had been as free of The Place and of the forests as any human; and with no worse restrictions than his own soul and conscience put upon him.
To him this muzzle was a horror. Not even the loved touch of the Mistress’ dear fingers, as she adjusted the thing to his beautiful head, could lessen the degradation. And the discomfort of it — a discomfort that amounted to actual pain — was almost as bad as the humiliation.
With his absurdly tiny white forepaws, the huge dog sought to dislodge the torture-implement. He strove to rub it off against the Mistress’ skirt. But beyond shifting it so that the forehead strap covered one of his eyes, he could not budge it.
Lad looked up at the Mistress in wretched appeal. His look held no resentment, nothing but sad entreaty. She was his deity. All his life she had given him of her gentleness, her affection, her sweet understanding. Yet, to-day, she had brought him to this abode of noisy torment, and had kept him there from morning to dusk. And now — just as the vigil seemed ended — she was tormenting him, to nerve-rack, by this contraption she had fastened over his nose. Lad did not rebel. But he besought. And the Mistress understood.
“Laddie, dear!” she whispered, as she led him across the sidewalk to the curb where the Master waited for the car. “Laddie, old friend, I’m just as sorry about it as you are. But it’s only for a few minutes. Just as soon as we get to the ferry, we’ll take it off and throw it into the river. And we’ll never bring you again where dogs have to wear such things. I promise. It’s only for a few minutes.”
The Mistress, for once, was mistaken. Lad was to wear the accursed muzzle for much, much longer than “a few minutes.”
“Give him the back seat to himself, and come in front here with me,” suggested the Master, as the Mistress and Lad arrived alongside the car. “The poor old chap has been so cramped up and pestered all day that he’ll like to have a whole seat to stretch out on.”
Accordingly, the Mistress opened the door and motioned Lad to the back seat. At a bound the collie was on the cushion, and proceeded to curl up thereon. The Mistress got into the front seat with the Master. The car set forth on its six-mile run to the ferry.
Now that his face was turned homeward, Lad might have found vast interest in his new surroundings, had not the horrible muzzle absorbed all his powers of emotion. The Milan Cathedral, the Taj Mahal, the Valley of the Arno at sunset — these be sights to dream of for years. But show them to a man who has an ulcerated tooth, or whose tight, new shoes pinch his soft corn, and he will probably regard them as Lad just then viewed the twilight New York streets.
He was a dog of forest and lake and hill, this giant collie with his mighty shoulders and tiny white feet and shaggy burnished coat and mournful eyes. Never before had he been in a city. The myriad blended noises confused and deafened him. The myriad blended smells assailed his keen nostrils. The swirl of countless multicolored lights stung and blurred his vision. Noises, smells and lights were all jarringly new to him. So were the jostling masses of people on the sidewalk and the tangle and hustle of vehicular traffic through which the Master was threading the car’s way with such difficulty.
But, newest and most sickening of all the day’s novelties was the muzzle.
Lad was quite certain the Mistress did not realize how the muzzle was hurting him nor how he detested it. In all her dealings with him — or with anyone or anything else — the Mistress had never been unkind; and most assuredly not cruel. It must be she did not understand. At all events, she had not scolded or forbidden, when he had tried to rub the muzzle off. So the wearing of this new torture was apparently no part of the law. And Lad felt justified in striving again to remove it.
In vain he pawed the thing, first with one foot, then with both. He could joggle it from side to side, but that was all. And each shift of the steel bars hurt his tender nose and tenderer sensibilities worse than the one before. He tried to rub it off against the seat cushion — with the same distressing result.
Lad looked up at the backs of his gods, and whined very softly. The sound went unheard, in the babel of noise all around him. Nor did the Mistress, or the Master turn around, on general principles, to speak a word of cheer to the sufferer. They were in a mixup of crossways traffic that called for every atom of their attention, if they were to avoid collision. It was no time for conversation or for dog-patting.
Lad got to his feet and stood, uncertainly, on the slippery leather cushion, seeking to maintain his balance, while he rubbed a corner of the muzzle against one of the supports of the car’s lowered top. Working away with all his might, he sought to get leverage that would pry loose the muzzle.
