The Dog That Could Climb Trees
Sam was fussy about Mollie. She took a fancy to his tree-climbing Soompherbag. Trouble was the dog climbed a tree that wasn’t there
JOSEPH EASTON McDOUGALL
IT WAS while I was covering the floods that I was stranded for a couple of days in Mapleton, Alberta, and that was where 1 learned about Sam Seever.
Two of the boys had been sent up farther north and the paper had arranged for me to be picked up by the plane on its return trip. Meanwhile there was nothing to do in Mapleton but hang around the hotel.
I had tried going for walks in the vague hope that I might pick up some local color, but nobody I ran into wanted to talk about anything but the floods. I had already telephoned in more on that subject than anyone on the outside would be willing to read unless he was dying of thirst. I did see an old codger with a scraggly mustache, sitting in front of a shack down the road, who wouldn’t talk floods. He squatted in a broken chair on an unpainted porch, gazing up sadly into the branches of a budding cottonwood. And he didn’t want to talk about anything at all. I shouted, “Good day,” as I passed. But he didn’t even nod.
BACK at the hotel I eased into a leather chair that was bursting through in places, and f ried to go to sleep. But the old fellow on the porch back there kept returning to my mind. Now that l thought it over there had been something impressive about him, sitting there so calmly while everyone else in town was trying to keep his flood excitement alive.
On second thoughts, I considered, perhaps he wasn’t just staring idly into space. There had been a rapt air about him that made me think, oddly enough, of a yogi, or at the least of a man whose innermost thoughts were dark and remote. I was inclined to put it down to lack of sleep on my part, and I tried to forget him.
But the silent man would not leave my mind, and when I heard the proprietor of the hotel shuffling into the lobby I waited until he had gone through the inevitable comments on the water level and then asked him about his rapt fellow citizen down the street.
The proprietor looked at me for a moment as though I had enquired what town I was in. Then he sat down across from me, searched his vest pocket to find a single cigar, bit off the end and lit it. He drew a long draught.
“Why,” he said in a gentle voice, almost in a tone of reverence, “that’s Sam Seever.”
I must have looked disappointingly unimpressed.
“He’s the man who brought electricity to Mapleton,” said the proprietor.
“He does a lot of looking into space,” I said.
“You might, too, if you’d suffered the loss that Sam did.” said the proprietor.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t know.”
“He lost his dog.”
“That’s hard to take,” I agreed. “I lost a dog once and I know how it feels.”
“Maybe,” said the proprietor, “but you didn’t lose a dog like Sam’s.”
The sun was beginning to slant across the room, and the dust floating in a beam of light seemed to have a hypnotic effect upon me as I heard the proprietor’s next words.
“Sam’s dog could climb trees.”
I took a good look at the proprietor’s face. His cheeks were becoming flabby, but he retained the tan and vigorously creased mask of a man of the open country, a man to whom faèts were facts.
“Yes,” he said, almost to himself, “Sam’s dog, Dingbat, could climb any tree that grew.”
He seemed to feel that he had said enough. He rose and made his way ponderously over to his little office. But as he reached the door he turned.
“And one that didn’t grow,” he said. “That was the trouble.”
AS 1 watched the proprietor at his roll-top desk behind a cracked glass display case I began to feel that the commonplace flood story was not the only one to be found in Mapleton. The glass case was empty; I had an inspiration. I slipped up to my room and got what was left of a box of cigars out of my suitcase. I counted them; there were eleven left. They were of the kind I bestowed only upon mayors, reeves and police sergeants. I slid the open lx>x across to the proprietor.
“You may be cut off for quite a while yet,” I said. “Maybe you could smoke these till the siege is lifted.”
We sat down again in the sad leather chairs.
SAM SEEVER,” he said, “is a wood chopper.
That is, he used to be ’way back before all this happened. Sam never used to go out in the bush to the camps. That was because he never had any use for company, not human company, that is. Sam just used to chop near the town and bring kindling in and sell it from house to house. Naturally he never made much money that way, but he kept himself in flour and bacon, and he never had to
pay any rent on the shack he lived in down there by the lake. In the summer he fished some, mostly to feed himself, but sometimes he’d sell a little. I guess you’d say he was pretty contented that way, though he never smiled, and hardly ever spoke to anybody. That is, he didn’t until a while after he got this dog.
“Nobody ever knew by rights where Dingbat come from. Sam never told anybody, but the story is he was out chopping ’way back by Old Baldy, and he found this puppy that had been left behind by some campers, lost most likely. Anyway, the dog took up with Sam and followed him into town, bouncing around after him, the way young dogs do, when Sam was making his rounds with the kindling.
