Mr. Bunting Pays the Piper

MR. BUNTING sat on the top step of the front porch and yearned toward the distant hills. His ears were lifted, his black eyes, glistening, protruded slightly with excitement, and his white moustaches twitched with the rapid movements of his small black nose. From over the hills came again the deep baying of foxhounds. Mr. Bunling’s long silken white hair, newly brushed, quivered to its very ends.

He looked over his shoulder at the closed door behind him. Then he hopped down two steps and stood waiting, his plumed tail curled tensely over his back. There was no sound from inside. The big shady farmyard lay around him, a benign prison. Beyond its slope the highway curved, so smooth to run upon, so redolent with smells — unbearably forbidden. Mr. Bunting sat down.

All pleasure in his beautifully brushed coat was gone. His eyes darkened and his ears drooped. After a few moments he lay down, whimpering a little. The warm spring afternoon was very still. Presently the oak leaves above him stirred, and Mr. Bunting lifted an eager, trembling nose. The baying of the foxhounds broke out again, louder, more triumphant, excited.

With the suddenness of an explosion Mr. Bunting disappeared.

He was a flash under the far corner of the fence, a streak across the highway and over the hill. In the woods on the other side of the hill he found them — powerful great dogs, but kindly, with beautiful waving tails. For a brief moment they gathered around him, and Mr. Bunting stood up on his hind legs, rigid with delight, pawing at their smoothness, his warm little tongue licking the muzzles pressed against him. Then they were off, running swiftly through the dense underbrush. Mr. Bunting, ignored, bounded at their heels.

A blackberry brier tore his tender skin. He pulled away, leaving a long strand of silky white hair behind. One of his ears began to bleed. Sharp flints cut his feet, but he did not feel them. His coat was matting with burrs. Once he stopped and with a desperate paw tried to scrub the hair out of his eyes. His tongue hung out dripping, but when the voices of the hounds, long-drawn, clear tenor and deep bass, echoed through the hills, Mr. Bunting found breath to yap shrilly.

They circled the village and ran on, their shadows lengthening. Mr. Bunting ploughed stubbornly behind, bravely spattering through the streams. A chill crept into the air, and into his wet coat. His tired little legs barely raised his feet from the ground; his tail hung down, limp and bedraggled. The hounds were almost out of sight. In a little they were gone and their voices grew faint. Mr. Bunting paused, bit wearily at a burr on his paw — and turned homeward. A stretch of long tangled grass clutched at him, but he struggled through it to a ditch beside the road. There he stopped. His raw, swollen feet flinched at the touch of gravel, and he sank down on the edge of the road, a numb little bundle of dirty white fur. The twilight closed down upon him. Mr. Bunting slept.

He was wakened by a glare of light and the sound of voices. They were not familiar voices and Mr. Bunting stared upward, startled, A car stood by the roadside, but it was not his car. Strange hands were laid upon him, fingers felt of his legs, moved his paws, pressed along his spine. He was raised gently to his feet. Mr. Bunting stood still, bewildered, feeling that he was being looked at, though no one was touching him now. A moment later he was lifted up, and the blinding circle of light changed to the darkness of the car. A lap received him.

Mr. Bunting sniffed vaguely; the car ground its teeth and started with a jerk. Mr. Bunting’s head nodded and his eyes closed. The lap was very comfortable.

When he woke again the car had stopped and Mr. Bunting rose stiffly and prepared to descend into his own yard. But it was not his yard, nor was the house his house. His round eyes, full of distress, peered in wonder at the strange faces. He struggled a little, but was carried firmly indoors. Food was set before him. Mr. Bunting regarded it with distaste. He did not like bread and milk, and he never ate beans. There were a few scraps of meat mixed with the beans, and after a second of hesitation he nosed them out and ate, but sparingly. Then he looked up hopefully and waited for the bone. But there was no bone. Mr. Bunting surveyed the room and perceived a sink. He went to it at once and sneezed. This was understood. There were exclamations, and a pan of water was placed on the floor. Mr. Bunting drank gratefully and lay down in a corner. It was a very hard corner, but it would do.

It was then that he began to comprehend that there would be no peace in this place. He was picked up at once out of the corner and taken to a bathroom. Mr. Bunting, squirming in restraining arms, turned his head as far as possible from the horrid sight of running water, and he trembled, but it was useless. He was plopped into the water and washed. Not that he was n’t accustomed to being bathed — but at such a time, with his coat full of burrs, not one of which had been removed! Soap got in his eyes and it hurt dreadfully, but no one wiped it away. Mr. Bunting bore up bravely. After all, at the end of the disgusting business there would be the paper mouse to chase.

