A Yellow Dog
From: Selected Stories
I never knew why in the Western States of America a yellow dog should be
proverbially considered the acme of canine degradation and incompetency,
nor why the possession of one should seriously affect the social
standing of its possessor. But the fact being established, I think we
accepted it at Rattlers Ridge without question. The matter of ownership
was more difficult to settle; and although the dog I have in my mind at
the present writing attached himself impartially and equally to everyone
in camp, no one ventured to exclusively claim him; while, after the
perpetration of any canine atrocity, everybody repudiated him with
"Well, I can swear he hasn't been near our shanty for weeks," or the
retort, "He was last seen comin' out of YOUR cabin," expressed
the eagerness with which Rattlers Ridge washed its hands of any
responsibility. Yet he was by no means a common dog, nor even an
unhandsome dog; and it was a singular fact that his severest critics
vied with each other in narrating instances of his sagacity, insight,
and agility which they themselves had witnessed.
He had been seen crossing the "flume" that spanned Grizzly Canyon at a
height of nine hundred feet, on a plank six inches wide. He had tumbled
down the "shoot" to the South Fork, a thousand feet below, and was found
sitting on the riverbank "without a scratch, 'cept that he was lazily
givin' himself with his off hind paw." He had been forgotten in a
snowdrift on a Sierran shelf, and had come home in the early spring with
the conceited complacency of an Alpine traveler and a plumpness alleged
to have been the result of an exclusive diet of buried mail bags and
their contents. He was generally believed to read the advance election
posters, and disappear a day or two before the candidates and the brass
band--which he hated--came to the Ridge. He was suspected of having
overlooked Colonel Johnson's hand at poker, and of having conveyed to
the Colonel's adversary, by a succession of barks, the danger of betting
against four kings.
While these statements were supplied by wholly unsupported witnesses, it
was a very human weakness of Rattlers Ridge that the responsibility of
corroboration was passed to the dog himself, and HE was looked upon as a
"Snoopin' round yere, and CALLIN' yourself a poker sharp, are ye! Scoot,
you yaller pizin!" was a common adjuration whenever the unfortunate
animal intruded upon a card party. "Ef thar was a spark, an ATOM of
truth in THAT DOG, I'd believe my own eyes that I saw him sittin' up and
trying to magnetize a jay bird off a tree. But wot are ye goin' to do
with a yaller equivocator like that?"
I have said that he was yellow--or, to use the ordinary expression,
"yaller." Indeed, I am inclined to believe that much of the ignominy
attached to the epithet lay in this favorite pronunciation. Men who
habitually spoke of a "YELLOW bird," a "YELLOW-hammer," a "YELLOW leaf,"
always alluded to him as a "YALLER dog."
He certainly WAS yellow. After a bath--usually compulsory--he presented
a decided gamboge streak down his back, from the top of his forehead to
the stump of his tail, fading in his sides and flank to a delicate straw
color. His breast, legs, and feet--when not reddened by "slumgullion,"
in which he was fond of wading--were white. A few attempts at ornamental
decoration from the India-ink pot of the storekeeper failed, partly
through the yellow dog's excessive agility, which would never give the
paint time to dry on him, and partly through his success in transferring
his markings to the trousers and blankets of the camp.
The size and shape of his tail--which had been cut off before his
introduction to Rattlers Ridge--were favorite sources of speculation to
the miners, as determining both his breed and his moral responsibility
in coming into camp in that defective condition. There was a general
opinion that he couldn't have looked worse with a tail, and its removal
was therefore a gratuitous effrontery.
His best feature was his eyes, which were a lustrous Vandyke brown, and
sparkling with intelligence; but here again he suffered from evolution
through environment, and their original trustful openness was marred by
the experience of watching for flying stones, sods, and passing kicks
from the rear, so that the pupils were continually reverting to the
outer angle of the eyelid.
Nevertheless, none of these characteristics decided the vexed question
of his BREED. His speed and scent pointed to a "hound," and it is
related that on one occasion he was laid on the trail of a wildcat with
such success that he followed it apparently out of the State, returning
at the end of two weeks footsore, but blandly contented.
Attaching himself to a prospecting party, he was sent under the same
belief, "into the brush" to drive off a bear, who was supposed to be
haunting the campfire. He returned in a few minutes WITH the bear,
DRIVING IT INTO the unarmed circle and scattering the whole party. After
this the theory of his being a hunting dog was abandoned. Yet it was
said--on the usual uncorroborated evidence--that he had "put up" a
quail; and his qualities as a retriever were for a long time accepted,
until, during a shooting expedition for wild ducks, it was discovered
that the one he had brought back had never been shot, and the party were
obliged to compound damages with an adjacent settler.
