Western Short Story
Danny Shepherd was about to ride to the Killing ranch. That was their name, their last name, Killing. They were farmers of German descent having settled here in the Hill Country of south central Texas, just like a lot of the other Germans had done. Danny was out looking for his dog Shep. Yah that was his dog’s name, Shep. A shortened version of his own last name since the dog was practically family. Shep was a mutt a neighbor had given them as a puppy a few months back shortly after the dog had been weaned, the owner glad to be rid of it. Danny had fallen in love with that cute little adorable puppy from the start and now since Shep was missing was desperate to find him. He hadn’t seen his dog since early this morning and now the sun was about to set. This was his last stop after a day of riding to all his neighbors asking them if they’d seen Shep. None had. Now he dreaded coming to the Killing place for they too had a dog, a big mean German shepherd that would always growl and snap at his feet and his horse’s hooves whenever he would ride by. That dog’s name was Dolf, short for Adolf, and named by the German man, a Mr. Koenig who the Killings had gotten the dog from. The dog belonged to Walt Killing the son of old man Killing and Danny didn’t care that much for Walt either as he was as mean as his dog, was sixteen, four years older than Danny, twice as big and a head taller than him, and a bully to boot.
Now up ahead was the open gateway to the Killing ranch. The ranch with its home, barns, and barnyard was about fifty yards further down a lane from the gate. Danny would have to ride down that lane. But first he would have to pass under a sign that hung high on a cross beam between two tall cedar poles, a sign that read, “Ein bisschen Holle.” The Killings, ever so proud of their German heritage, refused to tell the non Germans, like the Shepherds, what that meant, like it was their little secret or something. But most of the non German neighbors had figured it out anyway. Danny only hoped he could get there to the house without that damn dog of Walt’s attacking him. As he approached the gateway, and still no dog, he noticed something hanging there, dangling on each side of the sign. Something which looked like two bodies, two animal bodies that is. He rode closer. They were two dogs. Then he knew why that damn dog of Walt’s hadn’t come after him for there hanging and swaying in the breeze was Dolf, a rope around his neck, the dog having been strung up and hung like a common condemned criminal. Somebody finally got sick and tired of that damn dog chasing after them every time they rode by here thought Danny. That’s why they strung him up to put an end to all that nonsense, good riddance to bad rubbish. Walt’ll be mad as hell when he sees his dog hanging there and if he finds out who did it, there’d be hell to pay. Oh well not my problem thought Danny.
Danny then turned his attention to the other dog. His mouth dropped open and his hand immediately instinctively went up to his mouth in shock. It was Shep.
“Hold on there Danny boy,” came a voice from behind him. Danny froze in place. “Hold it right there if you know what’s good for you.”
Danny recognized the voice. It was Walt’s. Walt Killing had snuck up behind him. Got the drop on him so to speak. Danny turned around to face his foe. The look of fire in Walt’s eyes was the first thing Danny noticed and it sent a shock wave of fear throughout his trembling body.
Danny wanted to turn tail and run and get his father to handle this but on the other hand he had to know why Shep, and Dolf for that matter too, were strung up there like a couple of common horse thieves. He stayed in place. Held his ground. He could tell Walt was unarmed, no gun that is, but if Walt came at him in any way, he’d hightail it out of there but quick. He had always been scared of Walt and Walt knew it.
Walt got in front of him and grabbed his horse’s halter holding the animal in place.
“What’s going on here Walt?” Danny asked as politely as he could hoping no fear showed in his voice.
“What’s going on here?,” shrieked Walt. “I’ll tell ya what’s going on here. That damn dog of yours killed some of our sheep that’s what going on here.”
Danny knew the Killings had a few head of sheep.
“Not Shep,” was his automatic reply in defense of his dog.
“Ya Shep goddamn it.”
“Why’d you have to kill him by hanging him. Why didn’t you come say something to us first?”
