LESLIE F. HANNON Maclean's overseas editorApril81961
The summer of Barney's discontent
At the start he was a runt rooster with the rickets, and Ed wanted him only as a sacrificial offering to break his hounds of their chicken-killing habit. But the dogs left him alone, and Barney lived to rule the family roost — for a while
IN THE BEGINNING there were the three hounds: I still remember them vividly. Ed McNally. a Montreal artist and cartoonist of my acquaint ance, realizeed a boyhood dream when he mov ed to the country, and the place he chose was Rockburn, a hamlet (it hasn't even got a post office) near the American border some 45 miles southwest of Montreal, where he bought him self a lovely pine-guarded stone house of Scot tish masonry, surrounded by a dozen acres of land bordering a rampaging brook and already equipped with several dozen bearing apple trees. Ed completed the picture he sketched of himself as a country gentleman by buying a handsome Tennessee walking horse called Stocking and three thoroughbred black and tan coonhound pups. which he named respectively Piper. Bugle and Casey.
The pups grew up into handsome bellowing hounds. Learning from Ed’s boasting in the tavern at nearby St. Antoine Abbé that they were coonhounds. some villagers borrowed them one night for a coon hunt, but the report came back that the moment the hounds spotted a coon they tucked their tails between their legs and headed for home. They wanted no part of such nonsense. What they really liked to chase were foxes, though there is no record that they ever caught up w'ith one. But the hounds made an awful lot of racket in the chase. Casey, the smallest and most retiring of the trio, always quit first, after a few' hours of futile chase.
Then Piper, the big fellow' with the biggest voice, would call it a day after a day, but Bugle, who lived up to his name, would run and run for two or three days on end, finally to come staggering home as skinny as a rake and too tired even to eat his supper. He would sleep for a few hours, rouse himself and eat, and then spend the following few days recuperating for the next chase. That was the general pattern of their fox-hunting activity whenever the w'ind was in the right corner and the delectable scent of fox musk flavored the air.
Between these periods of pure bliss spent running down stale fox trails, the hounds liked to frolic together, killing the neighbors’ chickens in a spirit of good clean wholesome fun. I he village tired of this sport with remarkable speed and unanimity, though there were some avaricious souls who looked forward greedily to Ed’s daily visit with his pocket stuffed with twodollar bills — his standard price per victim, w'hether it be pullet or cockerel, laying hen or molting brooder. Ed’s nearest neighbor, Milford Oliver, a retired rumrunner (he modestly admits to the loss of 25 Cadillacs during the heyday of Prohibition in the U. S.), finally approached Ed with some apology and offered to help him break the dogs of their noxious chicken-chasing habit. He had a runt rooster with the rickets, not even worth killing, and if Ed w'anted to put the crippled creature in with the dogs and then punish them when they set about destroying it, perhaps they could be cured of their one small weakness.
Ed was touched. By now he had paid almost as much for freshly killed chickens as the dogs had originally cost, and by the time he got the chickens they were fit
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Soon the bird was strutting among the radishes and carrots, while Ed frothed in impotent fury
only for the dogs. But when he saw the specimen destined for the experiment, he realized that the gesture had not required a great deal of generosity on Milford's part. It was a runt rooster all right, and it had rickets. It couldn’t even stand, but squatted weakly on its haunches with sagging head and drooping comb and regarded the world through veiled lacklustre eyes. It was, he learned, a barred Plymouth Rock, but it did not seem long for this world.
“Do you think it will last till we put it in with the dogs?” he asked Milford anxiously.
“He’s tougher than he looks,” Milford reassured him, “or he would have been dead long ago. I’ve been planning to wring his neck for weeks, but I never seemed to find the time, what with one thing and another.”
Ed picked up the helpless bird gingerly, and carried it home in a box. There he found the dogs sprawled around on the lawn, too bored to bother twitching at flies and waiting for a changing wind to call them to action. They looked up alertly when Ed set the box down in their midst. That is. Piper feebly wagged a tail. Bugle lifted one eyebrow and Casey, always the lively one, raised his head languidly from the grass and cast a tentative sniff in the direction of the box. Then they all went back to sleep. Ed removed the chicken from the box and placed it in the grass between the dogs. Then he seized the broom. The chicken squatted down, craned a wary neck around to give the enemy a close look, then, reassured by their passivity, tucked its head back between its skinny shoulders and dropped off to sleep. The dogs never stirred. In disgust Ed threw the broom down and stalked off. He was gone for more than an hour. When he got back, the tableau was unchanged.
Ed went over to Milford’s and complained about the apathetic rooster and dogs. So he got another bird. It was a lively one and he paid cash for it this time. It lasted just about two minutes, disintegrating in a flurry of squawks, dogs and feathers, while Ed beat about in all directions with his broom. The little crippled rooster surveyed the carnage with the fishy eye of a hardened reporter at a hanging. Then he and the dogs, now somewhat cowed by the flailing broom, went back to sleep.
The little rooster made one big conquest right off the bat, though, and that was Ed’s warm-hearted wife, Pat. She was indignant from the start at the idea of using the rooster as bait to teach the dogs a lesson in manners on chickeneating and she protested vigorously. Only when the dogs and the rooster displayed a total lack of interest in each other did her alarm abate, and she agreed to let the cripple sleep in the barn along with the dogs. As a concession Ed allowed her to call the rooster Barney. He had proposed Mangy, but Pat thought the name would hurt the dumb creature’s feelings.
