Benny sauntered down the street, money jingling in his pocket and the snow crunching under his feet. Hound pups, born late-December, weaned and ready, waited for him to choose the best of them. He had his eye on the one with the keen nose and perfectly dropped ears. Every time he visited, the pup had his nose to the ground. And when Benny hid a treat, he always scouted it out first. A couple quickened steps, put him that much closer, his excitement barely contained.
“You off to get that pup of yours today, Benny?” Mr. Jansen waved from his shop, broom in hand.
“Sure am. Best of the litter.”
“That’s what Kyle said. With all the work you done, you deserve him. Stop on your way home so I can lay my eyes on him, ya hear!”
The words from the shop’s owner flitted to his ear, but he had no time to acknowledge him. Not in his mind, anyway. As the town’s buildings spread further apart, Benny’s feet struck the frozen ground sooner, picking up speed. What boy could wait for his very first hound? He sure couldn’t.
Jumping the log that lay across the trail, he watched as the Kyle barn peeked through the dense trees, calling him closer. The movement of boots smaller than his and the bottom of a dingy gray skirt caught his eye. Emiline ran toward him. “Hurry, Pa’s got the pups out, ready to go. You gonna get Dozer?”
“I told you that’s not his name.”
They fell in step with each other and hurried toward the farmhouse.
“Well, what is it then?” Her eyes, blue as fine china, blinked, waiting for his answer.
“Don’t know yet. But not Dozer.”
“Okay, but he already answers to Dozer, comes real good when called.”
“He’s a pup, he’ll learn a new name fast enough.”
Emiline shrugged as they continued in silence.
When the trees fell away, Benny took off, no longer able to wait. The snow crunch under his feet became lost as tiny snowballs flew into the air before crashing back down behind him. Emiline’s shorter legs pumped but eventually slowed. Benny was fast.
“I’m here, Mr. Kyle. I’m here.” His heart pounded erratically as his lungs panted for breath.
“You run all the way?”
“No Sir, just from the trees.”
“Hmm.” Mr. Kyle straightened his hat and narrowed his eyes. “Got the money? Ten dollars, right?”
“Yes Sir, I mean… I got the money, but you said seven, not ten.”
“Did I now?” A new gleam shone in the man’s eye. “Well, tell you what, you muck out that stable, and I’ll make it five.”
“Yes Sir, but you won’t give him to no one else, will you?”
“Pay now, just muck that stable good, or you’ll pay those two dollars, too.”
Benny’s grin spread across his face as his shaky fingers dug the coins he’d saved for so long. As he counted out the money, a dime fell to the ground and he dove after it, unwilling to lose a precious cent, let alone ten. “Five dollars.”
Mr. Kyle eyed the coins. “So it is. Top pick goes to you.”
Everything slowed as he stared at the pups. Each one wagging a short tail and ready to trip over their long ears. No question as to which dog he wanted crossed his mind, but he focused on building a memory. The scent of freshly fallen snow mixed with the mustiness of the barn. He picked up the pup Emiline had called Dozer, fresh puppy breath joining the other aromas as the pup licked his chin. “This one.”
“Dozer’s a fine pup. Great tracker. He’ll train easy for you if that’s what you want.”
Benny nodded, then turned toward the stable. “I’ll get all four stalls real good and clean for you, Mr. Kyle. Don’t you worry.”
Turning, he buttoned his new pup into his jacket, then picked up the shovel. The work promised to take most of the day, but he didn’t care. Not now that he had his pup.
“So what are you going to name him?” Emiline straddled a low wall nearby.
“I’ll think of something.”
“Something like Spot?”
“No. Something that makes him sound special.”
“Whatcha gonna do with him, anyway?”
“Train him to hunt. Help feed my family, maybe make some money from furs.”
“Dozer’ll be good at that. Pa breeds the best.”
“Name’s not Dozer.” With the first stall finished, he moved on to the next.
“ What should I call him, then?” Emiline questioned.
He stared into the pups eyes, still gray on their way to brown. “Major. I think I’ll call him Major.” He scratched behind the pup’s ear. “You like that, boy?”
A young bay rumbled in the dog’s throat.
Giggling, Emiline ambled toward Benny. “Guess he likes it. But I’d let him down, or he’ll wet you good.”
Benny nodded, lowering Major to the ground.
About the time he finished the third stall, a thump on the side of the barn lifted his head. “Jed, what are you doing here, scaring me like that?”
