By Karen Hesse, Marcia Sewall
Macmillan Copyright © 1994 Karen Hesse
All rights reserved.
Mam would not hear about having a dog. She didn't like them, none of them. She didn't even like Mr. and Mrs. Cobb's old hound, Truman. And Truman was as easygoing as a flat tire.
I had no hope of getting a dog when Sable wandered down off the mountain last October. The maples had turned flame red, and that morning, frost glittered on the windshield of Pap's pickup.
Eden, Mam's crimp-tailed cat, saw the dog first. She arched her back and hissed at the porch door.
"What is it?" Mam asked. Mam stood tall at the sink, toes turned out, looking over her shoulder.
Eden growled in her gray, silk throat. She flattened her ears.
"There's a dog out here, Mam!" I said, pressing against the storm door.
"Get your hand off that latch, Tate Marshall," Mam ordered.
She marched across the kitchen toward me, wiping her hands on her apron, and peered out the back door.
Eden was all riled up, hissing and growling and looking three times her size, while the dog just sat, drooping on the back porch. Bones held together by a dark brown coat, that's all she was. The longer she sat, the more she sagged, till her nose nearly touched the porch floor.
"Poor dog," I whispered, touching my fingers to the glass.
The dog looked up — not at me exactly; not at Mam, either. She stared at nothing in particular. Just moved her head in the direction of the kitchen door.
Her stirring scared Eden half to death. Mam's cat slipped like gray smoke behind the fridge.
The dog staggered to her feet and wobbled a step or two away from us. Then she stopped. She leaned against the porch rail, panting.
"She looks awful thirsty, Mam," I said. "Should I put some water out for her?"
Mam's face tightened a bit, but then she nodded. "I guess some water would be okay," she said. "Just push the bowl out the door, Tate. Don't you go out there yourself. There's no trusting a stray."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, filling a small mixing bowl with cool water. "Should I feed her something, too?"
"Not a bite, Tate," Mam said. "Don't even think about giving that dog a reason for staying."
I slid the bowl out the door, slopping water over the cuff of my shirt. The dog inched up slowly, sniffing, and started to drink.
Just then, Pap came out of his shop, heading toward the house for his morning snack. He was wearing his blue Saxonville baseball cap.
Before he covered half the distance between the shop and the kitchen, he spotted the dog on the porch. Pap's face shifted into a question. The dog wagged her tail weakly.
"Poor thing," Pap said, coming up and fitting his hand over the bones of the dog's head. "Where'd you come from?"
I called from inside the kitchen, "She just showed up, Pap. She won't bite, will she? Mam thought she would, but I don't. I think we should feed her."
Mam looked up from the sink and scowled.
The storm door banged shut as Pap came into the kitchen. Scrambling down the porch steps, the dog fled, tail between her legs. She crept back up, though, a few seconds later, and finished emptying the water from the mixing bowl.
Pap slipped one of Mam's biscuits soaked in milk gravy to me.
"Ransom!" Mam said, frowning.
"The dog's near starved," Pap answered.
I took the biscuit from Pap and followed him out of the kitchen onto the porch, cushioning the storm door behind me.
Easing down, I held the biscuit on my open palm. Cautiously, the dog came over, her nose stretched way out in front of her, sniffing. The closer she got, the faster my heart beat.
Finally she came close enough to take the biscuit from my hand, real easy. She swallowed it without chewing.
After she'd finished licking her whiskers real good, she sniffed the gravy streaks on my fingers. Then she made a start of cleaning me.
I guess I grinned wider than a half moon, feeling that tongue wipe across my palm.
She was all the dog I ever wanted, dark brown except for a blaze of white on her chest and the tip of her tail. Even with brambles stuck in her dusty fur, there had never been a more perfect dog.
My hand stroked her bone-hard head and down her ears. Those ears — that dog had the softest ears. They reminded me of the trim on the sweater Pap got for Mam one year. Pap said the trim was a kind of fur called sable.
"Come on, Sable," I said, coaxing her down off the porch.
