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By Sam Perry
Other than having the same name and being about the same age, Sam and I had little in common with each other, but we were the best of friends. You might say we saw each other eye to eye. Most people were quick to agree that I was, certainly, the better looking of the two of us. Nobody who wasn’t half-blind could, sincerely, claim that the other Sam was attractive. Far from it. He was about as homely looking as homely could be. His ears resembled the rinds of a half-peeled banana. His eyes were watery and looked like two fried eggs in a greasy skillet. His mouth was frozen in a perpetual grin, and saliva dripped from his lips in a steady drool. His standard of personal hygiene was pitifully low, and his body odor made him unwelcome in polite society. Moreover, his table manners were embarrassing, and his dwelling place was unkempt in the extreme. On second thought, perhaps, in some aspects, we were more alike than I would be inclined to admit. The one thing Sam had going for him that I didn’t, however, was his nose. Sam had a nose for trouble. and he could smell an arsonist before the first match was lit. You see, Sam was a dog. More specifically, Sam was a bloodhound who had been trained to look for firebugs.
When the Cumberland National Forest was created in 1937, the Federal government acquired not only thousands of acres of worn-out farmland and stands of timber in sheltered coves, but a people as well. It was a people whose culture, at times, defied explanation or sound reasoning. Promises had been made by Federal land agents to property owners that if they sold to the government, they would be free to continue to run their coon dogs on the land that had once been theirs and visit their old family burying grounds and, in general, use the property as they had once used it. The only exceptions were that they could no longer live on it, and they could no longer burn the woods to control ticks, chiggers, and snakes, something that had been done in the Southern Appalachians for centuries. That last requirement fell, for the most part, on deaf ears and, suddenly, the Forest Service had a problem with arsonists. When gentle cajoling didn’t work, the Forest Service declared war on woods-burners and deployed every weapon in its arsenal to end this cultural throwback to a bygone era. Part of this war included the purchase of two bloodhounds from a prison in Georgia that would be used to track down and find the people setting fire to the woods. In the official purchase orders of the Forest Service, the dogs were listed as Red Tony and Texas Black Sam, but they were known, simply, as Tony and Sam.
Sam and I were introduced to each other when he and Tony arrived at our home in the Dixie community, south of Whitley City, in the back of a Forest Service pickup truck. I was about five years old at the time and I was quickly made to understand that Sam and Tony were not our dogs. They belonged to the Forest Service, but they were to be housed and cared for by my father who was Fire Control Officer for the Laurel Ranger District.
Tony was an exceptionally good dog at doing what he had been trained to do, but he had a problem with his temperament that made it difficult to like him. It’s not that he was mean or threatening or dangerous, at least not to anyone other than the object of his hunt. It’s just that, sometime between puppyhood and adulthood, he had gotten, as we say down here in the hills, above his raising. Apparently, Tony believed he was descended from a long line of royalty. His demeanor was certainly indicative of such lineage. When he crawled down from the back of the pickup, he had surveyed his surroundings with feigned disinterest and sniffed the air, seeking any hint of proletarian presence. Of course, he had found plenty of that, which, probably, explains why he never adjusted to being led about on a leash or felt compelled to eat food that had been discarded by others. Early on, he made it clear. There would be no leftover cornbread and beans for Sir Tony. Only dog chow, preferably Purina, would be good enough for him, thank you very much.
Sam, though, was a different animal. Sam was a dog for the commoner. When he stepped down from the pickup, he surveyed his surroundings with a twinkling eye, released some pent up abdominal gas, and gave his human audience the best happy-to-be-here look he could muster. He then sauntered over to a skinny boy in bib overalls and washed the boy’s face with a tongue that resembled the backstrap of a butchered longhorn steer. It was the first of many such licks I would receive in the coming months.
For more than a year, Sam and Tony lived in our backyard, creating a mess with their unsavory bathroom manners and keeping our neighbors awake with their baying. Although, it was my father to whom their care had been assigned, that job soon fell upon the shoulders of my mother. Each day, she would fill an eight pound lard bucket with dog chow, and whatever leavings from the supper table she could find, and take them to the wire kennel where the dogs spent their time awaiting the next call to duty. Sam quickly devoured his meal, but Tony would wait until no humans were around before touching his food, and, then, he would ignore the scraps in it, to the delight of Sam, who was happy to lick the bowl clean.
In time, the trail of dog chow that extended from the back porch of our house to the dog kennel began to attract other animals who relished the taste of ground corn mixed with molasses. Soon, neighbors started complaining about seeing rats in our backyard and that was true. I had seen them myself, their whiskered noses peeking from holes in the ground, and their long reptilian tails disappearing under the shrubbery. It was obvious that my family was, quickly, becoming persona non grata in the Dixie community. That was due to change, however.
One morning, when my mother and I went to the kennel with the dog’s daily ration, we saw Sam lying on the ground beside his bowl. Although his eyes were open, he made no movement. Sam had tracked his last firebug and had gone to that place where all good dogs go when their work in this mortal realm is done. An autopsy later revealed that he had been poisoned by strychnine. Someone had fed Sam tainted food and it had killed him. That Tony survived was, presumably, due to his picky eating habits.
Wisely, the Forest Service concluded that Tony had worn out his welcome in the Dixie community and he was moved to a northern ranger district. When that took place, the agency’s experiment in using bloodhounds to enforce no-burning laws came to an end. It was replaced with an educational program involving movie projectors and an electric generator, but that is another story. I will never forget Texas Black Sam, though. He was a good friend and seemed to enjoy listening to my childhood banter. From birth until death, life is a learning experience and Sam’s passing was my first taste of the latter. I have seen more, too much more, in the years since we found my friend lying lifeless on the cold ground. It never gets easier. But, I like to think that, someday, when I have passed over into that home that has been promised to me, I will find Sam waiting for me. I won’t mind at all if he wants to lick my face.