The rope was chewed through. David panicked. His friendly, playful Dusty—was a sheep killer.

Dusty

David peered down at the chewed rope end in his hands. Dusty had freed himself again. Dropping the rope, the boy ran to the coop. He opened the door and counted the chickens, pointing his flashlight at each one. They clucked softly and blinked their eyes. All 18 were there. The week before there had been 20 hens, but Dusty, the yearling Labrador retriever David had bought for hunting, had killed two. After the killing, David had promised his father that he would work with the dog, tying him up until they could be sure he would do no more damage.

The boy walked quickly back to the post where his dog had been tied. “Dusty,” he called softly; then he glanced beyond the house at the sky. The glow in the east was becoming brighter.

He moved out past the haystack and whistled. He heard something moving beyond the fence in the field and crawled through. A dark form became Dusty, who bounded toward the boy, then crouched down, front legs forward, and barked. David reached for the rope, but the dog bounced away, ready for their usual romp.

“Dusty!” The words shot out. “Come here!” The dog came closer, and David grabbed the end of the rope. Even in the half-light David could see something smeared around Dusty’s jaws. He put out his hand and touched it; his fingers felt sticky. He ran his hands over the dog’s body—no cuts or breaks. Small tufts of something like fur clung to the black-red around the dog’s mouth. The dog had killed a cottontail once. David took some of the stuff in his palm and shone the light on it. Despite the blood he saw that the pieces were yellow, kinky. It was sheep wool.

David climbed under the fence, pulling Dusty behind him; then he leaned against the stack of hay. The dog could have gotten into the sheep hides that were tacked to the shed wall, but that wouldn’t explain the blood. “Stupid dog!” David jerked the animal back to the post where he untied the short rope and retied the long end onto Dusty’s collar. Just to be sure, he ran to the pelts, moving his fingers along their edges. They were untouched. Watching the back door of the house, he walked back to Dusty and stood next to him. He thought of their neighbors who had sheep—Johnsons, Morgans, Franklins, Mitchells.

Several years before, David had seen a sheep-killing dog shot. The recollection raced through his mind. He moved toward Dusty, then hesitated. Working the knot loose from the post, David quickly led him to the water trough. He tied him and sprayed water from the hose over Dusty’s head and chest. The dog shrank back, but the boy pulled him up again. Then, with a curry comb from the tack room, he cleaned the half-dried blood from Dusty’s hair and rubbed him all over with a gunny sack before tying him up again. He took the short, chewed piece of rope and put it in a paper sack in the trash barrel.

By now it was light, and David hurried to finish the chores. He looked at the back door. With his brothers grown and gone, David was responsible for the chores. For once he was glad his dad hadn’t come to help as he sometimes did. He had fed the pigs and chickens and was just separating the calf from the milk cow when his dad called from the back door. He tried again to get the stubborn calf in its pen before he left, but his father shouted, “Just come! I’ll do that later. Hurry!”

David went into the kitchen and followed his father through the house out to the truck. Climbing in, he looked across at his father’s grim face. “Something’s got into Morgan’s sheep. I saw them when I was down watering the cows.” David turned away, staring out the window. His hand gripped the seat edge. He didn’t look at his father all the way there.

At the pasture, David walked to open the gate. The sheep were huddled in a corner. The boy put his shoulder against the post to free the loop from the top. As he swung the gate around, he saw that halfway down the field several sheep lay quiet in the grass.

“Leave it open,” his dad called from the window of the truck. “I phoned Morgan, and he’ll be here soon.” David climbed back into the truck. They drove into the pasture and stopped by the first dead sheep. David opened the door and walked over to the carcass of the ewe.

His father stood next to David, shaking his head. “Probably a pack of dogs.” The boy looked up, the corners of his mouth turned down. A few flies crawled slowly over the flesh and yellow fat where the wool above the ribs had been laid back.

“Rotten deal,” his dad muttered, looking down the field at the other sheep. David nodded as he pushed on one of the sheep’s legs. It moved loosely.

“Davie.” He turned to see his father pointing down the road to where dust billowed from behind a truck. “It’s Morgan. He’ll want to know about Dusty.”

David bent over as if examining the sheep. “He’s tied up,” he mumbled without looking up.

“Are you sure? He hasn’t pulled himself loose?”

David put his hand out, touched the sheep on the neck, then pulled back quickly. It was warm and reminded him of the time he had touched the shot dog.

“David!” The bullet had crashed into that dog’s shoulder, smashing it. David looked at the truck turning into the pasture.

“No. He was tied up. I checked him this morning.”

David felt his father’s eyes on him; then he heard “Good.” The boy stood up. He watched his father walk toward Morgan, who was getting out of his truck. The two men shook hands.

“You see what did it?” Morgan leaned over the dead sheep.

“Nope. Too sloppy for coyotes though.” David’s father pushed a flap of loose skin on the side of the ewe with his shoe.

Morgan stood and turned toward David. “I think you’re right. I’m looking for dogs.” He was still looking at David, who was unable to move. There was silence; David heard his father’s steps, then felt his hands on his shoulders.

