A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

by Beth Stephenson (Jul 2007)

          Puppy’s legal name was “Snowball.”  He was glossy black and well muscled with an apologetic grin and naughty streak.  The ad in the paper said he was a lab cross, but it seemed the intelligence typical of black labs was securely stored in his mother’s genes. Whatever rascal fathered him contributed far more than his share.

Most of our neighbors raised chickens and our next-door neighbor also raised rabbits.  Once in a while, Puppy would chase chickens until he caught one, shake it until it was quiet and present it humbly to his owners.  It was always the best egg-layer according to the former owner and how Puppy could pick the best out every time was amazing.  My Dad taught at the college and coached football, so we were better off than most of our neighbors, and he never hesitated to pay the farmers’ claims.  That is until the man next door found his Chinchilla rabbit dead and claimed its value at $15.00.  We raised meat rabbits too and Puppy never bothered to turn his head toward their cages, let alone try to kill them.  The neighbor claimed that our dog stood on his hind legs to unfasten a complicated latch, shooed the rabbit out of it’s cage, killed it with one bite of his mighty jaws and left it right in front of the pens.  Of course, they had only two of the rabbits (bred for luxuriant fur similar to chinchilla but less expensive to produce,) and our dog had a habit of killing only the best.  The neighbor asserted that he ignored the row of ten cages on either side that had ordinary rabbits.  Dad was a well-educated man and knew that in 1967, there was no such thing as a $15.00 rabbit. He offered to replace it with an identical adult female, but the man grudgingly settled for five dollars.  It ruffled me that none of us ever once saw Puppy kill anything.  I guess he didn’t want to offend our tender sensibilities.

You might assume that we were highly irresponsible pet owners to let our dog into such mischief, and we were in some ways.  But we always fed him and in those freer times, all the neighborhood dogs roamed the orchards and eucalyptus groves with their pet children.  (Except for Hans-y, who was a high-strung wiener dog that bit and had to stay in his fence.) When it was time to eat, or his children were leaving for a remote part of the valley, we would go outside and call, “HERE PUPPY, HERE PUPPY, HERE PUPPY,” at the top of our lungs. Pretty soon we would see him charging through the orchard with his ears and tongue streaming behind his cheeks. He never seemed to mind being called back from an expedition hunting dog ticks.  Dog ticks are parasites that swell as big as the end of your index finger as they gorge on the dog’s blood.  My brothers would pull them off and compete to see whose tick squirted the farthest when they were stepped on.

Puppy was an excellent car chaser.  He remembered which vehicles were likely to slow down, which would veer away and which would veer toward him.  Some of the drivers that lived up Pleasant Valley Road understood the game and would roll down their windows and yell at Puppy.  Sometimes they would try to whack him.  Puppy’s lips  lolled in a grateful grin when he was thus honored but he was never touched by tire or driver.

          He took his work seriously most of the time.  His children went to school and he was left to protect a house with all five doors unlocked and the garage door standing open.   We always suspected that he would graciously accept an opportunity to take a nap on the living room couch, regardless of who let him in.  We figured a robber would spend at least an hour looking for something that wasn’t dinged up by a robust country family of nine.  Puppy could supervise that process as well as any Hans-y.

          One afternoon Puppy rose ceremoniously to meet Dad when he came home from work.  He picked something up in his mouth and proceeded forward, with his tail waving in a more dignified way than usual.  My father watched him approach, wondering if it would be fur or feathers the dog had to show him.  Puppy laid my father’s watch at his feet.  It had fallen off Dad’s wrist weeks before while he plowed the orchard, and he finally gave it up for lost.  The leather band was unscratched and it merely needed winding.

          Dad laughed and refastened his watch.  “I wish you hadn’t done that, you black dog,” he said.  “When I thought you were stupid, I could forgive a lot more.”

But the idyllic life couldn’t go on forever.  One neighbor got tired of replacing his chickens and informed my parents that if he saw ‘that black dog’ on his property again, he’d put a bullet in his chest.  What a narrow-minded man!  Puppy took the threat seriously, however, and didn’t lead his children into that vicinity all summer.  But shortly after school started, Puppy developed a bump the size of a golf ball in his chest.  He ate well and waited eagerly for us at the bus stop each day for the first week, but the bump got bigger.

Puppy stopped meeting his children.  I heard my father wonder if the lump was an abscess and when I asked him about it he called it an infection.  One day my mother told him the dog lay all day in the sun and wouldn’t eat.  That night, Dad shut his bedroom door and called Dr. Sheets. (My brother pressed his ear to the door when he called, so we knew.)  He was a man from our church who was also a vet.

Sometimes my parents would communicate without talking.  They thought it was a code their children were too dense to understand.  When Dad came out of the bedroom, Mom raised her eyebrows at him.  (translate: what did Dr. Sheets say about the lemon-sized bump in Puppy’s chest?)  Dad shook his head and passed his eyes over us kids. (translate: I don’t want to tell you the bad news in front of the children.) Later, Mom called all of us kids into the family room on some small pretence and I heard a little yelp outside and then headlights swept out of our driveway.  I must have been asleep when Dad got home, because I didn’t hear him come in.  

In the morning, we were eager to see if Puppy was cured.  We went outside and called him, but Dad told us Puppy wandered up into the hills.  Dad said he must have gotten lost when he was chasing some wild rabbit or following a duck in flight. He had seemed too sick to chase anything the day before, so we were relieved that he felt better.  Dr. Sheets was a very good vet.

We expected Puppy to reappear all the next week, but my father didn’t look for him anymore when he came home from work.  On our way home from the bus stop, we wondered if the medicine Dr. Sheets gave him made him lose his sense of direction. My older brother pointed out that the medicine would have worn off by then.

After Sunday dinner, we sat around the table talking about it. Finally, Dad said,  “He must have found a better home somewhere.”  Then he left the table and shut his bedroom door.  My brother listened outside, but didn’t hear anything.

We got our hopes up when the chicken man came over a couple of weeks later with a dead hen, but my dad refused to pay for it and walked him back to the property line. We never saw the chicken man again until he was arrested for raising fighting cocks.  We never saw Puppy again either, but his pet children were comforted knowing that he must have found a doggy Paradise to keep him away for good.

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