Daddy nodded and extended his hand.
The uniformed man, looming large in our doorway, reached out to shake it. “I’m Walt Richards with Animal Control, Mr. Schilde,” the man said. I stared up at the ID badge blinking. He gave a big smile and turned it downward so I could have a better look. It was pretty, but I was too young really to understand its shiny embossed letters and numbers.
“Please come in, Mr. Richards.” Daddy welcomed the man in and closed the door to the suffocating summer heat. He gestured toward the coffee table. “Please have a seat. Can I get you some coffee? Water?”
Mr. Richards seated himself. “Nothing, thank you,” he said, wiping his brow on his sleeve. “You do understand the nature of my call, right?”
Daddy nodded. “Yes sir. You’re here about Booker.”
My six-year-old blood boiled with instant detest for Mr. Richards. Booker didn’t need to be controlled. He didn’t mean to bite Jimmy Cathcart. It was stupid Jimmy’s fault for pulling Booker’s tail. The police should go see about him.
“That’s right,” Mr. Richards concurred. “We’ve had a number of incidents of lyssavirus infection reported in this area, mostly in skunks, but all precautions must be taken. It says on the report here that you have no vaccination records for the animal.”
“That’s correct,” said my father. “He was a stray. Someone tossed him out a window up Ferris Creek a ways. He’s still a pup really, hasn’t had any shots yet.”
“If there are no vaccination records, I’m afraid he’ll have to be taken to a veterinary facility for testing,” the officer pointed out.
He looked uncomfortably at me as he fumbled for words. I stood behind the protection of Daddy’s arm, glaring back at him.
“The only completely accurate test for rabies is a direct immunofluorescence test. The vet will need a brain tissue sample for the analysis, which unfortunately means euthanasia. It’s the quickest way and most accurate test for determining the presence of rabies.”
“What’s euthanasia mean?” I asked, misprounouncing it.
“It just means they’re going to put Booker to sleep,” Daddy answered. “Run along and go fetch him and bring his leash. He’s going to have to take a ride with Mr. Richards here.”
“But they’re gonna hurt his brain. He won’t be able to think when he wakes up.”
“No one’s going to hurt his brain. Get your dog, Flower Anne.”
I knew something was wrong. Booker goes to sleep every day. There was never anything “unfortunate” about it before. Daddy’s tone made it clear he didn’t want to answer my question. I headed into the kitchen and stopped to listen at the door.
“Are you sure that was best, Mr. Schilde? Most children need the closure of being able to say their good-byes.”
“You don’t know my daughter, Mr. Richards. You tell that girl you’re gonna kill her puppy, all Hell’s gonna break loose.”
Needles poked into my eyes and nose, and my heart turned into a big rock in my chest, but I had to stay quiet. I tip-toed shakily through the kitchen and dining room, wiping the stinging tears away and found Booker lying on his bed by back the porch.
“Shh! Be quiet Booker,” I choked a whisper. His tail thumped loudly on his bed. “Come on boy, we have to go.”
Booker wouldn’t do a thing Daddy said and not very often what Mama said either. He would follow me everywhere though, if he was allowed. I slipped quietly through the back door, and raced across our back yard as fast as I could run with Booker obediently at my heels.
We ran down to the end of the fence line to where there’s a place you can crawl under, and climbed down into Ferris Creek just as I heard Daddy’s voice hollering my name and then Booker’s from the back porch. Booker stopped.
“No, Boy! Come on,” I said, still whispering in desperation.
He looked quizzically at me.
“Please, Booker,” I started crying again and patted my legs. “They’re gonna kill you.”
He came to me this time. I petted his head and rubbed his ears. “Good boy!” And I started up the bone dry creek bed to the south away from town.
Ferris Creek doesn’t smell good, but it has tall weeds and bushes along its bank that would hide us. It winds all the way up into the hills to the south of Great Falls, mostly through empty wilderness. I’d hiked up its banks once before in the spring looking for turtles, but not far enough to get in trouble. It wasn’t long before we were in unfamiliar territory.
I kept walking. Eventually, I knew we would reach the Miller’s Dairy. The Millers’ cows were responsible for the thin layer of manure that covered the creek bed all the way down to the river.
A state trooper passed by on the road that runs parallel to the creek. He was headed toward Great Falls. Daddy had probably figured out I was gone and called them. Soon they would be out looking for us.
Miller’s Dairy was only a few minutes in the car. It took much longer walking. By the time my nose told me we were getting close, the sun was already starting to drop in the sky. My stomach was empty, I was thirsty, and my feet hurt from walking on the rocky creek bed.
Booker seemed to be thrilled with our adventure. He ran this way and that, determined to pee on everything between home and wherever we were going. Most of the time when we go for a walk I talk to him, but I stayed quiet this time. In case there was anyone around, I didn’t want to be heard.
The creek passed around the pasture where all the Millers’ cows were grazing. Booker insisted on barking at them all as we passed. The cows just looked at him with big eyes and boogers dripping out of their noses, chewing and chewing. That’s all cows do. The creek turned away from the road and headed west for a while.