When it was all over he was partially dried and put down. No one produced the mouse. Instead, he was carried out of the house and put into a shed, on a pile of clean hay, and left there. The door was closed. Mr. Bunting sat down on the hay, staggered. The hay pricked him. Mr. Bunting rose with dignity, went to the door, and barked. There was no response. A cold wind whistled through the cracks of the shed and Mr. Bunting shivered. He barked again, in no uncertain tones. Still no response. Mr. Bunting went slowly back through the darkness to the hay, and climbed up on it, tail hanging. After a moment of consideration he dug himself a nest and lay down. He was very tired, too tired even to lick his sore feet or bite out the offending burrs.

He slept fitfully, and all night he was aware of a strong smell of dog somewhere around. Once he sprang up and listened. There was a soft pad-pad of something going along the side of the shed. Mr. Bunting snarled and the sound ceased. After a time he lay down again.

The sunlight had been streaming through the cracks for a long while before anyone came to let him out. Mr. Bunting was extremely uncomfortable. He was accustomed to being let out at six o’clock. When the door was opened at last Mr. Bunting dashed through it — straight into the waiting jaws of a gigantic Airedale.

As those hot jaws were shutting upon him Mr. Bunting, gibbering with rage and terror, twisted himself violently around and caught the upper lip of the Airedale in his teeth. The Airedale roared. Mr. Bunting shrieked through clenched teeth. There were shouts and screams. Mr. Bunting was shaken until he was dizzy before hands seized him and pried his jaws apart. He continued to shriek all the way to the house and up a flight of stairs and into a bedroom. In spite of soothings and caressings he muttered to himself for a long time, between spasmodic tremblings.

When he grew quieter the need for that morning walk became more and more urgent. Somebody was throwing bedcovers around just above him and Mr. Bunting stepped forward, put his paws up on the leg of the person bending over the bed, and stared into her face, waiting for the familiar phrase, ’Do you want to go out, darling?’ To his indignation he was gathered into her arms, squealed at, and put down again. Mr. Bunting tried once more, but his stare met with the same response. He was outraged and desperate. If he were not let out immediately, there would be an accident and he would be blamed for it.

Mr. Bunting’s claws clicked across the floor to the doorway and out into the hall. Someone had put a suitcase across the head of the stairs! There was no way to get down. Mr. Bunting rose to his hind legs and peered over the top of the suitcase, whining. Instantly the Airedale, who had been waiting at the foot of the stairs, flung himself upward with that bloodcurdling roar. Mr. Bunting fell back and scrambled madly to the bedroom. The person who was in there came out and went down the stairs, saying things to the Airedale — but leaving the suitcase just as it had been before.

Mr. Bunting lay on the bedroom rug and shivered until he could endure it no longer. He returned to the stairs and listened. There was no sound below and nothing in sight. Mr. Bunting stepped back, made a flying leap, cleared the suitcase, and rolled over and over down the stairs. At the bottom he picked himself up, prepared for anything, but the room was empty.

He must get out. The rug in that room was soft under his feet, but in the next room his claws clicked sharply on the hard floor. Mr. Bunting tried walking gingerly, on tiptoes, but this hurt his feet and he gave it up. A door was ajar, just a crack. Mr. Bunting inserted a paw and pushed. The door swung open noiselessly, enough for Mr. Bunting’s little body to slip through, and he perceived three things almost simultaneously. A woman stood at a table with her back toward him; the Airedale lay dozing under the sink; there was a door leading to the yard — and it was wide open.

Mr. Bunting made a dash for it, but he was not quick enough. As he fled into the yard the Airedale was on his heels. Mr. Bunting could feel his breath. This time the Airedale was silent, and his silence was more horrible than his roar had been. Mr. Bunting ran as he had never run before, his heart pounding against his ribs, his breath coming short with terror, his moustaches blowing back into his eyes. Blindly, he fled toward the shed and shot under it. The Airedale thudded against the wall, snapping at Mr. Bunting’s tail as it disappeared.

There was a moment of silence.

Mr. Bunting crept to the farthest corner and backed into it, breathing more freely. Suddenly he heard that soft pad-pad coming around the side of the shed. There was a long, hideous snuffle just behind him. Mr. Bunting whirled, and sprang to the opposite corner. His growl stuck in his throat. The pad-pad-pad followed to that side. Mr. Bunting fled back.

Crouched in the corner, he watched in paralyzed horror as four brown paws winked along a crack in the wooden foundations to the place where Mr. Bunting had gone under. The daylight was abruptly shut out. Two red eyes glared in the head squeezed under the beam.

