Four-footed comet

My neighbor telephoned me at the office again today. "It's out," she gasped. Formerly, I would have panicked. Today, I managed a "Thank you," and only my hand trembled as I replaced the receiver on its cradle. I'm improving.

"It," actually, is a "she," a liver-and- white pointer as lovable as she is adept at climbing fences. I named her Amanda, but she prefers Mandy. She has also answered to "Madam Houdini" and "It."

Mandy entered my life as a timid, runt- of-the-litter pup, afraid to "point" her own shadow. She is no radical leash-burner, but once she got a taste of career life, there's been no containing her infectious rascality.

I'll never forget the vet's assurance when I went to pick her up after her spaying operation. "Take my word for it," he said, "this pup will now settle down to a quiet, retiring life of sleeping by the fireside." In all good faith, I took the man's word. Mandy slinked out of his office without a whimper. But this was the last time in her life she has been quiet or slinked anywhere.

Heretofore, Mandy had been terrified of storms. A couple of months after her "retirement," we had a dilly of a hailstorm. Heavy winds bent eighty-foot sycamores half over toward the ground. Hail suddenly pinged down the chimney and bounced over the firescreen into the living room. Just as I thought of hiding under the bed alongside Mandy, I noticed her chasing hailstones around the room like Billie Jean King returning balls on a tennis court.

No one ever believes me when I report what happened next, but it's the truth. As the hail stopped and rain set in, Mandy barked to be let out the front door. About ten minutes later, the rain abated sufficiently for me to risk venturing onto the front porch to whistle home my mermaid.

Torrents of rain run-off flooded the street gutters, and through the mist I saw a garbage pail lid float by with a squirrel hanging on in terror. The lid was soon followed by the garbage can itself . . . with Mandy of Ark balancing on it, trying to "point" the squirrel.

Thereafter, Mandy would "point" anything that moved, which were chiefly cats, birds, squirrels, praying mantises (her dog house nestled beside the garden), and postmen. However, there was insufficient movement in the back yard to keep her occupied, so she began pointing stationary objects. Once, I found her rigidly drawing bead on a ripening tomato.

The week the city council voted in favor of leash restraint for pets, Mandy decided she had pointed everything there was to point in the backyard and launched a wide- ranging phase of her career that earned her the sobriquet "Madam Houdini" and me an acquaintance with neighbors in a six-block radius.

I would come home from work, find Mandy on the front porch, lead her through the house of the back yard, return to the porch to collect mail, and be greeted again by Mandy. No hole ever appeared under the fence . . . or in it. If I peered through a gap in the back bedroom curtains, expecting to discover the secret of her magic, she would trot about the yard, unconcernedly glancing at the window now and again, until at the instant something -- a ringing telephone, say -- distracted my attention, she would vanish.

Finally, I caught her with forepaws on the fence boards, back paws on a hackberry tree. She simply walked up fence/tree, glanced toward the house with the aplomb of Amelia Earhart about to soar into the wild blue yonder, and soared.I bought a chain. She learned to unhook it in two days. I tied knots in the chain through her collar before hooking it. Oh, she loved that challenge . . . puzzled over it for at least thirty-six hours.

I spent one weekend constructing an eight-foot barricade around hackberry and fence. Mandy watched from across the yard, and when I finished with a triumphant, hands-on-hips "Aha!", she grinned. Leaving for work Monday morning, I fell over her on the front porch.

Some neighbors cheered her on; others turned her in. A man in an official-looking uniform called me to the front door one morning. "Is that yours?" he asked as a liver-and-white comet orbited across the front lawn. Halley's was not due for a good twenty years so I had to confess I did have a relationship with the extra-terrestrial tourist.

That comet routine had driven me half- crazy. To stop it I had tried whistling, gentle coaxing . . . nets. Sudden pounces! She was too fast. So, feeling a bit cocky, I dared him to catch her, if he thought he could. The sweet thing trotted right into his truck cab! I went into orbit over the ransom it cost to get her back.

Mandy now thinks she's the "It" girl . . . convinced anyone who sets foot on the premises -- postmen, meter readers, garbage collectors -- shares her enthusiasm for gamespersonship and that their sole purpose in coming to the house is to play tag. The prize for getting caught, of course, is a nice ride in a nice man's nice truck.

It has taken a while, but I've finally grown accustomed to living with this aviatrix, this magician, this fair lady. Every few days -- when I've recovered strength from the previous bout -- we have a go at tag. We still play the daily escape trick. I still shudder sometimes when a neighbor calls. But I've fallen in love with Mandy and her fiery disdain for chains and fences. Ignoring the vet's prognostication and my protestations, she goes her own way with winsome, if sometimes irritating, independence.

Even at today's prices, that is more precious than an ounce of gold.

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