Just then there was a brief gap in the traffic. The Master put on speed, and, darting ahead of a delivery truck, sharply rounded the corner into a side street.
The car’s sudden twist threw Lad clean off his precarious balance on the seat, and hurled him against one of the rear doors.
The door, insecurely shut, could not withstand the eighty-pound impact. It burst open. And Lad was flung out onto the greasy asphalt of the avenue.
He landed full on his side, in the muck of the roadway, with a force that shook the breath clean out of him. Directly above his head glared the twin lights of the delivery truck the Master had just shot past. The truck was going at a good twelve miles an hour. And the dog had fallen within six feet of its fat front wheels.
Now, a collie is like no other animal on earth. He is, at worst, more wolf than dog. And, at best, he has more of the wolf’s lightning-swift instinct than has any other breed of canine. For which reason Lad was not, then and there, smashed, flat and dead, under the fore-wheels of a three-ton truck.
Even as the tires grazed his fur, Lad gathered himself compactly together, his feet well under him, and sprang far to one side. The lumbering truck missed him by less than six inches. But it missed him.
His leap brought him scramblingly down on all fours, out of the truck’s way, but on the wrong side of the thoroughfare. It brought him under the very fender of a touring car that was going at a good pace in the opposite direction. And again, a leap that was inspired by quick instinct alone, lifted the dog free of this newest death-menace.
He halted and stared piteously around in search of his deities. But in that glare and swelter of traffic, a trained human eye could not have recognized any particular car. Moreover, the Mistress and Master were a full half-block away, down the less crowded side street, and were making up for lost time by putting on all the speed they dared, before turning into the next westward traffic-artery. They did not look back, for there was a car directly in front of them, whose driver seemed uncertain as to his wheel control, and the Master was manœuvering to pass it in safety.
Not until they had reached the lower end of Riverside Drive, nearly a mile to the north, did either the Master or Mistress turn around for a word with the dog they loved.
Meantime, Lad was standing, irresolute and panting, in the middle of Columbus Circle. Cars of a million types, from flivver to trolley, seemed to be whizzing directly at him from every direction at once.
A bound, a dodge, or a deft shrinking back would carry him out of one such peril — barely out of it — when another, or fifty others, beset him.
And, all the time, even while he was trying to duck out of danger, his frightened eyes and his pulsing nostrils sought the Mistress and the Master.
His eyes, in that mixture of flare and dusk, told him nothing except that a host of motors were likely to kill him. But his nose told him what it had not been able to tell him since morning — namely, that, through the reek of gasoline and horse-flesh and countless human scents, there was a nearness of fields and woods and water. And, toward that blessed mingling of familiar odors he dodged his threatened way.
By a miracle of luck and skill he crossed Columbus Circle, and came to a standstill on a sidewalk, beside a low gray stone wall. Behind the wall, his nose taught him, lay miles of meadow and wood and lake — Central Park. But the smell of the Park brought him no scent of the Mistress nor of the Master. And it was they — infinitely more than his beloved countryside — that he craved. He ran up the street, on the sidewalk, for a few rods, hesitant, alert, watching in every direction. Then, perhaps seeing a figure, in the other direction, that looked familiar, he dashed at top speed, eastward, for half a block. Then he made a peril-fraught sortie out into the middle of the traffic-humming street, deceived by the look of a passing car.
The car was traveling at twenty miles an hour. But, in less than a block, Lad caught up with it. And this, in spite of the many things he had to dodge, and the greasy slipperiness of the unfamiliar roadway. An upward glance, as he came alongside the car, told him his chase was in vain. And he made his precarious way to the sidewalk once more.
There he stood, bewildered, heartsick — lost!
Yes, he was lost. And he realized it — realized it as fully as would a city-dweller snatched up by magic and set down amid the trackless Himalayas. He was lost. And Horror bit deep into his soul.
The average dog might have continued to waste energy and risk life by galloping aimlessly back and forth, running hopefully up to every stranger he met; then slinking off in scared disappointment and searching afresh.
Lad was too wise for that. He was lost. His adored Mistress had somehow left him; as had the Master; in this bedlam place — all alone. He stood there, hopeless, head and tail adroop, his great heart dead within him.
