Role & Dog
“You should get a dog.” The phrase was uttered to Russ Frye about a million times. “I’m not a dog person,” he always said. It seemed like he had to say it constantly.
You’d never hear him admit that yes, the cabin got lonely sometimes. But he grew to like being alone. He’d sold the house in the city. It took him a while to give it up. But it just wasn’t the same anymore. And the cabin brought him peace. The quiet solitude of being surrounded by nothing but the woods. The sound of the nocturnal animals prowling, the birds chirping undisturbed in the morning. It was this peace he needed, he craved. And having a dog wasn’t going to do him any good.
The cabin that had become his one and only residence sat deep in the woods, at the end of a long road down a slow sloping mountain. Between late spring and early fall, Russ preferred to walk the ten-minute trip to the mailbox. Because after all, he wasn’t a complete recluse, and still received mail.
This day, a warm June morning, he grabbed his walking stick and messenger bag, threw on a hat to keep the sun off his head, and began the trip down. Animals in land and air were active, rabbits and squirrels and he even saw a hawk swooping around the canopy. He liked to watch nature as he walked, looking out for snakes as well.
As he got closer to what could be considered the nearest main road, he began to hear a rustling in the undergrowth to his right. Whatever it was definitely wasn’t rabbit or squirrel, it was bigger. Russ wasn’t afraid of much out here, he was cautious, and respectful that there were things out there that could do more harm than good. So, he stayed in the center of the road, keeping his eyes open all around him. The one thing he was afraid of he had yet to encounter face to face: a bear.
A few minutes later and he’d made it to the mailbox. He’d hand built it a few years back, to hold larger mail items he’d sometimes had sent to the cabin. This time there was a package about the size of a shoebox, a part he’d ordered to fix the generator in preparation for winter. Never too early to prepare, and it’ll be his first full winter in the cabin since making it his permanent residence.
He shoved what he could in the messenger bag and tucked the package under his arm. After latching the box back, he turned back onto the road home. It didn’t take him but a few minutes until he heard the rustling in the leaves again. He suddenly felt like he was being stalked, like a deer being hunted. He stopped, and the sound stopped. He gripped the walking stick, prepared to use it as a weapon. The pocketknife he kept on him at all times would be harder to get to.
He waited for a brief moment, then heard a loud crash and a growl. A blur of motion came from his right, darting out of the edge of the trees and onto the road. It took him a few minutes to register that the dark cloud of dust and fur was a dog. A dog that had a hold of something and wasn’t letting go.
Russ backed up as the tussle ensued, and, squinting his eyes he saw that the dog had a snake in its maw. It was shaking its head violently only until it knew it was done. When everything settled down, the dog dropped what was once a rattlesnake and looked up at Russ, panting.
The snake had been right in front of Russ, and the stray dog happened to see it first. Who knows what might have happened had it not been for the dog? He used the end of his walking stick to nudge the snake, which was in fact lifeless, and then picked it up and tossed it over the embankment to the right. He looked back at the dog, who looked at him, still panting.
“What?” Russ asked the animal. “You want me to thank you?” The dog let out a small “ruff” between pants. “Fine. Thank you.” And Russ continued passed it. He didn’t make it three feet before he realized the dog was following him. Russ would stop for a moment, standing still, and the dog would stop. But when he continued walking, the dog followed, slowly, and at a distance. But still, he followed.
He grumbled to himself about dogs and how he didn’t like them all the way back to the cabin. When he got there, he quickly glanced behind him to see that the dog stood, at the end of the walk. He stepped inside and closed and locked the cabin door. “It’ll go away.”
He got distracted by sorting the mail and opening the package to check the part and was about to make some lunch when he thought to look outside. He walked to the door and looked out the window to see the dog sat at the bottom step to the porch, just looking up at the cabin. It was still panting but stopped when it saw Russ looking at it. He groaned and let the curtain fall back over the window and went to make his lunch.
After he’d eaten, he stood to take his scraps out to compost, when he remembered the dog. He checked to see if it was still there, and lo and behold, there it was still panting away. But it had decided to sneak onto the porch where he laid just at the edge. Russ looked down at the scraps in his hand, and the dog resting on his porch, with its head on its paws, just staring at him.
“I’m not a dog person.” he told the dog. It stood as he approached. He dropped the dish of scraps before the mutt, and it looked up at him, then down at the scraps, as if asking permission. “Yeah yeah, just eat already.” The dog began to eat hungrily. “You’re not staying.” he warned.
