The Phantom Dog

By Laurie W. Thornton

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    “Oh, Mom, it’s just not fair!” Sarah heard Ben say as she neared the kitchen. She stopped, a wave of guilt sweeping over her. She knew what he was referring to.

    “I know it isn’t, Ben,” Mother replied in a soothing tone, “but you’ve got to remember that it’s not Sarah’s fault. She knows she shouldn’t be afraid of dogs, but when that little dog bit her on the lip when she was just a little girl he left more than just a scar on her face. The scar in her mind is a deeper one.”

    “I’m not blaming her, Mom,” Ben sighed. “But you know how much I’ve wanted a dog.”

    Sarah silently tiptoed away from the kitchen, not wanting her mother and brother to know she’d overheard. She walked slowly upstairs to her bedroom and flopped on the bed. Why do I have to be such a baby? she berated herself, unconsciously tracing the scar on her lip with her finger. Ben really wants a dog, but whenever I get near one I’m scared out of my mind!

    Sighing, Sarah got up and mechanically prepared for bed. After calling goodnight to everyone and saying her prayers, she climbed under the covers. But she couldn’t go to sleep.

    The sudden, far-off howling of a dog broke the stillness. Sarah sat upright in bed, shivers running up her spine. I must be imagining things, she thought disgustedly. The sound’s not coming from the direction of the Johnson’s farm, and they’re the only ones with a dog around here. She lay back down and tried to make her mind a blank. Again she heard the faint but piercing cry. Thinking of Ben, tears welled up in her eyes, and she said out loud to the blackness, “But I can’t help it!” Then, burying her head under her pillow, she fell into a fitful sleep.

    The next day was a busy one, for there was a lot to do on their farm. The events of the night before were forgotten until lunchtime. As everyone walked into the kitchen, Sarah lagged behind, exulting in the freshness of the air and the stillness of the countryside when the noise of the tractor was stilled. Suddenly she heard the unmistakable barking of a dog.

    “Ben, Ben!” Sarah called, running after her brother. “Did you hear that dog barking?”

    Ben frowned and glared at his sister. “That’s not funny, Sarah, and please don’t joke about it.”

    “I’m not joking, Ben! I heard it last night and again just now—a dog barking and howling, but it sounds like he’s far away. Don’t you hear it?”

    They both stood still for a moment. Then Ben shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, Sarah, but I don’t hear anything—except my stomach growling! Let’s go in and eat. Your mind must be playing tricks on you.”

    Sarah tried to forget what she’d heard until that night when she lay in bed again. However, she was so exhausted from the lack of sleep the night before that she soon fell asleep.

    The next morning as she climbed into the truck to go to church, Sarah thought she heard the phantom dog again. Her dad declared it must be the Johnson’s dog, but Sarah had an uneasy feeling that he was wrong. When she heard the dog again late Sunday evening, she tiptoed into her brother’s room and shook his shoulder gently.

    “What is it?” Ben asked sleepily, rubbing his eyes.

    “Ben, you’ve got to listen. I keep hearing that dog and I’m not imagining it! I’m sure it isn’t the Johnson’s dog. Please, just listen for a minute.”

    After a few moments of silence, the unmistakable yowl of a dog came drifting faintly on the night air. “You’re right, Sarah!” Ben whispered excitedly. “It’s a dog in trouble, all right, and it isn’t the Johnson’s dog. We’d better go see if we can find it.”

    “Right now?” Sarah asked. “You know we could never find anything in the dark!”

    “You’re right,” Ben admitted reluctantly. “Let’s get up early and start looking as soon as it’s light. We can split up so we can cover more ground before school.”

    “But Ben,” Sarah’s voice quivered a little, “can’t I go with you? What’ll I do if I find him? You know that I …”

    “If you find him, you can come and get me, OK? Don’t worry. Now go back to bed and get some sleep.”

    The next morning as soon as it began to get light Ben and Sarah were up and out looking for the dog. After nearly an hour they still hadn’t found anything, so they decided to try again after school. As soon as they got home that afternoon, they each got a couple of cookies and went out the door.

