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My uncle's dogs taught me of the species' profound attachment to humans, a loyalty seemingly indestructible, even through inhumanity.
Dog Brethren, Elijah Workman, 1977
Echo Springs, Missouri July 2, 1956
Twelve-year-old Elijah Workman pedaled his bike through the saunalike heat, away from his father's shop. Up Ghost Hill and beneath the green trees, hurrying to the Atherton place to feed their dogs, then over to his uncle Silas's place to get paid for the two days Elijah had fed his dogs. His uncle had taken two dogs with him on his recent fishing trip to Arkansas, but had left Elijah in charge of two pit bull puppies and four adults.
Elijah was caring for only a handful of the Atherton family's canines; like his uncle, they had many. The Athertons had taken several of their German shepherds with them to Kansas City for a dog show, so Elijah was earning money caring for those they'd left behind.
Elijah loved all dogs, and though he'd never been allowed to have one of his ownhis parents said they were too expensivehe'd figured out ways to spend plenty of time with the animals. What did he care about the American Kennel Club or the snobbishness of the Athertons or the other snobbishness of his own uncle? Elijah didn't rub shoulders with the Athertons in normal circumstances. They knew that he wasn't intimidated by their animals and he would never mistreat them. They knew this because dog-sitting was Elijah's business, and he had been running this business since he was eight years old. He had references. His family was poor, and Elijah contributed to the household with the money he earned, though his mother made him save half of it in case hewanted to go to college some day.
Elijah finally reached the white fence surrounding the Athertons' eighty-acre spread, their trees, stables and kennels. He turned in their groomed driveway, pedaling over the gravel. The German shepherds began barking.
They were handsome, Elijah silently acknowledged as he rode up to the kennel fence. "Hi, Ruby," he greeted the Athertons' champion conformation bitch, who was in season and had been left at home. Four years ago, he had brought his uncle's pit bull bitch Ella to show-and-tell on the same day Sissy Atherton had brought Ruby to the same event.
It hadn't been pretty, and afterward Sissy's father had threatened Elijah's uncle. That was the last time Elijah had taken a dog to school. No doubt Ruby would have been killed were it not for the third-grade teacher setting off the fire alarm, which distracted Ella for a nanosecond, allowing Elijah to grab her collar and drag her backward. He hadn't been strong enoughElla loved to fight, so he'd done it in a superhuman way. His father had told him that happened sometimes. When his father had worked in the quarry, he'd once hefted a boulder the size of a trash can off another man. It's amazing what you can do when you're scared, son.
Elijah leaned his bike against the kennel as Ruby wagged her tail at him, wearing her big goofy grin. He next greeted the other dogs who hadn't gone to the dog show, four older shepherds and a rascally one-year-old named Warren.
Elijah headed for the home's screen porch, where they stored dog food in big cans.
"You don't need to feed them."
Elijah spun around.
Sissy Atherton, in a pale green sundress, her corn-colored hair in a kinky perm around her long, bony face, sat in the shade on the steps of the big wraparound porch.
"What are you doing here?" Elijah demanded.
"I live here?" she said in that snotty tone that only Sissy Atherton could pull off.
"Where are your folks? Are they back from the dog show?"
"No. But Kennedy and I are here, so you needn't worry about the dogs."
Sissy's older sister, Kennedy, went to an eastern university named Swarthmore. Elijah scanned the area and noticed Kennedy's Thunderbird parked under the big oak tree. He tried to remember everything the Athertons had told him before they'd left for the dog show. "You're supposed to be at camp," he finally said. Some kind of ballet camp.
"It's over. Kennedy picked me up. So you can go home and watch a dogfight or something."
Elijah squinted. "A dogfight?"
"Doesn't your uncle have dogfights?"
Elijah supposed this might be true. He, of course, had never been to one. Dogfights were illegal, and once when he'd asked his father if Uncle Silas was involved with them, his dad had simply said, "That would be against the law."
Which hadn't answered Elijah's question. Uncle Silas said that his dogs were athletes. They played with something called a springpole, and they had a treadmill. Also, they loved to climb trees. Ella was Elijah's favorite, but she'd gone fishing with Uncle Silas this time.
Elijah wasn't sure how to respond to Sissy's accusation. He settled on repeating his father's words. "That would be against the law."
