From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1949–
The Boy There
By Christie Lund Coles
Denny lifted the small dog higher on his shoulder, slowed his step, and leaned against the barn to catch his breath. He stroked the small black and white animal saying, “Nice little feller. What’s your name?”
The dog whined, and, suddenly, the boy winced as he noticed a bleeding gash on one hind leg.
“Gee,” he murmured, gently, “we’ll fix it. You’ll be okay. If Pa will let me keep you, I’ll name you Tip. I’ll take good care of you.”
He leaned forward to look around the corner of the barn. His father was in from the fields for lunch. Right now he was bending his dark head under the water pump, washing for lunch. It would be a good time to ask him. He started forward, then he paused fascinated and afraid at the sight of his father’s large hand lifting and lowering the pump handle. Denny felt sick with shame, remembering that it took all his strength and both hands to work it … and then the water never poured out like it was doing now.
His Pa was a handsome man as he shook the water from his hair and dried his hands. He was six feet three inches tall and was stronger than any man in towns around here. Once, he had seen him lift a wagon box with one hand. Maybe that was why he was so frightening to him … because he was so big and so sure of himself, because he talked too loud. When he was angry his voice was like thunder or the roar of a big flood, the kind Pa told him they used to have in the valley beneath here.
Still… he loved his father with a stronger, different kind of love than that for his mother. It was a sort of reaching up, of aching for the man’s regard, though he supposed he’d never really win that, for once he had heard him say to his wife, “to think that I sired that little runt.” There had been laughter in his voice, but Denny hurt inside whenever he thought of it.
He was a runt, and you couldn’t blame Pa for wanting a big son, one who could help in the fields, and with the horses, instead of him who stood shaking here, scared to go and ask if he might keep the poor, hurt critter in his arms.
It wasn’t that Pa ever hurt him, or that he would now. It was likely he’d just say, “that ain’t a dog, that’s a contamination,” or something like that.
His father liked big dogs, like Shep who had been gored by a bull while trying to pasture it. Denny had loved Shep, too, but there was something about a little dog like this one that made him feel strong and good. He could pick him up, talk to him, though he had to be careful of the sore leg that was still bleeding.
Even if Pa wouldn’t let him have the dog he would help fix the leg. He couldn’t see any animal suffer. He had tears in his eyes the day he buried Shep, when he put his hand on Denny’s shoulder and said, “Don’t feel bad, boy. He died doin’ his job. There ain’t no better way than that.”
Denny watched his Pa take a long drink of water from the tin dipper hanging beside the well, saw him put the dipper into place, plant his hands on his hips, and gaze far out over the west field that was plowed and ready to be planted with the early wheat. He looked happy, maybe now was as good a time as any to ask him about the dog. He couldn’t wait much longer for the little fellow was beginning to struggle against the pressure of his arm.
Breathing deeply, he stepped forward, started up the path between the chicken coop and the rabbit hutch, past the woodpile, over the chips that covered the walk, up to the enormous oak tree whose lacy shade reached from here to the well and even up to the kitchen porch. His father couldn’t see him, so he paused once more to catch his breath.
Suddenly, Pa made a motion as though starting for the house and Denny hurried forward, almost stumbling to the ground as he did so.
Pa heard him and turned. His dark eyes looked first at the boy, then at the dog in his arms. He asked briefly, “Where’d you find that?”
“I found him over by the highway. Somebody must’ve put him from a car. Else he’s come a long ways, he’s all dirty and his leg’s hurt.”
“You don’t figure to keep him?”
“I kinda hoped to…”
“Yer Ma wouldn’t stand it. He’d chase the chickens and bother the horses. That’s all little dogs like him is good for.”
“Now, none of your ‘buts.’ Bring him over to the porch and let’s have a look at him.”
Denny carried the dog carefully to the porch. Then his father reached over and took the animal from him and laid it on the porch while he bent on one knee to examine its hurt leg.