Meanwhile she undertook Barney’s nourishment, and no bird since Nero ever had it so good. Not only did she supply the best of chicken mashes, including special egg-stimulating mixtures (which were completely useless under the cir-
cumstances), but Barney also scored the choicest of table scraps; hunks of rare roast beef and filet mignon, tidbits of veal cutlet and pork chops, breast of chicken — which he particularly liked — and delicious desserts like ice cream and cake and apple pie. which he wallowed in. It was a tender sight, watching Pat as she fondled the bedraggled little bird in her lap and crooned to him as she rocked him gently and stuffed chunks of meat down his gullet. The McNallys provide a groaning board at all times, and Barney soon began to show the results of it. He got plump and he started to fill out. He even tried from time to time to rock forward on his feet and one great day he
managed his first crow, which was really not much more than a timid croak, though to hear Pat talk about it later you’d think Gabriel had blown his horn.
Anyway, from that day Barney’s progress toward his final destiny was rapid. He grew large and elegant, and his wellpreened feathers glistened under his diligent beak as he daily set his toilet in order. Soon he was strutting around the garden, mucking in among the newly sprouting radishes and carrots under Pat’s indulgent eye, while Ed frothed in impotent fury nearby. “Touch one hair of Barney’s head and we both leave,” she warned him sternly, “and we’ll take the children, too.”
The strange truce between Barney and the hounds continued. Of course they still killed other chickens, but perhaps because Milford’s were all barred Rocks like Barney, they extended the amnesty to his flock. Barney himself they treated with the greatest respect, giving him a wide berth in their eccentric comings and goings. And they still roamed the countryside. baying in the distance like three Hounds of the Baskervilles at all hours of the day and night.
Barney developed a very possessive streak about the McNally property, and when youngsters from the village would slip across the field to have a dip in the
pool in the McNally brook. Barney would cut out after them and drive them howling down the road right to the mailbox that marked the end of the property, where he would gaze triumphantly after their fleeing forms and then return to the garden to scratch among the flower beds for worms and wait for another intruder.
Pat was pretty pleased about this possessiveness of Barney’s and the way he was proving that a lion’s heart beat beneath his chicken’s chest. But Milford was dubious.
“Don’t get carried away by that rooster." he warned her. “They’re treacherous critters at best, and he’s got bad blood in him.”
"Oh. no.” protested Pat indignantly, “not our Barney. He’s a darling.”
Well, darling or not. one day when Pat went down to the barn with a handful of choice meat cuts she had thoughtfully removed from F.d’s plate, Barney scorned the love offering and started pecking furiously at Pat's ankles. She fled
the barn and was prepared to ignore the whole incident, but when her daughter Joanne reported a similar unprovoked attack, she became alarmed.
"We’d better wear our slacks when we go out.” she counselled Joanne. "Barney probably doesn’t like the flapping skirts. He’ll soon get over it. He’s probably just going through a phase.”
But Barney didn’t get over it. On the contrary, he seemed to take special umbrage at women in slacks, for Pat was forced to retreat on several occasions when it seemed that only counter-violence would stem Barney’s onslaughts. And the fact that provoked her most was Barney’s obvious partiality for the presence of men. He cackled around Ed’s feet in the barn like an old buddy swapping jokes, and he offered deep-throated clucks of approval when male neighbors like Charlie Douglas dropped in. Ed’s father came to visit the McNallys, and he and Barney became as thick as thieves. But the sight of the hand that fed him and
nursed him into the blooming specimen of a full-grown rooster that he had become seemed to throw Barney into a frenzy of rage, and he would rush full tilt across the garden to get in his deadly licks at Pat’s bare ankles.
Pat was deeply wounded by this demonstration of ingratitude, and the pain lingers even at this late date. And she was seething with indignation at the men who laughed uproariously at Barney’s attacks and thought them very funny. That element probably explains the final tragic development.
It was a lovely sunny Sunday morning, as only the mornings around Rockburn seem to be. Though it was mid-summer and the rest of Quebec was already stifling in a humid heat, . that special Rockburn breeze was filtering through the cooling pines when Pat decided to join her husband and father-in-law on the patio for coffee. She was still in negligee as she carried her coffee cup out of doors with her.
Charlie Douglas was on the terrace talking to Ed when Pat came out, but we’re very broadminded in Rockburn and Charlie overlooked Pat’s informal attire. They were just exchanging greetings when Barney appeared from around the back where he had been scratching up the petunias. At the sight of Pat he dropped his wings and lowered his head. After a couple of preliminary pecks at the ground in front of him. he charged across the lawn in fine fury to give Pat her morning workout.
But Pat was fed up. “Get out of here, you Barney!” she warned her advancing tormentor ominously. She put down her coffee cup and picked up the broom that Ed kept handy for beating the dogs, and she assumed the stance of Arnold Palmer about to drive off the first tee.
But, blinded by his purpose, Barney continued his headlong rush and, as he came within target range, Pat swung the broom. She had planned to boost Barney gently into the grape arbor, but a lastminute needling impulse of indignation stung her and she swung the broom viciously. It caught Barney fair and square on the kisser and he went up in the air in a squawking, surprised and ungainly back-flip. He landed hard, righi on his head, and he flopped once, and then he lay still.
“You got him!” Charlie announced gleefully. "Oh. boy!”
Pat stood frozen in horror for an instant. Then she threw herself on the recumbent form.
“Barney, speak to me! Speak to me. Barney!” she pleaded, and she was crying.
Barney managed to open his near eye, and he uttered one last croak (was it forgiveness?) and then his head tilted over and the heavy grey lids closed on his eyes forever.
“What do you want to do with him, feed him to the dogs?" Charlie asked.
"No, no!” sobbed Pat through bitter tears, “Take him away and bury him decently.”
"Qkay,” said Charlie, and nonchalantly seized Barney by the neck. “He ought to make pretty good eating, the way he’s been feeding lately.” Then, more to himself than to the others, he muttered in awe: “Sure hope she never fetches me a belt like that.” it
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