"Not to mention cruel and disgusting," she said, tossing her kinky hair. Elijah's mother thought Sissy was pretty. Elijah thought she was too tall and you couldn't see her eyebrows or eyelashes because they blended in with her face. She was flat-chested. Besides that, she was stuck on herself and thought she knew everything about things she knew nothing about.
For instance, she didn't pay attention to her dogs not really. She did things with them, he was pretty sure, but he doubted she really paid attention to them, tried to figure out what they were seeing and hearing, what they wanted. And each wanted different things. Ruby, for instance, would rather chase tennis balls than eat. Warren appeared to prefer food to just about anything. And Elijah had a feeling that old King would really like to chase small furry animals, kill them and eat them. Though Elijah wasn't one to trust to feelings. He just saw how King spotted squirrels and watched them through the fence, as though if the fence were gone he would be, too, in a heartbeat.
Elijah said, "I told your folks I would feed the dogs, so I better do that."
"I said you don't need to. They're our dogs, after all."
"Who's going to feed them then? Where's Kennedy?"
"Why do you need Kennedy?" Sissy demanded.
God, she thinks she's queen of the realm. "Because she's an adult. If I'm going to stop feeding the dogs, I need to make that arrangement with her."
The screen door swung open, and Kennedy Atherton stepped out. She wore a white dress, and she was very blond, very voluptuous, and in Elijah's opinion, very beautiful. Not, however, particularly nice. The only Atherton he really liked was Mr. Atherton, who knew interesting things about animals and was always wondering, the same way Elijah wondered about things. Mr. Atherton wondered what Ruby was thinking when her huge nose twitched. He wondered if when the German shepherds smelled a scent they also pictured the thing that had made the scent. He wondered what were the thoughts of dogs, and for this Elijah respected him.
Kennedy said, "What is it? Hello."
Elijah could tell she didn't remember his name.
"Mom and Dad had him feeding the dogs, but now we're home so he doesn't have to."
Kennedy gazed at Elijah with a thoughtful frown. "No," she said, "he can keep doing it."
"I can do it," Sissy said.
"I'll explain later" Kennedy hissed to her sister.
"I usually feed them. They're my dogs."
"Let's let this young man do his job and earn his money, Sissy."
As he got on with feeding the dogs, Elijah suspected he should feel insulted. But he did want the money.
He looked up from refilling water bowls as Sissy entered the kennel. The German shepherds stood up to greet her. Ruby was in her separate pen, away from the others, where none of the dogs could form a tie with her through the chain link, which Uncle Silas had told him dogs were quite capable of doing.
Sissy said, "My father says everyone knows your uncle matches dogs and that he should go to jail, but no one can catch him."
Elijah didn't like the idea of Uncle Silas going to jail or being perceived as a criminal. "Probably because it's not happening," he told her.
"You think," she said. "It's a blood sport. Dogs get their faces ripped off."
She was certainly an unusual girl, Elijah reflected. He had no doubt she loved Ruby and her family's other dogs, yet she casually mentioned dogs getting mutilated, an image that turned his stomach. "That's sick," he said.
Her expression changed, and Elijah had the feeling he'd passed some kind of test. Sissy had gotten Warren to sit, and she crouched down to pet him. "Warren, you're never going to be a show dog, are you?"
"What are you going to do with him?" Elijah asked. Speaking of inhumane practices, he'd heard someone say the Athertons drowned puppies who weren't of show quality. Elijah believed this no more than he believed the stories about his uncle and dogfights.
"I meant he'll never be a conformation champion," Sissy said. "Dad thinks he could finish, butwell, he's mine anyhow. I'm going to show him in the obedience trials in St. Louis next weekend. Want to see what he can do?"
In spite of himself, Elijah was intrigued. "When I'm done feeding everyone and cleaning up. Yeah," he agreed.
Warren was inattentive, and Sissy lamented the weeks of separation made necessary by ballet camp. Once on lead, he surged to the end of the leash. As she'd been taught by her mother, she spun around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, using her whole body to winch the leash tight, and ran in the other direction. Warren seemed to think this was a game and immediately surged to the end of the lead again. Not uttering a word to him, Sissy repeated the process several times until Warren seemed bored. Then she began walking him around the yard through a heeling pattern, alternating slow, regular and fast paces. But Warren sniffed the grass. He was supposed to sit each time she stopped, but apparently had forgotten the fact. Sissy found it mortifying.
