Category: Animal Fiction


Sam the Wonder Dog

Chapter 1 Taking Pen in Paw

I don't remember my mother, really. I have flashes of light that tell me she was black, warm, and smelled of milk. I remember the pain when my tail was cut off and the soft arms of the woman who cuddled me and let me sleep in a basket by her bed when I was frightened by the noise of the sky. I remember when I was taken away by a man in a truck and put in a box all alone in a barn with the truck and the animals of the night. They scratched and squeaked and stole my food. They had big teeth and claws and I hated them. I still do.
The biggest of them was a rat with a broken tail. The others called him Nails. He had red eyes and one of them was half closed with green goo dripping out of it. He would come in the night, claw his way up over the edge of my box, and tell me all the awful things happening to puppies who didn't do what he told them. “I remember this one old dawg, left after a car hit him in the road out yonder and we all ate his insides out for a week," he said in his scratchy, squeaky voice that sent terror all through my body.
Nails and his gang ran 'round and 'round my box all night snarling descriptions of eye-gouging puppy tortures and starvation techniques. They put dirt and urine all around me until the stench was overpowering. I cried until there were no more tears left in me, but no one came to my rescue. I was only a puppy and, to me, Nails was a big scary monster. It seemed he was waiting for me to fall asleep so he could sink his teeth into my throat. I could see his one good eye reflecting the light at the top of the barn, watching and watching through the long hours of the night for his chance at me. I slept in the daytime as much as I could, then I could be awake and alert when the light vanished and the darkness came. Sometimes Nails bit at me. He would get close enough so I could smell his sour breath soiling my air. The constant scratching was the worst. He never stopped. The fear of what might happen was worse than anything that did happen. The tension and worry kept my mind focused thereby excluding everything else. Nails was very good at using this kind of psychological torture. The constant sight of his claws scrabbling over the sides of my cardboard box sent me into continual tremors of anxiety, my pitiful cries disappearing into the depth of the surrounding straw bales. Nothing I did or said eased the unbearable strain.
The man who had brought me to this place came every day with food and water that he placed inside my box. I tried to get his attention by wagging my tail stump or by crying out to him during the few times he was there. He paid me no mind at all. If he spoke to me, I don't remember it. I was terrifyingly alone-not even a cow or a lamb kept me company. Big machines in the barn added to my terror at night, looming large and shadowy in the darkness.
Sometimes the big barn door was left open during the daylight. One day I could not only see over my box but could push myself over the edge. I nervously padded over to the big opening and saw giant, four-hoofed beasts who had come to drink out of the enormous water trough standing beside the barn. They were gentle and curious, asking about me in their universal voice which I could understand. I told them of my loneliness and my fear of the rats knowing, however, of their inability to help. It was good to have listeners, though, to share my suffering. Somehow, it made the nights tolerable. These mares, for that is what they were, whinnied to me often, telling me that my day would come. "You are growing, little one. Soon you will be a big, powerful dog, frightening many with your snarls and growls." I listened wonderingly.
The time came when my yip, yip became a loud, sharp bark. It surprised me. It also surprised the rats. I tried it again and again. It became louder and deeper by the day. I even growled. Nails kept his distance. I could get out of my box easily now, and watched him become nervous around me. I noticed my paws were bigger with longer claws. I became more aggressive with those bullies and soon another weaker being attracted their attention. I stopped being afraid and anxious.
The summer passed-the heat, at times, stifling. The rain poured from unseen celestial buckets, sluicing down the sides of the barn making mud, which steamed in the humidity. I had grown big enough to drink out of the horse trough. I knew my surroundings well by this time but I wondered if this was all I would know. I watched the bluebottle flies swirling around the piles of droppings in the fields and the mares swishing those noisy pests away from their faces with their long tails. The mares seemed to know their purpose in life. They were content and secure in that knowledge. I aimlessly wandered around waiting for my dinner, hoping someone would tell me my reason for being there.
One day the man, who I called Bubba, came to tell me I must now earn my keep, as he earned his, by working for the farm owner. He took me away to a school. I was big enough now to go riding in the truckbed. The air blowing all around me was wonderful and blew away the oily, smoky smell that came out of the pipe at the back of the truck. The truck moved fast that the trees seemed to be running away. I yelled smart remarks at the dogs standing on corners because I knew they could never catch us. I really knew very little about Bubba except he was tall and skinny with eyes which sort of rolled around in his head when he talked. He walked stooped over as if he were going to pick up something off the ground or was looking for something he'd lost. His teeth were greenish, his breath foul and he had scraggly hair growing out of his nose. His voice was hoarse and scratchy. Probably from the cigarette that constantly grew out of his mouth.