“First of all I didn’t kill him by hanging him. I shot him first. Then I hung him. And second of all I don’t have to come to you first and tell you anything. If a dog is killing your stock, you got the right to shoot him on the spot. That’s the law.”
“But why hang him? What’s the point of that? That’s just plain sick Walt.” Danny regretted that comment the second it left his mouth but Walt took no offense and had an answer for that.
“I hung him so you’d see him when you rode by. I wasn’t gonna waste my time riding miles to your place to bring you the good news. That’s why.”
“But why’s Dolf hanging there if my dog was doing the killing. And I don’t believe he was.”
Then he added for safety reasons, “Not that I’m calling you a liar you understand.”
“I had to shoot my own dog because he was running with your dog killing the sheep too. Once an animal gets its blood lust up like that he’s ruined forever. He’ll kill whenever he gets a chance. Luckily those sheep made enough noise so that I was able to kill them both before they did any more damage.”
“Half a dozen.”
“But why hang Dolf?”
“Because he was just as guilty as your dog. Your dog corrupted him. Dolf had been around these sheep all his life and never bothered them. Your damn dog comes over here and starts chasing and killing them. My dog sees that and decides to join in the fun. If you hang with criminals, you’re hung with criminals. That’s why.”
That reasoning made no sense to Danny but then again Danny knew that Walt had his own perverted way of thinking. Danny sat there on his horse ready to make his move as Walt released his grip on his horse’s halter. Then Walt immediately slipped his hand in his pocket, pulled out a knife, and flipped open a six inch switchblade. But he didn’t come at Danny with it. Instead he went and shimmied up the cedar pole next to his dog and cut the rope. Dolf fell to the ground with a sickening thud.
“Now get your damn dog and get the hell out of here,” he shouted at Danny as he turned his back on him and started dragging Dolf down the lane. After a few feet he stopped, turned around, glared at Danny and said, “Tell your old man, that my old man is going to talk to him about him paying us for all these dead sheep. You got that?”
Danny sat there, said nothing, kind of in shock.
“Well do ya?” shouted Walt reaching into his pocket again, the pocket where his switchblade was.
“Yes I got,” replied Danny as meekly as he could not wanting the situation to escalate.
Walt brought out the switchblade anyway, flipped it open again, admiring its blade in a weird kind of demented sort of way.
“And one other thing Danny Boy. There will be payback for me having to kill Dolf.”
Walt brandished his knife swishing it in the air. Then just as quickly snapped it shut and put it back in his pocket, reached down and picked up the rope to Dolf, and started dragging him home again.
Danny waited until Walt was almost at his house, then he shimmied up the pole and sawed down Shep with his inch and a half pocket knife, straddled the dog on his horse, he’d be damned if he’d drag his dog all the way home, and proceeded homeward bound.
When he got home he told his father what had happened and he was surprised to learn that his father agreed with Walt. His father said that he would ride over tomorrow and speak to Mr. Killing about the loss of his sheep and that he would have to pay him their fair market value. That was the law his father said. You are responsible for what damages your animals do his father told him and here there was no doubt about it that Shep’s conduct led to the death of those sheep.
Danny wanted his father to back him and make the Killings pay for the loss of his beloved Shep but instead he got a lecture on pet ownership and responsibility. And when Danny told him Walt threatened him with a knife his father pooh poohed it and said Walt was upset and was only trying to scare him and meant him no harm. That Walt was basically a good boy.
The next day he and his father rode to the Killings. His father and Mr. Killing agreed on a fair price and settled up. His father promised Mr. Killing that he wouldn’t let this happen again with the next dog they got. That he’d see to it that his son kept that dog penned up or on a leash at all times and that the dog was well trained. Mr. Killing promised likewise stating that his Walter too hadn’t done all that good of job training Dolf and that he would make sure his son’s next dog was trained properly too. And so the fathers parted on good terms.