The boy couldn’t look at it. Each time the dog whimpered with quick pain, he felt a sickness in the middle of his stomach. He kept his eye on the tomato plants his mother had set out in coffee cans until time for planting.
Then Pa said, “Here, boy, go fetch some water, good and hot. And a clean rag.”
He was glad to get away, to go into the house, to go up and kiss his mother who was standing by the hot stove pouring flour thickening into boiling carrots. He wanted, for just a moment, to feel the good sureness of her body against his.
“Hello, there,” she greeted him, touching his hair with her roughened fingers, “you been gone a long time.” Then, wiping a streak of soot from his face, she said, “Dinner’s most on. Your Pa ready?”
“He’s fixin’ a dog’s leg. I found it on the highway. He said you wouldn’t let me keep it. Won’t you, Ma? Won’t you please?”
She put the blue bowl of thickening on the warming oven while she stuck another piece of kindling into the stove. Then, hesitantly, she told him, “If your Pa will let you, I won’t interfere. Sometimes, he puts words into a body’s mouth.”
“Gee, Ma, you’re swell. He wants some hot water and a clean rag.”
“Pour some from the teakettle. I’ll get a cloth. Mind the dog don’t chase the chickens none.”
“You won’t need to worry. I’ll watch it, Ma. Honest, I will.”
Holding the screen door open with his foot, he carried the basin of water with both hands. He saw the dog lying on its side. Pa was holding the bad leg by the foot. The dog seemed to know he was a friend for, though he held his head as though he wanted to bite Pa, he would lick the large, brown hand instead.
Denny glanced at the wound and saw an ugly gash that showed white sinew and quivering, bleeding flesh. He put the wash bowl down swiftly. His father said “Well, tear off a piece of cloth so’s I can bathe this. And hurry. I ain’t got all day.”
Shaking, Denny managed to get a piece of rag torn off and handed it in the general direction of his Pa. It missed his hand and the man looked up, “Watch that.” His eyes came up to meet the terrified eyes of the boy. He let go of the dog and said, “For gosh sake, what ails you? A dog would die if it depended on you for doctorin’. Git in the house. Go on, now, git!”
Obeying, Denny started through the door, feeling not only sick, but sorry and ashamed now, too. He wanted to stay and show his father that he could be of some help, but there was no turning back now. Before he could put foot on the worn kitchen floor Pa was up and beside him, putting his hand on top of his head, as he told his wife, “Take care of this young’un. Give him a spot of the soup you was fixing.”
Water rose in Denny’s through, into his mouth. He wanted to bend and kiss his father’s hand as he had seen the dog lick it a moment before. While the thought was still warm and sweet in him, Pa touched his head again, ruffling his hair, saying, playfully perhaps, “He’s a sissy, Ma,” and something seemed stricken inside the boy. When his mother tried to spoon warm soup into his mouth he pushed it away.
But the dog stayed, and spring passed with its shimmering beauty, its newness, its smell of turned earth and lilacs and blossoms in the long orchard north of the house. He loved spring, but he loved summer, too, especially the purple evenings when he brought the cows home from the pasture across the creek bed where he wet his bare feet in the shiny water, and, later, fell the warm dirt cling and trickle between his toes.
Ma had warned him not to get his feet wet, but he hadn’t had the cough so much this summer and he was able to help. He kept telling himself that he’d show his Pa. He’d show him.
Still, he was surprised when a few days later his father said to his mother, “Well, Ma, the boy there is looking right spry. Tim Jones needs someone to help thin beets. He needs him now. Think you can spare Denny?”
Ma looked up sharply from peeling potatoes, hesitated, then said, “Why, yes, I ‘spect … if you think best.”
“Sure, it’ll do him good. Get a few of his things ready and I’ll drive him over on my way to see Spence.”
Denny hadn’t ever slept away from home; he couldn’t imagine not sleeping in the same house, not waking to see the shadow of the apple tree on his window… yet, maybe, this was his chance.
