First published in the September 1937 issue of Field & Stream under the title “Old Muggins” and subsequently in The Best of Babcock (1974), this wonderful story now appears in The Greatest Quail Hunting Book Ever, new from Sporting Classics.
The first time I saw him, I thought he was dead. He lay sprawled in the middle of the street, his bulging carcass broadside to the midday sun. An automobile came thumping around the corner, jerked to a protesting stop, and blew its horn. The big dog lifted his massive head, glared malevolently at the intruder, and resumed his dozing. The driver laughed good-naturedly and detoured.
I turned to an overalled stripling leaning against the jamb of the drugstore door.
“What’s wrong with that dog?”
“Aw, that ain’t nobody but Muggins,” he answered, as if no other explanation were necessary.
“Won’t he get killed there?” I asked anxiously.
“Reckon not. Muggins belongs to the sheriff,” he replied laconically.
“What’s he good for?”
“Dawg or sheriff?” the boy countered.
“Passes for a bird dawg.”
“Sheriff much of a hunter?” I inquired.
“Sheriff don’t hunt a-tall, lessen hit’s for stills maybe,” he laughed shortly. “Don’t take no stock in nothin’ but coon dawgs myself, mister; but if Muggins ain’t a sight better ’n he looks, I’d say he ain’t worth a whoop. From all the argufyin’ a passel of these here courthouse sports do about who’s goin’ to hunt him, though, you’d think he was a right smart critter. Sort of a take-up dawg. Visits around and hunts to suit hisself, I reckon.”
This unadorned and rather grudging description interested me, so I walked over for a closer look. Muggins wasn’t much to look at, for a fact. Dropper he plainly was. Although I had owned and hunted droppers, I had never seen anything calling itself a bird dog that remotely resembled this abdominous mugwump dozing in the sun. He was about the oddest byproduct nature ever turned out.
Muggins was built along heroic, if unlovely, lines. A huge, over-corpulent fellow, he was as heavily jowled and massively chested as a bulldog. A comically bobbed tail accentuated his pudginess.
Surely such a misbegotten brute couldn’t be much of a bird dog. Still, I was to remain in the little foothills town through the hunting season, and all I had to depend on was a fancy and flighty Llewellin debutante with half a season’s experience. If this lazy-looking Falstaff lying in the street was of the “take-up” variety and good enough to be “argufied” about, it might be worthwhile to cultivate his acquaintance.
“Muggins, old man, how are you?” I prodded him with my foot.
It took a second inquiry to bring any response. Lifting his bear-like head, he blinked at me incuriously with his red eyes, laid his head back on the pavement, and sighed heavily, as if to say, “You must have the wrong number, mister!”
At the little hotel where I was staying, I casually picked up a few sidelights on the whimsical old fellow who had so piqued my interest. Mine host, who was garrulous enough on any topic, told me that Muggins was notorious for his visiting, that he was a privileged character in the little courthouse town, and that everybody accepted him and his crotchets as a matter of course. The sheriff, he said, had long ago become reconciled to his vagabond habits and allowed the dog to hunt about with friends of his own choosing.
I also learned that Ned Farrabee, proprietor of the drugstore, was one of the group of hunters among whom Muggins apportioned his time; that Muggins himself nightly hung out there to keep himself posted on the doings of the town; and that any of the gang who foregathered there could tell me about the dog. So I made it a practice to drop by the drugstore at night for a cigar and an idle chat. I soon found an occasion to introduce myself to the proprietor, jockeyed the conversation around to dogs and hunting, and finally led him to my special interest.
“Funny thing about Muggins,” he said. “Nothing seems to happen to him. Old hellion seems to be immune to disease, accidents, and whatnot. Why, two years ago, when half the dogs in town was dyin’ of black tongue, he come through without a scratch. And last year, when an epidemic of hydrophobia broke out and nearly every dog of any account died, Muggins kept gallivantin’ around like a country parson, nosin’ into everybody’s business as usual.
“And the blunderin’ idiot takes his naps in the street and makes the cars go around him. Miracle he hasn’t been killed, except everybody knows him and he belongs to the sheriff. Belongs to the whole town, really. When good dogs are plentiful, he don’t get much attention in huntin’ time, but somethin’ or other happens, and we fall back on him. Of course, he’s as ugly as homemade soap and ain’t rightly much of a dog, but—Hey, Henry,” he called to a clerk. “Give Muggins his cone of cream so he’ll go on out.”
A few nights later I was lucky enough to run into Punch Dorsey, the town butcher and one of the coterie who hunted Muggins. We fell to chatting about dogs, and before the confab ended my dropper friend cropped up again.
“Never was a dog with less of what you might call ‘style,’” he said. “Looks like he ain’t doin’ nothin’, yet somehow or other I can kill more birds over him than any dog I ever hunted. But hardheaded and set in his ways as a Georgia mule! You can’t tell ’im nothin’. When you hunt with Muggins, you got to hunt his way. And he’s notioney.
