Walking across our yard to the barn, the crunching grass lets me know there has been a frost during the night. Wrapping both hands around the large, warm milk bottle, I feel it chase away the chill of the autumn air.
At thirteen years old my mind is on other things, so the fact that I don’t hear the hungry, insistent bawling of my baby calf doesn’t register as a warning that something is wrong.
Opening the door to my calf’s stall, I brace myself for her usual impatience. She is just the right height that when she butts with her head, it catches me in the most prized and protected part of my body. I had quickly learned how to turn and avoid her persistent efforts to be fed. It was that or sing soprano the rest of my life.
Chasing away the darkness, the barn light spills through the open door. There is no flurry of hooves, no welcoming bawl. In the shadow of a corner I see a dark, inert shape.
Reluctantly I walk over to confirm what I have already surmised. My calf is dead.
Squatting, I make a closer inspection. That’s when I see that most of her left hind leg has been eaten away by an animal.
Like a lead weight on a fishing line, my heart sinks. Not just for my calf, but because I know what this means for my best friend.
Three months ago my father told me at supper one evening that one of our neighbor’s had seen some dogs running in a pack and that he recognized my dog, King, as being one of them.
King was a half-shepherd half-collie mix that I’d raised from a pup. He was my constant companion, following me for miles as I rode my bike throughout the rural landscape of Whorten’s Bend. He led the way when I would decide to get off my bike and explore the countryside on foot.
I take my daddy’s accusation personally. “Not King! He never runs off without me.”
“Just the same,” dad’s low voice replies. “You better keep an eye on him.”
“Yes sir. I will.”
A couple of weeks later, Daddy levels a more serious accusation at King. “Mr. Kilgore said a bunch of dogs killed some of his chickens. He said King was one of them.”
Jumping to Kings defense I exclaim, “That can’t be. I’ve never seen King kill anything except grasshoppers he catches. Maybe it’s a dog that just looks like King.”
In a very even voice, daddy says, “Once a dog starts killing, there’s no stopping them. They get a taste of blood and it makes ‘em crazy. I’ve seen it before.”
There is something ominous in daddy’s calm manner. Fear seizes my heart. I feel a knot in my throat. Tears well up.
“No. No. It’s not King daddy! I know him. He’s not like that.”
In the same even voice, daddy says, “If it does turn out to be King, there’s only one way to fix it. And I think you know what I mean.”
Terror races through me, making every nerve tingle. Frantic, I say, “I’ll keep a really close watch on him! I promise!”
“O.K. for now,” daddy replies. “But I’ve warned you.”
After supper I go outside and find King. Kneeling in front of him and gripping the sides of his face, I look into his eyes. “Listen King,” I say earnestly. “You better not be running around killing things. You’re going to get in real trouble.”
My voice chokes off. I wrap my arms around his neck and hug him tightly. He responds by licking the back of my head.
During supper the next week daddy seems more serious than usual. As we all finish and push back from the table, daddy says, “David, I’ve got some bad news.”
I keep my face toward my empty plate.
“Diane Johnson’s father told me some dogs got into his hog lot and killed seven of his baby pigs. And he is positive King was one of them.”
My chest feels like it caves in. I can’t breathe. Closing my eyes, I dread hearing what will come next.
My daddy’s deep bass voice continues. “We’re going to have to put him down.”
I make no semblance of remaining composed. “No, no, no!” I cry. Tears stream down my face. “You can’t! You just can’t! What will I do without King? No, no!”
I look pleadingly at daddy, praying to see a flicker of hope.
Looking at mother for support, daddy says, “I don’t know what else to do.”
I sense a chance of reprieve. “What if I put him on a chain and keep him chained up all the time? Why wouldn’t that work?”
“That always seemed like a cruel way for a dog to live,” daddy answers. “But he’s your dog. If that’s what you want to do to him…..”
Joy dries up my tears like a chamois cloth in a bucket of water. “Thank you! Thank you! King won’t mind. He’s getting lazy anyway. He doesn’t like to go running around with me like he used to.”
King spent the summer and early fall on a chain. One day when I get home from school, I go out to feed him. He is jumping against his chain, begging to be let free.
“You’ve been good for so long, you wouldn’t dare get in trouble would you King?” I ask him. Seeming to recognize that freedom is within his grasp, King barks excitedly.
“I’m going to turn you loose for just a little while. But I’m tying you back up before daddy gets home.”
I barely unsnapped King’s chain before he is off like a bullet. He runs until he is out of sight.
That was two days ago. I haven’t seen or heard him during that time. But as I look at my dead calf, I am certain this is the work of King.
The sludge of dread replaces all the blood in my veins and makes every movement an effort. I slowly walk back to the house and finish getting ready to board the school bus.
Getting off the bus that afternoon, I find King is waiting with his tail wagging excitedly. I avoid looking him in the eyes, fearing he will detect my dread.
That evening daddy looks at me with the penetrating eye of a parent and asks, “What’s wrong with you?”
His question pricks my heavy heart and tears begin flowing unabated. In between my sobs I tell him what has happened.
He listens quietly until I’m finished with the telling. I cannot bear to look him in the eye, but I know that is what he is waiting for.
Lifting my head, I wipe my nose and look at him.
Calmly he says, “Are you going to do it, or am I?”
The time for pleading and begging has passed. There are no more chances.
My body shudders as I draw a breath. Quietly I say, “I’ll do it. He’s my dog.”
Walking death row through the pasture, my best friend at my side on a chain, I feel like I am in a dream. My .410 single-shot shotgun rests on my shoulder.
Suddenly I remember the last scene in the move “Ol’ Yeller” when Arliss has to put down Yeller. The scene has more meaning to me now.
When the final moment comes, like Arliss I close my eyes and pull the trigger.
I think about my relationship with King when I am listening to someone who is in a relationship that has turned destructive. Most every relationship begins with excitement, energy and love. Unfortunately sometimes one of the persons can become so diseased and self-destructive they destroy everyone around them.
Just as surely as my love for King wasn’t going to change him, loving a person is not enough to change them. Sadly, love does not conquer all.
As important as friendships and marriages are, sometimes putting an end to a diseased relationship is the only way to escape with your life intact.
(For more articles that will prove helpful in dealing with the complicated situations of life, click on “Categories” and select “Family Helps.” Thanks for dropping by.)