Life With Wild Bill

By Ray Hill
George Graham Vest, an outstanding attorney and U. S. senator from Missouri, is still remembered to this day for his tribute to dogs.  Vest had been hired by Charles Burden whose dog, Old Drum, had been killed by his brother-in-law, Leonidas Hornsby, who was also a sheep farmer.  Hornsby had loudly insisted he would kill any dog which might step onto his property, and he kept his word when Drum, a foxhound, trespassed.  An enraged Burden promptly took the only legal course available to him, suing his brother-in-law for damages in the amount of $150.  In 1870 that was a right fair sum, as it would be more than $3,000 today.  It was the maximum amount permitted by the law at the time.

The colorful Vest pledged to win the trial or offer an apology to every dog in the State of Missouri.  In his closing argument, George Graham Vest did not reiterate any facts ascertained from the testimony of witnesses, but rather shrewdly appealed to the jury through his eulogy to dogs in general.  Vest’s oration remains as potent today as it was then:

“The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy.  His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful.  Those who are nearest and dearest to us, whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith.  The money a man has, he may lose.  It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most…

“A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness.  He sleeps on the cold ground, where the wintry wind blows and the snow drives fiercely.  If only he may be near his master’s side.  He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world.  He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince.  When all other friends desert, he remains.  When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

“If fortune drives the master forth as an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all friend pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.”

Nobody can be surprised Vest won that case, which Leonidas Hornsby took to the Missouri State Supreme Court to no avail.  George Graham Vest won that case as well and a statue of Old Drum stands in the Missouri State Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City.

Anyone familiar with me personally or this column could not possibly be surprised by my love for dogs.  I still hear from folks who talk about the column I wrote when my beloved little Scottish terrier, Mackie, passed away.  This story is about my Jack Russell terrier, Billy.

Mackie was suffering from bladder cancer when it occurred to me a puppy might help to extend his life.  I determined I would not get another Scottie as I realized all too well Mackie was slipping away from me day by day.  It would be just too painful a reminder.  I decided to find a Jack Russell terrier and quickly discovered they weren’t exactly easy to find.  My friend Cameron Brooks discovered a young Jack Russell available nearby and I made an appointment with the vet/breeder.  I had been pondering names for a puppy and had just about made up my mind to name him “Billy.”  I was astonished to see that the puppy Cameron brought to my attention was named Billy.

On January 11, 2020, I drove to keep my appointment and the vet had two puppies of about 12 weeks along with Billy, who would soon be eleven months old.  The puppies were full of energy, curiosity and determination.  They were as friendly as could be and even more playful.  Billy put up with their antics, remaining slightly aloof and I considered he was entitled to be a bit standoffish as he had been neutered the day before.  I was at least smart enough to take the hint the Lord God had offered; the fact the puppy’s name was Billy was a mighty big hint.  I bought Billy and we got in the car to come home.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget how he sat in the passenger seat; Billy’s head was down and he was trembling with fear.  I tried to comfort him and when we got home, I attached his leash, which he didn’t much like.  Billy had never been walked on a leash, nor potty trained.  Billy did well enough, and we walked through the door and Mackie stood upright in his crate when he saw Billy.  Billy responded by wagging his tail.  That was the first time I had seen Billy wag his tail.

Mackie came out of his crate and the two of them played nonstop for the better part of three hours that first day.  Playtime occurred daily until Mackie finally became so ill he just couldn’t muster the energy any longer.  Each evening, Mackie would get on the sofa in the den in his preferred spot next to me.  The first night Billy observed from the floor; the second night, he jumped up onto the sofa and settled himself between Mackie and me.  Within a week or so, Billy began laying his little head on my thigh while we were on the sofa.  That’s when Mackie began shoving Billy to the floor and sprawling on my leg, peering down at a very surprised little fellow.  Billy quickly adapted to our routine and followed Mackie outside on his leash.  After initially almost demolishing his crate, I bought a bigger one which he seemed to like better.