    “You may want to take your waterproof cloak Sarah,” Ben said, glancing up at the sky. “It looks like it might storm.”

    Sarah grabbed her cloak off the nail on the back porch and went toward the cornfields. “Why don’t you try over by the south boundary of the farm, Sarah?” Ben suggested. “Dad covered a lot of ground plowing Saturday, but he didn’t get down that far. I’ll go the other way.”

    Sarah had been looking around for about twenty minutes when she heard the mournful wail again. I’m getting close, she thought apprehensively. “Where are you?” she called, hoping the dog would bark at the sound of her voice. It did. Feeling a few drops of rain, she pulled her poncho over her head and went in the direction of the sound, calling again as she went. The dog responded each time she called, even though she could tell from its tone that it was getting weaker with each bark.

    Coming to the edge of a large irrigation canal, Sarah stopped and sharply drew in her breath at what she saw. The dog was caught in the partly flattened end of a pipe—probably crushed by a tractor, Sarah surmised. He must have gotten stuck chasing a rabbit or something. I’ve got to go get Ben so he can help get him out. Sarah turned to go, but the dog’s pleading whimper brought her back again. Rain was beginning to pelt down harder now. She looked back into the ditch and realized that if the rainwater increased the water level of the canal, the dog would drown. The way this storm is increasing, by the time Ben gets here it will be too late! Sarah thought.

    For a minute she panicked. “I can’t! I just can’t go near him!” she cried. Then the words seemed to enter her mind, You’ve got to, or he’ll drown! She looked again at the stricken animal and took a few faltering steps. Oh, help me! She silently prayed, then plunged down the bank.

    She stopped a couple of meters from the dog and looked at him. When the dog saw her, he whined plaintively and stared at Sarah with the most incredible look of relief and joy that Sarah had ever seen. That look is almost human, Sarah thought, surprised. Impulsively, she fell to her knees and stroked the dog’s head. “You poor thing!” she murmured.

    She began to tug at the dog’s shoulders in an effort to free him. The water was already beginning to collect in the canal. I’ve got to work fast, she determined. The dog was too weak to help, but he licked her hand with his tongue as she tried to lubricate the end of the pipe with a little mud and water. Days of going without food had helped to make the animal a little thinner. Before long she had him free.

    “You’re going to be all right,” she said over and over as she stroked his muddy fur. Then suddenly she realized what she was doing. Sarah Blackhurst, you’re petting a dog! And you’re not scared at all! The thought took her breath away. The years of fear had been forgotten in the love and pity she felt for the suffering animal.

    The dog was too weak to walk, so Sarah, already muddy and wet, wrapped him in her cloak and carried him out of the gully toward home. The dog never quit looking at her, even when Ben took him out of her arms at the door to the kitchen.

    “Sarah! Where did you find him? I was beginning to worry about you!” Ben cried breathlessly. “I was about to …” Suddenly Ben stopped and turned, staring into Sarah’s eyes. “Sarah, you’ve been holding a dog!”

    “I know,” Sarah grinned sheepishly. “I know.”

    Later that evening after the dog had been fed and given a warm bath, the family sat around the fireplace talking. The dog lay curled on a blanket in front of the hearth. “You know, Sarah, I don’t think that dog’s taken his eyes off you since you found him!” Father said.

    “I’ve never seen such a look of love and devotion in my whole life,” Mother commented.

    “From Sarah or the dog!” Ben said with a twinkle in his eye.

    “Where do you think he came from, Dad?” Sarah asked. “Do you think we can keep him?”

    “Well, I think we should advertise in the newspaper that we’ve found him,” Dad responded, “but I doubt anyone will come for him. He’s probably a stray dog, abandoned in the country by somebody who wanted to get rid of him.”

    “I hope we can keep him,” Sarah murmured.

    “I never thought I’d ever hear you say something like that!” Ben teased. Then after a minute he said, “I thought I was supposed to be the one who got a dog!” But he winked at Sarah as he said it.