Presently he became aware once more that he was still wearing his abominable muzzle. In the stress of the past few minutes Lad had actually forgotten the pain and vexation of the thing. Now, the memory of it came back, to add to his despair.
And, as a sick animal will ever creep to the woods and the waste places for solitude, so the soul-sick Lad now turned from the clangor and evil odors of the street to seek the stretch of country-land he had scented.
Over the gray wall he sprang, and came earthward with a crash among the leafless shrubs that edged the south boundary of Central Park.
Here in the Park there were people and lights and motor-cars, too, but they were few, and they were far off. Around the dog was a grateful darkness and aloneness. He lay down on the dead grass and panted.
The time was late February. The weather of the past day or two had been mild. The brown-gray earth and the black trees had a faint odor of slow-coming spring, though no nostrils less acute than a dog’s could have noted it.
Through the misery at his heart and the carking pain from his muzzle, Lad began to realize that he was tired, also that he was hollow from lack of food. The long day’s ordeal of the dog show had wearied him and had worn down his nerves more than could a fifty-mile run. The nasty thrills of the past half-hour had completed his fatigue. He had eaten nothing all day. Like most high-strung dogs at a show, he had drunk a great deal of water and had refused to touch a morsel of food.
He was not hungry even now for, in a dog, hunger goes only with peace of mind, but he was cruelly thirsty. He got up from his slushy couch on the dead turf and trotted wearily toward the nearest branch of the Central Park lake. At the brink he stooped to drink.
Soggy ice still covered the lake, but the mild weather had left a half-inch skim of water over it. Lad tried to lap up enough of this water to allay his craving thirst. He could not.
The muzzle protruded nearly an inch beyond his nose. Either through faulty adjustment or from his own futile efforts to scrape it off, the awkward steel hinge had become jammed and would not open. Lad could not get his teeth a half -inch apart.
After much effort he managed to protrude the end of his pink tongue and to touch the water with it, but it was a painful and drearily slow process absorbing water drop by drop in this way. More, through fatigue than because his thirst was slaked, he stopped at last and turned away from the lake.
The next half-hour was spent in a diligent and torturing and wholly useless attempt to rid himself of his muzzle.
After which the dog lay panting and athirst once more; his tender nose sore and bruised and bleeding; the muzzle as firmly fixed in place as ever. Another journey to the lake and another Tantalus-effort to drink — and the pitifully harassed dog’s uncanny brain began to work.
He no longer let himself heed the muzzle. Experience of the most painful sort had told him he could not dislodge it nor, in that clamorous and ill-smelling city beyond the park wall, could he hope to find the Mistress and the Master. These things being certain, his mind went on to the next step, and the next step was — Home!
Home! The Place where his happy, beautiful life had been spent, where his two gods abode, where there were no clang and reek and peril as here in New York. Home! — The House of Peace!
Lad stood up. He drew in great breaths of the muggy air, and he turned slowly about two or three times, head up, nostrils aquiver. For a full minute he stood thus. Then he lowered his head and trotted westward. No longer he moved uncertainly, but with as much sureness as if he were traversing the forest behind The Place — the forest that had been his roaming-ground since puppyhood.
(Now, this is not a fairy story, nor any other type of fanciful yarn, so I do not pretend to account for Lad’s heading unswervingly toward the northwest in the exact direction of The Place, thirty miles distant, any more than I can account for the authenticated case of a collie who, in 1917, made his way four hundred miles from the home of a new owner in southern Georgia to the doorstep of his former and better loved master in the mountains of North Carolina; any more than I can account for the flight of a homing pigeon or for that of the northbound duck in Spring. God gives to certain animals a whole set of mystic traits which He withholds utterly from humans. No dog-student can doubt that, and no dog-student or deep-delving psychologist can explain it.)
Northwestward jogged Lad, and in half a mile he came to the low western wall of Central Park. Without turning aside to seek a gateway, he cleared the wall and found himself on Eighth Avenue in the very middle of a block.
Keeping on the sidewalk and paying no heed to the few pedestrians, he moved along to the next westward street and turned down it toward the Hudson River. So calmly and certainly did he move that none would have taken him for a lost dog.