“Well, you’ll have to look somewhere else.” Morgan scowled for a minute, then turned back to the sheep. “Help me get them out of here.” David hadn’t moved, but stood looking at the ground. When his father called, he slowly came to help them. Bending over the body, they each grasped a leg, then lifted the sheep up, flopping it over into the truck. They drove on to the next dead sheep and tumbled it in with the other.

The last one wasn’t dead yet and tried to get up when they came. Morgan pulled a .22 from in back of the seat and shot her behind the ear. In the truck bed the bodies looked strange, sprawled together, their legs sticking out.

“I’ll call them that have dogs around.” Morgan’s voice was bitter. “We can’t have this happening.” The door to his truck slammed; dust followed him up through the field.

They got into their own truck. David picked at a torn place in the knee of his pants. Then he stopped and stared out the window.

“How much would those three cost now?” David looked up at his father.

“Oh, about $300.”

David played with the knob of the bin. He had $43 in his savings account. Summer was over, the time when he could make some good money, and he had spent quite a bit just getting Dusty. Even if he did pay back every cent, who would let him keep a sheep-killing dog?

“That’s sure a loss to Morgan.” His dad turned into their driveway. “I hope they find the dogs.”

David nodded, “Yeah.” He walked slowly up to the front door, then moved faster as his mother called out, “Hurry! The bus’ll be here any minute.” She was taking food out of the oven, where it had been kept warm, and setting it on the table. David put his school clothes on, then washed, his eyes showing in the bottom of the mirror. He reached for the soap, then stopped and listened. His mother had said something about a pack of dogs. “Was Dusty with them?” she asked.

“No.” It was his father’s voice. “Davie said the dog was still tied.” David refocused on his own image in the mirror, and then he bent over and scrubbed his hands. At the table he pushed the eggs into the potatoes on his plate.

“Are you feeling all right?” his mother asked, laying one hand on his arm.

“I’m just not hungry.” David moved his chair back and excused himself.

“Those sheep all torn up don’t exactly make for a good appetite, do they?” His father wiped his hand across his mouth.

In his room, David sat on his bed. Dusty wouldn’t try to get loose during the day, and tonight he’d tie him double tight. David would tie him with baling wire. He couldn’t chew through that.

“The bus’s here.” David took his book bag from his mother’s hand and ran out the front door. He climbed onto the bus and sat with the other sixth graders from the valley.

Butch, Mr. Morgan’s son, was talking with the other boys. “Yeah, there was six or seven dead.” David started to say something, but then stopped. “Dad said he’d shoot any dog anywhere around them sheep.” Butch went on, the others still watching. “I didn’t find no blood on my dog, but I chained him up anyway.” David thought of the Morgan’s dachshund, then laughed nervously with the other boys.

“What about your dog, Jimmy?” Butch still had them all listening. They turned to Jim Mitchell.

“That’s none of your business!” The boys, even Butch, were silent. Then Butch said, “Well, you’ve got to realize we just can’t have sheep killers around here.” But now the other boys were turning away.

David looked at his hands. He and Jimmy, sitting in the same seat, didn’t talk at first. Then Jimmy turned to David. “There was blood on our dog. Dad said we’ll probably have to get rid of him.” David said nothing but looked out the window on the opposite side of the bus. The bus passed their own field where his dad was just climbing onto the swather. David waved, making only a small motion, then leaned his head against the seat in front of him and looked at the floor.

Although the other boys moved straight to the lawn to play football after the bus unloaded, David went inside to the library. He found the book which he had read after Dusty had killed the chickens. It had told him that “once an animal gets a taste for blood, it isn’t easy to break him of that habit, but sometimes tying the victim around the dog’s neck will help.” They had left the chicken tied to Dusty until it was greasy and stinky, but it hadn’t worked. He had killed another chicken and now some sheep. David smiled at the thought of Dusty with the sheep tied around his neck. But he soon frowned again. “Once an animal gets a taste for blood. …”

The bell rang, and David went to his class. He watched Jimmy Mitchell, who sat staring at his desk, supporting himself with one hand to his forehead. No man in the valley would keep a sheep-killing dog. He looked across at Butch Morgan. He was chunky, like his father, and had plump cheeks and pink skin. He thought of Mr. Morgan’s .22. Dusty’s head would flop over; his body would crumple. He shook his head, bending over his book again.

“David,” he looked up at the teacher. “Will you work the first division problem for us now?” David walked to the front of the room, trying to remember how these problems should be done. He scratched the numbers onto the blackboard, then returned to his seat. He realized that he had forgotten to invert before he multiplied.

History seemed to go overtime, and the class dragged on through science. Finally the day was half over. David stood in line for lunch. Before he knew it, the secretary was holding out her hand for his ticket. He fumbled for his wallet and took out a ticket. He started to put his wallet away, but then he stopped, running his fingers across the deer pattern his dad had cut into the leather. It had been perfectly formed and carefully shaded, unlike store-bought things. He slowly folded the wallet and put it in his pocket.

