I kneel and touch the pool of red sand. It’s wet. The Nevada sun bakes blood into a rusty clot within the hour so I must be getting closer. I squeeze the wooden grip of the kitchen knife, already swollen with sweat from my palm. It’s all I could find in the house. My dad has a rifle in his closet, but mom made him put a padlock on it when my little brother was born. I should have just broken the lock. He’d understand.
I get up and follow the trail, my shadow leading the way. I wish I could turn around and go west, put it behind me, but that isn’t the way the blood leads. My stomach feels sour. I should have eaten something before I left.
This morning started out like any other summer day. I slept in till ten, so my parents were gone before I got out of bed. I might have slept even later if it weren’t for Jack banging on my door. Now that I didn’t have school, they expected me to take care of him.
“Dillon! I’m hungry!” he screamed.
“Shut up,” I shouted back, throwing the sheets on the floor before pulling a pair of Levi’s over my legs. “I’m coming already. Damn.”
I pulled open the door to see little Jack dressed in his green dinosaur covered overalls. He was pointing at me and grinning. “You said a swear.”
“Yeah, well mom and dad aren’t here so who are you gonna tell.”
“They’ll come back then I’ll tell.”
“Not if you want me to feed you.”
“No! I’m hungry.”
“Then you can’t tell,” I said.
He crossed his arms and looked over my shoulder for a minute, the way dad does when he’s pretending to consider something. I imagine what might be going through his head, as if a six year old were forming a pros and cons list for tattling. He eventually nodded.
“Ok, I won’t tell, but I want Jimmy sandwiches.”
“You got it.”
We went into the kitchen and I pulled a bag of Jimmy Dean sausage patties out of the freezer. I pull apart the frozen meat disks and put them in the microwave before toasting the English muffins. Jack climbed up into dad’s chair. He likes to sit there when our parents isn’t home.
“What are we gonna do today Dillon?” he asks, feet swinging off the end of the chair
“You do what you want, I’m gonna play my new video game.”
“What game is it? Can I play?”
“No, It’s not for kids.”
Jack kicked the table and let out an earsplitting sound somewhere between a groan and a screech.
“If I can’t play you shouldn’t either,” he said. “You should play with me.”
“I play with you all the time Jack, I need some me time.”
“You never play with me, you just play your games all day and you never let me play.”
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “If you can be a big boy and feed Spanner and the goats, we’ll play for a bit.”
“How long?” he asked, squinting his eyes.
“Two hours,” he fired back. He was glaring and holding out his hand, stiff as a rail.
I smiled. If I’d offered him two, he’d have asked for three.
“Alright,” I said shaking his outstretched hand.
The microwave beeped and we ate the sandwiches together before going our separate ways, him outside and me up to my room. I fired up the Xbox, but rather than playing a game, I went into the video files on my hard drive where I’d stashed a supply of torrented porn. I flicked through a dozen or so videos before I found the one I wanted. I just found this video last week. It wasn’t anything special, the usual four or five positions before the climax, but the girl reminded me a lot of someone I go to school with. A brunette on the swim team named Shawna. She was pale, and a little sun burnt most of the time. I didn’t know her that well. I didn’t even like her really, but the idea of having sex with her was a hundred times more exciting than some stranger on the internet. She was a real part of my world, so I could pretend that this girl was too.
I was unbuttoning my pants when I heard barking and then a high-pitched scream cut through the walls. I jumped to my feet, and ran out the door. One of the goats was dead and Spanner was barking between Jack and a large tan animal covered in fur. It took me a moment to realize that it was a mountain lion.
I wish I could say I threw up my arms and bellowed at it like they teach you to do in the boy scouts, that I picked up rocks and threw them at the beast until it left but the truth is that I froze. I saw the cat, it’s shoulders tensed, it’s teeth bared, and my mind went blank. It was all I could do not to turn and run away. It was Spanner who acted. The old Australian Sheppard lunged at the intruder and bit her neck. The lion let out and bone shaking roar and pawed at the little dog with paws the size of Spanner’s head but he held on.
In the flurry of fur, some part of my lizard brain managed to wake up and scooped Jack up by the back of his overalls and ran for the house. He was screaming and crying, I banged his legs on the door frame getting him inside, but I don’t think he even noticed.
“Spanner!” he screamed.
I went back out onto the porch in time to see the mountain lion dragging away the dead goat. Spanner was gone. There were two trails of blood. One led off into the hills where I saw the mountain lion go, the other led off into the flats.
I turned back into the house to check on Jack. I tried to ask if he was ok, but he was shaking with the force of his sobs and couldn’t speak so I took off his overalls to check. There was a dark spot forming on his leg where he hit the wall but other than that he seemed ok.
I don’t know why I didn’t call 911, or animal control, or even my dad. I should have. That would have been the right thing to do, the thing I was supposed to do but instead I ran into the kitchen, grabbed an eleven-inch chef’s knife and headed out to find my dog. It wasn’t right to leave him out there.
“Stay in the house,” I told Jack. “I’m going to find Spanner.”
I didn’t think it would take this long. I’m not a tracker or anything. I’ve only been hunting twice in my life but I thought it’d be easier to follow a trail of blood. I lost it in a patch of grass. It was almost noon when I found it again and even later when the trail seemed fresh.
Now I know I’m close. My shadow pushes me like the needle on a compass, the shadow of the blade bowing off from its side. I keep calling his name, hoping he’ll come trotting back with a little cut on his side, or better yet lion blood dripping from his mouth like some battle hardened bad ass but all I hear is my own voice.
I finally find him in the patchy shadow of a leafless bush. He’s already dead.
I put down the knife and hug him. I cry.
Together we go home. The trip back is much shorter. He didn’t actually make it very far. With every step my feet feel heavier. I imagine the ground shaking underneath them as my misery turns into rage. I hate that he’s dead, that my dog was a stupid hero and that everyone will be talking about how great he was. I hate that he had to protect Jack because I sent him outside, because I wanted to jerk off instead of watching my brother. I hate how relieved I am that I didn’t have to put him out of his misery, that he died alone and I didn’t have to be there. I hate that stupid fucking lion.
When I get home, dad’s truck is already in the driveway. Jack must have called him. They taught him the emergency numbers last year, in case something happened to me. I stop at the edge of the property, at the gate we never bothered to lock because our animals didn’t wonder so we’d never thought there was a reason to.
They’ll have a million questions. They’ll want to know where I was, why I wasn’t watching Jack. They’ll want to know why I left him alone and went out after a lion attack by myself, why I didn’t call them right away. They’ll want to bury Spanner and talk about how good he was and how he saved our lives. They’ll be sorry he’s dead but happy it wasn’t one of us and call animal control and keep the gate closed from now on. In a few months they might even bring home a puppy.
I freeze, the way I did when Spanner was brave. I don’t know how to answer those questions. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with they way they’re going to look at me, what they’ll be thinking.
I look at Spanner’s face. His black lips trace a line through his matted grey whiskers. His are closed making him look dignified, not at all the clumsy pup mom brought home when I was Jacks age. He hasn’t been eating as much lately. Mom thought his teeth were bothering him but the vet said older dogs just eat less. You can see the outline of his ribs through his fur. He weighs about forty pounds.
This fuzzy lump fought a lion for me. He deserves to go home, so that’s where I take him.