The Old Man and the Hound
Jack drove his old jeep down the dirt road carefully. Since no one lived along this road anymore but old Tom, the highway department seldom serviced it. He guessed it didn't really matter much as old Tom didn't drive much anymore. Perhaps once a month when his retirement check came in. Then he would come into town driving that old rickety truck and cash his check, buy some groceries and collect his mail.
He used to get his mail down the lane at the mailbox, but since he was the only one living up the old road anymore, the town decided he would have to come into the post office to collect his mail. Jack would always check it himself when he made the trip out.
He'd pull into the yard and scatter the few chickens pecking along the driveway and the old man's hound would walk slowly off the porch and bay at him. When Jack got out of the truck and walked up to the porch old Sam would sniff at his hand and then satisfied would wag his tail and walk stiffly back onto the porch and sit down by the old rocker. "How do, Tom."
Tom would always answer the same way, "Why Jack, you didn't have to come way out here just to check on me. I'm just fine."
"Ah, I like getting away from town for awhile. You got any of that cider left?"
"You just set down and I'll bring us a cup out."
Jack looked around and felt bad at how the old place was slowly falling apart. Tom did his best, but he wasn't in much better shape than his old dog.
Tom would come out onto the porch, the old screen door bouncing on its hinges a little as it banged shut. He'd hand a cup of sweet cider to Jack and sit down beside him, sniffing the cup a little before taking a long drink.
"Tom, you make the best cider I ever had."
Tom nodded a little and said, "Well it will probably be the last year for it, Jack. The old tree up there hasn't had a good crop of apples for the last year or so. I guess it's getting old and worn out like me and old Sam here." Upon hearing his name, the old dog wagged his tail and looked up at his master.
"Tom, why don't you sell this old place and move in with your boy or your daughter Linda?"
"Ah, Tom snorted, what in hell would I do in California; I been here my whole life."
"And, they don't allow dogs in either of their homes. Be damned if I'm gonna 'leave old Sam here for anyone."
"Him and me are all we got left."
The kids have been gone for over twenty years and Dorothy has been gone for almost ten now. "I sure miss her Jack;… we were married for over thirty years."
Jack said, "Well Tom, you think on it some. I gotta get back into town. I have the night shift. It isn't much of a town, but I reckon even it needs a police force."
"I'll be back out in a couple days."
"How you fixed for wood, it's been getting pretty frosty the last few nights."
"Why Jack, you cut enough wood last summer to keep me in wood for two winters."
"Me and old Sam here will be just fine."
After a few minutes of silence Tom said, "Jack, you remember all those times I took you hunting at night."
Jack smiled and said, "I reckon I do Tom, those fox and coon hunts are a part of my memory I will never forget. We sure had some good times."
Tom looked fondly down at Sam and said, "Now all old Sam and I can do is set on the porch in the sun and remember." He wiped his hand over his eyes and coughed to hide his emotion. Jack looked across the field and pretended not to notice.
"Old Sam is getting old and life is kinda hard on him now. I don't know what I'll do when he goes."
"Don't you worry about that Tom, he's got a couple good years in him and if worse comes to worse, why you can come into town and live with me. I'd be honored to have you."
"Ah, get on with you, you better get back down that road and get to work. "I'll see you next time out." Jack tipped his cup and finished off his cider, handed the cup over to Tom and shook his hand.
"You take care of yourself and I'll see you in a day or so."
Tom said suddenly, "Why don't you marry that little girl that works in your office. Any fool can see how you feel about her."
Jacks jaw dropped and he answered, "well damnation, isn't anything a secret around you? Heck, Susie would probably laugh me out of the office." He walked to his truck, started it and scattered some more chickens as he drove down the road.
The nights were getting colder and Sam was getting worse. Once or twice Tom had gotten up the next morning and he saw that Sam hadn't made it to the door in time. Tom said softly, "Ah Sam." Sam looked up at Tom with shame on his face. He had gone to the bed and whimpered a little to let Tom know he had to go outside, but old Tom hadn't heard him. Tom reached down and patted Sam's side and said softly, "It's ok old friend, Hell sometimes I have trouble getting to the bathroom in time myself." Sam whined softly and leaned against Tom's leg, tail wagging.
Old Sam had aches and pains now and his backend didn't work right sometimes. He had arthritis almost as bad as Tom did. It troubled the old dog some because he didn't know what was wrong, only that just about everything he did anymore hurt him somewhere.