The dog ate up, and looked at Russ, still panting. “Water,” he said. “You need water.” The late afternoon sun was bearing down and heating up, so it was quite warm out. Russ got an old bowl from inside and filled it with water. The dog’s tail was wagging left to right so hard Russ wondered how the animal didn’t flip over or fly off into the air. When it was done it sat down and looked up at him once more.
“Okay fine,” he told the dog, you can stay. But you have to earn your keep. You have a job. You keep the snakes at bay, and I’ll feed and water you. That’s your job. That’s your role. Got it.” The dog’s tail slapped the porch over and over, and it let out a “Ruff” in response. “And you can sleep on the porch. That’s the rules.”
A few weeks pass. The arrangement between Dog and Russ seems to work for them. “Russ, you finally got a dog?” Elliot Larson, an old friend of Russ’s asks.
“No.” Russ adamantly responds. “It followed me back from the mailbox, killed a snake in my path, and followed me home.
“So, he chose you.”
“No, I allowed it to stay.”
“Bro, ‘it’ is a he.” Elliot said, looking at the dog, whose tail thumped happily on the wood porch planks as he watched the conversation. “Have you named him?”
Russ chuckled, as if the idea was absurd. “No, why would I name it?”
“Him, that’s rude. You should name him.” Elliot said. “He saved your life; he deserves to be named.”
“Pfft. I would have been fine.” Russ new very well he would not have been fine. “If I name him, he’ll stay.”
“He’s not going anywhere unless you’re going too. Look at him.”
“Fine, you name him.”
“Cool, cool. Let’s see.” Elliot stared at the dog that shall be named and thought for a moment. “Speedy.” The dog’s ears perked up.
Russ laughed. “What?! Speedy, really?”
“Yep, look he likes it. Speedy!”
Speedy stood up and looked from Elliot to Russ.
“He was pretty quick on the draw with that snake.”
“It’s meant to be, man. Meant to be.”
“You and the dog.”
Russ rolled his eyes at his friend but said nothing else on the subject.
A few days later, a summer storm was blowing in, and Russ was preparing the cabin for immanent weather. The structure was sound, and the seals were good, but when wanted to be sure the windows were protected and tools, equipment, and other outdoor implements were safe and secure. Speedy followed him everywhere. But as the evening grew on and the storms got closer, he clung to Russ.
“Back off, you’re going to trip me!” he nudged the dog with the toe of his boot, hoping for some space.
Soon darkness fell and the windows were shuttered. The wind began to whole and whine. But then Russ had to listen, there was a sound that couldn’t have been the wind. He got up from his chair and walked to the door. There on the other side, against the bottom, Speedy lay whining. His nose was tucked under his paws and his tail was tucked under his body.
Russ groaned because he knew what he was about to do. “I’m not a dog person!” he told himself as he opened the door. Speedy did something he’d never been tempted to do before and darted inside the house, and rather quickly found Russ’ bed and hid himself under it. Within minutes thunder clapped and ran soon began pelting the log exterior of the cabin.
Throughout the night Russ offered the dog water and food but Speedy refused to come out from under the bed. When he could stay up on more Russ gave in and crawled into bed and went to sleep. The next morning, with sun shining through the window, Russ woke to something went nuzzling his hand, which hung of the edge of the bed. He looked over the edge and Speedy had been licking his hand.
Soon it was August, and it was not a good month for Russ. The constant influx of only slightly unwanted visitors didn’t help. The rush of memories that he was trying to avoid by coming to the cabin was only worsened by the people who arrived. The bulk of conversation started with, “I can’t believe it’s been a year already,” “How you are holding up?” and “You finally got a dog!”
But worse of all were June and John. He never expected to see them, didn’t think they’d want anything to do with him. When he expressed as much to them, they were kind. “Russ, dear,” Judy began, tears already welling in her eyes. “Just because she’s gone, doesn’t mean we don’t love you.”
She, of course was the reason he came back to the cabin. She’d loved the cabin and the time they’d spent there, as little as it had been. She was the one who’d often talked about living there full time.
“Kellie really did love it here, didn’t she?” John, Kellie’s father said, looking at a picture of she and Russ taken on the porch.
“She did.” Was all he could say.
Their visit didn’t last long. Of course, they knew he wasn’t being rude on purpose. Losing her was still raw for all of them. But he didn’t know how to react when the subject became her.
When they’d left, and there were no more visitors, Russ quietly made himself an early dinner. He sat down to eat it but ended up just staring at the food with his fork in hand. Then all the pain he’d held inside all day, all the pain he’d been hiding from in the cabin in the woods suddenly burst forth and he could not hold it back any longer.
