Here is the ending of the greatest dog story that just happens to be set north of Fredericksburg, Texas in the year before the Civil War. The words are charged with high emotions to make this truly great literature.
Fred Gipson was a true Texan, a great American, an honest human being and a great story-teller….not necessarily in that order. He knew, if nothing else, what the pioneering life meant to the souls of men and the reasoning of women..
I had a friend and mentor who had gone to Mr. Gipson’s ‘literary salon’ in Austin. Mr. Gipson had a house on Speedway Dr. near 45th Street for his son to live in while he attended UT. Mr. Gipson would drive from Mason County to Austin and hold ‘bull sessions’ with plenty of refreshments in the afternoon and late into the night. Everyone was invited and everything was discussed from hunting to farming, from Homer to J. Frank Dobie. In fact, Dobie, Webb and Bedichek, the triumphant trio of Texas literature, went there also. BH Aug 2015
Chapter Fifteen (excerpt)
…I'd just about made up my mind to put Little Arliss and the pup to bed and go look for Mama and Lisbeth when I heard a sound that took me to the door in a hurry. It was the sound of dogs fighting. The sound came from 'way out there in the dark; but the minute I stepped outside, I could tell that the fight was moving toward the cabin, Also, I recognized the voice of Old Yeller.
It was the sort of raging yell he let out when he was in a fight to the finish. It was the same savage roaring and snarling and squawling that he'd done the day he fought the killer hogs off me. The sound of it chilled my blood. I stood, rooted to the ground, trying to think what it could be, what I ought to do.
Then I heard Jumper snorting keenly and Mama calling in a frightened voice. "Travis! Travis! Make a light, Son, and get your gun. And hurry!"
I came alive then. I hollered back at her, to let her know that I'd heard. I ran back into the cabin and got my gun. I couldn't think at first what would make the sort of light I needed, then recollected a clump of bear grass that Mama had recently grubbed out, where she wanted to start a new fall garden. Bear grass has an oily sap that makes it bum bright and fierce for a long time. A pile of it burning would make a big light.
I ran and snatched up four bunches of the half-dried bear grass. The sharp ends of the stiff blades stabbed and stung my arms and chest as I grabbed them up. But I had no time to bother about that. I ran and dumped the bunches in a pile on the bare ground outside the yard fence, then hurried to bring a live coal from the fireplace to start them burning.
I fanned fast with my hat, The bear-grass blades started to smoking, giving off their foul smell. A little flame started, flickered and wavered for a moment, then bloomed suddenly and leaped high with a roar.
I jumped back, gun held ready, and caught my first glimpse of the screaming, howling battle that came wheeling into the circle of light. It was Old Yeller, all right, tangled with some animal as big and savage as he was.
Mama called from outside the light's rim. "Careful, Son. And take close aim; it's a big loafer wolf, gone mad."
My heart nearly quit on me. There weren't many of the gray loafer wolves in our part of the country, but I knew about them. They were big and savage enough to hamstring a horse or drag down a full-grown cow. And here was Old Yeller, weak and crippled, trying to fight a mad one!
I brought up my gun, then held fire while I hollered at Mama. "Y'all get in the cabin," I yelled. "I'm scared to shoot till I know you're out of the line of fire!" - I heard Mama whacking Jumper with a stick to make him go. I heard Jumper snort and the clatter of his hoofs as he went galloping in a wide. circle to come up behind the cabin. But even after Mama called from the door behind me, I still couldn't fire. Not without taking a chance on killing Old Yeller.
I waited, my nerves on edge, while Old Yeller and the big wolf fought there in the firelight, whirling and leaping and snarling and slashing, their bared fangs gleaming white, their eyes burning green in the half light.
Then they went down in a tumbling roll that stopped with the big wolf on top, his huge jaws shut tight on Yeller's throat. That was my chance, and one that I'd better make good. As weak as Old Yeller was, he'd never break that throat hold.
