Ketan followed along the water’s edge, his eyes searching, but his mind wandering farther than the trail he’d left behind. His Siberian husky, Zeus, discovered the shallow stream and, in doggy bliss, ran up and down the windy current, lapping water and sniffing mystery scents to his wolfy-heart’s content.
When the pup strayed too far or scampered around a bend, Ketan merely stopped, and the dog, forever in high alert, raced back to check on his master.
As soon as Ketan continued his search, the dog ran down the slope at break-neck speed, leaping over fallen logs and frightening frogs into the deep end.
Spring had sprung some weeks before, though winter had been unwilling to completely release her fierce grip until these last few days of April. Maple trees had sprouted early, their seed pods hanging—limp green balloons ready to be filled. The cherry, apple, and peach trees had blossomed in gorgeous arrays all over the yard, only to have blustery winds spread their white and pink petals like confetti.
Ketan had filled a tote sack of luscious morel mushrooms from this same area last year—so he should find some now… Was that only last year?
An enormous old oak had fallen across the stream, creating a natural bridge that Zeus crossed without hesitation. Ketan considered following him. It was certainly strong and wide enough for them both. The other side of the stream belonged to neighbors who, though friendly enough at a community gathering, weren’t exactly thrilled with trespassers.
They won’t know…and besides, I can’t go home without finding at least a few. Mom sounded so hopeful when I left.
The whole concept of exploring the other side of the creek sent Zeus into super-puppy mode. He raced ahead. The line of trees soon broke into an open field, surrounded by thick woods on three sides. There was no chance of finding morels in the field, but the distant woods whispered of magnificent morel finds. Unfortunately, that would take them deep into the neighbors’ land.
Ketan perused the horizon, trying to make up his mind. It was getting late, and a chill had descended. He couldn’t see much as evening came on, and he really didn’t want to stoop to snitching, no matter how tempting. It was hopeless. He’d have to go home and face his mom with empty hands. He whistled for his dog.
But it was too late.
Another dog, a hound in his prime with long loping strides, raced across the field directly at Zeus.
A knot tightening in his chest, Ketan whistled again, louder as he tried to put an air of command into it.
Zeus stood stock still, his body tense and his ears back, readying himself.
Oh, God, no!
His mom would be devastated if their cheerful pup and only protection from encroaching deer, chick-killing varmints, and assorted snakes was ravaged in a territorial battle. He called out, “Zeus! Come, boy. Come!”
Zeus, mesmerized by the approaching enemy, couldn’t move.
The hound pelted forward and rushed over Zeus with all the power of an angry warrior protecting his home turf.
Unused to being attacked and unprepared for such ferocity, Zeus was slow to react, but the snarling and biting soon woke him to his danger, and he retaliated with every instinct at his command.
In helpless urgency, Ketan scoured the landscape for a weapon. Anything to help him separate the dogs before they killed each other. Out of the corner of his eyes, he spied a dead branch caught on a vine. He pelted over the freshly tilled earth, slipping as he ran, and yanked the branch loose. Then he ran at the two dogs, swinging the uplifted branch, screaming, “Stop, stop it!”
Another voice broke over his—an angry man’s command, “Down, Dutch. Get down!”
The two dogs, either exhausted or wounded, Ketan could not tell, broke away from each other.
His head down but his back still bristling, Zeus limped toward Ketan.
The other dog hovered, circling and growling, ready for another charge.
The middle-aged man ran up and grabbed the hound by its red collar. He glared at Ketan and snapped, “That your dog?”
Ketan, too old to be treated like a boy but too young to feel on equal footing, bit off his words, “Yes. He’s mine. But we didn’t do anything wrong. Your dog attacked for no reason.”
The man shook his head. “My land and my dog. He’s just doing his job.”
Ketan couldn’t help but agree, though his heart smote him for the injustice of the situation. He looked to his dog.
Blood seeped from multiple wounds in Zeus’ shoulder, neck, and leg. The pup shivered and sent up a feeble whimper as it slumped, exhausted at Ketan’s feet.
The man seemed to repent his harsh tone; his voice softened, “Aw, bloody hell. Bring him along. I got a salve with antibiotics that’ll fix him.”
Indecision froze Ketan to the ground. He glanced from the glowing sun touching the horizon to the angry hound still circling.
The man barked another command, and the hound slunk away. He then directed his orders at Ketan. “Pick up your dog and come along now. I still got to check the cows and get the hens locked up for the night.”
In deference to the authoritative tone and his fears for his pup, Ketan gathered Zeus into his arms and followed the man over the broken ground to an outbuilding across from a white farmhouse where a light glowed cheerily from a back room.
