Gabriel lay on the bank of the river, the warm black rocks molded to the folds of his loose skin and coarse fur. His long ears were still damp from many bouts of swimming out to find a stick or rock thrown by his Mistress Jody and her 8-year-old daughter, Amanda.
He heard them talking as they sat on the blanket, up the bank. He loved the voices but could not understand most of the words.
"Do you think this is the same rock?" Amanda asked her mother.
"Yes, but I do not really know how he can track it in the water. Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell. Especially a Basset."
"Can I find out why Gabriel can smell a rock in the river?"
"That would be a great subject to study at the library."
The beach where they played was created when the concrete bunker was poured to hold the ends of the long steel tubing, the truss of the bridge spanning the river. The sand was dark and blended with the river rocks, brushing together like cymbals to his ears.
Each passing car or truck had its own sound crossing the steel structure, as they traveled across the bridge.
A car slowed and stopped on the road above. The engine made a discordant rumble and being upwind, Gabriel caught the stench of exhaust and unburned gasoline. The car door opened, a muffled sound and a new smell made him stand up on the bank, sounding off deeply in alarm.
"Hush Gabriel. What are you barking at?" The command was mixed. Her voice was inquisitive.
"What is that, mom?"
He sounded again, watching a brown sack fall from the bridge railing, strike the concrete piling of the span support in the center of the river and splash into the dark green flowing water. His body was in the water, swimming out past the pool caused by the eddy current at the bridge bunker. He heard the Mistress yell his name but he was already in the swift current of the river. Gabriel dove down and let the water trickle in his nostrils. He swam deeper into the darkness following the molecules of what he knew was in the sack from the moment he heard them on the bridge. A bright glow emanated from deep in the flowing water but he did not have time divert his attention from the sack.
The sack tumbled along the bottom of the river, in the slower moving current. Gabriel could just barely see it; his nose guided him in to grasp the sack in his mouth. He swam back to the surface, snorting out the water from his nose to breath. He swam with the current, angling toward a point on the heavily wooded bank. The shouts of Jody and Amanda came to him. A snarl of roots caught his paddling feet and he pressed through, onto the trunk of a fallen tree. The surface was covered with green algae and slippery as he made his way back to the muddy bank.
"Gabriel, bad dog, bad, bad dog." Jody's voice was frightened.
"He has the sack, mom."
Gabriel made his way back to the women, setting the sack down at the feet of the Mistress, and then collapsing. His heart was pounding at his ribs. She knelt down, touching his muzzle, ears, down his back and belly. She held her hand to his chest.
"You fool dog... I thought you had drowned out there."
"Mom, there's something moving in the sack."
One kitten survived the fall from the bridge. Its black fur bloodied by a wound tearing open the skin of its face from the brow of the left eye, across the cheek, almost severing the lip near the back of the mouth.
Gabriel stood up and nosed his way over to where Jody knelt to examine the survivor. It fit in her hand, wiggling about. She let Gabriel get up close. He touched noses, smelling the blood and scent of cat. A tiny paw flicked out scratching his nose. A hiss escaped the kittens' mouth. Gabriel shook his head and barked.
"Quiet." Jody wrapped the kitten in a towel. "Let's get this little fellow to the clinic."
Amanda stared at the bag holding 5 dead kittens. "What do we do with them."?
"Put them in the trunk. We will find place to bury them in the woods behind our house. But now, we must go."
Jody worked for Dr Glassberg, a veterinarian in Fairborn. The office was closed on Sunday but she had the keys and was a trained animal technician and surgical assistant. She sutured wounds and closed up after surgeries, spayed females and neutered males. She performed procedures on hundreds of dogs and cats, as well as horses and livestock under the supervision of the Dr. She had treated Gabriel for barbed wire cuts, glass in his paws, raccoon attacks, ticks, worms... she even cleaned his teeth since he was a puppy. And that afternoon, Gabriel watched as she cleaned the wounds and sutured up the crimson gash on the face of the black kitten from the river.
They buried the kittens in the wood lot across the highway from the main runway at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. It was a short walk from the house on Oak Street Jody rented after her divorce. Gabriel led the procession down the forested path to a meadow. They crossed the open ground to a creek then followed it up to a remote area of older growth trees. The air was humid and musky with an overwhelming number of smells of interest to the young Basset Hound. Amanda chose a plot beside a massive evergreen, overlooking a pool of water fed by the creek, a trickle this time of year. The women held no ceremony, except for the respect for life. Gabriel tracked another curious scent and followed it to the pool.
