For the Love of a Dog


Greg Gunther



Bar was my dog, my baby, my love, the most wonderful thing I'd ever created. He loped happily beside me, avoiding my mare's hoofs as we rode the soft dirt of the trail through the grove of giant eucalyptuses that shaded my ranch. Even my human nose could detect their camphor-like odor.

When Moon Girl had been pregnant with Bar, I had worried that he would be shackled with my olfactory limitations, but happily, he turned out to be pure dog that way. One hundred and twenty pounds of healthy Landseer Newfoundland, but with a twist.

I shifted my weight to slow Maggie as Bar stuck with his furry black nose deep in a clump of nightshade weeds, presenting me with his white plumed tail. The white continued over his rump to his back, where it gave way to alternating islands of black in a sea of luxurious white.

"Careful," I said. "Remember, it's a poisonous plant."

"I can tell," he said in a childlike voice as he smiled up at me .

My boy. Every time I saw that half-doggy face with its shortened muzzle and half-human smile, my heart swelled with pleasure, and proved once more that I had done the right thing. "What's it smell like?" I asked.

"Green and old pee. No one I know."

I laughed, delighted.

He frowned and cocked his big black head to the side. "I hear horse feet. Just ahead."

Just ahead was the crest of a small hill. "Get back and hide," I told him in a low voice, urging Maggie forward. I was terrified that someone would see Bar's half-human face, and dreaded to face any intruder.

An stranger on a brown quarter horse came over the rise, a pasty dude in a just-bought cowboy outfit. Who was he trying to kid, anyhow? A little blonde girl, maybe six, rode in his lap, holding tight to the saddle horn. His smile said he wanted something from me. As much as the sight of an outsider made me want to turn and run, I knew I had to stop him, and now. Riding toward them, I noticed a helicopter hovering high in the distance, maybe two miles away. Spying on me?

I spurred Maggie forward and shouted, "Get out! You're on private property. Turn around and get out!"

When he smiled and held his ground, Maggie sensed my fear and slowed.

Reaching into the carry purse at his side, he said, "We mean no harm, my daughter and me."

As Maggie stopped, I reached inside my vest for the can of pepper spray. "Get out, get out now. You're risking your child's safety."

He drew a camcorder from the bag and lifted it to his eye. "Gate was open. Didn't think you'd mind."

As I suspected, he was reporter. "That gate was locked," I shouted. "There are signs every thirty feet! No Trespassing! Now leave, or I'll have you arrested."

As he made no movement, I urged Maggie forward, grabbed his horse's bridle, and guided him around.

"Hey! Don't touch my horse," he said loudly, still filming. The little girl whimpered.

"Shame on you for endangering your child," I shouted. When his horse faced the way he'd come, I made a grab for the camera. He tried to pull away, but I got it.

"Hey! You can't do that."

With a flick of my arm, I tossed the lumpy camcorder into a bush. "I just did. If you care for your child, which I doubt, you'll leave peacefully." I slapped his horse on the butt. "Go!"

Maggie stayed with the horse as it took off toward the side gate where he had entered, and the idiot tried to yank it to a stop. The abused horse reared. I saw where this was going. Again, the rider did exactly the wrong thing, trying to use the reins as a safety rope. I urged Maggie to the other horse's side, catching the little girl as she slipped toward me.

She screamed her terror in my ear as her father fell off backward and into the dust. With my free hand, I managed to grab the wild-eyed horse's bridle as it bucked, calming it with my voice, and leading it a few feet away. Even if the stupid reporter had deserved it, I didn't want to see him trampled. Maggie, bless her, was wonderful.

The man, dusty as an old cowboy, got up and shook his fist. "You son of a bitch, you almost killed me."

"There's always a next time." I took the squirming little girl's hands, leaned, and set her upright on the path. She ran to her father and hid behind his legs. "If it weren't for me, your daughter might have been killed, you stupid jerk. You could at least thank me."

He picked her up, kissed her, and tried to soothe her as he carried her to his horse, tossing wary looks my way. After putting her on the saddle, he mounted and rode grim faced toward the gate. I followed as my adrenaline began to rebalance. I had overcome my fear and did what had to be done, but my body now paid the price in trembling and nausea. I wanted him gone, right now. "Move it. Move it along, right now."

He brought his horse to a butt-pounding trot, a punishment to fit the crime, except for the child's pain.

I hung back, hugged my arms, and managed to get past the worst of it without throwing up. Why must I be this way? I have to protect myself, but my reaction makes me vulnerable. I'm sick of it.

