This novella is dedicated to the animals used in human warfare all throughout history. None of them knew what they were doing, but some of them surely wanted to help. I take you now to the dawn of the first world war, and the birth of a very special litter of puppies who will eventually have to journey into Mexico as part of the manhunt for Pancho Villa, encountering a rogue German scientist and his hypnotized bats along the way.
(reading time: 59 minutes) (reading time for entire novella: 3 hours, 13 minutes)
Gal rested on her bed of dry straw and whimpered. One of her ears flopped over her eye; she didn’t bother to move it. The freshly-washed hands hovering over her thought this odd, so they moved in and pushed the ear back. Gal loved the light, loved chasing the setting sun to the marshy edge of the island, so there was no reason for her to not see the light in her litter’s eyes. They were due any minute now. One of the hands rested on her swollen belly, both petting and feeling for the position of the puppies. She couldn’t tell the difference.
She was a Catahoula cur: a beautiful dog if one likes creatures that always look as if they’ve just bounded out of a field of long grass and burs. They were also called leopard dogs for their spots, but her owner thought the lovely blue of their base coat was far more notable. Technically her owner was the military of the United States of America, but for now she wasn’t watched by anyone in uniform. The higher owners had no interest in her color, but they did like the slew of traits she would pass on to her offspring: intelligence, high levels of energy, loyalty, a natural aptitude for the hunt…
A breeze rolled off the river and came in through the open window. It wasn’t the ideal atmosphere for a laboratory, but things would be cleaned up a little in time for their training. For now they could be born in the straw and let the air of the Mississippi river flow over them. For a dog it would be something like a baptism, a blessing from the chirping swamp they would eventually hunt in. If dogs had a god it was in every piece of prey that taunted them; it called to them from deep within rabbit holes.
The clean hands moved further back, helped her push. Her ear flopped over her eye once again. The first puppy was born, placed just a few inches away until the labor was complete. It was male. Its eyes would stay closed for now, but eventually they would shine a striking blue with chips of white like cracked lake ice. A name would be written down, but the first place wouldn’t be a collar or bowl. It would be a sheet of paper with dozens of boxes. The puppy’s growth would be tracked across it, down to each inch and ounce. The name was Glasses.
The hands pulled on the second pup. Another clean delivery. Another healthy struggle. During the short trip from her mother’s tail to her brother’s side she kicked an empty bucket; it wobbled on the floor with a surprisingly musical note. She had a long snout and some extra fluff around her neck, her coat already more closely resembling that of her father, who was an American Akita. Her growth would be recorded under the name Tambourine.
Gal gave birth to a third with an especially dark coat and just a few spots near his stubby tail. The owner of the hands couldn’t help but mutter a word at the sight of him. It only now, on the third of them, struck him. His experiments were a success. Whether the dogs were a success was another matter, but his embryo gauntlet technique was at the very least viable. He could move embryos out of dogs, fertilize them, run them through his discerning chemical gradients across multiple Petri dishes, and implant the winners. They would produce fine squirming pups like that male, whose name was written down as Miracle.
The fourth came along with no trouble. When her eyes opened the experimenter would notice her heterochromia, but for now her most notable trait was the way she immediately buried her head under the belly of her sister Tambourine. She either liked her privacy, her family, or both. Her slightly low birth weight was recorded just after the name Shy.
Fifth was the name Barley. There was no connection to the puppy’s first moments of life; she was as healthy as the rest. By that point both Gal and the hands were tired, her from the hard work and the hands from all the excitement. They had to set the little creature down quickly because they started to shake. Their handwriting was a mess, turning poor Barley’s name into barely more than a scribble. The name had come from a single grain of it in the straw, tossed about by the litter’s wriggling. One of the hands poked at it, sending it sliding down a furry belly and vanishing between two pairs of shoulders. It was as good a name as any; the dogs would be eating plenty of it to help them grow. The diet was already fully planned out, and Gal would surely benefit from the new regimen as well…
The owner of the hands noticed the ear over her eye again. It was pulled back once more. The dog lifted her head and looked at her young for the first time. She stared for a moment, and then turned to her owner. The hands drifted back to the puppies, running their fingers over their little swells. They were like salesmen presenting the tiny animals to a buyer. The love in their touch was fake, simply encouragement, simply a nudge toward some loveless goal.
Gal inched closer to them with her front paws and sniffed at them. She looked to the hands’ owner again. The hands set aside their clipboard. The new mother was just missing all the attention that had been lavished on her in the last few months. She just needed a nice pat between the ears to remind her that she was still special, even if her name wasn’t written down or her weight recorded on the same sheet as the others. The owner made a joke about most women not wanting their weight written down anyway, especially just after having babies. The meaning was lost on Gal, tossed down her empty eyes like costume jewelry down a well. The owner’s laughter fizzled quickly as well; even safely in isolation it was obvious that the few women he knew would not appreciate such a jab.
Tambourine’s probing nose touched Gal’s, setting something off. The new mother hopped to her feet and backed up against the thin wooden wall of the old building. She didn’t growl, the sound that usually went with that posture, but she was clearly disturbed by something. The hands moved in to console, but she avoided them with the same panic. They tried to grab, but she slipped between them and the man’s legs alike. She even kicked little Miracle in her flight, rolling the puppy to the edge of the straw. The hands could not ignore this; the offspring were everything. They were his funds, his ideas, his future, and his relationship to the superpowers of the world. If 1915 proved as violent and unpredictable as 1914, their traits might even be the key to taming politics and war altogether.
The hands had to put Miracle back with the others and then place a wicker basket upside down over them so they couldn’t roll away or get snatched by a raccoon. Only then was the owner free to rush outside and chase Gal. She was a valuable specimen; there was room for two more litters on the compound. His boots squished deep into the mud, his ankles tickled by thin grass. It had rained yesterday, expanding the riverbank to twice its normal size. Where could she have gone? There weren’t enough trees on the island to hide in. It was just a stretch of mud, two old dilapidated buildings, a chicken coop, and a dock with one boat small enough to be threatened by a mid-sized alligator.
He heard her splashing before spotting her in the water. She threw herself into the swift current, swimming and panting and not looking back. The owner didn’t have the same resolve; he stopped when the water hit his knees. He shouted to her, ordered her to turn around and come back. The dog didn’t even pause. He watched, utterly bewildered, as she swam the impressive distance to the bank of the mainland. He had to squint because she was just a blue dot crawling out, like a chunk of the river abandoning its home. She didn’t even shake to dry off before disappearing into the dense undergrowth. The water was cold in his boots. He couldn’t just stand there; the puppies needed attention. They would need milk very soon and now he needed a replacement bitch.
“What got into you, old Gal? If anything… I got it out.”