“Gotta come home, Pa’s had an accident.”
“Is the doctor there?”
“No. Ma says we can’t afford him. His leg’s real messed up. Come on!”
Benny looked at the pup. “You go ahead. I’ll be there quick.”
After his brother left, he sank to the floor of the barn and picked up Major. Tears filled his eyes and he lifted the pup and himself off the floor of the barn and looked to Emiline. “Where’s your Pa?”
“Out at the fence, fixing it, I think. Why?”
“This pup’s no good. I’m returning him.”
She grabbed at his arm, but he pulled away as she said, “What do you mean he’s no good? He’s the best there is.”
“No, he ain’t.” He yanked his arm away again and rushed to Mr. Kyle.
Mr. Kyle stopped hammering at the fence and gazed at the boy’s blotchy face. “You all done?”
“No Sir. I’m sorry. I can’t take the pup.”
“Well why not, you paid for him?”
“He’s just not right, that’s all. You gotta take him back.”
The man straightened his hat and eyed his daughter and Benny. “If that’s what you want.”
Benny’s voice broke. “Yes, Sir.”
“Did you want to look at the others?”
“No, Sir. I mean to get home as soon as you give me my money back.”
Mr. Kyle dug in his pocket and pulled out the five dollars. “How much of the stable you finish?”
Another dollar fifty fell into Benny’s hand. That’s for the work you did today.
Head hung low, Benny took off toward town as fast as he could, and minutes later banged on the doctor’s door.
“Something happened to my pa’s leg. You gotta come.”
The doctor grabbed his bag. “Get my horse saddled, boy.”
Benny did as he was told, and the doctor soon appeared at his side. “Your family able to pay?”
“I have eight dollars and fifty cents. Is that enough?” His teary eyes met the doctor’s, hoping.
The doctor sighed. “Today it is, I suppose.”
A breeze colder than Benny remembered it chaffed his face as he rode home on the doctor’s extra horse—a service rarely afforded to customers. The pounding of his heart matched the galloping of the horse’s hooves. Tears traced his cheeks at the thought of returning the perfect puppy he’d just named Major. No longer could he help feed his family. Momma didn’t want him helping anyway. The memory of the sweet puppy breath caused his face to crumble.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get your Pa all fixed up.” The doctor’s words scratched at his ears.
Of course, he wanted the best for his pa, but anguish batted him from both sides.
Once home, the doctor rushed in the house, Benny trailing slightly behind. A moment later, Momma quietly slipped into the rocking chair behind him on the porch as she held her rounded belly. “Where’s your pup? Jed said you got him.”
“The doctor said you paid him.”
“Yeah. Mr. Kyle paid me to muck out his barn, but I didn’t finish.”
“He didn’t pay enough to hire a doctor, did he?”
Silence permeated the porch until Momma’s soft whisper reached Benny’s ears again. “Thank you. You and me could’ve set the leg, but not well. And I wouldn’t know what to do about the gash from the bone.”
“What happened, Momma. How’d he break his leg like that?”
“Removing a tree, I think. Don’t really know. He’s not talking much yet.”
“Pa’s downed hundreds of trees!”
She stood and squeezed his shoulder. “I know.”
His whole life, all he’d wanted was a puppy, a coon hound. His whole savings was gone. But he held the pup for those few hours. Major—a strong name for a strong dog. Tears fell to the wood below his feet and he wiped them away before traipsing into the house.
Darkness soon turned to dim light, and Benny’s swollen remained closed as his momma’s voice entered his consciousness.
“Coming… Just a minute.” Her feet shuffled from the door to where he lay in bed, and her hand swept at his hair. “Benny, you have visitors.”
Stepping onto the porch, Benny gazed at the wet nose and soft fur resting in Emiline’s arms. Mr. Kyle stood next to her. “Benny, you’re right. This pup’s not right. Fact is, I’ll never sell him. Feeding him takes a lot too.”
Benny stared at the pup. “I lied. He’s a great pup, should be the first to go.”
Mr. Kyle pushed his hat back. “No, you were right.” His eyes narrowed. “I know you wanted a good hunting dog. This one’s no good for that, not good at all, but well, if you want him…”
Emiline held Major out, who wagged his tail, his gray eyes bright and eager. Benny extended shaky hands that wrapped around the pup. Holding him close, he nuzzled his face against the fuzzy ear. The fall of tears sparkled in the rising sun as Benny’s tongue tripped over the short, raspy words. “Thank you.”
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