Under the roaring elevated road at Columbus Avenue, he trotted; his ears tormented by the racket of a train that reverberated above him; his sense so blurred by the sound that he all but forgot to dodge a southbound trolley car.
Down the cross street to Amsterdam Avenue he bore. A patrolman on his way to the West Sixty-ninth Street police station to report for night duty, was so taken up by his own lofty thoughts that he quite forgot to glance at the big mud-spattered dog that padded past him.
For this lack of observation the patrolman was destined to lose a good opportunity for fattening his monthly pay. Because, on reaching the station, he learned that a distressed man and woman had just been there in a car to offer a fifty-dollar reward for the finding of a big mahogany-and-white collie, answering to the name of “Lad.”
As the dog reached Amsterdam Avenue a high little voice squealed delightedly at him. A three-year-old baby — a mere fluff of gold and white and pink — was crossing the avenue convoyed by a fat woman in black. Lad was jogging by the mother and child when the latter discovered the passing dog.
With a shriek of joyous friendliness the baby flung herself upon Lad and wrapped both arms about his shaggy neck.
“Why doggie!” she shrilled, ecstatically. “Why, dear, dear doggie!”
Now Lad was in dire haste to get home, and Lad was in dire misery of mind and body, but his big heart went out in eagerly loving answer to the impulsive caress. He worshipped children, and would cheerfully endure from them any amount of mauling.
At the baby embrace and the baby voice, he stopped short in his progress. His plumy tail wagged in glad friendliness; his muzzled nose sought wistfully to kiss the pink little face on a level with his own. The baby tightened her hug, and laid her rose leaf cheek close to his own.
“I love you, Miss Doggie!” she whispered in Lad’s ear.
Then the fat woman in black bore down upon them. Fiercely, she yanked the baby away from the dog. Then, seeing that the mud on Lad’s shoulder had soiled the child’s white coat, she whirled a string-fastened bundle aloft and brought it down with a resounding thwack over the dog’s head.
Lad winched under the heavy blow, then hot resentment blazed through his first instant of grieved astonishment. This unpleasant fat creature in black was not a man, wherefore Lad contented himself by baring his white teeth, and with growling deep menace far down in his throat.
The woman shrank back scared, and she screamed loudly. On the instant the station-bound patrolman was beside her.
“What’s wrong, ma’am?” asked the bluecoat.
The woman pointed a wobbly and fat forefinger at Lad, who had taken up his westward journey again and was halfway across the street.
“Mad dog!” she sputtered, hysterically. “He — he bit me! Bit at me, anyhow!”
Without waiting to hear the last qualifying sentence, the patrolman gave chase. Here was a chance for honorable blotter-mention at the very least. As he ran he drew his pistol.
Lad had reached the westward pavement of Amsterdam Avenue and was in the side street beyond. He was not hurrying, but his short wolf-trot ate up ground in deceptively quick time.
By the time the policeman had reached the west corner of street and avenue the dog was nearly a half-block ahead. The officer, still running, leveled his pistol and fired.
Now, anyone (but a very newly-appointed patrolman or a movie-hero) knows that to fire a shot when running is worse than fatal to any chance of accuracy. No marksman — no one who has the remotest knowledge of marksmanship — will do such a thing. The very best pistol-expert cannot hope to hit his target if he is joggling his own arm and his whole body by the motion of running.
The bullet flew high and to the right, smashing a second-story window and making the echoes resound deafeningly through the narrow street.
“What’s up?” excitedly asked a boy, who stood beside a barrel bonfire with a group of chums.
“Mad dog!” puffed the policeman as he sped past.
At once the boys joined gleesomely in the chase, outdistancing the officer, just as the latter fired a second shot.
Lad felt a white-hot ridge of pain cut along his left flank like a whip-lash. He wheeled to face his invisible foe, and he found himself looking at a half-dozen boys who charged whoopingly down on him. Behind the boys clumped a man in blue flourishing something bright.
Lad had no taste for this sort of attention. Always he had loathed strangers, and these new strangers seemed bent on catching him — on barring his homeward way.
He wheeled around again and continued his westward journey at a faster pace. The hue-and-cry broke into louder yells and three or four new recruits joined the pursuers. The yap of “Mad dog! Mad dog!” filled the air.
