“Ira, take old Mac down to the back field,” Father said. “The hens are scratching out the new seed.”
Ira watched his father and two of his brothers start off for the mill with a wagonload of corn. Today he didn’t mind that they were going without him. He was needed here!
In the pen where Father kept his hunting dogs, Old Mac lay in the shade, his head resting on his front paws.
“We’ve got work to do today, boy,” Ira said as he fastened the homemade leather collar around Mac’s neck and tied a length of stout rope to it. He led Mac across the barn lot, through the stand of eight-year-old pines planted just before Ira was born, and finally into the newly seeded field. “Come on, Mac! Get those hens out of here!”
Mac came fully awake and jerked on the leash, almost pulling Ira down.
“Whoa, boy! We just want to scare them.”
But Mac wasn’t used to getting orders from Ira. He ran across the field, filling the air with his baying. Ira hung on to the leash with both hands and stumbled over the lumpy soil. The rope felt like a knife against his fingers.
When they finally reached the edge of the field where a few sturdy saplings grew, Ira quickly wrapped his end of the rope around one of them. Mac still strained to be free.
“Stop it, Mac. I can’t hang on to the end of this rope much longer. I’m going to leave you tied here for just a little while.”
Ira ran back to the barn lot, where Father’s matched team of mules were munching on the late summer grass. He fastened reins onto the brass rings of the nearest mule’s harness and led her back to the new field.
The chickens, not worried about a tied dog, had returned.
“Now, I know old Bess can hold you, Mac,” Ira said as he fastened Mac’s rope to the mule’s harness. Then he scrambled onto the mule and steered her around the edge of the field, Mac following. Ira was again enjoying his feeling of responsibility.
As they came closer to the chickens, Mac sniffed. Then he threw back his head, bayed deeply, and lunged toward the hens.
Bess’s ears shot forward, and her nostrils flared. She turned to run away from Mac, but the rope pulled him after her. Mac’s barking became angry.
“Whoa, Bess, whoa!” Ira shouted. But because the dog continued to bark near her, she circled again, and it was all Ira could do to hold on.
Soon Ira felt his legs slipping off the mule’s wet back. Then Bess’s flashing hooves were level with Ira’s eyes, and he lost his grip on the reins. He managed to push himself clear of the mule and land on the bare dirt.
At least I didn’t fall under Bess, Ira thought as he got up and brushed the dirt from his clothes.
The mule was dragging the dog through the field. Every time Bess would slow a little, Mac would start barking again and try to chase the chickens. The barking would send Bess off again through the field, dragging Mac behind her. The air was thick with dust. Ira wondered how many days it would have taken the chickens to do the damage Bess and Mac had done in fifteen minutes.
Ira worried even more as he noticed the heaving sides of both animals. “Whoa, Bess!” he shouted at the cloud of dust, but they wouldn’t let him near them.
Ira ran toward the house. His younger brother, Bert, was pulling weeds in the garden, and Ira shouted at him. “Bert, get Uncle Jesse! Bess is pulling Mac all over the field!”
The urgency in Ira’s voice sent Bert racing down the road. Soon he was back with Uncle Jesse, and all three hurried to the field.
All was quiet there. Bess and Mac had disappeared.
“If it weren’t for the trampled field, I’d think I dreamed it all,” said Ira.
“I bet Bess has headed for some water,” Uncle Jesse suggested.
They found the two animals in the pines. Bess was leaning against a tree, her sides heaving and sweat pouring off her. Mac lay nearby, panting. His tongue hung out one side of his mouth, and he rolled his eyes weakly.
“They’d better cool down before we let them near water,” Uncle Jesse cautioned.
After the animals were taken care of, Ira sat in the shade of the barn. All afternoon he sat there looking at the clouds, knowing the time when Father would get home was growing closer. He wished evening would never come.
Even when he heard the dinner bell, he still sat behind the barn.
“Mama said to bring you in to supper,” Bert said as he poked his head around the corner.
As Ira walked the length of the table, each face was turned toward the plate in front of it. None of the eleven people at the table spoke, not even Father. But eyes peeked quickly at him as he passed.
Ira put a small helping from each bowl onto his plate, and somehow managed to swallow all of it.
Finally the silent meal was over, and Mother and his sisters cleared the table. Father leaned his chair against the wall, and he and the two boys who had gone to the mill began to tell of the day’s adventures.
Each time the conversation slowed, Ira held his breath. But nothing was said about his misadventures.
Soon the kitchen was clean, and the evening had grown dark. It was bedtime, and Ira still hadn’t been punished. He slept fitfully all night, wondering what Father was thinking.
The next morning when Ira went to the barn to do his chores, Father was patiently currying Bess. “She seems to be OK. Do you want to tell me about it, Son.”
When Ira had finished, Father laid down the comb and went over to him. “Sounds like you set out to do what you had been told, but you took a wrong turn somewhere.”
Ira thought he saw a smile pull up one corner of Father’s mouth.
“I reckon those chickens have gone for good. But you and I will have to replant parts of that field. It looks like somebody held the county horse show there.”
Father’s hand was on Ira’s shoulder as they walked out of the dusky barn into the sunlight.