But Danny and Walt didn’t. Just as they were about to leave Walt went up to Danny, grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him around, bent down over him, and whispered into his ear. “Maybe our folks settled up here but we haven’t. You still gotta pay me for Dolf. There will be payback. Believe you me. Just you wait and see.”
Walt let go of Danny’s shirt, smiled at his father as he did so, and said, “I heard that Mr. Koenig’s dog Wilhelmina had another litter of pups. Maybe we can get a pup from him again Pa.”
“Good idea son,” Walt’s father responded. “We’ll go over there and check it out first thing tomorrow morning. We want to get the pick of the litter now don’t we.”
On the way home Danny asked his father if they could get a puppy from Mr. Koenig too. To which his father answered, “We’ll see.”
A few days later Danny and his father were at the Koenig residence looking at the last puppy available, a pure bred German Shepherd male dog.
“The Killings were here the other day and got the pick of the litter, a giant of a dog,” volunteered Mr. Koenig. “This here dog’s the runt of the litter so I can come down on the price a little bit.”
The Shepherds needed a dog. One couldn’t live out in the Hill Country of Texas without a dog, everyone had one, or two, or more. So Danny’s father and Mr.Koenig came to an agreement. Mr. Koenig handed the puppy with one hand to Danny while he took the money from Danny’s father with the other and said, “There’s only one condition though.”
“What’s that?” asked Danny.
“You gotta name the dog King. That’s what my last name means in English, king. The last dog the Killings got from me the time before I had named Adolf after my father. This one I’m naming King. Okay?”
“Okay,” echoed Danny willing to agree to anything to get the puppy. “What did you name the dog the Killings got from you the other day Mr. Koenig?”
“Kaiser? Is that a family name too?”
“No but that’s a good German name for that dog because that dog was definitely the ruler or boss of all the others. That was obvious from the way he acted. He’s gonna grow up to be the Alpha dog, the leader of the pact so to speak, that’s for sure.”
Oh no thought Danny the Killings got another mean dog. But he kept that thought to himself.
His father graciously thanked Mr. Koenig and they left. On the way home his father made it clear to Danny that this dog was his responsibility. He was twelve now and it was time he started acting it and took on some responsibility especially for training his own dog. Last time his father trained Shep but this time training King was to be his job not his father’s. He’d help him his father told him but it would be his and his alone’s responsibility.
The training of King did not go all that well. Danny couldn’t seem to house break him and the dog was soon banned from the house. Then King dug up their vegetable garden and he was confined to his dog house quarters with a rope twenty feet long attached to his neck. Well soon enough, somehow, King got free of it and tore down the laundry on the line. Danny’s mother wasn’t all that happy about having to rewash it. But what really fried her fritters was that King chewed up her new store bought blouse to shreds. Danny offered to pay for it from his allowance and the case was settled. Danny never did get King to obey any commands and his father could see this. Time after time he told Danny what to do to discipline the dog. But Danny was too soft hearted to yell at or strike his new puppy and all went for naught.
Then the inevitable happened. Either Danny forgot to or did a poor job of tying up King that morning before he left for school and King got loose. His father noticed that when he heard all the comotion, the chickens running all over the place literally like chickens with their heads cut off a squawking and a clucking to beat the band. And when Danny’s father spotted King with a chicken in his mouth he went and got his gun and shot King dead on the spot. Shot him twice in fact and was about to shoot King for a third time when he realized he was out of bullets. He went back in the house to reload and discovered that he had only two left in his desk drawer. How in the hell did he let that happen he wondered. One can’t be without bullets in the Hill Country of Texas since varmints were always on the prowl, human as well as animal. So he told his wife he’d better go to town now and get some in order to get back home before it got dark. Besides he also needed some more barb wire he told her to further justify the trip.