“Of course most of the folks in town were surprised to see Sam with any kind of a companion, especially a dog that was as funny-looking as this one. Some of the boys began to kid Sam about it, asking him what kind of a dog it was and so on. Carney Haskell was quite a joker those days, and one day he come across Sam with the dog and he asked him the same question.
“ ‘Looks like a trout hound t’me,’ he says to Sam. ‘He’s got the nose for a real fish retriever.’
“Sam didn’t say anything, just looked at Carney and then at the dog. But it must of given him an idea. Anyway, it come out later that Sam took the idea serious. One day, just before the season opened, Sam took the dog to the old dock that used to stick out into the lake just north of where the landing is now. People saw him pointing into the water and trying to make the dog notice the fish. Guess he figured the game warden couldn’t pinch a dog for fishing out of season.
“Anyway, it seems Sam was just about getting the dog to jump in after a pickerel that swum out from under the dock when all of a sudden a squirrel started to chatter up a small sapling that was on the shore. Quick as a wink that dog left Sam, run up the dock, along the shore line to the sapling and up the tree, branch by branch, till it got to the top. Of course the squirrel was gone by that time but it was a close thing.
“Sam just stood there with his mouth open, thinking. When the dog come back to him he kind of smoothed down the hair on the top of its head and looked into its eyes for a long time. Next day he packed up enough food for about a week and set off into the woods with Dingbat. When he come back he was a changed man.
IF SAM had of known how things were going to turn out, he probably wouldn’t of done what he done. But sometimes people stumble onto big things, inventions and the like, without knowing.
“That’s the way it was in this case. Sam started to teach the dog to climb trees for squirrels, but he soon found out that Dingbat didn’t really care a hang about squirrels. He just had this natural talent for climbing trees, and he’d do it just for the devilment of it, squirrel or not.
“I don’t know how you’d explain it, but it did something to Sam. He seemed to realize the possibilities right from the start. The first sign of that was the day he come out of the woods. He walked down to the hotel, with the dog at his heels, and sat on the veranda. That was the old hotel and there used to be a porch Continued on page 26
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The Dog That Could Climb Trees
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running right across the front with rocking chairs on it. Sam sat in one of them and waited for Carney Haskell to come along.
“Naturally Carney was as surprised as anybody else to see Sam sitting there being sociable and he started to try to get a rise out of him, the way Carney always did.
“ T see you got your trout terrier with you,’ he says to Sam, ‘they tell me the game warden’s looking for him. There’s three bull trout missing from Crab Crick.’
“ ‘That so?’ says Sam.
“ ‘That’s what he told me,’ Carrey says. ‘And one of them bull trout was too small, just a calf!’
“ ‘My dog didn’t do it,’ Sam says, very quiet.
“ ‘He must be good for something,’ Carney says, ‘What does he do?’
“ ‘He climbs trees,’ says Sam.
“Everybody thought that would hold Carney for a while, but it’s like the saying the gamblers have, ‘Suckers can’t wait.’
“ ‘I’m not surprised,’ says Carney. ‘He looks something like a baboon to me, only his tail’s too short.’
“ ‘You want to bet?’ Sam says.
“ ‘Let’s see your money,’ says Carney.
“ ‘I’ll bet you kindling for the season against five dollars my dog can climb that tree right there,’ says Sam. ‘All the way.’
“Even at that Carney tried to get out of it, but the other fellows wouldn’t let him. They didn’t believe Sam but they wanted to see the sport. So Carney he put up the money and stood staring up at the tree in front of the hotel with an uneasy look, as Carney sure hated to let go of cash.
“Sam didn’t get out of his chair. He just leaned over and stroked Dingbat’s head. Then he looked from Dingbat to the tree and says, very quiet, ‘To the top!'
THE dog didn’t stop to shake himself. He just started from a crouch and, before you could say, ‘Two beers,’ he was away and up the tree. First he kind of run up the bark a little till he come to a limb. Then he give himself a spring off' that limb and he was up the trunk and half out of sight under the leaves. You could hear him scrambling and giving little yelps, and the first thing you knew he was right up at the top, swaying this way and that on the little branches you wouldn’t think would hold his weight. He give a few barks like in victory, and scrambled down again, slower but safe and sound on the ground.
“Sam took the five dollars and patted the dog’s head. Then he walks off before anybody come to enough to ask him how he taught the dog to do it.
