Hand That Feeds
I was struggling with the last four-by-eight sheet of plywood when the dogs came at me from their side of the fence, a living wall of sharp teeth and snarling murder. At another time of day they might be the most lovable animals you could imagine: tails wagging and eager to please. But when the madness was on them, anyone stupid enough to expose himself deserved the chewing he got.
There were nineteen of them in the kennels. They bloodied their teeth on the galvanized chain link and I jammed splinters into my fingers on the one-inch exterior grade before my nails found the studs I had bolted to the fence earlier. Harley snarled and rammed the chain link of his private pen behind me. Caging him before I started had been smart. Since the first wave of terror a month before, carelessness had become a fatal mistake.
He got me that first time. I was lucky because Harley was twelve years old and all his teeth could clamp around was my ankle. My other boot knocked him out before he could amputate my foot. I was lucky because my kennels had been locked tight. There were dogs in there who could have ripped out my throat. Casualties were heavy that first time. That bred a lot of fanatics.
My ankle was still gimpy from Harley's bite. A month later! The medics told me I was lucky that he'd missed so much of the tendon. So I didn't mind when the ankle buckled and spilled me to the ground twice a day. It still worked. More, it was a reminder that the rules of survival had changed. After that first attack from Harley, no mad dog had gotten to me, thanks to advance planning and my 30.06.
So the ankle was gimpy and annoying but a necessary cross to bear. With the last of the plywood reinforcement up, I turned back to the house and the ankle caved in, dropping me to my face. It was the luckiest fall of my life.
Blam! A bullet shattered into the plywood where I had stood a moment before. Blam! Another bullet hole, two feet away. The dogs went into a frenzy, bowing the plywood in an effort to get at their attacker. Cursing, I flattened on the ground and crawled to the house for my gun.
It wasn't enough that dogs turned murderous. Humans will not be outdone. I kept weapons for protection against overzealous dogkillers as well as their intended victims. Eyes clouded with fanaticism don't always distinguish between human and canine, real and imaginary.
Fatty Moore's battered red Blazer chuttered up the driveway and stopped between the house and the kennels, spitting exhaust like a cloud of foul cigar smoke. He left the engine running, presumably to make a fast getaway after he shot the dogs, and slid out of the seat with a pump shotgun gripped in his hand like it grew there.
He froze when I shot the rear view mirror off his Blazer.
"The next one'll be between your eyes, fat man! Drop the gun."
Fatty's face was a window of panic. The barrel of his shotgun pointed to the ground. I watched his close-set eyes measure my position and decide that he couldn't bring his gun up fast enough. He dropped it. His voice carried a flabby squeak of desperation.
"You're assaulting an agent of the Federal Government, Davidson! You drop the gun."
"Haw! The day Uncle Sam hires you, I leave the country."
Fatty snorted and released some of his tension. His face reminded me of a hunk of bread dough waiting to be punched into a pan.
"Start packing then. I'm deputy dogcatcher for the county. Me and five other guys." He bent down for the shotgun.
"Don't do it, Fatty! My gimp ankle's the only reason you didn't kill me. Shooting at noises, really! I could blow your head off just defending myself."
Fatty straightened up. "I'm not moving."
"But you are telling me you're a dogkiller. Official-like?"
"Dogcatcher, Davidson. And that gives me the authority to capture or execute any canine—"
"—that's running around loose, not locked up in a frigging cage! And where does the law say you can shoot your dogs through humans?"
"I didn't see you when I fired."
"Maybe I should close my eyes right now and pull the trigger. I wouldn't see you. Would you make it out of the way?"
I blinked deliberately and Fatty jumped a hair to the right. It felt good to have the roly-poly bastard up against the wall. There was no way he could have "happened" by my place. He and his four deputy friends were probably the only people left in town. Who stayed in a place overrun by mad dogs?
Fatty was after my mutts—and me. But I had the gun. He stared at me hatefully.
"Hey, Tom. The madness is on! You can't leave me unprotected. I'll get chewed to pieces." He looked nervously from the kennels to his shotgun on the ground.
"So lose some weight and learn to run, Fatty! You've got enough firepower in that Blazer to outfit an army, if I know you. Like that high-powered job you used on me. Why don't you and your army just clear out of here? I don't take prisoners!"
"Dog lover!" Fatty spat the words. "You've got your own death in those kennels, sooner or later. They're not even your animals! Why do you care what happens to them?"
"You said it—I'm a dog lover. But what does that mean to you? You hated them long before the madness gave you an excuse! Now you're so scared by what you can't understand that you'll kill every dog just to be rid of it. Who's next on the hit list? People?"
"What the hell are you talking about? I didn't try to shoot you. The dogs have gone mad, don't you understand? We have to kill them!"
"What's madness, Fatty? You ever see the dogs attack each other? They don't. Just humans. So what's madness?"
"It's a disease, you idiot—and it's spreading all over the county. It'll be statewide in another week or two. You want that?"
"Haven't you ever wondered about it, Fatty? Why this town, this county, these dogs? Don't you wonder why?"
"You're nuts, Tom. You know that?"
"Nuts enough to shoot you where you stand. Now get into that oversized Tonka Toy of yours and take off! Just leave the shotgun. You've got plenty more where that came from."
My 30.06 followed him as he squeezed back into the Blazer. The driver's seat was squashed down from his weight and pushed all the way back, but his belly still rubbed the steering wheel. Fatty scowled, and the folds of his face looked like a giant hot bun.
"That's county property," he told me, nodding at the shotgun. "I'm going to report this."
"Fine. You may as well toss me the shells for it then. Can't have you doing all that paperwork over nothing."
"Shells? I got no extra shells for that gun. Just what's in it."
"You make a lousy liar, Fatty. Try those boxes on the seat there, the yellow ones. That's it. On the ground, nice and easy."
Fatty dropped the shells reluctantly. His beady stare never left my face. "You'll be sorry you did this. I work for the government now."
"I was sorry the first time I saw your ugly face. You don't scare me. I can cop a plea of self defense for everything that's happened here, and you know it."
"Everything but the shells."
"You prove I took them. You gave 'em to me. Better yet, come after my dogs again. I'm breaking no laws! I'll blow you right out of your beat-up truck, and that'll be self defense, too!"
Fatty ran out of threats. He settled for revving the engine and spitting loose gravel at me as he backed out. I kept the gun on him all the way out to the road.
The maddened howling from the kennels seemed distant and unreal as I limped over to Fatty's shotgun. It saddened me to think that man's best friend might be turning into his worst enemy. And Fatty's question smoldered beneath it: Why did I care about the dogs? Most had been dumped by owners who had run out of town without telling me. They weren't earning any income. But I got even: I offset my lack of cash by looting their abandoned homes.
Harley snapped me back to reality with a vicious run at his chain link prison. My ankle throbbed from the fall. I carried the ammo and pump inside the house and slammed the door behind me. Why tempt fate? Plenty of dogs still ran free.
It came in waves, like the rotted seaweed stench that hangs around docks at low tide, only to be washed away when the ocean returns. Once or twice a day the madness came and fell, like a fever. And it spread like the Plague.
I could always tell when it was coming. Chicken skin would crawl up my arms and sandpaper would rub the inside of my stomach. The dogs would pace back and forth, back and forth in the kennels, and I would be unable to still my hands.
Why just the dogs? Always just the dogs? Canine had sensitivities, I knew that. Sensitive ears, sensitive nervous systems. Did a virus foam their mouths and darken their eyes, or something else? Maybe it was Mankind's inherent cruelty come back to haunt him, I didn't know. It didn't matter. I had a theory about the madness that made every other question academic:
I figured we were next. With people like Fatty Moore around, we didn't have far to go.
Mad dogs and dogcatchers. Dogkillers. And now the county was stepping in to make it all legal. Fatty would be back, I knew it. Toying with him had been stupid. He was a man obsessed with persecution: if he wasn't dealing it out, he was the brunt of it. In uniform he could make a career out of hassling me. And if he shot Harley or the other dogs, even caged and safe—his superiors were sure to look the other way.
Why should I care what happened to the dogs?
Half a bottle of looted Wild Turkey got me through the rest of the afternoon. The question blurred until it no longer bothered me. And there was almost a full bottle of Chivas in the cupboard to help me through the next few days. I relaxed and examined my new pump shotgun with drunken pride. The howling of dogs faded into a discordant muzak that pushed lightly at my hindbrain.
The madness died around three, and the silence was as fresh as sunrise on a summer morning. Birds chirped the world back to normal. I stumbled out to the trash with the empty Turkey bottle and let Harley out of his pen. He licked the blood from his muzzle and looked up at me as if asking: "Why me?" I sponged the blood away and let the alcohol in my mind erase that question too. Harley was my last friend in the world and he was going mad.
For all our differences, Fatty and I had something in common: we were loners. Fatty had his gun and his Blazer; I had my dogs. You're so patient with the things you love. Fatty kept the decrepit Blazer running when what it deserved was a decent burial. Was I doing the same with the dogs?
No! I thought of Fatty's blind madness and glimpsed a future I couldn't stomach. Someone would fix things. Someone had to!
The fat bastard kept me up all night by not coming back. I was sure he'd do it in the dark, and I waited for him with the lights out and his own shotgun at my side. But he out guessed me: he didn't show. The Chivas was half gone when I passed out.
Morning found my hand still on the bottle. I took a long pull for breakfast and wondered why Fatty hadn't been back yet. Maybe he wasn't coming. I couldn't believe that. His shotgun stayed with me as I checked the grounds. At noon I caged Harley and ran through the kennels one last time before the afternoon madness built.
I was inside the building when that familiar chuttering came up the driveway. No! Not now! My mind raced. The kennel gate—closed. Harley—caged but unprotected. My 30.06—in the house. Everything was legal, but it would make no difference to Fatty. I checked the shotgun's magazine—a full load of six shells—and climbed through the trap door to the roof.
Fatty had brought a helper as outrageously thin as Fatty was fat. They stood like a giant number ten in the driveway, surveying the grounds. Neither was in uniform but both had guns. I smiled grimly. My vantage point at the crest of the roof gave me a clear shot at them.
The dogs paced uneasily behind their plywood walls. Tension hung in the air. My scalp tightened; a chill found the base of my neck. My eyes misted.
The house was open; Fatty went inside. Skinny remained in the driveway clutching his gun like a private waiting in the trenches for the first wave. I kept Fatty's shotgun trained on him. He hadn't noticed Harley yet, but I was ready to surprise the hell out of him if he made a move toward the pen.
It happened too quickly. Harley barked his deep-throated Bassett Hound bark to get Skinny's attention. It worked. The man jumped a foot in the air and wasted Harley with two shots before I could catch a breath. Blam! Blam! Just like that and my last friend in the world was dead.
My stomach turned inside out. My finger yanked back the trigger. BOOM! The shotgun spat fire, and Skinny collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. Rage clouded my mind. I pumped another shell into the chamber and waited for Fatty to come out. I heard him before I saw him.
"Murder, Davidson. You killed him! Now you're coming back to town with me. You're under arrest!"
BOOM! He was just around the corner of the house and my shot shattered the clapboards in front of him. All at once, the game was for keeps. Blood had been spilled and there would be no easy end to it. Hot words had escalated into hot lead.
At that moment, the world went crazy. Madness! The hairs stood on the back of my neck as if I were down in the kennels with the dogs. Fatty flattened me against the roof with return fire, and I pumped another shell into the chamber with the howl of dogs in my ears.
When I looked up, Fatty was at the Blazer.
BOOM! The windshield shattered and Fatty was down behind the truck picking safety glass shrapnel from his face. BOOM! BOOM! The tires whistled themselves flat. The Blazer lurched to one side. Fatty's voice squeaked above the snarling from the kennels.
"I've got you, Davidson! You killed a lawman. Now I can kill you. Legal! And I can count! You got one shot left. You're a dead man!"
I laughed at him. "So come and get me, fat man! I'll punch daylight through your skull before you get two feet!"
"Who's the homicidal maniac now, Tom? You murdered a man in cold blood. Over a dog! You're as mad as they are!"
He laid me against the roof again with a barrage of fire, and I felt the blood-heat rising in me. The ricochet of gunfire, the howling of dogs, and my own ragged breath congealed into a screaming fog of madness that separated my mind from my body. I jerked upright on the roof, ready to drill my last shell into Fatty's chest.
Blam! Pain grabbed my shoulder. The shotgun slipped from my hand. I toppled from the crest of the roof.
My perceptions took the world at lightning speed while time crept past at a snail's pace. My arm throbbed, but it belonged to some other body that had no feeling. Below me was a savage, hungry growling that writhed with blurry opened jaws and glistening teeth. Fatty's dough-face wore a grimly satisfied look as I dropped from his sight.
A n d the groundrushedup...
Thud! I struck, somehow still conscious, and felt the foamy drool of the mass around me. The air was full of hideous snarls. Some of them were my own.
I was on my feet and charging the fence with the pack. My eyes were not mine alone. We hit the fence as one and my many eyes saw it from many angles, all through the heated fog.
I was at the gate. My good hand closed around the latch and lifted it. The great foaming, snarling mass of us poured into the driveway, and the last thing I saw before I passed out was Fatty's surprised face. He was casually racking his rifle. A scream caught in his throat and he struggled to free it. The pitiful sound echoed through the fog and followed me into unconsciousness.
When I woke, there was nothing left but the truck, and two skeletons.
They didn't kill me: we are one. The mad don't commit suicide. Others kill them. My arm healed, though I can't use it much. I hobble around on my gimpy leg and ignore my gimpy arm and serve the dogs with my one good hand. The one that feeds them.
I can sympathize with the dogs. Something clicks between us. Something fogs in from nowhere and descends over us more thickly each day. I salivate. My vision becomes furry, distorted, anxious. And it seems that I can understand the snarls of my cagemates. They marvel at the madness that burns at the core of existence. They marvel at their own madness.
But they don't harm me. They don't bite. I've got only one hand to help them and they never bite it, no. It's the hand that feeds them.
copyright (c) 1981 by Steve Schlich
ABOUT THE STORY: One of the stranger ideas I've ever had, a real Twilight Zoner of a surreal tale. The dog is based on my then beloved Bassett Hound Studly. Fatty on no one in particular.
This is my only magazine cover byline (see below) and one of the three stories that got me into the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). The other two? Top of the Stairs and Telekinsex. Go figure it.