by L. Doug Hoffmann
Three days after my ninth birthday, my old man carried out his long-standing threat to shoot my dog in the side of the head.
“Get that thing in the ground ‘fore the flies find it,” he barked as a flat, brown bottle of Elk River Rye appeared in his left hand. Across the yard, the screen door to the kitchen appeared to be closed. So why was he worried about the flies? My mind, like a stout timber slammed the back of my head, forcing my gaze downward to the ground, to a mound of fur the color of tarnished gun-metal, to my dog, Pistol. A fly circled Pistol’s face. I squeezed my eyes shut and sucked short, jagged breaths of summer heat into my lungs.
Road dust dried my throat as the butt end of the old man’s rifle stirred the earth. The barrel leaned against his soiled undershirt and pointed at the beard stubble under his chin. While he poured whiskey down his throat, I willed that rifle to go off. Never in my life had I wanted anything so much. I put my hands against the sides of my head and tried to squeeze the trigger with my mind. I failed. Just like I failed to protect Pistol. The old man capped the bottle and wiped his chin with a forearm. His fingers gripped the rifle barrel and he dragged it behind him like an unwilling dog on the end of a rope. He tottered toward the house and disappeared inside.
A dark hole dotted the side of Pistol’s face like a period marking the end of a sentence. How small the hole was—marble-sized. I knew there would be a much larger hole on the other side where the baked, grey earth had turned black and muddy around his head.
He lay on his right side. I dropped to my knees and leaned in close enough to study his left eye, the one that was visible. It didn’t blink. It didn’t look away. It seemed to be staring at something in the distance. I turned my head to follow his gaze; whatever it was, only Pistol could see it. I saw two hands like mine grip the fur on Pistol’s chest and gently shake him. Someone with a voice like mine said, “Come on, boy. Wake up! Come on, okay? Come on. Wake up!” The hands on his chest disappeared and I was on my feet. Pistol’s left eye followed me. I stepped to my right, then to my left, then backward, all the while swiping the backs of my hands against my stinging eyes. No matter where I stepped, Pistol watched me.
I buried him behind the barn, though I have no recollection of doing so. I must have either dragged him or loaded him in the wheel barrow. It’s unlikely I could have carried him there.
A week later, when I got my wits about me, I tried to wrap my memory around Pistol’s burial. A freshly-painted, white cross marked the grave, but why hadn’t I painted his name on the cross? Then a horrible thought occurred to me. Had I buried Pistol in the dirt without covering him up with something? No! Surely not! I ran into the barn and searched frantically for the old canvas tarp that Pistol used to lay on. I looked everywhere. Thank God, I couldn’t find it. I must have used it to wrap him in.
I debated whether or not to paint his name on the cross, but decided not to. I wanted to forget his name. I figured if I didn’t see his name written on the cross, if I never said the name Pistol again, someday, I’d forget what his name was. And if I could forget what his name was, maybe, I could forget what he looked like. Then, maybe, eventually, I’d forget him. I’d wake up one morning and know something had changed, but I wouldn’t know what. I’d know only that the pain in my gut had finally gone away.
I think I knew Pistol’s fate long before I realized I knew it. As he grew into an adult dog, he became more and more protective of me. Anyone he perceived as a threat to me was subject to his admonitions. If that person got too close to me, Pistol would back him up with a nip to the ankle. Whenever the old man was near, I tried to make a conscious effort to hold Pistol by the collar. The few times I was unable to react in time to keep Pistol from going for the old man’s ankle, the dog felt the old man’s boot in his ribs. Then the old man would tell me, “Someday I’m gonna shoot that dog.” And he did.
The day he killed Pistol marked the last day I ever voluntarily spoke to the old man. He would live for five more years but the only time I said anything to him was if he asked me a question and threatened to strap me if I didn’t answer him. A few times when my hatred boiled to the surface, I maintained my silence despite the beatings. At first, I could only take two or three lashes before I’d relent and answer him. Didn’t take long, though, before I could handle a half-dozen cracks of the leather. Seven, that was my record, I think. A few times he striped my back with welts so thick they oozed through the back of my shirt. I often wondered how long he’d have kept lashing me if I didn’t fold. I believe he might have killed me before he’d let me win the battle of wills. He just might have.
I used to wonder if he’d have been different had my mother lived. As much as I’d like to think he would have, as much as I’d like to think he’d have stayed sober, I guess I don’t believe it. I have lots of memories of my mother, but none of a sober father. Does that mean I never had a sober father? I don’t know but I can’t imagine my mother marrying a drunk. I can’t imagine that.