“Is everything ready?” the young Doctor Clifford Tiers asked his assistant. He owned and operated the hands that had carefully curated Gal’s embryos and aided in the delivery of them as puppies. He wasn’t wearing gloves anymore, as the project had moved into its second phase: the fun one. The puppies were now dogs aged three years. They didn’t need a delicate sterilized touch, far from it. They needed warm affectionate petting from the hands of real American men and women. They needed rust, scratches, splinters, mud, and debris so they could toughen up.
Clifford was hunched forward in a flimsy chair, clipboard in his lap and pencil in his hand. The success of the embryo gauntlet had earned him enough funding to make a few modifications to the island facilities, but they were still a far cry from the labs and universities the rest of his graduating class toiled away in. He’d been able to patch the walls enough for them not to whistle at night. The roof didn’t leak. He had a carpenter put together several waist-high wooden labyrinths and chambers for the dogs, including the bar-like structure directly in front of him that connected to the fenced-in yard.
He also had just enough money for his assistant. Cliff was the stern doctor’s hand while she was the warm mother’s. Gabby was a plump Spanish woman with no scientific training, but she was literate and genuinely interested in the work, which was more than the other candidates offered. She had joined just a week after the puppies’ first steps. She cried at every milestone in the training as if they were her actual children. Cliff had asked her if she was barren once, but coughed and changed the subject before she could lift her hung head and answer. It didn’t matter. Everyone was barren compared to the new life springing from their island garden. She had helped give birth to the future.
“Just a moment doctor,” she said, fumbling around her own chair. She looked about the room, eyes dancing and tripping across the piles of papers and loose screws on the one desk at the back. The only decoration was a few posters on the walls covering the obvious patched places. One was for recruitment, one for rationing, and the third was an illustration of a canine skeleton pulled from an old German anatomy text. The German breed name was scratched out so aggressively that there was also a small rip. “I’m sorry… Have you seen my book?”
“Your book?” He looked at her to see if she was serious. She was a dedicated woman, but certainly not attractive by his standards. She bound her hair in a ponytail each morning before pumping the dogs’ drinking water. It always pulled to one side. She had thick eyebrows that seemed to fall into her pinched nose like inchworms feeling for a new holdfast at the edge of a branch. It was no wonder she kept her face buried in so many books. Most of her babbling was about her time in the library, and he didn’t mind as long as her mind was on the experiments when the time came. The time was now. “What book?”
“You wouldn’t like it,” she said with a tiny chuckle; her accent always thickened leading into and out of her laughter. She ran her hands across the knees of her baggy pants as if recalling a night with a lover. “It’s the story of a cartographer in South America. My cousin is married to the man who wrote it…”
“You’re right,” Cliff interrupted. “I already don’t like it; it’s interrupting our work. What’s so important about your book?”
“Oh, it’s just that I need to return it to the library before the weekend and I seem to have misplaced it around here somewhere.”
“You can look for it when I’m out running trials with the litter. Focus for now. Are we ready for them?”
“Yes doctor.” His eyes widened. “Right! Of course.” She stood up and went to the right wall, where she reached over the waist-high paneling, grabbed a piece of wood, and pulled the dog gate open. All five immediately walked in and lined up in alphabetical order just as taught: Barley, Glasses, Miracle, Shy, and Tambourine. Dr. Tiers couldn’t see them, just their ears as they rose over the wood.
“Heel,” he instructed the ears. They stopped and turned to face him. He leaned back and kicked four more sliding panels, separating the dogs into individual stalls. Their ears didn’t so much as twitch. “GD.” That was their shorthand for ‘good dogs’. They paid full attention, a fact somewhat undercut by the floppy ears of their leopard dog mother. This was easily solved. Cliff snapped his fingers: pthik! All ten ears stood straight up, much more like an Akita. The doctor couldn’t help but smile. Those beautiful ears were a godsend; they gave him something to show the general. Without visual proof of their unique skills the project would’ve been canceled and the animals incinerated.
No dog had ever shown such precision or control over the shape and behavior of their ears. He hadn’t even selected for a trait like that, but the gauntlet had provided. They could use the positions of their ears, up or down, to signal all sorts of things with the right training. Codes already existed with as few as two symbols; the dogs had four: down down, up down, down up, and up up. They could observe things in the field, run back to their masters, and signal a combination communicating what they’d seen.
“Beautiful built-in flags,” Cliff muttered, checking a box on his papers. “Let’s see how well the arithmetic is settling in. Time them Gabby.” His assistant took out a stop watch and had her other hand primed to record the results on a clipboard of her own. The doctor stood in front of Barley’s gate, careful to not lean over and let the dog see him. They had to respond to commands without the reassurance of a face. “Barley, count to five.” The first ear went up, then the second, then the first again, the second again, and the first one more time. He took one step and put his hands behind his back.
“Glasses, count to four.” The next pair of ears counted with the same efficiency: up, up, up, up. Another step.
“Miracle, count to seven.” The ears didn’t respond. “Miracle, count to seven,” Cliff repeated, louder. There was a tiny whimper from Barley. The ears moved. Seven salutes. Another step.
“Shy, count to two.” Up up. Another step.
“Tambourine, count to eight.” Eight ear gestures without hesitation. Two steps back. He had to be sure.
“Miracle, count to five.” Five salutes. “Count to six.” Six salutes. “What is five plus six?” Eleven salutes. The doctor grinned and hopped back into his chair to record the data. “Can you believe it Gabby? We’ve got dogs that can count and do simple math. They’re smarter than half the children running around the streets these days. Nobody will have to turn a dark corner ever again. Your best friend will do it for you and signal with a flap of the ear. You’ll know exactly what danger and exactly how many.”
“Maybe they took my book,” Gabby joked. “You haven’t been showing them letters after I go home, have you?”
“You know, I’m really tempted,” he said with a smirk. “I’d try it if it didn’t run the risk of undoing their success with numbers. They are a new type of intelligence after all. It could be easy for them to accidentally conflate our two forms of information coding. That would be quite an untangling to attempt.” He looked at Gabby; her smile was fading.
“Conflate… I do not know that word doctor. It sounds like a good one though. Now I really wish I had my book. There were a few ones in there I wanted to ask you about…”
“Still with this book woman?” Dr. Tiers set aside his clipboard and lifted the panels keeping the dogs apart. The ears became a jumble as the animals played with each other. “I’ll help you look for it now so we can move on.” He lifted the dog gate on his side, releasing the litter back to the river air.
The dogs couldn’t go far; they were penned in by wire and wood fencing that included a ceiling seven feet off the ground. The ceiling was a new addition, required by the litter’s invention of the dog pyramid. Barley, Glasses, Shy, and Tambourine all emerged as a flailing ball of limbs and lolling tongues. They were always bursting with energy, especially that early in the day, and standing still for their math homework was easily the most miserable part of it. Brilliant as they were, they couldn’t stand numbers.