His fondness for paddling in the ditches and "slumgullion" at one time
suggested a water spaniel. He could swim, and would occasionally bring
out of the river sticks and pieces of bark that had been thrown in; but
as HE always had to be thrown in with them, and was a good-sized dog,
his aquatic reputation faded also. He remained simply "a yaller dog."
What more could be said? His actual name was "Bones"--given to him, no
doubt, through the provincial custom of confounding the occupation of
the individual with his quality, for which it was pointed out precedent
could be found in some old English family names.
But if Bones generally exhibited no preference for any particular
individual in camp, he always made an exception in favor of drunkards.
Even an ordinary roistering bacchanalian party brought him out from
under a tree or a shed in the keenest satisfaction. He would accompany
them through the long straggling street of the settlement, barking his
delight at every step or misstep of the revelers, and exhibiting none of
that mistrust of eye which marked his attendance upon the sane and the
respectable. He accepted even their uncouth play without a snarl or a
yelp, hypocritically pretending even to like it; and I conscientiously
believe would have allowed a tin can to be attached to his tail if the
hand that tied it on were only unsteady, and the voice that bade him
"lie still" were husky with liquor. He would "see" the party cheerfully
into a saloon, wait outside the door--his tongue fairly lolling from his
mouth in enjoyment--until they reappeared, permit them even to tumble
over him with pleasure, and then gambol away before them, heedless of
awkwardly projected stones and epithets. He would afterward accompany
them separately home, or lie with them at crossroads until they were
assisted to their cabins. Then he would trot rakishly to his own haunt
by the saloon stove, with the slightly conscious air of having been a
bad dog, yet of having had a good time.
We never could satisfy ourselves whether his enjoyment arose from some
merely selfish conviction that he was more SECURE with the physically
and mentally incompetent, from some active sympathy with active
wickedness, or from a grim sense of his own mental superiority at such
moments. But the general belief leant toward his kindred sympathy as a
"yaller dog" with all that was disreputable. And this was supported by
another very singular canine manifestation--the "sincere flattery" of
simulation or imitation.
"Uncle Billy" Riley for a short time enjoyed the position of being
the camp drunkard, and at once became an object of Bones' greatest
solicitude. He not only accompanied him everywhere, curled at his feet
or head according to Uncle Billy's attitude at the moment, but, it was
noticed, began presently to undergo a singular alteration in his own
habits and appearance. From being an active, tireless scout and forager,
a bold and unovertakable marauder, he became lazy and apathetic;
allowed gophers to burrow under him without endeavoring to undermine the
settlement in his frantic endeavors to dig them out, permitted squirrels
to flash their tails at him a hundred yards away, forgot his usual
caches, and left his favorite bones unburied and bleaching in the sun.
His eyes grew dull, his coat lusterless, in proportion as his companion
became blear-eyed and ragged; in running, his usual arrowlike directness
began to deviate, and it was not unusual to meet the pair together,
zigzagging up the hill. Indeed, Uncle Billy's condition could be
predetermined by Bones' appearance at times when his temporary master
was invisible. "The old man must have an awful jag on today," was
casually remarked when an extra fluffiness and imbecility was noticeable
in the passing Bones. At first it was believed that he drank also, but
when careful investigation proved this hypothesis untenable, he was
freely called a "derned time-servin', yaller hypocrite." Not a few
advanced the opinion that if Bones did not actually lead Uncle Billy
astray, he at least "slavered him over and coddled him until the old man
got conceited in his wickedness." This undoubtedly led to a compulsory
divorce between them, and Uncle Billy was happily dispatched to a
neighboring town and a doctor.
Bones seemed to miss him greatly, ran away for two days, and was
supposed to have visited him, to have been shocked at his convalescence,
and to have been "cut" by Uncle Billy in his reformed character; and
he returned to his old active life again, and buried his past with his
forgotten bones. It was said that he was afterward detected in trying
to lead an intoxicated tramp into camp after the methods employed by
a blind man's dog, but was discovered in time by the--of
I should be tempted to leave him thus in his original and picturesque
sin, but the same veracity which compelled me to transcribe his
faults and iniquities obliges me to describe his ultimate and somewhat
monotonous reformation, which came from no fault of his own.
