“That’s what I’m saying,” Irv responded.
“Strangest dog I ever seen.”
They both looked at the Doberman. Gertie sat on her haunches, her pink tongue briefly appearing in anticipation. Her nose twitched as a light breeze brought the fresh scent of roasting meat riding on a cloud of smoke. The men fanned the smoke away from their eyes, their faces ruddy in the light of the flames. Mike leaned forward and checked the food; it was almost finished. He smacked his lips in unconscious imitation of Gertie.
“Where’d you say you got her again?” Mike asked.
“I found her on the side of the road not far from here. Not the first time I’ve found a dog around here, but Gert’s the first I found with any life in them. Poor old gal was beaten up pretty bad. I couldn’t just leave her there.”
“Some people got no respect for life,” said Mike, sorrow weighing his voice. “I had my Betsy almost fifteen years ‘fore she went on.”
“I’ve only had Gert ‘bout two months but she seems to like me. Got a few strange habits – like the eating thing – but I’m betting those are things she was trained to do,” said Irv.
“She seems gentle enough,” Mike noted.
“She’s gentle, alright. Never makes a sound. Quietest thing you’ve ever met. She’s got no problem with big dogs, but tiny ones scare the crap outta her. Won’t go near ‘em. Oh, and she hates the theme song to Gilligan’s Island.”
Mike barked a short laugh. He whistled a few bars of the song and Gertie immediately bowed her head, placing a paw over her snout. He stopped immediately. “Sorry, Miss Gertie. Just had to see for myself.” Gertie’s head came back up and her tongue lolled out in forgiveness.
The hoot of an owl echoed off the branches above, sending a shiver through the small creatures as shadows covered the foliage. The men looked upwards. Gertie’s ears twisted at the sound, though she never removed her gaze from the food in front of her.
“Bit early for owls, ain’t it?” Mike commented.
“P’raps this one’s an early riser,” Irv joked. “How’s the meat coming along?”
“Looks ‘bout done.”
Mike started to remove the meat from the spit when Gertie’s head snapped up to her right. Her nostrils flared wide and she growled low and deep in her throat. The growl quickly worked its way up her neck to rumble through her mouth, teeth bared.
“Gertie?” Irv asked, his eyes wide in disbelief.
“Thought you said she don’t make no noise,” said Mike.
“Never has before,” said Irv. “Gert, girl, what is it?”
Gertie let out a sharp bark and dashed forward across the campground, a shadowed streak against the fire.
“Gertie!” Irv was up and after her in a heartbeat.
“I thought you said she’d wait for us to eat!” Mike shouted, leaping to his feet as well.
“Stay with the tent! I’ll be right back!”
Gertie raced through the dark underbrush, startling all manner of quail and rabbit, with Irv half a league behind her. The hoot bounced from tree to tree, sending the flushed creatures scurrying back to the hiding places the dog had trampled. Gertie paid them no mind.
Irv followed her as close as possible. He called her name over and over, but the Doberman wasn’t responding. He could hear her crashing through the foliage and, suddenly, the hoot of the owl turned into a man’s scream of terror and anger. Irv put on speed. Branches and twigs snagged his clothing and scratched his skin, but he barely felt them.
He burst into a small clearing, dappled in the moonlight and stopped in shock. Gertie was on top of a man in dark clothing. His hands were at her neck and chest, barely holding her snapping teeth away from his face.
“Get the hell offa me!” the man snarled. “Crazy bitch!”
Irv ran toward the pair, waving his arms and shouting. “Gertie! Gertie, down!” He stepped on something smooth and his feet flew out from underneath him. He landed hard on his back and his head snapped back. He scrambled to his knees and a wave of dizziness passed over him. Irv put his hands on the ground to steady himself, but instead of grass, he felt papers. He lifted one and turned it so it caught the moonlight.
It was a flyer:
BRUISER v. ALFIE
Campgrounds beyond Widow’s Peak in Greenleaf Woods.
Hoot like an owl when you get close.
Fight starts at 7:00pm.
Things suddenly clicked in Irv’s mind. The lifeless dogs. Gertie’s injuries. Her fear of certain dogs.
Rage burned white-hot, spreading outward from his heart. He leapt to his feet and crossed the distance to where man and dog were still battling for dominance. The man managed to gain control, holding Gertie away with one hand and slammed his fist into her side. Gertie yelped and fell slightly, affording the man enough time to push her off of his chest completely.
Irv immediately took her place, dropping his full weight onto the man, straddling his chest, and lining a solid punch to his jaw. He felt something break and pain flared in his hand, but he was so full of fury, he didn’t care. He hit the man again. The man tried to defend himself, but one hand was pinned beneath Irv’s leg and the other hadn’t the right leverage to do much damage. Gertie was barking and growling, but she seemed to recognize that Irv had the situation in hand and she did not move in. Irv hit him again and again until his face was covered with blood and he lost consciousness. Only the sharp whine of concern from Gertie pulled Irv out of his murderous trance. He halted mid-swing and looked at her. She was staring back at him, her soulful eyes full of concern and for a moment, they shared the same thought.
They weren’t killers.
Slowly, Irv rose from the prone body on the forest floor. He pulled out his cell phone and called Mike.
“Irv?” Mike’s worried voice crackled. “What’s going on?”
“I’m sending you my location. I’ll explain when you get here. Bring the truck.”
* * * * * *
As they sat down to eat back at Irv’s house, Mike took a swig of his beer. “You think they’ll find him?” he asked.
“I’m sure they will,” said Irv, cutting up the meat. “We told the police exactly where he’d be. They have to figure it out. I’m betting they’re gonna go break up the dogfight first and then get around to him.”
“Serves him right. He’s left a lotta dogs like that. Seems only right that he get the same treatment.”
Irv was silent as he placed a third of the meat into a bowl and put it on the floor. He had washed the blood from his hands, but his knuckles were still bruised. He didn’t regret a second of it.
Gertie came running over and sniffed at the bowl, then looked up at the men expectantly. Mike had to laugh. “Go ahead, Gertie. You can eat first. You earned it.”
“She’s not going to do that,” said Irv. He made sure Gertie could see him as he stabbed a piece with her fork and put it in his mouth. Gertie’s gaze swung over to Mike, who did the same. Only then did she lower her head and begin her own meal. Irv reached over and gave her a brief stroke atop her head.
“She’s a brave one,” he said.
“She’s lucky you rescued her,” Mike commented.
Irv was thoughtful. “I think we rescued each other.”