Numbers as instincts were fine. They could look at their siblings and innately understand how many were there, but putting a symbol to it felt wrong, like looking into their water bowls and seeing fish swimming around inside. Barley ran in a circle following Tambourine’s tail. She immediately noticed the circle was smaller than usual, no numbers necessary. One of them was missing. She looked over and saw Miracle dragging his prize out of the dog gate, gingerly so his teeth wouldn’t tear the pages.
The circle broke up and reformed around Miracle. They smelled the book and recognized it as Gabby’s. Glasses expressed his reservations with a long combination of rising and falling ears. Dr. Tiers knew his litter was smart, but he only recognized their correctly coded ear signals. Everything else was mistakes or natural twitching. These natural twitches were actually their own code, formulated even before their master took notice of their odd ears. It was a language born out of their sibling’s bond, kindled in a pile of warm squirming bodies with legs too short to go anywhere. Their four recorded responses had thousands of variations visible only to them.
“You took Gabby’s book?” Glasses asked with the calculated flopping and raising of his ears.
“Yes,” Miracle signaled back. “What you thought is true. Books can be different. They can be about anything. This one is not just facts. There are people in it. It tells of their feelings for each other and for the lands they visit.”
“This is why you were slow with your math?” Barley asked, keeping her head at the same elevation as Glasses’s to indicate alliance with his tone. “You were looking down at this book.” Miracle didn’t look up from the page. “We don’t know what will happen if we are too slow with the math. You need to wait.” Her brother still said nothing. He used the tip of his tongue to gently flip the page.
“Leave him be,” Tambourine interjected. Her snout moved in all directions, indicating she was aware of a diverging opinion and that she did not care if she was alone. “Let him tell us about the book.” She nudged her sister Shy, who nearly fell over. Shy always had the saddest eyes, and her flagging posture didn’t help. “You want to know what the pages say, right Shy?”
“No,” she answered simply, ears flat.
“Why not?” Tambourine pushed. Shy refused to look at any of them directly. Her muzzle was cast down to the dirt.
“I don’t want to know their feelings. Mine are trouble enough.”
“Miracle reads while we argue,” Glasses noted. “It is done already; he knows what the book says. We use what we know to make up what we say, so we will hear it from him no matter what. It might as well be now.” Both dissenting dogs adjusted their head angles, willing to listen for the moment.
“I can’t say it as well as it’s written,” Miracle said, eyes hopping between the pages and his siblings. “There are two people… Actually there are more than two, but we know lots of things about the two. In the book they are more important than all other people.”
“Everyone’s important,” Shy protested. “I’m important even if I’m not in a book. Right?”
“Of course you are Shy,” Glasses assured.
“Yes,” Barley agreed. “As important as breakfast.”
“We never forget you,” Tambourine added. Shy whimpered a little, but it was one of her less pathetic noises. The bad ones could keep them all up at night while she suffered through her nightmares and nyctophobia.
“I know,” Miracle said, defending himself. He kept one paw over the top of the book’s pages, seeming concerned Barley would try to bite it out from under him. “It’s like being in the heads of the two, the same way we’re in our own heads. We know there are other dogs; we’ve seen the pictures. We still mostly think about ourselves. We don’t know any other dogs’ names.”
“Okay, so what’s in their two heads?” Tambourine asked. She hurried him along. Only Glasses and Miracle had learned to read, it was quite challenging, but Glasses had lost his interest in it. He only shared vital information gleaned from the doctor’s books. Miracle was her only conduit to stories, unless she took the dreary dull voyage to literacy.
“Love,” Miracle explained. “It’s not family love; it’s the other one. They love each other enough to make litters. Probably enough puppies to name each one after a feeling.” He slowed his ears down, realizing he was getting too excited in the recounting. “One of them makes maps. He is a man who visits a far off land and meets a woman from there.”
“What next?” Shy asked, head still down despite the new stiffness in her ears.
“The woman wants to show him how great her home is. He thinks he already knows, so he scoffs. He has made a map already and tells her that he didn’t miss anything. Somehow, I still don’t really understand how, it turns into an argument. She runs and he follows. She takes a boat out into the ocean. He thinks she is going to drown herself out of sadness.”
“Why would she do that?” Shy asked.
“So she wouldn’t have to feel anymore,” Miracle answered.
“That makes sense,” his sister whispered. “Except… drowning probably causes feelings too. I never stop having them.”
“What was she really going toward!?” Tambourine asked, throwing in a little bark to hurry him. Dr. Tiers could be out there any minute with his stupid pads and worn-out batons, telling them there was only one way to play.
“An island,” Miracle said. He turned back two pages with the tip of his tongue. There was a pencil sketch of an atoll with a cluster of wilting trees, their long leaves hanging all the way into the water, swaying in the current like the hair of a bathing woman. “He was amazed at the sight of it. It was so beautiful, and nothing but trees lived there, so they could be together on it without interruption.”
“The island wasn’t on his map?” Barley asked, seeming suspicious of the cartographer. “If he couldn’t map things correctly, what good was he?
“No,” Miracle confirmed. “His map was too big. It was a problem of scale. His map showed so much land that there was no room to show anything tiny. It couldn’t show people, buildings, or small islands. So when he looked at the ocean on his map, there was nothing but water… but the island was there.”
“Bad map,” Barley said simply. “I wouldn’t love anyone who made bad maps.”
“Is our island invisible?” Shy asked, head whirling around. She hated being stared at, but at the moment she wanted the eyes of every ant and grasshopper on her.
“Whether or not our island is a secret, we are,” Glasses noted. “Remember what Tiers told Gabby. No soul knows about us except for them and the general.” Messaging became impossible, as all their ears perked up. Tiers was coming around the corner. They heard the rattling handle of his bucket, no doubt full of things with scents they would have to memorize and track.
Miracle closed the book with his nose. He huddled with his brother and sisters, pretending to be wary of the object so full of words the same way a mound was full of particles of dirt. Glasses put his nose over Miracle’s shoulder. If the doctor noticed anything, if he attempted to single the sentimental reader out, he would find them all acting exactly the same way. He didn’t get to see their differences; he wasn’t family.
Dr. Tiers rounded the corner dressed in high rubber boots, his work pants pulled up near his navel. He had leather cushions that looked like they used to sit on barber’s chairs strapped around his forearms. He stopped as soon as he spotted the book.
“Damn it Gabby!” he barked. He didn’t immediately look for her, so he didn’t care if she heard or not; he just sighed and retrieved the book, wiping the dirt from its cover and sniffing at it to see if his subjects had marked it with urine.
He took the book inside, but when he returned their day was back to normal. The doctor trained them hard while Gabby stayed inside cleaning, organizing, and writing up all the correspondences Clifford would have to sign later.
