Some lowlife had kicked him out a few miles north of town near some roadside trashcans. The highway roared 24/7 with oil field traffic, so we assumed the Texas asphalt would soon become his grave. On the third day, the little white dog, though all bones, was still among the living. We stopped and left him some scraps. Smart, he kept his distance until we drove away. But kind words and still more leftovers from our table wooed him a few paces closer every time. Then, he was ours, and we were his. Hobo, we named him. While Hobo still sported four legs, he could monkey up trees. He could keep pace with jackrabbits. From the moment I walked out our back door, .22 Winchester in hand, he was as close as my shadow. On summer nights, I’d take him and two other dogs on raccoon hunts along the creek. The other dogs, purportedly coon dogs, had been dropped on their heads as pups and for the rest of their lives mistook skunks for raccoons. I showed up on our front door step reeking of skunk so often I’m surprised my mother didn’t move my bed to the barn. But a bath in tomato juice and I was human once more. The dogs, however, partook continually of the odor of their choice prey.
A friend would join me on occasion for a moonlight hunt. I’d let loose the dogs, they’d hightail it for the nearest clump of trees, noses screening the ground, and before long their bays would echo through the darkness. Most hunts consisted of chasing the dogs mile after mile, falling over rocks and limbs and barbed wire, getting up again, and finally catching up with them, only to be greeted by bits of skunk dangling from their proud, smiling jaws.
But not one night. On this night, they climbed the ladder of canine success one rung; they treed a possum. There’s nothing particularly endearing about a possum—they are, for all intents and purposes, rats afflicted with elephantitis—but at least they don’t stink. This unlucky animal scampered up a very tall elm tree, climbed out on a limb, and commenced glaring down at the dogs who had spoiled his evening.
Eager to compliment my dogs on a job well done, I left my shotgun in the hands of my friend, John, and began climbing the possum tree. John stood sentry, the dogs went increasingly berserk below, and I slowly ascended hand over foot. Fifteen feet in the air, I came face to face with the possum, who did not play dead but began hissing as if his life depended on it. But I hadn’t climb that far up to be hissed away by a rat on steroids. Plus, my dogs were counting on me. And I certainly couldn’t be a wuss with my friend watching below, cheering me on. So, breaking off a nearly dead branch, I hooked my leg around the trunk, stretched out and whacked the possum. Down he fell, the shotgun boomed, and a lone dog let loose with a cry of pain and regret and sorrow and loss and terror of tomorrow.
I cradled Hobo in my arms and ran toward home, his right front paw a mangled mess of torn flesh and shattered bones, littered with BBs from the blast. John jogged alongside us, berating himself, uttering a mantra of “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” But his voice truly trembled and broke when he imagined aloud what his father was going to do to him when he found out what John had done to my dog.
The vet amputated Hobo’s leg below the knee. The day we brought him home, he jumped into the back of our Chevy Silverado as if to prove, once and for all, that three legs or four, he was still all dog. He wasn’t as speedy, but he could still hobble at a fair clip. And he still accompanied the boy who had had mercy on him and made him part of the family.
My mom and dad weren’t angry with me when we got back to the house that night and I explained to them how John had climbed the tree, knocked down the possum, and I had accidentally shot Hobo with my shotgun. People make mistakes, especially when they’re teenage boys, and best to let well enough alone. Mercy always triumphs over judgment in the hearts of those who know all too well their own shortcomings.
John and I continued to be close friends, even a little better in the aftermath of that awful night. For a dog may be a man’s best friend, as the saying goes, but it doesn’t hurt to let your other friends know, sometimes in unexpected ways, just how much you care about them.