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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


The Square Dog is Stricken

BUSY had slept badly, and he was worried about it. He had always been such a sound sleeper. When all other pursuits failed and time hung heavy on his paws, even in the face of hunger and disparagement he had hitherto been able to depend on sleep. But last night had been a bad one. As a matter of fact, the square dog had so little of importance on his mind he was becoming neurotic about it, which is one of the troubles with so many modern dogs. They have neither to think nor shift for themselves.

Consumed with self-pity he bleakly sniffed his way about the house in the early-morning hours. Nothing smelled right, and when nothing smells right to a dog he is out of luck indeed. He found himself wondering how he was ever going to get through the long day confronting him. What a night it had been! He felt that if he did not bite something or somebody almost immediately his nerves would snap.

After he had been so rudely awakened from his slumber in the snug coffin the game had been up. No dog could sleep in the same room with that man Brown whistling and rasping in the darkness. Every time the mortician snored, which was steadily, Busy had thought he was being either called or vilified. Of course, there was no putting up with that. In one corner after another the dog had searched for sleep only to find them empty. He had even tried his own private quarters in the kitchen, but to no avail.

He wondered now if it would do any good to go in and bite the mortician. Busy decided against the idea. It would take a lion to disturb that horrid man. In his heart Busy envied him his repose.

He padded upstairs in search of absolutely nothing. There were the stairs—one might just as well go up them. Somebody had to go up those stairs. He would do it. An open window in the hall gave on to a balcony that ran the breadth of the house. Busy lugged himself through this window and regarded the day with a dubious eye. It did not smell right. Too bad he couldn't bite it. Any other dog was welcome to this day. He did not want it.

Glancing along the balcony, he remarked that the French windows of the master's and mistress's room were open. He would go in there and barge about, knock something over if he could—wake them both up. He felt he would risk almost anything to relieve the depressing solitude. After all, a dog had to have some companionship. He wondered if they thought he was a bird in a gilded cage, a mere thing with no needs or life of his own.

All of which goes to show that Busy, usually the best of dogs, could become a very bad one merely through the loss of sleep.

He padded through the French windows, then squatted squarely down and stared fixedly at his master. There would be a really nice man if he only understood more about dogs. Busy transferred his gaze to Lorna. That one would never suffer from lack of sleep. She was burrowed in like a squirrel. One small hand hung limply over the side of the bed. Busy could not resist sniffing it a little. It was a good sniff, the first agreeable sniff of the day, but then, his mistress always smelled pleasantly. He tried the hand delicately with the tip of his tongue. Automatically the hand moved and made a feeble attempt to pat the dog's square head. Well, that was a little something, at any rate, some slight recognition.

Then Busy discovered something that aroused his worst instincts. The door to his master's sacredly private dark room was half open. Never had he been allowed in that room, and it seemed unfair. He would go in there now and find out what it was all about. Certainly it must be a matter of food. People were always barring his path to food. They conspired to keep him hungry.

The moment Busy entered the dark room his nose was assailed by a symphony of smells it had never dealt with before. The multitude of smells in that room gave the dog a momentary glimpse of a larger and busier life. Here was a new world of smells from which his master had selfishly excluded him. Might as well make the most of his present opportunity. It might never come again.

Springing to a long bench, the square dog began a methodical sniffing of the individual bottles, lingering long over some and with-drawing with repugnance from others. Two flat, moplike paws were pressed against the shelf on which the bottles stood, and in his eagerness to get in as much sniffing as possible before retribution fell, Busy allowed one of these paws to brush a bottle to the floor. There was a small noise of shattering glass, and then the room was filled with the most difficult smell the dog had ever tried to study.

Busy caught his breath and kept his eyes on the door. Soon it would be all over with him, and he did not much care. As time passed and nobody came, Busy began to take heart. He was glad now that his master and his mistress could sleep so deeply. Probably he could knock all those bottles off the shelf and still not disturb their slumbers. He felt almost inclined to try it, but decided instead to investigate this mystifying smell. Accordingly, he jumped to the floor and approached an experienced nose to the fluid. For a long time he sniffed, then thrust out his tongue. Not nice. It tasted like a sneeze. Busy tried again just to make certain, then he decided to get himself the hell out of there. If his master kept such stuff in that room it was no place for a dog.

