By: Michael C. Keith
If you pick up a starving dog and make him
prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal
difference between a dog and a man.
–– Mark Twain
Something moved in the grass ahead as I walked toward the line of portable toilets that were kept at a sanitary distance from the base’s housing and administrative buildings. Snake!! Everglades is full of them, even at its fringes, warned the voice in my head, and I froze in my tracks. Maybe a rattler or coral, I speculated, swinging long to my right to give the possible viper wide berth. There was another slight movement, and I stepped away even further.
But then I could see that whatever the creature was, it had fur. Could be a skunk or rabbit. It then lifted its head and made a sorrowful sound. A dog . . . it’s a dog. Or what is left of one. Careful, it’s probably rabid. Don’t let it nip you. Needle in the belly, I told myself, slowly approaching the distressed animal.
A badly emaciated hound stared up at me with its milky eyes and then shut them as if it took all the remaining energy it had to open them.
“Hey, fella’. You still alive?” I asked, thinking it may have just died.
On closer inspection, I could detect faint breathing. “You’re a skeleton. You need some food and water right away. I’ll be right back.”
I sprinted to the mess tent and grabbed several pieces of bread that remained piled next to the toasters that were setup for breakfast. From there, I fetched my canteen from my tent and filled it with water. Within minutes I was back at the site of the dying, or now dead, animal. As soon as I took the bread from my fatigue jacket, it raised its wobbly head.
“Still alive, eh? Good. Here you go,” I said, dropping a slice next to its snout.
A split second after the bread hit the ground, it disappeared into the starving hound’s maw.
“Whoa, fella’. There’s more where that came from. Here we are.”
Again, the dog gulped down the bread, hardly bothering to chew it.
“Water? Here’s some water,” I said, opening the canteen and pouring some of its contents into the dog’s mouth. As it drank, it whimpered softly. “Yeah, that’s what you want, eh, fella’? I’ll get a bowl the next time.”
My canteen was quickly emptied, but the dog’s thirst had clearly not been fully satisfied. “Okay, I’ll go get some more, pooch” I promised, giving it the last piece of bread I had.
When it was through licking its chops with its discolored and swollen tongue, its head fell limply against the burnt grass. Its bony chest cavity moved rapidly as if eating and drinking had been a great physical challenge.
“What happened to you? How’d you get in such bad shape?”
For a moment, I was tempted to pet what remained of its fur, but it’s mangy appearance kept me from doing so. The surface of its depleted body looked as if it had met with a ragged blade. Small sores zigzagged across its exposed flanks.
“Never saw anything in such rough shape. Poor thing,” I said, touching its scrawny tail.
This caused it to growl and move slightly. “That’s okay. I’m going to help you. See you soon.”
I returned near sunset and fed it several hot dogs––tube steaks, as GIs called ‘em––that I’d managed to collect from disposed supper trays.
“You into eating garbage now, Cary?” asked the mess sergeant, as I wrapped the throwaways in a napkin.
“Found a starving dog in the field and thought I’d help it out,” I responded.
“Well, take all you want. Better than throwing it out, I suppose.”
“It’ll probably die anyway. Think it’s a Collie, but it’s hard to tell because it’s so wasted away. Its fur has pretty much fallen off.”
“Thing don’t sound too pretty. If it makes it to tomorrow, I’ll have some steak bones to give you.”
“Thanks, Sarg. I appreciate it. Hope it makes it until then, too.”
After the still famished dog had devoured the leftovers, I gave it a carton of milk in a bowl I’d borrowed from the mess tent. For the first time, the mutt managed to raise its haunches enough to guzzle the liquid.
“Good boy. You’re getting stronger. Maybe you’ll get your legs back soon.”
When the bowl was empty, the dog looked at me appreciatively and flopped back on its side. As it did so, I bent down and pat its head. At first it pulled away but then submitted to my touch.
“Thataboy. We’re friends now, right? I’ll be back in the morning,” I said, surveying the ground around us. “Looks safe, fella. No snakes to hurt you. Sleep and get back your strength.”
* * *
When I told my tent mates about my discovery, they were less than sympathetic about its dire situation.
“Should probably just put it out of its misery. Sounds about done in anyway. It’s probably full of crud, like worms and stuff that’ll eat it alive. Careful you don’t catch something from it,” said Wayne.