The school was in a long, low building with a big yard and a fence. Other dogs were there to earn a trade or how to get along in a world owned and directed by humans. We each were given our own small cell with a shelf to sleep on and a bowlful of water. We were let out for lessons and exercise. (That's another way of saying dropping personal dirt.) Most of us worked hard during the day, had a big meal at noon and attended lots of barking parties at night.
Celia, (some one called her a bird dog) the Setter in the cell next to mine, was there to learn good field manners. Her human loved to shoot duck. I enjoyed the stories of her exploits in the woods and rivers where they hunted. She was older than I was, definitely not puppyish, and very sleek and fluid. Her hair was red and white and very long. She had a pedigree that separated her from those of us who knew nothing about where we came from. Her illustrious ancestors did not keep her from being kind and nice to a good-ole country boy like me. In fact, Celia took pains to help me with my manners. “Now, Samson,” she would whisper in her soft southern voice, “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” I never could figure out why she wanted all those flies. She explained in great detail what our place was to be in the land of humans. It never occurred to me that after school was out we would never see each other again. In those days I guess I really didn't think too much at all.
“We are here to do our master's bidding and we must do it right away. My master gets very impatient with me if I do not respond immediately,” she said. “I am a working dog in field sports. I stand by my master while he puts small metal objects into a long hollow stick and I try to close my ears to the loud, sharp noise it makes when he raises it to his face."
“What kind of noise does it make?” I asked.
“Like the loudest clap of thunder you ever heard. It causes my ears to ring for days. I am trying to learn not to bolt at the sound.”
"Isn't the water cold when you swim out to the downed bird?"
"To tell the truth, I really don't feel it after the first shock because I am in a fevered state. The stress of swimming in the icy water to my target takes up all the concentration I have at the moment. I feel cold when I get out of the water icy and shivery. After the shoot, my master gets a big fire going in the stone hearth in his room. He rubs me down with a towel and I lie down in front of that fire on my warm woolen rug and toast myself. A hot dinner and a warm fire makes a perfect day for me."
It mattered to her human companion that he had the knowledge of her bloodlines back five generations. Celia's pedigree went back to some king or another and seemed to dictate how good she would be in the field.
"Blood will tell,” she laughed, spilling out a yet another incomprehensible cliché.
Since Celia already had, by my standards, the perfect everything, I tried to copy her suave ways and expressions, even though I had no idea what they meant. Of all of us, she had the most beautiful singing voice. When we sang at the barking parties, her lilting soprano, mixed with my golden baritone caused shivers of delight through my body.
I was in puppy love. I was mesmerized by the way she held her head, so regal-like; the way the feathers of her legs fluttered in the breeze; the large, soulful eyes that spoke of long, lazy summer days lying by a stream, nibbling new grass. Even her name was queenly- Saint Cecelia of Overbrook-by-the-Sea.
"How did you get your name, Sam?" she grred at me one morning.
"I don't know but I think my father's name was Sam too. It's short for Samson.” I made it up to try to impress her. I never knew my father much less his name.
“Have you heard the one about the handler who stepped in a pile of...?" said Tootles, the cocker, on the other side of my cell. He was getting started with his comedy monologue for the day.
Tootles was a mess. He wiggled and laughed all the time-brainless, simply brainless. Curly and fat and spoiled rotten. But funny, very funny. He was blond with darty little eyes that danced as he chattered away about nothing.
“Or, the mastiff who swallowed the pussycat whole and gave it away because the tail was hanging from his mouth?"
He fell over laughing at his own joke. The trainers gave up on him when they realized, no matter what they did, Tootles would not behave. He entertained us with his jokes and take-offs. We laughed at everything he said and did.
"How do you know all those jokes?" I asked enviously. "You never seem to run out."
"I don't know. They just come to me at the time. I see something that strikes me funny and out of my mouth it comes. My master says I have diarrhea of the mouth. I simply can't control myself. That is why I'm here, I think."
Tootles was always at his best at dinnertime, dancing and begging and rolling over on his back to wheedle larger portions out of the feeder. “I'm too cute to work,” he told us many times. “I don't have to worry because my humans love me to pieces no matter what I do." I wondered why they had brought him here if that were true.