"Named her, have you?" Pap said.
"Yes, sir," I answered.
A Collar for Sable
Except for her being so skinny, Sable unfolded into a good-sized dog. She leaned against me, standing in the doorway to Pap's shop.
"If you're coming in, get on with it, Tate," Pap said. "You're letting the heat out."
I nudged Sable inside, shutting the door behind me.
Pap builds furniture for people who live in places like Boston and Hartford.
I wished Pap would let me work along with him. He never did. Pap said, "Ten is too young to work with saws and things. Besides, girls have plenty other jobs to do without messing with wood." My stomach always tightened when Pap said stuff like that.
I knelt beside Sable, stroking her all over, getting to know her with my hands. "How come Mam doesn't like dogs?" I asked.
Pap shrugged. He held a pencil between his teeth as he sighted down a piece of white oak.
Pap made a mark on the wood with the pencil. "Mam got herself tore up by a dog when she was a girl," he said. "You've seen that scar on her leg, Tate."
"I didn't know that was from a dog," I said. Mam always wore dresses that hid the scar. She didn't even like me seeing it.
The shop smell tingled inside my nose, like a sneeze coming. I wiggled my nostrils in and out, trying to get the tickle to settle down.
"She was younger than you when it happened," Pap said. "We'd have had a dog a long time ago if it was up to me. I always had dogs when I was growing up. Your great-grandmam raised them."
"She did?" I asked.
"Beauties," Pap said. "Elkhounds."
My hand rested on Sable's head. "Do you think we could raise Sable?"
A knot tightened right inside my throat, waiting for Pap's answer.
"Even if Mam was willing," Pap said, "that mongrel's sure to disappear in a day or two. Just passing through — that's my bet. Don't get attached to it, Tate."
"No, sir," I said, chewing on my lip.
Pap switched on the planer and started running the oak through. Sable tucked her tail between her legs and backed toward the door.
"Come on, girl," I said, leading her out of Pap's shop. "You don't have to stay in here if you don't want."
Sable and I walked the property line, from Mam's willow in front to the sour apple out back. Plucking a stunted apple from the sour tree, I took a bite, puckered, and offered Sable the rest. Sable ate that sour apple, core and all.
"Sable," I said. "I've got someplace I want to show you."
We crossed the yard and climbed the path into the woods. Following the trail, we entered a small clearing surrounded by maple and pine trees.
"Used to be someone had a cabin up here," I told Sable. "A long time ago, before the river changed course."
In the center of the clearing stood a stone foundation and the remnants of a chimney.
"This is my secret place," I told Sable. "I have it fixed up just right with everything I need."
I stashed my best stuff up there: my rock collection, my treasure box. Tucked it all on a shelf inside the old fireplace. I had a pocketknife and soap for whittling, all kinds of string, a family of spool dolls.
Digging around in the treasure box, I uncovered a ball of twine.
"How about I make you a collar, Sable?" I asked. "Think you'd like that?"
Sable sniffed the twine in my hands, then lay down in the leaves at my feet.
I measured and cut three long strands and started braiding them. Holding the plaited twine against Sable's neck every now and then, I tested until I had a piece long enough. Sable sat patiently as I tightened the ends around her neck into a square knot.
Next, I pulled out my old hairbrush and plucked the bristles clean. Sable sniffed the honey-colored cloud of my hair. She tried eating it.
"Don't eat that, Sable!" I cried. "It'll make you sick."
I blew the hair cloud away, into the chilly afternoon. "Maybe some mouse will use it," I said. "To make a nest."
Gently, I dragged my hairbrush through Sable's matted fur, careful not to pull. I worked at her tangles, the way Pap worked at mine, until I'd eased them all out.
"You sure look pretty, Sable," I said when I finished. Sable wagged her tail in a tired circle. All groomed, with a collar on, she really looked like she belonged to somebody.
In the worst way, I wanted her to belong to me. But where could I keep her? Mam wouldn't let her in the house, not if she was scared of dogs.