Once inside the dim but clean shed, the man pointed to a wide table with tools hanging in neat assembly on the back wall. “Set him there and hold steady.” He squeezed a grey jelly from a large tube onto his fingers and approached the whimpering dog. “This won’t hurt, but”—he glanced up—“you should probably give him a bath tomorrow and then slather him again. I’ve got an extra tube—it’ll last a week or so, but that’s all he’ll need. He’ll be right as rain in a few days.”
His mind blanked, Ketan just rubbed Zeus’ ears as the man gently applied the salve.
Zeus accepted the ministrations with all the stoicism of a patient getting a tooth extracted.
Without thought, Ketan mumbled his thanks. “I appreciate it. Don’t even know your name…”
Not looking up, the man finished his last daubs with expert care. “Chambers. Wilson Chambers. I took over the farm after my dad passed a couple of years ago, though I didn’t move in until last summer. My wife is in the house, but the kids are spread all over the county.”
Blurred memories floated through Ketan’s mind. His own father’s illness and his mom’s helpless misery had so absorbed him that he’d ignored all local gossip and never bothered to read the paper. He hadn’t any interest in his neighbor’s doings and figured that they didn’t much care about his. Consolation extended to homemade casseroles, the visitation line, and the after-funeral dinner. Those necessaries accomplished, everyone got on with their lives. As they must.
Wilson straightened, eyed his medicinal handiwork, and offered a half-smile in satisfaction. “He’ll do. Looks good-natured. Took a bit to get him mad. And never a snarl while I worked. Says something about a dog—high-spirited but knows his place. A good combination.” He glanced aside. “You’re Jael Hand’s son—Ketan, right?”
Ketan nodded. His father had been gone almost a year, but he still choked up at the mere mention of his name.
“He was a good man.”
A refrain often repeated as friends and family gathered for his father’s last days and the service at church. “A good man,” they all said. And no more needed to be said. Jael Hand’s life had spoken for him. Ketan accepted that. But his mom still needed help, and he was the only one left. His brother and sister had moved to the city and only returned for visits. The pup had been mom’s way of thanking him for sticking around, though city jobs perpetually offered better pay and solid benefits.
“What was you looking for out in my field?”
Ketan had to shake the webs of doubt from his mind. “Field? Oh, no, I was looking for morels in the woods, and Zeus, here, scampered over a log onto your land. I just followed, curious, sort of…” Guilt washed over him, and his face grew hot.
Wilson chuckled. “You see why I have the dog. People come from as far as the next county, searching out morels this time of year—and as I have some quality woods—well, it gets troublesome, and I don’t like trouble.”
Shame flooded Ketan. “I wasn’t going to take any. I just…well, my mom was hoping for some, and I just kept looking even when I knew it was hopeless. It’s been…a rough year.”
Wilson nodded and looked around, almost as if he expected to pull a bag of morels off one of his shelves. Instead, he grabbed a new tube of salve and handed it over. Then he ran his large hand softly over Zeus’ head. “Ready to go home?”
Revitalized by the tender care, Zeus climbed to his feet and, in his own doggy way, offered a tongue-lolling smile.
Ketan accepted the lubricant, wrapped his arms around his pup, and lifted the husky off the table. An offer of payment would be insulting, but he wanted to pay for the salve. The situation was so uncomfortably complicated, his mind mired in muddy thoughts. “Thanks. I’d like to—”
Wilson’s broad hand clasped Ketan’s shoulder as he led him to the door. “You know, these old eyes don’t see as well as they used to. And the wife hates getting mixed up with bugs and tangling vines. But we sure do enjoy a mess of fried morels. If it’d be acceptable to you, perhaps we could work a deal—you hunt them in my woods over there and split with us. Think that’d be agreeable?”
Shocked nearly speechless, Ketan stared with his mouth open. In the glow of a golden sunset, Ketan’s mind cleared. He nodded. “Sure. I mean, if your hound dog agrees…”
Wilson laughed. “You just call ahead and maybe I’ll head out with you. We’ll take Zeus along and teach him how to handle himself. My hound will behave—I’ll make sure of that. Give them a job together, and they’ll be friends in no time.” With a quick wave, he turned and headed for the silhouetted cow barn.
In the twilight, Ketan paced along the road leading to his doorstep. When he got to his front screen door, his mom called out, “You find anything good, Sweetheart?”
Kenan set Zeus on his feet, and they both walked inside, glad to be home, and an answer forming on his lips.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 16 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Make the most of life’s journey.
For books by A. K. Frailey check out her Amazon Author Page
“There are many excellent stories in this collection.” ~McEvoy
“The collection creates an evocative set of life scenarios that explore good intentions, real-world situations, and acts of quiet love, desperation, and redemption.” ~Diane Donovan, Editor, California Bookwatch