When his wife heard that, she said okay but that she was going too since she needed a few things. He knew after years of marriage rather than offer to get them for her it was better to just let her go with and let her get her stuff herself. Anything other suggestion would only lead to an argument. So they hitched up the buckboard and got ready to leave. They knew Danny would be home from school soon before they got back from town, town being about eight miles east of here, the school five miles to the west. So his father wrote him a note and left it on the kitchen table. It read, “Went to town to lay in supplies. Will explain about King when we get back,” signed Dad. His father left King in front of the front porch steps so that Danny would be sure to see him when he got home. Then off they went.
On their way in the Shepherds ran into Walt Killing coming back from town with his dog Kaiser running along beside him. They stopped, exchanged pleasantries, and the Walt showed them some tricks that he had taught Kaiser. Kaiser was quite well trained. Did as told and obeyed every command without hesitation. Walt then asked them how the training of King was going. Mr. Shepherd coughed up the truth for that was his style, straight forward honest, and told Walt that he had shot and killed King that morning and why. He even volunteered that he shot King twice just for good measure he was so mad at that damn dog. In fact he volunteered too much information in that he told Walt that he had left a note for Danny on the kitchen table about King. Walt took all that under advisement. The parties then parted and went their separate ways.
Now Walt knew that Danny was at school and would be home soon. He hadn’t forgotten about getting some payback. He saw this as his chance now and he took it. He picked up his pace and got to the Shepherd farm. He looked around first and knew Danny wasn’t home yet since his horse wasn’t in the coral. Quickly he found some rope, tied a piece around King’s neck, strung the dog up, and left it hanging from the Shepherd’s front porch right in front of the front door. He knew Danny would be back before his folks and would see the dog hanging there. To make sure Danny would think he was responsible for King’s death, not Danny’s father, Walt went in the house, got the note, read it, crumbled it up, stuck it in his pocket.
Then he went back out, got on his horse, and headed for home. As he got to his place he saw Danny up ahead coming home from school. He stopped and waited for him and ordered Kaiser to sit. Kaiser sat off to the left side of the horse in the middle of the road, cocked his head at the stranger coming at him, but didn’t make a sound. Kaiser was a good dog.
Danny saw Walt, knew there was no way to avoid him, and kept going. He got up to Walt, stopped, and looked down at Kaiser blocking the road.
“Howdy,” greeted Walt a devilish smile upon his face.
“Where you been?” was Danny’s somewhat smart aleck answer, countering the smile on Walt’s face with a smirk of forced defiance of his own. Danny didn’t trust him and especially this new dog of his.
“Well wouldn’t you like know,” Walt threw back at him as he reached into his pocket, took out his switchblade and began fondling it.
“Get your dog out of the way so I can get home,” said Danny.
“That an order or a request?” asked Walt flipping his knife open.
“A request please.”
“That’s more like it now.” Walt folded his knife back up putting it back in his pocket.
“Kaiser,’ commanded Walt and he snapped his fingers, “Here boy,” and he pointed to a spot to the right of his horse. “Sit.”
Kaiser moved and sat where ordered. The road was clear now. Danny started to move on but before he could advance Walt hollered out, “Hold on there just a minute Danny boy.” Walt couldn’t resist taunting Danny. “You wanted to know where I’ve been. Well I’ll tell ya where I’ve been. Been out hunting that’s where.”
It was Danny now who couldn’t resist, “That ain’t true. You ain’t got no game you shot with you from what I can tell. Don’t see any in your saddle bags or any strapped on the back of your horse.” But Danny did see that Walt had a rifle with him strapped to the side of his saddle.
“Didn’t say what kind of game I was hunting now did I? Would you like to know what I shot today? Shot twice. Just for good measure that is.”
Danny now knew what Walt was talking about but wasn’t going to give Walt the satisfaction of letting him know. Instead he kept his poker face on as he rode by.
Walt let him know anyway. He just couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “Pay back Danny Boy, payback.”
Danny spurred his horse and rode on.
The first thing Danny saw when he got home of course was King strung up, hanging over the front door. He cut King down. He looked King over. King had been shot twice alright. Why Walt was so mean spirited that he shot the dog twice was because he wanted the dog to suffer first reasoned Danny. That’s why.
