Food, or a Dog
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by Frank Shortt
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The spring sun burst over the hills, finally reaching the bottom of the gully known as
Grassy Creek in Buchanan County, Virginia. The 1950’s, for most folks in America, appeared to be a time of prosperity.
Red breasted robins, the harbingers of spring, sang as if their breasts would explode. The whole atmosphere exuded joy that could
not possibly hold any tragedy this day. I had planned to meet my neighbor, Orton Davis, to play down by the creek and possibly do
some fishing. I also wanted to see what ‘Old Blackie’ the stray dog could do about retrieving rocks that we would throw into a deep
pool. But, none of this was meant to be.
‘Old Blackie’, so named because of his black, glistening
coat, came to our house one morning in late winter. I immediately recognized that he was starving and in bad need of some warmth.
He had probably been dumped off in the night by a passing motorist who was unable to feed or keep him any longer. I coaxed him into
the barn where there would at least be warm straw. I then proceeded to the house to see if there were any leftovers still on the wood-burning
cook stove. I found a few biscuits and a leftover, curled up piece of fatback bacon. I knew this would be a feast for a mongrel dog
that had nobody to love or feed him. Not only did he eat the biscuits and bacon, but he licked my hands where the food had been. I
feared lest he begin to get the wrong idea and eat me too.
From the day I fed that old black
dog, he followed me everywhere I went. If mom sent me to the store, he tagged along. As a ten year old boy, I always felt safe from
any harm, animal or human, that might have threatened me. The problem was, we already had a dog to feed, dad’s old squirrel dog, Spot.
Spot was dad’s pride and joy because he provided the means for us to have fresh meat on the table. Dad always said,
“My Spot’s the best squirrel dog in the county, possibly the state.”
Secretly, I didn’t like
Spot because I was not allowed to play with him and have him as a protector.
Dad warned all the
children away saying, “If you pet a dog too much, he ain’t worth a hoot for hunting.”
a Saturday morning, a few days after Blackie came along, I decided to go see my old buddy, Elmo Pritt. I loved to go down there, but
I was always greeted by their part-Husky dog named Snowball. Each time I approached the Pritt house, I was attacked by this huge ball
of fur and sometimes mauled to the ground. Snowball never did bite me, but he sure scared the daylights out of me. This day I had
an ace in the hole as Blackie tagged along. I knew that if Snowball started to attack me, Blackie would fight, until his last breath,
to protect me. Anyhow, this was the confidence I felt.
“Come on Blackie, I coaxed, let’s
go see some folks you haven’t met yet.”
Blackie snuggled up to my leg and seemed anxious
to do whatever it took to please the hand that fed him. I was still sneaking food from mom’s warming oven to feed the stray dog. Mom
must have known that food was missing because we didn’t have that much to spare and Blackie was a liability from the very day he arrived.
We made our way slowly down route 460, a meandering, Federal Highway that ran all the way
from St. Louis to Northern Virginia. I always stayed close to the edge of the bank because of the coal trucks that crawled up the
road with their “black gold” to be railroaded to markets hither and yon.
stay behind me, I cautioned, “you don’t want to end up under the wheels of one of them coal trucks.”
Blackie heeled me without mishap and we arrived at our destination just as Haddon Pritt, Elmo.’s father was leaving for the day, probably
to go shopping at the Farm Bureau in the town of Richlands.
“Where’d you get that old mongrel,”
he questioned me teasingly.
“Oh, someone dumped him off at our house, I replied without
hesitation. “I fed him and he just took up with me.”
“He sure looks skinny, Haddon continued,
don’t you ever feed him?”
I felt shame that Blackie was skinny, but my only reply was,
“well, you shoulda seen him when I first found him.”
Haddon drove off and I made my way
into the yard to be greeted by Snowball.
Snowball came bouncing out of the yard in full
force, with fangs bared. Even with Blackie to back me I was scared enough to pee my pants, and I almost did. I didn’t know it at the
time, but Snowball’s interest was not in me, but in the strange dog that was intruding on his territory. He passed me like a rocket
and went full-force into Blackie. Because of his size and ferocity, he was used to having his way, but this time he met a force he
hadn’t reckoned with. Blackie simply lay down on his back as Snowball approached and as the larger dog commenced to chew him to bits,
Blackie latched onto his throat and hung on for dear life. Snowball hadn’t expected this, and now all he could do was try to release
the clamp that was cutting off his wind. The more he struggled, the tighter became the clamp, thereby rendering him helpless. Finally,
after Snowball was just about done in, he was able to tear away from the deadly fangs that dug deeper and deeper into his flesh, and
ran yelping up under the porch of the Pritt’s house, part of his throat still in Blackie’s mouth. I was not welcomed inside that day,
and was ignored by all the Pritt children. Instead, I went up the hill a little ways and visited with my other friend, Rennell Osmond.
It was probably better that I ended up there anyway as the Pritt children smoked tobacco and were teaching me that bad habit.
“That shore is a mean looking dog you have” Rennell greeted me.
“Naw, he ain’t so mean,
I replied, unless someone or something is pestering me.”
“I shore wouldn’t want to meet
him out on a dark night!” was Rennell’s summation.