There in the wavering light, I couldn't get a true bead on the wolf. I couldn't see my sights well enough. All I could do was guess-aim and hope for a hit.
I squeezed the trigger. The gunstock slammed back against my shoulder, and such a long streak of lire spouted from the gun barrel that it blinded me for a second; I couldn't see- a thing.
Then I realized that all the growling and snarling had hushed. A second later, I was running toward the two still gray forms lying side by side.
For a second, I just knew that I’d killed Old Yeller, too. Then, about the time I bent over him, he heaved a big sort of sigh and struggled up to start licking my hands and wagging that stub tail.
I was so relieved that it seemed like all the strength went out of me. I slumped to the ground and was sitting there, shivering, when Mama came and sat down beside me.
She put one arm across my shoulders and held it there while she told me what had happened…
…"He had to have been mad, son," Mama wound up. "You know that no wolf in his right senses would have acted that way. Not even a big loafer wolf." "Yessum," I said, "and it's sure a good thing that Old Yeller was along to keep him fought off." I shuddered at the thought of what could have happened without Old Yeller.
Mama waited a little bit, then said in a quiet voice: "It was a good thing for us, son; but it wasn't good for Old Yeller." . The way she said that gave me a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. I sat up straighter. "What do you mean?" I said. "Old Yeller's all right. He's maybe chewed up some, but he can't be bad hurt. See, he's done trotting off toward the house."
Then it hit me what Mama was getting at." All my insides froze. I couldn't get my breath.
I jumped to my feet, wild with hurt and scare. "But Mama!" I cried out. "Old Yeller's just saved your life! He's saved my life. He's saved Little Arliss's life! We can't-"
Mama got up and put her arms across my shoulder again. "I know, son," she said. "But he's been bitten by a mad wolf."
I started off into the blackness of the night while my mind wheeled and darted this way and that, like a scared rat trying to find its way out of a trap.
"But Mama," I said. "We don't know for certain. We could wait and see. We could tie him or shut him up in the corncrib or some place till we know for surel"
Mama broke down and went to crying then. She put her head on my shoulder and held me so tight that she nearly choked off my breath. "We can't take a chance, Son," she sobbed. "It would be you or me or Little Arliss or Lisbeth next. I'll shoot him if you can't, but either way, we've got it to do. We just can't take the chancel"
It came clear to me then that Mama was right. We couldn't take the risk. And from everything I had heard, I knew that there was very little chance of Old Yeller's escaping the sickness. It was going to kill something inside me to do it, but I knew then that I had to shoot my big yeller dog.
Once I knew for sure I had it to do, I don't think I really felt anything. I was just numb all over, like a dead man walking. Quickly, I left Mama and went to stand in the light of the burning bear grass. I reloaded…
DAYS went by, and I couldn't seem to get over it. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't cry. I was all empty inside, but hurting. Hurting worse than r d ever hurt in my life. Hurting with a sickness there didn't seem to be any cure for. Thinking every minute of my big yeller dog, how we'd worked together and romped together, how he'd fought the she bear off Little Arliss, how he'd saved me from the killer hogs, how he'd fought the mad wolf off Mama and Lisbeth. Thinking that after all this, I' d had to shoot him the same as I’d done the roan bull and the- Spot heifer.
Mama tried to talk to me about it, and I let her. Hut while everything she said made sense, it didn't do a thing to that dead feeling I had.
Lisbeth talked to me. She didn't say much; she was too shy. But she pointed out that I had another dog, the speckled pup.
"He's part Old Yeller," she said. "And he was the best one of the bunch."
But that didn't help any either. The speckled pup might be part Old Yeller, but he wasn't Old Yeller. He hadn't saved all our lives and then been shot down like he was nothing.
Then one night it clouded up and rained till daylight. That seemed to wash away the hydrophobia plague. At least, pretty soon afterward, it died out completely.