A minute later at the gate, I watched them ride toward the neighbor's ranch, and then examined the lock and hasp. Twisted off with a crowbar. Rage boiled once more as I got off, found bailing wire in my saddlebag, and wired the gate shut.

Two minutes later, I was back over the crest, my voice shaking as I called, "Bar? Bar? Where are you?"

He stood up from behind a bush. "Here." He whimpered in fear.

I dismounted and sat against a tree. "Come here, my boy."

He came and gave me big doggy kisses, exactly what I needed. As I hugged and kissed my big boy, I found myself crying, not sure when it had started. The whole experience had devastated me. I rubbed his shaggy fur and said though my tears, "It's starting."

"No," he whined. "It'll be all right, Dad. I'll protect you."

My poor sweet baby. He had no concept of the situation, and I lost it. Just plain lost it. It hurt so much to see his great foolish devotion. I hugged him tightly. "I love you so much."

We sat like this together until I became aware that the helicopter was still there. Filming? Yes, probably. Not knowing what it was, Bar wouldn't think twice about it. I kissed him once more and said, "Come on. I'm going to find that camera."

It was there, in the bush where I'd tossed it. The helicopter had changed position, still sighting us. I hadn't noticed before, but the camera had an uplink transmitter attached. They had the whole terrible invasion on video. I put it in the saddlebag and rode back to the house as Bar followed. My bubble of privacy had been pierced. We would have to leave and start a new life.

* * *

My house phone rang continuously as we went in the back door. I went to disconnect ringing the phones as Moon Girl sniffed Bar in the kitchen. As far as she knew, her son was just another dog back from a walk.

After I disconnected them all, she and Bar met me in the computer room. I petted her shaggy black head, and wished I could let her know what was about to happen.

I sat at the computer and sent a secure email to my Lab manager. Mike, it's begun. I'm implementing the departure plan. I'm sorry. Come when you can and clear everything out. I'll leave Moon Girl here.

I sat there feeling light-headed. I had just lit the fuse to dynamite my life. My mind knew there was life on the other end, but my body didn't believe it.

A moment later, Mike's reply popped up on the screen. You're on all the news stations. I'm sorry too, Ben. I'll be there in the morning. Godspeed.

Bar sat next to me. "I wish I could read."

I smoothed the fur between his large floppy ears. "All in good time. Don't you worry. Tonight after dark, we're going for a ride in our 'copter."

"Oh, loud."

"I know. We won't go far, just to the airport on the other side of town. From there, we'll take a chartered airplane that's not so loud, all the way to the cool forests of British Columbia. You'll like it."

"Cool air? I love cool air." His tail flopped.

I smiled at my sweet boy, my happy-maker. "The men will chase us wherever we go, but they won't try so hard in Canada. We'll fly from airport to airport, and at each one, a car will pretend to come get us. The bad men won't know where we really went."

"My dad is so smart." He smiled and came to me, his whole body wagging.

I loved him up and wondered how smart I really was. Life would have been peaceful and easy if I'd never experimented with gene splicing, never created sixty-eight genetic failures before my dear Bar was born. Was it a selfish thing to do? Was God being selfish when he created the universe of souls?

I wasn't God. I was a pathetic human, so untrusting of others that I had to create Bar. As I saw it, playing God was my only choice.

Now they were coming to punish me, and Bar had to suffer. The outrage made my skin tingle. I forced myself to breathe evenly.

Bar licked my chin. "It'll be all right, dad." His little voice trembled.

"Yes, my child. It'll be all right."

* * *

I gave Bar and Moon Girl steak for dinner along with their kibble. I ate a sandwich, and watched the ridiculous show about me on the news. They had pictures of us, all right. There I was in my riding clothes as I sat with Bar's head on my lap. I felt so used. No pictures of the man falling off his horse, though.

It amazed me, how much they knew. They had even had faint sound and films of Bar talking. They must have been studying us covertly for a long time. Much of what they reported was misleading conjecture presented as fact. Butchering of dogs, stealing of human parts. Shades of Frankenstein. That's what I get for having Frank as a family name.

There were voices of reason and voices of hate. A genetic scientist explained that I was a wealthy eccentric, burdened by an overwhelming social phobia. He said I had proved my genius in service of my loneliness. I thought someone would say this, but hearing it rocked me in shame. I felt as though stripped naked and paraded in front of millions.

One man from the California Department of Fish and Game said that Bar was illegal. I laughed at that one. It was ludicrous. They couldn't get any of my lab people to talk, so they interviewed the repairman at the gas station. Pathetic. He said he never knew he was fixing a weirdo's car.