The school bus stopped along the edge of the blacktop in front of the dirt road leading to the old man’s farm. I said goodbye to Mrs. Berglund, the school bus driver and the wife of the county sheriff, Russ Berglund.
As I prepared to launch myself through the door onto a mound of snow melt, Mrs. Berglund grabbed my sleeve. “Jamie?”
I turned around as she picked up a box wrapped in brown parcel paper from under the driver’s seat.
“Happy birthday,” she said, holding the box out to me.
Reluctantly, I reached toward the package. Looking back now, I wonder if I looked as embarrassed as I felt.
“Go ahead. Take it.”
Slowly, I took the box by the string.
“Hold it with both hands from the bottom,” she said. “It’s a birthday cake. I don’t want you to drop it.”
“Thank you,” I managed to say. And I think that after I stepped off the bus, I looked through the door and smiled at her.
I believe the smile stayed on my face until I saw my father’s old International truck parked near the barn door. There was no way of knowing whether he was in the barn or in the house. All I knew with any certainty was this late in the afternoon, he’d have a snootful of liquor in his craw. I made a point of looking straight ahead at the house in case he was in the barn looking out at me.
The house was quiet and I didn’t smell his burning pipe tobacco. I put the cake on the table and used my pocket knife to cut the string and the brown paper. I pulled the lid off the box and studied the cake carefully. It was covered with chocolate icing. Across the top it said, “Jamie, Happy 11th Birthday.” I’d never seen a cake with writing on it and couldn’t imagine how Mrs. Berglund could have written those words on a cake. My mouth salivated; my stomach groaned with anticipation.
Did I ever have a birthday cake before? I’ll bet my ma made them lots of times. Why, I’ll bet she made birthday cakes when it wasn’t even my birthday. I hurried and grabbed a plate from the cupboard and a knife from the drawer. For some reason it was important that I enjoy a piece before the old man came in.
I cut a large piece, making sure to include my name. The first bite was topped with the J—I would only eat one letter at a time. The cake tasted as good as anything I’d ever eaten before. I jumped up and grabbed a glass from the cupboard and the milk jug from the icebox. “Thanks, Ma,” I said, sitting down again.
She put the glass of milk on the table next to me, and kissed my cheek. “Happy birthday, Jamie,” she said. I grinned at her through a mouthful of cake and shoveled another large bite into my mouth and washed it down with a gulp of milk, then took a moment to catch my breath.
The screen door squealed. I almost didn’t recognize the old man. His face lacked the usual whisker stubble and his hair was freshly trimmed. He mopped his forehead with an oversized handkerchief, then walked over and kissed my mother. “How’s our birthday boy?” he asked her as he reached across the table and ruffled my hair.
After the party, I stood in front of the sink and rinsed my plate and glass. The screen door squealed but I didn’t turn around. Why would I? The party was over. I knew when the old man spotted the cake because he grunted his drunken sound for pleasure. A minute later, with his mouth full, he mumbled, “Who made the cake?”
I ignored him.
“Here,” he said as I opened the door leading to my bedroom, upstairs.
I stopped but didn’t turn around.
“Here, God dammit.”
Slowly, I faced him just as he buried his face, like a hog at the trough, into his open hand. When he realized he had my attention, he held up his other hand. The round belly of a black, brown and white puppy straddled his palm. He held the dog out toward me.
My vision blurred and the puppy vanished. Another dog appeared, a large dog the color of tarnished gun-metal. He had a marble-sized spot on the left side of his face. I fought the urge to charge the old man and pound my fists against his chest and scream in his face. That’s not my dog! You killed my dog. Remember? Instead, I turned and took the steps, two at a time, to the sanctuary of my bedroom.
“Suit yourself, boy,” the old man yelled.
I fell upon my bed and buried my face in the pillow. My mind saw the puppy, its head dangling down from the old man’s hand as it studied the floor below. Was it contemplating a leap to freedom, willing to risk the fall rather than trust its fate to the hand that held it?
The hinges squealed and the kitchen door slammed. I hurried to the bedroom window. The old man appeared from around the back of the house and I dropped to my knees in case he glanced over his shoulder and up at my window. His right arm was bent at the elbow and, while I couldn’t see the puppy, it appeared to be snuggled against the old man’s chest. He crossed the yard and was swallowed by the black interior of the barn. Probably going to put the pup in an old egg crate where I’d find it once the old man returned to the house.
