Jack and Jester

A Celebration of Micah

   

                                             JACK AND JESTER
                                   
     “Get my gun!”
     Luther’s command boomed out over the creekside farm, carrying back up the slope to the log cabin where his son John played with their two Airedales Jack and Jester. The boy’s head jerked up. The slop pails lay in the dust where they’d fallen from his father’s hands when he’d broken into a run.
     “Now!”
     The tone of voice brooked no delay. John lunged inside, ignoring the smells of breakfast and his mother’s questions, and grabbed his father’s rifle from behind the door. Then back out, leaping off the porch, searching for danger even as he flew. But his father no longer ran. He’d stopped, turned away from the house.
     John saw the Airedales streaking across the lower field to intercept a big dog trotting stiff-legged up the road.
     “Here,” John said.
     “Too late, son.” Luther took the rifle, and started back downhill past the hog pen. His son walked with him.
     “Too late for what?”
     “To kill that dog. I tried to call back Jack and Jester. Shit.”
     The boy looked puzzled. His father hardly ever swore. “That cur won’t whip them.”
     “No, it won’t. Wait here, son, until it’s over.”
     The strange dog didn’t turn tail, scarcely changed its stiff-legged lope until the Airedales drew near. Strays appeared from time to time, but generally fled from such confrontation. Hackles raised, Jack and Jester approached. They were big dogs, but the stray stood taller. Snarls grew deeper. Ears flattened. Then, such a flurry as was hard to follow, yelps and barks following as teeth found their mark.
     John looked on with what was close to pride. “It should’ve run.”
     “Wish it had,” Luther answered. The end came quickly. For all its size, the big dog did not fight well, but neither did it ever give up until jaws closed upon its throat.
     Luther sighed. “I’ll get a shovel. You tell your Mom to cook a go-to-meeting breakfast.”
     His son looked up at him, puzzled.
     “Just do it, son.”
                                                                        # # #
     Morning chores rarely took long, and Luther was not a patient man, so Leona’s breakfast was already on the table before her son again burst into the house, talking even before the door closed behind him.
     “What a fracas, Mom. You should’ve seen Jack and Jester.”
     “I’ve watched dogs fight before. Where’s your father?”
     “He took the shovel. Jack and Jester killed it. Said he’ll be along shortly.”
     Leona looked up. “Seems that could have waited. Your food’s getting cold. He say anything else?”
     John checked the rifle, made sure the safety was on, leaned it back in the corner behind the door. “Yep, but it didn’t make sense. Said you should cook a Sunday go-to-meeting breakfast. But today’s Monday. Why’d he say that?”
     The boy didn’t see his mother pale.
     “You didn’t touch it, did you?”
     “Naw, we held back. Jack and Jester finished it by themselves.”
     “And Luther? How about him?”
     “He stayed with me.”
     Leona nodded, turned and put another stick in their wood stove. “Go out to the smoke house,” she said. “Bring me the rest of that ham we had yesterday.”
     John knew not to question his father. Trips behind the woodshed had broken any urging in that direction. With his mother, however, obedience could follow a bit more slowly. “Why? We’ve already got eggs and biscuits enough for us.”
     “Just do like I said, John.”
                                                                                                                                    # # #
     Leona and John heard Luther’s return over the sizzling of meat in the fry pan, heard him talking to Jack and Jester, praising them, telling them to wait on the porch. That seeming cheerfulness fell away when he entered the house.
     “John tell you?”
     “Enough to guess,” his wife answered.
     “Not any question. Couldn’t be certain from a distance, but up close it had the signs.”
     John burned with curiosity, but knew better than to speak.
     “I’ll scrub up again,” Luther said, “and then we’ll have our breakfast.”
     Leona nodded, and went to set aside the food still working on the stove.
     “Thank you Lord, for this food, and all our blessings.” So began the grace Luther always offered before meals, and so he spoke this morning, with no word different. The ham stayed on the stove, along with gravy and fresh biscuits, while the three prayed over eggs and biscuits grown cold. Luther ate his portion with determination. Leona hardly touched hers. Only the perked coffee still held heat.
     After a second cup, Luther pushed back his chair.
     “Well, it’s time. Let’s feed Jack and Jester.” Astonished, John watched his parents feed the dogs. Not leftovers, either. The Sunday go-to-meeting breakfast, ham and all. Jake and Jester gorged on the unusual bounty, as joyous as dogs ever are, home and full and content. 
                                                                 # # #
     Leona looked at Luther. “You want me to go with you?”
     He shook his head. “I’ll take John.”
     “He’s only ten.”
     “Old enough.”
     Luther saw that his wife held back tears, and so this once explained himself. “Would you rather tell him later? I know this way seems hard, but it’s a kindness. Leaving him out wouldn’t be.”
     Leona nodded, did not reply, turned away.
     “John, get your gun. We’ll take Jack and Jester for a walk.”
     John jumped up. Since last Christmas, he’d had his own rifle, a single shot with which he’d become expert. Many a squirrel had come to the stew pot since then by his good eye, for his father always gave him the first chance to fire.
     The dogs, despite their swollen stomachs, were no less eager. Off all four went, father and son, Jack and Jester, down the road toward the lower meadow. Luther kept the dogs leashed, not wanting them to quest out at once in search of game. That roused John’s curiosity, but he held off asking until they came upon three newly dug pits, one already filled with the shovel still blade deep in the fresh black earth.
     “You buried it here?”
     Luther nodded. “I did.”
     “Hit rock?” It was a reasonable question. There never was a spring plowing that failed to yield a new crop of stone.
     Instead of replying, Luther leaned his rifle against a tree, sat on a boulder, started scratching the dogs behind their ears. John followed, leaving the question unanswered. After a while, Luther sighed, and spoke. “You saw how that dog walked. Funny. Stiff-legged.”
     “Sure.”        
     “That’s a sign of rabies. Thought as much when I first saw it.”
     John understood then. “Maybe it was something else?”
     “No. That gait, not running away, how it fought.”
     “Dad . . .” John stopped. No words were left him.
     “I buried it, son. There’s no cure. You know that.”
     “It’s not right.”
     “Right and fair don’t always match up. You know why we’re here?”
     John nodded.
     “Jack and Jester did right. Protected us. Killed that dog, but they got bit doing it. You know as much.”
     Luther’s eyes never left his son, and his hands never left the dogs, their two large heads rested now on his lap, his fingers stroking them gently.
     “Best if it’s done at the same time. But if you can’t, just take Jester home. He’ll howl and complain, but you’ve got the leash. I’ll be back for him shortly.”   
     “It’s not fair.”
     “We don’t have a choice, son. Leastways, I don’t.” He handed one rope to John. “You do. I’m not telling you to do this.”
     “Then why’d you make me come?”
     “To let you decide. Take your time. We’ve got as long as you need.”
                                                       -- the end --