“About the steadiest dog you ever saw, and won’t bat an eye at a county full of rabbits when he’s really bird huntin’; but all at once he’ll quit birds cold and go on a rabbit-huntin’ spree. Why, last year didn’t the old son-of-a-gun leave me flat in the middle of the field and take up with a howlin’ bunch of rabbit hunters the rest of the day? As I was sayin’, sir, in some respects he ain’t much of a dog, and I don’t reckon no gentleman would hardly put up with ’im,” he concluded.
Along in October the druggist, Ned Farrabee, Punch Dorsey, Slim Menefee, the county surveyor, and I fell into a doggy conversation over a game of pool. From a symposium on dogs in general they finally progressed, or retrogressed, as Slim Menefee said, to a discussion of Muggins. There were still a few things about the strange dog I couldn’t figure out.
“If Muggins is really a good dog and belongs to nobody in particular, how do you fellows divide him up in hunting season?” I asked.
“Well,” answered Menefee, “when the five of us started huntin’ him, we asked the sheriff to act as referee, since we were all his friends. But the sheriff said he was hands-off, that the Logan-Dewberry feud had started over a dog, and a hound dog at that, and we’d have to settle it ourselves. So we drifted into an arrangement that’s been more or less satisfactory.
“As you probably know, Muggins is one of those gregarious fellows who visit a lot. Only five of us here hunt much. Muggins knows that, and he kind of divides his time amongst us in hunting season. We just wait for him to come around. There’s a rough sort of equity in the way the old hobo does it, too.”
“It’s a wonder somebody doesn’t pen him up in hunting season, or steal him,” I suggested.
“Not such a wonder,” answered Ned Farrabee. “In the first place, it’s impossible to keep Muggins up for long. Too much dog and too much sense. Two years ago he hobbled into the drugstore with a broken front leg and a piece of poultry wire around his neck. We had a kind of committee meetin’ that night, and the next day Punch Dorsey went out to see a squatter who had moved in on Troublesome Creek.
“It seems like Punch had a little conversation with the fellow”—here the narrator grinned knowingly and looked at the massive Dorsey—“and the next day he decided to ‘put the fire out and whistle for his dog,’ as we say here. Besides, you couldn’t make Muggins hunt for you unless he wanted to, anyway. Independent cuss. Why, last year didn’t he leave me flat, come back to town, and take Will Coffin out huntin’? And for no reason at all. Half bird dog and half fool, if you ask me.”
“Why doesn’t somebody buy him from the sheriff?” I asked casually, and instantly saw that I had stepped off on the wrong foot. There was a quick, meaningful exchange of glances, and the pool game suffered a momentary lull.
“Sheriff wouldn’t hardly sell ’im.” The druggist looked at me with cue poised. “And it wouldn’t be a very sportin’ thing for anybody to do, anyway.”
“Ain’t very likely,” remarked the huge Dorsey unsmilingly.
“Wouldn’t meet with what you might call ‘unanimous approval’ around here, I reckon,” added Slim Menefee.
“You have me dead wrong, boys,” I put in quickly. “It was an idle question. I hadn’t the remotest idea of trying it, I assure you.”
The slight tension broke, everybody laughed, and the game continued.
“Nothin’ like an understandin’ among friends,” said Dorsey, and I was pleased at the tacit inclusion of myself. “But tell you what: If Muggins chooses to add you to his huntin’ list, ain’t a one of us will complain, or hinder ’im, or feel hard toward you, sir. It’s up to Muggins.”
“That’s generous of you, and I appreciate it,” I told them. And I did.
So Muggins was not only a town character, but apparently town property. And he really was. When his leg broke it was Slim Menefee who took him 40 miles to a veterinarian to have it properly splinted. At intervals too frequent to suit Muggins, he was put through what the druggist vaguely called “a course o’ medicine.”
Will Coffin and Cliff Walters, the other members of the quintet who hunted him, took turns at paying taxes on him and outfitting him with new collars. For his part, Punch Dorsey fed him enough beef scraps to keep half a kennel, and all five men would have fought a sheriff’s posse for him at any time.
I began to wonder where I figured in the picture. It was obviously time for me to do a little friend-making on my own account. Muggins would call on me in due time, they had said, and, sure enough, he did. One October morning I found him waiting for me on the porch of the hotel. For the rest of the day he attached himself unshakably to me, went where I went, and did what I did. He could not have been more adhesive had I owned him since puppyhood and had a fee simple title to him. And he refused to accept attentions from anybody else during his visit. That was the way Muggins visited.