As I struggled to be patient, he walked back out into the sunshine. His right hand still held the puppy. His left hand tugged at the opening of an old potato sack. Once opened, he reached inside and deposited the dog. As he walked toward Jack Horse pond, he secured the opening with a length of bailing wire.
If I’d had the rifle with me at that moment, I’d have aimed it through the bedroom window and shot him through the head. That I would have done it is not a question. That I would have felt remorse, remains unanswered. But I didn’t have the rifle and, thankfully, I didn’t know where it was; it was wherever the old man had put it. I ran to the stairs and raced down. By the time the kitchen door slammed closed behind me, I was around the house and running toward him. If he heard me, if he knew I was running as fast as I could straight at him, he didn’t turn around. He marched toward Jack Horse Pond a hundred yards beyond the house.
From behind him, I jerked the sack from his grip and quickly set it on the ground behind me. My chest pounded like a bass drum and my nostrils flared. I widened my stance and held my fisted hands rigid and at the ready. I would protect the potato sack with my life, if necessary.
By the time the old man turned around, my bravado had begun to deteriorate. The burlap sack danced on the ground behind me; the puppy yipped and whined inside. Suddenly, the old man leaped a foot into the air and came down in a fighting stance, a posture more comical than threatening. He faked a lunge toward me and I reacted with a start, but I did not back away. I raised my fisted hands to my chest and waited for the beating that I was sure would soon find me.
He forced a laugh, a laugh as cold as the March wind, and stepped around me, shoving me off-balance as he passed. I stumbled and he walked away.
My hands shook as I pulled out my pocket knife and opened it. Just below the baling wire, I sliced an opening and pulled the puppy to freedom. He appeared to be all right and when I held him up to my face, he licked my nose. “You’re lucky, boy.” His tongue stretched to reach my face. He had that wonderful, sour smell that all puppies seem to have. It was at that very moment that I fell in love with him, my Lucky-Boy.
* * *
Mrs. Berglund pulled the bus to a stop. “Where’s Lucky?” she asked bobbing her head around as she searched outside. A few inches of late November snow had fallen last night and now, a bitter wind picked it up, dried it out and swirled it about like desert sand.
“He probably got interested in a rabbit or a grouse and took to the woods,” I said. “He’ll come-a-running once he gets my scent.”
“You think he’s done growin’? He sure did get to be a big ‘en.”
“I hope so; he’ll be three years old this spring. He eats like a momma black bear, now.” And he did. Anything! Anytime! Just two days ago on Saturday afternoon, I got a warning from the old man that sent a cold chill down my spine. Apparently, he had pulled a venison roast from the ice house to bring it in and thaw it out. Like the drunken fool he was, he put the slab of meat on the back steps while he went to the barn, most likely to fetch his liquor bottle. Three minutes later, according to him, though it could easily have been thirty minutes later, he returned in time to see that big shepherd dog disappear into the woods, the venison roast clenched tightly between his jaws.
On the weekends, I made a point of knowing where Lucky-Boy was most all of the time. On school days, though, I worried and fretted about that dog the whole day. Surely he’d get into something that would result in big trouble. When he was still a puppy, I’d talk to him and talk to him. I’d explain how the old man was when he’d had a snoot full of whiskey. I’d explain what could happen if Lucky-Boy did something to set the old man off while the rifle happened to be leaning against his leg. Lucky-Boy paid close attention to these talks. Sometimes I wondered if he really did understand my words. He’d cock his head left and right and left, again, and he’d grin at me.
For almost three years I kept him out of harm’s way, which is the same as saying, I kept him out of the old man’s way. Still, I knew better than to let my guard down around my old man.
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Mrs. Berglund,” I said and hopped off the bus.
Outside, I pulled my cap down and my coat collar up. The wind had picked up even more since I’d left school. I looked around for Lucky-Boy. “Lucky,” I called as I walked up the road leading to the farm. My eyes scanned the thin snow cover for dog prints as I walked. “Lucky-Boy,” I shouted against the wind. The blowing snow would make it difficult to see his tracks.
I split my school books evenly between my left and right hands and began to trot, looking into the woods on both sides of the road. Pockets of white pines and clusters of cedar trees limited how far into the woods I could see. “Lucky-Boy,” I continued to call. Usually he was here, waiting for me. When he wasn’t, he’d come flying out of the woods when I called and about knock me down when he found me. Not today!
A sour taste filled my mouth. My stomach knotted up and, again, I thought about the venison on the porch steps. “Lucky-Boy,” I shouted as loud as I could and raced up the road.
