I got to thinking about my dad’s stories, and this is one I particularly loved. I worked on it several years ago, but have never submitted it anywhere. Afraid of rejection, I guess. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Tip was a mutt. She wasn’t pretty at all. She was dirty white with brown saddles across her skinny back; her face was mottled with brown spots. She had red-brown eyes, small and often bloodshot. Her muzzle was pointy, with white whiskers under her bottom lip. She had a deep chest, and her legs were long and suited for the wild runs across the desert that she loved so much.bShe had a long, narrow tail, brown, except for the white tip.
She had three loyalties. The first was to John, who walked with her across the dusty flatlands as they hunted to fill the pot for supper. Usually they managed to scare up a jack-rabbit zigzagging across the brush. Tip always caught up, barking with ridiculous ferocity as she cornered her prey. John would finish off the terrified rabbit with one shot from his rifle, and supper would be on the table within a couple of hours.
Tip’s second loyalty was to John’s mother, Ellen. She went to Ellen when John was in school, looking for someone to pull the cactus thorns from her pads or pick the burrs out of her hide. Ellen was the food source when Tip didn’t feel like hunting. She could always be counted on for table scraps, however meager, and she kept Tip’s water bowl full during the long, hot desert days. She was kind. Tip would have killed to protect her.
Tip’s third loyalty was to her pup, Duke. Ornery, mean as a snake, unfriendly to all comers, Duke lived under the shadow of Tip’s protection. Because John loved Tip, he tolerated Duke. But John could never break through Duke’s reserve and dislike. The dog refused to be petted, would never learn to hunt or follow obediently and quietly. Many times, he had frightened off rabbits and other small game with his aggressive barking and snarling before John could get close enough for a shot. John was frustrated by the animal, and more than a little scared of him. He was mean, a loner, and a puzzle to the boy whose dog was his closest companion.
John lived in a dugout in the Utah desert. The roof was sod, domed over the inside of the dugout just enought that you knew it was there as you approached. Inside, it was cool in summer and warm in winter, but those were about the only luxuries. John’s dad had moved his family there from California shortly after the crash of 1929, bitter at his financial losses. His search for work kept him away from home for days at a time, but John never minded. He loved the desert; for a twelve-year-old boy, it was paradise. He had an old pony, a good dog, a gun, and all the time in the world.
“Where you headed, Son?” ask Ellen as John pulled on his boots.
“Well, I thought I’d check some of my traps, see they’re all where they should be. I’ll take Tip with me. Maybe we’ll scare up a rabbit.”
“That’d be fine. We’ve had no meat for three days now, and I imagine you’ve had enough corn mush. Rabbit would be fine–just fine. Your dad brought some fresh onions and potatoes from the farm market. A few carrots, and we’ll eat like kings tonight. Don’t be gone after dark, and pay attention to your feet.”
“I know, Mom. That’s what the boots are for–rattlers never strike much higher than the knees. Don’t worry so much. I know what to do. I’ll be fine. I always am.”
Ellen sighed as she watched her oldest son hunch down through the low entrance to the dugout, carrying his rifle and whistling for Tip. He slung a game bag over his shoulder and under one arm, sure he would either find a rabbit in one of his traps or scare one out of the brush. As Ellen watched him go, she thought of all the normal things a boy would be doing in the city of her girlhood. Trapping rabbits for supper would surely not have been one of his activities.
John settled into a comfortable, mile-gulping stride across the dry sod. Tip had come running at his whistle and walked beside him, her keen eyes constantly searching for suspicious movement in the brush.
“Hope that rotten old Duke stays away today, Tip. Wish I knew what’s the matter with that fool dog. Never did nuthin’ to him to make him ornery. He’s just pure red-eye mean, that’s all. Never there when you want him, always in the way when you don’t want him. Contrary mutt.”
Tip glanced up at John as he spoke, looking for all the world as if she understood and wanted to defend her pup. Tip was such a good dog. Loyal, obedient, a good hunter; she could run like the wind, but always came back to the whistle. Not like Duke, who ignored every attempt to train him to usefulness. Sometimes, John was sure, Duke glared at him with hatred and contempt.
John had learned to scan the ground around him as well as the near distance as he walked. He was alert to all the sounds and smells of the desert, and loved everything he saw. Long practice had made him comfortable with the isolation, and he actually enjoyed the solitude. It left him free to think, with no interruptions from younger brothers and sisters.
It wasn’t long before John and Tip came across the first of several traps he’d set. It was empty, so John checked the ground around for tracks and found nothing to lead him off on a rabbit chase. He had half-a-dozen traps, the spring type that clamped shut on an unwary critter’s leg. John always hoped he would find a trapped animal quickly. He took no pleasure in causing fear and pain. Life was tough on the desert. You had to survive, and John had become the main meat-provider for his family.
Tip and John continued to walk, checking the traps as they went and finding them all empty. Some days were like that, and all John could do was hope to find food on the way back home. They had one more trap to check when John’s sharp ears began to pick up a high-pitched whimpering. All his senses on the alert, John spoke sharply to Tip, bringing her to heel. He couldn’t identify the noise. It didn’t sound like any rabbit he’d ever trapped–sounded more like a hurt dog. As that thought crossed his mind, John groaned and kicked angrily at the ground.
“Tip, I bet that stupid pup of yours has gone and trapped himself. I wondered where he was all morning. Usually at least shows up for chow. What an eejit. I wonder how bad he’s caught.”
As John and Tip neared a patch of brush and rock, the whining became more frantic. Tip had run ahead and was barking wildly. She ran back to John, circled him, barked once, and took off again. She was just as frantic as the trapped animal, and John began to run as he came close enough to see that it was for sure Duke, his right foreleg caught just above his paw. He was lying very still, whining piteously. His rib cage heaved with his labored breathing. He was in a lot of pain.
John approaced the trap carefully. Duke was a mean dog to begin with, never letting anyone come near him. John wasn’t about to be bitten trying to help this ornery mutt. Duke growled, low and menacing, as John hunkered down to look the situation over. Tip stood over Duke, occasionally licking his caught leg.
John gingerly reached out his hand toward the trap, nervous about putting it within reach of Duke’s muzzle. The dog bared his teeth and raised his neck fur, but made no effort to bite. He watched John with unblinking eyes as the boy worked at the release lever, and when the trap popped open, the dog quivered in increased pain. He made no move to get up.
John stood, scratching his head. “Now what? Do I try to carry you? You’d probably take my arm off if I tried, you miserable excuse for a dog. Shoot! How do you help someone who’s so blamed mean?” John stooped and tried to scoop his arms under the quivering dog. Sure enough, Duke growled and snapped.
“Okay, that’s it. I don’t care if you die out here. If you won’t let me help you, you’re just on your own. Come on, Tip.”
As John strode away, hot tears of frustration and remorse choked him and scalded his eyes. Why should he cry for such an ungrateful critter, anyway? Dumb mutt didn’t know enough to appreciate help. Let him be.
John carried his gun in his right hand, his left swinging freely as he turned his steps back toward the dugout. Tip hadn’t come right away, but she would. She didn’t want to leave Duke, but her first love was John. Soon she came trotting up beside him, bumping against his right leg to let him know she was back. Then, startling his heart right up into his throat, John felt the warm wet muzzle of another dog pushing against his left palm. He walked straight ahead, letting the tears flow and releasing the lump in his throat.
He and Tip and Duke headed home.