Tom had trouble with his hands. They were twisted and knurled some because of age. Seemed he hurt just about everywhere too. About a week ago he had moved the single mattress down from one of the bedrooms upstairs and put it beside his bed. Sam seemed to like it there more than his old bed in front of the stove. Course, Tom had to be careful when he got up in the night to stoke the stove or make one of his trips to the bathroom. A couple times he had almost stepped/fell over Sam sleeping beside the bed. Tom would lay awake at night listening to the crackling of the fire, and the sounds Sam made sleeping. From some of the noises he made, you'd think he was back running down game up in the mountains. Tom would just grin a little and lie back with a sigh.
"Damn", he thought to himself, "I miss my wife. I miss the kids too, but they have their own lives, and I don't blame them much for not keeping in touch more than they do."
"They do call, though."
"I hate to talk on that damn phone."
The other day he had stepped out of bed and the next thing he knew he woke up lying beside Sam on the mattress. Sam was curled up tight against him, whining softly, licking his face. He had been having pains in his chest and in his arm but true to form, paid it little mind. Hell, old and beat up as he was, it was a wonder he didn't have a lot more. He never did mention any of this to Jack. And sure as the sun set each night, he never said a word to the kids. If he did, he knew they would come out and get him and the next thing you know he'd be in some damn home somewhere, surrounded by strangers, getting poked and prodded. By the Lord Harry, that would never happen to him, he vowed.
The morning sun beamed bright through the window and both Tom and Sam got up together. Tom walked Sam to the door and onto the porch. The old dog made his way down the front steps and around the side of the house. He came back a few minutes later and creaked his way back up on the porch and curled up beside Tom who was back in his rocker. Tom liked sitting there in the early morning. Why, you never could tell what you might see. Usually a deer or two. Always a couple squirrels. And the birds, why there must have been a dozen or more different kinds that made the old farm their home. Tom looked fondly down at Sam and said, "I reckon it's too late for that bear to show up anymore this year." The old bear that denned every year up on the hill behind the barn showed up a few times every year.
Sam would get insulted when he would stand on the porch and bay at the old bear. He would either simply ignore Sam or he might stand on his hind legs a second to get a better look at that noisy thing. Neither one of them could see worth a darn anymore.
Tom would shush Sam when the bear would show up. He kinda liked seeing him each year. Sometimes Tom would wake up on the porch and couldn't remember where he was for a second or two. A couple times he and Sam were both pretty darn cold cause Tom fell asleep pretty close to dark.
Tom would stand carefully and stretch and call Sam inside. "I reckon we both could use a bite to eat, eh Sam?" Inside though Tom was worried, more worried than he might let on. One night, as he lay awake in his bed, Sam whimpering beside him, he knew that it probably wouldn't be much longer for either one of them.
The next morning dawned bright and warm. Sure looked like Indian summer was here.
As Tom sat on the porch, steaming cup of coffee in his hand, he heard the sound of a vehicle coming up the road. His heart gladdened at the sight of Jack pulling into the driveway. He turned off the engine and walked up onto the porch.
"Howdy Tom, how are you and old Sam getting along?"
Tom grinned a little and answered, "Tolerable, Jack, just tolerable. How about a cup of coffee?"
Jack said, "you just sit tight, I outa' know where the cups are by now." Jack came back onto the porch and sat down in the old straight backed chair that sat against the porch rail.
"Sure is a pretty morning, isn't it Tom?"
Tom smiled and said, "It surely is Jack, prettiest one so far this fall."
Jack said, "I'm sure sorry about taking so long to get back out here Tom."
"I've been following your advice and spending some time with Suze."
Tom smiled wide and said, "Well now, it's about time."
"I asked her to marry me Tom and she said yes. It might be awhile yet because we are both saving for a down payment on a little place somewhere out here in the country."
Tom stood carefully and leaned over and shook Jacks' hand. "Well that's fine news, just fine Jack, best of luck to the both of you."
They sat and talked for a couple hours. Tom even went inside and fried them a couple fresh eggs and bacon. Tom sat over another cup of coffee while Jack washed and dried the few dishes they had used during breakfast.
"Well Tom, I better get back into town. I promised Suze I'd be over to her place for dinner and I sure don't want to be late. I'll be out in a couple days for sure this time."
Tom walked out onto the porch and reached to shake Jack's hand. He couldn't hide the pain he felt in his chest. Jack said, "You ok Tom?"
Tom grinned and said, Hells fire Jack; you get to be my age, you find out you have all kinds of aches and pains. I'm fine, now don't you worry."