It was a joyous day at Rattlers Ridge that was equally the advent of
his change of heart and the first stagecoach that had been induced to
diverge from the highroad and stop regularly at our settlement. Flags
were flying from the post office and Polka saloon, and Bones was flying
before the brass band that he detested, when the sweetest girl in the
county--Pinkey Preston--daughter of the county judge and hopelessly
beloved by all Rattlers Ridge, stepped from the coach which she had
glorified by occupying as an invited guest.
"What makes him run away?" she asked quickly, opening her lovely eyes in
a possibly innocent wonder that anything could be found to run away from
"He don't like the brass band," we explained eagerly.
"How funny," murmured the girl; "is it as out of tune as all that?"
This irresistible witticism alone would have been enough to satisfy
us--we did nothing but repeat it to each other all the next day--but we
were positively transported when we saw her suddenly gather her dainty
skirts in one hand and trip off through the red dust toward Bones, who,
with his eyes over his yellow shoulder, had halted in the road,
and half-turned in mingled disgust and rage at the spectacle of the
descending trombone. We held our breath as she approached him. Would
Bones evade her as he did us at such moments, or would he save our
reputation, and consent, for the moment, to accept her as a new kind of
inebriate? She came nearer; he saw her; he began to slowly quiver with
excitement--his stump of a tail vibrating with such rapidity that
the loss of the missing portion was scarcely noticeable. Suddenly she
stopped before him, took his yellow head between her little hands,
lifted it, and looked down in his handsome brown eyes with her two
lovely blue ones. What passed between them in that magnetic glance no
one ever knew. She returned with him; said to him casually: "We're not
afraid of brass bands, are we?" to which he apparently acquiesced, at
least stifling his disgust of them while he was near her--which was
nearly all the time.
During the speechmaking her gloved hand and his yellow head were always
near together, and at the crowning ceremony--her public checking of Yuba
Bill's "waybill" on behalf of the township, with a gold pencil presented
to her by the Stage Company--Bones' joy, far from knowing no bounds,
seemed to know nothing but them, and he witnessed it apparently in the
air. No one dared to interfere. For the first time a local pride in
Bones sprang up in our hearts--and we lied to each other in his praises
openly and shamelessly.
Then the time came for parting. We were standing by the door of the
coach, hats in hand, as Miss Pinkey was about to step into it; Bones
was waiting by her side, confidently looking into the interior, and
apparently selecting his own seat on the lap of Judge Preston in the
corner, when Miss Pinkey held up the sweetest of admonitory fingers.
Then, taking his head between her two hands, she again looked into
his brimming eyes, and said, simply, "GOOD dog," with the gentlest of
emphasis on the adjective, and popped into the coach.
The six bay horses started as one, the gorgeous green and gold vehicle
bounded forward, the red dust rose behind, and the yellow dog danced
in and out of it to the very outskirts of the settlement. And then he
A day or two later he was missed--but the fact was afterward known that
he was at Spring Valley, the county town where Miss Preston lived, and
he was forgiven. A week afterward he was missed again, but this time for
a longer period, and then a pathetic letter arrived from Sacramento for
the storekeeper's wife.
"Would you mind," wrote Miss Pinkey Preston, "asking some of your boys
to come over here to Sacramento and bring back Bones? I don't mind
having the dear dog walk out with me at Spring Valley, where everyone
knows me; but here he DOES make one so noticeable, on account of HIS
COLOR. I've got scarcely a frock that he agrees with. He don't go with
my pink muslin, and that lovely buff tint he makes three shades lighter.
You know yellow is SO trying."
A consultation was quickly held by the whole settlement, and a
deputation sent to Sacramento to relieve the unfortunate girl. We
were all quite indignant with Bones--but, oddly enough, I think it was
greatly tempered with our new pride in him. While he was with us alone,
his peculiarities had been scarcely appreciated, but the recurrent
phrase "that yellow dog that they keep at the Rattlers" gave us a
mysterious importance along the countryside, as if we had secured a
"mascot" in some zoological curiosity.
This was further indicated by a singular occurrence. A new church had
been built at the crossroads, and an eminent divine had come from San
Francisco to preach the opening sermon. After a careful examination of
the camp's wardrobe, and some felicitous exchange of apparel, a few of
us were deputed to represent "Rattlers" at the Sunday service. In our
white ducks, straw hats, and flannel blouses, we were sufficiently
picturesque and distinctive as "honest miners" to be shown off in one of
the front pews.
Seated near the prettiest girls, who offered us their hymn books--in the
cleanly odor of fresh pine shavings, and ironed muslin, and blown over
by the spices of our own woods through the open windows, a deep sense
of the abiding peace of Christian communion settled upon us. At this
supreme moment someone murmured in an awe-stricken whisper:
"WILL you look at Bones?"