The dogs focused best when they were full of energy, so they did scent training first. All sorts of random objects came out of the bucket: spice shakers, dead rodents, tubes of caustic chemicals, dead amphibians, handwritten notes, and so on. He would give them each a chance to take up the scent and then order them to turn around and stare at the river while he hid them. They couldn’t speak to each other without him noticing, so the current was all they had to think about.
They weren’t allowed to simply find the hidden objects either. Tiers threw in a myriad of orders and tasks to try and trip them up. Circle the object. Signal its position with their ears. Guess at the number of the objects and then scratch tallies in the dirt. When they did well they were rewarded with Gabby’s special treats: compacted biscuits shaped like bars of soap, made from barley, peas, carrots, chicken fat, and pulped fish bones.
They took a quick break for water before moving onto athletic challenges. There were several posts hammered deep in the ground with a web of barbed wire connecting them all. The litter needed to scramble from one end to the other without snagging their ears on the wire. Shy was always the best at that, as keeping her head low was her natural state.
Without conversation their minds wandered, even during their tasks. Everything he asked was so simple and took such little focus. It was his fault that their minds expanded each day. While their bodies were stuck wriggling under his wires, their hopes and philosophies took to the sky, gliding on the wind and growing further from the Earth all the time. Sometimes, after a full day of training, the litter would reconvene and learn they’d missed the development of a new idea or trait in one of their siblings. This always seemed like a great tragedy to them, because that moment of revelation could not be shared. It separated their minds and spirits, weakened their bond.
Glasses blamed it for Miracle’s reading habits. He knew the words himself, but he wasn’t beholden to them the way his brother was. He just knew that Miracle’s mind had caught something foul in the air when it was separated from the others by training. Glasses had already run his wire trials, so he was allowed to rest under a nearby tree while Miracle and Tambourine finished up. Shy was nuzzled up next to him, eyes hidden under one of his paws, but his attention wasn’t on her. Miracle was moving slower than usual; he kept glancing off into the water. Glasses watched as his brother twice scratched his ears on the wire and barely paid attention to the injuries.
“Stop!” Tiers barked louder than any of the actual dogs had barked that day. He stomped into the wire field, legs stretching over each square of it. “What are you doing Miracle? If this was war you’d be dead already. All my work down the drain.” Miracle panicked a little as the doctor approached, shooting up and catching himself on the wire. He whined and squirmed, worsening a cut on his neck.
All at once the rest of the litter were on their feet. They smelled the blood and rushed to the edge of the wire. Tambourine was already in there with him, so she took her approach slow, carefully jumping over one square at a time. She and Tiers arrived at his side together. He immediately pulled out a pair of clippers and started snipping the wire while Tambourine licked at his wound. He was still now, simply whining, but staring into the distance with wild eyes.
“Just one more… got it!” Kikt! He snipped the last piece and freed the dog. “What were you… auugh!” Miracle knocked the doctor over with a lunge, sending him falling onto a net of the wire. He screamed in shock and pain, arms flailing like an overturned cockroach. Miracle suddenly seemed extremely coordinated. He leapt through all of the squares without a single hair touching wire and then ran for the water.
Glasses snarled. Miracle knew they couldn’t call out to him without it being suspicious. They could only join him or let him go. He looked to Barley to see what she wanted to do, but she stared right back. It was Shy who took off to follow him. After that they had no choice. Tambourine didn’t stick around to tug at the doctor’s arm; he would have to extricate the metal burs himself. The man screamed after them, but he couldn’t even turn his head without it digging in further. His spine needed to stay perfectly balanced on the nub of the post or his weight would fall entirely onto the pricks. When shouting the dogs’ names got him nowhere he started shouting for Gabby.
Miracle’s brother and sisters watched him leap into the water without hesitation. They’d had swimming sessions in training, but only within a pen on the other side of the island. Once he was ten feet out he was the furthest any of them had ever been from their place of birth. All the others wanted him to turn around so badly, but he refused. He knew that if he couldn’t see their ears he didn’t have to respond to any objections. They waded in after him.
Gabby shouted behind them, but the dogs kept swimming. They were all out of the shallows now: an entire litter without a single foot on the ground. They were all suspended in Miracle’s madness, tethered to him by emotions so strong that they would all sink together, one by one as if on a chain, if he dropped below the surface.
Barley was the strongest and swiftest; she was able to catch up to him when they were nearly one hundred and fifty feet from the shore. The opposite bank was still far, its thick drooping trees the definition of uninviting. She worked her ears as quickly as she could, hoping either that the doctor was too distracted by his wounds or that her deliberate signaling would be lost in the distance and splashing.
“What are we doing!?” she demanded to know.
“I saw another dog out there!” Miracle explained. “In the trees. A white dog. Watching us.”
“So you took off alone?”
“They looked like they were leaving. I have to see them. There’s so much to ask. They have the world and all we have is the doctor. They have a whole river that connects to an ocean and we have just one drop of books!”
“Turn around,” Barley pleaded. “We’ll talk about this and go find the white dog later. Stop reading ahead!” She bumped her head into his shoulder, but Miracle didn’t falter. His sister would’ve tried again, but something caught in the flesh of her flank and forced her to stop. A small cloud of blood obscured her thigh.
“Barley! What’s wrong?” Tambourine asked as soon as the other three caught up.
“I’m stuck,” she said, panic already dissipating. Her siblings were there, all but the one who was sick with obsession. “I think it’s a fish hook.” She paddled with her front paws as fast as she could to compensate for keeping her legs still. Tambourine took a breath and dove, getting a nose full of her sister’s blood, algae, and the river’s muddy silt. She felt around with her teeth until she found the spot. Yes, there was a tiny hook in Barley’s haunch and a thin line connecting it to a tangle and a piece of wood on the riverbed. She nibbled and pulled, thinking of nothing but her sister’s nose trying to stay above the water.
Glasses and Shy kept going after Miracle. Shy begged both her brothers to slow down, but she fell behind Miracle’s certainty and Glasses’s anger. They were in the middle of it now, waves slapping their cheeks and ears. The water seemed to chafe at their presence, like a cat bristling in the presence of another.
“Stop!” Glasses signaled when he knew his brother could see. He bit at Miracle’s ear, bumping him again and again. “Barley’s already hurt!”
“The white dog can help her. That’s why they were watching. They know we’re not being taken care of. They know the doctor isn’t our mother. They can be parent to us!”
“What are you babbling about? We don’t need parents. We have each other, unless you drown us all here and now!” He bumped him again, and this time Miracle shuddered. He yelped. Something yellow-green flicked out of the water. Glasses dunked his head to follow it, confirming his fears. It wasn’t the bump that had stopped his brother, but a bite from a fish. There were three pike circling beneath them, each as long as the doctor’s arm. A second one shot up and took a tiny chunk from Glasses’s ankle. His dewclaw on that foot was gone. For a moment he was stunned. One inch from their island and the world had already taken a piece from him. He half-expected the pike to slink out of the shadowy depths, apologize, and regurgitate the digit.
