Where are dogs of yesteryear? They all seem to be some breed or another these days. They never used to be. Back in forties, we had dogs that LEANED in one direction or another. Or maybe two or three directions at once. But we never went out and bought a specific brand of dog. Why would you buy a dog when neighbors were giving away perfectly good pups for free, along with a jar of peaches and maybe some string beans?
It has always been hard to earn a living farming, and animals on our Montana farm all had to have a use. The cats earned their living by catching mice that ate grain. The dogs earned their living, Daddy told us kids, by bringing in cows at milking time.
Our dogs tended not to be real good at bringing in cows, but we kept them anyway. Maybe because Daddy had a soft heart -- which he did -- but mainly, I think, because dogs had a better understanding of what they were there for than we children did:
The dogs thought they were there to bark at every single car that went by.
Back when one or two cars came by in a day, we were glad to know that someone was coming down our hill, and, unless it was time for mailman, we checked to see whose car it was.
The forties went by, then fifties, and number of cars increased. We no longer checked to see who it was. Which was not fault of dogs: they still barked at every single car.
By sixties, I had left home but came back for vacations. And during one summer vacation I found out why we really needed that dog.
“There’s someone hiding in our shack,” said Daddy. “Whatever you do, don’t go up there. Don’t even go near it.”
The shack, which probably was built as a homesteader’s shack, was at top of hill by our house. It had one main room with a table and chairs, a cupboard with a few dishes, a wood stove, and a double bed. An outdoor toilet out back beckoned with open door.
In forties and fifties, Grandma cleaned shack each June. She washed dishes in cupboard, washed all patchwork quilts on beds, and put fresh kerosene in lamp. All to prepare for workers who came to hoe our sugar beets, under a contract between Mexican government and sugar beet company. Under that contract a good worker could make fifty dollars a day: excellent wages in forties and fifties.
By late sixties, Daddy no longer grew sugar beets, and shack had for years lain empty. Then our neighbor Nina Davis telephoned. “Have you got someone in your shack across road from us?” she asked. “Because we’re seeing a light in there at night.”
“No. No one’s supposed to be in there,” said Mamma. But neither our family nor Davises went to shack to investigate, nor did anyone suggest calling sheriff. The Davises were also native Montanans who went by same code of behavior we did. I’d learned about this code when I was little: one of our neighbors had a practice of stealing from other neighbors. “Why don’t we tell sheriff?” I asked.