Not one of these people — not even the policeman himself — had any evidence that the collie was mad. There are not two really rabid dogs seen at large in New York or in any other city in the course of a year. Yet, at the back of the human throat ever lurks that fool-cry of “Mad dog!” — ever ready to leap forth into shouted words at the faintest provocation.
One wonders, disgustedly, how many thousand luckless and totally harmless pet dogs in the course of a year are thus hunted down and shot or kicked or stoned to death in the sacred name of Humanity, just because some idiot mistakes a hanging tongue or an uncertainty of direction for signs of that semi-phantom malady known as “rabies.”
A dog is lost. He wanders to and fro in bewilderment. Boys pelt or chase him. His tongue lolls and his eyes glaze with fear. Then, ever, rises the yell of “Mad Dog!” And a friendly, lovable pet is joyfully done to death.
Lad crossed Broadway, threading his way through the trolley-and-taxi procession, and galloped down the hill toward Riverside Park. Close always at his heels followed the shouting crowd. Twice, by sprinting, the patrolman gained the front rank of the hunt, and twice he fired — both bullets going wide. Across West End Avenue and across Riverside Drive went Lad, hard-pressed and fleeing at top speed. The cross-street ran directly down to a pier that jutted a hundred feet out into the Hudson River.
Along this pier flew Lad, not in panic terror, but none the less resolved that these howling New Yorkers should not catch him and prevent his going home.
Onto the pier the clattering hue-and-cry followed. A dock watchman, as Lad flashed by, hurled a heavy joist of wood at the dog. It whizzed past the flying hind legs, scoring the barest of misses.
And now Lad was at the pier end. Behind him the crowd raced; sure it had the dangerous brute cornered at last.
On the string-piece the collie paused for the briefest of moments glancing to north and to south. Everywhere the wide river stretched away, unbridged. It must be crossed if he would continue his homeward course, and there was but one way for him to cross it.
The watchman, hard at his heels, swung upward the club he carried. Down came the club with murderous force — upon the stringpiece where Lad had been standing.
Lad was no longer there. One great bound had carried him over the edge and into the black water below.
Down he plunged into the river and far, far under it, fighting his way gaspingly to the surface. The water that gushed into his mouth and nostrils was salty and foul, not at all like the water of the lake at the edge of The Place. It sickened him. And the February chill of the river cut into him like a million ice-needles.
To the surface he came, and struck out valorously for the opposite shore much more than a mile away. As his beautiful head appeared, a yell went up from the clustering riff-raff at the pier end. Bits of wood and coal began to shower the water all around him. A pistol shot plopped into the river a bare six inches away from him.
But the light was bad and the stream was a tossing mass of blackness and of light-blurs, and presently the dog swam, unscathed, beyond the range of missiles.
Now a swim of a mile or of two miles was no special exploit for Lad — even in ice-cold water, but this water was not like any he had swum in. The tide was at the turn for one thing, and while, in a way, this helped him, yet the myriad eddies and cross-currents engendered by it turned and jostled and buffeted him in a most perplexing way. And there were spars and barrels and other obstacles that were forever looming up just in front of him or else banging against his heaving sides.
Once a revenue cutter passed not thirty feet ahead of him. Its wake caught the dog and sucked him under and spun his body around and around before he could fight clear of it.
His lungs were bursting. He was worn out. He felt as sore as if he had been kicked for an hour. The bullet-graze along his flank was hurting him as the salt water bit into it, and the muzzle half-blinded, half-smothered him.
But, because of his hero heart rather than through his splendid strength and wisdom, he kept on.
For an hour or more he swam until at last his body and brain were numb, and only the mechanical action of his wrenched muscles held him in motion. Twice tugs narrowly escaped running him down, and in the wake of each he waged a fearful fight for life.
After a century of effort his groping forepaws felt the impact of a submerged rock, then of another, and with his last vestige of strength Lad crawled feebly ashore on a narrow sandspit at the base of the elephant-gray Palisades. There, he collapsed and lay shivering, panting, struggling for breath.
Long he lay there, letting Nature bring back some of his wind and his motive-power, his shaggy body one huge pulsing ache.