"I have any trouble I'll get that damn contraption hanging on the wall in there and give you a call. Reassured, Jack walked briskly down off the porch, patting Sam on the back as he walked down to his truck. As he started the truck, he looked back up on the porch, worry in his eyes. He sure loved that old man, and the dog too. His Dad had left when he was still a little fella and Tom was the only father he had ever known. He had played with Tom's son and stayed overnight more than once growing up. His wife Dorothy had always treated him like one of her own kids too.
With another wave, Jack drove down the lane and turned onto the county road leading into town.
Late that night Sam took a turn for the worse…Tom woke up to hear him whimpering somewhere on the floor. For some reason, Sam had decided he needed to get to the door and collapsed halfway across the kitchen floor. He was trying to drag himself back to Tom, but he could see it hurt him too much.
Tom jumped out of bed and half ran, half fell over to Sam's side. He curled up on the floor beside old Sam and held him close, hot tears running down his face. He crooned to Sam, holding him tight. After a while it seemed Sam was some better and Tom carried him back to bed, laying him carefully beside him. Sam nestled close to his master, licking his face, finally settling down with a sigh and, in a minute was fast asleep.
But there would be no more sleep for Tom this night. The extra exertion he had expended getting to Sam and carrying him to the bed had awakened old hurts. This time the pain was crushing in his chest and he could hardly draw a breath. He lay very still breathing carefully and in a few minutes the pain had subsided, for the most part.
The next morning dawned cold and frosty. Tom was too weak to get up and put more wood on the fire. So he and Sam just burrowed under the heavy blankets and kept each other warm. By noon both of them felt well enough to get up. Tom walked slowly to the stove and opened the door, laying wood inside. He felt all right this morning, but he knew he had to be careful.
Soon, the coals had caught and after Tom opened the draft, the house quickly warmed. It didn't take much to heat the place anymore as he and Sam just lived in the downstairs. Actually, just in the kitchen and living room. He had closed off the other rooms downstairs. Hell, he and Sam had more room than they needed with what was left. Course, he kept the bathroom door open. It had been a few years since he had to walk out the backyard and sit on that cold seat in the outhouse. A man needed some comforts when he got older. Hell, who was he kidding, old Sam was curled up by the fire and Tom just decided to feed him there. Sam looked at his food, took a few bites and turned his head away.
Tom whispered, "I know just how you feel old buddy." Tom sat the day away in the kitchen, thinking hard.
Just about an hour before dark he got up and rummaged around in the old closet in the hallway. Sam heard the clanging and looked up to see what his master was up to. He was sick still and in a great deal of pain. He hadn't moved much all day, just thumping his tail a little when Tom bent to put more wood in the stove. But, when he saw what Tom was carrying, he struggled slowly to his feet, tail wagging, whining softly in his throat. Tom had his hands full with his old rifle, his sack and Sam's old leash. Sam walked over and smelled the gear Tom was carrying.
Tom said, "You wait just a minute Sam and we'll go hunting." Hearing this Sam perked up and he barked a couple times, tail wagging fast. Tom walked over to the desk that stood in the corner and took out a writing pad and a pen. He sat writing for awhile, thinking from time to time. Finally satisfied, he put the paper in an envelope and wrote Jack's name on the front.
Getting up slowly, he hooked the leash to Sam's collar and they walked out the door, onto the porch and into the yard. Sam was even pulling a little at his leash, whining in anticipation. Tom opened the truck door and helped Sam up onto the seat. He sat right up looking out the windshield. "I sure hope this old truck will start," Tom muttered. But, after turning over a few times it caught with a roar. Tom turned on the lights and they drove down the lane, taking a left turn towards the mountains. Tom looked at the gas gauge and saw it was almost empty. He shook his head and said to himself, "well there outa be enough to get there."
The drive on the main road took only about ten minutes, and then he turned off onto a dirt road. He drove up this road for about twelve miles until he reached a turnoff. He pulled into the parking area and shut off the truck.
The silence was deafening.
Sam was sure they were going hunting one more time, but Tom had finally decided he could no longer allow Sam to suffer any more. And, with the troubles he was having, he was damned sure he wasn't going to have a stroke or heart attack and have some stranger put old Sam down. He opened the truck door and Sam jumped out and hit the ground with a little thump. He yelped a little as he did and looked over at Tom. It's all right old friend, it's all right. Now let's go huntin'. He bent and unsnapped the leash and Sam took off up the trail. He stopped and looked back making sure his friend and master was coming along.