On the sidelines outside the ring's low white fence, Elijah Workman watched. Elijah was cute, but he would never look twice at her, Sissy knew, not in the way she'd have liked. He had dark brown hair and brown eyes and was almost as tall as she was, which was unusual. She'd been the tallest person in her class for as long as she could remember. Also, he was one of the brighter boys; the teachers liked all the Workman kids. Poor but hardworking as Kennedy had just pointed out, Elijah probably needed the money he got from taking care of dogs.
Nonetheless, his uncle, Silas Workman, who ran fishing tours out on the Lake of the Ozarks, gave Sissy the creeps. Elijah must be delusional if he thought Silas wouldn't stoop to something criminal, and she believed her father about the dogfighting. Her father hadn't been talking to her, of course. He would never criticize another adultor another child, for that matterto her. He'd been talking to her mother, and he hadn't known Sissy was in the next room behind the door or she knew he wouldn't have said any of it. In her family, if you wanted to learn anything interesting, you should be prepared to eavesdrop.
When she finished all the obedience exercises, she told Elijah, "He's usually a little better. I think he's distracted."
"I don't think he knows why you're yanking on the leash. You ought to tell him when he does things right. Tell him he's good. Maybe use some food, too, to get him to walk right beside you. I'd bet he'd do anything for food."
"You can't talk in the ring during an exercise. And you definitely can't use food. Besides, I want him to know he has to pay attention to me."
"So tell him he's good."
"Dogs aren't like that," she said as though it was the last word on the matter. "They need to respect you, and coddling them doesn't make that happen." Sissy regarded Warren thoughtfully. "He's handsome, but he has a goofy ear."
Elijah had noticed that one of Warren's ears didn't stay up all the time.
"We had him neutered because Dad didn't want to risk him mating with one of the bitches. Also, so he won't fight. He gets along with everyone."
Elijah had noticed Warren's temperament and admired it. His uncle's dogs, which were certainly of a fighting breed, had to be kept in careful combinations. None of the females could be together and only a couple of the males could be with some of the females. He always had to write down which dogs were friends and which weren't because his uncle had assured him that fights could result in one or both dogs being badly hurt. Which proved Uncle Silas did care about his dogs and which certainly counted against Sissy Atherton's claim that he matched them in pit fights.
Nonetheless, many dogs liked to fight, including some of the Athertons'. Gertrude, the German shepherd bitch who was at the show with them was a hellion. She would fight with any of the other dogs, and Elijah thought she'd rather fight than eat.
Sissy said, "Gertrude might become a champion this weekend. She's in Kansas City. She just needs a major."
A "major," Elijah had picked up, had something to do with conformation titles, which were a complicated business that didn't interest him much. What he had gathered about conformation, however, was that it seemed to produce nice-looking dogs. Of course, Mr. Atherton would preach for ten minutes at a time about foolish judges who picked unsound dogs. He would never breed a dog with any problem he believed to be hereditary, even if it didn't affect the dog's looks. But plenty of breeders did breed unsound dogs, and this made Mr. Atherton angry.
"Agnes is being bred this weekend," Sissy added.
Elijah silently longed for one of the Athertons' German shepherd puppies. Then he shut down the thoughthe was not allowed to have one. And now he had to get over to Uncle Silas's and pick up his money.
Uncle Silas's champion pit bull Satchmo had bounded up, docked tail wagging, as soon as Elijah entered the yard. Elijah had greeted him and the other dogs as Uncle Silas stepped out onto the steps of the trailer he'd built into a permanent home. He was tall like his brother, Elijah's father, and today he wore a white tank undershirt with his trousers. He lit a cigarette as Elijah joined him, holding it between his thumb and forefinger. His eyes were overly bright, almost wet.
"Where's Ella?" Elijah repeated.
"Gone." His uncle sucked on his cigarette, crouched and rubbed Satchmo.
"Gone where? Did she run off and get lost while you were fishing?"
Uncle Silas seemed to consider the question. "No. She's passed on."
But Ella was a young dog, only five! "Did she get sick?" Elijah asked.
"She was hurt. Had to put her down. That's all."