Miracle barked and whined, even as another wave slapped his snout. He tried to draw the attention of whatever he thought he saw on the other shore, but when Glasses looked he saw nothing but gnarled roots and a bicycle wheel partly buried in the mud.
“Where’d they go?” Miracle asked, yipping and flopping backward when a pike nipped his chest. “I can’t see them!”
“We’re being eaten alive!” Glasses signaled, lunging into his brother, pushing him back the way they came. “We’re going back now!” The white dog was gone and the pike were all too happy to give the litter their full attention. Finally Miracle felt like he was back in his body, like chasing a dream was impossible with bites taken from his legs. They paddled back to their sisters, arriving just as Barley was freed from the hook.
Dr. Tiers stood, feet sinking into the mud, screaming and shouting for them to come back. He had one hand held over his shoulder, interfering with the pressure Gabby tried to keep on his wound. There was a bloody rag between her hand and his ripped flesh. The rest of the day was bloody rags, so much so that the dogs couldn’t smell anything else. Gabby tore up one of her aprons to make more. Bloody rags for Glasses’s missing claw, for Miracle’s chest, for Barley’s haunch… They fell asleep in the rags, dreaming of a doomed swim, their mouths filling with that warm taste of iron.
Glasses knew there was no white dog. It wouldn’t have been white. With all the humans around, with toothy fishes just waiting for you to take drink from anything deeper than a bowl, there was no way anything could stay white. It should’ve looked like the rags: stained with blood. He knew there was no point to any of the tricks Dr. Tiers taught them. The only good trick was the one that perfectly dodged pain, that one special jump he hadn’t figured out yet.
A White Man Instead
Gabby was nowhere to be seen that morning. It unsettled the litter, for she’d been there literally every morning for the last three months. They’d learned plenty of new tricks since their disastrous swim, and they’d avoided going stir crazy thanks to the things the woman brought with her and left out, almost as if she knew they examined them.
She’d shed books and pamphlets like a lizard with its scales. She’d left such strange smells and scraps in the kitchen when she was allowed to experiment with their diets. Through these things they learned a little more of the world. If not for her, Miracle surely would’ve taken off again. He still spoke of his white dog, telling his siblings stories that he made up, that didn’t even have basis in the books. This was of great concern to Glasses, who read every book twice but still couldn’t puzzle out where his brother’s ideas came from. They entered his mind from nowhere, from a hole in his soul that his siblings couldn’t see. It was a poison of silly ideas. Glasses always slept close to his brother, atop him at odd changing angles, trying to apply pressure to this invisible wound and keep anything that wasn’t family from worming its way into his heart.
Dr. Tiers fed them that morning and he did it all wrong. Gabby always warmed it up. She always made it the perfect mix of wet chunks; the doctor had butchered the recipe into a soup with one central lump that had the consistency of wet sand. Gabby sometimes read to them, despite being ordered not to, and all the doctor offered in place of it was endless mumbling about his own problems.
“Obviously I want to show him,” Tiers grumbled as the dogs’ heads and paws hung over the short wooden wall of the stalls where they did their math exercises. “They’re ready.” He turned to his subjects. “You’re ready.” They wagged their tails in response. Surely Gabby had at least put some treats in his pockets before sending him in to ruin the morning. They sniffed at the sides of his coat when he paced by, but couldn’t smell anything other than his sweat. Their noses followed him back and forth until another smell wafted in, not too dissimilar to the doctor’s.
It was a hot day, but in the humidity around the island it was excruciatingly hot. The litter panted. Beetles crawled around in the cracks, unable to take flight in the oppressive air. The man who entered, closing the rickety door behind him with a noisy shudder, patted at his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief. His cheeks and forehead were red. He was stuffed into a uniform and, despite the layer of steam that seemed to assault his chest, he hadn’t so much as rolled up the sleeves. The litter knew who he was by his smell, but they’d never really considered his existence before. His sweat was so like the doctor’s, and his face was older, so he had to be Clifford’s father.
“He has a father?” Tambourine asked the others. “I thought he was born out of one of his toolboxes. Everything he does is to one end; that makes him a tool right?”
“Stop talking,” Glasses warned. “They’re watching.” The humans were in the same room, but at that moment neither of them looked at the dogs. Their eyes were locked as if they each were on the deck of a boat and watching the other drift by. They looked as if they couldn’t decide if it was appropriate to wave or hail each other.
Eventually his father saluted. Clifford reciprocated, but dipped his head when he did so, making a sort of visor to protect him from his father’s radiating authority. The dogs had never seen a live human with a beard before; they would later speculate that the man might’ve been part beast. He had the sharp eyes of a human, but his meaty fingers and broad shoulders made him look like the kind of beast that pushed smaller predators away from their hard-earned kills. He was a man with a lot of weight, and there was no telling whether it was muscle or fat until he sat on you.
“Son,” General Arthur Tiers addressed, lowering his hand. He briefly considered putting his hat, currently under his other arm, back on his head, but thought better of it when a drop of sweat trickled down his temple. “I was expecting something a little more organized. A building without holes in it.”
“I saved as much of the army’s money as I could,” Clifford argued, mortified that his austerity hadn’t come off as admirable. “Every bit of it went into these five dogs and their training. There are days where I go without breakfast so that we never run out of glass slides. Sometimes I eat their…” He pointed to the dogs but instantly pulled his own hand back. Color flushed in his cheeks. The dogs cocked their heads. They’d never seen that expression on his face before. He looked as submissive as Shy when she laid down and let wood lice slowly crawl across her path because they’d been there first.
“The key is not how much gets spent,” the general explained, “but what it gets spent on. Once you clear the subject itself they almost never admit to wasting money. If you convinced them a well was a country and that they had a spy in its bottom they’d rain coins down it and wish for the best.” He moved closer to the dogs, prompting the animals to drop to all fours and back up against the wall. “Are these the best? They seem skittish.”
“They’re the only ones,” Clifford said, wincing. His father whipped around.
“What? You’ve been out here for years Cliff. There should be a graduating class of mongrels here that would put any university to shame!” He stuck his meaty hand over the divider, practically demanding that they come forward and lick his fingers. “Come on,” he encouraged them. “I don’t bite. That’s your job.”
“If you would just listen for a few minutes,” Clifford begged, grabbing two flimsy chairs and shuffling over with one under each arm. He set them down, dropped into one, and patted the other. “I can tell you about the amazing things we’ve accomplished with these animals. I can tell you why it doesn’t matter that there are only five of them.” Arthur gave him a nod and a grunt, but kept his hand stuck out for several more seconds. He was forced to give up when the litter chose to look at the beetles in the wall cracks rather than him.
