"Will you learn to say to 'No' to me? Will you? Will you now?"
"Shut up. Shut your little lyin' mouth. Just shut up."
Todd was always relieved when his father got to "shut up"; that meant it was pretty much over. Usually Todd's father didn't get to "shut up" till Todd got knocked around a little. This time, he just held Todd's arm real tight. It hurt, but it wasn't nothing.
You learned how to stand. You kept your head down a little but not looking down exactly, because that was sneaky bullcrap. He'd say "Lookit me when I talk to you." But you didn't look him right in the eye, because that was sassy.
"Get that stupid mutt outta here."
Ranger had come into the kitchen while Todd was in trouble. Ranger took in the situation and went straight for his place by the stove, sat down on one hip, and smiled ingratiatingly, his tongue hanging out, watching them with a slightly sidelong, nervous look.
Todd's father was still holding his arm. Todd considered how he could get Ranger out of the kitchen without his father letting him go. He sure wasn't going to pull loose. Never crossed his mind. He was nine. Then his father let go, stood up, and walked away. The dog watched him go, its eyes tracking him across the room, its tongue still lolling from a grin.
"Com'on, Ranger. Outside," Todd said. He took Ranger's collar in one hand and the two of them headed for the door. He glanced at his mother. Mrs. Hagen stood with her back to the scene. She was cutting potatoes and throwing them into a pot of water like rocks into a mudhole. But she never looked at the pot, she just watched the counter and the pile of potatoes. Todd and Ranger played throw stick till Todd's mother called him to eat. When he and Ranger came in, his father was already at the table and spooning carrots onto his plate. They were finishing the ham; the bone stuck up like a cannon barrel from the serving dish. Todd's father glanced at the boy and the big dog behind him.
"You think that stupid mutt's gonna eat at the table?" Todd's father had a special tone for trouble coming. That was good. You knew he didn't expect you to answer the question. You knew you weren't supposed to say nothing. You were supposed to know what he really meant, and you were supposed to do something about it without asking stupid questions. Ranger usually hung out in the kitchen. Going anywhere else in the house, except Todd's room to sleep, was a bad idea. Trouble waiting. But he usually got to be in the kitchen, even during dinner. Todd turned Ranger with his collar and pushed the dog back outside. The dog whined a little, confused, then sat dutifully on the porch, looking in the screen door.
Dinner was always real quiet. "You want to eat or talk, woman?" Todd's father would say if his wife opened her trap except to eat. Todd never had anything to say anyways; he just finished eating. But not too fast; he didn't eat like a damned pig. Todd and Ranger played that evening till the moon was highbedtime. Ranger was fun to play with, but boy, was he dumb. Todd remembered once when he ran 'round and 'round, chasing his tail like dogs do, except he caught it. He looked so proud of himself, grinning with his big old tail just draped across his jaw like a dead snake. Todd's father was working on the car. He said, "That's gotta be the stupidest thing I ever saw." Todd guessed it was.
Todd got Ranger when he was a pup. His father wanted him to be a guard dog, to keep the damn vagrants out of the yard. He had a big bark, like he was inside a barrel, but after he barked once, he always wagged his tail, so anybody paying attention knew it didn't mean diddly. Todd's father tried to sic him on some teenagers they caught cutting across their pasture, but Ranger just looked puzzled. Todd's father would shoot out an arm with a pointing finger and snap "Sic'em," and Ranger would look like maybe he'd thrown something, but it got invisible after he let it go and he couldn't see where it went. Todd's father had made Ranger's collar. It was one of Todd's old belts, slashed off to fit and punched with an awl. "He ain't worth buyin' one. Mutt."
Ranger slept on the floor by Todd's bed. He got up on the bed once, but he got caught and Todd's father beat the blue blazes out of the dog and whacked Todd for it good. Todd had a high metal-frame bed, and Ranger slept underneath, where he wouldn't get stepped on in the night. Todd was out by the barn, next morning, fiddling with his twenty-two, after his father'd went to work. He hadn't thought about Ranger, because the rifle was new, a ninth birthday present from his Uncle Kimball. He was clicking off a fake shot when his mother screamed over by the house. Todd ran around the barn to see what was up; he nearly ran over Ranger coming the other way. His mother was standing by the garbage can next to the kitchen porch. It was knocked over. The garbage was all over. The hambone was on the walk. Todd's mother was cursing Ranger up and down. She grabbed up the garbage can and it made a noise like she kicked it. She leaned from the hips and started gathering up stuff and swearing at Ranger. Todd ran over to help her get the garbage, but she swung an empty milk carton at him. She wasn't looking and she missed.
"Get away. See what that dog did?" Todd stood still and watched his mother gather up torn butter paper, crumbled paper bags, parts of a newspaper. He was still holding the gun, pointed down like you're supposed to. He'd had a pump gun for a long time, two years anyway, and his Uncle Kimball had taught him how to take care of a gun. He'd give him a half box of shells with the twenty-two; Todd had fired a couple, five or six. He got a woodchuck with one, but he missed a fox that was too far away. His mother continued in furious silence. Once when she turned toward him, she looked him in the face for an instant. "Get outta the way. You made of wood?"