"Go get 'em boy, let's get em."
Sam grinned back at Tom and took off again. "Well he ain't going very fast, but he's going." After about an hour, Sam was back beside Tom, worn out and again suffering from his ailments. Tom looked down at Sam and said, "Well buddy, we don't have much farther to go."
He knelt and picked up Sam and placed him across his shoulders. He soon found out this would not work for very long. He thought about standing his rifle against a tree and going on, but then he remembered why he was carrying it in the first place. He stopped from time to time, wiping his brow, Sam whimpering a little when he did.
"Hold on Sam we only have a little farther to go." But, the pain in his chest was growing and he was having trouble getting his breath. "We're both a couple of damn old fools, Sam. We outa know better." Sam just leaned a little and kissed old Tom on the cheek. In another few minutes Tom breasted the hill and there in front of them was the peak of the mountain, standing high against the moonlight.
With a deep sigh, Tom leaned over and and carefully lay Sam down under the old Fir, one they had sat under many times over the years. He stood his old rifle against the tree and sat down wearily with Sam curled up tightly against him. It was getting downright cold now and both Sam and Tom were shivering a little. Tom opened his old coat and Sam snuggled closer with a sigh.
A coyote yelped down in the valley and Sam growled a little deep in his throat. A little later a wolf howled long and mournful on the mountain across from them. Sam bristled and stood up and bayed long and deep, a sound that carried and echoed for a long time. The old wolf snarled a little and looked over at the other side of the mountain, and then he turned and loped down the far side, going somewhere else to hunt this night.
Tom smiled with love down at Sam and his dog satisfied, snuggled close once again. Tom sat and gazed over the beautiful country he had hunted almost all his life, sick inside with what he must do sometime tonight.
He looked over at the rifle shining in the moonlight. "I don't know how I'm going to do it, I just don't know how. I love him too much." But he also knew he loved him too much not to. Sometime later that night, Sam began to whimper, some from the cold, but more from the pain. The walk up here had taken too much from him and he was again in a great deal of pain.
With tears in his eyes, Tom reached back and fumbled around until his hands closed over the stock of his old rifle. He opened the breech and saw the cartridge gleaming in there. He closed it with a snap and slowly turned it around until the barrel was pointed at old Sam's head. Tom eared back the hammer and at the slight clicking sound, Sam raised his old head and looked into the eyes of the man he had loved and trusted all his life. Tom sat there and looked back at old Sam; tears running freely now down his face. Sam raised himself up with a little whimper of pain and kissed Tom on the face; trying to comfort this man he loved who was obviously in pain himself.
When that happened, Tom let down the hammer and with an oath threw the rifle as far down the mountain as he could. Sam crawled closer to Tom and lay down again, looking up at him. Tom said to himself, "I just can't do it, I can't... I won't do it...
A little later, Sam was shivering in the cold and had crawled as close to Tom as he could get. Tom was shivering himself by this time. Finally at some point, Tom fell asleep himself.
It was cold, so cold.
Something had awakened him, he knew not what.
Looking down at Sam, he could see that he wasn't moving anymore. He wasn't breathing. He was gone. Tom held him and the tears fell unashamedly... "Oh, Sam, my dog, my best friend, now what am I gonna' do...?"
Tom sat up straighter, something had caught his eye. The sun was coming up slowly, the light barely touching the top ridge of the mountain. Something was moving towards him. Or someone.
The sun had just made it over the top of the mountain and was in Tom's eyes.
He stood up and walked towards the person. "I wonder who that is up this high… this early."
Tom felt something nudging his hand and looked down to see Sam, leaning against his side, tail wagging. "Sam, he yelled, you're alive." Sam jumped up on Tom licking his face. Tom picked him up and held him tight.
Then he stopped and looked down in the meadow at whoever it was walking towards them. "Well maybe we do have a couple more good years in us Sam. I shoulda' listened to Jack." When the person got closer, Sam started barking joyously and ran down into the meadow towards the approaching figure. "Sam, where you going, get back here."
Tom walked faster down into the sun drenched meadow and almost fell when he saw who it was.
"Dorothy,...Dorothy, is it you,... how can that be?"
But it was,... his wife ran up to him and fell into his arms.
"By God, honey, how can this be?"
His wife said, "That's how Tom,... by God."
"Look back behind you." Tom looked back up the hill and there under the tree laid old Sam and there he sat, straight and tall, back against the old bark.