“What did you do that made them not like me?” his father asked, sounding almost hurt. “Dogs love me. You remember that little one your mother had? That thing spent more time on my lap than you did when you were a crawler.”
“I remember,” the doctor said with a chuckle. “I’m sure our subjects here will come to like you, but they’re nothing like the dogs you’re used to. My embryo gauntlet technique, while successful only once so far, was more successful than I’d ever hoped. You’re looking at animals that can follow complex multi-step orders. These are an extension of their master’s will, like having a hand that can pop off your wrist, crawl into the kitchen, and make dinner for you.” Cliff’s hand scurried across his thigh like a cocaine-fueled spider.
“So all your science babble did work? I can finally tell my fellow soldiers that this little deal for you, your own little muddy playpen, wasn’t just nepotism?”
“Yes. Watch. Shy, come here.” A pair of ears stepped forward, just overlooking the wooden divider. “Five plus five.” Her ears saluted ten times. “Ten plus six.” Sixteen times. “Two plus seven.” Nine times. “Eleven minus eleven.” Her ears were still.
“You taught them to count? What good is that?”
“It’s just an ingredient for good,” Clifford explained, awe dripping in his voice. “You look around and see that three men are missing from you camp. You can send out a search party of animals that know their scents and that know how many they’re looking for. These dogs can put things together. They can solve some puzzles as fast as human minds. They can signal coded information with the movements of their ears.”
The general twisted in his chair and looked at the animals. Shy’s ears sank until she was completely hidden behind the paneling. The man’s brow furrowed. He looked at his palm as if he was lucky to still have it.
“What about their moral compass?” he asked his son. “A man follows orders because he understands right and wrong, or because he understands the box he’ll be put in if he doesn’t. These critters can’t know any of that.”
“No, they don’t, but they’ve been conditioned to obey certain commands no matter who they come from. In the years I’ve been raising them we’ve had less than a handful of significant behavioral issues. Even if they arise, there is a safety measure.” Cliff reached into his pocket and dug around. The dogs sensed the object and all immediately sat in a row, ears and noses hanging low. It definitely was not treats. The doctor sometimes called Gabby loud or shrill, but no sound she made ever came close to the vicious pierce of that little piece of metal. He drew it out and held it up in front of the general: a tiny brass tube with a fingernail-shaped divot.
“A whistle,” Arthur said.
“A whistle unheard by human ears,” Clifford elaborated, “but it’s the worst thing they have ever heard or will ever hear. If an order is punctuated by this it is impossible for them to disobey. To do so would mean they could resist physical torture. No animal has ever done that without an instinct driving it.” He tucked the whistle back in his pocket, allowing the litter to relax once more.
“A backup plan, excellent. You’ll need to have some written instructions ready for whichever unit we hand them off to for their test mission.”
“Test mission…” Clifford swallowed a stammer before it could start. He learned long ago that a stammer could turn into the lick of a belt. “What do you mean test mission? The litter’s incredible, but I’m not even done with their training yet. We haven’t tested the upper limits of their memory or adaptability.”
“Who’s we?” the general asked.
“I have an assistant. She’s very devoted… and beautiful. She’d hate to see them go more than I would. They’re like her children.”
“Do you even know what’s going on out in the world, son? How long have you been on your little atoll here? Never mind that. Mind this.” It was his father’s turn to fish around in his pocket. The dogs feared something even worse than the whistle, something that had turned the man’s hands into all those ashen calluses, but it turned out just to be a thick square of newspaper folded two times too many. He tossed it into Cliff’s lap with two fingers and leaned back, arms crossed. The chair groaned under his weight. The doctor unfolded it three times, realized it wasn’t enough, and unfolded it a fourth. Glasses tried to read the headline through the back of the thin paper, but the angle was all wrong.
Villa Villains Collapse on Columbus
Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, once mighty army on the wane, has desperately vaulted over the United States border and perpetrated a vicious attack on our soil. The small innocent border town of Columbus was the fiend’s target. Tacticians say it was his goal to steal weapons and supplies for his dwindling forces.
Thanks to the brave men of the 13th Cavalry Regiment, he was turned away with nothing to show for his misdeeds. Few American lives were lost, but the casualties on the other side are estimated at over one hundred.
President Woodrow Wilson addressed a concerned crowd today, laying out his plan for justice, a plan that will ebb and flow over our border like the tide until the villain is caught by the heels and dragged back across the…
“This is awful,” Clifford said, though he didn’t quite see what it had to do with anything. “Are you in charge of tracking down this Villa character?”
“Character? That’s a word for him. He’s an animal. He’s been over there in some godforsaken pueblo fuming ever since we backed the other guy’s government. I wish I was in charge of what’s coming for him. No, I’m just handling supplying a lot of the men. I’m going to supply some of them with those dogs over there.” He glanced toward the dogs, but had to look again when he realized they’d moved. They were clustered around a dog door on the side of the building further from the general, waiting to be let out.
“That’s not a sufficiently… good idea,” his son protested, trying to fold the article back up but not finding the strength to crease it the final time. “Even if I wanted to test them in the field we would do it on an army base with men experienced in animal handling. It would be best if we just treat this litter as test organisms, and once the next ones are born-”
“Are you contradicting a superior officer?” Arthur asked, standing and putting his hands on his hips. He snatched the article back and pocketed it. “I’m here to remind you of the big things Cliff. The army is bigger than your little experiment, the nation is bigger, and even god damn Mexico is bigger. I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he looked at the dogs as if they might be spies, “but all sorts of new things are being thrown into this Villa-catching expedition. The word is that some new aircraft will even play a part.”
“If they have aircraft to play with they don’t need us,” Dr. Tiers insisted.
“Your dogs are what I have to offer,” his father barked. “I’ll just take them right now, that way you don’t have to dread losing them. Come on pups.” He walked over to the animals and slapped his thighs to encourage them. They squirmed against the wall to get further away. With surprising flexibility he hefted one of his legs over the wooden divider and into their area. Clifford grabbed his arm and kept him from getting the other leg in.
“This is ridiculous! You’re going to compromise their training! You said you trusted me. If you don’t back off I’ll-”
“You’ll nothing! You’ll do nothing just like you always do. You dropped out of school after accusing that professor, a very respected man, of taking liberties with your wisp of a body. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that lie. You dropped out of basic training because you couldn’t stop crying when they tried to hand you a rifle. I should’ve never stuck my neck out for you. That was your mother’s job. When she stopped you were supposed to grow up!”
“Yes, well I’m grown up enough to kick you out of here!” Cliff screamed back, face beet red. His father matched the livid color and deepened it to purple. He shoved him back and finally got his second leg over the divider. He wasn’t up for long, for his son charged across the room, dove over it, and tackled him against the wall. They toppled and wrestled on the dirt floor.