We talked and visited for a couple of
hours, then the weary trek back up the highway to home. Rennell wasn’t allowed to be out very long from his house, and I didn’t learn
until years later why. His mom drank quite a bit and she was afraid that Rennell or his sister, Allie would let the secret out. We
always wondered why those two kids liked to come to our house so much and once on a visit to Allie years later she revealed to me
“Mom used to drink up the money dad made working in the coal mine and we didn’t
have very much to eat at our house. I always knew that I would get a good meal at the Shortt house!”
This was a big shock to me because I always thought of that family as being ‘well to do’.
By the time Blackie and I arrived home the sun was dipping down behind the last stand of trees visible to the west. This meant chores
had to be done before dark. Chores consisted of filling the woodbox by the cook stove, carrying water from the spring across the creek,
feeding what animals we had at the time and whatever else dad directed. Sometimes dinner would be delayed until all the chores were
done. This meant my belly remained empty from breakfast until dinner as lunch had not been an option. If one child was missing at
the lunch table, this meant more food for the rest. We were sometimes happy that all the kids were not there.
I put old Blackie away that night with a feeling of elation for what I had witnessed that day. Blackie had conquered a long standing
enemy of mine and given me some greatly needed confidence. The chores didn’t seem so arduous that evening as I reveled in my victory.
Mom marveled at my willingness to do whatever she asked.
“Boy, you must have had a great
time today, what did you do, strike a gold mine?”
“No, I replied, I just had a good day
playing, that’s all”.
I didn’t dare tell her about the dogfight as I already knew here
sentiments about that sport.
“I went to play with Rennell Osmond and he had a new truck
that his uncle had given him. We made roads all over the hillside and hauled dirt and dumped it down the hill.”
“Did you happen to see his mom”? Mom asked nonchalantly.
“No, we weren’t allowed to go
in the house as Ode, her old man, was cleaning the house today”.
“Shore wish I had someone
to clean my house for me”, mom rejoined, with all you young’uns around and the coal dust flying around all the time, it is near impossible
to keep a house clean.”
Mom didn’t mention the fact that Frances, my oldest sister, did
most of the cleaning and took care of all the younger kids.
These were my thoughts on this
wonderful spring morning in April as I thought of the fun Orton Davis and I would have down by the creek. Suddenly, dad appeared in
the doorway with a twenty-two rifle in his hand. I just knew by the way he looked at Blackie that the dog’s days were numbered.
“There’s been too many stray dogs dropped around here lately, I’m about to declare war on ‘em,” dad said with a look of determination.
If folks can’t feed their animals why do they buy them in the first place? I’m getting’ tired of feedin’ everybody’s old strays.”
Dad was referring to the fact that we barely had enough food for our own family and to
feed an extra mouth was out of the question. We barely got by.
“Well son, seein’s how you’re
the one who’s been feedin’ this mongrel and caused him to take up with us, I guess you’ll just have to get rid of him.”
Dad was dead serious. I knew not to talk back or even try to justify Blackie’s existence. It was black and white, our food or the
dog. My stomach did cartwheels. I wanted to scream out with all my being in defense of Blackie. I loved that old black dog who had
sacrificed his own well-being to save me from being mauled by the Pritt’s dog. It was shoot the dog or face a beating within an inch
of my life. I already knew dad’s ability to wield a big stick.
I tied a rope around Blackie’s
neck and began pulling him toward the path leading to Grandma Shortt’s house. I knew of a clear patch of woods on the way that would
have to do for Blackie’s execution. In fact, we had buried, and had funerals for, several other animals there in the past. The twenty-two
rifle was a leaden weight as I dragged Blackie forward. I tried to think of every way in the world that I could save his life.
“Maybe I can hide him out and sneak food to him once in awhile. Maybe Grandma would keep him for me until we can afford to feed him.”
She didn’t have as much food as we did. In fact, Dad was always giving her food and clothing. Maybe if I just shoot the rifle and
let old Blackie go, he’ll run off somewhere else and be someone else’s dog. No, he’d just follow me home.”
There was only one thing to do.
I tied Blackie to a maple sapling saying,
“I’m sorry, boy, You know this is not my idea. I’d give anything if it didn’t have to be this way.”
I backed off a few paces, leveled the rifle between Blackie’s eyes and pulled the trigger before I lost my nerve. Blackie only kicked
a few times and lay still. I knew he was dead.
Then the bitterest tears I ever cried poured
down my cheeks.
“I hate my dad for this! I’ll never forgive him!”
All the pent-up emotion I had ever felt for my dad came to the forefront. I guess if I would have had another shell, in my grief,
I would have shot my dad. Instead, I went back to the barn, leaned the rifle in a corner and got a shovel to finish the job.
now lies under a black walnut tree which was graveyard for quite a few other calves, birds, cats and other dogs that we had buried
there and conducted funerals for. As I tamped down the last of the dirt on top of him I resolved,
“I’ll never take up with another animal as long as I live”.
But, as we all know, there
would be other dogs coming along later in life to take Blackie’s place. Even at that, there would never be one that could fill the
void Blackie left in my heart.