Mr. Bunting was as motionless as stone, but his eyes bulged. The murderous brown face remained staring. With the effort of one chained, Mr. Bunting shifted a forepaw, and his pale tongue flickered over his nose. He swallowed once, twice. ‘Ah-r-r-r-r!’ he said.

The answer was a long whine. Mr. Bunting shuddered violently. Daylight suddenly flooded his corner. The head was gone.

Barely a second later two paws came into sight and began to dig, not hurriedly, but with steady determination. Now and again something dripped from the jaws above them. Mr. Bunting, watching, moved his head piteously from side to side.

Slowly the hole grew larger. More than the paws were visible now — Mr. Bunting could see part of the legs. He wrenched his eyes away and looked frantically around the walls of his trap. There was no opening there, nor in the floorboards over his head. The paws dug on. Stones rattled; the dirt flew, landing with a soft patter on the grass behind.

With a ‘woosh’ the head reappeared in the opening. It came in easily now, almost to the shoulders. It vanished, and the digging went on. There was a sound of eager whining. Mr. Bunting’s entire body contracted slightly. It would not be long now.

A door slammed and footsteps approached. The brown paws hesitated and were withdrawn. Their place was taken by a broad back and a fat, hairy stump of a tail that wagged in the dirt. Mr. Bunting’s eyes glittered. Without an instant’s pause he flung himself forward and his sharp teeth closed on that stump. Its firmness filled his mouth and the hairs on the end tickled his throat. He gagged and hung on.

There was a scrambling upheaval, and a roar of anguish. Mr. Bunting’s head cracked on the beam; blinding sunlight stabbed him in the eyes; his feet left the ground.

The white farmhouse whirled before him and behind him. Bushes swam past him in a blur. His body slammed against something hard and bounced off. He was being carried forward in great jerks and the air around him was loud with howls. Shouts and the thud of running feet added to the uproar. ‘Ah-r-r!’ said Mr. Bunting thickly.

For an instant Mr. Bunting saw a man running toward him, and a woman shaking an apron. Then the wind whistled in his ears as they were left behind. Mr. Bunting sunk his teeth deeper. The trunk of a tree leaped past, and a row of bushes, rushing at him, tore out a patch of his hair with one scrape and were gone. Mr. Bunting’s jaws ached. He closed his eyes to shut out the spinning landscape.

A splash, a shock of cold, and Mr. Bunting sank down into roaring depths of water, until his lungs were bursting. Powerful feet beat a tattoo on his chest. His ears gurgled. Mr. Bunting opened his mouth, wide, and the stump was jerked from between his teeth. He came up instantly, gulping. Distorted by the stream of water that ran into his eyes, a brown head moved rapidly away from him, the water standing up in a frill around the neck. Mr. Bunting turned and paddled slowly in the opposite direction. When his feet touched ground he stood up and with an effort dragged himself to the bank of the pond. He shook himself thoroughly several times, opened his jaws once or twice to relieve the cramp in them, and looked back. The Airedale was growing small in the distance; his tail was between his legs, and he ran as one demented.

Mr. Bunting started and cocked his ears. What voice was that? He listened, not believing. It came again. ‘Mr. Bunting!’ it called. He fled toward it. His car, his own car, stood in the yard, and beside it She was waiting. A tangled wet mop, Mr. Bunting flung himself across the grass and was gathered up, shrieking, into the safety of the beloved arms. She was real. His tongue rasped over the dear familiar face, he nibbled delicately and avidly at the lobe of a familiar ear, and his whines quavered. Mr. Bunting was vaguely aware that people were gathered around him, talking and laughing, but it did n’t matter. His sopping paws clasped Her neck.

He was still far from calm when he was bundled into the car and the white farmhouse began to move past him. A moment more and the road was unwinding among the hills.

Mr. Bunting was acutely uncomfortable and growing more so every instant. That morning walk! Confidently, though with some difficulty because of the bumps in the road, he lifted his forepaws to the soft shoulder beside him, and stared into the one face in all the world. His ears stood almost at right angles to his head, his moustaches moved soddenly, and his gaze was piercing in its distress.

A pair of blue eyes looked into his dark ones with amusement and comprehension. ‘Do you want to get out, darling?’

Mr. Bunting’s face relaxed. ‘Wuff!’ he said firmly. The car came to a stop at once and the door was opened. With peace in his heart and gratitude in his hasty upward look of thanks, Mr. Bunting tumbled out and rushed for the nearest field.