The general quickly found the advantage with his weight, pinning his son under him and punching him in the throat. Clifford’s eyes bulged out of his head as if his Adam’s apple was bouncing around in his skull. The effort of speaking under the assault caused him great pain, but he only needed one word.
“Fend!” he gurgled. The litter’s ears perked up. This wasn’t a drill, but the word was definitely meant for them. When taught to ‘fend off’ they had been protecting a burlap dummy from Dr. Tiers’s attacks. There was no dummy this time, but only one thing that clearly needed protection.
The animals didn’t just collapse onto the general. They each targeted a piece of him. Shy and Tambourine each went for a leg, Glasses and Miracle an arm, and Barley the head. They barked, bit and scratched, whipping their necks back and forth once they had a hold of something. The general roared and struggled under their assault, smacking Barley away only for her to return a moment later and bite his nose.
Clifford slipped out from under him and scrambled over the divider. Tears streamed down his face as he struggled to breathe. Black bruises spread across his throat, as if he’d swallowed some curse words and couldn’t keep them down. For a moment he watched his father, always the biggest man in the room, scrunch up like a groundhog and try to protect his head from his son’s achievements. He felt powerful, like a god of the hunt who could command every fanged thing past the tree line. His hand wrapped around the whistle in his pocket. He didn’t have to. He could just keep his breath to himself, especially given how the man had just tried to rip it away.
“Call them off Cliff!” his father ordered. Miracle was tearing the uniform from his back. Medals hit the dirt. The general grabbed for them as if his kidneys had spilled out, exposing his ears in the process. Barley snarled and latched onto one of them. “Bitch has got my ear!” Barley bit down, but her teeth quivered. She hated the taste of him, like salt dried onto leather.
“Tell me I’ve got your ear,” Cliff demanded.
“What the blazes are you talking about!?”
“Tell me I’ve got your ear. Tell me you’re going to listen!”
“Fine, you have my ear! Get them off!” Clifford told them to heel, but his voice was just a croak. They knew the truth; he wanted a memory of his bloody father with dead eyes to remind him that sometimes cruelty could end. He brought out the whistle and puffed on it once. All five dogs jumped off, snouts practically in the dirt, and went back to their corner.
The general rolled himself over the divider, cracking it in the process, and toppled a chair while getting to his feet. He panted and spat out blood from a torn lip, but his hands and knees didn’t shake. He could be as afraid as anybody else, but he never shook. Despite his injuries he looked more like he’d just lost a boxing match than nearly been disemboweled by a pack of dogs.
“Well, don’t you have something to say?” He put a finger to his ear, bending a torn flap of it toward his son.
“The dogs are staying here with me,” Dr. Tiers. He brandished the whistle like a dagger. It took all his energy to keep his arm back, keep it from shoving it straight up his father’s bloody nose. “We’re going to pretend this never happened. You’ll come back in three or four days and then we’ll discuss sending the dogs to military bases to give demonstrations. Nothing more! We’re not sending them to Mexico to get butchered and eaten by a bunch of heat-stroking banditos!” The fury left the general’s eyes and he cracked a pinkish smile. He chuckled.
“Heh. Those bastards would look at them and see brisket wouldn’t they?” He turned and looked at the litter again. Only Shy refused to meet his eyes. “They do really look at you. Most dogs look at your nose or your mouth.” He rubbed his chin. “Alright Cliff. I listened. I only did it because you’ve got more fight in you now than you ever did when you were little.”
“The dogs have taught me a thing or two as well,” his son tried to boast, but it came off like a man declaring a chipmunk to be his best and only friend.
“Three days and I’ll be back for these discussions of yours. I look forward to showing these puppies off.” He straightened his ripped uniform as much as he could and counted his medals. He noticed one had a tiny hound tooth scratch across it. That was alright; a battle scar never hurt anything. People didn’t believe stories if they didn’t come along with scars. The general headed for the exit, turning his head back once he laid hand on the door. “I want to meet this assistant of yours next time too; I like to know every bitch working for me.”
Clifford collapsed into his chair once the sound of his father’s footsteps in the mud was gone. He cried. He sniveled. A rope of snot fell from his nose, in one end of the whistle, and out the other. When he realized it he blew into it to clear the gunk. Immediately he heard the dogs whine and scramble against the wood.
“Shit,” he swore in a voice that was still two-thirds identical to his voice when he was a toddler. The doctor tossed the whistle onto the desk and hurried over to the divider; he got on his knees and stuck his fingers over it like he was just a harmless gnome peeking over a garden wall. “I’m sorry! I forgot you all were here. I don’t know how I could forget. You might’ve saved my life. Good dogs. Very good dogs. No training today. We’re just going to have fun. I’ll… I’ll show you how to chase something without trying to kill it.”
He made good on his word. For exactly one day they did nothing but play. There was one patch of fully-dry grass on their little island, between the testing office and the supply shed, where they rolled around and panted upside down. The doctor joined them. They looked at clouds. They followed paper-winged crickets, paws inching along behind them after every leap.
They’d never known this side of him; they hadn’t even known intelligent things had multiple sides up to that point. Happy or sad, Gabby was always Gabby. She had a voice full of hope and pockets full of treats. They wouldn’t have considered it strange if she died and delicious goodies flowed out of her pockets at regular intervals like a geyser.
This other Cliff seemed like an actual different person had crawled inside his head. It was like the doctor was out and a younger Clifford was in. They all fell asleep when the sun hadn’t even started sinking yet, in that grassy patch they’d chased the crickets out of. The litter wasn’t wearing collars or chains. Nothing at all stopped them from making another attempt to cross the river.
They weren’t too eager to tease the pike again, and besides, the doctor had bloomed into something quiet and content. The energy radiating from his slumbering body made them sleepy as well. Their snouts were flat on his chest, enjoying its rise and fall like a pleasant sailboat ride.
“He’s so different,” Tambourine signaled with her ears, doing it softly as if it had any chance of waking him. “Did his father hit something out of him?”
“I don’t think so,” Glasses theorized. “He still used the whistle. He’s still that person.”
“We could go get the whistle,” Barley suggested, lifting her head and looking back at the building. “He just left it in there. We could destroy it. If it’s not around to tempt him he might forget he ever had any power over us.”
“We can’t bite through metal,” Miracle countered.
“We could bury it somewhere secret,” Shy suggested.
“We can do better than that,” Glasses said. He raised his head as well. “We could start a fire and throw it in. That would melt it.”
“I don’t want to touch fire,” Miracle signaled adamantly. “I’d wake up to that whistle rather than breathe smoke.”
“Stop plotting,” Tambourine chided. Her eyes were closed, but she simply knew the sorts of things her siblings signaled. “He’s being nice. He’s trusting us. Don’t make this about the whistle.”
“That man’s coming back,” Barley remembered. “He wants to take us off the island. Wants us to hunt a Villa for him.”
“I thought it was called a Pancho,” Shy said, feeling dismal at the mere possibility of having heard wrong.