He went back to the barn. Ranger usually hid in the barn when he got in trouble. Todd put the gun on a bench and then they played catch in the barn with a stick of two-by-four till Todd's mother went back inside. Eventually he got bored with catch and fetch, and he sat out by the barn, out of sight of the house, tracking birds with the gun, pretending they were airplanes and pulling off great pretend shots. "Todd!" His mother's voice was pitched for hysteria, like she was being murdered. The dog was gone again. It had been gone for a long time. Todd jumped to his feet and raced around the barn. She was chasing Ranger, picking up rocks to throw at him. One hit the dog before it could get into the barn. The garbage can was knocked over again. Todd's mother must've wrapped newspaper around the hambone, because there was little bits of newspaper all over, worse than leaves.
"I cleaned this up last time! This time you clean it up. I want every scrap of paper back in the can." She grabbed his arm and shook him, jerking down like to push him to his knees. His father was a lot stronger. "Do you understand me? Do you?" Todd nodded, and she let him go. He snatched up a couple of pieces of torn paper.
"All of it! I don't want to find anything on the ground. Not anywhere! Not even under the house! Do you understand what I'm saying?" Todd nodded, dropping the first handful in the garbage can. The newspaper was slimy but kind of cool, like rotten leaves.
"If your father was here, he'd of killed that dog for this! He'll kill him one of these days. Stupid mutt!" Todd did not look up. He squatted in the worst of the mess and picked up what he could reach.
"Don't get yourself filthy," his mother said to the kitchen door as she climbed the steps. After he'd got a couple of handfuls picked up, he heard Ranger approaching cautiously from behind him. The dog sat, then sank to recline like a library lion, sort of leaning on Todd. Todd ignored him. The dog huffed, sighed, and dropped his head onto his paws. It was getting onto noon. Todd took the rifle into the barn, out of the way.
Cleaning up garbage isn't so bad. You want to be careful where you pick things up, sometimes, but there's always some stuff you can use like a potholder to pick up the really bad stuff. Todd began by uncoiling a slow spiral away from the can, but eventually he lost his place, got bored, and began randomly picking up whatever caught his eye. After a while, Ranger moved over under a tree. After a while, Todd looked over and the dog was lying on its side, dead to the world asleep. Todd's mother was making sounds in the kitchen, but she didn't say anything when Todd carried the hambone to the barn. He found a plastic lawn bag and stuck the bone in it. He washed in the barn. His mother wouldn't want him tracking that stink in her kitchen. He hadn't got nothing on his clothes, but he supposed he still smelled, because she made him eat on the steps. While he ate his sandwich, Ranger sat below him, sort of watching, in case Todd had anything he didn't want, like a crust or something. After he was done, Todd opened the door and put his plate inside where his mother could get it. He didn't hear her in the kitchen. He couldn't see through the screen, the sun was so bright, but he guessed she was watching her programs. He could sort of hear the TV.
He and Ranger went to the barn. He stuck the bag in his shirt. He got the rifle off the bench. It was a lot heavier than his pump gun. A pump gun is just a toy, anyway. You could get squirrels with it, but it was no good for real hunting. A twenty-two was a real rifle. Todd wished he had a scope, so he could shoot things far away, like deer and antelope on the hills beyond the pasture fence. He and Ranger headed down to the irrigation canal. They lobbed rocks for a while, with Todd throwing and Ranger leaping into the water to get them but not able to because they didn't float. Then Todd tossed a piece of wood and Ranger got it and brought it back, grinning triumphantly. Todd rubbed the dog's ears for reward. Ranger squinted his eyes and held still to savor the sensation.
"Why are you so dumb, Ranger?" he said to the dog. Ranger wagged his tail agreeably. "You are the goddamnedest dumb dog in the world." He continued to massage the dog's ears. A puff of cottonwood drifted too close to Ranger's face; he grabbed at it absent-mindedly, missed. Todd and Ranger sat together under the big tree by the fence, on the bank of the canal. They could hear the canal water dragging at the bushes, a vague rushing sound, like distant trucks. Some cottonwood limbs were touched by the current and the leaves skated on the water, the thin branches bowed against the pull. Todd took the bag from his shirt and exposed the hambone, holding it by the bag while Ranger accepted it politely. The dog got up with the bone, circled three or four times a yard or so from the boy, glancing a couple of times at Todd's face, to be sure there was no blame. He settled to earth, draped a big paw over the bone to brace it, and began to work on it. Todd watched him gnaw the bone.
They sat for an hour, the dog working on the bone, the boy watching his dog. Todd's attention was distracted by birds as the afternoon wore on, but he sat quietly, with the rifle draped across his legs. He didn't get up till Ranger drifted off to sleep in the lazy heat. His father was home when he came back. He handed his father the dog's collar.
It was early summer, and the canal ran deep and hard, like a river, swollen with runoff, for nearly two weeks.