Then there was the wild-eyed street minister who said Bar was an abomination, a blasphemy against God. Maybe so. I wondered where they dug this guy up. He actually drooled as he cursed me and ranted that Bar should be shot. That they would let him get away with this was beyond belief. I promised myself I would sue. They must have figured the cost would be worth the ratings-share. Considering peoples' insensitive and cruel natures, was it any wonder I was socially phobic?

* * *

I turned on the lights behind the house to illuminate the helicopter on its concrete pad, and carried out the bags to stow them behind the seats. The lights illuminated the area and its surrounding chainlink fence, but the shadows in the forest beyond soaked up the light and quivered in the breeze. What if someone had cut through the perimeter fence and entered my once private sanctuary? My overwrought mind was playing tricks. I went back to get Bar.

"Okay, c'mon," I said. "Quickly."

Bar followed in silence. Halfway to the car, he stopped. "Out in the forest," he whispered, "Someone."

I looked to see a flash from the shadows and heard the shot. Bar screamed. He tried to run, but only went in circles. Inside the house, Moon Girl barked.

Shocked and outraged, I scooped Bar up and ran back into the house. There were no more shots.

I lay him on the bed upstairs and turned on a small bedside lamp. He was in pain, whimpering with each breath. There was blood at his shoulder and chest. Moon Girl put her paws on the bed and sniffed him.

The tingling started in my body and I wanted to sit down and close my eyes. You can't do that, I told myself. Face it and do what needs to be done. I examined him. "Where does it hurt, baby?"

"My-- chest," he whimpered.

I saw the wounds. The bullet had entered his right pectoralis, the front of his chest near the collarbone, passed through the muscle tissue, and exited on behind his left armpit. If we were lucky, it would be just a flesh wound and not involve any bones or internal organs. The exit wound was messy and bleeding. I'm a good geneticist but not a vet. I rely on my expert, Dr. Ling, to care for my animals. I took called him on my cell phone. A woman with a rich, low voice answered. "Dr. Ableson speaking. May I help you?"

"Where's Dr. Ling?"

"Out of town. I'm taking his calls tonight."

I shrunk at the prospect of dealing with someone new, but forced myself to put that bullshit aside. "This is Dr. Ben Frank. My dog, Bar has been shot."

"Oh my God. Give me details."

I did, and she agreed to be here in ten minutes. I hung up, relieved.

Then I realized I hadn't told her where I lived. Of course she knew where I lived. The whole damn world knew. She'd have to drive 100 miles-an-hour to get here in ten minutes from her office in town. Maybe she lived closer, but more likely, she was exaggerating.

I looked out the second story window, and saw the lights illuminating the fence and the milling crowd, half a mile away. Media with their video vans. Incredible. I would have to go there to open the front gate for her. The idea nauseated me.

On top of that, I needed the sheriffs to clear the forest behind the house so I could safely carry Bar to the helicopter. I couldn't risk another shot.

"Will the vet come?" Bar asked.

I stroked his head. "Yes, a few minutes. I have to go open the gate. Can you wait?" I checked his wounds again. At least he wasn't bleeding profusely.

"Okay," he said, sounding weak. My poor boy, so brave and good.

On the way out, I stopped at the closet to take my shotgun.

* * *

Driving from my front door to the gate in my Hummer, I made the call to the sheriffs. They said they would be here within the hour. I wondered if the Sergeant also thought that Bar was an abomination?

I parked to the side of the gate and, holding the shotgun, stepped down to see them crowded around the gate and lining the fence on either side. The reporters, backlit by the lights, were babbling wraiths whose clamor mixed with the ghostly wail of the power generators.

I kept walking, each step like tar against my will. Voices shouted, "Dr. Frank! Tell the people--"

"Ben, over here! Scout TV Network. Tell your side of it."

As I walked to the gate, they shoved each other against the fence, a hungry pulsating mass, fingers reaching for me, wanting to ripe me from Bar.

"Bar has been shot," I shouted. "A vet is coming. Clear the way. Clear the way."

"Let us in!" someone shouted.

"Not one of you! Trespassers will be shot." I held my shotgun high. "If anyone trespasses, my life is over, so it won't make any difference to me."

"What's he saying? What's he saying? He's got a gun! Get the Sheriff."

I waited.

Tires sliding on gravel, a blaring horn. People running. A big pickup truck, pushed its way to the gate. Was this the vet? I glimpsed the veterinary caduceus symbol on the bumper. It had to be her. The windshield only showed a shadowy shape, but I pulled the gate open anyway.

The pickup drove in and stopped just inside. As I started to push the gate closed, the monsters on the other side shoved in. I couldn't hold it. The tide was too strong.

