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By PAT BURROUGHS
The four-year-old girl crawled up on the home-made bench, pulled herself up to the big wooden table, peeked over the edge and grumpily announced, “Same old bad supper!”
Her mother was horrified and her dad was delighted. The child meant no harm, but had a way of telling it like it is. Realizing that she had once more put her small foot in her big mouth, she hurried to explain that she knew it was not her aunt’s fault that she had no refrigeration or any of the foods that she was used to at home. But in a state of desperation, she appealed to her dad, “I know she can’t help it, but I’m starving to death! Can’t somebody please take me to a store or somewhere so I can find something to eat?” Lovely man that he was, he drove her several miles to the nearest grocery store and allowed her to pick out “something I can eat.” And he repeated that story to his dying day. She never lived it down.
This aunt lived in the country outside Kirby, Arkansas. She and her husband always lived a spartan life, although they were hard-working people and owned a large amount of land.
My Uncle Ocie was not an easy man to get close to. He spoke very little, and when he did speak, the few words he said rushed out so fast that I seldom understood them well. I can’t remember ever having had a real conversation with him. I’ve been told he was a good man who had had a hard life, but as a child, I couldn’t understand that. I never saw a shred of humor anywhere near him.
He was also, how shall I say it? Tight. I knew they were poor, but even as a small child, I felt he carried economizing to the extreme. They lived far out in the country, without the benefit of electricity or indoor plumbing. Uncle Ocie usually had two or three old dogs hanging around the place, hounds that were usually so bony their ribs showed. I never saw them fed, but I can imagine they existed on table scraps and perhaps an occasional rabbit they managed to chase down. The idea of store-bought dog food finding its way into that house seems unimaginable.
I wasn’t there the day the little red stray found its way to Uncle Ocie’s house. But I could imagine his reaction. “Don’t need you here, dog. Already got more than I can feed.” But since the man’s bark was worse than his bite, the dog stayed. For some reason it attached itself to him and followed his every step. Perhaps it saw a soft spot within him that others never knew existed. Or perhaps it was sent to him for a purpose.
Some months later, he opened the screen door to his front porch one morning, as he always did. But before he could step out onto the porch or back into the house, a rabid fox jumped up onto the porch not four feet away from him and skidded towards him. Paralyzed with surprise and fear, Uncle Ocie couldn’t move a muscle. At the last instant, a streak of red appeared from nowhere and slammed into the fox, knocking it off the porch. The little stray had saved his life. He stepped back into the house, retrieved a gun, and put the fox down. But it was too late for the little dog, never vaccinated against rabies, and now badly bitten by the fox.
Uncle Ocie felt such an indebtedness to the little dog that he just couldn’t bring himself to take its life. He knew he would have to do it sooner or later, as it was sure to go rabid within a couple of weeks, but he would put it off as long as possible. One day he had walked out to the barn, followed as usual by the little stray. He was thinking how hard it was going to be to put down the little dog that had saved his life at the sacrifice of its own. But he knew it must be soon. Suddenly the dog dropped to the ground and never drew another breath. My uncle had been spared from having to do the dreaded deed.
Somehow Uncle Ocie seemed a little softer after that. And as I recall, all his dogs looked a bit plumper from then on.
P.S. After his death, Uncle Ocie’s children sold over $200,000 worth of timber off his land. And that was back when $200,000 was worth something. I’m sure he had no idea he had been sitting on a goldmine for decades.