I reached the barn. The door was opened a few feet. “Lucky,” I shouted as I stepped inside and set my books on the workbench. My breath was quickly returning to normal but my heartbeat seemed to speed up with each passing minute. My mind showed me an image of blood-soaked dirt. I stepped carefully, watching the ground where I dropped my feet. The old International truck sat idle before me, the hood over the engine cold to the touch.
Outside, I looked around the yard. The wind stirred the snow, keeping visibility low. “Lucky-Boy!” I shouted his name again and again as loud as I could shout. Then keeping my eyes peeled to the ground, hoping to see dog prints, I hurried to the house. “Lucky,” I called before I even got the door open.
“Lucky,” I said quietly once inside. Across the kitchen and up the stairs I ran. Despite the old man’s protests, Lucky-Boy slept on the floor next to my bed. Usually by bedtime, the old man was so drunk, he didn’t know the difference. In the morning, though, when Lucky padded down the steps, I’d get an earful. Even after almost three years, I’d still get an earful. The old man wasn’t much, but he was consistent.
After I’d searched the house, I ran back outside. A shudder wracked my spine but I wasn’t cold. I heard myself shout, “If you hurt him, I’ll kill you! I swear to you, I will.” I spit on the ground hoping to rid my mouth of the foulness left on my tongue.
A thought occurred to me and I ran back inside.
Near the back door was a little room we called the pantry. It was also where we hung our coats and took our boots off. I looked in the corner of the pantry where the old man sometimes kept the rifle, not really expecting to find it. I didn’t. I felt my eyes burn as I raced back outside. I would, I would kill him this time. I swore to myself he would have to use that old rifle on me or I’d take it from him and I’d either shoot him or I’d beat him to death with it.
I walked around outside keeping my eyes to the ground. Between the house and the barn I picked up a few footprints that must have been the old man’s. They were difficult to follow because they disappeared every few feet where the wind had swirled the dry snow around. After ten feet or so the tracks would appear again. I continued to track the footprints past the house. After thirty or forty feet, it looked as though he’d walked toward Jack Horse Pond. Still I found no evidence that Lucky-Boy had come this way.
The ice house sat just off-shore of Jack Horse Pond. I walked toward it wondering if the old man had been chopping ice from the pond. As I got closer, I could see the ice sled was gone. I noticed dog tracks coming from the west, parallel to the shoreline and disappearing out onto the pond. The pond was frozen but not, in my opinion thick enough to wander too far out on. This time of year, we usually cut ice near the shoreline where we’d have to fight the cattails and reeds in the shallows. Later, in the winter we’d go out over deeper water where there were no weeds. Surely, the old man wouldn’t venture out too far.
I ran to the shoreline and saw what I thought might be the sled about thirty yards out onto the lake. The water was shallow for a good fifty yards with reedy stalks poking through the ice. I walked until I reached the sled. Three one-foot-square slabs of ice sat next to a hole that had begun to freeze over again. The ice looked to be about four inches thick here in the shallows. Farther out, where the warmer current from deep water springs slowed the freeze rate; the ice thickness would be less. I looked out across the pond. Would the drunken fool have wondered farther out? And where was Lucky-Boy? Wouldn’t the old man have chased the dog off the ice?
I walked slowly and carefully, calling Lucky-Boy as I went, though the wind, likely, blew my words back toward the shoreline. Visibility was only twenty or thirty feet out in the open. I turned around every ten feet or so in an attempt to keep my bearings in relation to the shoreline. “Lucky,” I called through the howling wind. Shielding my eyes from the blinding snow, I slowly scanned the pond focusing intently on small patches of landscape as I went. Then I thought I saw a dark spot on the ice ahead. A hole in the ice?
I ran forward but quickly forced myself to slow down and proceed with caution. I walked toward the dark spot on the ice. I realized it was not a hole in the ice. It was a mound on the ice. A mound of fur. An animal. It was Lucky-Boy. I kneeled next to him. He was frozen to the ice. I rubbed my hand against his stiff fur. My heart struggled to stay in one piece.
A dozen feet away a patch of open water, irregular in shape, beckoned me closer. Without thinking, I dropped to my hands and knees. As I progressed, I felt an evil presence that waited to suck me down into the icy, darkness. The ice groaned. I dropped to my belly and spread eagle to distribute my trembling mass across the thin ice. Six feet from open water I stopped. Here, one end of a leather strap lay frozen to the surface ice. The other end disappeared into the dark, icy water.
I recognized the strap. It was the lead from the ice sled.