Amanda held the shovel handle to her chest. "Why would someone throw kittens from the bridge?"
"Perhaps they had no way to care for them. It is an old way to deal with unwanted offspring. It is possible now to avoid having offspring that you cannot take care of."
"And still people choose this way. Do people throw children from the bridge?"
"I can only tell you that we do not." Jody motioned for Gabriel. "Lets go have supper."
Jody hand fed and cleaned the kitten for six weeks. The wound healed rapidly but the hairs along the tear grew in white and took the shape of lightning. An obvious name for the cat was Lightning but his temperament caused them to change the name to Lucifer.
He bit everyone but Amanda. Not without cause but he did not hold back and as he got older the bites got stronger. If you held him wrong or touched his belly or scratched too close to the base of his tail, he would hold his head off to one side and growl. If the offending hand were not removed, he would strike faster than a cobra.
He stalked and attacked Gabriel at every opportunity. The cat would crouch behind a doorway or beneath the coffee table then leap onto his back, biting his neck with his ears down flat and snarling like a panther. Gabriel rolled over on the young cat to end most of the attacks. Gabriel actually enjoyed the play. It could hurt a little but the bites just got the cat a mouthful of loose skin and coarse hair. At night the cat slept in Amanda's room. But sometimes Gabriel would wake up and the cat was sleeping next to his head, a paw flexing on his ear.
Amanda modified the name to Lucie and posted the change to the refrigerator door.
The months progressed and Jody took Lucifer in to be neutered. He returned to the house sedated and slept for a day. The next morning, Gabriel watched as Lucy bounded onto the Mistresses bed and bit her arm as she lay sleeping. Not enough to break the skin but it woke Jody up. Gabriel barked at the cat and put his paws on the bed.
"Hush Gabriel, down, lay down." She waited until Gabriel was on his bed.
Jody looked at the cat. It looked back at her unblinking, twitching its tail as it sat next to her.
"I will not apologies to you, it was necessary." She dropped back down on her pillow and patted the bed next to her. "Come on over and I will scratch your head." Lucie walked over, flopping down next to her. He let her scratch his head and neck and chin. "I can get you something good to eat tonight."
The car rumbled down their street to the highway at the same time every morning. It was the car from the bridge, the sound, the smell of raw gasoline and tobacco. Gabriel noticed that Lucifer watched the car drive past from the padded window seat overlooking the front yard to the street almost every morning.
Lucie weighed 16 pounds at one year old. He was not fat. Gabriel watched him lure mockingbirds in the spring to peck at him. He lay down in the middle of the back yard letting the bolder birds move in closer and closer, even allowing a strike to his head. Then, in a wink he would leap from being flat on his side to catch the hapless bird mid flight, sometimes higher than the wall surrounding the yard.
There was a daily selection of heads and entrails left on the back porch for Jody and Amanda to review. There were birds and gophers fool enough to enter the yard. Gabriel was scolded when he dug or barked at the gophers. Lucie was quieter and did no damage to the flowerbed hunting the invaders. But he tortured offenders mercilessly, often leaving them writhing in agony until Gabriel came over to bite through their hearts or snap their necks with a shake.
One of the farmers gave the doctor seven hens and a rooster as payment for treating a barn cat bitten by a sow. The mouser was worth its weight in gold in his dairy but the farmer was low on cash for the month. The doctor let Jody have the chickens in trade for eggs. She and Amanda built a coop along the back wall of the yard.
Lucifer sat on the back wall and watched the hens for hours. Gabriel watched the chickens through the wire mesh for a while then lost interest in them altogether.
Amanda was 9 and a half when the chickens arrived. They became her responsibility to tend and collect the eggs. She also washed her own laundry, cleaned up the kitchen after meals and fed Gabriel and Lucie in the mornings and afternoons. But she enjoyed going out to toss bits of lettuce or corn and potatoes left over from the evening meal on the ground of the coop for the hens to eat.