And I couldn't leave her outside, what with the nights so cold and Sable so weak and skinny. And what if she ran away?
I decided I'd build a doghouse. If Pap would let me.
"Pap?" I called, poking my head inside the shop. Pap stood at his bench, gluing up boards. "Pap, can I use some of your wood to build a house for Sable?"
"Sorry, Tate," Pap said, shaking his head. "This wood's too good for any doghouse."
I guess I knew he wouldn't let me. About all Pap ever lets me use are his stickers. Those are the strips he puts between planks when he's drying wood. He's got a lot of stickers, but I couldn't figure how to build a doghouse out of them.
"Come on, girl," I called to Sable.
We hunted in the shed behind Pap's shop. Dressers, and bed frames, and boxes of canning jars leaned against the rough pine walls. I swiped at spiderwebs. "There must be something in here we can use for you," I told Sable.
She turned her head in my direction. I wiped my dusty hands on the seat of my pants and stooped down. Holding Sable's brown jaw in one hand, I stroked the top of her bony head with the other. She still wouldn't look right at me.
"I'll figure out something for you, girl," I whispered. "Don't worry."
I'd hoped to find a big empty carton I could maybe cut a door into. Or a wooden crate. All I found was a worn-out cardboard box; it didn't even have the flaps that make the top.
"Well, this will have to do," I said. "It'll make a good bed at least, Sable. Hold on. I'll clean it up for you."
I knocked the dried leaves and dead bugs out of the corners. Then I turned the box upside down and banged on the bottom, raising a puff of dust.
Sable sneezed. I sneezed, too.
"We need something soft to put in here, don't we, girl?" I asked. "It's not really a bed until it's soft."
I thought Pap's sawdust might work as bedding. I led Sable back around to the shop.
Pap's piles of sawdust were stacked up like fine raked leaves. I wished I could jump in those piles, but Pap's broom was always leaning over them, just daring me to try.
"What you doing out there in the shed, Tate?" Pap asked.
"Just looking around," I said.
"Don't be making a mess, girl," Pap warned.
I stood, staring at Pap's back. His dark hair poked through the hole above the plastic snaps in his baseball cap.
"Pap, can I use some of your sawdust?" I asked.
Pap nodded, not even looking over at me. "Just don't trail it across the floor," he said. "And shut that door behind you, Tate."
I closed the door and knelt in front of the tallest pile. Using my hands, I scooped sawdust into Sable's box. Sable pushed her nose into the middle of things, helping.
"Okay, girl," I said, standing up and brushing dust off my knees. The sawdust reached about halfway up the box sides. "Come on. Try it out."
I pushed the box right in front of her.
Sable stared at me. Then she stared at the box. Instead of climbing in, she walked right past it, plopping down on the hard shop floor.
"Not there, Sable," I said. "In your bed."
Sable dragged herself up onto her feet again. She had sawdust all over her newly brushed fur.
"I should put something on top of the sawdust, shouldn't I, Sable?"
I remembered the old stained quilt from Grandmam Betts. It wasn't nice enough to put on a bed anymore. But it would do all right for Sable.
"Can Sable stay in here a few minutes?" I asked Pap.
Pap nodded, too busy working to notice what I was up to.
"Okay, girl," I said. "Stay right here."
Sable sank to the floor again, sweeping sawdust with her tail as I backed out of the shop.
I climbed silently onto the back porch. Mam stood in the kitchen, listening to the radio, her sleeves pushed up past her elbows. The muscles worked in her long back as her fist kneaded dough.
Slipping around to the front of the house, past Mam's willow, I let myself in quietly. I crept up the stairs, careful to skip the creakers. My heart hammered against my throat. Mam would sure explode if she caught me giving Sable one of Grandmam Betts's quilts, even a ruined one. I managed to get the quilt down from the closet and out of the house without Mam knowing.
Pap looked up as I rushed through the shop door. My hair crackled, full of static from carrying the quilt on my head.