My trainer was a good guy. The other trainers called him ëMad Dog Maddessí. I didn't learn why for a long time. I called him "Don". I liked him because he was more like a dog than any other human I had ever met. He had those wonderful smells about him that humans love to wash off with sickeningly sweet, flower-smelling, foamy stuff. He had hair on his upper lip that always smelled like tomato soup. He had hair everywhere, even in his ears. I like my ears scratched because the hair in my ears tickles. I wondered if his did too? I never saw him scratch his ears, although he surely did scratch himself everywhere else.
He was a big, burley kind of man, mostly around the top. He had a massive chest he kept in condition by lifting weighted bars every morning and night. And, when he took off his shoes oh boy! What delightful salty, cheesy smelling! He didn't bother changing his clothes, but slept in whatever he had on. Made sense to me.
Don taught me to understand the way humans talk to each other (they use their mouths not their noses) and all the signals I needed to know to sit, stand, stay, heel and stop. I worked really hard to do it the way he wanted because he was easy to be with. He gave me lots of pats, hugs, and treats for good performance and, as I had never had any kind of good attention paid to me before, I gave him licks on his big red nose.
He talked to me about the future and what I could expect from life. "Loyalty is the most important attribute in a dog, any kind of dog, but especially a top-quality guard dog. You must be able to tell the good guys from the bad. This comes from experience, although I firmly believe that a dog can tell by the smell. There will be many times in your life you will be abused for no reason, forgotten and ignored, but you must still stay loyal or you will let us all down.”
I listened carefully. It didn't make a lot of sense then. I had to grow into it. He also said meaningless things to me such as, “Don't take any wooden nickels." I didn't know what they were but I rested my face on his thigh and promised him I wouldn't.
I was training to be a guard dog. I had to be fierce to scare away those who trespassed. " Nobody, but nobody is allowed to put their feet within the property boundaries without the permission of the human who feeds you," he explained. "If they continue, after you have warned them off, you place yourself in their path and growl like you mean it." We all loved practicing our growls. I could quiver my lips while showing my teeth to their best advantage. The soft growl, rolling from the back of my throat seemed to make Don the most nervous.
Don taught me the command word, "bitte". I would lunge at a man covered in soft stuff and to bite him as hard as I could. The soft stuff was a padding, which covered a uniform sleeve. Don told me that the man in the uniform was a "Smoky Bear." That's another human misconception. He was neither a bear nor did he blow smoke. His uniform was gray with shiny, black boots. He had a gun on his belt and a big-brimmed hat with a golden insignia on the front. He was there looking for good prospects for the canine corps, but I already had a job waiting when I finished up my education.
I found out later the canine corps is an elite group of dogs who help the highway police find drugs in sacks of coffee in warehouses. Don told me I was learning how to be a kind of police dog anyway because you never knew when you might need a job. We trained, sometimes with guns shooting off close to us, and I realized what Celia meant by the loud noise. I couldn't hear anything for awhile after we trained with them.
In guard dog training, I would start a growl deep in my throat to warn Don first and, if that didn't stop his advance, I leapt on him and played a game of "wrestle, wrestle, go for the throat".
Sometimes I got carried away and scared him. If I bit in the wrong place, he bled and shouted a lot of words I had never heard before. Matt, the collie, told me later they were praying words. He knew this because his human was a "Man of God" and used those same words in different ways. It didn't seem to me Don was in a praying mood, but who can sort out how humans think? Don used them when he got angry and made white stuff come out of his mouth like a mad dog. That's probably how he got his nickname.
One day, on the way to the training ring, I passed a large frame that had a big black dog in it. I stopped to check him out and found he was behind a piece of glass. Don watched me while I sniffed the glass trying to figure out where the dog was. I looked behind it but nothing was there. Mystery!
The other dog was mimicking me, walking when I did and panting when I did. I put out my paw and touched the glass and he did too. The glass was cold and flat. I sat. He sat. I growled. He growled. He was a big black sucker all right, heavy of chest with big paws and big teeth. To tell you the truth, he worried me a little. His ears sat up sometimes and flopped down at other times. He had no tail, like me. I didn't want to get on the wrong side of him so I wagged and smiled. SO DID HE! Who, or what, was this guy; all 90 tough pounds of him? He had cream-colored markings on his chest and legs. He was the best looking dog I had ever seen.
Don pointed to him telling me I looked like him. He told me my mother had been a champion doberman and my father a rottweiler who had gotten into the wrong pen. I have seen this big dog many times since but I've never been able to touch him nose to nose. He seems to be imprisoned in the glass forever.