Still, it was hard to keep a wobbling out of his knees when he saw Ma packing his shirts and socks. He thought there were tears in her eyes – like raindrops in harebell cups – but, when she looked up she was smiling, proud like. And he felt taller when Pa said, “Mind yerself. Do yore job, but don’t let him drive you too hard.”
He felt like bursting, yet he didn’t speak for fear it would spoil this moment, saying goodbye, climbing into the old car beside his Pa – like another man …
Yet, after three days at the Joneses’ place, he knew that he was more than a little home sick. No full week had ever seemed so long. The sun had been sweltering in the beet fields; the nights had been sticky hot in the small attic room where he slept with the smell of dust and heat. He kept wondering what they were doing a t home. He pictured them, morning, noon, and night. He longed for the feel of Tip’s moist nose nuzzled against his hand, his small, furry body pressed against his leg. He missed Ma’s smile, the questions she asked, he missed Pa’s booming voice, his sureness. No one here had talked to him much. Mrs. Jones was always hot and cross. But then she had five kids littler than he was, so he couldn’t blame her. Mr. Jones tried to be jolly, but there was something forced about it and he was stingy and mean in little ways, not at all like Pa.
On Tuesday, Mr. Jones said at the dinner table, “We’d best hurry up. Looks like a storm’s coming,” and Denny, with food still in his mouth, got up and followed the man outside, took his hoe, and went to the fields.
By Friday the clouds overhead really began to move together in great clusters of darkness. It looked like storm, sure enough. The water in the ditch below the field was red from the clay dirt above, the sun that had been bright earlier was dulled to gray – a strange, dark grayness that hung over the world like the faded shawl Ma wore gathering eggs in the winter time. And now the clouds were moving as though giant hands were pushing them swiftly, making the sky almost black. The air was moist and cool even while it took your breath away with its heaviness.
Denny’s hand felt wet on the shovel handle; there was a strange tremor in it. He had heard tell of the floods that had come down into the valley from the hills, terrible floods that tore down houses and sent boulders crashing into everything. He had never seen one and never really feared it since their place was on a hill nearly two miles from here.
The water looked red for sure now and there was a flood-smell in the air. He had smelled it once when the creek back of the west forty had risen to the top of the bank on either side and threatened to spill over. But Pa had only laughed at that.
He wanted to stop working and go back to the house. It would be easy to find excuses for coming in. He could go to the attic room and he would be safe.
He thought of his father, and it was like the pressure of a steadying hand on his shoulder. He took a firmer grip on the shovel handle. He began working quickly as though there was no fear in him. He kept reminding himself of the look there would be in Pa’s eyes if he should know his son had quit, left a job unfinished.
Feverishly he worked for what seemed a long time, never once looking to the east nor at the dark sky above him. He kept saying, “I’ve got to get this done. It’s my job.”
The moisture in the air had changed to actual rain now. He felt the drops, large and cool, against his forehead, on his bare arms, through his shirt that was already clinging to his small body. The darkness around him was suddenly streaked by lightning and there followed a crash of thunder which seemed to split the sky open.
There was another rumble in the distance. For a moment he thought it was thunder, but there was no lightning now and, instead of rumbling to silence, the roar seemed to grow louder and louder, seemed to come closer. The smell in the air was of mud and weeds and of water rushing forward, gathering speed and horrible power.
He wondered briefly about the Jones family. Then, instinct, that neither reasoned nor was afraid of consequences, made him throw the shovel to the ground and start running, instinct that was life itself, running for safety, not toward the Jones house but toward the side of the valley where his father’s and mother’s house stood for everything that was safe and sure.
The lightning flashed oftener now and the thunder almost shut out that other steady, awful roar. He must go faster, faster… faster. If his Pa were only here he would not be afraid. He would put him on his shoulder and in a few, long strides they would be on the slope; they would be on top of the hill looking down upon this terror instead of being a part of it.