Mr. Bland had heard the noise made by the smashed bottle. He had opened one eye and kept it open. Further than that he had not acted. Now he saw the square dog issue from the dark room and disappear through the French windows.

"You dirty, white, square-headed bum," Mr. Bland inelegantly muttered, then closed his eye in sleep.

Some hours later, while they were dressing, Lorna decided to take her husband to the doctor. His case needed investigation. When he had fully awakened he had shaken his own hand to discover whether he was a skeleton or a man in the flesh. He had been happy to find he was still in the flesh. Perhaps he might remain so permanently. He did not have much hope, however. When Lorna suggested the doctor, Mr. Bland had at first rebelled. Eventually he had capitulated, as, eventually, all husbands do.

It was a bright, fair day, one of those portions of weather that bring householders out of their snug little houses in snug little suburban towns. Husbands do things to their lawns, and wives do things to their baby carriages. People get themselves on to the streets, where they do nothing at all save block the way for others who have something to do. Taken all in all, it is an exhibition of man at his worst—a futile and fatuous reaction of a community to sunlight and blue sky.

Into this brave day Lorna introduced her husband. On a leash he was leading Busy, the leash being a precaution against numerous delays caused by the dog's insistence on investigating the neighbours' pets, premises, and other private property.

Behind them in the house Mr. Brown still lay slumbering. They had left a note for him strongly suggesting that for his own sake he should go back to work and that for theirs he should take his coffin with him. They asked him to call again, but not accompanied by good old 1007-A.

As they walked along the street Mr. Bland became faintly conscious of a slight tapping sound behind him, as if someone were doing silly things with a cane. However, at first the sounds were not sufficiently arresting to capture his entire attention. He was much more interested in Lorna, who seemed to be in one of her less harsh and caustic moods. This, perhaps, was due to the fact that she was happily telling him what he in turn should tell the doctor.

"Listen, Quint," she was saying, "make no bones about it."

"I hope not," replied her husband. "I've had enough of that."

"Don't be funny," said Lorna, briefly. "It doesn't become you. As I was saying, don't be delicate about it. Just walk up to this doctor person and tell him the whole story. That's why I'm taking you to a new doctor instead of toold Freeman. He won't know a thing about you, so he may believe your story. Old Freeman, knowing you as he does, would naturally put you down for a liar."

"How you do love to go into everything," observed Mr. Bland. "Do you hear some damn' fool following us with a cane?"

"I've been hearing it for some minutes," replied Lorna, "and it's making me nervous."

"I wish he would get ahead of us," said Mr. Bland, glancing back over his shoulder. Then suddenly he stopped. "Oh, look," he spluttered. "For goodness' sakes. Dear, dear, what a pity. Lorna, this is too bad."

"What's the matter?" asked Lorna, not wishing to look around. "Is the poor man blind?"

"Hell, no," said Mr. Bland. "I've got my own flesh back, but my dog's lost his."

"What!" gasped Lorna. "Mean to tell me—Oh, this is quite impossible."

"I just wish you'd take a look."

"I'm afraid I'll be forced to," she said, turning round and confronting the dog.

Now the skeleton of a dog is an altogether different proposition from that of a man. Strangely enough, it is even less palatable and far more conspicuous. When thinking of skeletons the average person, for no definite reason, almost invariably visualises a human skeleton instead of that of a horse or a cow or a dog. For this reason the human skeleton if not altogether acceptable is at least a familiar concept. About the skeleton of a dog there is something exceptionally unalluring, especially when that skeleton is jauntily animated. There is a suggestion of great speed and mobility and of a wide striking radius. In a pinch one might run or hide from a human skeleton, but not from a dog's. It would either overtake one or smell one out.

Busy in the bone was one of those things no normal person would ever want to see again. When Mr. Bland and Lorna stopped he stopped, too, and sat down with a pronounced tap.

"He'll chip himself to splinters," said Lorna, "if he carries on like that."