A strong female voice next to me shouted loud. "What's the matter with you people? You going to take this man's life in your hands?" She stood with me, a tall strong woman in jeans and a T-shirt. My jaw dropped. A black woman, so black her skin showed purple in the unreal glare. She spread her arms and walked toward the men who stood gaping.

She pointed to one. "You. Back up, you hear? Leave Dr. Frank alone. You'll get your story, but not if he's dead. He kills one of you, could be you, or you, or you," She jabbed her finger at them, "Sheriff'll kill him dead. Don't be stupid. Back up."

They backed up as she walked, and I slowly swung the gate closed. She had to help me lock it because I trembled so badly. I was grateful for her help, but when she walked with me to the Hummer, I wanted to tell her to get away so I could go in peace.

"I know this whole thing is hard for you," she said, "but I think you're a great man. Millions of people love dogs, and would love to have them as speaking companions too. If you could ever get people past their fear of the unknown, you could be remembered forever."

I walked, head down, hiding my tears. How could I expect others to get past their fears when I couldn't myself?

"I brought a portable X-ray machine," she said. "When we get to your house, can you take it for me?"

"Yes. Of course."

* * *

In the bedroom, Bar saw her and rolled his eyes to me.

"This is Dr. Ableson, Bar. She works with Dr. Ling. She's okay. She can make you better."

I could see her wondering, does this dog really talk, or is this a crazy man's delusion?

Bar lay on his side, his tail curled under, trembling slightly as she came up to the bed. "Bar? May I touch you?"

He looked at me and I nodded.

"Okay," he whispered.

Her hand hesitated, shocked into immobility at the sound of his words. She came to life and leaned to look at the wound. "Are you in pain?"

"Yes." Bar closed his eyes.

With gentle fingers, she pushed his fur aside, looking at the wounds. He whimpered when she touched the larger one below his arm.

I wanted to do something, but felt more helpless than I had out front. At least there, I could kill someone. I got dizzy and sat on the floor.

"Do you need help?" she asked me. "I have some ammonia smelling salts."

"No, just take care of Bar."

"Okay if I give him a sedative?"

"Ask him."

She looked at me, then turned to Bar. "I need to sew up that exit wound, so I'd like to give you an injection to make you sleepy. Is that Okay?"

"Okay." A breath later, "What's an injection?"

She smiled showing bright teeth. "I'm not used to being asked by my patients. I put medicine into your body through your skin. You won't even notice."

"Should I let her?" Bar asked, looking at me.

I nodded. "Yes," and went to the chair to watch.

* * *

Her competent movements eased my discomfort, and I wondered. I trusted her enough to work on my baby, why couldn't I trust her enough to let myself be peaceful in her presence? Sure, I was okay with Mike and my employees, but that took months. I needed to grow up, to let myself open to good people when I met them. What a proud and terrifying idea.

She turned to me, holding a set of X-rays. "You want to see them?"

I stood. "Yes, I do." Did I say it too forcefully? Maybe, but I'm not perfect. Not even close. Yet.

* * *

Sometime later, Bar lay on the bed, looking the picture of a wounded war dog, gauze wrapped and snoring softly. The bedcover was damp and bloodstained but I didn't care. He was okay. I couldn't stop my tears of happiness.

She looked out the window. "Looks like we have more company."

I sat up and saw the flashing red lights.

"You want me to go open the gate?" she asked.

I thought to say, Would you? but stopped. "I'll do it. You want to come with me?"

She smiled in surprise. "You mean that?"


* * *

As we drove in the Hummer, I told her, "I've got a bunch of people waiting for me late tonight in British Columbia."

"Don't go," she said, then looked embarrassed. "I mean, Bar's not going to be in traveling condition for a week or so."

"I could cancel at some personal cost, but look what I'd have to face here."

She sat up like a proudly. "I know what you've got here. Your labs, your personnel. They're worth keeping. You need to face the world, but not all at once. You need a good spokesperson to buffer you. Hire me. I can do a good job."

"As you demonstrated at the gate. Why would you want to? Don't you like fixing animals?"

"I love fixing animals. I told you before what I think of your work. I don't know how you'll take this, but I'd like to see you fight your battles instead of running. I think I could make it possible."

The damnedest feelings came over me. On the one hand, I felt weak and weepy, like when Dad chased away the boys who were beating me up. On the other, I saw an opportunity that fit right in with what I had been thinking of before. An opportunity to face people, but not all at once. It was time to face the world.

I sat up straight like her as we approached the gate. "We can try."



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"For the Love of a Dog" Copyright © 2003 Greg Gunther. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.


This page last updated 07-30-03.

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