“That was the beginning of a new life for Sam, and for the whole town. Things were picking up around Mapleton those days and there were a lot of traveling salesmen coming in. Sam give up working and just used to sit on the veranda of the hotel. Pretty soon one of the salesmen would get to talking to him, and after a while he’d notice the dog. Dingbat was such a strangelooking dog that before long the salesman would ask Sam what kind of dog it was.
“ ‘He’s a tree-climbing Soompherbag,’ Sam would say, like he expected the salesman to know what he was talking about.
“ ‘You mean he climbs trees?’ the salesman would say.
“ ‘That’s right,’ Sam would toll him. And the bet was on.
“Sometimes Dingbat climbed the tree in front of the hotel, and sometimes, for bigger stakes, he’d let the salesman pick his own tree.
“It was all the same to Sam and Dingbat. By and by it got so that the salesmen that knew about Dingbat’s talent would egg some newcomer on to make big bets, and make side bets themselves. One fellow brought his boss all the way from the city one time and bet him a month’s salary against a raise. Of course, Sam always cleaned up, especially after he got to insisting that the salesmen split their winnings with him too, in addition to his own bet. Otherwise he wouldn’t make Dingbat climb.
OF COURSE prosperity does funny things to some people, and Sam was no exception. He began to wear clean shirts and get his suits sent from Calgary. Before long he got to be real sociable. That was more than Dingbat ever was; he wouldn’t let anybody touch him but Sam. But there was one other person. That was Todd McCarthy’s widow.
“Todd had met Mollie on one of his visits to the city. She was a nice, plump healthy girl that should have fitted right into the life here, but she was never happy. She was a city girl, for all her pleasing ways, and she missed the things she had back there. I don’t mean the shows and things like that, but she’d been used to electric light and a washing machine and an electric iron and stuff like that to help her with her housework. After Todd died she stayed on, but she was always planning to return to the city again.
“She would have gone sooner, too, except that she and Sam kind of hit it off well after Todd died. It didn’t take long for everybody to see that it only lacked for Sam to get married to Mollie to complete his big change into being really sociable.
“Maybe Sam wouldn’t have gone the whole way if it hadn’t been for the way Dingbat took to Mollie, too. It seemed like a perfect setup. That is, except for the way Mollie was always hankering after all these electrical conveniences and the like. Much as she liked Sam she told him she couldn’t see staying on in Mapleton and spending her life over a scrubbing board and cleaning lamp chimneys.
“And Sam would have married her and taken her to the city except, Oi course, he had an idea there were no trees there.
“Things were like that when the big election come on. For a time everybody was so excited about the campaign they forgot about Sam. Most folks were pretty mad when old Roly Pratt decided not to stand again and the party put up a stranger from over Berwick way to run for his seat. This fellow was a big shot name of Arlington Brookbank and he had a lot of influence in the government. He was a blowhard but they said he could get anything done that he wanted to bad enough. Just the same, it didn’t look like he’d get elected. He was promising a lot, a good road to the city and the like, but who wanted a road when nobody except Mollie had any idea of going to the city anyway?
THEN Sam got an idea. One afternoon during the campaign this Arlington Brookbank and his friends from the city were sitting out in front of the hotel. He was going to make his final speech in Mapleton that night, and I guess he could tell the way people felt. He was sitting there, looking kind of depressed, when Sam sidles
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over near to him, with Dingbat at his heels, and sits down.
“ ‘You like dogs?’ Sam asks him, just as if he’s trying to be polite and make conversation.
“ ‘I’ve always loved dogs,’ says Mr. Brookbank, ‘a dog is a man’s best friend.’
‘This is my dog right here,’ Sam
“Mr. Brookbank looks down and sees Dingbat lying there. He kind of reached over to pat him but Dingbat gave out with such a snarl that he pulled his hand back.
“ ‘That’s a fine dog,’ he says, trying to make it sound as if he meant it.
“By this time most of the boys had a feeling something was up and there must have been twenty of them standing around, most of the influential men in the county.
‘This dog climbs trees,’ says Sam in his quiet way.
“Mr. Brookbank gives him a look and kind of edges away a little, but Carney Haskell caught on and he spoke right then.
‘You say your dog climbs trees!’ Carney says to Sam as if he didn’t know it. Then he gives Sam a wink and says, ‘Here’s fifty dollars says he can’t!’
“ I’ll take that,’ says Sam. ‘Anybody else want to bet?’
“A couple of the city fellows pipe up and say t.hey’11 lay five against the dog, and Carney turns to Mr. Brookbank and asks him too.