"The poor sap was in my dark room early this morning," said Mr. Bland, "and he knocked over a bottle of that formula I had brought from the office. That's what did it."

Suddenly the once square dog was seized with a desire to scratch. One of his hind legs got into action and rattled across his ribs like a stick across fence palings. This was too much for even the dog. He uttered a sharp yelp and looked up at his owners; then, lifting a front paw, he studied it searchingly.

"I never thought I'd live to be present on such a ghastly occasion," murmured Lorna. "Come on, we can't stand here like this. We'll have to make the best of a bad situation."

She took her husband's arm, and they continued on down the street, Busy tapping behind them.

"I can't stand that," said Lorna at last. "You'll have to make him walk on the grass."

So Busy was made to walk on the grass bordering either side of the street. A near-sighted gentleman coming down his front walk almost stepped on the dog.

"Great Scott!" he exclaimed. "What in hell is that?"

Both Lorna and Mr. Bland pretended they had not heard and continued on their way. The gentleman took out his glasses and fixed them firmly on his nose. Then, bending far over, he followed the skeleton of Busy. Disliking such a prolonged scrutiny from a stranger, the dog cocked his head on his vertebrae and made a bad sound at him.

"Great God!" exclaimed the gentleman this time, considering the substitution of the Deity permissible under the circumstances. "The thing can also make sounds. Decidedly unpleasant sounds." The gentleman was either a complete fool or else bereft of fear, for he thrust out a gloved hand and actually touched the dog on the tip of his tail. This time Busy's teeth clicked like a trap.

"God bless and keep me!" muttered the gentleman, invoking divine protection. "What a thing it is. My goodness! What a thing it is."

Leaving Busy to his own devices, the gentleman overtook Mr. Bland and tapped him politely on the shoulder.

"Pardon the intrusion," apologised the gentleman, "but do you know there's something following you?"

"Yes," said Mr. Bland, imperturbably, "Yes, I do. It's my dog."

"Your dog!" repeated the gentleman, vastly surprised. "What sort of a dog is it, may I ask?"

"Oh, just the usual sort of dog," Mr. Bland told him.

The gentleman removed his glasses and wiped them meticulously. Then he looked back at the skeleton of Busy.

"I find it a most unusual sort of a dog," he said at last. "It hasn't got any skin on and no hair at all. Dogs usually have one or the other, most times both."

"This dog has been intensively inbred," said Mr. Bland, wishing the gentleman would go away.

"Have you seen your dog recently?" asked the gentleman.

"Not within the last ten minutes," said Mr. Bland. "Why do you ask?"

"Well," replied the gentleman, "I don't want to alarm you, but I'm afraid you'll find most of your dog gone. I mean to say, what's left of it isn't a dog, properly speaking. It's merely the framework of a dog. Look for yourself."

Against his will, Mr. Bland looked back at Busy, then uttered a short laugh.

"Why, that isn't the dog I meant," he said. "That's just a toy."

"We bought it last year in Germany," put in Lorna. "They're clever that way."

"I should say so," said the gentleman. "I looked through this one's ribs and I couldn't see a cog of clockwork."

"You wind him up by the tail," explained Lorna.

"You do!" exclaimed the gentleman. "Fancy that. I just touched it on the tip of its tail and your toy fairly snapped at me."

"That's one of its amusing tricks," said Mr. Bland.

"Amusing for whom?" asked the gentleman. "I was greatly startled, but your toy seemed to enjoy it." He glanced back, then once more tapped Mr. Bland on the shoulder. "I thought you might like to know," he said in a low voice. "There are lots of people following us."

Lorna could not resist casting a glance over her shoulder.

"About half of the village," she muttered, "including a cop. What are we going to do with the damn' dog?"

"Carry it in your arms."

"My arms!" she exclaimed. "Carry that horror in my arms? Don't be silly."

"We'll both be silly if this keeps up," said Mr. Bland. "One more person added to that throng and it will look like a parade."

"Then pick him up and carry him in your own arms," suggested Lorna.