He stood up from his chair, tears in his eyes, and took heavy steps over to the wall where their pictures hung. Wedding pictures, pictures of the fish they caught in the lake–she’d thrown her catch back, pictures of her smelling wildflowers she’d gathered on one of their walks.
He fell to his knees in grief, sobbing. He pulled at his own hair pounded himself in the chest, trying to feel something else, anything else, but the tears just came.
Then so did the dog. The dog he did not want. First Speedy crept toward him, practically crawling. Then he inched forward and laid down at his feet. He put a paw on Russ’s leg. When he continued to sob, Speedy crawled into Russ’s lap, and used h on is nose to nuzzle away his hands from his face and head. Then, Speedy began to lick Russ’s face until finally, Russ wrapped his arms around the dog and held him.
To Be Continued… in the morning… sorry.
Apologies for my delay in finishing. Between dozing off and hearing The Kid whinnying in her sleep from a room away, I had to call it. Here’s the rest of the story.
Soon Russ’s sobs calmed and he just sat holding Speedy. When he finally took a deep breath and pulled away from the dog, he looked down at the mutt and said, “you need a bath.”
The next day was spent cleaning and brushing the dog he didn’t want. The dog that saved him from a snake. The dog that waited patiently for acknowledgement and was scared of storms. The dog that accepted his role as protector. And Russ himself began to quietly accept his role as dog owner. Even if he wasn’t a dog person.
Soon it was fall, and Russ began to go on walks in the woods to forage for what he could before it became too cold, and before plants slept for the winter. Speedy would follow, though there were less snakes about. They were companions now, it was more of enjoying such other’s company than anything.
As they walked together through paths they’d traveled before, picking through the brambles and brush, Russ talked to Speedy, about all the things he and Kellie would be doing now. He’d taken to talking to the dog about his late wife. He’d told him about how she’d gotten cancer, and how it had been further along than they’d realized. She toughed it out for a while, but eventually she gave in to the doctors, and took the pain pills they’d offered. She didn’t suffer.
Once he’d gotten it all out, he’d felt comfortable talking to Speedy about all the good times they’d had, how she loved the cabin. And Speedy listened like he’d understood.
As they walked this day, Russ had nothing on his mind but the crisp air, and seeing what he could find. He didn’t hear the rustling of the leaves, the snapping of branches. He didn’t hear anything until Speedy stopped walking. And started growling.
Russ had never heard the dog growl before, bark, yes, at squirrels in the front yard. Rabbits in the bushes. But never growling. He looked at the growling dog beside him, not quite baring his teeth, then up in the direction Speedy’s nose was pointed.
He saw the movement, much larger than the dog, a black lump not too distant, lumbering in their direction. Black bears were common in the area, but rarely seen, as they stayed in the woods. Not many people lived in the woods. Not many people wandered around the woods.
Except Russ. And his now very tense dog.
And Black bears were about the only animal Russ was afraid of. He started to back slowly up, calling for Speedy. But Speedy did nothing but growl.
“Come on, boy.” He called the dog. “Just come back to the house.” If the bear didn’t see them, it couldn’t feel threatened and it would be fine, he thought to himself.
He grasped at Speedy, trying to pull him back, regretting never putting a collar on him. “Calm down, let’s go.” He kept his tone low and even to not startle either the dog or the bear. “Don’t start a fight you can’t win, buddy.”
The bear inched closer, finally looking up and sniffing the air. “Jesus that’s a big bear,” Russ said aloud. He toyed with the idea of grabbing Speedy by the scruff and dragging him.
The bear made a grunting nose and stood up on its hind legs, looking at them. It continued to sniff the air but made no move to advance.
Hackles raises, Speedy stepped forward and began barking loudly at the bear, growling between barks, and snapping the air. The bear made a woofing grumble in response to Speedy’s barking. It flopped back down ion all fours once again.
Speedy lunged in the bear’s direction, snapping and barking at it. the bear, instead of doing anything more aggressive, huffed at Speedy, shook its head as if you say, “Fine, I’ll leave!” Then turned around and lumbered off.
Speedy did not let down his guard until the bear could not be seen, and the sounds of it traversing the woods were distant. He then looked up to Russ, waiting for praise, with what could only be describable as a smile and his tongue hanging out.
“You’re an idiot.” Russ said bluntly. “But that bear wasn’t having any of your nonsense.” He scratched his protector behind the ears. “Come on. Let’s go home.” They turned back toward the cabin and walked in silence.
“You know, I never said you had to fight off bears.”