The rooster became increasingly aggressive toward her over several days in the early summer. One afternoon it attacked her, scratching her with his spurs and pecking at her when she stumbled trying to get out of the coop. Gabriel howled an alarm and crashed into the wire mesh door trying to get to Amanda. She stood outside the coop crying when Jody came out to see what the noise was all about.
"The rooster attacked me."
"Oh, darling." Jody knelt down to check the cuts on Amanda's legs and face. "The scratches aren't bad, honey. Let's go in and clean you up." She looked at the rooster. "I'll deal with him tomorrow."
Gabriel barked and growled pawing at the wire of the coop door.
"Quiet Gabriel, come inside."
Gabriel saw Lucie watching from the wall. His black tail twitched as he flexed his paws, clawing at the cinder block.
Lucie did not come in that night. In the morning Gabriel went out into the yard from the doggy door on the side of the garage. The door to the coop was open. The hens were loose, scratching up bugs in the flowerbed. Gabriel went into the coop, smelling the blood. The rooster was gone; blood and feathers covered the wooden floor of the hen house.
Amanda screamed from the porch. Gabriel ran to the sound. She was looking down at the disemboweled rooster. His severed head placed on top of the body. Jody stood next to her.
"Looks like somebody beat me to it."
A month later Jody introduced them to her new man friend, Ray. He smelled of cologne but it did not hide the deeper stench of alcohol and cigarettes reeking from his pores. Gabriel greeted him with enthusiasm in spite of the repulsive odor.
Ray slapped his muzzle and punched his side. "Hey there buddy." He looked at Jody. "Hope he gets along with Voodrow."
"He gets along with everybody." Jody walked Ray to the living room. "This is our cat Lucie."
"I don't like cats, baby. I told you about that, right." He smiled at her. "I guess I'll learn to live with it."
Lucie did not look at the man. He brushed Gabriel in the hallway and went to the kitchen.
Voodrow was a pit bull mix and the craziest dog Gabriel had ever encountered. He stayed in the back yard, tormenting the chickens and tearing up the flowerbed. When Gabriel came out to do his business or just to check for new sights and smells, Voodrow postured and growled trying to goad him to fight. Gabriel ignored the behavior most of the time until one morning Voodrow started to bite his ears. He retreated to the garage but the dog followed. Amanda was putting the trash from the kitchen in the big can they kept in the garage.
"Voodrow, leave Gabriel's ears alone." She reached down to shield Gabriel.
Voodrow growled and snapped at Amanda, nicking her hand as she pulled it away from the attack.
Gabriel exploded up into the taller dog driving it away from Amanda. Voodrow attacked viciously at Gabriel's neck but could only grab loose skin and fur. Gabriel rolled under and grabbed the other dog by the belly and the sheath of the male. He bit hard and twisted, feeling the soft skin tear. He tasted blood.
Voodrow howled in agony.
Gabriel felt the kick to his side and released the grip on Voodrow. Another kick landed on his jaw.
"Stop kicking Gabriel. Your stupid dog attacked me." Amanda was screaming. She tried to hold back the man but was pushed into the trashcan, falling to the floor.
The rafters in the garage began to shake and an ear-piercing scream came from above. Lucifer was pushing the storage boxes, spare plumbing, electrical conduit, rolls of wire and a cloud of dust onto the man. A box of books landed on his shoulder, dropping him to his knees.
Gabriel ran over to Amanda and turned to face the man.
Ray did not say another word. He picked up Voodrow and took him out the garage door to his truck and drove away.
Amanda was crying. She sat down and held Gabriel on the floor of the garage.
Jody came home from work at the veterinarian's after seeing Voodrow and hearing Ray's version of the attack.
"Oh my Lord. " Jody held her hand to her mouth when she saw Gabriel. She went quiet when she saw the fang mark on Amanda. She cleaned and bandaged Amanda's wound first. She put her to bed and came out to the kitchen to care for Gabriel.
His ears were punctured and one was ripped at the edge. She cleaned and shaved the cuts and stitched him up. She wrapped his chest with gauze and then an ACE bandage. She cleaned the blood from his mouth and checked his teeth. She held his face, careful not to press on his swollen jaw and gave him a sedative. "I love you Gabriel. Amanda told me what happened."
Ray came by with Voodrow later that evening. He tried to persuade Jody to let him stay the night. The conversation ended with Voodrow staying in the back yard and Ray going to his brothers' house. Ray left a suitcase and his guitar in the entryway to pick up when he came back for his dog. Gabriel heard the tires squealing as Ray's truck burned rubber down the street.
Gabriel was feeling pretty good after the sedative. He went out to lie on the concrete in the garage. Jody had pushed the boxes and debris over to the far wall and swept the floor. She made sure the doggy door to the back was locked.
Lucifer came into the garage, lying down beside him until just before dawn.
Gabriel heard Voodrow running back and forth along the side of the garage and growling. Lucifer was chattering at Voodrow from the top of the fence, running back and forth along the wall. Gabriel heard the latch of the gate click. Lucifer had opened the gate. The rumble of the car from the bridge was getting louder as it made its way around the curve to their street. Gabriel went into the house to look out the front window. He saw Lucifer look back to be sure that Voodrow was coming after him and then run into the street in front of the oncoming car. The driver sped up when he saw Lucifer in the street. Lucifer waited, then bolted back toward the house as Voodrow sprinted into the street where Lucifer had been. The driver was angling the car over, chasing Lucifer when he hit the dog. He overcorrected and lost control of the car, slamming into a parked station wagon two houses down the street.
Voodrow was dead, Gabriel was sure. Jody and some of the neighbors tried to help the driver until the ambulance arrived. She walked back across the street. "He wasn't wearing a seat belt.... It's bad." Gabriel and Lucifer sat next to Amanda as she watched her mother from the sidewalk.
Ray pulled up in front of the house, running over to Voodrow. He came over to Jody. "How'd my dog get out, bitch?"
Gabriel started growling.
"Amanda, take Gabriel inside... now." She stepped toward Ray. "I don't know how it got out. I am sorry... no, no I' m not. That miserable thing bit my daughter and my dog. You beat my dog and attacked my daughter. I need you to get your stuff and leave."
The neighbors were all watching. Ray looked around. "OK. Calm down. I'll get my stuff but let's just talk a minute." He started walking toward the house. He tried to put his arm around her shoulder but Jody slapped it away. Gabriel barked and growled from the porch.
"No Gabriel, come, mom said come inside." Amanda rubbed his head.
Lucifer urinated on the guitar, just as Ray walked in the house. Then sat down and looked at him.
"Damn this cat." Ray kicked at him but Lucifer was galloping down the hallway to the bedroom. Ray was running after him.
"Ray, stop...." Jody chased them.
Gabriel followed Amanda down the hallway.
Lucifer was sitting on the far end of the bed, twitching his tail.
"It's just like a couple of bitches to keep a cat like this." Ray was holding the lamp from the nightstand, threatening Lucifer.
Gabriel started to bark.
"Ray, you are just crazy drunk and you have to leave now." Jody was holding his arm back.
Ray pushed her back with his free hand and swung the lamp. Lucifer jumped straight up over the swinging lamp and landed on Ray's extended forearm. He bit the arm in rapid succession four times all the way to the elbow. Ray raised his arm screaming and flailing wildly. Lucifer flew off across the room hitting the wall. He did not pause but bounded up, tearing through the screen to the front yard.
"Goddamn cat, I'm gonna come back and kill that cat." Ray turned back on Jody.
Gabriel went at him. The growl caught Ray's attention and he hopped up on the bed as Gabriel leapt at his groin, mouth wide and all his teeth showing.
Jody caught Gabriel by the collar. "You have ten seconds to grab your things and be out the door or the dog gets a piece of you."
Ray slid past them, went down the hall, picked up his suitcase and guitar and stood outside the screen door. "I'll be back around. You can bet on it."
Ray died three days later. The cat bites caused a raging infection that he ignored until it was too late.
Lucifer died the next spring, laying in the back yard baiting the mockingbirds. Gabriel felt him go and ran out to chase the birds away. He howled until Jody came to carry his body to the house.
"The doctor said that his heart had a genetic flaw. It was amazing he lived at all." The meadow basked in the golden rays of twilight as the sun dropped below the horizon. Jody patted the grave smooth with her hands, and then lay down beside her daughter.
The sounds and smells of new life filled the air as the water from the pond sparkled with a bluish glow.
Gabriel licked Amanda's tears.