“It was a Pancho and a Villa,” Miracle said. “Humans have two names, remember?”
“That’s just confusing,” Barley signaled with an irritated huff. “Why can’t they be happy with one? Sometimes I feel like I’ve got one name too many, and I already share it with a piece of food.”
“Maybe we should go,” Miracle suggested. “The white dog is still out there. We might find them in this Mexico place.”
“Stop that talk!” Glasses demanded, eyes honed to steel. Miracle stared back, but didn’t seem hurt. He looked freed from his body, as if he lounged in one of the sun rays and levitated on the doctor’s breath. “You should only talk about that dog if you see it. There are four in front of you right now. Stay with them.”
“Please,” Shy added, putting a paw over one of Miracle’s.
“Tambourine is right,” Glasses said, lowering his head back onto the doctor’s chest. “Let’s not ruin this while it lasts. The important thing is that we stay together. No matter what island. No matter what Mexico. Agreed?”
“No matter what Mexico,” the others repeated.
Their promise was to be tested sooner than they’d hoped: just two days later. Dr. Tiers was still on some kind of cloud from besting his father, entering and leaving every room with a smile. He even barged into Gabby’s work area and insisted on helping her make the next batch of treats. They wound up misshapen and too oily because of it, but the litter appreciated his efforts.
It was a Wednesday: the quietest day of the week. Gabby was off working a day at a new job. Clifford had to leave the island for about five hours to shop for the rest of the week’s supplies. He left in a canoe powered only by a paddle. He’d spent the money intended for a more durable watercraft on additional laboratory supplies and the disastrous dog that came before Gal. He thought the litter would be perfectly safe. Every soul that knew of their existence had stepped foot on the island at one point. They’d been trained never to howl or bark without order.
The chains that kept them attached to the wall of the laboratory would keep them from getting out, but they couldn’t keep the general from finding their muddy shore again. He knew exactly when to show up, as he’d put a man on the riverbank, buried in the mud, for nearly two days straight, his only job to report when both the island’s guardians were away.
Not an hour after Cliff was gone, three small boats arrived. They each held three men in uniform, though one of them was dressed more like a physician. He had a stethoscope hanging out of a pocket. The dogs were aware of them even before their feet hit the mud. The smells they brought with them were fresh and new: tobacco and shoe polish.
Arthur’s men proceeded to search every inch of the island, even checking under drooping leaves with the barrels of their rifles. The general remembered that his son liked to bury things, had kept a diary in his youth buried under the birch behind their home. If he had his ‘gauntlet technique’ written down anywhere it was likely bottled somewhere under all the mud. The men had no luck finding it, but their attention was quickly drawn to the dogs. Four of the soldiers stood a healthy distance from the litter, scratching their heads and trying to figure out why the animals made them so uncomfortable.
“I haven’t ever seen a dog like that,” a beanpole of a boy said. Even in the high humidity the dogs’ glare seemed to draw more sweat out of his forehead.
“They’re just leopard dogs,” one of his stouter companions said, trying to dispel the negative atmosphere. “My grandpappy hunts with them. Sure, their ears are a little weird, but we don’t kick people out of the army for having weird ears.” They watched one dog look at the others and wiggle those ears in a very deliberate pattern. One of the others lifted a paw to the wiggler’s head to stop them.
“They don’t like us looking at them,” the beanpole said.
“They want to play fetch with you,” the stout one joked, smacking the other soldier’s long thin arm. “You’d make a great stick.”
“These things don’t play around,” the general said from behind them. They stood at attention and saluted. Arthur waved his hand as he stepped in front of them, allowing them to relax. “If these wrap their teeth around you you’ll know it isn’t a game.” He tapped his scabbed ear. “Look at them. They already know I’m not messing around.” He held up the object in his left hand. It was a leather-bound black journal.
“What is that, general?” the beanpole asked. “And what makes these dogs so special?”
“This is their command book,” Arthur explained. “Everything that’s been trained into them is in these here pages. Did you know,” he turned a page, “that if you ask these dogs to jump they’ll literally wait for you to tell them how high?” He cleared his throat. “You. Bitch on the left.” Tambourine’s head turned. “Jump two feet.” She cocked her head; the general consulted the book for another second. “Two feet upward.” Tambourine steadied herself, bent her legs, and performed the leap with admirable precision. Arthur clapped the book shut in his hand as he chuckled.
“So these are hunting dogs?” the beanpole asked. “I bet Mr. Villa’s got a real strong scent on him.”
“Son, these are everything dogs: tracking, chasing, mauling, problem-solving, communicating, you name it. I kind of hate to say it and I kind of don’t, but in ten years we might have a few million of these things instead of you fellas.” He snapped his fingers; the man with the stethoscope stepped into the room and approached the dogs. He stopped cold when he got his first good look at their eyes.
“Jesus Christ!” he declared. “General, I don’t think you communicated the extent of the animals’ oddity to me. They look like something out of a horror story. Were they born from a Scottish fog bank under the witch’s moon?”
“They’re just dogs Pearson, now get in there and make sure they won’t give any of the boys fleas or wormy hearts.”
“I told you my veterinary experience was limited,” Pearson reminded. “I mostly make sure officers’ horses can hold their fat bottoms off the ground. I think what you need is a specialist.”
“This is the only reason I brought you,” Arthur said, “so do your job soldier. Here, I’ll make sure they don’t get any funny ideas.” The general reached into his pocket and pulled out something else he’d salvaged from between the loose notes his son had left lying around: the whistle. Shy whined a little, but otherwise the litter was stiff as boards. “None of you give Dr. Pearson any trouble, or I’ll play you a little song on this.” The animals sat in a perfect line, looking like statues.
Dr. Pearson approached them and got down on one knee. One by one he checked their heart rates, their eyes, and the inside of their ears. He checked through the fur on their necks with a fine-toothed comb. Shy made an attempt to lick his cheek, but it startled him so badly that he rolled onto his back like an overturned beetle. The soldiers chuckled, but the general just pointed the whistle at Shy. She turned her head away, ears drooping in shame.
“As far as I can tell, they’re healthy as can be,” Pearson said when he was finished. “You sure you want to take them out of this environment? Socializing them on a base seems like a fine idea, but one trip into the arroyos can kill just about anything.”
“We’re sending men down there aren’t we?” the general replied before stepping up to the animals themselves. “Alright you five. You’re under my command now. March.” The litter stared back. “I said march!” He blew one piercing note on the whistle. They were on their feet in an instant, straining away at their chains. It took a few minutes for the soldiers to pry them off the wall, that key remained hidden, but once they were free they followed Arthur’s command to leave the island behind and pile into one of the boats.
“Pack your sombreros,” the general said with a sneer as he used the bottom of his boot to shove their boat out into the Mississippi.
Continued in Part Two