All of the students had our classes in obedience in a large oval ring located in a metal barn close to our sleeping cells. We trotted with our trainers, called handlers, to loud march music coming from somewhere around the building, I never did figure out where. We trained in a line, one close behind the other. It was easier when we were sitting or staying but when we heeled or trotted-watch out! It was difficult to concentrate on the moves with all the others yapping and yipping. Tootles would get out of rhythm and, if I weren't careful, I would fall all over him coming out of the turn.
The classes in the training ring were hard but the rewards were immediate. Don carried lots of liver treats. If I sat quickly, I got a liver treat. If I stayed in the same position for a long time, I got a liver treat. That made it all worthwhile; learning and rewards going together. I would have done it strictly for the pats. Obviously I was starved for affection.
Don would praise me to the skies in front of the others when I did a superb job of obeying him. I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful it made me feel. I tried harder than any of the others as I knew I had to succeed. I had a living to make. I knew where dogs went who couldn't cut it. Horrible things happened to dogs that wound up at the pound. We heard they were murdered; gassed or stuck with a needle, killing them. Sometimes they were put in a cage to be adopted by men who trained them to fight to the death in a ring surrounded by screaming mobs. Some were carted off to concentration camps to be experimented on. During the black night the others in my cellblock growled terrible rumors medical tortures practiced on helpless, lost dogs. I wasn't going to let it happen to me.
I loved the talks Don and I had during the rest times. He told me about responsibility and duty. “A top dog must be willing to lay down his life for his master, just like the secret service guys do for the President," he said.
He also talked a lot about someone named Darlene. Once he forgot to put me in the sleeping cage and I curled up beside him on the rug as he got sleepy while drinking from a bottle. It got harder to understand him, but he seemed to hate her and love her at the same time. He talked a lot about her hair and about her sleeping habits. I certainly could understand this. I loved to curl up with Celia and smell her lovely ears. Finally, Don made water come out of his eyes, dropped his bottle and went to sleep. He made rattling and sucking noises with his mouth as he swallowed air. Flies gathered to socialize on his lip hair as he blew in and out.
The last day of school came; the day of the big show-off parade. What we had learned was now to be seen by everybody. All of us had been rehearsing to achieve perfection. For hours I bowed, sat, stayed and came. Hour after hour. Borrrrring.
This time loud organ music playing "Charge” blared from somewhere to get the handlers moving, because they were as tired as the rest of us. Around and around we went. A stop here, a stay there, such a snap. It took concentration. You had to fix your mind on exactly what you were asked to do. No more, no less.
The barn was crowded with wooden benches filled with doting owners, little kids, and highway patrol guys looking over the talent and assorted dog lovers. Someone had spread new fill inside the ring that made it easier on the paws and gave a spring to the step.
There were two men and one woman standing in the center of the ring with cards and pencils writing stuff down as they checked us over. Then the signal came for a dog to enter the center of the ring. It was Celia. She looked lovely: beautifully brushed, beautifully bred. The next thing I knew, I was led to stand beside her. Me, the half-breed, was standing next to royalty. Drum roll. A tall man in black put a blue ribbon on Celiaís collar. She'd won first prize, the best of the best. Then he came to me. After poking around, looking in my eyes and ears, and (blush) other places, he gave me a white ribbon. Don jumped for joy. The tall man told him I was the best in obedience, but my lack of pedigree held me back from the No. 1 slot. I didn't care. I wanted Celia to win anyway.
All the owners came to get us. Except for mine. Tootles' human was round, laughed a lot, had freckles and light, wavy hair. He and Tootles looked alike. He seemed glad to see him again, clamoring and jumping all over him. I envied all the hugs and loving words his human gave him. Tootles had forgotten his training rules: a good dog will never, never jump up with paws; never, never make dirt inside; and never, never make his human angry.
I hated to say good-bye to Celia. We touched noses, promising all kinds of things that would never be. With a lump in my throat I watched her go, coat waving as she trotted beside her hunter. She glanced back, winked, and as much as told me she would remember me forever.
I was the last to leave. Bubba came in the truck to take me away and my trainer, Don, gave me a pat and told me to be a good dog. He said he would come to visit and we would go coon hunting. Bubba agreed and I wasn't as nervous about leaving Don as I thought I would be.
Although I wasn't anxious to see the rats again, I was older and not afraid. If the truth were known, I was looking forward to my first encounter with one of them. Nails wouldn't be around very long if I had anything to do with it.

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