His breath seemed to be dragging the life out of him, each breath came harder, making his side and his shoulder hurt, making his thin legs tremble beneath him and his heart pound. He couldn’t go very much farther but he must … must…must. He could see the water now like some great animal in the distance moving toward him, belching foam and slime and death.
He thought, briefly, if I lie down with my face to the ground it will all be over in a hurry. It won’t hurt much. Then he looked up. He saw something like the face of God. He saw his father and Tip on the upland, coming toward him. His father was calling loudly, “Hurry, boy, hurry!”
He saw Tip leaping and barking like one possessed; he thought he saw the look in Pa’s face, and suddenly he became as light as the thistle he had often held in his hand for the wind to whisk away. His feet that had dragged before were winged things, carrying him forward, until his father was meeting him on the slope, was lifting him above the roar and chaos of the flood waters that lapped greedily over the place where, a moment before, he had been.
He was safe. Safe against the warm, firm shoulder that smelled of sweat and man. He could hear the loud clap-clap of his father’s heart against his own. He closed his eyes for a moment. Then he heard Tip making strange noises … But there was no reason for him to yip now, no reason to bark so frantically.
He looked at Pa and Pa answered the question in his eyes with the words, “He’s caught in some weeds. The flood’s got him.”
“Tip,” Denny cried, wiggling to get down. “I gotta get him, Pa. I got to.”
Once down, he started toward the slope where the dog was entangled in briar bushes and the limb of a tree. A few large rocks formed a cove that for the moment prevented him from going forward with the heaving torrent.
His father’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. “You can’t do it, Denny. The hill’s slippery. One misstep and you’ll be a goner. Come on boy, We’ll git you another dog.”
His voice was gentle, his touch was kind. Denny started to turn, blindly, then he looked at the dog, saw the mute trust in his eyes, heard the expectant whine. Denny said,”You weren’t scared of bein’ drowned when you and him run out to get me. I gotta save him, Pa.”
Unconsciously, he had been seeking means and ways. Now, without stopping, he ran toward the trunk of a tree on the edge of the hill, climbed it and, with the agility of a cat, was out on the longest limb. He was soon near the end of it. It was going down beneath his weight, nearer and nearer to the water. Once, twice, he reached out for Tip, only to miss him. The third time, he cried, “Here, Tip. Here, old boy.”
The dog seemed actually to stretch itself upward to meet the hand that was ready to close upon his fur, to lift him to safety. Holding the dog carefully, Denny moved slowly backward on the limb. His father was there to lift the two of them with the largest, gentlest hands in the whole world, he guessed.
They reached the house. Ma kissed him again and again, then put him to bed and spooned hot milk into his mouth, though he protested stoutly that he was all right and wanted to stay up. Pa, standing at the foot of the bed, told him, “Mind yer Ma, now. That’s good for what ails you.”
He must have fallen asleep, for when he opened his eyes he was alone in the room and the shades were drawn against the sunlight, which had returned as swiftly as it had gone. Tip was lying beside the bed. As Denny lifted his head, the dog’s ears came up, his tail thumped the floor, his body quivered for recognition. Denny turned down the clean sheet and his hand went down to tangle in the damp fur of the dog’s neck, “Good old Tip,” he whispered, “good boy.”
Lying back again, he reached over with his free hand to pull the shade from the window. Outside, he could see the trees just as he remembered them … real and sure.
From the other room he could hear his parents talking. His Pa was saying, “Yes, the boy there had a close call, mighty close, Ma.” And after a strange silence during which the boy heard his father clear his throat and make a sound like a choked, unwilling sob, the man went on, “Ma, he’s a fine, upstanding lad … I … I …”
His voice broke again. Denny felt his heart leap against his ribs. Tenderness rose in him as the flood waters had risen in the valley. When he was younger – yesterday, perhaps – he would have wept. Now, he felt ashamed of tears, of his own, of his father’s. Suddenly, he understood many things, mostly about his Pa. His only sign of the emotion within him was the tightening of his fingers in the dog’s damp fur, a rather husky whisper to the dog, “Sissy …”