My body quivered as I edged close enough to grab the end of the length of leather. I wiggled it back and forth but couldn’t break it free. I crawled forward another foot and was able to grip the strap. I pulled it easily out of the water until the slack was gone. Then it felt heavy. I wrapped the leather around my wet, mittened hands. My cold fingers ached as I pulled, but the strap wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t risk crawling any closer to the edge, so I turned onto my side for better leverage. The ice groaned. I pulled into my chest. The strap moved. I pulled again and again until it almost floated toward the surface on it’s own. The ice cracked and I felt it move. I kept myself as motionless as possible for few moments and managed to keep the strap taut.
Slowly, I pulled seven more feet of the leather strap out of the water. Something appeared a few feet below the water’s surface. One more tug and fingers, extended as if reaching for a grip on life, broke the water’s surface. The leather strap was wrapped around his wrist. The arm extended over his head. As I pulled him toward me, the ice cracked louder. I released the strap and watched him sink, then crawled backward to safety.
Lucky-Boy looked peaceful as if he’d fallen asleep. My tears froze on my cheeks as I cursed the old man. I apologized for the second time in my life for letting my dog die. Then I buried my face in the cold, stiff fur of his neck and sobbed. Lucky-Boy responded with a barely audible whimper. I think I felt the vibration in his throat more than I heard him.
“Lucky,” I shouted. I’d swear his eyelids fluttered. I swear they did. I tried to move him but patches of his wet fur were frozen to the ice. Frantically, I scraped his fur free with the blade of my pocket knife , then ran to the ice sled and pushed it back to Lucky-Boy. With the leather strap gone, I got behind the sled and pushed Lucky all the way back to the house.
By the time Sheriff Berglund arrived with Mrs. Berglund, I had cried myself out. My tears had been for Lucky-Boy, no one else. He lay in the kitchen by the heater on a braided rug, covered with a half dozen blankets. He had opened his eyes twice but I’m not sure he really saw me.
Mrs. Berglund began making coffee while I told the sheriff that Lucky-Boy must have heard the drunken fool screaming for help and gone through the ice trying to save him. While I was talking, Deputy Schultz came in followed by a few local men enlisted to help out.
“I’ll bet he was so drunk,” I told them all, “he walked in the wrong direction. Must have thought he was walking back toward the shoreline when he was really walking farther out on the ice.”
“Okay, son. You stay here and take care of your dog. We’ll go out and get your Pa.” He gently patted me on the shoulder.
An hour later, the sheriff came back in. “I told the others to give us a few minutes,” he told his wife. “Your Pa’s in the wagon, Jamie.”
“As soon as the men have some coffee and warm up, they’ll take your Pa to town to the Doc’s office.” He looked at his wife and blew spent air from puffed cheeks. Then he turned back to me. “Jamie, based on what I saw out there, here’s what I think happened. You say the leather strap that was looped around your Pa’s wrist was the lead from the ice sled, right?”
“Why would your Pa have that strap with him?”
“I figured it must have broken off the sled and he was going back to barn to fix it. Then he got turned around and walked in the wrong direction.”
The sheriff nodded. “Why would the strap have been tied around his wrist?”
I didn’t know why. I shrugged my shoulders. “I can’t say, sir.”
“It was tied around his wrist because he had just pulled Lucky-Boy, there, out of the water. Then the ice broke again and, this time, your Pa went in.” He squatted next to Jamie. “Son. Lucky-Boy wasn’t trying to save your Pa; your Pa was trying to save Lucky-Boy. And he did. And it cost him his life.”
No, no, no! Why was the sheriff saying that? Without thinking, I shouted, “No!” And stood up. Why was he telling me this? “No. That isn’t what happened. No,” I was talking much louder than I had intended. “He wouldn’t... what about the strap! What was the strap for, then?”
The sheriff looked at Mrs. Berglund again then gave me a fatherly smile as he stood up. “He tied the strap to the dog’s collar. There’s no other way he could have pulled that big dog out of the water without it.”
“Then why wasn’t it still tied to Lucky’s collar?”
“Your pa wasn’t able to climb back up onto the ice and Lucky-Boy was too weak to pull him up, so he must have untied the strap from the collar... so he wouldn’t pull the dog back in...when he...when he went under.”
“No.” I shook my head. Why was he telling me this? The old man wouldn’t...and the sheriff knew he wouldn’t. “No. That’s not what happened.” I spoke without conviction, as if I didn’t believe my own words. I searched the sheriff’s face looking for some sign that he agreed with me. It wasn’t there.
He put his hand on my shoulder. “He did it for you, son.”