The Loaded Dog
I have a weakness for genuinely humorous writing. Like most people my sense of humour is deeply personal and what I find tear-inducingly funny, others may well find totally without wit or merit.
My favourite Australian humourist is Henry Lawson. My admiration is the result of two of his stories – “Hungerford” – an hilarious dissection of the one-pub town on the NSW-Queensland border and “The Loaded Dog” - which I rate as a genuine comic masterpiece.
It is really a shaggy dog story about “a big black young retriever dog - or rather an overgrown pup, a big foolish, four-footed mate, who was always slobbering round them and lashing their legs with his heavy tail that swung round like a stock-whip. Most of his head was usually a red, idiotic, slobbering grin of appreciation of his own silliness. He seemed to take life, the world, his two-legged mates, and his own instinct as a huge joke. He'd retrieve anything: he carted back most of the camp rubbish that Andy threw away. They had a cat that died in hot weather, and Andy threw it a good distance away in the scrub; and early one morning the dog found the cat, after it had been dead a week or so, and carried it back to camp, and laid it just inside the tent flaps, where it could best make its presence known when the mates should rise and begin to sniff suspiciously in the sickly smothering atmosphere of the summer sunrise. He used to retrieve them when they went in swimming; he'd jump in after them, and take their hands in his mouth, and try to swim out with them, and scratch their naked bodies with his paws. They loved him for his good-heartedness and his foolishness, but when they wished to enjoy a swim they had to tie him up in camp.”
It is also the story of a gold miner named Dave Regan, who is always full of good ideas and very original solutions to vexing problems.
Being unable to catch fish in the local creek, Dave decides to use a cartridge of gunpowder to blow them up. With his mates, Jim Bently and Andy Page, he builds a cartridge with powder, calico, sail canvas, paper and wax and, foolishly, leaves it where the dog, seeing it, picks it up, drags the fuse across the camp fire, and starts chasing the three men as they try to escape from the inevitable explosion.
The story continues:
“There was a small hotel or shanty on the creek, on the main road, not far from the claim. Dave was desperate; the time flew much faster in his stimulated imagination than it did in reality, so he made for the shanty. There were several casual Bushmen on the verandah and in the bar; Dave rushed into the bar, banging the door to behind him. "My dog!" he gasped, in reply to the astonished stare of the publican, "the blanky retriever - he's got a live cartridge in his mouth."
“The retriever, finding the front door shut against him, had bounded round and in by the back way, and now stood smiling in the doorway leading from the passage, the cartridge still in his mouth and the fuse spluttering. They burst out of that bar. Tommy bounded first after one and then after another, for, being a young dog, he tried to make friends with everybody.
“The Bushmen ran round corners, and some shut themselves in the stable. There was a new weatherboard and corrugated iron kitchen and washhouse on piles in the back yard, with some women washing clothes inside. Dave and the publican bundled in there and shut the door - the publican cursing Dave and calling him a crimson fool, in hurried tones, and wanting to know what the hell he came here for.
“The retriever went in under the kitchen, amongst the piles, but, luckily for those inside, there was a vicious yellow mongrel cattle-dog sulking and nursing his nastiness under there - a sneaking, fighting, thieving canine, whom neighbours had tried for years to shoot or poison. Tommy saw his danger - he'd had experience from this dog - and started out and across the yard, still sticking to the cartridge. Halfway across the yard the yellow dog caught him and nipped him. Tommy dropped the cartridge, gave one terrified yell, and took to the bush. The yellow dog followed him to the fence and then ran back to see what he had dropped.
“Nearly a dozen other dogs came from round all the corners and under the buildings, spidery, thievish, cold-blooded kangaroo-dogs, mongrel sheep and cattle dogs, vicious black and yellow dogs - that slip after you in the dark, nip your heels, and vanish without explaining, and yapping, yelping small fry. They kept at a respectable distance round the nasty yellow dog, for it was dangerous to go near him when he thought he had found something which might be good for a dog to eat.
“He sniffed at the cartridge twice, and was just taking a third cautious sniff when ... It was a very good blasting-powder - a new brand that Dave had recently got up from Sydney; and the cartridge had been excellently well made. Andy was very patient and painstaking in all he did, and nearly as handy as the average sailor with needles, twine, canvas, and rope.
“Bushmen say that that kitchen jumped off its piles and on again. When the smoke and dust cleared away, the remains of the nasty yellow dog were lying against the paling fence of the yard looking as if he had been kicked into a fire by a horse and afterwards rolled in the dust under a barrow, and finally thrown against the fence from a distance. Several saddle horses, which had been 'hanging-up' round the verandah, were galloping wildly down the road in clouds of dust, with broken bridle-reins flying; and from a circle round the outskirts, from every point of the compass in the scrub, came the yelping of dogs. Two of them went home, to the place where they were born, thirty miles away, and reached it the same night and stayed there; it was not till towards evening that the rest came back cautiously to make inquiries. One was trying to walk on two legs, and most of 'em looked more or less singed; and a little, singed, stumpy tailed dog, who had been in the habit of hopping the back half of him along on one leg, had reason to be glad that he'd saved up the other leg all those years, for he needed it now.”
The local vet in Whyalla, Dr Andrew Melville-Smith, commissioned the great Scottish sculptor, Andy Scott (he was responsible for the superb and huge “The Kelpies” at Falkirk) to sculpt the Loaded Dog which now stands outside the Whyalla Veterinary Clinic.
Scott has been commissioned to make at least 15 sculptures which are spread around Australia including “Chiron” at Sydney’s Olympic Park, “Arabesque” at Broadbeach in Queensland and “Argestes Aqua” at Byron Bay.
Anyway, here’s his more modest Loaded Dog in Whyalla … and it was a good excuse to remind myself of my favourite humorous story.