When he was able to move, he took up his journey. Sometimes swimming, sometimes on ground, he skirted the Palisades-foot to northward, until he found one of the several precipice-paths that Sunday picnickers love to climb. Up this he made his tottering way, slowly; conserving his strength as best he could.
On the summit he lay down again to rest. Behind him, across the stretch of black and lamp-flecked water, rose the inky skyline of the city with a lurid furnace-glow between its crevices that smote the sky. Ahead was a plateau with a downward slope beyond it.
Once more, getting to his feet, Lad stood and sniffed, turning his head from side to side, muzzled nose aloft. Then, his bearings taken, he set off again, but this time his jog-trot was slower and his light step was growing heavier. The terrible strain of his swim was passing from his mighty sinews, but it was passing slowly because he was so tired and empty and in such pain of body and mind. He saved his energies until he should have more of them to save.
Across the plateau, down the slope, and then across the interminable salt meadows to westward he traveled; sometimes on road or path, sometimes across field or hill, but always in an unswerving straight line.
It was a little before midnight that he breasted the first rise of Jersey hills above Hackensack. Through a lightless one-street village he went, head low, stride lumbering, the muzzle weighing a ton and composed of molten iron and hornet stings.
It was the muzzle — now his first fatigue had slackened — that galled him worst. Its torture was beginning to do queer things to his nerves and brain. Even a stolid, nerveless dog hates a muzzle. More than one sensitive dog has been driven crazy by it.
Thirst — intolerable thirst — was torturing Lad. He could not drink at the pools and brooks he crossed. So tight-jammed was the steel jaw-hinge now that he could not even open his mouth to pant, which is the crudest deprivation a dog can suffer.
Out of the shadows of a ramshackle hovel’s front yard dived a monstrous shape that hurled itself ferociously on the passing collie.
A mongrel watchdog — part mastiff, part hound, part anything you choose — had been dozing on his squatter-owner’s doorstep when the pad-pad-pad of Lad’s wearily-jogging feet had sounded on the road.
Other dogs, more than one of them, during the journey had run out to yap or growl at the wanderer, but as Lad had been big and had followed an unhesitant course they had not gone to the length of actual attack.
This mongrel, however, was less prudent. Or, perhaps, dog-fashion, he realized that the muzzle rendered Lad powerless and therefore saw every prospect of a safe and easy victory. At all events, he gave no warning bark or growl as he shot forward to the attack.
Lad — his eyes dim with fatigue and road dust, his ears dulled by water and by noise — did not hear nor see the foe. His first notice of the attack was a flying weight of seventy-odd pounds that crashed against his flank. A double set of fangs in the same instant, sank into his shoulder.
Under the onslaught Lad fell sprawlingly into the road on his left side, his enemy upon him.
As Lad went down the mongrel deftly shifted his unprofitable shoulder grip to a far more promisingly murderous hold on his fallen victim’s throat.
A cat has five sets of deadly weapons — its four feet and its jaws. So has every animal on earth — human and otherwise — except a dog. A dog is terrible by reason of its teeth. Encase the mouth in a muzzle and a dog is as helpless for offensive warfare as is a newborn baby.
And Lad was thus pitiably impotent to return his foe’s attack. Exhausted, flung prone to earth, his mighty jaws muzzled, he seemed as good as dead.
But a collie down is not a collie beaten. The wolf-strain provides against that. Even as he fell Lad instinctively gathered his legs under him as he had done when he tumbled from the car.
And, almost at once, he was on his feet again, snarling horribly and lunging to break the mongrel’s throat-grip. His weariness was forgotten and his wondrous reserve strength leaped into play. Which was all the good it did him; for he knew as well as the mongrel that he was powerless to use his teeth.
The throat of a collie — except in one small vulnerable spot — is armored by a veritable mattress of hair. Into this hair the mongrel had driven his teeth. The hair filled his mouth, but his grinding jaws encountered little else to close on.
A lurching jerk of Lad’s strong frame tore loose the savagely inefficient hold. The mongrel sprang at him for a fresh grip. Lad reared to meet him, opposing his mighty chest to the charge and snapping powerlessly with his close-locked mouth.
The force of Lad’s rearing leap sent the mongrel spinning back by sheer weight, but at once he drove in again to the assault. This time he did not give his muzzled antagonist a chance to rear, but sprang at Lad’s flank. Lad wheeled to meet the rush and, opposing his shoulder to it, broke its force.
