Side Trail Story
Barney
Tom Sheehan


Side Trail story

Barney, her son Gary's dog, was a mutt who accompanied the 11-year-old home one day, probably after being lost or dropped off by some callous owner and most likely hungry and attracted to Gary's demeanor, soft voice, gentle hands, and a whistler, and that for much of his days when permissible.

Gary had been on the way back from a short fishing trip at the end of the local pond, his creel empty but no failure in the day, his whistle soft and melodious, the arc of tunes full of immediate recognition, full of attraction. The stray mutt leaped into his canoe when it was beached, as if home had come home and from clear across the pond.

Happiness is easy to see at the end of your fingertips, end of the day, a new week on its own, a boy at fishing and, oftentimes measured by others, the casual on-lookers, or the steady students of other people's business or their prayed-for good fortunes. Good turns deserve another shot in the arm, the way some people say once in a while.

"A great kid, my son," Marley Devlin'd often say to anybody who was listening to her or might accept a good word in the middle of a conversation, as much a distraction as evidence of a train of thought, like a one-way rail and no turn-around. She was known as a friendly talker at the lone store off in the lonely western town mere miles away, mountains looming around all the ranches like guardians, imposing guardians

And now her son’s dog was lost.

She could have said, "He whistles more than he talks, or he used to." That would have been pretty much near the truth for a boy many neighbors would have hugged as their own. They were the other neighbors in a few square miles almost jammed against the Pacific Ocean not too far away from them.

But, in another second, in a quiet moment of deepest contemplation, it seemed to her that the mutt Barney had brought extra baggage with him; she worked ceaselessly on that assumption:

Disturbance, though, wasn't the word for what bothered her; it was rather a phantom of a pain, without measurement, hiding out someplace in her body. She thought it odd enough to be unreal, but he was such an unusual boy and such a loveable boy, and now he had lost his dog, or it appeared he had lost it, and reality gained a foothold in her mind with quick belief, quiet tension.

"Happens all the time to boys and dogs," she muttered in a trial matter of assessment, maybe an excuse for the quick thought, but knew a real difference was making a statement on its own. She knew the hard upper-cut loneliness tosses at some people without mercy, those tough jabs with soft gloves, the battering rams of endless pursuit. And him a mere boy who'd not be allowed to face it alone, not if she managed a handle on the situation, with dexterity, perseverance, a mother's enduring love, which, she could add, "Even if I have to do it alone."

Those last words were solely reserved for her husband Joseph who had his own way with things, like family problems, errands and duties undone and borne with no worries so that the ranch seemed to operate by itself, undone tasks yet waiting for a sure or heavy hand, not enough help to get all tasks taken care of, summons from odd sorts with odd names, now and then from an irate neighbor rancher at some small slight only her husband could make bigger than its actuality,

Another thought struck her quickly; "And as long as I don't let it overcrowd me," words in which she found a sense of weight working their way through an accepting consciousness, the real world having an argument of consideration, a let's stand on our own two feet statement.

At this moment, the dish and the dish towel in her hands were motionless, the plate nearly clutched to her chest as she studied her son, through her kitchen window, as he sat on the corral rail, oblivious of the troop of horses, the possible loss for good mounting in her feelings, matching those losses calling out from her deep past. They were more dynamic but, for the present, not more important than the boy's dog. She did have a hard time saying critter, cur or mutt from now until the end of all things called important, that measured life to the culmination, ending cries and tears, laughter and smiles, all the small labors of a woman of the ranch house, her place in it carved by need and habit.

These days were difficult to calculate, separate, place in order. Even her reflection in the window, a momentary flash of herself, seemed an illusion from another day, another scene she could not bring back, someone or something gone down the long road back toward the sun rising in the east, never to come back. Some days, when she looked down that road, she saw an unknown image drifting, struggling, perhaps searching for a landing, an old friend, a lost lover, a comfort zone. A face or a voice or a soft image would make a quick entry, be known in a sense, go back into its coming across the widest of prairies. None of them lasted more than a second, like flashes of scenes from old memories. They did not bother her full wakeful hours, but were remembered as they came and went, life being spun out on a private, small screen of her own making.

"My boy's lost," she muttered. "My boy's lost and he's right at home, right there on the fence rail, almost touchable but not quite touchable." It was, nevertheless, part of loss. Her husband Joseph, snoring away half the weekend, was still in bed, not caring about a lost dog, or a boy with a lost dog; and he obviously had never lost a dog of is own; Heavens, no!

She'd been counting those days too, Marley had, as she watched her son looking across the small pond, down the road one way. Barney was now six days missing. Not a single report had risen, no word from other ranchers or ranch hands, no chum with a word of gossip or conjecture, no accident on any of the local roads; just gone; and Gary's spirits, too, as she knew they would, gone with the hound she'd driven out of the house until he owned a corner of the kitchen, beside the huge fireplace, beside the iron stove harmless, silent, inert since the last day of April. They both knew it the day Barney walked in and dropped into his place in the ranch house. It was a statement made, posted, understood, parts of a triangle ... Gary, her, Barney.

It was the only act in her make-up that was off-center with her absolute neatness, her sense of place for things, an uncompromising mechanism from her early days of mental formation and the powers of place assignment; she'd made up that phrase for her own benefit. A neato, some would say, while others offered a neato in a non-technical summary.

Suddenly the pond jumped into her thinking; it had been a dozen years since she'd frolicked, swam, enjoyed the sun there. Serious connections were prevalent, belonged.

The day the dog was brought home for the first time, right across the pond in their canoe, Gary waving every foot of the way, and her husband saying, to ranching neighbor, "She was excited but so pin-neat at the same time that it was hard to breathe in her presence. And that mutt was just going to be another tool loose from the tool box."

The other rancher nodded with full appreciation of his neighbors and their ways.

Joseph had never said Neato, to her or in her presence, feeling it to be a natural symptom for some women, but one that actually held solid benefits for him; the ready change of clothes, a lighter shirt for warmer weather, a heavier shirt for cooler weather. Others had whispered the phrase to him, out of her earshot, alarmed at the possible regimen in the Devlin home but not realizing the obvious good that came of it.

He could walk into any room in the house and nothing would come to him out of place or order, not a picture hanging out of whack on the wall, a stray cleaning implement missing from its place of consignment. "Brooms and brushes, bless that girl, are kept in military order by the lady of the house, always where they're supposed to be, at most rigid attention." He could bring up a laugh any time of day, at her expense.

Eventually, later in that sixth day, it was one of Gary's friends who brought the first bit of information: "That old witch across the pond, the one with the big cage in her yard, has locked up Barney. I heard him today when my father and I were visiting my uncle who lives on that other side of the pond. I swear it was Barney I heard, kind of sorry yelps, like asking for help."

Just at dusk, his mother at dishes and his father idly twirling a rope, Gary slid the canoe into the water and headed across the pond, bent on rescue, the witch having no right to his Barney ... lock him into a cage, deprive him, most assuredly, of a daily meal, a touch of kindness, her stance on many activities too numerous to mention for a boy bent on a mission, armed with determination and an arsenal of small tools ... wire cutters, pliers, screw driver, a handy hammer, a pry bar for a special purpose.

At first Marley didn't know what to do, which way her heart went, how it leaped and dropped in simultaneous confusion, when she heard a dog's yap from out on the pond and saw the wide arcs of flashlight signals in deep darkness, a whole new scene of happiness at its starting point.



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