On the second day I had a carpenter build a comfortable kennel for him behind the hotel. Maybe I could get him into the habit of sleeping there. I also bribed the hotel cooks to pitch him tidbits from the backdoor. Perhaps a good, hefty steak would make an impression on him, I decided. But as we entered the butcher shop and I pointed out an expensive cut to the clerk, Punch Dorsey’s voice hailed me from the rear.
“If it’s for Muggins, he’d just as lief have that round steak. Do him as much good as that forty-cent stuff. I’m here to sell meat, and I ain’t aimin’ to meddle; but if you’re tryin’ to make an impression on Muggins so he’ll remember you later on—” He shook his head good-naturedly. “Ongrateful old cuss, sir.”
When we went by the drugstore and I set him up to ice cream, I came in for more kidding.
“Might as well save your money, Doc!” called out Will Coffin. “It’s been tried before.”
The whole town knew that I was making up to Muggins, and nobody seemed to mind. For his part, my guest accepted everything I offered him, including the kennel, with great gravity. In spite of the attentions I showered upon him, however, he unceremoniously walked off on the fourth day.
The next I heard of him he had taken up with an outfit of wheat-threshers and was following them about the neighborhood. Then I heard that a highway encampment was building a bridge across Rough Creek, and that Muggins was bossing the job for them. A week passed without further report on his peregrinations.
One night a farmer dropped into the drugstore for some medicine.
“Saw Muggins yesterday,” he told Ned Farrabee.
“What was he doin’?”
“Old warhorse was on the prowl, I reckon. Saw him clear over in Buckingham County.”
So the vagabond was in another county, with the hunting season only a few days off. The report was a bit disturbing.
“Suppose he’ll get back all right?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“Who, Muggins?” The crowd laughed. “Knows every pig-path and rabbit-gnaw this side o’ North Car’lina. Always goes off on a bender about this time of the year, but he’ll be strictly business later on. Shucks, that old monkey knows when the season opens as well as you do. Liable to be squattin’ on his haunches out there in front and panhandlin’ us for ice cream tomorrow night,” offered Punch Dorsey.
“Or sleepin’ in that lil’ kennel of yours,” twitted Will Coffin.
And he was. I was overjoyed to find him waiting for me the next morning, looking as patriarchal and grave as ever. There followed a determined campaign to make the dog feel at home. I danced attendance upon him. Enlisting the aid of the hotel cooks, I fed him on the fat of the kitchen. When the day before the opening came, Muggins and I were inseparable. Maybe the old hobo was settling down at last. Perhaps my kennel had turned the trick. The thought of having outmaneuvered Ned Farrabee, Will Coffin, and the rest gave me a chuckling satisfaction.
That night I met several farmers, in town for a Masonic meeting, who told me their places were overrun with birds.
“We’ve had a tolerable wet summer,” explained one, “and there’s plenty of vegetation, which means the birds are in the open fields. More partridges on my farm than I’ve seen for years. Come out tomorrow and try your hand,” he invited.
Arranging for an absence of several days from the office, I overhauled boots and gun, had the cooks pack a substantial snack for Muggins and me, and got everything in readiness for an early start the next morning. Just before retiring I went out to see whether Muggins was in status quo. There he was in the warm kennel, snoring like a trooper.
Beating the alarm, I was up and dressed by daybreak. Grabbing coat and gun, I jumped into the car and called Muggins. No response. I called again. The old codger must be oversleeping. I walked down to the kennel and looked in. For a minute I stupidly eyed the box before the full force of the blow dawned upon me. Muggins was gone!
Left high and dry on the opening day, and a crispy November morning at that, with plenty of birds and no dog. Few misfortunes that can happen to a bird hunter are comparable to that. In chagrin I turned back and changed my clothes and went to the office. I would keep away from those expert kidders at the drugstore. But during the day I ran into Punch Dorsey on the street.
“What, you not huntin’ today, Doc?” he asked, a twinkle in his eyes.
“No. Something developed at the office, and I couldn’t get off,” I lied.
“Told you Muggins was an ongrateful cuss. Know how you feel. Was up kind of early myself, thinkin’ maybe—but you can’t depend on that monkey. Fellow told me he saw ’im at Will Coffin’s house at daybreak. Two years hard-runnin’, now he’s hunted the openin’ with Will. Don’t let it worry you too much. He’ll come around sooner or later.”
But he didn’t come around. I waited vainly for three weeks while he took up successively with Will Coffin, Punch Dorsey, Cliff Walters, and the rest, and hunted several days with each. Then he disappeared. Rumor had him on a rabbit-hunting spree. The old renegade had evidently marked me off his list; so I wired my sister in Mississippi to send the Llewellin pup. She would be better than no dog.
Her telegram hardly restored my spirits: “Sally Anne down with distemper. Veterinary doing all possible but recovery doubtful. Terribly sorry.”
Whoever invests his affections in a dog gives hostages to fortune, I reminded myself. Not to be outdone entirely, I wired two other friends for dogs, only to pay charges on two wordy “regret” messages.