David ate his lunch alone, away from the others. He then went back to the library and read more from the book about dogs. He turned the pages awhile, then put it away, walking to look out the window. Whatever the book said, people in the valley would remember that Dusty was a killer.

Butch, Kenny, and the others were out playing ball. David watched as Jimmy marched across the playground and pushed Butch down. David moved through the door and joined the group just as a teacher broke up the fight. Butch ran for the building, one hand across his face, his nose bleeding. The teacher walked away with one arm around Jimmy’s shoulders.

“What happened?” David asked.

“Oh, Jimmy called home and found out that his father shot their dog,” Kenny Jesperson answered, kicking his foot against the pavement.

David walked back to his class, his hands in his pockets. Jimmy came in and slumped into his seat. David watched him for a long time, but he turned quickly when Jimmy looked up. David felt his face turning red; he hoped no one noticed. He sat staring at the page.

The rest of the day was as slow as the morning. At last it was over. David wished the bus driver would go faster, but he went at half speed as usual. Then the bus stopped, and he was running from it, going around to where Dusty was tied. The dog wiggled his entire body in greeting. David found several loops of baling wire and hooked them together, trading them for Dusty’s rope. David held his arms around the dog and felt the fur against his face. He got some food and poured it into Dusty’s dish. The dog gulped the food, noisily crunching the pieces with his teeth.

David walked into the house. His mother was washing the dishes, singing as she dipped the plates into the soapy water. Half-afraid, David asked, “Where’s Dad?”

“Out in the machine shed.”

David hesitated; then he turned through the door and moved his feet several steps toward the shed. He stopped in the yard, returned to the kitchen through the back door, and walked to his room.

David lay on his bed. “They would shoot him if they knew.” He took off his shoes and slowly pulled off each sock. He walked to his dresser where the family picture stood. His older brothers were there and his dad was directly behind David in the picture, his hands on David’s shoulders. The boy held the picture; then he put it back. He finished dressing and left to do the chores.

“No TV tonight, eh?” His mother smiled as he walked through the kitchen. He shoved the screen door, letting it slam behind him. When he turned at the back gate, she was standing behind the screen, wiping her hands and watching him.

He put the milk bucket on the post next to the gate of the cow pen and walked over to dump wet barley to the grunting pigs. They ran in circles around him until he slopped it into their trough. The chickens ran to the fence, pecking at his feet as he filled their food and water containers. Some of them flapped their wings, trying to fly to the food. As David turned, he saw his father, squatting before Dusty, scratching the dog’s ears. Dusty wagged his tail. His dad’s back was toward David, who watched unnoticed. His dad stood; David turned to get grain for the cow. He poured the grain in front of her, and then sat on the milk stool, his head against the cow’s flank. He milked fast until his forearms ached.

“How was school today?”

“All right, I guess.” He turned his back to the milking.

“Only all right?” His dad was smiling. David kept milking. His father walked away, and soon David saw him return, pulling the strings off a bale of hay he had brought for the cow.

“I helped Morgan dress out the last sheep. It was good it wasn’t completely wasted.”

“Yeah.” David’s hands hurt, but he milked harder and harder.

“About through out there?” his mother called from the house. “Dinner’s ready.”

His father looked over at David’s nearly full bucket. “We’ll be right there,” he shouted back to the house. As David stripped the last of the milk from the cow’s teats, his dad climbed the fence to let the calf out of its pen. David finished and walked to the gate, where he stood waiting for his father. He looked at the ground. Tomorrow he would ride to school with Jimmy, sit in the same classroom. His legs and arms felt weary. When he was smaller, if he were tired his mother would hold him, rocking in the chair.

“Davie?” His father had already passed through the gate and was turned back, waiting for David. “Is something wrong?”

David’s chest tightened again. He thought of eating dinner tonight with his mother and father watching. He shook his head, blinking his eyes quickly. Then, gripping the pail handle, he moved through the gate. The boy heard the gate shut; then he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder, turning him around.

“What’s the matter, Davie?” David leaned against his father’s chest, feeling the man’s arms around him. He felt the cloth of his father’s shirt, rough on his face. He felt warm, but then the fear made his body grow tight again. He stepped back, still gripping the handle of the bucket, and looked up. His father’s face was puzzled. David began quickly.

“Dusty …” He waited, eyes down, until he could talk again.

“Yes?” His father took a step closer.

David took a breath. “Dusty was one of the dogs that killed Morgan’s sheep.”

His dad stared at him. “How do you know?”

“There was blood and wool on him this morning.” David kept his eyes on the ground. “I washed it off.”

His father’s shoulders seemed to sag; he looked away from David. The boy hesitated, then walked to the house, putting the milk bucket on the table. His mother looked at him, but neither said anything. The door opened and David’s father came in and rested his hand on David’s shoulder.

“What do we do now?”

David touched his father’s arm, then walked to the phone. “I’ll call Morgan.”

“Come on.” His father moved toward the door. “Let’s drive over there.” He told David’s mother what had happened; then together they walked through the back door of the kitchen. The screen door banged shut behind them.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg