Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Accident

     The next morning, we went out on our morning rounds, dressed to the nines. Schnapps in her pretty blue sweater with the heart on the chest, and me in my tough, don't-mess-with-me red hoodie. As soon as we stepped outside, I knew something was wrong. The sky was dark grey, and the wind was filled with desperate scents: loss, defeat, sadness. 
     Without the sun, the temperature was colder, as though the air was made of ice, and it hurt to breathe. Even though I had reservations about my hoodie, I was actually glad I had it on to cut the bite of the wind.  
We trotted up the hill, which was made more difficult by the nasty weather blowing in. The snow had been covered by a sheet of ice, and it made climbing up to the top of the hill seem impossible. But we dug in our claws and soldiered on.
     Charles was at the top, swinging his head, and stomping his feet impatiently.
     "Oh, Schnapps, Fritter," he said with anguish when we reached him. "It's awful, totally and utterly awful."
     “Vat is wrong," Schnapps asked. "Did something bad happen during the bone heist?”
     Charles raised his head and whickered. He pounded his hooves against the frozen ground, sending shards of ice into the air.
     "I knew dat bone job was doomed," Schnapps said.
     "Do you know what happened," I asked.
     "Freckles and Sammy rounded up Baylor and Cubby and they all went out, following the rancher as he went to feed the cattle. I guess when they arrived at the spot, everything was normal. They started loading the bones into the back of the truck when a pack of coyotes showed. The feral cats tipped the coyotes off, and that's when everything went haywire."
     Schnapps and I listened intently as he talked. He spoke so fast he had developed a case of the hiccoughs.
     "So, hic. The rancher, hic, hearing the coyotes, hic, and the other dogs fighting, hic, went and got his rifle. Hic, hic, hic.
     "Oh no," Schnapps murmured, and she gave me a mournful glance. 
     "Did he shoot off some warning shots, to scare away the coyotes," I asked.
     Charles' hiccoughing became more rapid, so much so he had difficulty talking.
     "The rancher has a thing about coyotes," Schnapps filled me in. 
     "But this time, hic, it's much worse. Hic, hic, hic." Charles took another breath and held it for a count, before continuing. “From what Sammy says, it was total chaos. Coyotes, dogs, cats, all running from the rancher's wild shots. In the confusion, the rancher got into his truck, and Freckles was still loading bones, and…he… he…“ 
     "He what,” Schnapps and I said in unison.
     "It was dark out, and the rancher didn’t know he was there, and he backed over Freckles.”
     ”He hit Freckles with his truck,” I said. The news didn't sound any better coming from my mouth. A pit opened up in my belly, and ached with despair. "Poor Freckles."
     "Did he get hurt badly," Schnapps asked, serious and all business like.
     "He was hit on his hind leg, and is at the vet now. He had to have surgery, and I heard his hip was shattered. It will be a long recovery. Sammy is beside herself. It’s so sad.”
     “That Rancher needs to be stopped!” My hackles raised and my emotions bubbled up and got away from me, and I fought to keep myself under control. Schnapps gave me another look that said to simmer down.
     “Hopefully, nothing else vent wrong,” Schnapps said, cocking her head to the side.
     “Well, there was something else, but I don’t think it is relevant to the case,” Charles said.
     “Nothing should be overlooked,” Schnapps said. “You never know if it vill be related or not.”
     "One of the feral kittens went missing."
     "Which one," I asked. I hoped it wasn’t Horatio. He seemed the most sensible out of all the kitties.
     Charles gave me a glancing look. "What does it matter? They look all the same to me."
     "It matters a lot," Schnapps added. She was on the same thought that I was on.
     "That one that is always prancing around here, humming."
     “That would be Bublé,” I said. 
     "Thank you for the information. Ve vill check into it," Schnapps said and turned to go down the hill.
     "Thanks Charles," I said and turned to follow.
     "Fritter," Charles called out, and I looked back over my shoulder. "I'm glad you decided not to go. I don't know what I would do if the Rancher hurt another sweet dog like you."
     "You mean besides Freckles?"
     "I mean like Schnapps’ former partner, Sassy."
     "What are you talking about," I asked, but Schnapps yelled for me to come. I hesitated, I wanted more answers from the horse, but he also had turned away and was returning to his stable.
I met up with Schnapps in front of the outbuilding. She raised her eyebrows.
     "Did the horse have anything else to say," she asked.
     "He said he was glad I didn't go on the bone heist. He didn't want to see me hurt, too."
Schnapps gave a thoughtful nod. "Yes, dat Rancher has hurt many animals."
     “Including your former partner, Sassy?" I knew I was overstepping my bounds, but I had to know what happened to Sassy.
     Schnapps glared at me and snarled. "Never speak of her."
     "I'm sorry. Forget I said anything." I lowered my head.
     She snorted and continued towards the Wood Pile. I followed but still couldn't get the thought that the Rancher had something to do with Schnapps' partner being gone. What happened? Why did Schnapps get so angry when I asked her? What did it have to do with her injury? 
     Stella and Mac were roughhousing outside of the Wood Pile. They stopped and hissed as we approached.
     “Vere is your mother,” Schnapps asked.
     "What is it to you," Mac asked with a sneer. 
     “Ve heard dat your brother, Bublé, has gone missing. Ve want to ask her a few questions."
     "It's none of your business," Stella said, smoothing out her puffed up fur, back to its sleek coat. 
     "Still, if you have made an alliance with de coyotes, it does involve us. Coyotes are a threat, dey cannot be trusted."
     I remained silent so far. I didn't want to interrupt Schnapps, who knew more about these kinds of things. Plus I didn't want to irritate her any more than she was. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a blur of movement. Horatio appeared on the roof of the outbuilding, balancing on the edge of the gutter. 
     "There's Horatio," I whispered to Schnapps. “Above us, at your ten.”
     Schnapps barely moved, just a slight flicker of her bushy eyebrows told me that she had glanced up to see. 
 "Be good kitties and go and fetch your mother for us."
     "Cat's don't fetch," Mac said with a boisterous laugh. "Only disgusting dogs do tricks."
     "And wear stupid sweaters," Stella added.
     Horatio jumped down from the gutter onto a large stack of logs, just outside the Wood Pile. He studied us for a moment. His keen blue eyes scanned every inch of us, and I suddenly got very warm and uncomfortable.
     "I heard that rancher hurt his dog," Horatio said narrowing his eyes.
     "An unfortunate result ven dealing with coyotes," Schnapps said.
     "Coyotes are just mangy, skinny dogs," Horatio said. It wasn't a challenge, or a snide remark, he said it matter of factly. He kept his gaze steady on us, then called out. "Hey, ma? The house dogs are here to talk to you."
     A tortie-tabby cat came out, a mirror image of Meowjolina. Her eyes were watery, but her face was pinched tight.
  "What do you want," she demanded.
     “Ve heard dat one of your kittens has gone missing. Ve wanted to see if you were all right," Schnapps said, softening her usual gruff way of speaking.
     "Good riddance," said Mac. "He was always getting in the way." 
     "And his stupid singing, argh," Stella added.
     "Go inside," Meow Ferral hissed and swiped her paw in their direction. All three kitties ran into the Wood Pile. But soon, I could see them peeking through the logs.
     “Ve are sorry for your loss, Miss Ferral," Schnapps said as she bowed her head in respect. I mimicked the gesture.
     “Why would you care,” Meow Ferral said, giving us a frosty glare. “Anyways, like they said, that kid wasn't cut out for this kind of life. Always was humming like an idiot, never watched where he was going."
     "You don't seem too concerned about his disappearance."
     "He was more trouble than he was worth, if you really want to know." Meow Ferral sat down and began to groom herself. She licked her paw and passed it over her head and ear, then repeated the process.
     "Could you tell us who you think could have done dis,” Schnapps pressed on.
     "Who knows. Could have been a hawk looking for an easy meal."
     "Or a coyote,” Schnapps suggested. 
     Meow Ferral gave us a vicious scowl. "What are you insinuating, dog?"
     "Someone mentioned dat you may have made a deal with de coyote pack dat has been roaming the area." Schnapps began to pace in front of Meow Ferral. "I'm thinking dat you told dem de Dawg gang was planning a hit on the deer carcass. Something vent wrong, and dey took your kid as punishment."
     "I don't know who may have told you that," she growled, "but the cats hate the coyotes as much as we hate you. How would striking a deal with them benefit us?"
     Schnapps ceased her pacing and stared down Ferral. "If de coyotes take down enough of de Dawg gang, de cats would have a bigger territory."
     "You have an active imagination, Schnapps." She gave a breathy chuckle. "If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at the rancher. Or better yet, put an end to The Sweater. If he didn't send those dogs out on such a dangerous assignment, that brown cow dog would still be alive."
     "Freckles was only wounded," I said.
     Her eyes went wide, then she regained her cool demeanor. "Oh, well that's a relief," she said, unconvincingly.
     "So what about your son, are you not concerned for his welfare," I asked, ignoring Schnapps warning looks.
     "Like I said," Meow Ferral spoke with a low purr, "that kid was destined to be hawk feed." She stood up and with a flip of her tail, she went back into the Wood Pile, where we couldn't follow. 

     "So now what," I asked giving Schnapps a helpless look.
     "Now ve grill De Sweater, and see if ve can get him to unravel." 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Sweater and The Hoodie

     A group of dogs were already at the crossroads when we arrived. I recognized Baylor, Sammy, the Flirtatious Freckles and Cubby, but I didn't see anyone else, at least no one in a sweater. They all turned and watched us come down the road. 
     "All right, Ve are here," said Schnapps. "Let's get dis over with." She scanned the group then said, “Vhere is de little pip- squeak?"
     "Pip-squeak," came a high-pitched yip from behind Cubby. 
     "Yous shouldn'ta have done dat, Schnapps," Cubby said with a snarl. He stepped aside, and there stood the smallest dog I've ever seen.
     I gaped at the toy poodle. His peachy, curls poofed out from the collar and sleeves of the yellow and blue striped sweater he wore. To add insult to injury, wee blue ribbons had been tied just behind his ears. 
This was the almighty Sweater? The one dog that struck fear into the hearts of others ten times his size? I had to bite my tongue to prevent laughing out loud. 
     "Iz this her," he asked, casting his gaze in my direction. He walked towards me as fast as his little legs could go. They blurred in their furious motion, yet his progress was minimal. I snorted, unable to contain myself. 
     "Geusundheit," Schnapps said, covering for my slight outburst. She gave me a warning look, and I clamped my mouth shut.
     In what seemed like forever, The Sweater finally stood before us. 
     "Monsieur DeLaCroix," Schnapps started, "May I introduce to you my new partner, Fritter." 
     He looked at me up and down. "What iz wrong with her?"
     I glared at him, wondering what French food tasted like.
     "Vhat do you mean?" Schnapps cocked her head and feigned ignorance.
     "She only haz half of a nose, her ears are too floppy, and she looks like she haz too much skin. Look how it wrinkles around her face," he said with a tittering laugh.
     The other dogs behind him laughed as well, even Freckles. Pierre shot them a glance over his shoulder and they all stopped. Well, all except Baylor who continued to howl with laughter. 
     Cubby snarled and snapped at Baylor's ear, and Baylor finally quieted down.
     "Okay, now you've met my partner, so we vill be going," Schnapps said as she turned to leave. 
     "Not zo fast, Madame Schnapps," Pierre squeaked. "I'd like to get to know zee little pup."
     "I don't know, Pierre," Schnapps shook her head. "As you have pointed out, she's not right. Her sniffer is short, so she has her nose to de ground constantly, den she trips over those large ears of hers." Schnapps tisked and shook her head. "It's really an act of charity I am doing, bringing her on as part of my team." 
     Pierre circled around me. Shivers prickled down my spine. I looked to Schnapps for encouragement, but she was too busy pretending that she didn't care. Or at least I hope she was pretending. 
     "Can she speak for herself," he asked.
     “Vell," Schnapps said with a sigh. "I can't promise you vill like vat she says."
     "Well, little one," Pierre said to me. "Can you speak?"
      I looked down at him and unfocused my eyes. I let them drift to opposite sides of my head. "Woof?"
      "Iz that supposed to be a joke," he asked. “Are you trying to be funny?”
     "You are the smallest dog I have eee-ver seen," I exclaimed. "I'm not trying to be funny, but I think you are. You are sooooo tiny."
     Pierre bristled at my comments and the rest of the dogs gave each other stunned and uncomfortable looks. Even Schnapps wore a look of surprise.
     "Are you mocking me," Pierre's voice went up five more octives, and he vibrated with rage.
     "You are soooo cute, such a widdle dog you are." 
     Freckles took a step forward with a concerned look on his face. I straightened my eyes out and gave him a wink.
     "Monsieur," Freckles said, coming up next to him. "Please forgive her, she is just a pup. You know how pups are, they bark out of turn.”
     Pierre settled down and glared at me. "Perhaps you are right. I will forgive your insolence, for now." He turned to Schnapps, "I expect you to teach her the proper way to address her superiors."
     "I'll be sure to do dat.”
     "Az for the rest of you," Pierre snapped and the other dogs came to attention. "Put zee plan into action, I expect results by tomorrow."
     "Yes, Monsieur." The group broke and Schnapps and I returned to the house.
     "How did you like my Marilyn," I asked when we were a safe distance away.
     "You continue to surprise me, little von," Schnapps said with a chuckle.
     "Do you think I fooled him?"
     “Vell, ve definitely put him off de idea of having you for his team," Schnapps said. "For now at least."
     As we approached the porch, I saw that MaMA was at the window watching us with a slight smirk on her face. Did she know what went down, as well? 
     She opened the door and I leapt onto my blanket. I misjudged my speed, again, and I slid halfway across the room. I grabbed the edge, drug it back to its place in front of the fireplace and laid down to warm up.
     "You've been staying out longer and longer," said the MaMA. She knelt down beside me and ran her hand down my back. I thought it was the after effects of the showdown in the road that made me shiver, but MaMA wore a concerned expression. "I can't have you getting cold like this."
     Schnapps had resumed her place on the couch, but watched with great interest. MaMA stood and placed her hands on her hips. "Well, Schnapps," MaMA said. "I guess we have no other choice than to pull out the old sweaters."
     "What,” I raised my head. “Did she say sweaters?”
     The MaMA left the room but returned shortly with a box.
     "Here they are," she said as she set it down in front of us. Schnapps jumped down from the couch and sniffed at it. Her expression was a mixture of joy and sadness. The MaMA seemed to sense her emotions.
     "I haven't looked at these since Sassy..." MaMA said, her voice trailed off. She shook herself out of the gloom and opened the box. She reached in and pulled out a light blue sweater with a pink heart on the chest. 
     "Schnapps! Here is your favorite sweater." MaMA turned to Schnapps and tugged it over her head, then she carefully pulled her front paws through the sleeves.
     Schnapps wiggled her butt with joy. I couldn't believe after all the teasing she did with Pierre's sweaters, she would voluntarily put on one herself. But she looked so happy.
     "Now let's see if we can find one that will fit Fritter," said the MaMA.
     I slowly backed away from the box. There was no way I was going to wear a sweater. I'd never hear the end of it from Baylor and Freckles. And what about the kittens in the Wood Pile, they didn't need any more reason to make fun of me.
     "What should we put on her, Schnapps," she asked as she pawed through the box. "How about your old cheerleader outfit? We could put ribbons in her ears, what do you say?"
     Schnapps gave me a bemused look.
     "No," I whined. It looked ridiculous on Pierre. "I will not have ribbons put in my ears."
     "Oh, I got it," MaMA said pulling out a red item. "Let's give her this hoodie. It's a bit big, but she can grow into it." 
     "Yes," Schnapps woofed. “De hoodie vill look cool on her."
     "Come here, Fritter," the MaMA beckoned. I reluctantly approached her and the hoodie. She picked me up and pulled it over my head, and just like Schnapps, carefully guided my front paws through the sleeves. "There, that looks really good on you."
     I sat down and scowled at the floor. I didn't like it. Not one bit.

     "Don't pout," the MaMA said, "It will keep you warm." She picked up the box and left.
     I gave Schnapps the stink eye. 
     "How could you put on a sweater," I accused.
     "It is a nice sweater." Schnapps stood and modeled her sweater for me. I had to admit, it looked good on her. "You look good in dat hoodie. It is very cool."
     "I thought it was supposed to be warm."
     "It vill keep you warm," Schnapps said with an exasperated sigh. "But it looks cool on you."
     "I agree," Sunshine said coming off his perch to take a closer look. "It'll give you street cred."
     "Street cred," I asked. "You don't think anyone will tease me?" 
     "Oh, no," said Sunshine. "You look tough in that hoodie. No one would dare give you any smack."
     "I agree," said Schnapps. "Everyone vill think you are tough." 
     "They will think you are tough to eat," a voice came from the shadows, followed by the sly grinning face of Magic.
     "Be quiet, cat," Schnapps said.
     "Nice sweater, Schnapps," Magic said, unintimidated by her. "You can't take a little cold, huh, old dog?"
     "I would like to make you into a nice fur coat," she growled.
     "Now now, temper," Magic purred.
     "Do you have a sweater," I dared to ask.
     "Ha, cats don't need sweaters," Magic said with a sarcastic laugh. "We have our own ways for keeping warm."
     "Like what," I asked. I would love nothing more than to learn his way of keeping warm, and rid myself of this infernal hoodie.
     "Unlike you dogs, I don't have to go outside, if I don't want to." He went over to the couch and plucked at the fabric with his claws before jumping up to sit on the top edge. He held out his paws and inspected his sharp, intimidating claws.
     "How can you do that?" I was confused. “Don't you have to go out to, as Schnapps puts it, make?
     “No, because he's a spoiled kitty," Schnapps grumbled.
     “No," Magic corrected her, “Because cats are superior to dogs in every way."
     "You poop in a box," squawked Sunshine.
     "What,” I asked astonished.
     "Be quiet, bird brain." Magic glared at the bird.
     “Vell, it is true,” Schnapps laid down on the rug and crossed her paws. She looked at him with a smug look.
     "You poop in a box!” I laughed. "Where is this box?"
     "Never you mind," he said through gritted teeth. 

     "What else do you do in this box," I giggled.
     “None of your business.” We continued to look at him with bemused looks on our faces. “Whatever,” Magic grumbled and jumped down from the couch. "I'm out of here. See you losers."
     He trotted by us and sat by the door.
     "Hey, Magic," I said, trying to compose myself.
     He looked over his shoulder, "What?"
     "Don't forget your box!" I burst into laughter, Schnapps and the bird joined in.
     The MaMA opened the door and Magic stormed out. 

The Inevitable Meeting

     We had gotten a few feet away from the outbuilding when Schnapps spotted Baylor coming toward us.
     "Oh no," Schnapps sighed. “Vat does he vant, now?"
     "Hey, Hey. Wait up," he called out. We stopped but Schnapps shifted her weight. The cold and the excitement of the already busy morning were taking their toll on her old injury. The house where Baylor had come from had a small fenced-in yard. Within the chain-linked fence, a small white dog paced and barked. 
     "Baylor, come back. Baylor, it's not safe out there. Baylor, are you listening to me? Whoa! Was that a hawk? Hawk, Hawk!"
     "What's wrong with that dog," I asked Schnapps.
     “Dat is Gaby, she gets nervous in open spaces," she said, shaking her head. "She got rolled by a hawk once, a scary experience for any small dog, but she never got over it. And now she's scared of any shadow dat crosses her path, even her own." 
     "The poor thing," I said.
     “Ve all haf our own fears,” Schnapps said. I couldn't imagine what Schnapps would be afraid of, she was the bravest dog I've ever met.
     "Hey, Schnapps. Hey, Fritter. Thanks for waiting," Baylor said when he reached us.
     "Hi, Baylor. How are you today," I asked. He looked at me with watery eyes.
     "Nobody has ever asked me that before," he said, his voice cracked with emotion. "It's always, 'Baylor do this. Baylor do that. Baylor, you're so dumb. Baylor, can't you do anything right.'" He hung his head and sniffed.
     I approached him and met his lowered gaze. ”Are you okay?"
     "Yeah, I'm great," He said, bouncing back from his blue mood. "Thanks for asking. How are you?"
     "I am well. Thank you." We both wagged our tails in agreement. 
     "So, now dat ve have shared our feelings," Schnapps butted in. “Vat did you want from us? Ve are very busy dogs." I knew Schnapps really wanted to get back inside and on the couch.
     "Oh, yeah. Cubby said that you should bring the kid here to see The Sweater."
     "And I've sent word to him dat she's not ready," Schnapps said impatiently.
     "Cubby said that if you didn't bring her down to meet The Sweater, then I was supposed to bust your master's kneecaps." Baylor winced when repeating his orders.
     "I take it you don't like busting kneecaps," I asked.
     "Oh, no. I like your human. She's really nice to me. When she's not mad at me, that is. She gives me treats, and belly rubs. Even when I try to bust her kneecaps, she always stops me and tosses my stick away. And when I bring it back, she throws it again, and again. It's really fun." 
     "So why do you work for those dogs? You just don't seem like the criminal type," I said.
Baylor looked from side to side to make sure no one was listening. 
     "The Sweater is really scary," he said in a whisper. "But he throws me a bone every once in a while."
     "Baylor, Baylor," yipped Gaby. "Hawk, hawk!"
     Baylor scanned the sky, then called back. "That wasn't a hawk, it was a sparrow." He rolled his eyes and turned back to us. "I better go and calm her down. I hate it when she gets worked up over a sparrow." 
     We watched him go, then once again returned to our duties. 
     "Schnapps! You stay right there," called out an authoritative voice.
     “Vat now? Doesn't anyone around here understand dat I have an appointment to keep," she said with a heavy sigh. 
     A big, burly, dog came charging up our road. His wooly fur was all black except for a white inverted triangle on his chin. He stood a little too close and huffed his foul breath over our heads. 
     "Is dis da kid, den,” he asked in his gruff voice.
     "Yes, this is Fritter," Schnapps said, not backing down from his intimidating presence. I fought the urge to cower behind Schnapps, but the little voice inside me told me to be brave. 
     "Why have you been ignoring us," he demanded.
     “Why are you in such a hurry to meet her? Does Pierre have to go shopping for a new ugly sweater?"
     The big dog balked at her retort. "I wouldn't be talkin' 'bout Mr. DeLaCroix likes dat if I were you."
     “Vell, unlike you and de rest of the dogs around here, I am not scared of Pierre and his stupid sweaters. Vere does he get dose cheap looking knock-offs anyvays? De shelter lost and found."
I couldn't help but laugh, and got the stink eye from the scary dog.
     "I'll ask again," Schnapps growled. “Vat is your boss's hurry?"
     "He wants to talk to da little dog before da big score tonight."
     "Fine," Schnapps said. "But if he thinks he's going to recruit her, he better think again."
     "Bring her down to da corner this afternoon," said the big dog before trotting back down the road.
I exhaled for the first time in what seemed like forever.
     "Was that...Cubby," I asked Schnapps as we watched him disappear over the horizon.
     "Yes. Dat was Cubby," she said continuing back to the house. "It seems ve cannot delay your introduction to De Sweater any longer. I wanted to let you have de time to grow more confident.”
     A shiver ran down my spine. If that was Cubby, the second in command of the Cedar Village Dawg gang, I wasn't looking forward to meeting The Sweater. Cubby frightened me, and knowing that Baylor is intimidated by Cubby, what was Pierre DeLaCroix like. 

     My nap was fitful. When I woke, Schnapps was watching me from her spot on the MaMA's lap, getting her massage. Instead of looking relaxed though, her body stayed rigid, and her eyes keen and focused, as though she was thinking about what she was going to say at the meeting with The Sweater.
     I sat below them and chewed on my paw.
     "Don't worry, little von," Schnapps said. "I'm concocting up a plan as we speak."
     "What do you think he wants with me?"
     "He vill try to recruit you to pull off dis bone heist," She looked at me. Though her eyebrows shaded her eyes,  a brilliant twinkle was still evident. “Ve already know dat dey plan on hitting dat deer carcass and grabbing all the bones before the coyotes do. De Sweater recruits other dogs, like Baylor, Freckles and Sammy to do his dirty vork."
     "So what are we going to do?"
She raised her nose in the air and sniffed, starting to enjoy her rub down.
     “Ve are going to convince him dat you are too small, too young and inexperienced to go on such a big score."
     “Oh. Is that how you feel about me?" I lowered my head, unable to look her in the eyes. I thought I was making progress in my training, showing Schnapps and the MaMA how brave and strong I was, that I was a good dog.
     "Of course not," she said dismissively.
     "Couldn't we just tell him no? That I won't be his lackey?" I didn't like my skills being dismissed and devalued.
     "A dog like Pierre DeLaCroix does not take no for an answer. You have to make him think it vas his idea to reject you."
     Schnapps hopped down from the couch and stretched. She looked over her shoulder and without a word, the MaMA stood and went to the door. We were let out to start our afternoon rounds. At the top of the hill we both scanned the designated meeting place. No one was there yet.
     "Good," said Schnapps. “Ve have some time to work out de details.” 
Charles loped up to the fence and hung his head over the top pole.
     "Good afternoon, Ladies," he said.
Schnapps gave him a dismissive sniff and ran off to the shed. I had the feeling that she'd want me to follow her, but I felt the need for a bit of legal advice. 
     "Charles, may I ask you a question," I directed it at his big head.
     "Is this about the big heist tonight?"
     "How did you know?"
     "One tends to hear many things in the corral," he said twitching his large ears. "I heard The Sweater wants to see you." 
     I sat in amazement. For a neighborhood with a bunch of secrets, everyone sure knew a lot.
     "I don't know what to do," I shook my head, my ears flapped loudly. "That's not what I mean, I know I cannot join them. It's not part of my job, or the moral code instilled in my training. I'm a good dog, I can't be involved in illegal activities." 
     "I'm glad to hear you say that," Charles said, nodding his head. "Keep to your code, listen to what Schnapps says and follow her lead. She's been in this game for a long time, and she's stayed on the right side of the fence." 
     I furrowed my brows. "I wish that were true, Charles."
     He looked at me with a curious expression. "Whatever do you mean?"
     "She admitted to me that she has eaten mice before." I stuck my tongue out in disgust.
     "I thought all dogs enjoyed a furry appetizer every once in a while,” he said with a wistful smirk.
     "Have you ever eaten a mouse?"
     "They do tend to get everywhere, I can't say that I've eaten one on purpose, but I have found them rooting around in my hay," he said with a chuckle. “Though, I think I would know when there was something different about my hay."
     "I guess I shouldn't be so judgmental," I said.
     "Like the saying goes, 'Don't knock it until you've tried it.'" 
     "Fritter," Schnapps shouted. She peered around the corner of the shed and motioned me to come.
     "Thanks for the advice, Charles," I said as I left.
     "Anytime, little brown dog." 
     I crawled under the shed and found Schnapps pacing the small area.
     "Sorry, Schnapps," I said. "Charles was giving me some advice." 
     "And vat did de horse tell you," she asked with raised eyebrows. 
     "He said to trust you, and follow your lead."
     "You do not trust me?" Her voice was steady, but her pained expression told me that she was insulted.
     "No, no. You got it all wrong. I do trust you. I just don't know how this is going to go down, and I'm worried."
     She stared at me for a long moment before speaking again. "You should be worried. De Sweater is a dog dat knows a lot of tricks. Ve just need to be on our toes, make sure ve don't fall for any of dem.”
     "What are we going to do," I asked. 
     "Ven ve go down dere, you let me do de introductions. Don't speak unless he asks you a question, den act silly. Dat shouldn't be too hard for you, I've seen you in a wig,” she said with a playful wink. 
     "You want me to be a Marilyn?" I wagged with excitment. "Should I go get the wig?"
     "No, just pretend you are a goofy dog."
     "Like Baylor, he's pretty goofy." 

     Schnapps sat and pondered the question. “Dat just might work,” she said. “De Sweater already has enough troubles with Baylor, I doubt he would want to recruit another one like him.”
     With the plan in place, we left the shed and headed down the drive to the crossroads. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Stairs and Edible Informants

     The stairs were an intimidating obstacle. There were a few steps off of the porch, but those were nothing compared to the flight which stood before me.
Schnapps and Magic sat on the landing, while the MaMA sat on one of the lower steps, instructing me on the mechanics of climbing. 
     "You place your front paws on this step," she said pointing to the second step. "And hop up with your back end onto the one below."
     I pawed at the lower step, whined and sat back down. It seemed like an impossible feat. I didn't think I could stretch far enough to get to the second step, and then do what with my back end? 
     "Or, you can start on the bottom step and walk up. Here, watch me." The MaMA got on her hands and knees and with alternating movements, climbed a few steps.
"I prefer de stretch-hop system, myself," Schnapps said. "It's quicker." 
"But if you want to be more inconspicuous, use the alternating step maneuver," said Magic.
I placed my front paws on the bottom step. Everyone watched with anticipation. My mind was in the right place but my paws didn’t get the message. I reached out to the second step but waved my foot in the air, not connecting to the next step. Why was this so hard? 
     "I don't get it." I whined.
     "Whatever, I've got more exciting things to do, like watch a spider spin a web." Magic said. He stood, and went up the stairs without a sound. It was if he had sprouted wings and flew, without his feet ever touching a step.
     "C'mon Fritter. You can do it," the MaMA cheered me on. 
    I furrowed my brow and concentrated on the step. I scootched my back legs underneath me then stretched up to the second stair with my front paws. It was a long reach, but I made it. I looked to my back end, summoned up the gumption and hopped up to the lower step. 
     I looked at the MaMA, then Schnapps.
     "Yes, yes! Little von. You are doing it," said Schnapps.
     "Keep going," MaMA encouraged.
     So I stretched again, then hopped, stretch, hop, and soon I was on the landing with Schnapps. The MaMA gave a whoop of delight. Her excited approval warmed a spot in my chest and radiated from my nose to the tip of my wagging tail. It was such a delicious feeling, I looked up the second set of steps, ready to give it another go. This time, I thought, I would try Magic's way. But first, I had to figure out the logistics. Left front paw, back right paw, front right paw, back left paw. It was just like walking, I just had to pick my feet up more, so as to not trip. The whole process clicked, and suddenly I wondered what the big deal was.
     Once I got myself coordinated, I whipped up the stairs with ease. I looked back down on MaMA and Schnapps, who watched in wide eyed surprise.
     "I think she’s got the idea," the MaMA said to Schnapps. "Now all she needs to learn is to go down the stairs."
     I flinched at the idea. I gazed down the stairs and suddenly the room began to sway. I sat down to steady my wobbly legs.
      "But we’ll think about that later," the MaMA said with a smile. "Who wants breakfast?"
     "I do," I woofed. Ever since I had that delicious meal yesterday, I longed for breakfast time to come around again, and I could relish in that decadent gravy.
     Once the bowl of scrumptious morsels was placed before me, I vowed to relish every biteful. But what seemed like only a few moments later, my bowl somehow had been licked clean. Schnapps was still eating, and I wondered if she got a larger portion than me. 
     "Schnapps," I said in a sweet voice, "are you enjoying your meal?"
     "Yes, very much so," she smacked.
     "Are you going to finish it all?"
     She glared at me, and started to growl. "Step away, little von." 
     "Well, the thing is, I finished my breakfast already and I noticed you are still eating. I think the MaMA perhaps accidentally gave you more."
     "No," Schnapps said not lifting her gravy coated snout from the bowl. "You just eat like a little piggy." She shifted her body and blocked my view from her bowl.
     I moved to the other side and laid down in front of her. I placed my head on my front paws and sucked in my cheeks to make it seem like I was thinner than I actually was. She ignored my dramatic attempt and kept eating.
     "I'm a growing pup, I need to have more breakfast," I said with wide eyes full of all the emotion I could muster, and reached out to her bowl with my front paws. I caught the edge with one of my claws and pulled the bowl towards my direction.
     "Stop it, Fritter," Schnapps barked.
     I cringed. She rarely called me by my name, so it took me off guard. 
     "Why don't you bother de cat," she suggested.
     Reluctantly, I got up and padded into the laundry room, which was located just off of the kitchen. It was where the cat ate, high up on the washing machine. His food smelled like fish and chicken, along with some minty herb I couldn't place. I stopped in the doorway when I heard a squeaky little voice, similar to the one I heard cry for help the night before.
     "Please, let me go. I've told you all I know." The voice pleaded.
     "I think you are lying," Magic said in a low growl.
     "It's the truth, I tells ya. I don't know nuthin’. Ya gotta believe me.”
     "Then what's the use keeping you around, you are useless to me except to serve as my breakfast," Magic said.
     I wondered who was serving him breakfast, if it wasn't the MaMA, and if it was to be served with gravy. 
     The little voice started to plead and shout again, but then it was muffled. I stood on my hind legs and tried to peek over the edge of the washer, but Magic had his back turned towards me.
     "What'cha doin’,” I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible. Magic whipped his head in my direction, his eyes wide with surprise. His cheeks bulged out and out of his mouth hung a long tail and a tiny foot.
     "Noffin’,” he said.
     "Doesn't look like nothing," I said doubtfully. "It looks like a tail and a foot. Who were you talking to?"
     Magic sucked the tail and foot into his mouth, chewed awhile, then swallowed big.
     "I was interrogating a suspect," he said with a sinister grin. 
     "Who were you interrogating,” I asked sniffing the edge of the washer. I caught a slight scent of corn, grain, mixed with fear. "And where is he now?"
     "I don't know what you are talking about," he said licking his paws.
     “I heard someone with you. And you just said..."
     "I have no recollection of any mention of anything," he said and jumped down from the washer. "I was just having my breakfast. You must have imagined it."
     "I know what I heard," I said following him out of the washroom, however when I turned the corner, he was gone. Schnapps was at the front door waiting for me, so I joined her, and we were let out for our morning rounds.
     "I think the cat just ate somebody," I told Schnapps once we were outside. I didn't want to alarm the MaMA, but I wanted to warn Schnapps of what Magic was capable. He had already threatened to eat Sunshine, where would he stop? 
     "What did Magic do," Schnapps asked.
     "Do you remember when I heard that voice last night? The one crying for help?" Schnapps nodded and I continued. "Well, I heard one very similar coming from the top of the washer where Magic was sitting. The voice was saying that he had no information, and then that's when Magic ate him. I saw his tail and foot coming out of Magic's mouth!"
     "A little squeaky voice?" Schnapps didn't seem too concerned about the horrific act I had just witnessed.
     "Yeah, a teeny, tiny, desperate voice," I said with a nod. 
     "Oh, dat is nothing." Schnapps said, and continued up the hill. 
     "Nothing? Eating someone alive is nothing?" I gaped at her non-chalant attitude of this sickening situation.
     Schnapps turned around and shrugged her shoulders. "Yup."
     "But who was it? And why did Magic have to eat him."
     "Listen, Magic is a shady character, but he is a cat. Cats catch and eat mice. Vat you heard was a mouse, probably trying to exchange information for his life. Dat’s vat dey do."
     "A mouse? They are informants?"
     Schnapps nodded. “Dey are very small, and can get into places most animals can't. Dat is why they make good spies. Unfortunately, dey have very small brains, and dey can't retain a lot of information, or remember it ven dey are interrogated."
     "Then why would we want to capture them if they are pretty useless?"
     "Every once in a while, you get lucky," Schnapps turned back to the trail and I walked beside her. "But most of de time you just get a light snack."
     "You eat them too?" I recoiled from her side.
     "Yes, dey are quite tasty."
     I stopped walking. I needed a moment to collect my thoughts.
     This assignment I had been chosen for was becoming complicated. My partner and nemesis both ate mice. Would they expect me to do the same? Could I? How strange the ways of the wild prairie were. Drill Sargent never talked about eating informants. I wondered if she ever had, or if there were even mice back at PUP Camp.
     I continued my trek along the trail and caught up with Schnapps on top of the hill. Sammy was there, along with another dog. He looked like the same breed as Sammy, medium sized with long fur, except his was tan and white. As I came closer, I noticed small brown spots speckled his face. Freckles. 
     "Hello, there little missy," he said to me as I approached the fence line. His voice was as smooth as gravy, and his eyes like two bowls of gravy. Okay, maybe I did have a slight addiction to gravy. "You must be the new partner I've heard so much about." 
     "And I guess you’re Freckles," I said motioning to his face.
     He gave a slight grin and chuckled. "I s’pose that's purdy obvious, huh? You’re ‘bout as smart as you are cute."
     My heart skipped a beat, and a rush of heat filled my cheeks. I began to giggle at his compliment, but then I remembered what Schnapps said about him; that he was a flatterer and I cleared my mind and my throat.
     "Thank you, citizen,” I said and puffed out my chest in an official way. Schnapps raised an eyebrow at me then turned to Sammy. 
     "Like I was saying," Sammy rolled her eyes and continued their conversation. I tried to concentrate on her, but could sense Freckles intent gaze. Every time I glanced over, he would give me a wink and a sly smile. I turned my head away from him and focused on Sammy and Schnapps conversation. 
     "There's rumor of a deer carcass back behind our house. The Sweater wants us to bring back the haul when the rancher goes out to check the fences. Do you want in?"
     "You know ve can't," Schnapps said.
     "Are you sure? It could mean a lot of bones," Sammy said.
     "Lil' Fritter, d’ya want to come? You can sit by me in the back of the truck."
     I'm glad I had brown fur, because my skin burned hot with a sudden flush of shyness. 
     "No, thank you. I'm not allowed to go past the perimeter," I said, just giving him the briefest of glances before sticking my nose back into the air.
     "Aw, don't be like that. We can be good friends, you and I," He said, not quite begging, but fishing for a reaction out of me.
     "She said no," Schnapps said with a snap. “Ve haf our duties, and our human to protect. Ve can't go galavanting into de field for a few bones."
     "It could be a lot of bones," Sammy insisted.
     "Of which, De Sweater would take de biggest cut." Schnapps turned and continued down the trail.      "Thanks for the offer, but ve vill be happy wit vat our human gives us."
Sammy shrugged then turned back to her house. I started to follow Schnapps when Freckles called out.
     "Goodbye, Sweet Fritter."
     I didn't look back, and continued down the path. Even though I wouldn’t mind gazing into his gravy colored eyes forever. Duty first, I told myself, a Puggle is loyal and brave.
Schnapps stormed down the hill and past the shed. She didn't even go to check out the ropes, so I knew she was miffed. Whether it was because she was going to miss out on a huge score or because she was offended that they would include a high ranking official like herself on a heist, I couldn't tell which. In one way, Schnapps was brave and committed to her job. But, on the other paw, I just found out she would look the other way while Magic would interrogate then dispose of an informant, and that she was known to do the same. And enjoy it!
     She was muttering under her breath and I decided to give her some space. Instead of following her around the back of the outbuilding, I went around the front. No need for both of us to look at the back of the building.
     I investigated the front side, my nose to the ground, when I caught a mousy scent. I traced the scent and found myself looking at four sets of paws. Two grey, one orange, and one mottled with an extra toe on the right foot. I looked up and jumped back from four kittens laughing at me.
     "Oh, sorry. I didn't mean to..." 
     "Take a whiff of our feet?" The larger of the grey kitties said. "Yeah, what's the deal, toe sniffer?" The Tortie-tabby female teased.
     "I said I'm sorry, I was tracking down a mouse," I said after regaining my composure. 
     "Why are you looking for a mouse," The large grey one asked circling around me. "They ain't good for nothing but eating." 
     "Yeah," The tortie-tabby said, circling the opposite direction. "And by the looks of it, you don't need an extra meal." 
     "Toe, toe, she sniffed my toe. No, no, I told her no," sang the small grey cat.
     "Bublé, stop that infernal singing" the large one said. 
     "Bublé? That would make you Mac and Stella," I said to them, then looked at the orange kitty, "And you must be Horatio." 
     "Yeah, and what of it," asked Mac. 
     "You think knowing our names makes you smart," taunted Stella. 
     "She was smart for a dog, though she was as big as a log," sang Bublé.
     "Bublé! Stop it!" Stella and Mac shouted in unison. Horatio didn't join in on the taunting, but looked on with a bored expression. 
     "Leave Fritter alone," Horatio said with a yawn. 
     "Oooo," teased Mac and Stella, turning their attention on him. "Someone's got a girlfriend."
     Horatio didn't react, only licked his paw and rubbed his face. They refocused on me. 
     "Whaddya think you are doing sniffing around our parts, dog," Mac demanded. 
     "Don't you know the rules," asked Stella. "You are not allowed on our turf."
     "Technically, I am not on your turf. I'm allowed to go around the building, but not in the Wood Pile, and as you can see, I am far from being inside your turf." 
     "She's got a smart mouth on her, Mac," Stella hissed. "Teach her she can't talk to us like that."
     "Yeah, dog," Mac held up his paw, claws drawn. "I should scratch your eyes out for being such a smart dog. That'd teach you." 
     I stood my ground, raised my ruff and growled, "You couldn't even if you tried."
     "Stop it right dere,” Schnapps shouted, charging towards us at full tilt. 
     The young cats scattered as Schnapps sounded the alarm. I barked along with her as we chased the kitties back into the wood pile.
     "Good vork," Schnapps said. "Don't let dose katzen boss you around." 

     "I now understand what you were saying about them being a bunch of hoodlums," I said as we continued our patrol. I looked back at the wood pile and saw the kitties peering out at us from between the logs. Mac and Stella walked away laughing with Bublé following them. Only Horatio came out from the logs and watched us as we walked away. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Night patrol and Kuchen

     They warned me at PUP camp it would happen, though I didn’t expect for it to happen so soon. I was developing strong feelings of attachment to the MaMA. It only took a few days, but I really was forming a strong bond with her. Not only did she feed me, and brush my fur, but there was this insatiable pull that made me want to be by her side at all times.
     MaMA was fun to play with, I mean, train with. She initiated this game where she would place a blanket on the floor, lay next to it, then using her hands under the blanket, raise the blanket in spots. I pounced on the rising, racing, and moving mounds, sharpening my reflexes and speed. The MaMA was quick and used the cover well to her advantage. Just when I thought I had caught her hand, it would pop up next me.
     After a while, we were both panting. She laughed in delight at my mad skills.
     "You are so fast," she said in breathless praise. "And smart. Schnapps did you see how fast she was?" 
     Schnapps stood on one side of the blanket. She cocked her head and waggled her butt. 
     "Yes, she is very good," Schnapps agreed. Her butt waggle was stiff. I watched her. Unlike most dogs who would wag their tail in agreement, or happiness, Schnapps, who was short on tail, compensated by swinging her butt from side to side. Though, I assumed, because of her injury, she couldn't wag as enthusiastically as she wanted.
     MaMA looked at her watch and stood up. 
     "Okay, time for good girls to go out one last time."
Schnapps perked up at this order and practically skipped over to the door. I was confused by her sudden energetic mobility. I ran over to the door, but since I am still not proficient as I would like to be on the slick wooden floor, I lost my footing and slid until I hit the rug.
     MaMA let us out. The night was dark as it was cold. There were overhead lights lit up only a portion of our boundries. 
     "Are we going to do a night patrol," I asked watching my breath form billowy puffs in the air. My voice shook from the freezing night temperature, but Schnapps took it as from fear.
     "Not to worry, little von. Ve only vill do a quick one around the house and outbuilding," She said. She walked along the edge of the light, her shadow swallowed up by the darkness.
     I summoned up my courage and followed. Just to prove I wasn't afraid, I walked on the outskirts of the lighted snow. We circled around the house and crossed the lot to the outbuilding. There was another overhead light there, which cast enough light to see around the whole building. We got to the back and I got the sense we were not alone.
     I froze in my tracks and scanned the darkness.
     "Vat is wrong?" Schnapps stopped as well, then sniffed the air. 
     "I don't know what it is. It seems...wild."
     "Shush," Schnapps said. "Listen."
     I shut my eyes and concentrated on listening, but could only hear the rapid beating of my own heart. Then, just over the thumping, I heard a far off yap, yap, yap. It started off as a single high pitched voice, but soon others joined it.
     "What is that," I asked alarmed at the foreign chorus.
     "Kojote. Vild dogs," Schnapps said. “Dey are vild, unpredictable, and very dangerous."
     I shivered. "It sounds like they have us surrounded. What should we do?"
     "Nothing. Dey won't bother us as long as we don't bother dem. Dey are not well liked by the residents of Cedar Village, so they keep their distance." Schnapps continued down the side of the building and turned the corner.
     I took another look into the darkness. The presence I felt earlier had left, so I continued the perimeter check.
     By the time I turned around the corner, I could hear melodic crooning from the Wood Pile.
When the cat catch
little mice, dear
and he shows them
his pearly fangs.
Its the end, dear 

for the mice, see
Its dinner, dinner for us tonight. 

     Laughter and loud mewing mingled with the music. Schnapps stood just past the entrance, motioning to me to hurry up. I kept walking, and tried not to make any loud noises. Over all the racket from the club, though, I thought I could hear a very small cry for help. 
I ran to Schnapps.
     "Someone needs help, I just heard it," I said when I reached her. She looked over to the entrance, then turned away. "Not our problem."
     "But, I heard a cry for help," I said.
     "I said, not our problem." Seeing my anguish, she added. "Look, I know dey do things in dere dat are not nice. But we have an agreement. We cannot get involved with vat happens in de Wood Pile." She turned and returned back to the house.
     I couldn't believe that we were just going to let whoever that was go unaided. It didn't seem right to me. Schnapps was my partner, and mentor. Could I continue to follow her lead, even if it conflicted with my conscience?
     "All secure," The MaMA inquired as she let us in. "Who's ready for their good night cookies?"
Schnapps jumped up and down on her front legs, her floppy ears bounced as well. I sat next to her and looked at her.
     "What are you so excited about?"
     "Kuchen. You vill want de cookies," she said as she sat, her eyes full of want.
     "Cookies?" I watched MaMA go to a jar on the kitchen counter.
She pulled out a handful of items.
     "She vill toss you a kuchen, try to catch it," Schnapps said giving me a sideways glance. "You won't regret it."
     The MaMA stood before us. She took one of the cookies between her thumb and forefinger, and tossed it into the air. Schnapps leapt forward and caught it in her mouth. She crunched happily on the cookie, then sat still, her eyes back on MaMA.
     MaMA turned to me and said, "Shall we test the little brown dog's hand-eye coordination? Or I guess in this case, mouth-eye coordination?"
     She took another cookie and tossed it in my direction. I watched it arc in the air and come down. It struck me between the eyes before I could open my mouth. It bounced off my snout and skittered across the floor.
     I went to retrieve it and took it in my mouth. I chewed on it and immediately understood what all the hubbub was about. The crunchy morsel was sweet and nutty. A tasty reward for all the work we had done during the day. I wanted another, so I ran back and slid in place next to Schnapps.
     "I told you," she said with a wink.
     I didn't say anything, but concentrated on the next toss. 

     Even though MaMA said that sleeping in her bed was a one time thing, I found it very easy to talk her into another night. It didn't take much. I sat at the edge of her bed and gave a pathetic whine. She tried to resist for a few minutes, but after a few short howls, she leaned over the edge and lifted me onto the bed. I know I have a perfectly good bed on the floor, but after having a taste of luxury, you can't go back to sleeping on a small pillow. I also realized that just a few short days ago, I was perfectly happy sleeping in a squirmy pile of puggle pups outside on the sleeping porch. Time flies when you are being spoiled, I guess.
     As I snuggled up to MaMA's warm body I thought about how nice and cushy it was. Schnapps preferred to sleep on the couch on the second floor. I began to think of how she spent a lot of time up on the couch, while I took my naps on the floor. 
     The couch seemed more desirable than being on the floor. For one thing, it didn't look hard like the floor was. Secondly, the MaMA sat up there too, and would give Schnapps pets and massages. I've never had a massage myself, but Schnapps sure looked like she enjoyed it. 

I had to get up on that couch. It didn't seem like it would be an impossible jump. Perhaps, if I took a running start, and timed it just right, I could make it.
     I promised myself I would try tomorrow, after I had mastered the stairs. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Extra Toe That Will Rule Them All

     "So what's the deal with Baylor," I said after our afternoon nap. "He kept mentioning Cubby, is that his human?”
     Schnapps was sitting on top of the back of the couch, where she could see out of the window. Precariously perched on the narrow ledge, she gave me a measured look, as though she was wondering how much she wanted to tell me. 
     "Look, whether you like it or not, I am your partner, and I'm going to have to find out about who these animals are sooner or later," I said, finding a bit of boldness I didn't know I had in me.
     "Baylor is part of de Dawg Gang," Schnapps said with a resigned sigh. "He's just a mindless minion, try as he might, he just can never complete a task."
     "Cubby is the leader of the Dawg gang, then?"
     Something caught her attention out the window and her body tensed up, but apparently the threat had passed and she relaxed. She continued to talk, but continued her watch out the window.
     "Cubby is second in command. He's a blowhard, his bark is worse dan his bite, as dey say. But he's good at intimidating everyone around him. He's de brains and Baylor is de muscle." Schnapps slid down from her post and settled on the couch cushion. “Dere leader is a toy poodle by the name of Pierre DeLaCroix. Or as he is known around de neighborhood, ‘De Sweater.’” She gave me a warning look, "But never call him dat to his face."
     "The Sweater? He doesn't sound so scary," I said with a dismissive snort.
     "Don't underestimate him. He may be small in stature, but he's de leader for a reason. Never make him mad, and never make fun of his sweaters."
     I still had a hard time believing that a teeny poodle could rule a powerful syndicate. But I had to trust Schnapps. Besides, she was a small dog, and she stood up to Baylor for crumbs sakes.
     "So is that dog on the hill, the one you were talking to earlier, is she part of the Dawg gang?"
Schnapps scratched her ear with her good back leg. "Vell, dat is where it get's complicated. Her name is Sammy. She's a ranch dog."
     I gasped. "You mean..."
     "Yes, she belongs to dat crazy old rancher behind us. So does Chuck, de horse."
     "So where does Sammy fall in the Sweater's orginization?"
     "Sammy is a double agent, she takes a passive role in the gang. She doesn't participate in any hits or scores, but she stays close to pick up intel. She lives with another ranch dog, Freckles, who is part of the gang. He's de face-man, and someone to be wary of. He is a smooth one, and vill talk de collar right off of you." 
     "Good thing I don't have one," I said.
     "Not yet, little von," Schnapps said with an approving look. "But I have no doubt if you keep preforming at dis level, you'll get your tags soon enough."
My heart swelled hearing her positive assessment. But I soon was crestfallen with the thought that my training wouldn't get any easier.
     "Now, what about the cats?" 
     "CATS," screeched Sunshine behind me. He had been so quiet all day, I forgot he was around. "What cats?" 
     "Settle down, bird brain," Schnapps growled. "Fritter is asking about de Wood Pile katzen.”
     "I don't want any cats in here, isn't it bad enough that Magic is here?” Sunshine slid off of his perch and down to the lower level in his cage. He paced back and forth. "He doesn't belong in the house!" he squawked.
     "He has just about as much right to be here as any of us," Schnapps said with a yawn. Apparently this was a conversation they had many times before. "Besides, without him, we would never have struck an agreement wit de feral katzen. And let us not forget, he has kept you safe…so far.“
     "But for what reason?" Sunshine flapped his wings in his frustration, sending a cloud of feathers, emptied seed shells and dust into the air. "I don't trust him, I never have. He just showed up in the middle of the night, looking all starved and injured. How do we know that the B.O.C. didn't do that to him and send him over. He could be a sleeper spy. He certainly sleeps enough."
     "Settle down, bird," Schnapps barked. “Dat is enough out of you."
     "I don't trust him,” the bird continued. “Have you seen the way he looks at me? He's no good, I tell you! He's just waiting to put an end to me."
Schnapps jumped off the couch and charged at the cage. "I'll put an end to you right now if you don't keep dat beak shut."
     "And what makes you think, I would want to eat a gossiping little squab like you," A satiny voice came from the shadows. 
     "Squab? You dare call me a squab," Sunshine said as he ruffled his feathers and peered into the darkness. "I am a pretty bird, you could feed off of me for weeks, if you were so lucky."

     Magic emerged from out of the dark corner and jumped up on the hearth. He pressed his face against the cage and glared at Sunshine. "Shall we find out," he said and raised his paw, his claws extended.
Sunshine cowered in the furthest corner of his cage, peeping unintelligible words.
     "That's enough out of you two," the MaMA said from behind us. All of the racket must have interrupted whatever she was doing in the kitchen. "Magic, get down from there! Leave the bird alone." 

     Magic retracted his claws and pulled away. "Fine," he said as he jumped down from the hearth. "He's probably stringy."
     The MaMA returned to the kitchen.
     Magic turned his attention to me. His glowing green eyes sparkled in the fire light. "So you want to know about the Wood Pile, huh?" 
     I sat up straight and looked at him straight in the eyes, not wanting to let him know how intimidating he actually was.
     "Yes, I want to know all that you have on the Wood Pile Kitties," I demanded. 
Magic kept staring at me, a slight smirk on his face revealed his pearl white fangs. "Okay little dog, I'll tell you."
     Schnapps gave me a wary look, but then seemed to be resigned to my curiosity. I did have to learn sometime, better have it come right out of the cat's mouth. 
     "Lay it on me," I sat in front of the fire and gave him my full attention.
     "Where shall I start, hmm?" He moved closer to where I was, and laid down on the hearth. His body stretched almost the whole length as the end of his tail flipped up and down as he thought. I waited patiently as he gathered his mental notes, or perhaps he was fabricating lies to feed me, I couldn't tell. His face was a blank slate, giving not a hint of emotion, except perhaps contempt. 
     "Why don't we start at the top," I suggested. "The B.O.C.?" 
     "Ha," Magic exclaimed. "The less you know about him, the better. But let's start out with the proprietresses if The Wood Pile itself, huh?"
     "Yes, I met Meowjolina today," I said. 
     "Ah, Meowjolina, she's a beauty," Magic said with an amorous sigh. 
     "She's a shameless crumpet," Schnapps grumbled under her breath.
Magic glared at her, but must have known he wouldn't scare her, and quickly turned his attention back to me. 
     "The Wood Pile has been an institution in Cedar Village for a long time, before I arrived, even before old sauerkraut over there."
     Schnapps gave a dismissive snort and retreated back to the couch. 
     "How many generations does it go back," I asked. 
     "Who knows," Magic rolled his eyes. “Currently this family of patched tabby-tories have control of the operations. Their Matriarch is Mrs. Meowbinson. She has two daughters that help run the place, the lovely Meowjolina, and her feisty sister, Meow Ferral. They are a very distinctive group." 
     "What do you mean by distinctive? Is that the same as the dastinkter," I asked.
Magic quickly cast a questioning glance at Schnapps, then refocused on me. "No, I mean you can tell who is in line to take over the Wood Pile. Only a female in the family can run the club, and only one who has the special marking." 
     I thought about Meowjolina and her patchwork of colors. "What's the special marking?"
     "The next in line has an extra toe on their front right paw. Only a few of the Meowbinson line have the extra toe, thus they will inherit the Wood Pile club and all the responsibilities that go with it." Magic stood and arched his back to stretch. He got down from the hearth and jumped up onto the near by window sill, then looked out the frosty glass into the darkness. "The system was going well, until..." his voice trailed off as he stared off into the distance. 
     "Until what," I asked, and moved under the window where he sat. "Until old Mrs. Meowbinson had a pair of twins, both with the extra toe."
     "Meowjolina and Meow Ferral both have the marking,” I exclaimed. 
     "Yes, so there is a constant debate about who will take over when the old lady decides to step down," Magic said. He turned his head to look at me. Backlit by the outside light coming through the window, I could only see his silhouette, and the glowing of the fire reflected in his eyes. I shivered at the sight, but couldn't tell if it was him or the fact that I was away from warmth of the fire. 
     "Does that cause fighting between the sisters?” I remembered the other day when I thought Number One was after my position, and the heated jealousy I felt. How I wanted to do everything in my power to prevent her from reaching the MaMA before me. 
     "Does it ever," Magic said. "Unfortunately for Meowjolina, her sister had kittens before she could, and one of them, Stella, has the extra toe." 
     "So Meowjolina is off the hook."
     "That would be the case, except Meowjolina is driven. She wants the club, whereas Meow Ferral couldn’t even interested in the day to day operations. But since Meowjolina wants it, Ferral will make sure she won't get it. And since Ferral's daughter has the extra toe, the thought is that Ferral will inherit the club, then Stella."
     "Wow, I feel bad for Meowjolina," I said. I wondered if Number One was sad because of my prime assignment, if she really wanted it or that she just didn't want me to get it.
     "You should feel bad for Stella,” Magic said as he leapt from the ledge and padded past me. “I’d better be off.” He went to the door and sat in front of it, as though he could will it open with his glare alone.
     "Do you want to go out, kitty?" MaMA called out from the kitchen.
     "NOW," Magic said with an annoyed tone.
     "Okay, hold on to your nip," the MaMA said. She opened the door and his ears flattened back against the cold rush of air.
     "Well," she said, still holding open the door.
Magic slipped out into the dark night for his shift.
     I went back down to my blanket and laid down so I could process all the information Magic had given me. I imagined that Stella was feeling the pressure of the legacy put on her little shoulders and her extra toe. That's a lot for a little kitty.
     "Vat is on your mind, little von," Schnapps asked from her spot on the couch. The firelight cast dark shadows on her face, making her look older, somehow, more tired and worn.
     "It's a lot to ask from your child, isn’t it,” I said. "Two sisters at war for the top spot, and Stella is in the middle of it."
     "Don't feel too bad for that katzen, you have yet to meet the young Stella."
     "What are Stella and her litter mates like?"
     Schnapps raised her head, as though she could find the right words floating above her.
     "Stella knows her place, and I think she relishes in de fact dat she is second in line to run de Pile. She has three brothers, Mac, Horatio, and Bublé. Mac is like Stella, and thinks of himself as her protector. Those two are always side by side, prancing around like they already own the place. Bublé is the youngest, the artist. He thinks himself de next great songwriter. He's often found wandering around, humming a tune. He often performs his songs in de club. Horatio is a lot like you, I guess."
     "How's that?"
     "He's ambitious, but independent. Full of energy and very bright."
     "Sounds like we would get along," I said.
     Schnapps furrowed her brow and scowled. "Stay away from those katzen," she said and jumped down from the couch and clipped out of the room.
     I couldn't understand why Schnapps disliked cats so much. Sure Magic was a bit stand-offish, and somewhat cruel, and a whole lot scary. But, Meowjolina didn't seem that bad. I thought our relationship with the Kitty faction would be better if we were on friendly terms. You never knew when you could use an ally across enemy lines, or at least that is what Drill Sargent always said. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Marilyn

       The MaMA had built a nice fire which filled the room with a comforting warmth. My blanket was set in front of the fireplace and I had no problem falling asleep. Especially since that long hike around the perimeter. 
      I woke up from my nap before Schnapps. She was laying on the couch across from the fireplace.
"You must have had an adventurous morning," said the MaMA, putting down the paper she was reading. "You were barking and running in your sleep." 
      I had to admit that I've never had dreams so vivid and exciting. They were filled with horses, dancing cats in the wood pile, and a mysterious Dastinkter, which I secretly hoped I never met in real life. 
       Schnapps continued to snore next to the MaMA. She was as loud as the General, maybe even louder.
      I went to the couch and raised myself to check on her. She, too, was talking and running in her sleep, but her dreams sounded more terrifying than mine.
     "No, Sassy," she muttered. "Don't go near dere, it's not safe!"
     "You better occupy yourself, she'll be out for a while," said MaMA. I lowered myself, and went to my toy basket. I was full of puppy energy, and I didn't want to waste any of it waiting for an old dog to wake up.
     There were new items in the basket. I gave MaMA a questioning look.
     "I found some old things, I thought you might have fun with them," she said as she came towards the basket and knelt down. She pulled out a blonde hairy thing and held it up by a stray lock. "This is a wig," she explained with a wink. "You know, for when you want to go undercover."
     She put it on me then laughed. "Why if it isn't Marilyn Monroe! 
     The wig covered my whole body, pale strands fell down around my eyes and snout.
     "You are gorgeous. Here let me show you," she said as she picked me up and took me to a nearby mirror. "Do you like it?" 
     I gazed at my reflection,  the blonde curls cascaded over my brown fur. I thought it made me look sophisticated, suave, and beautiful. I looked at the MaMA and her bemused face. I licked her cheek. 
     "Oh yes, I do like it." I immediately thought of all the situations I could use the wig. Perhaps, I could infiltrate the Wood Pile or set up a sting operation to catch the Dastinkter. MaMA set me down and I went to show Schnapps my brilliant disguise.

     "Vat are you wearing," she asked when she saw me. I tried walking like Meowjolina, crossing my paws in front of each other, which made my body sway from side to side.
     "It's a Marilyn Monroe, MaMA gave it to me. Don't I look lovely?" 

     "I think you look like a joke."
     I tossed my head to the side to swish the wig, but it went the opposite direction and blinded me. I took a wrong step, got tangled in the golden locks, and tripped myself up. I fell with a loud thud, face first, on the unforgiving floor.
     "Are you all right,” Schnapps asked with concern.
     I peaked out from under the wig. "I thick I bith my tongue."
     "I'm sure dat won't interfere with your duties," Schnapps said, jumping down from the couch.       "Let's go on our afternoon rounds." 
     "Okay," I grabbed the wig and followed her to the door.
     "Leave dat thing here," she demanded.
     "Aw, man." I dropped the wig and the MaMA let us out. 
     The sun was out, and though the air was still brisk, it seemed warmer than before.
     Schnapps and I got on the trail and climbed the hill. I kept my nose to the ground, gathering intel by scent. Charles wasn't at the top of the hill to greet us this time, but in his place stood a long haired black and white dog. Schnapps picked up her pace and left me to inspect a suspicious hole in the ground. I found no danger and ran to catch up with Schnapps and the mystery dog. As I approached, I caught bits and pieces of their conversation. 
     "The Sweater wants to see you," said the black and white dog. 
     "It's too soon, she's not ready yet," Schnapps said. "You'll haf to tell him to be patient."
     "He won't like hearing that." 
     "Well, dat's his problem."
     The stranger nodded towards me, "I'll talk to you later."
     "Who was that," I asked Schnapps as we both watched the other dog walk across her territory. "Who is the sweater?"
     “Dat is nothing for you to worry about now," said Schnapps as she turned back onto the trail and headed to the shed. "Do you want to grab a rope and play a little tug?"
     "Do I ever!” It had been awhile since I got to play tug. Okay, it had only been a day, but it seemed like forever.
     "Why don't you go grab one? I'll keep watch out here."
     I dove down into the secret rope stash. "Which one should I grab?"
     "You're choice," Schnapps called down after me. “Dey are all good ropes."
     I went to the corner and picked out one with three knots in it and drug it back out with me.
     "Ah, dat is one of my favorites," Schnapps said, admiring my choice.
     I held fast to my end while Schnapps took the other and quickly tugged at it. She was strong for being such and old dog, but I kept my grip and shifted my weight to my back end. Schnapps shook, pulled and tugged, but I pulled back with all my might and stayed put.
     "You are very strong, little von," she said with the rope still in her mouth.
     "Thank you," I said, but in my moment of annunciation, she whipped the rope out of my mouth and ran.
     I took chase, and we ran around the home base. I caught hold of one end and the fight continued.       We ran together ducking and weaving, the rope tethered between us, stopping only for a tense, unyielding stand off.
     "You've got some skills," I said through my teeth, careful not to let the rope loose this time. I've never had such a rambunctious game of tug. Schnapps was a serious opponent. My body tingled with invigorated energy.
      Schnapps chuckled through her grip. "You've been vell trained. And you are surprisingly strong for a pup so young. Once you've grown, you will be formidable."
I yanked with all my strength and pulled Schnapps forward a step. She shook her end, which sent vibrations down the rope and tickled my teeth.
     "Ha, nice try," I taunted. "You won't be able shake it out of my mouth this time."
     Schnapps glanced over my head, then back at me. She dropped the rope and puffed herself up.
     "Are you giving up so easily," I egged her on. Then I sensed another presence looming over my head. I looked up and the rope fell from my gaping mouth.
     Above me stood a huge yellow dog. In his mouth he held an equally large stick. It was more like a whole tree, it was so big.
     I shuffled from out under the behemoth, for fear of him dropping the log and squishing me.
     "Wha-what are you," I exclaimed.
     "Hello, Baylor," Schnapps said to the yellow dog.
     "Hi Schnapps," Baylor said. "Your human isn't around is she? I've been ordered to take her out, uh...I mean give her this uhm...firewood. Yeah, firewood."
     "What do you mean take her out," I asked. Baylor looked from side to side, then down at me. His eyes got big, as though he hadn't noticed me before. He dropped the log, barely missing me by a few hairs. I yipped and stood beside Schnapps. Okay, it was behind Schnapps, but dang that tree almost did me in.
     "Who are you," Baylor asked.
     “This is Fritter, my new partner," Schnapps said, still in her protective stance. I marveled at how brave she was. Baylor was ten times her size and yet she stood her ground. "You can take your stick and go home. You are not going to take out anyone today. She is still mad at you for de last time you tried."
     "Why do you have to be so mean, Schnapps? I just want to do my job. You know how Cubby gets when I don't complete my tasks," he whined. He looked down at his stick then at us with a sorrowful face. "C'mon, just let me take one whack at her good knee. I promise not to hit her hard. Just enough for me to report that I did it. I don't have to do it well."
     "Like I said," Schnapps reprimanded him. "She's not going to let you do it, so you might as well go home."
     Just then the door opened and the MaMA came out onto the porch. 
     "Baylor, go home” she shouted.  
     Baylor stood and wagged his tail in excitement. He picked up his weapon and approached the porch. I started toward the porch, but Schnapps shot me a look that read "stand down." I worried for the MaMA, weren't we supposed to protect her from such a situation as this? We had an obvious suspect that wished her harm. We knew his intent, and he was holding a weapon of wooden destruction. Was Schnapps testing me again? Was I to override her orders and stop Baylor? And if I was, how was I to stop such a ginormous animal?
     "No, Baylor," MaMA said, pointing away from the porch. "I said go home."
     Baylor stopped his advance. His tail and head dropped.
     "Go on, shoo!"
     Baylor turned away and started down the hill. "Aw man, Cubby is going to chew my hide," I heard him mutter as he left.
     I looked back at MaMA. She, too, was brave and strong willed, like Schnapps. I wondered why she needed us at all. She was very capable of taking care of herself.
MaMA's attention was no longer on us or Baylor, but she was looking out into the distance. A loud rumble came up the private road. I followed her gaze and saw a beat up, rusted out truck barreling up the road.
     "That lunatic," MaMA said under her breath. "When will he ever learn not to drive so recklessly? Hasn't he hurt enough people?" Her voice cracked, and I got the feeling that she was one of those people the lunatic had hurt. 
     I sought for clarity from Schnapps, but she too was intently watching the truck, a pained expression on her face.
     MaMa called us to return inside. The sun had begun it's decent, and since we had stopped playing, I was getting cold, so I didn't delay. 
     Schnapps trotted in after me. I found my blanket in front of the fireplace and laid down to let it warm my chilled fur. Schnapps went over to the couch, where the MaMA had sat down. She attempted to jump up, but her trajectory was off and she stumbled back to the floor. Then I noticed she held her back leg up, and it was shaking. Was she hurt during our playtime? 
     "Are you injured, Schnapps? I'm sorry if I was too rough on you earlier," I said. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
     She tried jumping onto the couch again, this time landing her spot, but just barely. 
     "I am always in pain, little von. But it has nothing to do wit you." She sat on the MaMA's lap and looked over her shoulder at her.
     "Is it time for your massage appointment, madame," MaMA said in a silly, fancy accent. Schnapps nodded at her and the MaMA began to rub her shoulders, working and kneading down her back, to her hips and back up. 
     Schnapps closed her eyes and lowered her head. She winced when MaMA came upon her hips, but she didn't yip, but rode out the pain by inhaling deeply.
     I went over to the couch and sat in front of them. 

     "What happened to you," I asked.
     "It's an old injury, nearly put me out of commission," Schnapps said between long breaths. "It hurts de most during de vinter. De cold tightens up my wounds."
     I must have looked horrified, because when Schnapps slightly opened her eyes and reassured me that she would be all right.
     "Just promise me dat you vill stay away from dat rancher and his truck." She shut her eyes again. I went back to my blanket and watched them.
     Poor Schnapps. I wondered if her injury and MaMA's sadness were related. It all seemed to stem around the rancher and his truck. What if he was responsible for her partner's untimely end? After all I did hear her shout out in her nightmarish sleep. Right then, I vowed to bring the rancher to justice. And even though I wouldn't be able to heal Schnapps' body, perhaps I could lessen the emotional wounds from which she suffered. I just didn’t know how.