Well, I would give up and take a long-deferred official trip to Washington. I had my secretary arrange for an appointment and packed. But when I went out to get into the car, my eyes must have bulged in their sockets. There sat Muggins, as big as life, in the front seat. I gaped incredulously; my bag dropped to the ground. He looked up and barked a throaty invitation.
“Cancel that trip,” I called to my secretary. “Telegraph ’em I’m sick. Got the fever or something.”
“What kind?” she called back, with her punctilious regard for details.
“Any kind that’ll take about four days to recover from. Walking fever might do,” I shouted and changed into my hunting clothes.
The next four days I shall not soon forget. They were everything a hunter could wish, made doubly memorable by the crotchets of my homely but amiable companion. I soon verified what I had heard about him for months: that he had his own way of doing things.
At the very outset he showed me who was boss. When we got out of the car, I started in one direction while Muggins shambled off in another. I stopped and called to him.
“This way, Muggins!”
He stopped, turned his massive head toward me, and waited.
“This way, I say.”
Swaggering a few steps farther, he turned and eyed me again.
Then he emitted a guttural protest and trotted stubbornly on. He won the argument, as he won most of the others that arose the next few days. He did whatever I wanted him to do—when it was what he wanted to do. Not the scantiest respect did he show for any ideas I had as to where or how to hunt. To be honest, I soon discovered that he knew more about it than I did, anyway, so I stopped trying to hunt him and let him hunt me.
He didn’t do anything the way one would expect a seasoned dog to do it. His pointing, for instance. A short distance from the car he sniffed lazily and stopped. Didn’t point. Didn’t do anything. Just stopped.
“Hi on, Muggins!” I ordered.
He still refused to budge; just seemed to be criticizing the landscape. Indignantly, I walked up . . . and stepped into a thundering covey of birds.
He was short on patience, too. If I was a bit slow in getting up, he would sometimes turn his head toward me and growl irritably: “Well, what’s holdin’ you? We ain’t got all day.”
Valiantly and vainly I tried to make him retrieve. When the first bird fell and I insisted that he pick it up, he looked at me as if to say, “You’re big as I am, mister. Pick ’im up yourself. My business is to find ’em.” And when I got a little rough he went off and lay down in the shade.
Later in the day, though, he puzzled me by making a prompt and unordered retrieve of a bird that had fallen across a creek. I soon learned he would fetch a bird that fell badly, but he refused to encourage my laziness by noticing one that fell nearby or in plain view.
In the field he was the pokiest and most ineffectual-looking dog I ever saw, waddling along as if he had nowhere in particular to go and plenty of time to get there. He didn’t appear to hunt at all, just fumbled and monkeyed around, yet he could find more birds with less hunting than any dog I ever shot over. I would have sworn that he merely blundered into his birds, but the first day convinced me that, dropper though he was, he combined a really magnificent nose with that prized ingredient known as “bird sense.” He simply hunted where the birds were.
Though staunch as you please—if you accepted his idea of a point—he would not allow himself to be imposed upon. During the second day we somehow got separated. When I located him 15 minutes later, he was complacently squatting on his fat haunches in the shade of a bush with a covey feeding in front of him. And he had no apologies to offer. A comical spectacle he was, and I could not help recalling Punch Dorsey’s remark that “no gentleman would hardly put up with ’im.”
On the last day of the hunt, however, an incident occurred that the old fellow did apologize for. Although it should have disgusted any self-respecting bird hunter, it afforded me great amusement. And it was the only time I ever knew the old gentleman to lose his dignity.
I had gone to the car for shells, leaving Muggins to his own devices. When I returned he was not to be found. Calling repeatedly, I fired my gun and circled the field, but without results. Half an hour later, while rambling about alone, I blundered into a tremendous covey of birds. A few yards beyond them was indisputable evidence that the flesh is weak: there lay Muggins, sound asleep in the noonday sun.
Tired of standing, he had lain down on the job and dozed off. When I prodded him with my boot, he almost jumped out of his skin, and the droll way in which he rolled his red eyes in self-reproach made me instantly forgive him of even so gross an offense.
But it is impossible to review that hunt, or to catalog Muggins’ individualities. Certainly he was unlike any other dog I ever hunted with, and the four days I spent with him in those warm Virginia fields will always live in a niche of my memory.
It has been several years now since I hunted with Muggins. Somehow I could never quite manage another trip to the little courthouse town. Likely enough Muggins has been gathered to his fathers long ago, and other dogs, of an ancestry less ignoble, have succeeded him. But of all the dogs I have ever known, it is of that hard-bitten and uncompromising but companionable old dropper that I think most often.
The Greatest Quail Hunting Book Ever, now available in two versions: a hardcover trade edition and a deluxe edition. Also, our special gundog issue is coming up soon; be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already!