We looked. Bones had entered the church and gone up in the gallery
through a pardonable ignorance and modesty; but, perceiving his mistake,
was now calmly walking along the gallery rail before the astounded
worshipers. Reaching the end, he paused for a moment, and carelessly
looked down. It was about fifteen feet to the floor below--the simplest
jump in the world for the mountain-bred Bones. Daintily, gingerly,
lazily, and yet with a conceited airiness of manner, as if, humanly
speaking, he had one leg in his pocket and were doing it on three, he
cleared the distance, dropping just in front of the chancel, without a
sound, turned himself around three times, and then lay comfortably down.
Three deacons were instantly in the aisle, coming up before the eminent
divine, who, we fancied, wore a restrained smile. We heard the hurried
whispers: "Belongs to them." "Quite a local institution here, you know."
"Don't like to offend sensibilities;" and the minister's prompt "By no
means," as he went on with his service.
A short month ago we would have repudiated Bones; today we sat there
in slightly supercilious attitudes, as if to indicate that any affront
offered to Bones would be an insult to ourselves, and followed by our
instantaneous withdrawal in a body.
All went well, however, until the minister, lifting the large Bible
from the communion table and holding it in both hands before him, walked
toward a reading stand by the altar rails. Bones uttered a distinct
growl. The minister stopped.
We, and we alone, comprehended in a flash the whole situation. The Bible
was nearly the size and shape of one of those soft clods of sod which we
were in the playful habit of launching at Bones when he lay half-asleep
in the sun, in order to see him cleverly evade it.
We held our breath. What was to be done? But the opportunity belonged
to our leader, Jeff Briggs--a confoundedly good-looking fellow, with the
golden mustache of a northern viking and the curls of an Apollo. Secure
in his beauty and bland in his self-conceit, he rose from the pew, and
stepped before the chancel rails.
"I would wait a moment, if I were you, sir," he said, respectfully, "and
you will see that he will go out quietly."
"What is wrong?" whispered the minister in some concern.
"He thinks you are going to heave that book at him, sir, without giving
him a fair show, as we do."
The minister looked perplexed, but remained motionless, with the book in
his hands. Bones arose, walked halfway down the aisle, and vanished like
a yellow flash!
With this justification of his reputation, Bones disappeared for a week.
At the end of that time we received a polite note from Judge Preston,
saying that the dog had become quite domiciled in their house, and
begged that the camp, without yielding up their valuable PROPERTY in
him, would allow him to remain at Spring Valley for an indefinite time;
that both the judge and his daughter--with whom Bones was already an old
friend--would be glad if the members of the camp would visit their old
favorite whenever they desired, to assure themselves that he was well
I am afraid that the bait thus ingenuously thrown out had a good deal to
do with our ultimate yielding. However, the reports of those who visited
Bones were wonderful and marvelous. He was residing there in state,
lying on rugs in the drawing-room, coiled up under the judicial desk in
the judge's study, sleeping regularly on the mat outside Miss Pinkey's
bedroom door, or lazily snapping at flies on the judge's lawn.
"He's as yaller as ever," said one of our informants, "but it don't
somehow seem to be the same back that we used to break clods over in the
old time, just to see him scoot out of the dust."
And now I must record a fact which I am aware all lovers of dogs will
indignantly deny, and which will be furiously bayed at by every faithful
hound since the days of Ulysses. Bones not only FORGOT, but absolutely
CUT US! Those who called upon the judge in "store clothes" he would
perhaps casually notice, but he would sniff at them as if detecting and
resenting them under their superficial exterior. The rest he simply paid
no attention to. The more familiar term of "Bonesy"--formerly applied
to him, as in our rare moments of endearment--produced no response.
This pained, I think, some of the more youthful of us; but, through some
strange human weakness, it also increased the camp's respect for him.
Nevertheless, we spoke of him familiarly to strangers at the very moment
he ignored us. I am afraid that we also took some pains to point
out that he was getting fat and unwieldy, and losing his elasticity,
implying covertly that his choice was a mistake and his life a failure.
A year after, he died, in the odor of sanctity and respectability, being
found one morning coiled up and stiff on the mat outside Miss Pinkey's
door. When the news was conveyed to us, we asked permission, the camp
being in a prosperous condition, to erect a stone over his grave. But
when it came to the inscription we could only think of the two words
murmured to him by Miss Pinkey, which we always believe effected his
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