Seeing himself so helpless, this was of course the time for Lad to take to his heels and try to outrun the enemy he could not outfight. To stand his ground was to be torn, eventually, to death. Being anything but a fool Lad knew that; yet he ignored the chance of safety and continued to fight the worse-than-hopeless battle.
Twice and thrice his wit and his uncanny swiftness enabled him to block the big mongrel’s rushes. The fourth time, as he sought to rear, his hind foot slipped on a skim of puddle-ice.
Down went Lad in a heap, and the mongrel struck.
Before the collie could regain his feet the mongrel’s teeth had found a hold on the side of Lad’s throat. Pinning down the muzzled dog, the mongrel proceeded to improve his hold by grinding his way toward the jugular. Now his teeth encountered something more solid than mere hair. They met upon a thin leather strap.
Fiercely the mongrel gnawed at this solid obstacle, his rage-hot brain possibly mistaking it for flesh. Lad writhed to free himself and to regain his feet, but seventy-five pounds of fighting weight were holding his neck to the ground.
Of a sudden, the mongrel growled in savage triumph. The strap was bitten through!
Clinging to the broken end of the leather the victor gave one final tug. The pull drove the steel bars excruciatingly deep into Lad’s bruised nose for a moment. Then, by magic, the torture-implement was no longer on his head but was dangling by one strap between the muzzled mongrel’s jaws.
With a motion so swift that the eye could not follow it, Lad was on his feet and plunging deliriously into the fray. Through a miracle, his jaws were free; his torment was over. The joy of deliverance sent a glow of Berserk vigor sweeping through him.
The mongrel dropped the muzzle and came eagerly to the battle. To his dismay he found himself fighting not a helpless dog, but a maniac wolf. Lad sought no permanent hold. With dizzying quickness his head and body moved and kept moving, and every motion meant a deep slash or a ragged tear in his enemy’s short-coated hide.
With ridiculous ease the collie eluded the mongrel’s awkward counter-attacks, and ever kept boring in. To the quivering bone his short front teeth sank. Deep and bloodily his curved tusks slashed as the wolf and the collie alone can slash.
The mongrel, swept off his feet, rolled howling into the road; and Lad tore grimly at the exposed under-body.
Up went a window in the hovel. A man’s voice shouted. A woman in a house across the way screamed. Lad glanced up to note this new diversion. The stricken mongrel yelping in terror and agony seized the second respite to scamper back to the doorstep, howling at every jump.
Lad did not pursue him, but jogged along on his journey without one backward look.
At a rivulet, a mile beyond, he stopped to drink. And he drank for ten minutes. Then he went on. Unmuzzled and with his thirst slaked, he forgot his pain, his fatigue, his muddy and blood-caked and abraded coat, and the memory of his nightmare day.
He was going home!
At gray dawn the Mistress and the Master turned in at the gateway of The Place. All night they had sought Lad; from one end of Manhattan Island to the other from Police Headquarters to dog pound they had driven. And now the Master was bringing his tired and heartsore wife home to rest, while he himself should return to town and to the search.
The car chugged dispiritedly down the driveway to the house, but before it had traversed half the distance the dawn-hush was shattered by a thundrous bark of challenge to the invaders.
Lad, from his post of guard on the veranda, ran stiffly forward to bar the way. Then as he ran his eyes and nose suddenly told him these mysterious newcomers were his gods.
The Mistress, with a gasp of rapturous unbelief, was jumping down from the car before it came to a halt. On her knees, she caught Lad’s muddy and bloody head tight in her arms.
“Oh, Lad;” she sobbed incoherently. “Laddie! Laddie!”
Whereat, by another miracle, Lad’s stiffness and hurts and weariness were gone. He strove to lick the dear face bending so tearfully above him. Then, with an abandon of puppylike joy, he rolled on the ground waving all four soiled little feet in the air and playfully pretending to snap at the loving hands that caressed him.
Which was ridiculous conduct for a stately and full-grown collie. But Lad didn’t care, because it made the Mistress stop crying and laugh. And that was what Lad most wanted her to do.