Night began to fall, and I began to get scared. I really hadn’t thought about anything when I ran away. I just didn’t want Booker to die. Now, I was exhausted, dehydrated, starving, tired, and I had to pee out in the open. I can’t even pee in gas stations. The country was full of mountain lions and snakes and even some owls big enough to carry Booker away. I began to cry.
“What are we going to do, Booker?”
He was tired now too, and just wagged his tail as he followed me, tongue lolling.
“I’m sorry, boy,” I cried. “I couldn’t let them kill you.”
The creek crossed under a bridge. It seemed like a safe place to rest. The heat from the asphalt in the road made it warmer under the bridge, so I huddled there underneath it. Booker lay down by my side. I cuddled up with him to keep warm and fell asleep. A few cars passing in the night woke me up and once Booker growling at something big rustling in the bushes.
Morning found me shivering in spite of Booker’s body heat, but the sun was coming up and it was summer. I didn’t stay cold long. The creek was turning south again and then east up into the hills. The thought of the mountain lions scared me up onto the road and I began to follow it instead, disoriented from hunger and from not sleeping very well.
The smell of bacon from a nearby farmhouse brought a new set of tears to my eyes. The longest I’d ever been without food was being sent to bed without supper a few times. Suddenly, Booker’s tail stood up and he looked out away from the road and trotted off through the grass and bushes.
“Booker! Stop! Come back!”
It was no use. He didn’t even look back. I stumbled along after him as fast as I could but he disappeared from view and I burst into more miserable tears. I tried hard to stay in one direction, calling his name. Finally, I sat down in misery. I felt completely lost and alone, crying pathetically, when Booker came charging back through the grass. He ran up and licked my face, excited about something. I stood up and he ran off again, but this time, he kept coming back to make sure I followed him.
Booker led me to a small pond. It wasn’t the cleanest, but it was water. I praised him happily and drank as much as I could. I didn’t know any better and I drank too much, but it felt better.
We started walking again toward the sound of an occasional car until we reached the road again. Walking, and walking, and walking… I grew so weak from hunger, I began to hallucinate things, just a little at first, like birds in my face. Finally, with night falling again, the road came to a bridge. There was water below and I knew it must be the river. I started down the bank next to the bridge and slipped and fell.
A sharp pain shot through my leg and I screamed out. My ankle twisted badly on a rock when I landed. I held it sobbing. Now, besides being lost and starving, I couldn’t walk. Booker came to see why I screamed, and I got up and leaned on him to hop my way over by the water where I collapsed. Two days of exhaustion and hunger took over…
Somewhere in my head, I was trapped in a barn with a mill. The giant fans blew slowly by the window cutting the beams of moonlight as they passed. Then there was a growling outside the door. I went to open it. A giant bear stood up in the moonlight. I screamed and ran, but the bear was right behind me and he caught me and pinned me down to the ground. I could feel his teeth sink into my ankle, gnawing and chewing, but then Booker was there, barking furiously. He attacked the bear and he was too fast for a big slow bear, so the bear ran away.
“You’re a hero, Booker!” I said. “You saved me!”
Then there was cheering and everyone had a big celebration for Booker. Even Mr. Richards and Jimmy Cathcart were there. Fireworks shot up into the sky, crying in the distance, and then flashing in brilliant red and blue bursts, blinding red and blue bursts…
I opened my eyes. The flashing lights of a state trooper lit up the sky from the bridge above me. The siren of a distant ambulance drew nearer. Booker had flagged down a car and led the driver to where I was lying. We had walked nearly fifty miles to the bridge outside the town of Cliffton before I broke my ankle.
Daddy was there with a cage, and I watched in horror as he put Booker into it.
“No, Daddy!” I cried. “You can’t kill Booker! He saved me!”
But he didn’t listen. He locked Booker in the cage and put him in the back of the truck. The ambulance arrived, and I cried myself to sleep on my way to the hospital.
The next morning, I woke up in the hospital with my foot in a cast. A nurse asked how I was doing, and then called out the door.
“She’s awake now.”
Mama and Daddy came in. The memories flooded back and I began crying.
“I hate you!” I sobbed. “You killed Booker.”
Daddy looked like he was going to laugh mockingly at me for getting what I deserved, but his voice was dead serious. “We had to, Flower Anne. Don’t you understand what you did? A little boy’s life was at stake, and you ran off to save a dog.”
His lectures are never short. Mama stayed characteristically quiet. I ignored him angrily through every word of it. The entire drive home, I stared out the window in hatred, refusing to say a word. I wouldn’t get out of the car when we got home.
“Suit yourself,” Daddy said.
I watched them walk up to the porch and open the door…
I jumped out of the car and ran to hug him while he licked my face. For the first time in three days, the tears that poured down my cheeks were happy ones. Mama came back and stood by my side.
“He’s had all his shots now,” she said ruffling my hair. “After you ran off, we had to tell the Cathcarts you’d taken Booker. Jimmy started crying when he found out why. He didn’t know about rabies tests. He’s really sorry. Booker never bit him. It was a squirrel that bit him, and he made up the lie so he wouldn’t get in trouble for playing with squirrels.”
Stupid Jimmy Cathcart only thought he was sorry. But he still signed my cast after I beat him up.
© 2012 Anne Schilde