But we didn't know that then. What seemed important to us about the rain was that the next morning after it fell, Papa came riding home through the mud.
The long ride to Kansas and back had Papa drawn down till he was as thin and knotty as a fence rail. But he had money in his pockets, a big shouting laugh for everybody, and a saddle horse for me.
The horse was a cat-stepping blue roan with a black mane and tail. Papa put me on him the first thing and made me gallop him in the clearing around the house. The roan had all the pride and fire any grown man would want in his best horse, yet was as gentle as a pet.
"Now, isn't he a dandy?" Papa asked.
I said "Yessir!" and knew that Papa was right and that I ought to be proud and thankful. But I wasn't. I didn't feel one way or another about the horse.
Papa saw something was wrong. I saw him look a question at Mama and saw Mama shake her head. Then late that evening, just before supper, he called me off down to the spring, where we sat and he talked.
"Your mama told me about the dog," he said. I said "Yes sir," but didn't add anything.
"That was rough," he said. "That was as rough a thing as I ever heard tell of happening to a boy. And I'm mighty proud to learn how my boy stood up to it. You couldn't ask any more of a grown man.
He stopped for a minute. He picked up some little pebbles and thumped them into the water, scattering a bunch of hairy-legged water bugs, The bugs darted across the water in all directions. "Now the thing to do," he went on, "is to try to forget it and go on being a man,"
"How?" I asked. "How can you forget a thing like that?"
He studied me for a moment, then shook his head. "I guess I don't quite mean that," he said. "It's not a thing you can forget. I don't guess it's a thing that you ought to forget. What I mean is. things like that happen. They may seem mighty cruel and unfair, but that's how life is a part of the time.
"But that isn't the only way life is. A part of the time, it's mighty good. And a man can't afford to waste all the good part, worrying about the bad parts, That makes it all bad … You understand?"
"Yessir," I said. And I did understand. Only, it still didn't do me any good. I still felt just as dead and empty.
That went on for a week or better, I guess, before a thing happened that brought me alive again.
It was right at dinnertime. Papa had sent me out to the lot to feed Jumper and the horses. I'd just started back when I heard a commotion in the house. I heard Mama's voice lifted high and sharp. "Why, you thieving little whelp!" she cried out. Then I heard a shrieking yelp, and out the kitchen door came the speckled pup with a big chunk of cornbread clutched in his mouth. He raced around the house, running with his tail clamped. He was yelling and squawling like somebody was beating him to death. But that still didn't keep him from hanging onto that piece of cornbread that he'd stolen from Mama.
Inside the house, I heard Little Arliss. He was fighting and screaming his head off at Mama for hitting his dog. And above it all, I could hear Papa's roaring laughter.
Right then, I began to feel better. Sight of that little old pup, tearing out for the brush with that piece of cornbread seemed to loosen something inside me.
I felt better all day. I went back and rode my horse and enjoyed it. I rode 'way off out in the brush, not going anywhere especially, just riding and looking and beginning to feel proud of owning a real horse of my own.
Then along about sundown, I rode down into Birdsong Creek, headed for the house. Up at the spring, I heard a splashing and hollering. I looked ahead. Sure enough, it was Little Arliss. He was stripped naked and romping in our drinking water again. And right in there, romping with him, was that bread-stealing speckled pup.
I started to holler at them. I started to say: "Arliss! You get that nasty old pup out of our drinking water."
Then I didn't. Instead, I went to laughing. I sat there and laughed till I cried. When all the time I knew that I ought to go beat them to a frazzle for messing up our drinking water.
When finally I couldn't laugh and cry another bit, I rode on up to the lot and turned my horse in. Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll take Arliss and that pup out for a squirrel hunt. The pup was still mighty little. But the way I figured it, if he was big enough to act like Old Yeller, he was big enough to start learning to earn his keep.
Except of Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller , Harper Pub., 1956, Chapter 15-16
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