"Now my darling husband, follow me, we're going home and we will never have pain or sickness or worry ever again." Tom was shocked, who wouldn't be?
He followed his wife numbly, occasionally stealing glances behind him to assure himself that he wasn't still sitting under that tree, dreaming. But, there he was, and here he was with old Sam running and jumping like he did as a young hound. Tom reached and took his wife's hand and followed along silently.
As they walked down the meadow Tom saw the air shimmering a little suddenly in front of him. And he and Dorothy and Sam walked right into that waving air and right out into a new world.
Tom got down on his knees and thanked God right then and there. His wife smiled down at him and said, "come on honey, let's you and I and Sam go home." And so they did.
Two days later, Jack pulled into the lane leading to Tom's place. He had been worried about the old man more than he wanted to let on. Finally, he left the office on his lunch break, telling Susie he would call her from Tom's place. She said "go ahead honey; I'm worried about him too."
Jack stepped out of the truck and looked at the cold, dark house. There was no smoke from the chimney and the place just felt empty.
He yelled, "Tom.... Tom, where are you?" Running up the porch, he tore open the door and ran into the house. Silence and cold was all that greeted him.
Looking frantically around, he saw the envelope sticking out from the desk. Picking it up, he saw his name in big letters on the front. He ripped it open and read it quickly. Jack grabbed the phone of the wall and frantically called the station. Suze answered the phone. "Suze, call the search and rescue right away and tell them to follow me up to road 347. From there go twelve miles to the turnoff. They will see my truck and Tom's too. Tell them to take the trail to the left until they get to me."
"Please hurry, Suze."
"Oh, and tell them to bring a stretcher, the biggest one we have."
Jack ran down into the yard and fired up his truck. He roared down the lane and turned left on two wheels as he came out the lane.
"Please God, please let him be all right," he prayed.
In no time he saw Tom's old pickup parked in the turn around. He jumped out and felt the hood on the truck. It was as cold as ice. He reached behind the seat and grabbed the old, heavy coat he kept there for emergencies. Jack turned and ran up the trail. He never slowed down to more than a jog the whole time. As he breasted the hill he looked down into the meadow, to the tree Tom always sat under when he hunted. Jack had sat there many times with him. He ran stumbling and falling down the hill, the sound of an approaching siren far in the distance. When he reached Tom and old Sam, Jack fell to his knees sobbing. There sat Tom, cold, with two frozen tears still on his cheeks. Sam was curled up tight against him, Tom's right hand on his head.
The two paramedics found him there later, sitting beside Old Tom, holding one of his frozen hands in his, crying.
"Jack,... Jack, one man said softly,... Let us Jack."
Jack stood up unsteadily and said, "No, I'll do it." Jack laid old Tom's body on the stretcher and covered him with a blanket. They started to walk up the hill when Jack said, "Wait a damn minute." They looked askance back at Tom and he said, "The dog too."
"What, Jack... The dog?
"I said THE DOG TOO...."....
The two men looked at Jack for a moment then walked back down the hill carrying the stretcher. Jack picked up the cold, stiff body of old Sam and laid him tenderly beside Tom, covering them both. Then he took one end of the stretcher and carried it the whole way back down the mountain. The other two men took turns but Jack just stubbornly held on to his end, tears running down his silent cheeks. Finally they reached the ambulance and they carefully put the stretcher in the back. Jack said, "Be careful with them." One of them said, "Sure Jack, don't you worry, we'll see you back in town."
The next spring Jack and his new wife stood on the front porch of Tom's house and looked out at all they owned. His wife said, "I still can't believe Tom willed this whole place to us, Jack."
"And, I can't believe how good his son and daughter were about all this." Jack put his arm around his wife's shoulders and pulled her close.
"They knew he loved me and that I loved that old man."
"We'll take care of this place and fix it up like it was when Tom and Dorothy lived here... Jack looked up the yard to the little graveyard where Dorothy, Tom and Sam lay.
It was getting close to dark and Jack suddenly stiffened and turned his head a little, listening. Did you hear that Suze?" "I think so, honey. It sounded like a hound bawling up on the mountain." Jack grinned and held his wife closer.
Soon they heard the sound of a baby fussing in the house. Jack said, "We better go in and feed the baby, honey. I think Tommy is hungry, and we need to feed little rascal of a pup Sam too." With a smile, they walked back into the house, arm in arm.
And somewhere, high on the mountain, Tom stood watching, Sam by his side, his arm around his wife, smiling.