“Yeah, not worth the effort. Even if it gets better, so what? Just another varmint scavenging out here. End up dying anyway the shape it’s in,” added Jerry.
“What about Scooter and Blackie? They were strays and now they’re fine. All you guys love them,” I argued.
Scooter and Blackie had become the base’s official mascots since their arrival a year ago. One day, the two mongrels just showed up and they were quickly adopted. Of course, they weren’t nearly as bad off as the one in the field, so they grossed no one out. Only a couple guys from the motor pool had wanted to throw them into the snake-infested canal.
“If that thing gets close to the tent area, Scooter will probably do it in. He’s got a lot of Shepherd in him, and they’re really protective of what’s theirs,” continued Jerry.
“And if it gets near Blackie, Scooter will chomp its head off. Jealous of his lady,” said Wayne.
“Maybe not,” I protested. “Dogs can make friends. That poor fella’ out there is no threat. Scooter will sense that.”
“Well, that bag of bones better not come ‘round here. He’ll infest Scooter and Blackie with what he’s got . . . maybe Rabies. Better not let it bite you,” warned Jerry.
“It frothing at the mouth?” asked Wayne. “Maybe we should go check it out.”
“Leave it alone. Just a sad stray whose had it tough,” I objected. “Don’t go making things worse for it.”
* * *
Over the next few days, my canine patient improved as I continued to feed it everything I could get from the mess tent. There was nothing it wouldn’t eat. About a week after I’d come upon the pitiful critter, it was able to stand and take a few tentative steps.
Meanwhile, my fellow troops kept saying it should be put out of its misery before it came into contact with Scooter and Blackie.
“I’m surprised they haven’t sniffed out its rotting carcass by now. Probably have and won’t go near it,” said Wayne
“I saw it on the way to the head last night, and it was dragging his rump. Bet it’s got an ass full of maggots. Crap them around Scooter and Blackie, and they’ll get ‘em, too,” said Jerry.
“One good whack in the head and no more problemo,” added Wayne, raising his fist and swinging it for emphasis.
“Just let him be. He’s not harming anything and is getting better every day,” I said, heading out of the tent to continue my doctoring.
The next morning brought a shock when I woke up and found the stray curled up at the foot of Wayne’s bunk . . . with Wayne asleep in it.
Jesus, he’ll kill him if he sees that. How’d he get there? I wondered, my pulse quickening as I slipped over to where the ragged dog snoozed seemingly unaware of any danger. I gently lifted it from the bed, and as I did, Wayne spoke.
“Where you taken ’Rattle?” he asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Look, I don’t know how he got in and up on your bunk,” I sputtered, anticipating an explosion.
“I do,” said Wayne, stroking the dog’s back. “I put him there. That a problem?”
“Why would you . . .? I mean, I thought you wanted to get rid of him.”
“That was my plan last night when I went out to bust its head. But as I was about to club him, he ran behind me. Next thing I know he’s got a rattler by the neck and is shakin’ the hell out of it. Old boy got to the friggin’ snake before it sunk its fangs into me. Saved my hide . . . right, Rattle? Hey, know why I named him Rattle?”
“I can guess,” I answered.
Wayne climbed from his bunk and put on his pants as I stood trying to digest everything he’d just told me.
“C’mon, Rattle, time for us to get some breakfast,” said Wayne, walking out of the tent with his new friend at his side.
While I was thankful that the stray had found a new and unlikely guardian, I felt a bit abandoned by the creature I’d saved from a certain death. It took me a while to overcome my sense of betrayal and more fully appreciate the fact that my former patient was alive and well. In the end, that’s what was most important, and I could take solace in my part in that.
During the balance of my time in the military in South Florida, Rattle achieved the status of top dog at the small missile base that had been erected during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He quickly made friends with Scooter and Blackie, and it soon became obvious to everyone that they regarded him as their leader. Rattle showed a level of maturity and gentleness that gained him the respect of the camp’s soldiers as well.
The day I was discharged, I gave Rattle a long goodbye hug. By now, most of his fur had returned. Before I had finished my farewell, he dashed off in the direction of Wayne, who was approaching from a distance away.
“Take good care of him,” I shouted.
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Wayne answered, his arms spread wide to greet his best friend . . . and savior.
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes short stories. www.michaelckeith.com