‘What about you, Mr. Brookbank?’ he says. ‘Are you a sport, or do you just go for a sure thing?’
“ ‘Why surely,’ says Mr. Brookbank, ‘I’ll make a small wager just for the fun of it.’
“All this time Sam is sitting there so meek and mild you’d think he wouldn’t say ‘Boo’ to a goose.
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Mr. Brookbank,’ he says. ‘You want to win this election, I know. I’ll bet you a majority from this county against you guaranteeing to bring electricity to Mapleton within one year of the day you’re elected—that my dog can climb that tree out there. In fact,’ he says, ‘that's the only way you’ll take the county.’
THE other fellows chimed in and backed Sam up. They didn’t like Mr. Brookbank, but they didn’t like the other candidate either, and they knew what Sam had in mind when he spoke about the electricity. So there was nothing for it for Mr. Brookbank but to take the bet. Of course, he figured Sam was crazy anyway, so he had rothing to lose and maybe plenty to gain by proving himself a good sport.
“Sam made some of the fellows act as witnesses, and then he looks down at Dingbat and kind of stroked his head.
'To the top,' he says very stern, as though his life depended on it.
"Well, Dingbat gives a kind of little yelp and shoves off like one of those new jet airplanes. In no time at all he’s up the tree trunk, into the leaves and up to the topmost branches. He lets out a couple of those winner’s barks of his and scrambles down.”
THE proprietor fell silent. He gazed at the stump of the cigar as if mentally calculating how he would ration the other ten to himself. He sat there and seemed to gaze right through the wall to w'here the old hotel veranda with the chairs on it used to be.
“So that’s how electricity came to Mapleton,” I said.
“That’s right.” he nodded.
“And did Sam marry the widow McCarthy?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
He searched in his coat pocket for a match and lighted what was left of the cigar again. His gaze seemed to travel out and down the road to the lonely shack.
“Why not?” I coaxed softly. “Why didn’t Sam marry the widow after that?”
“That’s the sad part of it,” said the proprietor. “You see, the electricity come through all right, within a year too. There was a big celebration the day they turned the power on. Everybody from all around turned out. Mr. Brookbank was there, and a lot of big shots with him. It was big. As soon as it began to grow dark everybody gathered in front of the hotel. Right outside here. There was a new street light there. It was fixed so that when Mr. Brookbank gave the signal the lights would go on.
FIRST Mr. Brookbank made a speech about progress and how Mapleton would become the metropolis of Alberta, and a lot of stuff like that. Then some of the other men spoke. But somebody shouted that if anybody should make a speech it ought to be Sam Seever. Everybody looked around to where Sam was standing with his arm around Mollie, and Dingbat lying on the ground there between them. Somebody took Sam’s arm and led him forward and he stood there with his back against the new pole that the wires were strung on, and Dingbat goes over wdth him.
“ ‘Well,’ Sam says, ‘It’s not me that should be making the speech. It’s Dingbat. Only Dingbat, smart as he is, is not a talking dog, so I’ll just say for him that now you’ll see this town go up and up—right to the top!'
“And that’s where he made his big mistake. At the words ‘to the top,’ Dingbat lets out a yelp and, before Sam can stop him, he’s up that electric light pole, using those little stilt steps the linesmen put there. In no time at all he’s at the top and of course he bumps right into two of those high-powered wires and that is the end of Dingbat. Sam, too, for that matter.”
WEILL,” I said, “That’s sad, but he had Mollie.”
“No,” he said, “After that happened Sam seemed to go right back to the way he was before. Wouldn’t talk to nobody, just growled and snarled at anybody that spoke to him. There was nothing for Mollie to do but go back to the city, and that’s what she did.” There was silence for a moment. “What’s Sam do for a living now?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Funny thing, though,” he added. “Some of the townspeople had a pair of gloves made for Sam out of Dingbat’s hide.”
“Gloves!” I exclaimed. “Rather gruesome, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “They were no use. As soon as Sam got over the worst of his grief he put the gloves on and set out to chop wood again. But they were no good.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Well,” said the proprietor, “it was this way. Sam put on the gloves, very gently. Then he picked up his axe. But would you believe it, those gloves jusl ran up the axe handle so fast he couldn’t swing it. Sam kind of took that as a sign Dingbat didn’t want him to work.”
The proprietor lifted himself to his feet.
“That’s quite a story,” I said.
“If you want to phone it in to your newspaper I think I can get you a line now,” he said.
I decided against it. if