I still believe bringing Billy home extended Mackie’s life, but I also knew the eventual outcome was inevitable.  Mackie passed away on August 3, 2020, less than seven months after I brought Billy home.  The pain of losing Mackie was intense and deep.  I miss him still and suspect I always will.  Yet, it wasn’t long before I concluded that if God had need of Mackie and took him back, he had provided me with someone to look after and love.  Mackie had slept on his Serta bed beside mine in our bedroom and I missed him.  My friend Judy Pennoyer suggested bringing Billy back to my bedroom.  I brought his crate and placed it in the bedroom, which Billy did not like at all.  Finally, I just brought Billy back to the bedroom and watched him jump from the floor onto the bed like a tiny gazelle.  He’s slept there every night since.  Another odd thing was, after Mackie passed, Billy without fail goes into Mackie’s crate to eat his breakfast and dinner.

Billy proved to be a most engaging companion with many similarities to Mackie, although they are quite different in many respects.  Mackie had the quiet dignity of an older gentleman, while Billy had the enthusiasm of a young boy.  Like all of us, they had their likes and dislikes.  Billy will sit patiently (for him) to be brushed, but if I produce a comb, he tries to bite it or take it from me.  Clearly, he believes a comb to be some kind of instrument of the Devil, an attitude that I shared as a lad.

Billy has several great loves; food (mine and his own), treats, his chuck-it balls, riding in the car, walks, and going through drive-thru windows.  Nor does Wild Bill mind going to the vet where he knows everyone and gets groomed regularly.  Where once he waited to see if someone was friendly, now he pretty much assumes someone is friendly and reacts accordingly.

Billy’s dislikes include the aforementioned combs, squirrels, bugs, and those slow-witted individuals who are apparently unaware he is to be given a tidbit or morsel whenever he appears at a drive-thru window.  According to Billy, there is no exception to this rule.

For those who think Billy lolls about all day, he would contend he has several vital responsibilities, which include alerting me to any visitor, notifying me when the postman arrives, and reminding me that my phone is ringing.  When Wild Bill believes I am spending too much time writing, he leaps into my lap and sits so that I cannot see the screen.  Sometimes he may think it is fine for me to write, but only while he is in my lap.  Another thing that Billy approves of is napping on the weekends.

Billy has a special fondness for holidays, especially Christmas.  Wild Bill firmly believes the fundamental meaning of the Christmas spirit is sharing bits of prime rib.  Depending upon the visitor, Billy will lavish attention upon those who come to his home.  Wild Bill’s least favorite holiday seems to be Halloween, as he most emphatically dislikes scary masks and little ghosts prowling about.  I also wonder if he isn’t too keen on the idea of small children getting what he suspects might be his treats.

Billy is also convinced he keeps the neighborhood safe for its residents as he has barked at and run off deer, raccoons, and all manner of vermin.  Billy also gazes at joggers with what I believe is a look of pity.  He always looks to see what might be chasing them.

As to playing ball, Billy isn’t as fond of chasing the ball as much as he likes it bounced so that he can leap to try and catch it in midair.  He only likes to chase it when he happens not to grab it in flight.

Like most small children, it is always wise to keep an eye on Billy.  If he’s being quiet, it’s usually a sign that he is into something.  Billy is a four-legged shredder, and he has destroyed countless dish towels.  Paper is also a favorite to shred, and Billy is prone to destroy any carelessly set aside document.

Billy also has kleptomaniacal tendencies.  I once was folding laundry when I noticed a towel apparently slithering away on its own.  Socks are a favorite item and Billy will sort through the laundry bin to find an occasional sock if he can.  He is also fond of stealing presents meant for others should he happen to fancy them.  Once I bought my younger sister a Baby Yoda doll as a joke.  As soon as Wild Bill caught sight of Baby Yoda, he was both enchanted and obsessed.  At the very first, I put Baby Yoda on the dining room table until I put him in the closet for safekeeping.  Going to change, I emerged from my room to see Baby Yoda’s robe turning a corner.  I saw Billy dragging Baby Yoda by the ear to what I am sure was a terrible fate.  Apparently, Billy’s sympathies lie with the Empire.

Once I retrieved Baby Yoda from certain death and placed him in the closet, Billy stationed himself stubbornly outside the closet, waiting for the moment they would be reunited.

Dogs give life even more meaning and fill one with joy and happiness.  There is hardly a day when Billy doesn’t cause me to laugh out loud.

What George Graham Vest said about dogs was exactly right.  There is nothing or no one who will love you like your dog does.  I contend that amongst God’s many creations, the dog is His most perfect. © 2023 Ray Hill