"For some reason I feel disinclined," said Mr. Bland. "Maybe this gentleman would carry him. He seems to be almost frantically interested."

"Want to carry the funny toy?" Lorna asked him as if addressing a child.

"Dear me, no," said the man. "I'm sorry to admit it, but I'm afraid of that funny toy."

At this moment the funny toy in question suddenly faced about and in no uncertain terms began to curse at the interested spectators behind him.

"That toy barks just like a dog," the gentleman informed them. "If I shut my eyes I'd think it was a dog."

"Damn," muttered Mr. Bland. "It's tragic enough being a skeleton one's self without one's dog getting that way."

The policeman detached himself from the crowd and hurried up to the smaller group. Before he arrived Mr. Bland carefully picked up Busy and held him in his arms.

"Be still," he whispered. "Be a dead dog, Busy." At this command the scaffolding of Busy obediently collapsed.

"That toy absolutely mystifies me," said the near-sighted gentleman. "If I didn't know it was impossible I'd say the thing was alive. Dear me, here's a policeman. Fancy that. I think I know this fellow. Morning, Officer Burke. Want to see a funny toy?"

"I want to see what this gentleman is holding in his arms," said Officer Burke, looking closely at the relaxed skeleton of Busy. "It's causing a public disturbance."

"Sorry, officer," said Mr. Bland. "I'm taking it to be stuffed."

"Stuffed?" said Officer Burke. "Stuffed where?

"Now, officer, that's difficult," admitted Mr. Bland. "You know, just all over, the way they do. And anyway, what does it matter?"

Officer Burke seemed to think it important.

"Stuffed," he repeated, as if trying to convince himself he had heard correctly. "What are you going to stuff it with?"

"God, officer, how should I know? What do they stuff things with?" asked the exasperated Mr. Bland. "I'm not a taxidermist."

"Meaning that I am?" said the officer threateningly. "Better be careful who you call names."

"No harm intended," replied Mr. Bland. "A taxidermist is quite all right, you know."

"Yeah," sneered Officer Burke. "Well, you can be a taxi whatever you call it. I don't like the word. And another thing, that skeleton can't be stuffed. There ain't any place for stuffing."

"All right," said Mr. Bland. "If it will make you any happier I'll give up the whole idea. I won't get it stuffed. What do we do next?"

"That skeleton of a beast," said Officer Burke, "was jogging along the streets and barking at people, and you can't tell me anything different. I saw it with my own eyes."

"It's a toy, officer," explained the near-sighted gentleman. "This lady bought it in Germany."

"Yes, officer," said Lorna, sweetly. "It's just a little toy. You wind it up by its tail."

At this point in the discussion Busy grew tired of being a dead dog and made that fact known by an expansive yawn. Then he stuck out his head and took a sniff of Officer Burke, after which he began to wriggle vigorously to be put down.

"I can't hold him," cried Mr. Bland.

"For God's sake do," said Officer Burke. "That damn' thing is alive."

"What?" asked the near-sighted gentleman. "Then it isn't a German toy after all."

"Put the dog down," Lorna commanded. "He might twist himself in two."

As Mr. Bland placed the wriggling skeleton of Busy on its feet, Officer Burke drew his revolver. Both Lorna and Mr. Bland threw themselves in front of the gun. A brief struggle ensued, which was interrupted by the mild voice of the near-sighted gentleman.

"Oh, look," he said. "Now, that is strange."

The three contestants paused to look. Seated on the pavement was a whole and complete Busy. From the crowd behind came exclamations of awe and wonderment. Officer Burke blinked stupidly, which was the only way Officer Burke could blink.

"Come," said Lorna to her husband. "They certainly do have the most peculiar policemen inthis town. Come along, Busy. That nice man was going to shoot you."

They strolled off down the street, leaving the near-sighted gentleman and Officer Burke in a state of mental turmoil. Finally the policeman found it essential to express himself in action. Luckily for him there was a job close at hand. As he looked at the crowd his anger mounted. Then, when his rage had been satisfactorily worked up, he charged down upon the peaceful but naturally curious citizens of that community.

"Clear out of this," he shouted, "or I'll back up the wagon."

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