Danny started crying. It was personal now just between the two of them and Danny knew he would have to settle this score himself once and for all. He wiped away his tears. He let his rage take control. But being ever a good boy, he wrote his folks a note first simply saying that he was at the Killing place. He then went and got his father’s rifle, opened the desk drawer where his father kept the ammunition, fumbled through it, and found the two remaining bullets. Oh well don’t need two bullets to kill that dog anyway thought Danny. One will do and I’ll use the other one on Walt defending myself if he comes at me with that his switchblade of his. It’ll be justifiable self defense homicide. No jury would ever convict me. He loaded the rifle, went outside, got on his horse and took off for the Killings.
It was dark early now that cold December evening and there was no moon out. The clouds blocked out the stars too and a cold chilling wintery wind hurried him along. He made it in record time to the Killing place and when he got there he stopped under their sign, got off, tied up his horse to one of the cedar poles, and started down the lane on foot to the Killing place, his rifle locked and loaded, at the ready. He was going to sneak up on the place and shoot Walt’s dog. Then he heard it. The barking of Kaiser in the distance. But he couldn’t turn back for now it was do or die. So he continued forward, the rifle at his shoulder, que sera sera. The barking got louder and closer. Walt must have ordered the dog to attack him he thought.
“Fine with me,” he said to himself. “Let the dog come to me. That way I don’t have to find him.” Danny stopped advancing. He’d shoot it, run back to his horse, and make his getaway before Walt got here. Only problem was it was pitch black and he couldn’t see where exactly the damn dog was but it certainly sounded as if he was right in front of him now. So that’s where he fired, right in front of him. But he didn’t exactly shoot straight in front of him. He missed the dog. He didn’t hear the dog whimper or fall over dead. He only heard its continual barking, snapping, and growling as if it was anchored in place somehow. Then he heard an expletive from Walt taking Danny’s name in vain repeatedly.
“God damn it Danny Boy you shot me in the knee. Hurts like hell. Now go and get my folks. I got Kaiser on a leash. I’ll hold him here. Go now. Go!”
“I ain’t falling for that trick,” Danny laughed. “The minute I take off you’ll sick your dog on me.”
“If I was going to sick Kaiser on you I’d have already done so. I’ve had him on a leash the whole time you little jerk,” and again with the expletives. It was true Kaiser had practically drug Walt down the lane going after Danny, Walt having trouble maintaining the dog’s pace, and holding him back the whole time. He knew it was Danny the minute Kaiser started barking. After all he had baited him into coming hadn’t he. Though Walt could be somewhat of a bully at times, he meant only to scare Danny with Kaiser, certainly not to let Kaiser tear him to shreds. But Walt never expected Danny to come gunning for him and consequently Walt had brought no shooting iron with him. He was going to have to bluff his way through this. His life depended on it.
“Danny boy I don’t want to have to shoot ya now ya hear. But I will if I have to. I got me a double barrell shotgun here and I’ll blow you away if I have too. It would be self defense. No jury would ever convict me of anything. You shooting me first and all.”
The bluff worked. Danny turned tail and lit out for the territory, the territory here being home.
The Shepherds paid Walt’s doctor bill for patching up his wounded knee. The knee cap was shattered to pieces and later gangrene set in. It had to come off. They paid for his leg amputation too, the doctor cutting off Walt’s left leg just above the knee.
Walt went the rest of his life with a peg leg. He never did get married. None of those German frauleins there wanted a gimp with a limp for a husband. Instead he always had a German shepherd for a life companion outliving three of them.
As to the Shepherds, well Danny being a juvenile wasn’t charged with attempted murder or anything like that just some kind of misdemeanor. His father quickly paid the fine, sold their place, and moved his family to somewhere unknown so the Killings couldn’t find them and sue them.
The people that bought the Shepherd ranch had a dog too and they made damn sure it never ever got out and ended up at the Killing place, ‘Ein bisschen Holle.’