"Does Mam know you have that blanket?" Pap asked.
"No, sir," I said.
Pap nodded. "She's not going to like it."
"I didn't take a good quilt, Pap," I said.
"She's still not going to like it."
I folded and refolded the blanket, till I got it just right in Sable's box. "Okay, girl," I said. "It's ready now. Hop in."
Sable backed away from the box, her tail between her legs. I climbed inside it myself, showing her what to do.
"This is your bed, Sable."
She just sniffed inside my ear.
Finally I gave up trying to coax her. I just picked her up and put her in. For such a big dog, Sable weighed about as much as an empty school bag.
She stood on the quilt for a few seconds, looking wobbly. Then she sniffed the fabric, pawed some wrinkles into it, circled, and dropped her bones down.
Sable sighed, real long, like wind down a chimney. She rested her head on the edge of the cardboard box.
"Can we keep Sable's bed in your shop tonight?" I asked Pap.
Pap looked over and frowned. "We don't even know if that dog's housebroken, Tate. If she messes anything — anything," he said, "you're responsible."
"Yes, sir," I said.
I explained to Sable how she was a guest in Pap's shop. "You better behave," I told her.
* * *
Cooking up a pan of mush for Sable's supper, I stirred a spoon of bacon fat in to improve the flavor.
Sable ate her mush out on the porch, licking the bowl over and over, chasing it around with her tongue, until finally I took it away. Then I led her back toward Pap's shop. She didn't wait to be invited. She headed right inside out of the shivery cold as soon as I opened the door and clicked on the light. She climbed straight into her box.
"Don't get comfortable yet," I said. "Remember, Sable, no messes in this shop."
I led her back outside, standing in the patch of light from Pap's shop window, hopping up and down to keep warm. Sable didn't make me wait in the cold for long.
"You're a good dog," I said, hugging her skinny brown neck.
Sable smelled like dried leaves, and dust, and pine trees. Her warm breath tickled inside my ear. I buried my face in her dark coat, breathing her in. Sable stood still, her tail swaying gently behind her.
"Into bed now," I said. I fingered those ears of hers one more time. The white tip of her tail twitched against the side of her box. There was no room in her bed for a full tail wag.
Holding her face between my hands, I concentrated on fixing everything about her in my mind.
"Sable," I whispered.
For the first time she looked straight at me. Her eyes shone like chocolate melting in the pan, all liquid and warm and sweet.
A bubble of something joyous lifted inside me.
"Don't get into trouble tonight, Sable," I said. "Promise."
And be here in the morning, I prayed as I turned out the light and shut the shop door behind me.
That night I stared across the starlit yard. There was a dog sleeping in a cardboard box in Pap's shop. A real dog. Tomorrow I'd bring money to school and scoot over to Tom's General Store. I'd buy real dog food for Sable. When I got home, I'd teach her to sit, and stay, and roll over.
Mam and Pap hadn't said I could keep her.
But they hadn't said I couldn't, either.
Sable's Bad Habit
The next morning I woke as the smell of perking coffee needled the house. Pap snored in the next room and Mam sang country in the shower. I pulled on my overalls and raced to the shop.
Sable met me at the door, wagging her tail and sniffing my hands. "Good girl," I said, checking for messes and not finding any. I hugged her and led her outside.
"Want some breakfast?" I asked.
Sable sat on the back porch in the frosty morning, watching me through the storm door while I soaked some bread in milk.
She bolted down the soggy bread and sat waiting for more.
How could I leave her and go off to school? I wouldn't mind staying home. But I knew Mam and Pap wouldn't let me. Sometimes Pap took me along when he delivered a job out of town. He'd let me skip school for that, but not for a dog.
I looked at Sable and considered tying her. If I tied her, she'd surely be waiting for me when I got home. But then I thought about Raye Cather's dogs. Those dogs lay in their own mess, day in, day out. I couldn't do that to Sable. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sable by Karen Hesse, Marcia Sewall. Copyright © 1994 Karen Hesse. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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